Pope Francis hangs out. Photo via the Catholic Church of England and Wales's Flickr account
Yesterday, Pope Francis told the Pontifical Academy of Arts and Sciences that it’s cool to believe in both evolution and the Big Bang, adding that they prove the existence of a creator. “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” the Pope said. “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.”
Since he became the Catholic Church’s 266th leader in March 2013, the Argentine has earned a reputation for being both progressive and divisive. Although many Catholics and the media have celebrated his relatively liberal stances on divorce, homosexuality, and now science, critics say that he’ll alienate conservative Catholics with his liberal views. As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times on Sunday, this approach has resulted in internal tensions among church officials and might very well lead to a schism.
Douthat says that the path toward reconciling Western mores about sex and science with the church’s traditional doctrine is “dangerous” because it stands to alienate staunch supporters who are more likely to join the priesthood or donate money to the Church. But that’s a rather the-glass-is-half-empty way of looking at it: A Pew poll from earlier this year showed that 85 percent of young Catholics are “accepting” of homosexuality, and what’s more, a majority of all Catholics believe in evolution. Some of the old guard may recoil at Francis’s emphasizing of a more tolerant version of Catholicism, but membership in the priesthood and the sisterhood is already in sharp decline; why not try to appeal to young Catholics and try to get them excited about their church?
While Francis’s latest declaration is making headlines, it shouldn't be surprising to see him embrace science. After all, it was a Catholic who initially suggested the Big Bang theory (the theory, not the show) in 1927—Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest and physics professor, was the first to hypothesize that a primordial atom once contained all the matter in the universe. And Francis’s remarks don’t constitute any change in doctrine: In 2012, the Vatican’s chief astronomer affirmed belief in the Big Bang and evolution was compatible with the Catholic faith.
There’s a fairly long history, actually, of pontiffs giving the OK to evolution: Pope Pius XII, who took over the post in 1939 and is now consecrated as a saint, reluctantly accepted evolution back in 1950, so long as the process of creating a soul was left to God. Almost 50 years later, Pope John Paul II went a step further, calling it an “effectively proven fact.”
In other words, most of what the Pope is saying is relatively uncontroversial, at least if you’ve kept your “what Catholics can believe in” handbooks up to date. Most of the Christians debating the age of the Earth and whether we came from monkeys are Protestant Evangelicals. Secular liberals are welcome to praise Francis, of course (you can practically hear the sound of a bunch of desktop backgrounds shifting from Bill Nye the Science Guy to the pope), but we should remember that more Americans today consider themselves Evangelical than Catholic. For the vast majority of those who deny accepted scientific theories, Pope Francis’s endorsement of those theories just proves that both he and science are wrong.
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