Every time the words “Pope Francis” come up in the news, I brace myself. “What are people saying about him now?” Almost always, I’ll see a clickbait headline like “Pope Francis in Favor of Homosexuality,” then I’ll read what Pope Francis said, and it’s something like “We need to show God’s love to homosexuals. They are also made in God’s image.” It’s ridiculous really. You scroll down to the comment section, and people have run headlong into battle armed with nothing but the headline, and they haven’t even read the article. Not that it would make that much of a difference if they had read the article.
Case in point: today with all the “Pope Francis is an evolutionist” articles. Apparently, according to Drudge, “Pope says evolution ‘not inconsistent’ with creation.” That makes it seem like Pope Francis is taking a theistic evolution standpoint and rejecting “orthodox” Creationism. But that’s not exactly what he’s doing. Or what he said.
Or how about this one from the Daily Mail:
The Big Bang, which scientists believe led to the formation of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, was all part of God’s plan, Pope Francis has declared.
But, again, that’s not actually what Pope Francis declared.
Another article was even more misleading. Its title was “Pope Francis Says Genesis Account of Creation Isn’t True.” The article went on in that vein, quoting directly from the aforementioned Daily Mail article with little further explanation:
The Catholic Church no longer teaches creationism — the belief that God created the world in six days – and says that the account in the book of Genesis is an allegory for the way God created the world.
But that’s not what Pope Francis said either. If you look at his words, you find that they are far more nuanced and far less newsworthy. And they don’t say anything about an allegorical reading of Genesis, though that wouldn’t be news really. Even the renowned Augustine recommended an allegorical reading of Genesis. Ironically, Pope Francis’s comments actually move away from that traditional Catholic mode of interpretation to a more historical approach to Genesis.
So what exactly did Pope Francis say? It took me a while to find a copy of his words in context, actually. My Google search kept providing links to English websites that merely excerpted his comments, with a bunch of very misleading commentary filling in the gaps. But according to the official English translation of his comments on the Vatican’s own site, Pope Francis said far more (and far less) than he is accused of. I’ll quote him at length so you can get a better context for his comments:
When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magus, with a magic wand able to make everything. But it is not so. He created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive [at] their fullness of being. He gave autonomy to the beings of the Universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a conjurer, but the Creator who gives being to all things. The beginning of the world is not the work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Origin that creates out of love. The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it. The evolution of nature does not contrast with the notion of Creation, as evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.
With regard to man, instead, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy that is different to that of nature, which is freedom. And he tells man to name everything and to go ahead through history. This makes him responsible for creation, so that he might dominate it in order to develop it until the end of time. Therefore the scientist, and above all the Christian scientist, must adopt the approach of posing questions regarding the future of humanity and of the earth, and, of being free and responsible, helping to prepare it and preserve it, to eliminate risks to the environment of both a natural and human nature. But, at the same time, the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realise, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the Creator. So, while limited, the action of humanity is part of God’s power and is able to build a world suited to his dual corporal and spiritual life; to build a human world for all human beings and not for a group or a class of privileged persons. This hope and trust in God, the Creator of nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit can offer the researcher a new energy and profound serenity. But it is also true that the action of humanity – when freedom becomes autonomy – which is not freedom, but autonomy – destroys creation and man takes the place of the Creator. And this is the grave sin against God the Creator.
Now I know that is a big quote, but I want it all up there for reference and you should definitely read the whole thing. So, let’s look at what Pope Francis actually said on the Big Bang, evolution, and the Genesis account, in that order.
Pope Francis and the Big Bang
The Big Bang, which nowadays is posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creating, but rather requires it.
Does that presuppose 13.8 billion years—as the Daily Mail article implies? No. Not at all. It actually doesn’t even necessarily endorse the Big Bang theory at all—it merely states the Big Bang is the theory du jour. Pope Francis is merely saying, as I’ve written elsewhere at great length, that the Big Bang actually reinforces the idea that:
1. The universe had a starting point (implying creative intervention).
And the inflationary model for the Big Bang further implies that:
2. The universe’s current dimensions could have been attained in seconds, not billions of years.
3. The quick non-linear expansion of time and space in the Big Bang makes the “distant starlight” problem seem like the clunkiest of Newtonian objections.
Pope Francis said nothing here that indicates he fully adheres to all the prevailing scientific ideas about the Big Bang. He is merely stating that even the idea of the Big Bang requires intervention and creation because it presupposes a starting point. I see no real cause for concern there. Especially when you look at Pope Francis’s timeframe for “evolution”—thousands, not millions, of years.
Pope Francis and Evolution
“Evolution” is a loaded and inadequately delimited word. It can mean any number of things (general change over time, transformation, adaptation within kinds, development of all living things from inanimate matter, etc.), and I am positive that when Pope Francis used it, he did not mean by it what many people are saying he meant. Why do I think that?
