In his speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, Pope Francis made several comments on evolution and creation that have generated significant controversy. As a priest and scientist, I would like to make two observations about the Pope’s comments to put them into perspective.
First, the Pope’s proposal that Christian faith is compatible with an evolutionary understanding of life’s history is not as radical as the mainstream media is suggesting. In fact, the Pope’s comments are in continuity with a papal tradition, at least sixty years old, that affirms the legitimacy of evolutionary creation.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII taught that evolution could explain the origin of the human body as coming from a pre-existent species. However, he also pointed out that evolution could not explain the origin of the human soul, because it is, in essence, a spiritual reality:
For these reasons 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.
In 1996, Pope St. John Paul II recalled that his predecessor, Pius XII, had “already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.” John Paul II would then go on to affirm that new scientific discoveries in the intervening time “lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.”
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed the compatibility of evolution and the Christian faith in an address to priests of the Dioceses of Belluno-Feltre and Treviso. The Holy Father said the following to the assembled clergy:
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.
Thus, when Pope Francis says that “evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve”, he is in line with this papal tradition that acknowledges the compatibility of evolutionary science with the Christian faith.
Second, much ado has been made of Pope Francis’s claim that “when we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that.” What exactly did the Pope mean?
Several interpretations are possible. For example, in modern parlance, a magician is someone who can conjure things into existence with a wave of a wand. In contrast, God ordinarily acts through the creatures he has created. As I have explained elsewhere on the BioLogos website, God not only causes, but also creates creatures who are in themselves true causes. As such, when God does create creatures who themselves can cause, he manifests his power in a singular manner that signals his omnipotence.
However, I favor another interpretation because of a clue that appears later in his address when the Pope explains that God “is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities.”
It appears that Pope Francis is equating a magician to a demiurge. A demiurge is an artisan-like figure from Greek philosophy who fashions the physical universe from matter. A magician, too, is a figure who attempts to control the physical universe, often by the use of occult powers. Significantly, both these images are of actors who can only work with physical matter and with physical forces that are given to them as pre-existent realities.
As Pope Francis makes clear, however, God is neither a magician nor a demiurge. God is a creator who creates from nothing because he gives his creatures their very existence and their nature. This is something that a magician or a demiurge cannot do.
In my view, Pope Francis’s comments are not only correct but timely and important. My experience as a priest and college professor reveals that many people today do not think of God as the Creator who gives existence to everything that He creates—not only 13.8 billion years ago in the Big Bang but also at every moment of time. Instead, many people, including many Christians (and even Christian theologians), imagine that God is like a magician or a demiurge who works in the universe as one force among many. Some imagine, for example, that divine action is best explained by locating God’s action at the lowest subatomic or quantum levels of nature, which many believe are governed by physical laws that are indeterminate in nature. This is a view of divine action that is “magical” in nature. It fails to acknowledge that God acts at a level that is more basic and more fundamental than the quantum levels of physics. God works at the “ontological” level of reality, which deals with questions of existence and nonexistence. His creative works usually happen not in the realm of physics but of metaphysics.
Indeed, given Pope Francis’s account, we can say that it is God who gives the quantum level its very existence precisely as an indeterminate level of reality. God makes quantum physics indeterminate in a determinate manner. This metaphysical claim has a rich tradition in Catholic thought going back hundreds of years, at least to the great medieval philosopher and theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas.
In sum, therefore, Pope Francis is reiterating a basic claim in Catholic Christianity: If one acknowledges that God creates by giving creatures not only their existence but also their natures, one can reconcile an evolutionary worldview with the Christian faith. God creates through evolution.