The Vatican’s View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes
by Doug Linder (2004)
The relationship between the papacy and scientists has sometimes—just ask Galileo—been testy. Interestingly, however, the Catholic Church has largely sat out the cultural battle over the teaching of evolution. One of the reasons Catholics have remained largely on the sidelines is the well-established system of parochial schools in the United States, which make state laws relating to the public school curriculum of much less concern to Catholic clergy and parents than to Protestant clergy and parents. A second reason is that the Catholic Church, at least in the twentieth century, takes a more flexible approach to the interpreting Genesis than do several Protestant denominations.
H. L. Mencken expressed admiration for how Catholics handled the evolution issue:
[The advantage of Catholics] lies in the simple fact that they do not have to decide either for Evolution or against it. Authority has not spoken on the subject; hence it puts no burden upon conscience, and may be discussed realistically and without prejudice. A certain wariness, of course, is necessary. I say that authority has not spoken; it may, however, speak tomorrow, and so the prudent man remembers his step. But in the meanwhile there is nothing to prevent him examining all available facts, and even offering arguments in support of them or against them—so long as those arguments are not presented as dogma. (STJ, 163)
A majority of American Catholics probably sided with the prosecution in the Scopes trial, but—with one notable exception, defense attorney Dudley Field Malone—all the major participants in the controversy, from the author of the Butler Act, to the defendant, the judge, the jury, and the lawyers were either members of Protestant churches or were non-churchgoers. Catholics tended to be viewed with some skepticism in Dayton; local prosecutor Sue Hicks discouraged William Jennings Bryan’s suggestion that Senator T. J. Walsh of Montana, a Roman Catholic, be added to the prosecution team. (SOG, 131-32) The Catholic Press Association did take enough interest in the case, however, to send a top correspondent to Dayton to cover the trial for diocesan newspapers. Writing from Tennessee, reporter Benedict Elder wrote, “Although as Catholics we do not go quite as far as Mr. Bryan on the Bible, we do want it preserved.” (SOG, 127)
Pope Pius XII, a deeply conservative man, directly addressed the issue of evolution in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis. The document makes plain the pope’s fervent hope that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacks those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution …explains the origin of all things.” Nonetheless, Pius XII states that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one specie might evolve into another—even if that specie is man. The Pope declared:
The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.
In other words, the Pope could live with evolution, so long as the process of “ensouling” humans was left to God. (He also insisted on a role for Adam, whom he believed committed a sin— mysteriously passed along through the “doctrine of original sin”—that has affected all subsequent generations.) Pius XII cautioned, however, that he considered the jury still out on the question of evolution’s validity. It should not be accepted, without more evidence, “as though it were a certain proven doctrine.” (ROA, 81)
Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Unlike Pius XII, John Paul is broadly read, and embraces science and reason. He won the respect of many scientists in 1993, when in April 1993 he formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for Copernicus’s heliocentrism. The pontiff began his statement with the hope that “we will all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science.” Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.” He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot contradict truth.” The Pope pointed to the Church’s coming to terms with Galileo’s discoveries concerning the nature of the solar system as an example of how science might inspire the Church to seek a new and “correct interpretation of the inspired word.”
When the pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became clear how much things had changed in the nearly fifty years since the Vatican last addressed the issue. John Paul said:
Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
Evolution, a doctrine that Pius XII only acknowledged as an unfortunate possibility, John Paul accepts forty-six years later “as an effectively proven fact.” (ROA, 82)
Pope John Paul’s words on evolution received major play in international news stories. Evolution proponents such as Stephen Jay Gould enthusiastically welcomed what he saw as the Pope’s endorsement of evolution. Gould was reminded of a passage in Proverbs (25:25): “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country.” (ROA, 820) Creationists, however, expressed dismay at the pontiff’s words and suggested that the initial news reports might have been based on a faulty translation. (John Paul gave the speech in French.) Perhaps, some creationists argued, the pope really said, “the theory evolution is more than one hypothesis,” not “the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.” If that were so, the Pope might have been suggesting that there are multiple theories of evolution, and all of them might be wrong.
