Pope Francis’s Remarks On The Big Bang Are Nothing New For The Catholic Church

Pope Francis restates something the Catholic Church has taught for a long time and, again, the American media thinks its something new and revolutionary.

Pope Francis

The American news media is jumping all over itself at new comments from Pope Francis as if they are something revolutionary when in fact they are merely restatements of things that the Catholic Church has taught for quite some time. This time, it comes in the form of comments that Francis made yesterday regarding the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang:

Delivering an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis continued his habit of making provocative, seemingly progressive statements. The pontiff appeared to endorse the theory of the Big Bang and told the gathering at the Vatican that there was no contradiction between believing in God as well as the prevailing scientific theories regarding the expansion of our universe.

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

The pope avoids gesturing at the thorny issue (at least for some Christians) of whether humans descended from apes. Atheists argue, moreover, that understanding the Big Bang and what emerged from that cosmic moment obviates a need to believe in a deity. On that count, Francis obviously disagrees. He repeated the idea of God not being a “magician,” an entity that conjured all into being.

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life,” Francis said. “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

In other words, to borrow from an earlier Enlightenment idea, God is more a clockmaker than a conjurer of miracles.

The reaction of others in the media to the Pope’s remarks here are representative of what we’re seeing in the rest of the American media, who are treating it as if it is something significant and new from the relatively new Pope who has gained a reputation for challenging some Church orthodoxies and pushing back against a Vatican hierarchy resistant to change. It has happened before on other issues such as those revolving around the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, gays and lesbians, and the idea that the Church’s rhetoric should emphasize compassion toward others and the plight of the poor rather than what we here in the United States call “social issues.” In most cases, though, what we’ve seen from this Pope hasn’t been a real change in message from the past, and it most certainly has not been a significant change in Catholic doctrine. If there has been a change, it’s been a change in rhetoric and tone, a welcome change in many cases no doubt, but not the kind of “revolutionary” change that the American news media is making it out to be. In this particular case, though, the media attention is egregiously bad because it quite obviously doesn’t understand what Catholic teaching on this issue has been for a long time before Pope Francis was chosen by the College of Cardinals in March 2013.

Specifically, the idea that there is anything “provocative” or “seemingly progressive” in what the Pope is saying requires one to either be completely ignorant about what the Church has taught about science in general or cosmology and the origins of the universe in particular. For one thing, the Catholic Church has not considered Genesis to be literal truth for a long, long, long time. Indeed, I am not at all certain that the idea that Genesis is a literal recitation of how the Earth and life on Earth came to be has ever actually been part of Catholic teaching, but I’m not nearly well-versed enough in the early Church to stake money on that idea. In general, though, the Church has viewed the Creation Myth set forth in Genesis, and much of what follows in that part of the Bible, to be largely allegorical in the same way that the parables that appear throughout the New Testament are allegorical.

As to the idea of the Big Bang, and even the idea of human evolution, the Church has largely accepted these ideas as scientifically valid while emphasizing that, in the eyes of Church teaching, they are the instrumentals through which God has acted. For example, in 1996 St. Pope John Paul II stated that ”Fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.”  More recently, in 2006, the main Vatican newspaper published a column stating that the theory of so-called “intelligent design” was not science and should not be taught as such in schools. This was already the case in Catholic schools in the United States where, in science classes, evolution is taught as it should be and “intelligent design” is not. The next year, Pope Benedict XVI himself said evolution and faith can co-exist side by side and without contradiction, something that has long been Catholic teaching notwithstanding the fact that, at least initially, the Church did express some concern about Darwin’s theory when it was first advanced in the 19th Century. In other words, nothing Francis said here is revolutionary or “progressive” in any respect, something that even Hemant Mehta, who blogs at “The Friendly Atheist” acknowledges. What’s bizarre is that the author of the Washington Post piece goes on in their own article to acknowledge previous Church teaching on this issue at the same time as they are trying to argue that Pope Francis has done something new here. The only thing I can ascribe this to is the fact that reporters who write about religion don’t really know much about what they are writing about. One can argue and disagree with the idea Francis expresses that, ultimately, there is a divine being behind creation no matter how it came into being, and indeed most scientists would say that cosmology does not require the existence of a “Prime Mover” of any kind, but that is really an entirely different issue that doesn’t detract from the fact that the Church has basically accepted the scientific view of the origin of the universe for a long time, and certainly long before Francis became Pope. The media would do well to figure that out.

