Science and Religion: The Vatican’s Position Evolves

When Pope John Paul issued a statement backing the theory of evolution, newspapers in both the United States and Europe reacted with front-page headlines. The pope’s pronouncement didn’t come as a revelation to Catholic scholars, however. The statement, made at the annual meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome, says that “new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis.” But the Vatican had already taken a big step in support of Darwin in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis, which deemed evolution a “serious hypothesis” worthy of more investigation. Says theologian John F. Haught of Georgetown University, “This Pope has in other communications previously expressed his sense of the compatibility of evolution and Catholic theism.”

The statement has symbolic significance, however, and Italians made much of it. “Pope says we may descend from monkeys,” hooted the conservative newspaper Il Giornale, according to a Reuters dispatch. For their part, many Italian scientists welcomed the Pope’s move. Astrophysicist Margherita Hack of the Astronomical Observatory of Trieste told Science, “It is the first time that the Church formally accepts the evolutionary hypothesis as proven theory.” Molecular biologist Giorgio Tecce of Rome University calls it part of “a process of rethinking the relationship between the Church and scientific developments” that has been going on for the past several years. Philosophy professor Giulio Giorello of the University of Milan says, “It will allow Darwinism to be studied, not as a hypothesis, but as a real scientific truth, which will allow discussions on crucial issues such as bioethics.”

The Pope’s endorsement of evolution probably will not have much impact on the curriculum of Catholic schools, which have long taught that the theory of evolution need not conflict with Church dogma.

The announcement isn’t likely to affect the Church’s position on sensitive issues such as fetal research or abortion either. The Vatican has made it abundantly clear that however the human body evolved, the human spirit belongs to God, and a person as a spiritual, moral, and legal entity begins at conception. The Pope’s recent statement says “If the human body has its origin in living material which pre-exists it, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.” This distinction also was spelled out earlier this year by the Italian National Bioethics Committee, which is dominated by Catholics (Science , 12 July 1996,).

Some observers believe the Pope’s pronouncement could take a little wind out of the sails of creationists in the United States. But efforts to weaken the teaching of evolution in the schools are unlikely to be blunted, says Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, California. The statement might straighten out some members of the public who assume that because the church opposes abortion it espouses creationism. But, Matsumura predicts, “creationists are not going to be changed by it.”

From Science Volume 274, 1 Nov 1996, p. 717