Evolution in the News - November 1996

Pope John Paul II on Evolution

It was reported on 24 October, 1996, that Pope John Paul II "broke new ground" in a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he said that evolution was "more than a hypothesis".1 Since we try to avoid discussion of religion as much as possible, we will treat this story as one about an influential world leader who has made a widely reported statement regarding evolution. The fact that the person who made the statement happens to be a religious leader is an inconsequential detail. We will focus mostly on how the story was reported, and what its impact might be.

It isn't really accurate to report this as a new development. All Pope John Paul II did was to reiterate a similar statement2 made by Pope Pius XII to the same body on November 22, 1951. Forty-five years ago Pope Pius XII endorsed the theory of evolution, saying that evolution is evidence of (presumably divine) design (that is, teleological order). In his words, "modern science has, in a marvelous degree, fathomed, verified and deepened beyond all expectations: (1) the mutability of things, including their origin and their end; and (2) the teleological order which stands out in every corner of the cosmos."3

Pope Pius gave three examples of scientific reasoning that place the date of creation about 4.5 billion years ago. He cited the Hubble Constant, radioactive dating of rocks found in the crust of the Earth, and radioactive dating of meteorites. We will deal with the Hubble Constant and radioactive dating in future issues of Disclosure. For the moment, we will just state that these explanations are scientifically flawed and age conclusions drawn from them are incorrect.

Pius XII concluded, "Hence, creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists! Although it is neither explicit nor complete, this is the reply we were awaiting from science, and which the present human generation is awaiting from it. It is a reply which bursts forth from nature and calm consideration of only one aspect of the universe; namely, its mutability."4

Now, to place these comments in historical perspective, we must note that they were made in 1951. This was before the U.S. Space program greatly expanded our knowledge of astronomy. It was before biologists discovered most of what they know now about DNA genetics. It was well before the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens produced lava flows radioactively dated at 2.8 million years old, and other geological formations that challenged the conventional ages of rocks. The theory of evolution didn't really start to unravel scientifically until the 1960's. The theory of evolution was still plausible in 1951 when Pope Pius XII gave this address.

In view of the Catholic Church's 45 year-old acceptance of evolution's old age of the Earth, the surprising thing should not be Pope John Paul's endorsement of Pope Pius' statement. One should wonder instead why Pope John Paul should find it necessary to encourage a group of scientists to reach the same conclusion. Did he think that, left to themselves, they would reach a different conclusion?

The other question one might ask is, "Why is the Pope telling the Pontifical Academy of Sciences what conclusion they should reach regarding the scientific validity of the theory of evolution?" Doesn't it make more sense for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to advise the Pope on matters such as these?

The last of these three rhetorical questions definitely can be answered in the affirmative. The other two questions can't be answered with the data we have available to us.

One can only imagine how the story might have been reported if the Pope told the Academy that he expected them to find that "evolution is less than a valid hypothesis." Some editorials might have said that the Pope has no business telling scientists what conclusions they should reach. They might have been outraged at the thought that anyone would dare to try to influence scientists in this way. But the Pope told the scientists to ignore new scientific findings, keep the status quo, and conclude that "evolution is more than a hypothesis." Why was there no outrage?

If the Pontifical Academy of Sciences had come up with new data supporting evolution, that would have been news worthy. But as it is, the story simply describes the attempt of a world leader to influence the conclusion of a scientific body. Although it is regrettable, it isn't particularly unusual. It is just another story of restriction of academic freedom.

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Footnotes:

1CNN Headline News (Ev-)
2 THE PROOFS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD IN THE LIGHT OF MODERN NATURAL SCIENCE Address of Pope Pius XII to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, November 22, 1951. (Ev) (Cr)
3Ibid.
4Ibid.