November 8, 1996

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Pope John Paul II said "new knowledge" led him to officially announce the Vatican's acceptance of evolutionary theory as "more than a hypothesis." The declaration grew out of mounting evidence for evolution in a variety of scientific disciplines.

said John Paul II in a statement Oct. 22 to the plenary session of the pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Such findings coincide with

said Catholic University theology professor Daniel Cowdin, in explaining why such a declaration would be made at this time.

It is only recently, said University of Portland theology professor Thomas Hosinski, that

Theologians traditionally leave it to the scientists to examine nature. The new theological focus on environment and morality, he said, has caused theologians to grapple with evolution in order to understand the natural world.

John Paul was not the first pope to state that science and church can find points of agreement in this area. For example, John Paul referred to a 1950 encyclical by Pope Pius XII in which the earlier pope said that there was no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith as long as there were certain firm points of faith where no concession can be made.

John Haught, Georgetown University theology professor and author of Science and Religion (Paulist Press, 1995), said,

Haught was a participant at a June meeting at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, for a discussion of Biological Evolution and Divine Action.

The pope, said Haught, was briefed on the discussion and its conclusions. Haught and others speculated that the gathering may have influenced John Paul's decision to speak out on evolution.

At the June symposium, cosponsored by the Vatican Observatory and encouraged by the pope, participants suggested that to view the development of human life in terms of an "ongoing creation" is a scenario that makes increasing sense, scientifically and theologically.

Pope John Paul said in considering the evolution of humankind, one is confronted with an "ontological leap" that cannot be explained through observation or measurement.

when the creature that became the modern human being acquired a soul. Only theology can fill that gap, the pope said.

Whatever inspired the recent statement, the church moves at its own pace. In 1859 Charles Darwin published the revolutionary scientific work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. At first, the book was strongly opposed by the church.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a Jesuit paleontologist who argued for a reconciliation of theology and evolutionary theory, brought many theologians in touch with Darwin's ideas. Teilhard spent his life trying to show the consonance between creation in scripture and evolution.

Pope John Paul is saying essentially what was said in the 1950s by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Humani Generis, said Hosinski.

The task of reconciliation has occupied theologians at least since Teilhard, who was silenced for a period, while the papacy has been slowly warming to evolutionary theory.

Catholic News Service contributed to this report.

"Accepting a how of creation. But the ontological leap, into the spiritual remains a mystery." - [caption under picture of a monkey holding a skull]



November 8, 1996

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The pope's words on evolution are likely to be accepted without much comment by U.S. evangelicals, who have increasingly found common cause with Catholics, according to two veteran evangelical writers.

David Neff, executive editor of Christianity Today, published in Carol Stream, Ill., and J.I. Packer, professor of theology at Regent College, Victoria, British Columbia, said John Paul's statement that evolution is "more than just a theory" would come as no surprise to evangelicals who are familiar with Catholic thought.

While many evangelicals have problems with Darwinian theory, he said, that doesn't mean that all share a fundamentalist interpretation of scripture that omits the possibility of theistic evolution.

Similarly, Charles Colson of Washington, founder of Prison Fellowship and an original signer of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, said he doesn't believe the pope's comments will adversely affect the work that the two groups are doing together.

Among evangelicals on the left, Packer said, the attitude is likely to be one of welcome for the reasonableness of the pope's position and the feeling that this doesn't change anything, because Catholics have been saying this for some time.

While Packer generally agrees with John Paul's comments, he said that the pope's statement "that evolution is more than a theory, implication being that it's a near certainty, is overbold."

In the realm of philosophy of science, Packer said, he sees

to the concept that random mutation produces increased order and value.

Neff, like Packer, noted that


Because this pope is seen as conservative, some evangelicals might have hoped to see him say something else, but what he has said is entirely in keeping with past Roman Catholic pronouncements."