The “faulty translation” theory, however, suffered at least two problems. Most obviously, the theory collapsed when the Catholic News Service of the Vatican confirmed that the Pope did indeed mean “more than a hypothesis,” not “more than one hypothesis.” The other problem stemmed from a reading of the passage in more complete context. In the speech, the Pope makes clear in his speech that he understood the difference between evolution (the highly probable fact) and the mechanism for evolution, a matter of hot dispute among scientists. John Paul said, “And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution.” He recognized that there were “different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution” and different “philosophies” upon which the theory of evolution is based. The philosophy out of bounds to Catholics, the pope indicated, is one which is “materialist” and which denies the possibility that man “was created in the image and likeness of God.” Human dignity, the pope suggested, cannot be reconciled with such a “reductionist” philosophy. Thus, as with Pius XII, the critical teaching of the Church is that God infuses souls into man—regardless of what process he might have used to create our physical bodies. Science, the Pope insisted, can never identify for us “the moment of the transition into the spiritual”—that is a matter exclusively with the magesterium of religion.
Most scientists would be content to let Pius and John Paul have their “ensoulment” theory and walk away happy. Not Richard Dawkins, however. In an essay on the Pope’s evolution message called “You Can’t Have it Both Ways” the controversy-loving biologist accused Pope John Paul of “casuistical double-talk” and “obscurantism.” (SAR, 209) Dawkins took issue with the Pope’s declaring off-limits theories suggesting that the human mind is an evolutionary product. In his address the Pope said:[I]f the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God…Consequently, theories of evolution which…consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.”
In his essay, Dawkins paraphrased the Pope’s statement: “In plain language, there came a moment in the evolution of hominids when God intervened and injected a human soul into a previously animal lineage.” Dawkins expresses mock curiosity as to when God jumped into the evolution picture: “When? A million years ago? Two million years ago? Between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens? Between ‘archaic’ Homo sapiens and H. sapiens sapiens?” Clearly, Dawkins finds the divine intervention implausible. He suggests that the ensoulment theory becomes a necessary part of Catholic theology in order to sustain the important distinction between species in Catholic morality. It is fine for a Catholic to eat meat, Dawkins notes, but “abortion and euthanasia are murder because human life is involved.”
Dawkins contends that evolution tells us that there is no “great gulf between Homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.” The Pope’s insistence to the contrary is, in the biologist’s opinion, “an antievolutionary intrusion into the domain of science.”
Dawkins makes no secret of his distain for the distinction so critical to the Pope John Paul’s 1996 speech on evolution:
I suppose it is gratifying to have the pope as an ally in the struggle against fundamentalist creationism. It is certainly amusing to see the rug pulled out from under the feet of Catholic creationists such as Michael Behe. Even so, given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer. (SAR, 211)
Popes have had considerably less to say recently on the subject of the origin of the universe than they have on the subject of human origins. In 1951, interestingly, Pius XII (who so grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of evolution) celebrated news from the world of science that the universe might have been created in a Big Bang. (The term, first employed by astronomer Fred Hoyle was meant to be derisive, but it stuck.) In a speech before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences he offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the theory: “…it would seem that present-day science, with one sweep back across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux [Let there be Light], when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies.” (ME, 254-55)
But the Pope didn’t stop there. He went on to express the surprising conclusion that the Big Bang proved the existence of God:
Thus, with that concreteness which is characteristic of physical proofs, [science] has confirmed the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction as to the epoch when the world came forth from the hands of the Creator. Hence, creation took place. We say: therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists!
The man who laid the groundwork for the Big Bang theory, astronomer Edwin Hubble, received a letter from a friend asking whether the Pope’s announcement might qualify him for “sainthood.” The friend enthused that until he read the statement in the morning’s paper, “I had not dreamed that the Pope would have to fall back on you for proof of the existence of God.” (ME, 255)
Other people, including Belgian astronomer Georges Lamaître and the Vatican’s science advisor, had a different reaction. They understood that the Big Bang in 1951 remained very much a contested theory and worried what might be the effect if the Pope pinned the Catholic faith too much on its proving true. They spoke privately to the Pope about their concerns, and the Pope never brought up the topic again in public.
Big Bang theories become a problem for Catholic theology only when they consider “the moment of creation.” That, at least, is what Pope John Paul allegedly told Stephen Hawking and other physicists during an audience that followed a papal scientific conference on cosmology. (Some scientists dispute Hawking’s account, and say that the Pope suggested no limitations on their inquiry.) The Pope told the physicists they should not inquire into the Big Bang itself because that was “the work of God.” Stephen W. Hawking, in his A Brief History of Time, reported that he was among those physicists whom the Pope privately addressed. He wrote:
I was glad then that he did not know the subject of the talk I had just given at the conference—the possibility that space-time was finite but had no boundary, which means that it had no beginning, no moment of Creation.
