When Pope Francis told a gathering of scientists this week that the Big Bang and evolution were real, he set off a firestorm of media coverage. “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,” Francis said at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, after unveiling a bust of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI.
But, this is not the first time a pope has strongly supported the notion of evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII announced that Catholic doctrine and evolution could be compatible, an attitude endorsed by Pope John Paul II, who said evolution is “more than a hypothesis” and “effectively proven fact”.
Tia Ghose, writing for LiveScience, says, “The Catholic Church has never opposed the Big Bang theory, the notion that the universe was created with a boom more than 13 billion years ago. ”
“So why all the headlines?” questions Heidi Schlumpf for CNN. Probably because “Francis is newsworthy, plain and simple. In the same vein, much of the media clings to the image of the Church as anti-science. That the whole Galileo thing is still baggage, some 400 years later, seems unfair, though.”
Arguing that something very different is happening under Pope Francis, Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times that “this Pope has repeatedly signalled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality”.
Giulio Giorello, professor of the philosophy of science at Milan’s University degli Studi, told The Independent that he believed Francis was “trying to reduce the emotion of dispute or presumed disputes” with science.
A 2013 Pew Research survey found that 33 per cent of all American adults believe that “humans existed in present form since the beginning”. Among Catholics, the percentages are slightly lower; 31 per cent of Hispanic Catholics deny evolution, as do 26 per cent of white Catholics.
“But if you parse Francis’s words… you’ll find that tinges of creationism remain,” opines Jerry A Coyne for New Republic.