Sunday, April 09, 2023

Pope John Paul II on Darwinian Evolution and the Spiritual Soul: Did He Resolve the Reason/Revelation Debate?

Easter Sunday should prompt us to think about the miracle of resurrection in the reason/revelation debate.  Can the Biblical revelation of the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of human beings to eternal life in Heaven or Hell be defended against the charge from natural reason that this is an irrational belief that denies what we know about natural human mortality?  Does the Darwinian evolutionary science of human life deny the truth of this religious belief in immortality?  Or can we see that the scientific truth of the evolution of the mortal human body and the religious truth of the immortal human soul belong to two separate spheres of human knowledge--science and faith--and that neither can refute the other?  Does the unique dignity of human personhood as set apart from and above other animal life depend on the special divine creation of human beings ("in the image of God") as having a spiritual soul that is immortal?  Can evolutionary science explain this religious belief in the spirituality and immortality of the soul?  Or does this belief show a human experience of revelation that cannot be explained by evolutionary science?  Does this show an irreconcilable conflict between the Bible and Darwinian evolution?

In the previous posts, we have seen how Galileo tried to reconcile the apparent conflict between the Bible and the science of astronomy by saying that "the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to Heaven and not how heaven goes."  And we have seen how Pope John Paul II accepted Galileo's solution to the problem.  

But then the Pope had to show how this solution could apply to the apparent conflict between Biblical creationism and Darwinian evolution.  If the Bible teaches us "how to go to Heaven" by teaching us that our souls can be resurrected to eternal life in Heaven, can that Biblical teaching about the immortality of the human soul be reconciled with the scientific teaching that human life originated through the same natural evolutionary process that has shaped the mortal existence of all animal life?

In 1996, the Pope delivered an Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Academy's refoundation.  This was called a "refoundation" because the Academy claims that its founding by Pope Pius XI in 1936 was actually a renewal of the Academy of the Lynxes founded in Florence in 1603 by Federico Cesi, which was one of the earliest modern learned academy for the promotion of research in natural science and mathematics.  They were called "lynxes" because the luminescence of the lynx's reflective eyes was associated with enlightened vision into the world.  Remarkably, its most prominent member was Galileo.

The Pope's speech in 1996 was on "The Origins and Early Evolution of Life."  He began by noting that the "Magisterium of the Church" had already made two pronouncements on this topic.  ("Magisterium" refers to the teaching authority of the Church, particularly in its authoritative teaching about how the Holy Spirit interprets the Bible.)  The first pronouncement was the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) from Pope Pius XII.  The second was Pope John Paul's own speech to the Academy in 1992 rehabilitating Galileo.

We might say that having rehabilitated Galileo, the Pope now had to rehabilitate Darwin.  These cases do differ, however, in that while Galileo was formally condemned by the Inquisition, and his Dialogue was put on the Index of Prohibited Books, Darwin had never been formally condemned by the Church, and his books were never prohibited.  And yet we do know now that beginning at the end of the nineteenth century, some Church authorities secretly condemned some priests for teaching that evolution was compatible with the Bible--for example, John Zahm's book Evolution and Dogma (1896).  But there was never a public condemnation.  This suggests that the Church authorities had learned their lesson with the Galileo affair, and so they were reluctant to make the same mistake with Darwin.

In Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII had made two claims about the theory of human evolution.  First, he claimed that this theory "has not been fully proved," and therefore it was only a "hypothesis" or a "conjectural opinion" that might someday be disproven (secs. 5, 35).  Notice how similar this is to the Inquisition's assertion that the Copernican system was only a "hypothesis" that was opposed to the "hypothesis" of the Ptolemaic system.

The second claim was that even if the Church took seriously the hypothesis of evolution "in as far as it enquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter," the Church must affirm that "the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" (sec. 36).

Pope John Paul disagreed with the first point but agreed with the second.  Against the first point, the Pope saw that now the theory of evolution is "more than a hypothesis":  "Today, almost half a century after the publication of the Encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.  It is indeed remarkable tht this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.  The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory" (sec. 4).

The phrase "more than a hypothesis" is the correct English translation of the original French version of the Pope's speech.  The first English version published by the Vatican mistakenly translated this as "more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution."  The Vatican's news service corrected this mistake a few weeks after issuing the first version.

That evolution was "more than a hypothesis" because it was a well-confirmed theory is the message that that was proclaimed in the front-page newspaper stories around the world: the Catholic Church now accepts the truth of Darwinian evolution!  Many scientists welcomed this news.  But many fundamentalist creationists and proponents of "intelligent design theory" vehemently criticized the Pope for adopting theistic evolution and rejecting the literal reading of the Bible's account of God's creation of human beings.