The Big Bang Theory:
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the death of someone who is generally considered the “father” of the Big Bang theory. The anniversary, as the man himself in life, went nearly unnoticed. Here I would like to give a humble tribute to the life and work of Georges Lemaître, the scientist and priest that helped modern scientific cosmology take a huge leap forward, and who had deep insights regarding the relationship between science and faith.
Becoming a scientist and a priest
Georges Lemaître was born in Belgium in 1894 in a well-off, devoutly Catholic family. From the age of 9, he knew his vocation: to become a priest and a scientist. Living in a coal mining region, his father directed him to study Mining Engineering, and Lemaître went to the Catholic University of Leuven in 1911. However, World War I interfered with his studies and Georges and his brother Jacques volunteered to defend their small country.
The young Lemaître was already beginning to think deeply about the beginning of the universe, in the context of his Christian faith. On May 28th, 1917, he wrote to his friend van Severen from the trenches: “I have understood the ‘Fiat Lux’ [Latin for “let there be light”] as the reason of the universe.” An unpublished document from the early years after the war (God’s First Three Declarations, also translated sometimes as The First Three Words of God, written around 1921) shows him taking great pains to establish an elaborate concordism around the idea of light at the origin of the universe inspired in Genesis 1:3.
After the war Lemaître changed direction and completed studies in mathematics, physics, and Thomist philosophy. In 1920, he began studies at a seminary in Malines, Belgium, where he was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1923. Interestingly, during these years he became an expert on Einstein’s recently published Theory of Relativity, even writing an entire manuscript on the subject. This led him to obtain a postgraduate grant at the University of Cambridge during 1923-24 to study under the famous astronomer Arthur Eddington, who had just observationally confirmed the Theory of Relativity in 1919 (showing how gravitation was able to bend the light from a distant star while traveling near the Sun). The Catholic Lemaître and the Quaker Eddington got along very well, and Eddington became a key mentor of Lemaître for many years. A new grant allowed him to move in 1924 to the US to pursue a PhD at MIT, which he completed in 1926. As we will see, it was the right time to have gone to America.
Locking around and forward: A dynamic universe in expansion
In 1917, Einstein proposed a static (i.e. eternal) model for the universe, introducing a cosmological constant that canceled the contracting gravitational effect that he detected when the Theory of Relativity was applied to the universe as a whole. Between 1922 and 1924, the Russian mathematician and physicist Alexander Friedmann did groundbreaking work on theoretical cosmology and realized that the universe, according to the Theory of Relativity, could be in expansion, contraction or oscillating between both. After a brief technical debate with Einstein (who disliked such dynamic models of the universe for philosophical reasons), he finally agreed to the validity of the calculations. Sadly, Friedmann died prematurely in 1925, just while hard astronomical evidence was being gathered to decide what the real situation was.
On his return to Belgium in 1925, Lemaître took up a teaching post at the Catholic University of Leuven. In 1927 he arrived at what later became known as Hubble law, the relation of the velocities and the distances of the galaxies in their movements away from us. Lemaître interpreted that correctly as evidence that the space between galaxies was expanding. His revolutionary idea went unnoticed. However, Lemaître had the chance to talk with Einstein later that year. Einstein accepted his mathematics, but rejected his physical interpretation.
Mounting doubts on the stability of the static universe helped Lemaître to convince Eddington in 1930 of the importance of his results and he arranged an English version of Lemaître’s 1927 paper to be published in 1931. By that time, Hubble had published his famous 1929 paper containing the law relating speed and distance of the galaxies that carries his name until today. Curiously, while Einstein was finally convinced after 1931, Hubble himself did not support the interpretation of “his” law in terms of an expansion of the universe!
Looking backwards: The origins of the Big Bang cosmology
This was a scientific explanation of the universe’s present and its immediate future path. However, Lemaître assumed an eternal universe stretching into the past, in accordance with the 1917 cosmological model of Einstein. He believed this because the little data available to Lemaître in 1927 indicated a very “recent” expansion of the universe happening less than 1 billion years ago ago, well after what was already known of the age of the Earth. However, in 1931 Lemaître had already traced the footprints of the universe back in time to arrive at what he termed the “hypothesis of the primeval atom”, that he published in a very short article of 457 words in Nature. In it, he hypothesized that:
If we go back in the course of time we must find fewer and fewer quanta, until we find all the energy of the universe packed in a few or even in a unique quantum […] If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and time would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; […] we could conceive the beginning of the universe in the form of a unique atom, the atomic weight of which is the total mass of the universe.