Related to all of this, it’s worth noting that the debates about this and related issues such as the Theory of Evolution here in the United States are not ones that involve Catholics at all. Unlike Catholics, there are large segments of Protestants who do in fact consider Genesis to be literal truth and who object to the teaching of the Evolutionary Biology in public schools without something like “intelligent design” being taught alongside of it. A December 2013 Pew poll, for example, found that some 64% of Evangelical Protestants reject evolution in its entirety, and its those types of people who have been behind the efforts to sneak the Genesis Creation Myth, disguised as “intelligent design” into American public schools. People are free to believe whatever they wish, of course, but they are not free to have their religion taught as science in a public school, and it’s that last part that is problematic. To the extent that there is an enemy in that battle, though, it won’t be found in the Catholic Church.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. The reason for the confusion is that in the past decade or so, a lot of evangelical protestants in the US have been converting to Catholicism and assuming that all of their old protestant theology is Catholic dogma.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    You mean the bible isn’t non-fiction???

  3. Pinky says:

    This is why religious people don’t trust the Washington Post. They have one template for every religious story – good progressive versus bad traditionalist – and they reshape the story to fit it. The more topics you’re familiar with, the more you realize that the press misreports on them, and eventually you start to distrust the press on any topic.

  4. george says:

    The only surprise here is that anyone is surprised. Beyond the official Catholic position, I know many, many Catholics. As far as I know, not a single one who disagrees with evolution and the big bang. They just think God created the laws that the universe unfolds under.

  5. stonetools says:

    The current generation of Americans are unused to intelligent religious leaders. This was not always the case. Science and religion worked together in early America. Most of America’s top colleges were established as religious instiutions and many of the early discoveries in the geology and biology were made by clergymen.
    Starting early in the 20th century and accelerating after the 1970s, fundamentalists increasingly became the face of American religion and science and religion became enemies. As the Pope shows, that doesn’t have to be the case.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    A December 2013 Pew poll, for example, found that some 64% of Evangelical Protestants reject evolution in its entirety, and its those types of people who have been behind the efforts to sneak the Genesis Creation Myth, disguised as “intelligent design” into American public schools.

    For over 30 years now we’ve seen Christian religion hijacked by fundamentalists, and now many people, including the media, are rightly surprised by the sensible remarks of Pope Francis.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @george:

    The only surprise here is that anyone is surprised.

    Why would anyone be surprised?
    http://i1.wp.com/www.skepticalraptor.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Creationism-640×512.jpg

  8. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: How can you say that the press is “rightly surprised” by something that hasn’t changed? Doug documented that this isn’t a change. If the press doesn’t know the difference between the teachings of Christian churches, they’re not right, they’re wrong.

  9. Eric Florack says:

    Put it this way… God making a universe would make a rather large bang.
    As for the arguments over “6 days”, tell me, what is a day within the context of a timeless being?

  10. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    How can you say that the press is “rightly surprised” by something that hasn’t changed? Doug documented that this isn’t a change. If the press doesn’t know the difference between the teachings of Christian churches, they’re not right, they’re wrong.

    Well, it’s true, much of the public actually IS surprised that Pope Francis is not a mouth-breathing doctrinaire Catholic.

    Did you see this from Doug’s article:

    A December 2013 Pew poll, for example, found that some 64% of Evangelical Protestants reject evolution in its entirety, and its those types of people who have been behind the efforts to sneak the Genesis Creation Myth, disguised as “intelligent design” into American public schools.

