Science, Catholicism and the Papacy in the New Millennium

In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, followed by Cardinal Angelo Comas
In this picture made available by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, followed by Cardinal Angelo Comastri and Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, partially hidden, visits the necropolis where pagans and early Christians were buried under St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and where St. Peter is believed to be buried, Monday, April 1, 2013, during what was called the first-ever visit by a pope. The basilica was built over the location where early Christians would gather in secret, at a time of persecution in ancient Rome, to pray at an unmarked tomb believed to be that of Peter, the apostle Jesus chose to lead his church. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano)

Experiencing three popes inside of 10 years prompts reflection on continuity and change in one of the world's longest surviving institutions. From my perspective at the National Center for Science Education, it's interesting to consider papal involvement in science, especially with regard to contemporary issues of central importance, such as an evolutionary perspective on the universe.

From its earliest centuries Roman Catholicism has enjoyed a complex engagement with science, detailed by many scholars in excellent work over the last 30 years (for a synthesis see Allen and Hess, "Catholicism and Science".) For the past century and a half the Catholic Church has been assimilating the theory of evolution, and the current generation of Catholic scholars -- along with their Protestant colleagues -- are integrating Christian theology into a comprehensive evolutionary worldview.

Pope Pius XII cautiously endorsed the study of biological evolution in his encyclical letter Humani Generis (1950), although he placed the study of the human person off limits, declaring that each soul is created immediately by God (paragraph 36). Pope John Paul II broadened the papal acceptance of evolution in his 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, declaring that "new scientific knowledge has led us to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis."

John Paul II's principal theological advisor was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, whom he named prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an insightful theological reflection on the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, in which he noted that "the Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God's history with his people" ("In the Beginning...": A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall).

In 2002 Ratzinger gave his imprimatur to the scientific account of evolution, at least in broad outline, in "Communion and Stewardship," a work authored by the International Theological Commission:

There is general agreement ... that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth. (Paragraph 67)

Tacitly moving beyond the cautious position outlined in Humani Generis, Ratzinger wrote about human evolution that

While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage.

When he was elected pope, Benedict XVI endorsed a major conference during the Darwin bicentennial year (2009) at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, on the theme of "Evolution: Facts and Theories." This conference drew hundreds of scientists, theologians, philosophers and historians -- of all faiths and none -- to Rome to discuss state-of-the-art theories on evolution and its theological interpretation. Important questions remain, of course, such as the nature and origin of the human "soul" in light of evolutionary biology, and this conference made ample room for such discussion.

However, despite this solid support by recent popes for understanding of our ancient, dynamic and evolving universe, there remain within the Catholic Church elements that are intransigently opposed to modern science. The oddly-named Kolbe Center in Virginia is a young earth creationist group committed to defending "the literal and obvious sense of Scripture" as upheld by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus (1893). Not only do the Kolbe Center rival Protestant fundamentalists in rejecting the evolutionary assumptions of modern biology, but they also pretend that "the modern 'anti-culture of death' grew out of the macro-evolutionary theory" -- a typical piece of bombastic creationist illogic.

The influence of Kolbe Center apologetics underlies a turgid volume written by Victor P. Warkulwiz, M.S.S., "The Doctrines of Genesis 1-11: A Compendium and Defense of Traditional Catholic Theology of Origins" (2007). This book is breathtaking in its misappropriation of science to further the preposterous claim that the book of Genesis is a literal account both of the formation of earth and universe, and of such events as a worldwide flood survived by Noah and his family and animals in the ark. Warkulwiz writes approvingly of geocentrist Robert Sungenis who argues in "Galileo Was Wrong" that the Church made a monstrous mistake in caving in to the theory of Copernicus and Galileo. We know that the Earth sits at the very center of the universe!

The foreword of The Doctrines of Genesis was written by Catholic Bishop Robert F. Vasa, who, despite having an advanced degree, was deceived into believing that the earth is of very recent creation. It is lamentable and an embarrassment to Catholicism that the scientific ignorance of layman, priest and bishop alike should be broadcast so publicly in such anachronistic books.

Nevertheless, the Church continues to support the science it has helped foster since the foundation of the first papal observatory hundreds of years ago. While as yet we know little about Pope Francis' views on specific scientific theories, we do know that he has studied and taught chemistry, and that his homilies reflect a solid understanding of the importance of ecological diversity. At his consecration Mass in St. Peter's Basilica on March 19, Francis spoke about that the vocation of being a protector as a basic human obligation.

"It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God's creatures and respecting the environment in which we live ... In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God's gifts!"

I am deeply hopeful that a pope who speaks so eloquently about protecting the fragility of creation likewise respects the science that has made it possible for us to learn so much about the natural world on which we all depend for life.