Is that really what Pope Francis was saying a couple of days ago, when he declared that “The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator …“? And that “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation …”
I first read about his announcement in The Guardian (link), but later found the story being carried by many other newspapers ranging from its more conservative counterpart the BBC (link), USA Today (link), Al Jazeera (link) and even the Toronto Star (link), plus many more. Pretty big news! Quite an about-face, don’t you think?
Well, maybe not so much. Previous popes had already made similar announcements. Pius XII (Pope from 1939 to 1958) was also friendly toward the Theories of Evolution and the Big Bang. Likewise, John Paul II (Pope from 1978 till 2005) said in 1996 that evolution is “more than a hypothesis” and “effectively proven fact“. Benedict XVI (Pope from 2005 to 2013) said in 2008 that “The theory of evolution does not invalidate the faith, nor does it corroborate it. But it does challenge the faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself ...”
So perhaps the perception that there is a huge discord between science and faith is grossly incorrect. At least among those believers who call themselves Catholic. This is probably collateral damage from a much earlier dispute the Catholic church had with scientists, when they were turning the screws on Galileo for insisting that the earth was not the center of the universe, but in fact revolved around the sun. But even that conflict has been grossly distorted, according to a post last week from Tim O’Neill (link), who pointed out that:
– Galileo was not the first to propose this idea: Copernicus did so 32 years before Galileo, and many other people were debating it at the time. Galileo just had the misfortune of making his own telescope and providing the first evidence that supported the idea.
– it wasn’t just the church who was against him. As Tim writes: “many of Galileo’s staunchest champions and defenders were churchmen, and many of his attackers were fellow scientists.”
– the church was not torturing him: during the trial “he was the honored guest in several luxurious palaces and apartments in Rome“, and for the remaining nine years of his life he was under house arrest in his villa in Tuscany. Not such a bad retirement, I’d say!?
And it hasn’t been just the modern Catholic church which sought compatibility with the findings of science. One of the greatest early church fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo in 415 AD wrote: “be on guard against giving interpretations of scripture that are farfetched or opposed to science, and so exposing the Word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers”.
But all of this having been said, the church isn’t completely off the hook. There are some among us who insist that the Bible must be taken literally, and emphasize that it says nothing about Big Bangs or Evolution but instead refers to “six days” and God creating the living things “each according to their kinds“. Fundamentalism. A viewpoint that has never been a majority view within the church as a whole over the ages. Instead, it is a very modern idea, arising in the USA less than 200 years ago, and is exclusively Protestant (although it does have close parallels with the strict interpretation of Islamic scriptural texts describing the creation of everything by the God of Abraham). It was formulated by people (not by God) in response to what they saw as attacks against the faith. In other words, a defense. A circling of the wagons. Digging a moat and pulling up the drawbridge. And unfortunately, it has been getting us in trouble. Encouraging non-experts to re-interpret fossils and archaeological data in ways that make experts shake their heads. To ignore mountains of genetic data which point to gradual changes over long periods of time. To create new physical laws, or bend or negate existing ones, in order to explain observations made by astronomers and quantum physicists.
Do we really need to do this? Denying the obvious and experimentally-proven because it doesn’t fit with our world-view? Should we put the Bible in authority over science and actual hard data solely in the name of inerrancy and infallibility (neither of which the Bible claims for itself)? Do we really have to insist that God was handing us a science book, history book and theology book all wrapped up in one? Or was God instead using words and imagery of that time (when the Babylonians, Sumerians, Akkadians and Egyptians were the intellectual powerbrokers) to get us thinking differently from the way we humans had been thinking for millennia. Get us away from thinking that the cosmos was filled with many gods. Away from the idea that people were created to do labor for the gods who sat back in their temples, and toward the idea that we were meant to enjoy life to the fullest, as if walking with God and our partner through a garden full of food for the taking. Away from the idea that the sun, moon, stars and animals were gods to be feared, but were instead mere objects created for our use and benefit (marking off time; providing light, warmth and food). And many other theological ideas.
I came from a very fundamentalist background. And nearly gave up my faith because of that. I’ve since found that letting go of literalism and instead reinterpreting the Bible through the teachings of Jesus has allowed me to keep my faith.
All I can say about that earlier part of my life is: okay, maybe we were wrong.