This week, just about every major news outlet has featured headlines along the lines of “Pope Francis declares evolution and Big Bang theory are real and God isn’t ‘a magician with a magic wand’”1 (The Independent) or “Pope supports big bang, evolution”2 (Science News). Why the sudden interest among journalists and science writers in what the Pope has to say? It is very hard to evaluate the motivation of writers and editors, but anyone who sees incredible headlines like this should ask whether those writing them actually read Pope Francis’ address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
In his brief address, the Pope mentioned evolution and the big bang, but insists that—even if the big bang occurred and evolution occurs—these scientific explanations do not provide an ultimate cause for all things. Most reasonable people would agree. In his address, Pope Francis made repeated statements that could be taken straight from standard creationist understandings: “This hope and trust in God, the creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity.”3 He went on to say, “And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which [sic] we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the creator who gives being to all things.”4 The Pope, at least in this talk, doesn’t even raise the specter of millions or billions of years. This seems quite different from what most people take big bang cosmology and Darwinian evolution to entail.
. . . it seems someone was so eager to hear the Pope endorse their materialistic views that they actually heard the words “big bang” and “evolution” and stopped listening.
Some writers even go so far as to claim that, “[T]he Pope made comments which experts said put an end to the ‘pseudo theories’ of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.”5 These unnamed “experts” may indeed have some insight into the Pope’s beliefs on these matters, but in this speech Pope Francis gives no indication that he is engaged in “a significant departure from that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, whose advisers endorsed the theories of intelligent design.”7
Why is it important to get the facts straight when it comes to “news” of this sort? There are at least four reasons:
1. If believers embrace and share misunderstandings, like those suggested in the current headlines, they will quickly loose credibility with those they seek to share important truths with.
2. As Christians, we believe that truth has an intrinsic value and, whatever we may believe about the institution of the papacy, it is still a sin to “bear false witness.”
3. As long as we are distracted by untruths, we will not be engaged with what is true.
4. Understanding what is actually happening provides important insights into the state of our world at this time.
So, what is really going on with the Pope’s recent address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences? On the one hand, this appears to be a case of agenda-driven journalism going viral. It is hard to know why this sort of thing takes off. It may be that to a secular mind the Pope giving up on the biblical creation undermines those who still believe the eternal truths God has given to the world in Scripture. Those who still claim to be Christians, but embrace extra-biblical beliefs like theistic evolution, may actually see the Catholic Church endorsing materialistic views as a big step forward for their reinvented Christianity. Whatever the motivation, it seems someone was so eager to hear the Pope endorse their materialistic views that they actually heard the words “big bang” and “evolution” and stopped listening.
On a more subtle level, there seems to be some equivocation over word meanings. The Pope appears to be using “evolution” to mean development and change over time. This is a perfectly legitimate use of the word that no on—eother than possibly some Platonists—would have trouble with, even the most ardent biblical creationist. The difference between theists, like the Pope, and others, like atheists, involves when “evolution” is used to mean materialistic Darwinism, which denies any supernatural role in the origin of the universe and life.
There are areas in which Adventists and Catholics agree. As Christians we are both theists, we both believe Jesus Christ is the creator God and that He died then was raised from the dead. However, there are many areas in which we diverge, possibly most crucially over the authority of the Bible versus the authority of tradition. This leads to many differences, ranging from our understanding of the nature of humans to the state of the dead. These differences allow for a diversity of Catholic views about the creation. In his short address, the Pope may give some hints to belief in a kind of progressive creation, but generally what the Pope says in public is carefully crafted in a diplomatic way. It would be very surprising to find that the Pope suddenly decided to publicly embrace current scientific views at the expense of fundamental Catholic views about God and in opposition to traditional views held by the early church fathers, not to mention Catholics who share our belief in the Biblical creation. If Pope Francis did this, it seems improbable that the Catholic News Agency would report the story with the following headline: “Francis inaugurates bust of Benedict, emphasises unity of faith, science,”8 and yet that is the headline they gave this story. It would be unfortunate for anyone to be mislead by confusing headlines into thinking that the Pope endorses materialistic Darwinism.
Timothy Standish PhD works at the Geoscience Research Institute, based at Loma Linda University, California.