Evolution and the Vatican

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Despite appearances that the continual American controversy over evolutionary biology pits Religion against Science, "Religion" in this context is far from monolithic, the anti-evolutionist forces turn out to be a small but influential federation of Protestant fundamentalists, and there is in fact very little conflict between science and mature theology.

Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, during the pontificate of Pius IX. The book was included in the 1948 edition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the "Index of Prohibited Books"[1]), but its notoriety was short lived since the Index was officially suppressed in 1966. Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church, as seen through the teachings of its leader, has largely adopted a positive attitude towards science in general, and evolution in particular.


Pius IX

Pius IX convened the First Vatican Council, which is famous for its decree of papal infallibility, in 1869. Among the decrees of the Council is a statement concerning scientific research. In an earlier translation[2] [c. 1875], it reads

Let him be anathema ... Who shall say that human sciences ought to be pursued in such a spirit of freedom that one may be allowed to hold as true their assertions, even when opposed to revealed doctrine.

In a more modern translation[3] [c. 1990] and with surrounding text (the statement above is rendered in paragraph 9):

5. Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.

6. God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth. The appearance of this kind of specious contradiction is chiefly due to the fact that either the dogmas of faith are not understood and explained in accordance with the mind of the Church, or unsound views are mistaken for the conclusions of reason.
9. Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth.

10. Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds.

11. Hence, so far is the Church from hindering the development of human arts and studies, that in fact she assists and promotes them in many ways. For she is neither ignorant nor contemptuous of the advantages which derive from this source for human life, rather she acknowledges that those things flow from God, the lord of sciences, and, if they are properly used, lead to God by the help of his grace.

This presentation makes is clearer that the original statement is not so much hostile to science as it is trying to be clear about the boundaries between science and theology; the assertions that reason and faith cannot be in conflict will be echoed in later statements by other pontiffs.

It is true that the First Vatican Council followed the publication of The Origin of Species, but there is no indication that these canons were written in direct response to it rather than to the mood of the times, which saw scientific advances on many fronts. Indeed, Pius IX, who presided over the dissolution of the Papal States during his pontificate, probably had bigger things on his mind.[4]


The notion that faith and reason can never truly be in conflict was expressed more directly, and more memorably, in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus,[5] written by Pius' successor, Leo XIII, in 1893. The encylical concerned the the study of the Scriptures and did not directly discuss science, scientific truth, and its relationship to theology. In the concluding paragraphs he wrote:

23. In order that all these endeavours and exertions [related to the study of the Scriptures, which is the topic of the encyclical] may really prove advantageous to the cause of the Bible, let scholars keep steadfastly to the principles which We have in this Letter laid down. Let them loyally hold that God, the Creator and Ruler of all things, is also the Author of the Scriptures - and that therefore nothing can be proved either by physical science or archaeology which can really contradict the Scriptures. If, then, apparent contradiction be met with, every effort should be made to remove it. Judicious theologians and commentators should be consulted as to what is the true or most probable meaning of the passage in discussion, and the hostile arguments should be carefully weighed. Even if the difficulty is after all not cleared up and the discrepancy seems to remain, the contest must not be abandoned; truth cannot contradict truth, and we may be sure that some mistake has been made either in the interpretation of the sacred words, or in the polemical discussion itself; and if no such mistake can be detected, we must then suspend judgment for the time being.

Again, there is no display of hostility towards the scientific endeavor, nor any particular mention of Darwin. Rather, there is the restatement of the of doctrine from Pius IX: the metaphysical presumption that the results of rational investigation and the results of theological investigation can never truly be in conflict -- that "truth cannot contradict truth", and that any appearance to the contrary is therefore the result of incomplete understanding.

Pius X

In his 1907 encyclical "On the Doctrine of the Modernists"[6], Pius X wrote a stern -- and lengthy -- denunciation of "modernists" whose attitudes and teachings he found to be a serious threat to the Church. In that context, his remarks in passing on science seem far less hostile than they seem in this excerpt; in fact, by today's standards, they border on the indifferent.

