December 11, 1996


THE POPE AND DARWIN. Did God create mankind in his image, as the Bible says, or did humans evolve from animals, as Darwin theorized nearly 150 years ago? According to Pope John Paul II, evolution may be the better explanation.

Weighing in on a debate that has divided Christians for decades, the pope declared that evolution is "more than just a theory" and is fully compatible with the Christian faith. But in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he also reaffirmed church teachings that while the human body may have evolved gradually, the soul "is immediately created by God" in each person.

The pope's statement may rankle biblical fundamentalists, who take the Genesis creation story literally, but it is likely to have little impact on the Roman Catholic Church, which has long looked favorably on evolution.

In 1950, Pope Pius XII called evolution a "serious hypothesis" worthy of study. And as early as the fifth century, St. Augustine warned against a literal reading of the Genesis creation account. But John Paul II went further than previous popes in declaring that a "convergence" of scientific evidence gathered in the past 50 years makes "a significant argument in favor of this theory."

This isn't the pope's first attempt to reconcile religion and science. In 1988, he called for ongoing dialogue between theologians and scientists. In 1992, he declared that the church had erred in condemning Galileo Galilei in 1633 for asserting that the Earth revolves around the sun.