    That survey alone tells you why many people would be surprised by the remarks of this Pope – expectations are that low.

  11. Scott says:

    Though it is usually pointless to discuss evolution with Biblical literalists, you can throw them for a loop by correctly pointing out that Intelligent Design is not biblical.

  12. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Most American Catholics I know aren’t surprised (and view Pope Francis as a long overdue breath of fresh air the Church badly needed). Now if he’d only take the next step and replace most of our current American (arch)bishops so they can go off and join the evangelicals they clearly are, and the Catholic church might stop losing followers in this country.

  13. @Scott:

    If you really want to blow their minds, point out that Intelligent design derived from the pagan greek “Great Chain of Being” and was not part of Christianity until the middle ages, when it was introduced to Europe by Islamic scholars.

  14. humanoid.panda says:

    @Pinky: I don’t agree with you often, but on this you are correct. That WP story is just remarkably, astoundingly, silly.

  15. humanoid.panda says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Well, it’s true, much of the public actually IS surprised that Pope Francis is not a mouth-breathing doctrinaire Catholic.

    Problem is, and a reporter who is writing about religion should know this, that on on evolution and the Big Bang, Francis is just repeating Catholic dogma.

  16. grumpy realist says:

    I think I’ll use this opportunity to tell my favorite Einstein story:

    Einstein was well-known for his statement “God does not play dice with the Universe.” At one point, when he had said this for the Nth time, Bohr turned around and said: “Oh, Albert, stop telling God what to do!”

  17. george says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Well, it’s true, much of the public actually IS surprised that Pope Francis is not a mouth-breathing doctrinaire Catholic.

    Even mouth-breathing (never understood why that’s considered an insult, one of the most intelligent people I know – and his citation index backs up that impression – breaths through his mouth – something to do with asthma I think) doctrinaire Catholics think evolution and the big bang are the way things happened.

    The point being, that almost no Catholics are anti-evolution, anti-big bang, so why is it surprising that the Pope isn’t either?

    Come to think of it, I believe the theory of the big bang was originated by a Catholic.

  18. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:

    How can you say that the press is “rightly surprised” by something that hasn’t changed?

    Basically this Pope is overtly challenging the dogma of the Republican party…from capitalism and greed, to xenophobia, it’s lack of mercy, and it’s denial of science.
    While not surprising, it is certainly heartening…the surprising thing is the way that Republicans refuse to acknowledge their Anti-Christian ideology in the face of the Pope’s criticism.

  19. C. Clavin says:

    @george:

    The point being, that almost no Catholics are anti-evolution, anti-big bang, so why is it surprising that the Pope isn’t either?

    Maybe Catholics aren’t…but the Republican party is.

  20. Eric Florack says:

    @C. Clavin: You DO need help.
    You really think the pope cares about the GOP?

    Give it a rest.

  21. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: I’m not trying to talk down to you – I could be misreading your comment – but you do realize that Evangelicals don’t follow the Pope, right?

  22. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    Maybe…maybe not…but the GOP certainly claims to be anchored by Christianity…while following a tremendously anti-Christian ideology.
    Of course it’s far easier for you to say “give it a rest” than to ever try to reconcile the two opposing sets of values. That would make your pretty little head explode.

  23. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    Yes…the Pope thinks the bible is fiction and Evangelicals think it is non-fiction.
    Guess which one is right?

  24. Tyrell says:

    “The earth was without form and void….and there was light” Genesis 1:1 (ESV)
    That’s it, that’s the big bang theory. The theory and the Bible account of creation are in line.

  25. george says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Maybe Catholics aren’t…but the Republican party is.

    Largely true about the GOP, but I’m almost certain the Pope isn’t a Republican (or Democrat for that matter). And Catholics seem to be pretty common in both parties.

  26. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @C. Clavin
    but the GOP certainly claims to be anchored by Christianity…while following a tremendously anti-Christian ideology
    : I think it’s more accurate to say the GOP claims to be anchored by Christianity, while following an evangelical ideology (which isn’t the same as mainstream Catholic or much of mainstream Protestant theology). Christianity does not equal Catholicism.

