Evolution: What the Pope Said

by James Akin

Q: I have heard that the pope recently made a statement on evolution. Is that true?

A: Yes, Pope John Paul II made a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 23, 1996 in which he addressed the subject of evolution.

Q: What is the Pontifical Academy of Sciences?

A: It is an honor society made up of scientists who are appointed to membership by the pope. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was organized (based on a previous group) in October 1936 by Pope Piux XI, and its purpose is to foster research in the sciences.

Q: Why did the pope choose to give a speech on this subject then?

A: Because the society was just meeting for its 60th anniversary (October 1936-October 1996) and the theme of this particular conference was evolution and the origin of life. Thus, the pope addressed them on the subject they were meeting to discuss.

Q: Is the text of the pope's address available on the Internet?

A: Yes, a translation of it is available here.

Q: What did the pope say about evolution?

A: Several things, however he was most widely reported by the English-language media as having said:

"Today, more than a half century after this encyclical [Pius XII's 1950 encyclical Humani generis], new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis."

Q: Why do you stress the phrase "widely reported by the English-language media"?

A: Because there has been some confusion in the English-language media concerning the proper translation of what he said.

Q: What other translations are there?

A: Several, but the primary other translation that has been offered is this:

"Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution."

Q: What is the difference between these two translations?

A: According to the first translation the pope would be saying that new knowledge has led to a recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis (in other words, that it is regarded at least provisionally as a true scientific theory).

According to the latter the pope would simply be saying (as is admitted by both evolutionists and special creationists) that new data has resulted in there being more than one hypothesis, more than one version of evolutionary theory.

This would not be an endorsement of evolutionary theory, but make a point that is stressed by special creationists (i.e., that there are several theories of evolution which contradict one another).

A little later in his address, the pope definitely addresses that theme, stating:

"[R]ather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist interpretations" (emphasis in original).

Q: What is the original sentence in French?

A: The original sentence is:

"Aujourd’hui, prs d’un demi-sicle aprs la parution de l’encyclique, de nouvelles connaissances conduisent reconnatre dans la thorie de l’volution plus qu’une hypothse."

Q: Why is there a difference in the translations?

A: One reason is that the pope gave the speech in French and the phrase for "more than a/one hypothesis" is "plus qu’une hypothse." The French word une can be translated either "a" or "one." The rest of the sentence and a knowledge of French idiom is needed to determine which reading is correct.

(A parallel example in English would be the sentence "I took the kitty to the veterinarian." The word "kitty" can be used in English to mean either a small cat or the pool of money used in a card game, and you need more than the word itself--you need its context--to determine in which sense it is being used in this case).

Q: Which translation of the key phrase is correct?

A: I have run the French sentence past multiple French-speakers. Those who are native English-speakers and learned French in school have been uncertain what the correct translation is, but all of the people who have French as their native tongue have said that the most widely reported translation of the key phrase -- "more than a hypothesis" -- is undoubtedly correct and that if he had intended to say "more than one hypothesis" French idiom would have required it to be phrased a different way.

There is also a November 19, 1996 news story from the Catholic News Service (CNS) in which the matter of the correct translation was dealt with an in which the translation "more than a hypothesis" was confirmed.

Q: What did the CNS news story say?

A: It said:

"VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The English-language edition of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has pointed out a discrepancy in its translation of a message by Pope John Paul II on evolution.

"In this message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Oct. 23, the pope said that over the last 50 years, new knowledge has emerged that shows the theory of evolution to be 'more than a hypothesis.' His point was that evolution was now accepted by a wide range of scientific disciplines doing independent research.

"In the English-language L'Osservatore, however, the pope's sentence was translated as meaning that new knowledge has 'led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution.;

"U.S. Father Robert Dempsey, editor of the English-language L'Osservatore, said Nov. 19 that the newspaper had published an overly literal translation of the French-language message that 'obscures the real meaning of the text.'

"The pope's real meaning, he said, was that it is now possible to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.

"This was also the meaning provided in the official Italian translation, published Oct. 23 by the daily L'Osservatore Romano."

Q: So, bottom line, the best rendering of the statement should be what?

A: According to the native French-speakers I have consulted, the best translation is:

"Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis."

Q: Does this mean that the pope was endorsing evolution?

