Question: : Must Catholics now believe in evolution? Can true science and true religion be in conflict?
Answer: We have yet to see the text of the Pope's October 23, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences printed anywhere. There has been no shortage of commentaries on the address, and many articles that seem to be comments on the commentaries. Modern journalism seems to be more interested in telling us "what to think about what happened" than in reporting "what happened."1 So, except for one widely quoted Papal statement, this column will restrict itself to the issues raised by the commentators.
Popes have no particular competence in scientific matters, at least not by virtue of their office. Their scientific opinions are of no less and no greater value than those of other men with similar education. Pope John Paul II's educational background boasts no specific scientific interest. In short, Popes are free to make any sort of scientific statement they wish, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Catholics are equally free to believe or disbelieve them on the merits of what they have to say. No one, therefore, is required to believe or disbelieve the theory of evolution on the basis of a scientific statement made by this or any other Pope.
The "commentators" made a great deal out of the idea that the Pope was reconciling religion with science. "Science, faith can coexist, John Paul says" was the sub headline in The Sun-sentinel's page1 presentation of The New York Times' feature story.2 This is nothing new. The fact of the matter is that science, and religion, and every other conceivable intellectual discipline must agree with each other insofar as these disciplines express the truth. There are various ways of examining reality; physics, chemistry, philosophy, medicine, theology, psychology, engineering, music, art, and so on, many times over. All of these disciplines examine the same universe from different perspectives. Physics does not disprove chemistry, chemistry does not refute electronics; each simply examines the same subject at a point of view different from the others. Religion generally addresses why things are the way they are, while science generally describes how they got to be the way they are. For example, religion tells us why God made us: "to show forth His goodness in this world and to be happy with Him in the next." Science never tries (or never should try) to answer the question "why?" but, rather, it seeks to explain "how?" we came to be in this world. Religion speaks in terms of divine motivations and man's obligations in return, while science speaks about the same subject in terms of particle kinetics and chemical reactions. There is no contradiction, because they approach their common subject from different aspects.
If the theologians of the middle ages were wrong about the shape of the planetary system or about the moment when a baby received a soul, it was because of the limitations of science in their era, not for lack of philosophical or theological wisdom. The medieval theologian knew that there could be no discrepancy between religion and science. If, for example, science "knew" that a baby was made only after the germination of the father's seed in the "field" of its mother's womb, the theologian might conclude that this "germination" was the moment of "ensoulment." He would have been held to be a fool if, against all human knowledge, he proclaimed a different time for the creation of an individual soul.3 Theologians were simply wrong when they found imaginary harmonies between their science and their religion; for example, when they imagined that the Levitical statues on purification described the "ensoulment" for males after forty days and that for females after eighty days -- they wrongly interpreted the distinctions of Jewish ritual as a philosophical reality corresponding to a scientific error. The Catholic religion claims an inerrancy, but that inerrancy is restricted to the realm of religion, not to scientific understanding of how the things of God came to be in the physical universe.
Pope John Paul II is said to have referred to Humani generis, the encyclical of Pope Pius XII, reiterating the fact that if evolution actually took place, it cannot be denied that mankind descends from two specific parents and that God directly created their spiritual souls (as He does the souls of all human beings). But, while Pope Pius was highly skeptical of the theory of evolution, the current Pope seems to regard it in a positive light. In a statement worthy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he said:
Today more than a half century after this encyclical [Humani generis], new knowledge leads us to recognize in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis. The convergence, neither sought nor induced, of results of work done independently one from the other, constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.4
None of the commentators venture a guess at what this "new knowledge" might be; the second law of thermodynamics seems to be secure for the moment, and theories which recount major interruptions in terrestrial biology are gaining ground. The quality of this "new knowledge" seems to be reflected only in its acceptance by the pop-scientists and pop-philosophers in communion with the networks. As Pope Pius pointed out, the theory of evolution is quite popular with those who hold materialist philosophies like communism and existentialism.5 Those who view man as "an accident of the cosmos," or as "the acting person" who defines himself through "authentic existence" imagine their philosophies to be vindicated in Darwinism.
The quality of this "new knowledge" is such that the disciples of evolution have, on occasion, stooped to forgery to produce it. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, an ardent advocate of the notion that man is evolving into God, was associated with the fraud of the "Peking man." Not at all coincidentally, Teilhard was quite popular during the heyday of Vatican II, and his ideas and style can be found in conciliar and post-conciliar documents.
In summary, Catholics are not required to hold any particular scientific beliefs as the result of papal statements. Ultimately, religion and science must be in agreement if they are true. But theologians and scientists do make mistakes, and insofar as they are in error there may seem to be disagreement.