Pope Francis has reiterated that the Catholic Church sees no conflict between science and religion, accepting the universe was created in the Big Bang, rather than insisting on a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis.
The position is not new. More conservative Popes have, in recent decades, endorsed scientific ideas that are anathema to fundamentalist Christians, particularly that humans descended from other species. However, since the first acknowledgment of this possibility the Church's position has, shall we say, evolved significantly.
The Vatican is remembered for burning Giordano Bruno at the stake for postulating the existence of many worlds, and forcing Galileo to recant his views under threat of torture. In recent times, however, Christian attacks on science have been more likely to come from Evangelical Protestants.
Nevertheless, when Pope Pius XII first acknowledged the possibility of evolution in 1950 his position was extremely grudging. His encyclical Humani Generis reads, "Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution.” Hardly a glowing endorsement of what was by then overwhelming scientific evidence.
By the time Pope John Paul II addressed the topic, there had been a shift. In 1996, the then Pope said, “This theory [evolution] 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 favour of this theory."
Now, as part of a wider move to pull the Church into the 21st Century while also restoring its prouder traditions, Pope Francis has used language that carries the message more clearly still.
“When we read the creation story in Genesis we run the risk of imagining that God was a magician, with a magic wand which is able to do everything,” Pope Francis said. “But it is not so. He created beings and let them develop according to internal laws which He gave every one, so they would develop, so they would reach maturity.”
The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a Vatican body designed to promote the mathematical and physical sciences. Among the nearly 50 Nobel Prize winners who have been members are such giants as Rutherford, Plank and Bohr .
Addressing the Academy on Tuesday, Pope Francis said, “Evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings which evolve." Cosmologists, still wrestling with the question of what brought the universe into existence, might question his statement, “The big bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it.” On the other hand, it is also not something that can currently be disproved.