Pope Francis is back in the headlines today for making a progressive statement on behalf of the Catholic Church, something he’s quickly become associated with doing in his short term. Addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which had assembled at the Vatican to discuss “evolving concepts of nature,” Francis said that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang don’t contradict church doctrine. But while some may find this news shocking, if welcome, this isn’t actually another case of Francis trying to modernize the views of his traditionally conservative institution—though many religious groups continue to attack scientific explanations of the origins of mankind, the Catholic Church has not been one of them for at least a half-century.
The pope’s remarks could be seen as a mission statement for the Catholic scientists and teachers who had gathered at the conference to discuss teaching science alongside Scripture. “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,” he said. “But that is not so.” As far back as 1950, in the papal encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII suggested that evolution and Catholic doctrine did not necessarily contradict. When St. John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 he took it one step further, saying evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” and accepting the evolution of the human body. The same Catholic Church that famously condemned Galileo in 1633 now praises him and, at one point, even considered erecting a statue in his honor in the walls of the Vatican. While Pope Benedict XVI may have blurred the church’s position via his close association with Cardinal Cristoph Schöenborn, a proponent of intelligent design, the new pope’s statement is in line with the church’s longtime thoughts on evolution. Francis has even posited opinions like this before, telling astrophysics students that “faith enriches reason.”
Like many modern approaches to religion that embrace theistic evolution, Francis’ statements endorse evolution by enforcing God’s role in it: “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.” At one point, Francis added that “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.” Which makes sense; the “father of the Big Bang theory” was a Catholic priest and a former president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.