Belief in evolution is strengthened by support from religious authorities, ranging from two recent Roman Catholic popes to an array of mainline protestant clergy. In a culture where celebrities endorse commercial products and presidential candidates, we may wonder whether endorsements of a controversial theory like evolution by religious figures are effective. Discussions on this topic may rival the intensity of political exchanges.
Pope Pius XII, in his 1950 Humani Generis encyclical, stated, “The Teaching Authority of the church does not forbid that…research and discussion…take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution.” He added a clear caveat, however, saying, “The Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” Pope John Paul II went much farther in 1996, addressing the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, stating, “The theory of evolution is much more than a hypothesis.” He cited its progressive acceptance by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The pope said such convergence “is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory,” but reiterated the fact that “the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.”
Why did Pope John Paul II encourage the faithful to accept the theory of evolution? Because the community of science professionals had accepted it. What had they accepted, we may ask? The pope continued: “A theory is a metascientific elaboration distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a series of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation.” He went on to say that verification and testing of the theory continues. Pope John Paul II spoke of a “spiritual soul” to set man uniquely apart, but believed man’s physical body evolved from lower life forms.
Catholics, therefore, have two levels of support for belief in molecules to man evolution: (1) The pope’s reminder that secular scientists have accepted the “metascientific elaboration” known as the theory of evolution; and (2) His sanction of the theory. These support structures should not prevent the thinking Christian from a critical scriptural and scientific truth search concerning the origin of earth’s remarkable life forms, especially man in the Image of God.