47. With regard to secular studies, let it suffice to recall here what our predecessor [Leo XIII] has admirably said: "Apply yourselves energetically to the study of natural sciences: in which department the things that have been so brilliantly discovered, and so usefully applied, to the admiration of the present age, will be the object of praise and commendation to those who come after us."[7] But this is to be done without interfering with sacred studies, as Our same predecessor prescribed in these most weighty words: "If you carefully search for the cause of those errors you will find that it lies in the fact that in these days when the natural sciences absorb so much study, the more severe and lofty studies [i.e., theology and related disciplines] have been proportionately neglected--some of them have almost passed into oblivion, some of them are pursued in a half-hearted or superficial way, and, sad to say, now that the splendor of the former estate is dimmed, they have been disfigured by perverse doctrines and monstrous errors."[8] We ordain, therefore, that the study of natural sciences in the seminaries be carried out according to this law.

Pius XII

Pius XII was Pope from 1939 to 1958. He was the first to acknowledge the existence of evolutionary biology -- it has been suggested that the Church had learned from its persecution of Galileo not to rush into judgement on scientific matters. His 1950 encyclical Humani Generis[9] is concerned with errors of thought that "threaten to undermine Catholic doctrine", which sounds an ominous tone for the Church's first pronouncement on Evolution. However, while he rails against modern-day thinkers who would reject centuries-old doctrine as "out of date", he noticably avoids invective against evolutionary biology.

Pius XII was a religious conservative who clearly wasn't happy with the idea of evolution, evidently hoping, as one commentator put it[10], "that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad". So, in paragraph 30 of Humani Generis, he cautions against those "fads" in thought, at the same time that he reaffirms Leo XIII's dictum that "truth cannot contradict truth":

Whatever new truth the sincere human mind is able to find, certainly cannot be opposed to truth already acquired, since God, the Highest Truth, has created and guides the human intellect, not that it may daily oppose new truths to rightly established ones, but rather that, having eliminated errors which may have crept in, it may build truth upon truth in the same order and structure that exist in reality, the source of truth. Let no Christian, therefore, whether philosopher or theologian, embrace eagerly and lightly whatever novelty happens to be thought up from day to day, but rather let him weigh it with painstaking care and a balanced judgment, lest he lose or corrupt the truth he already has, with grave danger and damage to his faith.

Then, in paragraph 36, he admits, somewhat grudgingly, that Church doctrine is not incompatible with evolution provided that the creation of the soul is left in God's hands:

...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. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.

Clearly, although he was not ready to embrace evolutionary ideas fully, he saw no conflict between evolution and faith. Given the subject and stern tone of this encyclical, had he found otherwise his rhetoric would have been unambiguous.

John Paul II

Nearly 50 years passed between the time that Pius XII cautiously recognized that evolutionary biology need not be in conflict with church doctrine and the time when John Paul II famously made his stronger, more positive statement about evolution. Pius's hope that evolution would turn out to be a scientific fad was most assuredly not realized.

In 1996, Pope John Paul II made a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, known as "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth"[11]. The title acknowledges the contribution of Leo XIII and the history of this metaphysical statement. It contains John Paul II's most direct remarks about the position of the Roman Catholic Church towards modern evolutionary biology.

Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. [...] 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. And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what direction do we look for their solution? We know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth (cf. Leo XIII, encyclical Providentissimus Deus).

At the time there was considerable consternation among American anti-evolutionists, who made hopeful assertions that perhaps the original French had been badly translated into "more than a hypothesis". However, the Vatican quickly confirmed that John Paul II had meant exactly what he had said.

In a 1987 letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory[12] on the occasion of a "study week" held at Castelgandolfo in Rome to mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, John Paul II made broader statements about the cross-fertilization possible between science and theology.

Religion is not founded on science nor is science an extension of religion. Each should possess its own principles, its pattern of procedures, its diversities of interpretation and its own conclusions. Christianity possesses the source of its justification within itself and does not expect science to constitute its primary apologetic. Science must bear witness to its own worth. While each can and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common human culture, neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other. The unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline retains its integrity and yet is radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other.
If the cosmologies of the ancient Near Eastern world could be purified and assimilated into the first chapters of Genesis, might contemporary cosmology have something to offer to our reflections upon creation? Does an evolutionary perspective bring any light to bear upon theological anthropology, the meaning of the human person as the imago Dei, the problem of Christology -- and even upon the development of doctrine itself? What if any, are the eschatological implications of contemporary cosmology, especially in light of the vast future of our universe? Can theological method fruitfully appropriate insights from scientific methodology and the philosophy of science?
Contemporary developments in science challenge theology far more deeply than did the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe in the 13th century. Yet these developments also offer to theology a potentially important resource. Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St. Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity and God?

