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How Pope pushes back at creationists

By Heidi Schlumpf
updated 5:58 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, October 8. With his penchant for crowd-pleasing and spontaneous acts of compassion, the Pope has earned high praise from fellow Catholics and others since he replaced Pope Benedict XVI in March 2013. Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience at St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday, October 8. With his penchant for crowd-pleasing and spontaneous acts of compassion, the Pope has earned high praise from fellow Catholics and others since he replaced Pope Benedict XVI in March 2013.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heidi Schlumpf: Pope Francis said Big Bang, evolution does not clash with Catholic teaching
  • She says this not new; earlier popes agreed. Benedict less so; that's one reason it made news
  • Others? Francis is newsworthy, and media have mistaken image that Catholics anti-science
  • Schlumpf: Too many Catholics ally with Protestant evangelicals on creation view. Not Francis

Editor's note: Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Liberal American Catholics greet almost anything uttered by Pope Francis with glee, but his latest pronouncement has them scratching their heads. Headlines proclaiming "Pope says evolution, Big Bang are real" could have been written in 1950.

That's when Pope Pius XII announced that Catholic doctrine and evolution could be compatible, an attitude endorsed--and even expanded upon--by Pope John Paul II, who said evolution is "more than a hypothesis" and "effectively proven fact." Pope Francis is just following in those footsteps.

Heidi Schlumpf
Heidi Schlumpf

"God is not a divine being or a magician, but the creator who brought everything to life," the Pope said Monday in an address to a gathering on "Evolving Concepts of Nature," hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. "Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of things that evolve."

So why all the headlines? Three reasons, I believe.

First, some saw Pope Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, as backtracking on openness to evolution, preferring instead the concept of "intelligent design," which accepts some aspects of evolution but not others (such as its being undirected).

Francis' words, then, indicate that the church is back on track with its openness toward evolutionary theory.

Secondly, Francis is newsworthy, plain and simple. The "church-has-new-open-leader" narrative has taken hold, and anything he says is presented as groundbreaking -- even if previous, more traditional, popes said it before he did.

In the same vein, much of the media cling to the image of the church as anti-science. It's not all their fault, what with the church's opposition to artificial birth control, assisted reproduction, stem cell research and other medical procedures accepted by a majority of Americans, even a majority of American Catholics. That the whole Galileo thing is still baggage, some 400 years later, seems unfair, though.

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The truth is that the first person to propose what would become the "Big Bang Theory" was a Catholic priest, Msgr. Georges LemaƮtre, a Belgian astronomer and professor of physics, who was never persecuted by the church for his ideas.

Which brings me to the third, and most likely reason for the hoopla around Francis' words about evolution. Because too many traditionalist Catholics have aligned themselves with Protestant evangelicals for political purposes, some of those evangelical beliefs and teachings have rubbed off on them.

While they may come together over opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage, these Catholics may find themselves joining other "conservative" causes, such as opposing immigration, programs for the poor and, yes, evolution in textbooks--all things Catholic teaching currently support.

It's been said that conservatives from various religious traditions often have more in common with other conservatives than they do with liberals from their own religious tradition. (Of course, the same is said about liberals.) While the number of Catholics joining ranks with evangelicals on issues such as opposing evolution is small, the two groups have become conflated in the perception of many.

On the way home from religious education class a few weeks ago, my son and I were discussing the creation story. "It's just a myth," he announced, repeating my previous explanation that while the Bible stories contain truth, they didn't all necessarily happen.

If a 7-year-old can get it, it seems others can, too.

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