There was much less public attention given to Pope John Paul's crucial point of agreement with Pope Pius XII, which seemingly weakened the Church's endorsement of the Darwinian theory of human evolution.  Pope John Paul agreed that even if Darwinian science explains the natural evolution of the human body without any miraculous intervention by God, the Christian must believe that the human soul requires special divine creation: "if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God."  Consequently, "theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.  Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person."  The human soul requires an "ontological leap" or "ontological discontinuity" that runs counter to the "physical continuity" assumed in evolutionary science (secs. 5-6).  (Here the Pope seemed to adopt John Zahm's thinking, which originally was developed by George Jackson Mivart.)

The Pope went on to explain:

". . . Consideration of the method used in the various branches of knowledge makes it possible to reconcile two points of view which would seem irreconcilable.  The sciences of observation describe and measure the multiple manifestations of life with increasing precision and correlate them with the timeline.  The moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the experimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being.  But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and self-reflection, of moral conscience, freedom, or again, of aesthetic and religious experience, falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator's plans" (sec. 6).

There are six problems with the Pope's assertions here.  The first one is that while he speaks of "the moment of transition to the spiritual," he does not precisely locate that moment of transition.  Did it happen at some point in hominid evolution?  Did God miraculously intervene in the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens to implant a spiritual soul in the human brain that could then be passed on by genetic inheritance to all human beings?  Or does God have to intervene in the embryological development of each human individual to implant a soul?  In some previous posts, I have considered the medieval debate over whether the human soul can be transmitted through semen.  Does the Pope believe that God must infuse a supernatural soul at some point in a woman's pregnancy?

The second problem is that while the Pope seems to say that the divine creation of the soul is not open to empirical observation, he also says there are "valuable signs" that might be observable.  Could paleontologists look for these "valuable signs" in the record of hominid evolution?  Or could embryologists look for signs of ensoulment in the process of gestation?

A third problem is that the Pope says nothing about the possibility that evolutionary scientists could explain the evolutionary emergence of the soul in the brain.  Why not say that the human soul is uniquely human because of the 16 billion neurons in the human cerebral cortex?  And why couldn't God have used the natural evolutionary process to create that increase in neurons over a critical threshold that produced the humanly unique mental capacities of human beings?  Or is the Pope saying that God was unable or unwilling to work through natural evolution in this way?

A fourth problem is that the Pope identifies religious belief as an expression of the spiritual soul, but he does not consider how evolutionary psychology could explain that natural human propensity to religious belief, perhaps as one manifestation of the uniquely human evolved capacity for symbolism--for imagining symbolic worlds that might include Heaven and Hell.

The fifth problem for the Pope is that he claims to exercise the Teaching Authority (the Magisterium) of the Church in interpreting Biblical revelation as guided by the Holy Spirit.  But it seems that the Holy Spirit has failed to guide Christians to agreement about that Biblical revelation as it applies to the creation/evolution debate and other issues concerning the relationship between science and religion.  After all, the members of the Inquisition in 1633 thought they were being guided by the Holy Spirit in condemning Galileo; but then the Pope in 1992 thought the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that they were mistaken.

In John, chapter 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  It seems that Christians were to give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation as guided by the Holy Spirit.  But the Holy Spirit has failed to do that.  When devout Christians strive to reach agreement in how they interpret the meaning of the Bible as applied to modern science, they fail.

The final problem for the Pope is that he seems to separate science and religion as belonging to two different realms of knowledge or experience that never intersect.  Indeed, Stephen Jay Gould interpreted the Pope's speech in 1996 as supporting Gould's idea of "nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA): the magisterium of science teaches us about the factual reality of the natural universe, while the magisterium of religion teaches us about the transcendent reality of the supernatural realm, and neither should interfere with the other.  But I agree with Richard Dawkins in his argument that these two realms must inevitably intersect, because "religion makes existence claims, and this means scientific claims."  Dawkins observes: "A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without."  And so, in a universe in which God supernaturally creates spiritual souls and miraculously implants those souls into human brains should manifest observable evidence of those "ontological leaps."  

For that reason, there is a long history of debating the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of human souls.  I do concede, however, that such debates between reason and revelation might be unresolvable in that neither side can truly refute the other.


Dawkins, Richard. 1997. "Obscurantism to the Rescue." Quarterly Review of Biology 72 (December): 397-99.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Natural History 106 (March): 16-22, 60-62.

John Paul II. 1997.  "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences." Quarterly Review of Biology 72 (December): 381-83.

Pontifical Academy of Sciences. 2004. The Four-Hundredth Anniversary of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 1603-2003.  Vatican City: The Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

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