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Pope gives blessing to evolution theory

NCR Staff

Pope John Paul II said "new knowledge" led him to officially announce the Vatican's acceptance of evolutionary theory as "more than a hypothesis." The declaration grew out of mounting evidence for evolution in a variety of scientific disciplines.

"More than 'the theory' of evolution, it is appropriate to speak of 'the theories' of evolution," said John Paul II in a statement Oct. 22 to the plenary session of the pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Such findings coincide with "an explosion of thought in theology concerning the environment and eco-evolutionary questions of faith," said Catholic University theology professor Daniel Cowdin, in explaining why such a declaration would be made at this time.

"There is no established way to reconcile evolution and creationism, but most theologians no longer see the Book of Genesis as a scientific account -- they are theological accounts. God is still the why of creation. But evolution is a possible how of creation."

It is only recently, said University of Portland theology professor Thomas Hosinski, that "theology has turned toward the natural world." Theologians traditionally leave it to the scientists to examine nature. The new theological focus on environment and morality, he said, has caused theologians to grapple with evolution in order to understand the natural world. "The pope is promoting a dialogue between religious and scientific experts," Hosinski said.

John Paul was not the first pope to state that science and church can find points of agreement in this area. For example, John Paul referred to a 1950 encyclical by Pope Pius XII in which the earlier pope said that there was no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith as long as there were certain firm points of faith where no concession can be made.

John Haught, Georgetown University theology professor and author of Science and Religion (Paulist Press, 1995), said, "Evolution is the integrating concept of the natural sciences. So if [Pope John Paul II] wants to seriously reconcile science and theology, he has to come to grips with evolution."

Haught was a participant at a June meeting at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, for a discussion of "Biological Evolution and Divine Action." The pope, said Haught, was briefed on the discussion and its conclusions. Haught and others speculated that the gathering may have influenced John Paul's decision to speak out on evolution.

At the June symposium, cosponsored by the Vatican Observatory and encouraged by the pope, participants suggested that to view the development of human life in terms of an "ongoing creation" is a scenario that makes increasing sense, scientifically and theologically.

Pope John Paul said in considering the evolution of humankind, one is confronted with an "ontological leap" that cannot be explained through observation or measurement. "The moment of passage into the spiritual," when the creature that became the modern human being acquired a soul. Only theology can fill that gap, the pope said.

Whatever inspired the recent statement, the church moves at its own pace. In 1859, Charles Darwin published the revolutionary scientific work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. At first, the book was strongly opposed by the church. "The church never made any official condemnation, but many in the clergy were suspicious of it," Haught said.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit paleontologist who argued for a reconciliation of theology and evolutionary theory, brought many theologians in touch with Darwin's ideas. Teilhard spent his life trying to show the consonance between creation in scripture and evolution. "Supposedly Pope Paul VI once said that Teilhard was absolutely necessary for the church," Haught said.

Pope John Paul is saying essentially what was said in the 1950s by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Humani Generis, said Hosinski. "He is just giving a more affirmative judgment. The important thing is that he is accepting a scientific understanding of reality as probable, while affirming that God is the ultimate creator. He leaves it up to theologians to decide how to reconcile the two sides."

The task of reconciliation has occupied theologians at least since Teilhard, who was silenced for a period, while the papacy has been slowly warming to evolutionary theory.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996