Benedict XVI addresses a Vatican conference on evolution and Christianity

Benedict XVI addresses a Vatican conference on evolution and Christianity

Michael Gilchrist

In his address on 6 March, 2009, at a five-day Vatican conference on evolution Benedict XVI affirmed that the world did not emerge out of chaos but was intentionally created by 'the First Being.'

The conference, which involved leading scientists and theologians, was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 3-7 March, and marked the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Its theme was 'Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories. A critical appraisal 150 years after 'The Origin of Species'.'

The conference's science sessions focused on the scientific findings upon which the theory of evolution rests, the scientific study of the mechanisms of evolution and what science has to say about the origin of human beings. The theological sessions considered evolution from the point of view of Christian faith, the basis of a correct exegesis of biblical texts that mention the creation, and the reception of the theory of evolution by the Church.

Scientific evidence

Among the scientists presenting papers was the world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, a professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University. His lecture was titled 'The Origin and Destiny of the Universe.'

Although he has never professed a belief in God, Hawking has never denied the existence of God either. In his 1988 publication, A Brief History of Time, Hawking discussed the possibility of a creator.

In his address, Benedict said there was 'no opposition between faith's understanding of creation and the evidence of the empirical sciences,' as he quoted from Popes Pius XII and John Paul II.

The Creator, he said, was 'not only involved in the origins of the universe but continually sustains the development of life and the world' and 'is the cause of every being and all becoming.'

During the conference, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said there was a 'wide spectrum of room' for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator. While the Vatican did not exclude any area of science, it did reject as 'absurd' the claim of biologist and author Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God.

Pope John Paul II, whom Benedict quoted in his address, had said the following on 22 October 1996 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

'In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points ... Today, more than a half- century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.

'In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly discip- lines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies - which was neither planned nor sought - constitutes in itself a significant argument in favour of the theory.'

However, in the same address, John Paul II rejected any theory of evolution that provides a materialistic explanation for the human soul: 'Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.'

Benedict's own position on evolution was evident prior to the recent Vatican conference.

In 2004, the International Theological Commission, in a statement endorsed by Cardinal Ratzinger, then President of the Commission and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made the following points:

'While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of the first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago.

'Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.'


On 2-3 September 2006, at Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI conducted a seminar examining the theory of evolution and its impact on Catholicism's teaching on creation. The seminar involved the Pope's former PhD students since the 1970s, some of them natural scientists and theologians. Their papers were published in 2007 in a collection titled Creation and Evolution.

In his own contribution Benedict stated that 'the question is not to either make a decision for a creationism that fundamentally excludes science, or for an evolutionary theory that covers over its own gaps and does not want to see the questions that reach beyond the methodological possibilities of natural science.'

He said it was 'important to underline that the theory of evolution implies questions that must be assigned to philosophy and which themselves lead beyond the realms of science.'

Benedict believes there is no incompatibility between faith and reason, or religion and science, and the recent conference on evolution was further evidence of this.

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