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Benedict XVI]

Joesph Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope on 19 April 2005 and assumed the name Benedict XVI. In its first nine months, the papacy of Benedict XVI has seen no official papal statements directly addressing the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church towards science.

However, prior to his election, Cardinal Ratzinger had served over 20 years as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and so one can infer at least his acquiescence in church teachings throughout that period. Some commentators felt that an op-ed piece by Austrian Cardinal Schoenborn in the New York Times, which appeared in July 2005 shortly after Benedict's election and presented an antagonistic stance towards evolution, may have been meant to indicate a more hard-line position of Benedict XVI towards evolutionary biology. However, that intent was later repudiated by by Schoenborn himself. (See our article The Cardinal, The Astronomer, and Darwin).

Although there have been no direct statemtents yet [as of January 2006} from Benedict XVI, we do have this 2002 report from the International Theological Commission held in Rome from 2000-2002, of which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the president at the time.[13]

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

64. Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that "new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge"("Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution" 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis), the Holy Father’s message acknowledges that there are “several theories of evolution” that are "materialist, reductionist and spiritualist" and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe. [...]

69. The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality. Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence.

Yet to be seen is whether this interpretation of previous papal positions will remain central to the new Pope's teachings on evolution, although the adoption of the pejorative "neo-Darwinism" suggests that shifting to a position contary to evolutionary biology might be contemplated.


One theme that underlies all these teachings is the one stated so elegantly by Leo XIII: that "truth cannot contradict truth". To the theologically naive, this may sound like a ready dismissal of the results of science if they should appear to contradict theological doctrine or "revealed truth"; however, the more mature treatment of the concept by a succession of leaders of the Roman Catholic Church makes plain a more sophisticated and more productive meaning. More productive, in the view of John Paul II, for both Church and scientific research.

Seen against the long arc of history for an institution that has survived for nearly two millenia, the period since the publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species is barely long enough for its influence to be felt, particularly in light of the growth that evolutionary biology has seen during that same time. The Church, in its more considered moments, demonstrates that its attitude towards scientific truth in the scientific realm has evolved considerably since the dawn of the Enlightenment.


  1. ^ "Modern History Sourcebook: Index librorum prohibitorum, 1557-1966".
  2. ^ John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, "Chapter XII, The Impending Crisis" (Kegan Paul, Trench, Thrübner & Co. Ltd., London, 1910).
  3. ^ "First Vatican Council 1869-1870", taken from Norman Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, 1990).
  4. ^ "Pope Pius IX", Wikipedia, c. 2005.
  5. ^ Providentissimus Deus, "given at St. Peter's, at Rome, the 18th day of November, 1893, the eighteenth year of Our Pontificate: Leo XIII."
  6. ^ Pius X, "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" ("On the Doctrine of the Modernists"), 8 September 1907.
  7. ^ The reference in the original was: "Leo XIII, allocution of March 7, 1880."
  8. ^ ibid.
  9. ^ Pius XII, Humani Generis, "Encyclical of Pope Pius XII Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine to our Venerable Brethren, Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other Local Ordinaries Enjoying Peace and Communion with the Holy See", 12 August 1950.
  10. ^ Doug Linder, "The Vatican's View of Evolution: The Story of Two Popes", 2004.
  11. ^ John Paul II, "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth", address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996.
  12. ^ John Paul II, "Our knowledge of God and nature: physics, philosophy and theology", Letter "To the Reverend George V. Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory", date 1 June 1988, originally published in L'Osservatore Romano (Weekly edition in English), xxi:46 (1064), 14 November 1988.
  13. ^ Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God", c. 2002: "The theme of 'man created in the image of God' was submitted for study to the International Theological Commission. [...] As the text developed, it was discussed at numerous meetings of the subcommission and several plenary sessions of the International Theological Commission held at Rome during the period 2000-2002. The present text was approved in forma specifica, by the written ballots of the International Theological Commission. It was then submitted to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the President of the Commission, who has give his permission for its publication."


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