A: Actually, no. The CNS story has it right when it says: "His point was that evolution was now accepted by a wide range of scientific disciplines doing independent research."

The native French-speakers inform me that if the pope had wanted to include himself among those endorsing evolution, French idiom would have required him to use a different construction.

According to them, the way the sentence reads in French implies only that the evidence accumulated over the last fifty years has led a group of people to a recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis, but the pope is neither including or excluding himself in that category, merely stating that it exists. If he had wanted to include himself, he would have used a different construction.

Thus the pope's remark about the "recognition" of evolution as more than a hypothesis, according to the native French-speakers I have consulted, should not be translated "leads us to recognize" (implying that the pope is among those who so recognize it) but "has led to the recognition" (implying nothing about who makes this recognition).

In fact, the native French-speakers say that the way the sentence is constructed in French suggests that the pope was deliberately side-stepping the issue of whether he believes in evolution or not and was merely stating a fact about how the theory is regarded in the scientific community.

Q: If the pope did not endorse the theory of evolution in the above quote, did he attack it in his speech?

A: No, that would have been a reversal of what has already been said. In 1950, Pope Pius XII indicated in his encyclical Humani generis that the idea that God used evolution to create the body of the first man did not contradict the deposit of faith provided certain provisos were maintained. In his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul emphasized these provisos, saying:

"In his Encyclical Humani generis [1950], my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points (cf. AAS 42 [1950], pp. 575-576)."

And in fact, one also gets the impression when reading the pope's address that his main concern was to warn away the scientists from theologically unacceptable versions of the theory. He was, one gets the impression, raining on the scientists' parade to warn them not to make unacceptable claims for the theory of evolution during the conference.

Q: What were the "indisputable points" Pope John Paul cited?

A: The pope emphasized that in writing Humani generis,

"Pius XII added two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain, proven doctrine as though one could totally prescind from Revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith, a point to which I will return."

Q: What condition did Pius XII set on the ability to reconcile evolution with Christian doctrine?

A: There were several which Pius XII stressed in the text of Humani generis. However, the one which Pope John Paul II specially emphasized was this:

"The Church’s Magisterium is directly concerned with the question of evolution, for it involves the conception of man: Revelation teaches us that he was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gn 1:27-29). The conciliar Constitution Gaudium et spes has magnificently explained this doctrine, which is pivotal to Christian thought. ... It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person."

The pope thus stressed the immediate creation of the human soul by God (for each individual human), even if God used secondary forces when he created the human body.

Q: Did the pope offer an appraisal of the evidence concerning evolution?

A: He did not offer an overall appraisal or offer a specific conclusion, but he did say:

"It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."

Q: Does this comment mean the pope is endorsing evolution?

A: Again, no. He says it the trend toward accepting it in the scientific community, following the evidence gained in the last fifty years, is "remarkable," but saying something is "remarkable" is one of those ways to say something nice and polite without committing oneself to an endorsement, though as with all consensuses that develop after scientific research, the consensus itself constitutes an argument (from the non-specialist's viewpoint) in favor of the theory.

Q: Does this statement mean the pope thinks that no scientists have tried to force the evidence in favor of evolution?

A: Certainly not. The pope is well aware of the role of bias and even dishonesty in the field of science, as in every other field of human endeavor. Human sin affects everything.

Q: Did the pope indicate that evolution could be false hypothesis?

A: Yes, the pope explicitly noted that evolution is not different from other scientific theories, which all must be continually tested and re-evaluated if they stop working as an explanation of the observed data:

"What is the significance of such a theory [as evolution]? To address this question is to enter the field of epistemology. A theory is a metascientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a series of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation. A theory's validity depends on whether or not it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; whenever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought."

Q: So the pope then did not say that Catholics are required to believe in evolution?

A: Of course not. The Church is not in the business of teaching scientific theories. The primary focus of its teaching is the deposit of faith passed on to us from the apostles (e.g., that Jesus Christ is the fully divine Son of God). The secondary focus is dogmatic facts necessary to protect things in the deposit of faith (e.g., that the Council of Nicaea, which infallibly defined the divinity of Christ, was a true ecumenical council and so had the ability to make this definition). The Church does not deal with issues outside these areas.

In particular, the Church does not teach theories of science as matters of faith. The most it does it say that a given scientific theory does not contradict or is not irreconcilable with the deposit of faith.