    Reminds me of something my Mom (almost a nun but changed her mind at the last moment, obviously) said when she was first diagnosed with cancer. She was talking about how a friend of hers was getting others to pray for her: “Kathy says they are all praying for me–the Christians and Jews and Muslims. Even the Baptists and Canadians.” I still can’t help but laugh every time I think of it, and I’m not sure which is funnier–that Baptists apparently weren’t Christians to her, or that Canada was a religion 🙂

  27. Pinky says:

    @C. Clavin:

    the Pope thinks the bible is fiction

    You could write for the Post with that much insight.

  28. anjin-san says:

    @Eric Florack:

    You really think the pope cares about the GOP?

    Given the bizarre distortions the GOP applies to the teaching of Jesus, yes, I do.

  29. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    And yet you avoid the point.

  30. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    I’m not trying to talk down to you – I could be misreading your comment – but you do realize that Evangelicals don’t follow the Pope, right?

    Catholics and Protestants believe in the same Bible, the differences being why Protestantism came into being. Of course I know that evangelicals do not follow the pope, however, very conservative Catholics are not so far removed from Protestant evangelicals – on important cultural issues, e.g. abortion, gay marriage, etc

    The Catholic Church has moved far to the right since 1970 – successive Popes removed liberal Catholic theologians, and liberal cardinals, bishops and archbishops from positions of authority and prominence – much as how Protestant denominations have done their best to purge liberal pastors and ministers from their ranks.

    I do not believe that evangelical protestants are not interested in what Pope Francid has to say. Certainly his pronouncements on gay marriage, abortion, birth control are listened to by millions of Christians – Protestant Christians as well as Catholics.

  31. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda:

    The Catholic Church has moved far to the right since 1970

    That’s not accurate at all.

    I do not believe that evangelical protestants are not interested in what Pope Francid has to say. Certainly his pronouncements on gay marriage, abortion, birth control are listened to by millions of Christians – Protestant Christians as well as Catholics.

    Birth control?

  32. Pinky says:

    @humanoid.panda: Thanks. This one isn’t a matter of ideology or interpretation. The article simply doesn’t describe reality. (The author is a foreign affairs correspondent, writing outside his field.)

  33. Eric Florack says:

    @C. Clavin: Oh, please.
    You come up with false statements and expect me to verify them by even commenting?
    Wrong tree, Fido. absent documentation supporting your statement, at least.

    personally, as my prevuious post suggested, Ive never seen any conflict with the big bang vs creation and evolution. specifically on the latter…. have we evolved since our species was created? certainly… all of them do. Does that fact negate that we were created? Ummmm… no.

  34. Ben Wolf says:

    @Eric Florack:

    personally, as my prevuious post suggested, Ive never seen any conflict with the big bang vs creation and evolution. specifically on the latter…. have we evolved since our species was created? certainly… all of them do.

    According to Gallup 42% of Americans believe the Earth and humans were created in present form roughly ten thousand years ago and did not evolve from other species. Now you’ve witnessed the conflict.

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/Evolution-Creationism-Intelligent-Design.aspx

  35. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky:

    Me: The Catholic Church has moved far to the right since 1970
    Pinky:That’s not accurate at all.

    Of course it’s right. Since Pope John XXIII the Catholic Church has moved steadily to the right, that’s not even debatable. John Paul in particular moved quickly to pull the reins in on liberal church officials, often replacing them with conservative theologians, bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

    Pinky: Birth control?

    Yes, birth control, it’s all part of the abortion and reproductive rights debate continuum. If the Pope said tomorrow that artificial birth control is just fine, you don’t think that all Catholics as well as protestant evangelicals would notice? Of course they would, especially in light of the fact that many evangelicals now consider a woman’s use of IUDs to be, de-facto, an abortion.

  36. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    So you got nothing…you could have just said that.

