The present Pope does a very good job at seeming to say something new, whilst actually saying something very old. I’ve been attempting to write something on this regarding to the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, but that post is taking me longer than usual. In the meantime, someone has pointed me in the direction simpler example of this aspect of his papacy.
Today, over-compensatory-closet-Tory newspaper, The Guardian, reported some comments the Bishop of Rome made about creationism. In a nutshell, he says there is no incompatibility in believing God created the universe and believing the big bang theory and theory of evolution. The Guardian are correct to point out that Popes have been saying this for a while.
Although Francis was packaging the ideas with his trademark eye for a soundbite, the content of what he was saying does not mark a break with Catholic teaching, which has modified considerably since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859.
On the one hand, I’m glad they have not taken the sensationalist reading that usually happens when Church figures saying this sort of thing, but on the other they have grossly underestimated how far back the criticism of Biblical literalism, especially with regard to the creation myths, actually goes. Even Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), practically the Alpha and Omega of Church Doctrine, argued that the Bible cannot and should not be taken as literally true, citing the story of Adam and Eve as an example of an absurdity; Genesis claims God walked in the Garden of Eden, something Aquinas argued was outright impossible because God doesn’t have legs.
In fact, believing the creation myths to be literally true is an exclusively protestant affair, theologically speaking. The battles the Church had with scientists, such as the persecution of Galileo, had nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with power. While science has never been a theoretical threat to Christianity, it was a huge political threat because it opened up a domain of technology and knowledge that was not under Imperial Church control. The few hundred years since the development of modern science have seen a radical and just transfer of power from religious to secular institutions. Once upon a time, the most important and sophisticated piece of technology in a village would have been the clock on the church tower, and the most educated person the parish priest. Today, in the UK anyway, everyone has a super computer in their pocket that, if they didn’t bother to pay attention in their considerably comprehensive state funded education, can relay almost any piece of knowledge in a few seconds. The corrupt Church saw this coming and wanted to keep its power over people so it started oppressing science. Thus, it was Christianity’s compatibility with science and lack of a religious barrier to scientific development that lead to the attempt to suppress it, not the opposite.
What The Guardian have missed, however, is that there actually is a development here. Three Popes (Francis included) have made a major proclamation on this issue. The first is Pope Pius XII. In Humani Generis (1950), he effectively argues that there is no incompatibility between evolution and Catholicism. However, he does not go beyond formal incompatibility. In 1996, John Paul II goes further and actually almost reaches the point of saying that Christians should actively believe in evolution, not merely stand back and say it is not incompatible1.
Although we are talking about a couple of soundbites and not a theological treatise, Francis does seem to have gone even further than JPII; he is actively attacking creationism.
“When we read the creation story in Genesis we run the risk of imagining that God was a magician, with a magic wand which is able to do everything,” he said. “But it is not so. He created beings and let them develop according to internal laws which He gave every one, so they would develop, so they would reach maturity.”
This, to my mind anyway, is a thinly veiled dig at the literalists who deny evolution on biblical grounds. You know who I mean: the people who think that fossils are there to faithful. The people who think that “intelligent design” should be taught in science classes. The people who think that there simply isn’t enough evidence for evolution. The people who think that God popped the world into existence. For Francis, these people treat God as a magician with a magic wand—”But it is not so.” For Francis, these people are reducing the second most important event in Christian history, the moment of creation, to a parlour trick. In other words, a pope of the Catholic Church has just called creationists a bunch of heretics.
To speak more broadly about the types of things that Francis has been saying and doing, he is clearly no revolutionary. He’s a conservative. And yet, out of that conservatism, he is able to attack the “right” of Christianity. This is because his conservatism isn’t an ideology to justify the bigotry of the elite, nor is it an attempt to maintain the status quo. It is about the recollection of what the church was supposed to be like, before it became an empire, lost that empire, and fell into a historically deaf, nihilistic and capitalistic age of pseudo-equality, reinterpreting its task as talking about how great the 1950s were.
The Church is old, very old. So old that even its teachings that are usually associated with political conservatism are relatively new (it is over ten times older than capitalism, for example). To me, Francis’ tactic for Church reform is not to introduce something new, but to remind the Church of its ancient past: to bring it back to an older, more inclusive and doctrinally ambiguous version of itself prior to its contamination by the Ancient Greek tradition, Roman imperialism, and global capitalism. He probably does not go far enough, and I’m not sure it will work. But, if Christianity were to return to its original essence, it would open another beginning for the Church and its followers. I mean, imagine if Christians started helping people instead of judging people?
Oh wait, they voted against that. Nevermind.
1 The best thing I’ve read on this is in Steven Jay Gould’s the section ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ in Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. This used section used to be available free online, but the website seems to have gone down.