The Catholic Church evolves as the Pope acknowledges Evolution
From the time in 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus’ paper was published putting forward the idea that the earth is not the centre of the universe (so by extension mankind) and actually revolves around the sun, instead of the other way round, it took the Catholic Church almost 300 years to accept it. It was forced to do so by overwhelming in-your-face evidence that astronomers were seeing with their naked eye through telescopes.
Last Monday, the history of religion took a similar leap when Pope Francis said during an address to the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that Creation didn’t happen by a God with a magic wand as is sometimes imagined while reading Genesis. “He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive and their fullness of being… The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” This is a version of the ‘intelligent design’ theory and might not be enough for agnostics, atheists and rationalists. But that the head of the Church should so clearly embrace Evolution, even if only from the point that God set it off, signals an evolution of the Church itself.
There is plenty to argue against intelligent design, starting with asking if Evolution and Big Bang were arrived at through the rigours of science by incremental build-up of knowledge through proof and validation by peers, what prevents taking the same approach to the existence of God, even one without a magic wand? And then what will you get?
But this is not really the moment to do that. Science and reason has just scored a victory because to not acknowledge Evolution or Big Bang had become an impossible position to take. And in victory, there must be magnanimity.
It is not as monumental an occasion either as other earlier instances when the Church let go of redundant doctrines. When it refused to accept the Copernicus system, it was the most powerful cultural force in the world, holding the keys to Christian minds and the people of lands that Christianity would colonise. It is now limited to its own followers, many of whom already ignore those parts of its philosophy that don’t agree with their reason. For instance, many Catholics in India have no problem with contraception despite the Church’s opposition to it. The present acknowledgment by the Pope doesn’t really alter the course of human knowledge as it did half a millennium ago.
But no matter of what dispensation or ideology you are, it is difficult not to admire Pope Francis. Ever since he took over the Papacy, it has been governed without the rigid positions of orthodoxy—his refusal to ‘judge homosexuals’ for who they are, his apology to those who had been abused as children by priests, and now this acceptance of Evolution. And he has done all that using the fundamental principles of faith and compassion, the pillars on which the Church came into being.