  37. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: Saying that the Catholic Church has moved to the right is like saying that the color blue used to be rounder. It doesn’t even make enough sense to be called right or wrong. You can’t apply the left/right labels as used today to any international organization, or anything older than 40 or so years. Ask yourself: if I ran for office on a pro-life, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-gay marriage platform, what would you call me? The political labels just don’t make sense when applied to a religion.

    As for birth control, very few evangelicals oppose contraception. They oppose IUD’s as possible abortifacients, not as contraception. Nobody on the “right” sees this as a continuum. The Catholic, evangelical, and libertine positions are each internally consistent, but they are exclusive.

  38. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:

    Ask yourself: if I ran for office on a pro-life, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-gay marriage platform, what would you call me?

    Un-electable…especially as a Christian Republican…anti-war…Christian Republicans love themselves some war…hate them some immigrants…and really hate gays. War, hate…that’s a Christian Republican OK.
    Pro-life…who isn’t pro-life? Seriously…what a stupid term. You’re anti-choice.

  39. Pinky says:

    @C. Clavin: And you say that I avoid the point? Phrase it however you want, the Catholic Church as a candidate would not fit in the contemporary left/right dichotomy.

  40. Kylopod says:

    @Pinky:

    Ask yourself: if I ran for office on a pro-life, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-gay marriage platform, what would you call me?

    Many would call you a paleocon.

  41. Grewgills says:

    @Eric Florack:
    For the ”days argument” to work the ”days” would have to be of widely disparate lengths and non chronological. As allegory it is fine, as history it is not.

  42. Grewgills says:

    @al-Ameda:
    Evangelical Protestants ≠ Catholics

  43. C. Clavin says:

    @Pinky:
    The pope…the church… is not running for office. But one party is claiming to be religious…the embodiment of Christianity. And that party is anything but.

  44. Grewgills says:

    @Scott:
    and intelligent design of the type most of them believe (with Noah’s Arc being literal truth) requires not only evolution, but super evolution.

  45. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:
    The Catholic Church in America shifted focus from issues of poverty and social justice towards a greater emphasis on abortion, birth control and later gay rights starting by at least the 80s. Francis seems to be shifting the emphasis back away from abortion, birth control and gays towards broader social justice issues. Church teaching hasn’t changed on any of those issues in that time, but the focus of the American church has.

  46. wr says:

    @Pinky: “: Saying that the Catholic Church has moved to the right is like saying that the color blue used to be rounder.”

    When the church demotes or removes — or collaborates with governments in the assassination of — priests who help the people who are oppressed by the government and replace them with priests who assist the government in oppressing the people, that is a move to the right.

    To deny that the Vatican is a political institution is to deny a thousand years of history. Or, generously, to be completely ignorant of it.

  47. george says:

    @Pinky:

    You can’t apply the left/right labels as used today to any international organization, or anything older than 40 or so years. Ask yourself: if I ran for office on a pro-life, anti-war, pro-immigrant, anti-gay marriage platform, what would you call me? The political labels just don’t make sense when applied to a religion.

    Its certainly true that the Catholic church doesn’t fit into any linear spectrum well. Its far to the left on some issues, to the right on others.

    Mind you, I don’t think a linear spectrum does a good job of modeling most individuals or organizations. I’m right wing on some issues, left wing on others – ideological purity is far too simplistic for the real world.

    My gut feel is that the left/right division is more akin to cheering for the home team than a real analysis – even a basic engineering problem like designing a bridge is far too complex for a simple linear scale, how in the world are you supposed to map the incredible complexity of humanity onto one?

    The Catholic church is all over the map. So are most people I know.

  48. Pinky says:

    @Grewgills:

    The Catholic Church in America shifted focus from issues of poverty and social justice towards a greater emphasis on abortion, birth control and later gay rights starting by at least the 80s.

