Pope Francis and Evolution


The media uproar about Francis liberating the Church from creationism and sanctioning evolution has already passed and gone, but the idea has stuck. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that the Church has always taught what Francis said… even Time and the Washington Post got it right, with good articles.

What is interesting to me though, is the fact that Francis is able to get the message out. As distorted as the media narrative may be about Francis revolutionizing Church teaching, the point is that now most people care about what the Pope says. Ratzinger has much better and scholarly reflections on the subject, such as here and here, but fewer people paid attention to the less likable Pope. After the Time article for example, now some people have perhaps heard for the first time what Benedict XVI said about evolution. The smiles, gestures and attitudes of Pope Francis seem to be delivering the message, embodying in a magisterial way McLuhan’s famous phrase about communication “the medium is the message”.

While many people may attribute the change in tone and success of ‘the medium’ to Francis’ personality and charisma, I’d like to suggest that the success of Francis communication and engagement with the world is due to a very intentional and concerted effort – not only charisma. To understand this one must look at Cardinal Bergoglio’s thought, much of which has been reproduced, almost word for word, in Evangelii gaudium. One of Bergoglio’s most beloved sources of inspiration is the Puebla document from the Latin American Conference of Bishops (CELAM). In one of his books he quotes[1]: “If the Church does not reinterpret the religion of… the people, a void will be produced that will be filled by sects, secularized political messianisms, pagan pansexualism and a consumerism that produces tedium and indifference. Once again the Church faces the problem: what it does not assume in Christ is not redeemed and becomes a new idol with the malice of old.”[2]

Infused with the spirit of Vatican II, this passage rests on the premise that human beings are religious by nature and always searching for God. The Church must assume human longings and experiences, however naïve or misguided they may be, and redeem them in Christ[3]. It is the same thing that Francis means when he says in Evangelii guadium that “Where your synthesis is, there your heart will be also.”[4] The ‘synthesis’ is how people make sense of the world; what they have put together amidst the contradictions of life.[5] Faith must reach the real person, their synthesis, from the converted inner synthesis of the apostle. This is the difficult part: only a true, converted heart (synthesis) can point others to Jesus. A faith that is preached, received and practiced as scattered formula’s, ideals and customs is not a real faith and does not last.

What is the synthesis of the world? To answer this, we must turn to Alberto Methol Ferre, a uruguayan thinker who some exaggeratedly call the ‘Pope’s philosopher’, but who nonetheless was an important thinker among other Latin American’s who influenced Bergoglio and other Bishops.  Ferré identifies ‘libertine atheism’ as the greatest enemy of faith in our times: “one cannot redeem libertine atheism’s kernel of truth with an argumentative or dialectical procedure; much less can one do so by setting up prohibitions, raising alarms, dictating abstract rules. Libertine atheism is not an ideology, it is a practice. A practice must be opposed with another practice; a self-aware practice, of course, which means one that is equipped intellectually.”[6] Pope Francis is following this program very carefully by avoiding ideological battles and conflictive statements that can be absorbed into culture war rhetoric. He is rather proposing a positive practice of life; hence the car choice, house choice, clothes choice, kiss the baby, enjoy a mate – faith must engage the entire being. Very creatively and carefully, Pope Francis speaks to the synthesis of the world by giving them simple sound bite versions of doctrinal truths (i.e. “God is not a magician”) and communicates through gesture and symbols rather than elevated lectures. In fact, one could understand Bergoglio’s entire megisterium as an attempt to propose a self-aware practice of Christian life. So far, it seems to be working…

[1] “El Verdadero Poder es el Servicio”, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 314.

[2] Puebla, 469: http://www.celam.org/doc_conferencias/Documento_Conclusivo_Puebla.pdf.

For World Youth Day in Brazil, Pope Francis said pretty much the same thing but in simpler language. He compared the flight of Christians from the Church to the disciples of Emmaus: We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night… of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who… are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning… [We need] persons able to step into the night without being overcome by the darkness and losing their bearings; able to listen to people’s dreams without being seduced and to share their disappointments without losing hope and becoming bitter; able to sympathize with the brokenness of others without losing their own strength and identity.” (Address to the Bishops of Brazil).

[3] We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word… including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others” (EG 167). In short, the Church must engage people where they are at just like Jesus did – the promiscuous woman at the well, Zacheus on the roadside, the disciples of Emmaus in their desolation.

[4] EG, 143. This speech and main ideas of Bergoglio in “El Verdadero Poder es el Servicio” were pretty much copied and pasted into Evangelii gaudium on the theme of homiletics.

[5] In Bergoglio’s words “The vital synthesis, this which is indefinable in words, since it would require them all, this symbolic and living nucleus… is the theological place where the preacher must vitally situate himself. That is to say, the challenge of an inculturated preaching is in evangelizing the synthesis, not scattered ideas or values.” “El Verdadero Poder es el Servicio”

[6] “El Papa y el Filosofo”, Alver Metalli (2010), p. 145-146. This idea is taken from philosopher Augusto del Noce and applied to the Latin American reality by Methol Ferré.

You can read the original text below

You are addressing the highly complex subject of the evolution of the concept of nature. I will not go into the scientific complexity, which you well understand, of this important and crucial question. I only want to underline that God and Christ are walking with us and are also present in nature, as the Apostle Paul stated in his discourse at the Areopagus: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we read the account of Creation in Genesis we risk imagining that God was a magician, complete with an all powerful magic wand. But that was not so. He created beings and he let them develop according to the internal laws with which He endowed each one, that they might develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which He assured them of his continual presence, giving life to every reality. And thus Creation has been progressing for centuries and centuries, millennia and millennia, until becoming as we know it today, precisely because God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives life to all beings. The beginning of the world was not a work of chaos that owes its origin to another, but derives directly from a supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big Bang theory, which is proposed today as the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of a divine creator but depends on it. Evolution in nature does not conflict with the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings who evolve.

As for man, however, there is a change and a novelty. When, on the sixth day in the account of Genesis, comes the moment of the creation of man, God gives the human being another autonomy, an autonomy different from that of nature, which is freedom. And he tells man to give a name to all things and to go forth through history. He makes him the steward of Creation, even that he rule over Creation, that he develop it until the end of time. Therefore the scientist, and especially the approach of the Christian scientist is that of investigating the future of humanity and the earth, and, as a free and responsible being, to contribute to preparing it, to preserve it, and to eliminate any risks to the environment, both natural and manmade. But, at the same time, the scientist must be moved by the conviction that nature, in its evolutionary mechanisms, hides its potential which it leaves for intelligence and freedom to discover and actualize, in order to reach the development that is in the Creator’s design. So then, no matter how limited, the action of man partakes in the power of God and is capable of building a world adapted to his two-fold physical and spiritual life; to build a humane world for all human beings and not only for one group or one privileged class. This hope and trust in God, the Creator of Nature, and in the capacity of the human spirit, are able to give the researcher a new impetus and profound peace. But it is also true that the action of man, when his freedom becomes autonomy — which is not freedom, but autonomy — destroys Creation and man takes the place of the Creator. And this is a grave sin against God the Creator.

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