More on the Pope and Evolution

In my previous post about Pope Francis’s remarks about evolution, I quoted the quick translation used by news reports, and some folks in the comments raised questions about what some of the remarks actually meant. Fortunately, there’s now a more thorough translation available, which appears to address some of the questions.

John Harshman had asked if anyone could explain what the Pope meant by:

“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.”

I suggested that it might be a matter of translation:

[T]his is probably partly a matter of poor, quick translation, forcing us to read between the lines. I’m guessing that “according to their internal nature (or propensities)” would be closer to the intended meaning. Standard Catholic theology, back to Popes John Paul II and Pius XII before him distinguishes the creation of a soul from the origins of the human form. The Church takes no particular interest in the evolution of the body, but has an obvious interest in the soul. There being no such thing as a soulometer (and no possibility of one), that idea doesn’t much bother me.

I take that sentence as meaning that he sees each of us as having been given a certain personality/propensity/nature/soul, which it is our goal to satisfy.

More broadly, the reference to laws makes sense relative to the theology that’s common in Catholicism, which holds that divine involvement in the natural world happens through the use of natural law, not through suspension of it (in contrast to Behe’s “puff of smoke” remark).

The new translation comes from a news agency which describes itself as “independent” of the Church, but also as a “non-profit news agency…convinced that the extraordinary wisdom of the Pontiff and the Catholic Church can nourish hope, and assist all of humanity to find truth, justice and beauty.” That means it isn’t an official translation, but given Zenit’s access and experience with the Vatican, it’s pretty close. I’m going to quote extensively, since the remarks clarify some matters, and add other interesting material that hadn’t been quoted widely elsewhere.

Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Francis remarked:

You are addressing the highly complex topic of the evolution of the concept of nature. I will not go into it all, you understand well the scientific complexity of this important and decisive question. I only wish to underline that God and Christ walk with us and are present also in nature, as the Apostle Paul affirmed in his address at the Areopagus: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality.  And thus creation went forward for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, in fact because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities. The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.

In regard to man, instead, there is a change and a novelty. When, on the sixth day of the Genesis account, we come to the creation of man, God gives the human being another autonomy, a different autonomy from that of nature, which is freedom. And He tells man to give a name to all things and to go forward in the course of history. He renders him responsible for creation, also so that he will dominate Creation, so that he will develop it and so forth until the end of time. Therefore, the attitude that corresponds to the scientist, especially to the Christian scientist is to question himself about the future of humanity and of the earth and, as a free and responsible being, to contribute to prepare it, to preserve it, and to eliminate the risks of the environment, be they natural or human. However, at the same time, the scientist must be moved by trust that hidden nature, in its evolving mechanisms, of potentialities that concern the intelligence and freedom, to discover and to act to arrive at development, which is in the plan of the Creator. Then, although limited, man’s action participates in the power of God and is able to build a world adapted to his twofold corporeal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all–for all human beings, and not for a group or a privileged class. This hope and trust in God, Author of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit, are able to give the researcher new energy and profound serenity. However, it is also true that man’s action, when his liberty becomes autonomy—which is not liberty but autonomy—destroys creation and man takes the place of the Creator. And this is the grave sin against God the Creator.

I encourage you to continue your works and to carry out that felicitous theoretical and practical initiatives in favor of human beings, which do them honor.

In terms of John Harshman’s query, this translation shifts from “He created human beings” to “He created beings” (emphasis added), and the full context makes clear that the Pope wasn’t discussing humans specifically until the next paragraph. So I was right that there was a translation problem, but located it in the wrong place. The “internal laws” aren’t commands implanted in human beings (what I called “a certain personality/propensity/nature/soul” in the comment quoted above); they’re the laws of nature that govern every created thing.

That clarification also helps to debunk some bogus claims about the Pope’s speech by Ann Gauger of the creationist Discovery Institute. Gauger, seeking to be more Catholic than the Pope, claims that “Pope Francis conceded that evolution, defined as change over time, has happened.” First, he didn’t define evolution so narrowly, and second, he didn’t “concede” anything on that front that Popes John Paul II and Pius XII (and Benedict XVI, to a degree) hadn’t already stated. But that was already clear from the previous quick-and-dirty translation.