    The Catholic Church didn’t talk as much about abortion or gay marriage 40 years ago because no one talked about them. They weren’t on the table. I’ve heard a lot more sermons against internet pornography than I would have heard 40 years ago, too. That doesn’t mean there’s any less concern about poverty and social justice, or any less activism on those issues. I know there’s been more activity in immigrant care and rights than there was 40 years ago, and they definitely fall under the category of social justice.

    If you want to make a narrative about it, fine, but you’ll find that it just doesn’t fit the current political narrative.

    And I still don’t know where any of the commenters are getting this idea of a massive, religiously-motivated assault on contraception.

  49. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:
    I’ve been in Catholic education as a student or a teacher off and on for going on 30 years now in the SouthEast, out West, and in the middle of the Pacific. I watched what I am talking about happen. Yes, there were still Catholic charities and social justice issues were there, but the passion and the protest were on abortion and that pulled a lot of congregations in America to the right. It wasn’t monolithic, but it was definitely noticeable. I have definitely seen bastions of liberalism in the American Catholic church. I was teaching at a Catholic girls school when Benedict was named pope and the disappointment through the school was palpable. Every Marionist institution I’ve been involved with has been unsurprisingly rather liberal and has focused their mission on social justice. That said, the bulk of the parishes I’ve seen put the biggest energy and push behind the ”pro-life” movement. That is why the female religious have been up in arms. That is why Francis had to address it. It is a real phenomenon.

  50. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:

    he Catholic Church didn’t talk as much about abortion or gay marriage 40 years ago because no one talked about them.

    Really? No one talked about abortion in the 70s? Roe v Wade was 41 years ago.

  51. anjin-san says:

    @Pinky:

    The Catholic Church didn’t talk as much about abortion or gay marriage 40 years ago because no one talked about them. They weren’t on the table

    This is a rather remarkable claim considering the Roe v. Wade decision was rendered in 1973. Get a calendar out and do the math.

    1973 NYT Headline on Roe v. Wade

    1973 LA Times headline on Roe v. Wade

    The only real question here is are you being deliberately dishonest or are you simply clueless? People were most certainly talking about abortion in 1973, I remember it well. It was one of the hot button issues of the day.

  52. anjin-san says:

    @Pinky:

    Here’s Walter Cronkite, America’s best known and most respected Journalist at the time, reporting on Roe v. Wade 41 years ago

    Perhaps you are not old enough to remember the early 70s. When Walter Cronkite spoke, everyone listened.

    The ability of folks on the right to hold a worldview based on fiction never ceases to amaze me.

  53. Pinky says:

    Clearly, it was both horrible malice and serious mental deficiency that led me to be off by a year. Thank you for pointing out that 41>40, and destroying my fiction-based worldview. You correctly discerned that my entire argument revolved around an exact 40-year time difference. I’m comforted by the fact that you didn’t overreact.

  54. anjin-san says:

    @Pinky:

    I’m afraid you are going to have to run that one through the babble-to-English widget for us.

    Your argument is that no one was talking about abortion 40 years ago. That “They weren’t on the table” – and that is complete and utter BS. It was one of the most widely discussed and divisive issues of that time.

    no one talked about them

    You can man up and admit you were wrong, or you can continue to do whatever it was you were doing in your comment above.

  55. wr says:

    @anjin-san: Didn’t you know? No one in America ever talked about abortion before Roe. The Supreme Court just made this decision up on a slow day when they were looking to generate some excitement.

  56. anjin-san says:

    It’s also worth noting that while gay marriage was not an issue much discussed 40 years ago, the gay rights movement, which had begun in 1969, was indeed a topical issue. To claim no one was talking about it is simply false.

    Conservative Christian opposition to gay rights was underway. The American Christian Cause to oppose the “gay agenda” was formed in 1974 – now how many years ago was that? Let me get my calculator out…

  57. Grewgills says:

    @Pinky:
    It isn’t about a one year differential. Clearly there was much talked about controversy leading up to Roe v Wade and continuing controversy after up until the present. People were talking about abortion 45 years ago, 40 years ago, 35 years ago, etc etc etc