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About Man

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1. The Message of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, presented on 22 October 1996 and published in L'Osservatore Romano dated the following day, caused a worldwide sensation. What was most noted by the secular media is the announcement that "new items of knowledge lead to recognizing in the theory of evolution more than an hypothesis" (de nouvelles connaissances conduisent Ð" reconnaÐ"®tre dans la thÐ"©orie de l'Ð"©volution plus qu'une hypothÐ"Ёse). While this statement was greeted with jubilation on the part of evolutionists everywhere, it caused no little dismay and confusion among traditional Catholic believers, who were at a loss to locate it within the context of their belief. It is in the hope of providing such a context that I present this article.

2. The historical background of the Message, as presented in the same 23 October issue of L'Osservatore Romano, can be summarized as follows. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences takes its origin from the Accademia dei Lincei, which was founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi and which counted Galileo Galilei among its first members. It was later made a pontifical academy, In 1870 some of the members split off to form the Italian Accademia dei Lincei, while the rest remained in what was then called the Pontifical Academy of the New Lincei. Pope Pius XI reorganized and relaunched this academy in 1936 as the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and the occasion of the Message of Pope John Paul II which we are studying was the plenary assembly of the members celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of the refounding. The aim of the refounded Academy, as determined by Pope Pius XI, is to "promote the progress of the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences and the study of the epistemological problems related to them," and its purpose is thus to provide to the Holy See scientifically correct information regarding knowledge in these fields. Of the eighty members of the Academy at the time when Pope John Paul II presented this Message, twenty-six were holders of the Nobel Prize. According to the rules of the Academy, new members are chosen by the academic body and appointed for life by the Holy Father "regardless of race or religious creed."

3. The Message is a combination of dialogue and teaching. As regards dialogue, the Pope extends to this assembly of natural scientists a continuing invitation to inform the Holy See "in complete freedom" about developments in scientific research, "certain that we will be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science." The members of the Academy had chosen two themes for discussion during this plenary assembly, the first being "The Origins and Early Evolution of Life," and the other, "Science at the Dawn of the Third Millennium." Pope John Paul proceeds in his Message to express his esteem for both of these discussions as being important areas of concern also for the Church. Regarding the theme of evolution, the Pope begins by noting that "the Magisterium of the Church has already made pronouncements on these matters within the framework of her own competence," of which he here mentions two. a) Pope Pius XII declared in 1950, in his Encyclical Letter Humani generis, "that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of some solid points (quelques points fermes)." 1 b) Pope John Paul II says that he himself "had the opportunity, with regard to Galileo, 2 to draw attention to the need of a rigorous hermeneutic for the correct interpretation of the inspired word," regarding which he went on to say: "it is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own object of study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results at which the natural sciences are arriving."

4. Regarding Humani generis, Pope John Paul notes also in his Message of 1996: "Taking into account the state of scientific research at the time as well as the requirements of theology, the Encyclical Humani generis considered the doctrine of "evolutionism" a serious hypothesis, worthy of in-depth research and reflection on a par with that of the opposing hypothesis (Ð" l'Ð"©gal de l'hypothÐ"Ёse opposÐ"©e). Pius XII added two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain and proved doctrine and as though one could totally prescind from Revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith, a point to which I shall return."

5. Having taken into account these two past interventions of the Magisterium of the Church, Pope John Paul goes on in his Message to declare: "Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical [Humani generis], new items of knowledge lead to recognizing in the theory of evolution more than an hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has progressively established itself in the minds of researchers (se soit progressivement imposÐ"©e Ð" l'esprit des chercheurs), following a series of discoveries in various disciplines of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought after nor provoked, of the results of work that was conducted independently constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory."

6. Pope John Paul then addresses the significance of such a theory. "A theory is a metascientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them. By means of it a collection of independent data and facts can be related and interpreted in a unified explanation. A theory has validity to the extent that it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought. Furthermore, while the formulation of a theory like that of evolution complies with the need for consistency with the observed data, it borrows certain notions from natural philosophy. And, to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the diversity of explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based. Hence the existence of materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist interpretations.



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