Q: Can you give an example of how this works?

A: Yes. For instance, the Church does not require Catholics to believe as a matter of faith that the sun is at the center of the solar system. It has taught that the sun-centered theory of the solar system does not contradict anything in the Bible or anything else in the deposit of faith, but the claim that the sun is at the center of the solar system (and it certainly is) must be stand or fall on the scientific evidence.

The idea that the sun is at the center of the solar system is not part of the deposit of faith, neither is it necessary to protect anything in the deposit of faith, so it is not within the Church's purview once it has been shown to not contradict anything in the deposit.

Certainly everyone in the Church's hierarchy believes that the sun is at the center of the solar system, and would give a funny look to anyone who asserted that it isn't, but it does not teach as a matter of faith that the sun is in that position. Once it has been shown to not to contradict the faith it is a matter for scientists to prove or disprove, not a matter of theology.

The Church thus does not teach scientific theories as a matter of faith, both because they are outside its purview and also because they could always shown to be false or partially false by later evidence.

For example, Galileo actually taught that the sun was at the center of the universe, not just the solar system; later evidence showed that the sun also orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy; it thus would have been bad if the Church had given an unqualified endorsement to Galileo's theory, for his specific form of the theory turned out to be false.

The Church thus has no desire to rush into an unqualified endorsement of evolution. All Humani generis gave was a tentative finding that it did not contradict the deposit of faith, but it said the question must still be investigated and that the Church could reverse its tentative finding.

Although Pope John Paul has noted that there is now more evidence available (which has caused several different versions of the theory to arise), he has not altered this stance, nor is he about to. The Church isn't about to rush into a hasty endorsement of evolution, much less one particular version out of several competing ones.

Q: Doesn't the Bible declare that God took man's body directly from the dust of the ground?

A: No, it says that God took man's body from the dust of the ground (an affirmation of the fact that the human body is part of God's material creation), but it does not say he took it directly from the ground. One may get that impression from the fact that intermediate steps are not mentioned, but one must be very careful in drawing that inference, as the experience of the Galileo incident shows.

There were many passages in the Bible which could very plausibly be read as teaching that the earth stands still and the sun moves. For example:

  • "Yes, the world stands firm, never to be moved." (1 Chronicles 16:30b)
  • "So perish all thine enemies, O LORD! But [may] thy friends be like the sun as he rises in his might." (Judges 5:31)
  • "[T]he sun ... comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and there is nothing hid from its heat." (Psalm 19:4b-6)
  • "The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises." (Ecclesiastes 1:5)
  • "For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass" (James 1:11a)

Only by using a rigorous hermeneutic to read these passages in terms of what they do and do not say, and coordinating that with the scientific evidence, did Christian theologians come to perceive that they actually use a particular literary form (known as "phenomenological language") and describe the motion of the earth and sun relative to the human perspective and are not intended to be technical accounts of their motions.

After having many in the Christian community (both Catholic and Protestant--including Martin Luther) shown wrong in their reading of what appeared to be the plain sense of these passages, the pope does not want to risk the same thing happening with the origin of the human body. Thus in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, cited the Galileo incident as evidence of the need for a rigorous hermeneutic in reading the texts in terms of what they were and were not intended to teach us, of the need to be sensitive to the possible presence of literary forms which we may be alterted to (as in the Galileo case) by the findings of natural science. He stated to the Academy:

"For my part, when I received those taking part in your Academy's plenary assembly on 31 October 1992, I had the opportunity, with regard to Galileo, to draw attention to the need of a rigorous hermeneutic for the correct interpretation of the inspired word. It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences."

Q: So where do we stand now with regard to evolution?

A: Basically where we did before the pope's speech. The Church has had a provisional finding since 1950 that the idea that God used intermediate living forms to produce the body of the first man can be reconciled with the deposit of faith, but that it must still be acknowledged that the soul is created immediately by God from nothing. The evolutionary hypothesis still must stand or fail on the scientific evidence for it, and nobody is a bad or a good Catholic based on whether they accept or reject it, for the Church does not teach matters of science as if they were matters of faith.

None of this is new. The fact that there has been so much hype over it is a testimony to the fact that many people have not studied what the Church has said concerning evolution.

Q: Where should I go for more information?

A: See the following link: