Sunday, November 2, 2014

What the Pope really said on evolution and the Big Bang

Many in the media are trying to paint the Pope as the new Martin Luther changing Catholic doctrine about evolution and the Big Bang in order to transform the Catholic Church into a more liberal version of the Unitarians.

The reality is quite different; the Pope can’t change defined doctrine and the Church doesn’t have an official position on matters of science.

To help folks who aren’t familiar with the Church’s view of the world understand what Pope Francis really said let’s take a look at how the Church views theology and science.

Back in the 4th century St. Augustine pointed out a key thing about the Bible; it’s not designed to teach us how nature works.

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? -- De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim ("The Literal Meaning of Genesis")

The Church has always taught that the Bible is about how to live.  Hence scientific items in the Bible not relevant to the faith are to be subjected to scientific not theological analysis. 

For example if God used evolution to form the human body, as He used gravity to form the Earth, instead of just creating it directly how would that affect how we serve Christ? The answer of course is it wouldn’t.

The point then is that the Church views Scripture as being about how we are to live, what it means to be good, how we are to serve God not about scientific principles.

Here’s Pope Francis on evolution:

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.

God created everything but He creates things that change according to the laws He has defined; evolution is a tool defined by God with the intent of producing the human body.  God did create Adam from the earth—for eventually all of our molecules trace back to the earth—but He may have used a longer term process rather than a sudden one.

Effectively the Church gives to science what is science’s—how the body came about—and gives to God what is God’s—that God creates each human soul and that God created the universe and the laws that it runs by. 

Because the Church does not take positions on scientific principles a Catholic can believe in evolution or deny it but he can’t say that the Bible prevents it from having happened.

This is nothing new in 1950 Pope Pius XII wrote

…the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

If science were to suddenly change its mind about evolution the Church would not care because once we accept that man is body and soul how God produced the body has no impact on how we are to serve Christ.

The Popes comments on the Big Bang are similarly conservative:

The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it.

Few realize that the concept of the Big Bang was developed by a Catholic priest, Msgr. Georges LemaƮtre.

Fewer still know that the Big Bang theory was fought tooth and nail by some atheist scientists, such as Fred Hoyle, because the Big Bang theory is a strong argument for the existence of God.  Hoyle only gave up when the evidence for the Big Bang became undeniable.

Modern physics tells us that energy is conserved so that something cannot come from nothing hence if all there is is the universe it can’t self create without breaking the laws of physics. 

While some scientists, such as Hawkings, spin fables about how future science might be able to explain how the universe came out of nothing they have no real theories nor any experimental evidence to show that the thoroughly validated laws of conservation of energy and causality are wrong; but if those laws are right then the universe can’t exist without God.

God solves the problem of something from nothing because God, being spirit not matter, is not subject to the laws He made.

The key point to realize is that the Big Bang is, as Pope Francis said, a strong sign of God’s existence and hence fully consistent with Catholic theology.

After all what better description of the first instants of the Big Bang is there than “Let there be light”?

It’s important not to lump the Catholic Church in with certain Christian groups that believe everything in the Bible is literally true when contemplating what the Pope is actually saying.

Next time you see the media trumpeting the Pope making some massive change in Catholic doctrine remember that the Church moves slowly and even the Pope can’t change what has been dogmatically defined in the past.  He can present a more refined view of doctrine or he can define the Church position on an issue that had not been previously officially defined but he can’t overrule what the Church has already held to be dogmatically true. 

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