All this was more intuition than a proven cosmological model, although Lemaître was later able to make insightful predictions, such as giving the universe an age of around 10 billion years (quite good compared with our current calculations of 13.7 billion years).
The idea of a universe with a finite age, not acceptable for centuries, became more palatable at the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of radioactivity and thermodynamic entropy. The existence of elements that were still radioactive showed that the age of the universe had to be finite. Similarly, the idea of entropy indicated that the universe was becoming disordered over time, but the fact that this process was still unfinished was an evidence of its finite age. In this context, Lemaître’s ideas fit well, providing a further independent evidence for an universe with a finite age.
The clash of cosmogonical models in the mid-20th century
His explosive origin to the universe became well known during the 1930s, even in the popular press, but professional scientists were mostly unconvinced. This time, neither Einstein nor Eddington could accept Lemaîte’s visionary ideas. He even had a cold reaction among Christians in the field like Robert Millikan, W. H. McCrea or the mathematician Bishop of Birmingham Ernest Barnes and some noted theologians who preferred a model of continuous creation emphasizing the creative and preservation activities of God.
On the other hand, atheist cosmologist Fred Hoyle, who was the inventor of the pejorative name “Big Bang” in 1949, rejected it until his death in 2001. He considered the Big Bang to be a religious idea in disguise. Instead, he promoted the Steady State cosmology, which postulated that matter was continuously “appearing” to maintain the density of an eternally expanding universe. In this way, the Steady State model turned antireligious the idea of continuous creation, which in a generation earlier was seen as “more Christian” than the explosive creation! In spite of all that, the cheerful Lemaître kept good personal relations with Hoyle, as well as with Einstein before.
Lemaître always had the suspicion that there could be a kind of echo, some direct evidence of the explosive beginning of the universe. He decided to find it investigating the cosmic rays and devoted many years studying them, without finding the evidence he searched for. Lemaître role as the prime defender of the Big Bang cosmology was replaced in the mid-1940s by George Gamow (together with Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman), a former student of Friedmann exiled in the USA. They proposed the current model of a hot Big Bang, where hydrogen and helium are formed under the extraordinary conditions of the first moments of the Big Bang by thermonuclear reactions fusing elementary particles, rather than being the result of a radioactive disintegration of a primeval super-atom.
In 1948, it was proposed that a weak signal should be detected as the echo of the Big Bang. The cosmic microwave background radiation was actually found in 1965. Lemaître was told of the discovery by his assistant Odon Godart when he was in a hospital a little before his death in 1966.
From concordism to a careful and amicable separation of science and faith
Lemaître had a profound but very personal spirituality. He was part of a small community of priests, the Friends of Jesus, who sought a deeper spirituality through studying mystics, regularly attending silent retreats and taking special vows, such as poverty and a complete offering of their lives to Christ. Lemaître was always upfront regarding his faith, and he always appears in photographs dressed in the garb of a Catholic priest in every occasion. However, he did not use his scientific position to proselytize and rarely mentioned his religious ideas in scientific contexts.
Although we know little of the early concordist ideas of his youth, surviving unpublished documents of the late 1910s give us a glimpse of them. In his unpublished God’s First Three Declarations, he rejected the idea that the Bible teaches science, mentioning pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (1893) and Augustine of Hippo. However, he then speculated with the idea that God might have somehow directed the authors to leave some insights of scientific knowledge in the pages of the Bible in a veiled prophetic way. Some examples are his attempt to read the creation ex nihilo in Gen 1:3 arguing with a reference to the blackbody radiation that “physically, absolute darkness is nothingness” or his interpretation of the waters of Genesis 1:7-9 as a “mass of lights” that could then be “condensed” into liquid and solid states of matter.
We lack information about how Lemaître’s ideas on science and faith developed in the 1920s. The next solid thing we know about the topic is a long interview in The New York Times, published on February 19th, 1933, where the interviewer appears more interested in his religious views than in his science. There he rejected concordism and the use science for apologetics. At this point we find this striking dialogue with the interviewer:
If the Bible does not teach science, among other things, what does it teach, you ask. “The way to salvation,” comes the reply. “Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes.”
What is the advantage of being a Christian for a scientist?
Although Lemaître never engaged in a systematic exposition of his science and faith views, the longest and more elaborate source for knowledge of his ideas, apart from the 1933 interview, is his 1936 lecture on science and faith at the 6th Catholic Congress of Malines held in that Belgian city. In this lecture, Lemaitre advanced three ideas.
