How Pope pushes back at creationists

Published 5:58 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014

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
Courtesy of 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.

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