Evolution and the Pope John Paul

by Mark Brumley

To paraphrase Santayana: Newspapers ignorant of history are condemned to reprint it. How else should we interpret the recent headline, describing Pope John Paul II's address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "Pope Says Evolution Compatible with Faith"?

There's not much "news" there. Fifty years ago Pope Pius XII said almost the same thing in the encyclical Humani generis: "The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, insofar as it inquiries into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter."

While not exactly canonizing Darwin, Pius XII did imply that the theory of evolution isn't necessarily inimical to Christianity. Certainly he didn't reject evolution altogether. How then do we explain the big headlines when John Paul II says basically the same thing in 1996?

One answer: the alleged war between science and religion is good copy. So any chance to chronicle another fight between them is pounced on by the media. The Big Bang?

That proves God's existence-so much for those infallible scientists who think they can explain everything without God. Evolution? That proves human beings come from slime-so much for those infallible theologians with their dogma about man being the image of God.

Which side gets the better play depends on who appears ahead at the moment. That's why John Paul II's recent address on evolution was cast as a concession speech in many stories; a supposed acknowledgement that science was right all along.

But there's another reason for the present media hoopla: John Paul II himself. He's a living contradiction to many in the media. They see him as a dogmatic, dominating Polish patriarch on the one hand, and brilliant philosopher and cultural critic on the other. "Can the same man who put the kibosh on women priests endorse Darwin?" they wonder.

But he didn't endorse Darwin. He said that evolution, so far as it concerns man's bodily origins, is really a theological non-issue. With certain qualifications such as God's ultimate role in man's creation, the direct creation of the human soul by God and man's inherent dignity as a person, the theory of evolution needn't be seen as contrary to Christian revelation. So we're really back to Pius XII with one proviso.

John Paul II's Assumption

John Paul II apparently accepts the idea widely (but not universally) held among biologists that the scientific evidence corroborates evolution. But that hardly amounts to a papal "endorsement" of Darwin.

John Paul II would be the first to admit that, when it comes to science, he's a layman. Only when a scientific hypothesis or theory impinges on theological matters does he have any special authority regarding science.

In his talk to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the pope reportedly stated that evolution is "more than a hypothesis." At first, some critics of evolution argued that the pope was mistranslated into English here.

What he really said, they argued, was that "new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution.

"Even the English language edition of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, seemed to concur, until a corrected translation was published. John Paul II did say evolution was "more than a hypothesis," according to the paper.

In any event, it seems clear that the pope thinks evolution is supported, at least to some extent, by the evidence. Noting various discoveries and evolution's progressive acceptance by "researchers," he concluded, "The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."

Perhaps John Paul II was making a subtle distinction, sometimes made by philosophers of science, between a hypothesis and a theory. A hypothesis, on this view, is simply a possible explanation of a phenomenon; a theory is an explanation with some evidential verification, usually based on testing and research. The pope appears to think there's evidence to support evolution, hence it is "more than a hypothesis."

Catholics and Evolution - Must faithful Catholics accept evolution as true? No, but they may accept it, with the proper theological qualifications in place, without contradicting their faith.

Whether man's body actually evolved from a subhuman species isn't, as such, a theological issue even if, indirectly, it may have some theological implications; it is mainly a question of scientific evidence. Perhaps John Paul agrees with those who think the scientific evidence supports evolution. But Catholics, as Catholics, are not obliged to hold that scientific assessment.

In recent years the theory of evolution has been challenged by critics who contend that the scientific evidence doesn't support it. Some critics even attack the theory as a form of naturalism, the philosophical view that nature is all there is-no God, no supernatural, no transcendental order of being.

The idea is that human existence can, at least in principle, be wholly explained in terms of scientific laws. Evolution, on this view, wholly accounts for human origins, in purely physical terms.

Whatever the scientific evidence for evolution, a purely naturalistic formulation of the theory won't hold up philosophically or theologically, anymore than a purely naturalistic account of human nature as it exists today will. Human beings possess spiritual souls.

That means, among other things, that we have intellects and wills, neither of which can be entirely reduced to merely natural, scientific explanations without jettisoning the reliability of all human thought and human freedom.

For, as C. S. Lewis and others have argued, unless at least some of our thoughts aren't explicable wholly in terms of the physical processes of the natural world, the very scientific idea of nature itself is unreliable. For it, too, would be merely the product of biochemically determined thinking.

And unless at least some of our choices aren't wholly produced by the operation of purely natural, physical laws, all our choices, including moral decisions to kill, lie, cheat or steal, would be mere products of nature. We would make them because the physical, biochemical processes of the universe compel us to; we couldn't do otherwise.

Now we all think people's thoughts or decisions are at least sometimes explicable in terms of mere physical processes. When, for instance, a drunkard tells us he's seen a pink elephant, we explain it entirely in terms of alcohol's effect on his nervous system.

Or when a captured loyal soldier divulges strategic secrets to the enemy under the influence of conditioning and drugs, we don't consider him a traitor. We say he was brainwashed, and explain his actions that way rather than as a free decision to betray his country.

Those who would reduce the human mind to matter- philosophical naturalists-claim that all human thoughts and decisions are similarly reducible to particular states of brain chemistry.

But no naturalist really thinks all thoughts as unreliable as his theory suggests and few, we can suspect, would deny human freedom altogether. For doing so, as we have seen, would undermine science-indeed, all knowledge.

If, therefore, a particular version of evolutionary theory assumes a complete, purely natural continuity between human beings and other animals, including the emergence of the human mind from mere matter apart from any more-than natural-(or supernatural) cause, that view must be false.

A scientist who claims to explain everything about man in terms of evolution winds up explaining nothing, for there is no basis for thinking anything he says about man is true. He traps his theory-not to mention himself-in a naturalistic straightjacket.

He must hold that he himself theorizes as he does simply because the whole universe and its physical, biochemical laws move the molecules around in his head that way, not because he's discovered some "truth" about the way things are.

A Crucial Distinction

Obviously, John Paul II distinguishes between evolutionary theories compatible with sound philosophy and theology, and those, such as naturalism, which aren't. In his talk to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he spoke of "theories of evolution," rather than simply the theory of evolution, to make the distinction. Believers who defend or attack evolution should make the same distinction.

When a philosophically or theology unsound version of evolution is proposed, it should be challenged on those grounds. But when a view of evolution doesn't contradict sound philosophy or theology-when it is compatible with what John Paul II calls "the truth about man"-then its validity depends on the scientific evidence.

Ultimately, the evidence will either corroborate or undermine the theory. Those who accept or reject such a theory should do so on scientific, rather than philosophical or theological, grounds.

That distinction will, no doubt, displease those who think the theory of evolution not only scientifically false but theologically erroneous. Little can be said to persuade Fundamentalist Protestants otherwise.

But Catholics who criticize Pope John Paul II for not condemning evolution should recall Pope Pius XII's now half-century old teaching, and avoid trying, in their anti-evolutionary fervor, to be more Catholic than the pope.

Mark Brumley, a convert to Catholicism from Evangelicalism, is the managing editor of Catholic Dossier.