He presupposes creation. He says that God created the universe with internal laws, some of which are evolutionary mechanisms. That’s absolutely true. Natural selection, also known as micro-evolution, definitely falls in this category. Notice how carefully he worded his comments:
[God] created beings and allowed them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave to each one, so that they were able to develop and to arrive [at] their fullness of being. He gave autonomy to the beings of the Universe at the same time at which he assured them of his continuous presence, giving being to every reality. And so creation continued for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until it became which we know today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a conjurer, but the Creator who gives being to all things.
This doesn’t mean the Genesis account of creation is incorrect. It means that God is not a Deist clockmaker. His continual presence with His creation is part of the creative process and that process of development has continued over millennia through the internal laws and mechanisms God implanted in his creation to give it some degree of independence. Creation and evolution (in terms of relatively autonomous adaptation) work together synergistically, according to Pope Francis, because of the paradox of God’s continual presence coupled with God’s offer of freedom. This freedom was granted to creation first in self-perpetuating adaptive mechanisms, and then in a special way to humans as a distinct will.
It seems Pope Francis is much more interested in this interplay between God’s sovereign creative will and the universe’s adaptive autonomy than he is in any actual questions of science.
But do take notice he did not say anything about millions of years. He said centuries and millennia. As in hundreds or thousands of years. Not millions and billions of years. That is very important, don’t you think? Whether it concerns the Big Bang or evolution, the “billions of years” time frame is really the biggest problem biblically speaking. Pope Francis not once endorsed that time frame. In quite a clever and inclusive way, he actually rejected it.
Again, he recognizes (as all orthodox believers for all of time have recognized), the adaptive capacities of living things. But that isn’t news. Without natural selection and adaptive speciation, how do Christians explain how the current variety of species could have arisen in such a short time from two of every kind from the Ark? Or how all the races could come from just one pair of humans? That is evolution, both in terms of change over time and adaptation within kinds. But it is not the millions (or billions) of years “goo to you” evolution Pope Francis is being accused of believing.
The point is that none of Pope Francis’s comments necessarily contradict an orthodox reading of Genesis. And speaking of Genesis…
Pope Francis and the Genesis Account
Did Pope Francis reject the Genesis account as a true history? No, he didn’t. And it really annoys me that people said he did just by cherry-picking some of his comments pre-loaded with the false witness of inflammatory news-generating danderfluff. Let’s look at his comments more closely.
First he says this:
When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining God as a magus, with a magic wand able to make everything. But it is not so.
Notice what he did not say. He did not say what the Daily Mail (again with the Daily Mail … go away, Daily Mail) wrote:
Reading Genesis we imagine that God is “a wizard with a magic wand” capable of doing all things, he said.
Seriously, how do those people sleep at night? That is not what he said. He said we risk imagining God as a wizard. In other words, we could misread or misunderstand Genesis. He did not say: “The Genesis account is wrong since the Genesis account says God created like a wizard.” All he said was that when we read the account in Genesis, we risk imagining God as a wizard simply because Genesis makes no pretense to tell us the mechanism of God’s creation. Since Genesis does not explicitly state the mechanism of God’s creation, we risk assuming that there was none.
Pope Francis says God is not a divine sorcerer or conjurer, but that he used mechanisms and processes to create. And we can reveal some of those processes through scientific research. That is a very orthodox view actually, and I see really no reason to fault him for it. He’s not rejecting the miraculous power of ex nihilo creation. He is merely stating that the action of that miracle, especially after God’s first creative act, is sensical, sensible, and historical.
If you accept the Big Bang as a scientific idea but reject its time frame, it corroborates the Genesis account. If you accept natural selection, but reject the macro-evolutionary model and, again, the evolutionary time frame, again, you corroborate the Genesis account. Are you sensing a pattern here?
So, contrary to what all the bloggers are saying, Pope Francis does not reject the historicity or truth of the Genesis account. In fact, no one wants to mention what he goes on to say later:
When, on the sixth day of the account in Genesis, man is created, God gives the human being another autonomy…
So, Pope Francis does believe the Genesis account of Creation? Even to the point of referencing its days quite matter of factly? Interesting. Why am I not surprised that no one took the time to actually read what he said and think about what he actually meant?
It seems to me that the blogosphere has again misrepresented Pope Francis. Surely, the Pope chooses his words carefully in order to bring people together, both in the church and outside of it, rather than cause more division. And for that, I applaud him. There are times when his inclusive language seems to contradict orthodoxy, but I think it is important to actually hear what a person has said, rather than taking the media’s word for it.
Pope Francis is paradoxically one of the most unifying and divisive popes in recent history. But I would say most of the division comes from other people who, sometimes intentionally, misunderstand and misrepresent what he is saying. And, just to be clear, I am not a Catholic. It just pains me to see so much misrepresentation of what appears to be a rather gentle and humble man.