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Evolution Is 'More Than Just a Theory,' Pope Declares

October 25, 1996|LAURIE GOODSTEIN | THE WASHINGTON POST

Pope John Paul II issued a statement this week saying new research shows that physical evolution is "more than just a theory," a significant step beyond the Catholic Church's pronouncement nearly 50 years ago that evolution was worthy of discussion but still an open question.

The pope nevertheless said the human soul is divinely created anew in each person, and not subject to the evolutionary process. Any other teaching, he said, is "incompatible with the truth about man."

His statement is not likely to shake many in his own church, which has long assumed the credibility of evolution and taught it in Catholic schools. But it may rattle some non-Catholic biblical fundamentalists who believe in creationism and have respected this pope for his traditionalist reputation.

The pope's message was made public Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a group of eminent scholars--many of them Nobel Prize winners and non-Catholics--who meet annually at the Vatican to advise the church on scientific affairs. Their topic for this meeting was the origin of life and evolution.

Throughout his papacy, John Paul has sought to reconcile science and faith. Four years ago, he declared that the church had erred in condemning Galileo Galilei as a heretic in 1633 for contending that the Earth was not the center of the universe, contrary to church teaching at the time.

When English naturalist Charles Darwin first publicized his theory of evolution in 1859, he was met with outrage by theologians and others who believed that the Book of Genesis laid out the literal truth that God created Adam and Eve and the rest of the world in six days. Now, few mainstream Catholic or Protestant theologians find a contradiction in accepting both the biblical account and the evolutionary theory of natural selection and adaptation of the species.

"Evolution is perfectly compatible with the Catholic faith," said Jude P. Dougherty, dean of the school of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. "The statement is one [the pope] could have made when he was a full professor at Lublin [a Catholic university in Poland] 30 or 40 years ago."

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