Pope Francis kept alive the main tradition of the Roman Catholic Church: compromise. Specifically he offered the familiar compromise between creation and evolution. But what he said will likely please no one. It certainly does not contribute either to good origins science or to good Biblical scholarship.
What did Pope Francis say?
On Monday, Pope Francis addressed the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Religion News Service carried the first report. Josephine McKenna, reporter for RNS, quotes him thus:
When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so…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.
Oh, really? Then God did not actually plant a garden, form man out of the dust of the earth, and “breathe into his nostrils the breath of life”? Nor warn him not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge? And then, when he did it anyway, expel him from the Garden of Eden so he wouldn’t eat from the Tree of Life and be forever a prisoner of his sin? Apparently not. For Pope Francis further said,
God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life.
But: Pope Francis did not completely please advocates of evolution, either. He said, “evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” That will not please those who hold to all three tines of the Trident of Evolutionism. Those are:
- Abiogenesis, and
- Common descent
True enough, modern evolution advocates often protest that “abiogenesis has nothing to do with evolution.” All kidding aside, even Pope Francis recognizes: without some kind of origin, nothing can evolve, because nothing can exist. Those less afraid to hold to the full Trident coined the phrase chemical evolution as another name for abiogenesis. Which literally means: life beginning from non-life.
Appropriately enough, Pope Francis offered those remarks at a ceremony to show off a new portrait bust of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict said much the same.
Ishaan Tharoor at The Washington Post read something else into Pope Francis’ remarks, something the pontiff might not have addressed. Tharoor seems to think Pope Francis endorsed the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. At the same time, he says, the pontiff declared the Big Bang points to creation. Actually the RNS article does not quote Pope Francis as addressing the Big Bang in any way, shape or form.
How Pope Francis got it wrong
All this is nothing new. McKenna notes herself: the Roman Catholic Church has never sought to distinguish creation from evolution. A typical Internet engine search finds nothing to say, or imply, that the Roman Catholic Church opposed Darwinism in any way. This Wikipedia article shows the opposite.
This has led the Roman Catholic Church to twist and turn their understanding of the Bible. From Catholic Answers comes this compromise:
- The Genesis chapter 1 account tells the Creation story in topical, not chronological, order. Still:
- Adam and Eve were real people, and good Catholics should accept their story, too, as real.
But what do they say about the Patriarchs, and how old each was when he had his next named son? The Annals of Noah (Genesis 5:1b-6:9a) numbers ten generations and a maximum timeline toward the Flood: 1,656 years, from the creation of Adam to the death of Methuselah. Any account lending credence to “billions of years” contradicts this account.
R. Albert Mohler said this of another compromiser, Michael Gungor:
If you decide that you’re going to undercut biblical authority when it comes to very clear historical claims that you say now have to be reinterpreted by the assured findings of modern science, then when it comes to any other issue, if you fail to follow those same, naturalistic assumptions, you’re just being arbitrary. It may not be that you will also deny all those other doctrines that run into direct conflict with the naturalistic, scientific worldview. But if you do not do so, it will simply be because you decided not to do so, not because you are consistently recognizing an intellectual authority, and that’s exactly what the Scripture claims to be.
That applies equally to Pope Francis as to a lay “contemporary Christian music” artist.
Christians should not need to argue about this. Ample evidence exists that:
- The Global Flood took place.
- It took place no further back in the past than 5300 years (give or take a hundred).
- The entire fossil record constitutes Flood silt and represents, not billions of years of slow deposition, but the drying-out of several hydrologically sorted-out layers of dirt and skeletal and other remains within one year.
Moreover the Big Bang theory ignores repeated declarations from Scripture, to this effect: it wasn’t a Big Bang, but a Big Stretch. That Stretch did more than “stretch out the heavens.” It stretched out time, too. It happened seven thousand years ago by how we count time on earth. (That, by the way, is all that need matter to us.) And within 1,656 years, all the animals that ever lived, had formed. Some had time to grow to tremendous size. (Reptiles tend to do this. Mammals have limits to bodily growth. Reptiles do not.)
In sum: even empirical observation gives us no warrant to accept “billions of years” over the thousands of which the Bible speaks. Pope Francis accepts the “billions of years” uncritically – that is, after making no independent judgment. He thus makes the opposite of the mistake the Catholic Church made in preferring Aristotle’s geocentrism to Galileo’s clear evidence that (as some record him as muttering under his breath) “the earth still moves.” Scripture gave no warrant for that, either.
Science and the Bible need not conflict. But the champions of each must follow their own rules consistently.