After Pope Francis referenced the Big Bang and biological evolution this past Monday, a flurry of media reports appeared, contrasting Francis’ views with those of his predecessors and the Catholic tradition.
“Pope Francis made a significant rhetorical break with Catholic tradition Monday by declaring that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real,” gushed MSNBC. And elsewhere, MSNBC reported that “conservatives in the United States” who have been unhappy with Pope Francis “today have one more reason to be upset.”
Yet the real story here is that Francis was just reiterating the Catholic understanding of evolution first articulated by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
Had the journalists dug a little deeper, they would have discovered that the “father of the Big Bang theory,” Georges Lemaître, was a Belgian cosmologist and a Catholic priest. He was also a former president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the very group Francis was addressing Monday.
The Catholic Catechism itself states that the “question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man.” It also notes that these discoveries “invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.”
But it seems that these journalists really just wanted to drive a wedge between Francis and his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, holding the former up as a free-wheeling liberal and tarring the second as a stodgy conservative.
The Independent newspaper in Ireland wrote that Francis’ comments put an end to the “pseudo theories” of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Elsewhere, NBC News reported that Francis’ remarks on Monday “appeared to be a theological break from his predecessor Benedict XVI, a strong exponent of creationism.”
Yet anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Benedict’s views on evolution would understand this claim to be patently false. As a cardinal, Ratzinger had studied theories of evolution for years, and had developed his own nuanced understanding of Darwinian evolution, on which he commented in several of his books.
Moreover, in 2006, Benedict said that it is “absurd” to suppose that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive, citing the “many scientific proofs in favor of evolution,” which “enriches our knowledge of life and being as such.” Benedict did hold, however, that “evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from?” This was exactly the point Francis was making on Monday.
This leaves us with the puzzle of how so many semi-skilled journalists get these fundamental questions wrong. Are they willfully malicious or simply incompetent?
Either way, would such ineptitude be tolerated if they were writing about anything other than the Catholic Church?