Perhaps it was inevitable that Pope Francis’ comments on the Church’s position on scientific theories such as the Big Bang and evolution would cause a stir. In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope cautioned against the image of God the creator as “a magician, with a magic wand”, arguing that belief in both theories around the beginnings of the universe and the birth of humankind are consistent with the Catholic faith.
“The Big Bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it”, he stated. Similarly, he argued, “evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution pre-supposes the creation of beings which evolve.”
Yet despite further murmurings that Pope Francis was beginning (yet another) revolution in Catholic doctrine, it must be pointed out – the Pope’s declaration on either theory has not broken with established Catholic belief in the slightest.
The Big Bang theory, originally hypothesised in 1927 by Jesuit priest and physicist Georges Lemaître, is based on the central proposition that the universe is continually expanding. As a preposition, the universe was originally contained within a single point, in a highly intense state of heat and density. As the universe began to expand it cooled, allowing the formation of subatomic particles, which began a series of physical cosmological processes, which led eventually to the known universe. While this has become the most commonly accepted explanation for the beginnings of the universe, many scientists have previously expressed an instinctive opposition to the notion of a beginning point, since this would represent a question which science could not answer – as Professor Stephen Hawking concluded in his autobiography, “One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God to determine how the universe started off”.
Turning to Pope Francis’ comments on evolution, Catholic teaching has long professed the likelihood of human evolution – albeit with the proviso that this takes place under the guidance of the Creator, and that special creation of the human soul is performed directly by God. As Pope Pius XII stated in Humani Generis (art. 36): “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… 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”.
Pope John Paul II specifically endorsed this position in his own address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, declaring that since publication of the latter encyclical, “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis… The convergence in the results of these independent studies constitutes in itself a significant argument in favour of the theory”.
While it is refreshing to see the Pope’s pronouncements upon matters scientific reaching and being welcomed by individuals not generally well disposed toward the Church, the implicit suggestion that Pope Francis has somehow brought about a radical change in the Vatican worldview is a misleading one. The Church has a centuries-long history of promoting scientific inquiry – long may it continue.