The Pope's Views on Evolution Haven't Really Evolved

The media frenzy over the Catholic Church's "revolutionary" stance on science is misplaced.

On Monday, Pope Francis addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at a plenary session at which a bronze bust of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was inaugurated. He praised the pope emeritus saying, “As you well know, his love for truth is not limited to theology and philosophy, but is open to the sciences,” mentioning that Pope Benedict appointed many of the Academy’s member, including its current president.

What the media picked up on, however, came after. In the middle of his address—a full translation can be read here—which, appropriately, spoke about the relationship between science and faith, Pope Francis made what many secular observers considered to be radical statements (emphasis my own):

“When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that…And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities.”

“The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

If you search “Pope Francis, evolution,” on Google, the first thing you see is a picture of the pontiff, looking sad and defeated, that The Independent ran with the headline, “Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God isn’t ‘a magician with a magic wand.” His expression reminds me of an eleven-year-old who didn’t get a letter from Hogwarts.

As Time points out, the majority of headlines are grossly sensational and embarrassing. The Daily Beast: “Even the Pope Isn’t a Hard-Core Creationist.” The Washington Post: “Pope Francis says evolution is real and God is no wizard.” MSNBC: “Pope Francis take a stand for evolution, against ‘magic wands.’”

But this doesn’t change anything.

This is what the Catholic Church has been saying for years. Despite the reputation of the Church for being anti-science—everyone keeps citing Galileo—the Catechism of the Catholic Church states there is no contradiction between faith and science:

“…methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God.”

Misleading headlines are exactly that: misleading. Those who know little about Catholic history are shocked. The sad part is that some of these articles actually do mention theistic evolution has been a part of Catholic teachings for at least six decades. The Washington Post casually mentions Pope Pius XII, but fails to recognize the close relationship between the pope and Georges Lemaître—the man who proposed what would become the Big Bang theory and would become president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. (Yes, the Big Bang was first theorized by a Catholic priest.) The Pontifical Academy of Sciences has roots that go back centuries—the Accademia dei Lincei was the first exclusively scientific academy in the world. Galileo was even appointed a member in on August 25, 1610.

While many cite Galileo’s inquisition as proof that the Church is anti-science (he was not exonerated until 1992), many don’t realize that the majority of scientists held a geocentric view of the solar system at the time and that, when Galileo began proclaiming heliocentricity as truth, he had not answered the strongest argument against it—parallax shifts in the stars’ positions could not yet be observed due to the limited technology at the time. The Catholic Church holds that, had not Galileo moved the discussion into a theological real and proclaimed it as physical truth before there was solid, scientific evidence that it was so, things would have ended differently.

Pope Francis is easy to love as a liberal, revolutionary figurehead of what many consider to be a broken Church. Catholics and non-Catholics alike adore him. He got rid of the popemobile and declined to take the luxurious papal apartment traditionally occupied by the pontiff. He washed the feet of a Muslim woman in prison. He has a Twitter account. These are all aligned with Catholic teachings of living humbly, serving the poor in spirit, and preaching the Good News, but no other pope has really broken tradition in these ways. The world wants reform, and the pope leads about 1.2 billion of those people. Saving the world makes a great story; no wonder the media capitalizes on his popularity.

But this isn’t a part of the Church that needs to be “fixed,” it’s not an issue of “getting on board with modern science.” In a country where 42 percent of adults believe the world was created in seven days, you might even say that Catholics are ahead of the game—unless you can’t reconcile faith and science, in which case you will always disagree with the Catholic Church. But the media perpetuating the faith-versus-science binary is tiresome, ignorant, and takes away from the issues the Church is facing that perhaps do call for revisiting, like marriage, the role of women in the Church, and its finances among others. The Catholic Church made its decision a long time ago: Science is not incompatible with faith. The world is just finally paying attention.