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What the Media Got Wrong about Pope Francis and Evolution

by Joe HeschmeyerNovember 17, 2014

Have you heard about Pope Francis’ recent comments about God, evolution, and Creation? If so, chances are you’ve heard wrong. Here are four things you should know:  

1. Pope Francis is Not an Atheist

Amazingly, the popular news site Independent Journal Review (IJ Review) ran — and as of this writing, is still running — the following headline:

“God is not a Divine Being”? We’re supposed to believe that the pope got up, denied that God was actually God, and that everything just went on as business as usual? Obviously, this story is false. It’s the result of two things: bad translating, and atrocious journalism. What Pope Francis actually said that God wasn’t a “demiurge,” the pagan idea of a “god” who forms the world out of chaos. [The IJReview article relied upon an earlier 
Raw Story piece that originally ran the same bad translation; unlike IJReview, they've since corrected the record.] In other words, God isn’t like a demiurge, forming the world out of chaotic raw materials. He’s infinitely bigger than that, creating the entire universe ex nihilio, from nothing. This is a ringing endorsement of God’s Deity, not a denial. Here’s the original comment, in context, which makes it clear he neither said nor meant that God was less than Divine:

"God is not a demiurge or a conjurer, but the Creator who gives being to all things. The beginning of the world is not the work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Origin that creates out of love. The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve."

Does that sound like a denial of God’s deity? Even if you don’t know what the word “demiurge” — or the Italian word “demiurgo” — means, context and common sense should clue you in that Pope Francis isn’t announcing his newfound atheism in the middle of a speech he’s given in honor of the unveiling of a statue. Given how absurd the IJReview headline is, you might think, “there’s no way anyone would fall for that.” But you’d be wrong: the IJReview piece currently has over 350,000 views and has been shared on Facebook 56,000 times.  

2. Pope Benedict XVI Was Not a Fundamentalist Protestant

The IJReview headline was bizarre in how extreme (and obviously wrong) it was. What’s becoming all too routine, in contrast, are the articles breathlessly claiming that Pope Francis is making a radical break with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. There are countless examples of this, including this lede from The Independent (UK):

"Speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope made comments which experts said put an end to the “pseudo theories” of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI."

Again, this is culpably ignorant journalism. Benedict has an entire book on the subject of how we should understand Genesis, creation, and evolution, taken from his essays and homilies. Nowhere does he take an opposite view of what Francis is saying here. In fact, he presents the argument for the compatibility of evolution and Creation in an arguably more provocative manner:

"Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God.   This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favor of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man?"

So Benedict is directly calling out the position the Independent accuses him of holding, calling it absurd. (Of course, the Independent doesn’t actually back up its claims about Benedict’s views; rather than referring to his countless public statements on Creation and evolution, they rely on nebulous and unnamed “experts,” “some” of whom claim this about him). So Francis’ comments are anything but a radical break from Benedict XVI’s views on this matter. Again, an ounce of common sense should have clued reporters to this: Francis is giving these comments at the unveiling of a Benedict XVI bust at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And they think that he’s going to choose this time and place to attack Benedict’s views on faith and science? But the issue is broader than the opinions of Benedict and Francis. John Paul II said much the same thing on evolution, as have basically every pope since Pope Pius XII. It was Pius who issued the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, explaining what Catholics could and couldn’t believe about our human origins (as the encyclical’s Latin title suggests). In that encyclical, he said,

"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."

This is also the position of the Catechism (CCC 283-84). There are certain things that Catholics must hold to, including that (a) God created the universe from nothing; (b) evolution isn’t just random and unguided [as if God created the universe and then abandoned it]; (c) the human soul didn’t “evolve,” even if the human body did; and (d) Adam and Eve existed. That leaves a lot of room for Catholics to hold to varying interpretations of Genesis 1-3 and of the scientific data. So Catholics aren’t required to believe in evolution (contrary to the Independent’s claim that Francis “declared” evolution true), but they’re free to, as long as they also hold to the truths of the faith.  

3. The Secular Media Isn’t a Reliable Source for Catholic News

To recap, Pope Francis is just reiterating the basic Catholic position on both God and evolution. This is a total non-story, other than media distortions that amount to out-and-out falsehoods. So why do stories like this exist. Here’s one possible clue: 

Sometimes, fallacious and misleading news stories are based on innocent mistakes. Other times, they’re motivated by an ideological agenda (and certainly, the media has not been shy about trying to claim Francis as a liberal, and pitting him against Benedict and the entire pre-2013 Catholic Church). But it’s broader than that.
The Independent is liberal, IJReview is conservative. But both are (a) more concerned about getting clicks than the truth, and (b) clueless on religion. Seriously, if you rely on secular news sources to get religious news (especially Catholic news) correct, you’re bound to get misled.  

4. A Bonus...

The guy most scientists credit with formulating the Big Bang Theory? A Catholic priest.

About the Author

Joe Heschmeyer

Joe Heschmeyer

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a...

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