Gauger also claims that the line about beings developing according to internal laws was a statement “[i]n particular with regard to human origins.” But again, it isn’t. In the clarified translation (and the Italian transcript) to which Gauger linked), the sentence in question is clearly a reference to evolution as a natural law that causes all life to evolve and diverge. That sentence still leaves some ambiguity about whether the intent here is to say that creation and development both operated according to those natural laws, or if Francis is referring only to development according to natural laws after some divine creation. The same ambiguity presents itself in the claim that “evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve,” which could be read as a sort of God-of-the-gaps argument, where the divine intervention came not with the creation of individual living things, but with the origin of life itself. Gauger relies heavily on those ambiguities to insist that the Pope was saying, “evolution per se still requires a Creator and cannot be the result of purely physical causes.”

But that ambiguity is resolved by the full context, especially the discussion of the Big Bang (assuming that “exacts” is a typo for “enacts”; probably reasonable, given that James McGrath translates it as “requires”), and the reference to “his continual presence, giving being to every reality.” With these remarks, and the dismissive comment about a magic wand, Francis is signaling that even cases like the creation of the universe and the origin of life are explainable by natural laws, laws sustained by and derived from the divine will. This is a fairly standard bit of Thomist philosophy, which doesn’t make it any less brain-bending. To simplify the philosophy grossly, St. Thomas held that God sustains the universe, and the universe’s unfolding of natural laws is a consequence of that divine sustenance. God doesn’t create with a magic wand, but by continuing to be and to let the universe be. To philosophers, this is still a form of causality, but very different from what we mean in normal scientific contexts. In that sense, we can explain evolution as a result of purely physical processes, just as you can explain the path of a baseball using Newtonian physics without reference to the infield fly rule. Our scientific understanding of the universe thus doesn’t have to be shaped by the sustaining role of a deity, just as the arc of a pop fly isn’t shaped by the whims of the MLB Commissioner.

Thus, “The beginning of the world…derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love,” and that beginning is the Big Bang. Evolution requires material that can participate in evolutionary processes, indeed, but no magic wand is necessary for that evolutionary change, or an origin of life, or the first matter. Those are all purely physical events, relying on unchanging natural laws. Taken as a whole, these remarks are an account of God quite unlike the sort of God of the gaps that Gauger seems to be imputing to the Pope.

The idea of creation out of love leads to the second paragraph, which I haven’t seen quoted in news pieces but which is equally fascinating. Here, Pope Francis offers a charge to Christian, particularly Catholic, scientists. Humans have free will, he states, and thus have a charge of stewardship for our world. Our freedom to act gives us a responsibility for our actions, and so he asks scientists to think about our world and how “to prepare it, to preserve it, and to eliminate the risks of the environment, be they natural or human.”

This is undoubtedly a reference to climate change, and also to the work on poverty and social justice that Pope Francis has brought to the fore in his papacy. And it addresses a point that often comes up in discussions about the relationship between science and religion. On matters like the Big Bang or evolution, any attempt by religion to interfere with the advance of science is rightly decried. What room is left for religion in that scenario, and is there a way for science and religion to interact? Is the relationship asymmetrical, with religion doomed always to retreat before science’s advance, or can each, in its own way, inform the other?

Pope Francis’s remarks exhort scientists to draw on their religious views in their science, not to supplant their scientific knowledge, but to guide and focus the questions they ask and the problems they set out to solve. Every experiment opens a host of new questions and opportunities for new research, and which direction scientists pursue among those options is driven by many matters beyond the science itself. There are calculations of costs and benefits to be made, and the Pope here is urging scientists to include those moral costs and benefits in that calculus, and to use the power of science “to build a human world for all–for all human beings, and not for a group or a privileged class.” Including, I hope, any particular religious group or class.

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.