Decoding the Vatican

  • Popes, evolution and the Big Bang

    Pope Francis recently said evolution and the Big Bang theory can be compatible with faith in God – a statement that was hardly new, but predictably made news.

    The idea that evolution and a divine creator are not mutually exclusive has long been found in the teachings of popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII and his 1950 encyclical, “Humani Generis.” Even so, the mere mention of the word “evolution” by a pope can set off alarm bells. I remember that when Pope John Paul II said in 1996 that evolution was “more than a hypothesis” and had been widely accepted by scientists, some Catholics simply couldn't believe it.

    Perhaps the most complete treatment of evolution came in a 2004 document published by the International Theological Commission, which said evolution makes sense – but only because “God made it so.” That document accepted the basic science behind evolution: that the universe was born 15 billion years ago in a “big bang,” that the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, that all living organisms on earth descended from a first organism and that man emerged about 40,000 years ago with the development of a larger brain.

    A historical footnote is that the man usually credited as the “father” of the Big Bang theory was a Belgian Catholic priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaitre, who was also an astronomer and physics professor. Lemaitre’s ideas were enthusiastically embraced by Pope Pius XII, who had a keen interest in cosmology and who knew Lemaitre through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In speeches to the academy, in fact, Pius XII seemed to endorse the Big Bang precisely because he thought it offered scientific evidence of the divine creation of the universe – a “Let there be light” moment. According to contemporaries, after a papal speech along those lines in 1951, Lemaitre spoke with the pope and asked him to stay away from theological endorsements of scientific theories – and Pius took his advice to heart.

     

  • Open talk, frank debate at the Vatican -- from way back

    The archbishop minced no words in criticizing the draft document:

    I must speak plainly. This document is going to dash the hopes of everyone who has been awaiting it. Its authors do not seem to realize even to whom the message should be directed. Here is an example of their way of writing: “Christians,” they say, “are ready to engage in a dialogue with all men of good will.” But surely this is a pointless thing to say.

    We must protect the authority of the teaching Church. It is of no avail to talk about a college of bishops if specialists in articles, books and speeches contradict and pour scorn on what a body of bishops teaches.

    No, this is not a leaked intervention from the recent Synod of Bishops on the family. It's one of many speeches delivered during the Second Vatican Council, and which are now being published on Catholic News Service's fascinating blog "Vatican II: 50 Years Ago Today."

    Just as at the recent synod, it's apparent that candid and critical talk flowed freely during Vatican II, especially when it came time to revise the proposed documents. The quotes above came from a speech delivered by Archbishop John C. Heenan of Westminster, England, on the schema of the Church in the modern world.

    At one point, Archbishop Heenan zeroed in on an issue that was making waves throughout the Catholic world:

    Everyone knows that doctors all over the world are busily trying to produce a satisfactory contraceptive pill. This special kind of pill is to be a panacea to solve all sexual problems between husbands and wives. Neither the treatise itself nor the supplements hesitate to prophesy that such a pill is just around the corner. Meanwhile, it is said, married couples and they alone must decide what is right and wrong. Everyone must be his own judge. But, the document adds, the couple must act according to the teaching of the Church. But this is precisely what married people want to be told — what is now the teaching of the Church? To this question our document gives no reply. For that very reason it could provide an argument from our silence to theologians after the council who wish to attack sound doctrine.

    Heenan was among a group of conservative council fathers who worried that the church's "opening to the world" was making too many doctrinal concessions. Today, that same debate continues...



  • Vatican condemns terrorism of Islamic State, rejects war as solution

    The Vatican summit today on the Middle East heard a strong call to protect Christian minorities, but also a strong rejection of war as a solution to the situation in Syria and Iraq.

    Pope Francis denounced what he called “terrorism on a scale that previously was unimaginable.”

    The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was more specific, condemning Islamic State fundamentalists for “unprecedented atrocities.” He also said Muslim leaders have a responsibility to publicly denounce the goals and activities of the so-called Islamic State. More broadly, Parolin said the separation of religion and state was an idea that should be developed in the Muslim world.

    Parolin directly addressed the question of “the use of force to stop aggression and to protect Christians and other groups that are victims of persecution.” He said action to stop unjust aggression was legitimate, but needed to be carried out “in respect of international law.”

    “Nevertheless, it is clearly seen that one cannot entrust the resolution of the problem to a solely military response. The problem needs to be faced more profoundly, starting with the causes that are at its origin and that are exploited by the fundamentalist ideology. As far as the so-called Islamic State is concerned, attention should also be given to the sources that support its terrorist activities through more or less clear political backing, as well as through the illegal commerce of oil and the furnishing of arms and technology,” he said.

    There’s also a very important line in Parolin’s speech aimed at the local church leaders in the Middle East, regarding political arrangements with governing authorities. The leaders of the small Christian flocks, he said, are called on to cooperate with Muslims and act as peace-builders, “without ceding to the temptation of seeking protection or defense by political or military authorities of the day, in order to ‘guarantee’ their own survival.”

    Here are a few other important passages (my translation, and my emphases) of the wide-ranging address by Cardinal Parolin to the one-day meeting of cardinals and patriarchs:

    "We have listened with emotion and great concern to the testimony about unprecedented atrocities perpetrated by more than one party in the region, but in particular by the fundamentalists of the group that calls itself the Islamic State, an entity that violates law and adopts terroristic methods in an effort to expand its power: mass killings, decapitations of persons who think differently, the sale of women, enrollment of children in combat, and destruction of places of worship."

    ...

    "In the concrete case of the so-called Islamic State, a particular responsibility falls on Muslim leaders, not only to distance themselves from the pretension of calling itself 'Islamic State' and forming a caliphate, but also to condemn more generally the killing of a person for religious reasons...."

    "Faced with the present challenges, attention must go to the roots of the problems, recognize also the errors of the past and try to favor a future of peace and development for the region, focusing on the good of the person and the common good. Experience has demonstrated that the choice of war, instead of dialogue and negotiation, multiplies the suffering of the entire population of the Middle East. The way of violence only leads to destruction; the way of peace leads to hope and progress. The first urgent step for the good of the population of Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East is to put down the weapons and to dialogue."

    "In the specific case of violations and abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State, the international community, through the United Nations and the structures established for such emergencies, should take action in order to prevent possible new acts of genocide and to assist the numerous refugees. It seems opportune that the states in the region be directly involved, together with the rest of the international community, in the actions to be undertaken, with the awareness that this is not a matter of protecting a particular religious community or a particular ethnic group, but persons who are part of the human family and whose fundamental rights are being systematically violated."

     

RSS Feed

John Thavis

John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is known in the trade as a “Vaticanista,” a calling that became clear only after a circuitous career path.

Read more about John 

Media

John Thavis was in Rome during the recent papal resignation and conclave, and is available to media for interviews about the pope and the Vatican.

See what's happening now!