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Stop Celebrating the Pope's Views on Evolution and the Big Bang. They Make No Sense.

Franco Origlia/Getty Images

A famous anecdote from 19th century New England involves Margaret Fuller, an early feminist and ardent exponent of the spiritual movement of transcendentalism. Besotted by her emotions, she once blurted out, “I accept the universe!” When he heard of this, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked dryly, “Gad—she’d better.”

While the story may be apocryphal, if you replace Fuller with Pope Francis and “the universe” with “evolution,” then Carlyle’s feelings are identical to mine. For, according to many media outlets (for example, herehere, and here), Pope Francis has just declared that he accepts the fact of evolution.

Gad, he’d better. Evolution has been an accepted scientific fact since about 1870, roughly a decade after the theory was proposed by Darwin in 1859. And there are mountains of evidence supporting it, as documented in my book Why Evolution is True, and no evidence for the religious alternative of divine creation. As Pope Francis tries to nudge his Church into modernity, it wouldn’t look good if he espoused creationism.

But if you parse Francis’s words yesterday, spoken as he unveiled a bust of his predecessor Benedict XVI, you’ll find that tinges of creationism remain. In fact, the Vatican’s official stance on evolution is explicitly unscientific: a combination of modern evolutionary theory and Biblical special creationism. The Church hasn’t yet entered the world of modern science.

The recent history of Catholicism and evolution is spotty. Pope Pius XII claimed that evolution might indeed be true, but insisted that humans were a special exception since they had been bestowed by God with souls, a feature present in no other species. There was further human exceptionalism: Adam and Eve were seen as the historical and literal ancestors of all humanity.

Both of these features fly in the face of science. We have no evidence for souls, as biologists see our species as simply the product of naturalistic evolution from earlier species. (And when, by the way, are souls supposed to have entered our lineage? Did Homo erectus have them?) Further, evolutionary genetics has conclusively demonstrated that we never had only two ancestors: if you back-calculate from the amount of genetic variation present in our species today, the minimum population size of humans within the last million years is about twelve thousand. The notion of Adam and Eve as the sole and historical ancestors of modern humans is simply a fiction—one that the Church still maintains, but that other Christians are busy, as is their wont, trying to convert into a metaphor.

Pope John Paul II was a bit stronger in his support of evolution, yet still insisted that the human “spirit” could not have resulted from evolution, but was vouchsafed by God.

Pope Benedict was more equivocal, occasionally flirting with intelligent design and claiming that evolution was “not completely provable” because it couldn’t be completely reproduced in the laboratory. (The Pontiff apparently didn’t see that there is plenty of historical evidence for evolution, like the fossil record and the existence of nonfunctional genes in our DNA that were useful in our ancestors.) Showing his misunderstanding of evolution (which is not a process involving chance alone, but a combination of random mutations and deterministic natural selection), Benedict also claimed that “[t]he universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe... Contemplating it, we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

The Church’s support of evolution, then, has been equivocal: while allowing that humans had evolved, it also affirmed human exceptionalism in the form of our unique soul. And the historical doctrine of Adam and Eve is profoundly unscientific, for we could not have descended from only two people, something that itself implies special creation. The Vatican, in other words, embraces a view of evolution that is partly scientific but also partly “theistic,” reflecting God’s intervention to produce a species made in His own image.

But Francis is seen as a reformer, beloved even by atheists for his supposedly progressive views on issues like homosexuality—a stance that has yet to be converted to Church doctrine. Did Francis’s words on Monday also signal a change in the Church’s view of evolution? Not a bit. Here’s the gist of what he said (see also here):

“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. . .

“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fullfilment. . .

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. . .

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. . .

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

This is simply the Church’s traditional view of non-naturalistic, theistic evolution, expressed in words that sound good, but that still reflect a form of creationism.

Let’s start with the Big Bang, which, said Francis, requires the intervention of God.  I’m pretty sure physicists haven’t put that factor into their equations yet, nor have I read any physicists arguing that God was an essential factor in the beginning of the universe. We know now that the universe could have originated from “nothing” through purely physical processes, if you see “nothing” as the “quantum vacuum” of empty space. Some physicists also think that there are multiple universes, each with a separate, naturalistic origin. Francis’s claim that the Big Bang required God is simply an unsupported speculation based on outmoded theological arguments that God was the First Cause of Everything.

As for evolution “requiring the creation of being that evolve,” note that the word “creation” is still in there. But what Francis is saying here is a bit ambiguous. It’s not clear whether that “creation” was simply God’s creation of the Universe through the Big Bang, which then went on to produce Earth, life, and humans through purely naturalistic processes. Alternatively, perhaps Francis means that God created the first living form itself which then, according to His plan, evolved naturalistically, giving rise to humans and other species. Or perhaps Francis even means that the human lineage itself was specially created (“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws. . . “).

What is clear is that creationism of some sort is still an essential part of Francis’s view of life. Although the media, besotted by a supposedly “modern” Pope, is all excited about what Francis said, his views don’t differ in substance from that of his recent predecessors. As usual, Francis appears to be a voice for modernity but still clings to old dogma.

What surprises me most, though, is the claim that “God is not a divine being or a magician.” If God is not a divine being, why is Francis calling him a “divine creator”? Well, perhaps the Pope misspoke on that one. But, in truth, the Catholic view of God is indeed one of an ethereal magician. What else but magic could create souls on the spot, both during the course of human evolution and during the development of each human being?

Let us face facts: evolution that is guided by God or planned by God is not a scientific view of evolution. Nor is evolution that makes humans unique by virtue of an indefinable soul, or the possession of only a single pair of individual ancestors. The Vatican’s view of evolution is in fact a bastard offspring of Biblical creationism and modern evolutionary theory. And even many of Francis’s own flock don’t buy it: 27 percent of American Catholics completely reject evolution in favor of special creation.

The Catholic Church is in a tough spot, straddling an equipoise between modern science and antiscientific medieval theology. When it jettisons the idea of the soul, of God’s intervention in the Big Bang and human evolution, and the notion of Adam and Eve as our historical ancestors, then Catholicism will be compatible with evolution. But then it would not be Catholicism.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.