First, Lemaître’s views were dominated by the image of the “two ways to truth.” According with the intuition that he had right back to his childhood, he considered both science and faith as two different ways to know truth, and he said at the very beginning of his 1936 lecture that: “The pursuit of truth is the highest human activity.” However, he criticized those who “by exaggeration” consider science “as the only thing that matters,” but also those that do not grant it “the consideration that the scientific activity deserves,” leading people to be “alienated from the Church because they imagine it despises the search for the natural truth.”
Lemaître views on how faith should relate to science were critical of many common models, many of which are still widely used. He rejected the conflict model, as we saw above in the 1933 interview and he repeated this rejection with confidence again in 1936, even criticizing theologians for their resistance to accept new developments in science: “they are too prone to stall until the last moment before the [new] hypothesis is definitely proved.” In turn, he also targeted “second and third rate popularizers, who attack religion in the name of what they believe to have understood from science.”
Lemaître also rejected the opposite model of concordism, something that he practiced himself up to the 1920s. This rejection is very clear in the 1933 interview and resurfaced in 1936 when he criticized concordism and conflict talking about “improper mixing or imaginary conflict.” He also rejected a third solution of disconnection / compartmentalization, defending that the Christian researcher “should keep the middle ground between two extremes. One is considering […] completely disconnected compartments […]. The other is, rashly and irreverently, mixing and confusing what must remain separate.”
The second important view in Lemaître’s thinking is the “hidden God,” following an expression in Isaiah 45:15. In what is probably in itself a veiled reference of Laplace’s famous answer to Napoleon’s question about the role of God in his system of the universe (“Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis”), Lemaître affirmed in 1936 that, “The omnipresent divine action is everywhere essentially hidden. It is forever out of question to reduce the supreme Being to the level of a scientific hypothesis.” The way to relate the Bible and science was, for Lemaître, something that is usually labeled as the “accommodation principle.” This idea, dating back to the Church Fathers (notably to Augustine of Hippo), does not consider the Bible to be a book of science, and therefore does not expect to find modern science hidden between its words. As Lemaître put it in 1936, “Divine revelation never taught us what we could have found out by ourselves.”
A third line of Lemaître’s thought was the view of nature as a solvable “enigma.” In different papers and lectures from the early 1930s, he compared the mysteries of nature with the cuneiform bricks of the Babylonians or the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians, calling it an effort “to decipher nature’s multiply interlocked palimpsest.” However, a key concept in Lemaître’s approach to science was his tireless optimism in the human possibility to solve the enigma. In this effort, he believed that the Christian researcher “may even have an edge over his unbelieving colleague.” He explains:
But the believer has the advantage of knowing that the enigma has a solution, that the underlying logic is ultimately the work of an intelligent being, that, therefore, the problem posed by nature was posed to be solved, and that its difficulty is probably proportionate to our human abilities, be it today or tomorrow. This knowledge might not provide him with new investigation resources, but it will help him maintain the healthy optimism without which a sustained effort cannot long endure.
It is hard not to see Lemaître here talking of himself and the source of his optimism in working his way to deciphering the history of the universe as well as his wisdom in avoiding the use of faith to influence science or abusing science to buttress faith.
Lemaître’s final stand against the apologetic abuse of “his” science
In 1936, Lemaître was chosen by Pope Pius XI to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, of which he became president from 1960 until his death. He had a mixed relationship with the Vatican. He reacted negatively to Pius XII’s appropriation of his cosmological views to defend the doctrine of creation by God in 1951. At that time, such a connection was dangerous and potentially damaging, as the hypothesis of the primeval atom remained very controversial in the light of the Steady State theory. In addition, such “apologetic” use of the Big Bang ran against Lemaître’s rejection of concordism and against his defense of the independence of science and faith. Lemaître appealed to the scientific advisor of the pope, who persuaded Pius XII to avoid the apologetic use of his cosmology.
Lemaître is a fascinating character. A pioneer of contemporary science, many of his scientific intuitions and suggestions have been shown true. Well-known in his time, his figure was later somehow forgotten until interest in his life and work has been recently rekindled.
Even less known are his ideas about the relationship between science and faith. Apart of his 1933 interview in the New York Times, most of what he wrote in this field has existed in little-known texts written in French. His rejection of most of the traditional ways of relating science and faith—conflict, compartmentalization and concordism—is relevant and important for Christians thinking about these issues in the 21st century.
That the scientific “father” of the Big Bang—who was also a priest—rejected the (ab)use of his own science for apologetic purposes, while keeping a vibrant personal Christian faith, is a call to think twice about hurried apologetic shortcuts inspired by the latest scientific developments.