Oct 28, 2014

The Evolution of the Catholic Church

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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There's a lot about Pope Francis I like. I like that he's shifting the emphasis of the Church toward love, charity, and compassion and away from hate and judgment. I like that he's so outspoken on the issue of economic inequality. I like that he's at least flexible enough on GLBT issues that he apparently supported civil unions in Argentina. I like that he's driving Catholic hardliners crazy by giving tacit approval to a more gay, and divorce tolerant, direction. I don't like that he opposed same sex marriage in Argentina and equated gay adoptions with child abuse, only to make really lackluster efforts on the real child abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

All in all, kind of a mixed bag, but when all's said and done, there's something about his face that makes me feel warm inside. There's an openness and a joy that emanates from Pope Francis that just makes me like him even when I'm disappointed in the lack of substantive progress. I get why the media loves him. He's loveable. I think, however, he's getting credit for radical changes in the Church that just aren't happening.

All day I've been watching stories pour in about how exciting it is that Pope Francis believes in evolution and the big bang. Such breathless headlines ignore the fact that there is nothing radical, revolutionary, or even new in his position. It's squarely in line with Church doctrine.

Said Pope Francis: 

The theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real and God is not “a magician with a magic wand”, Pope Francis has declared.

Speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pope made comments which experts said put an end to the “pseudo theories” of creationism and intelligent design that some argue were encouraged by his predecessor, Benedict XVI.

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In actuality, Catholic doctrine supports both Pope Francis's views and Pope Benedict's reputed inclination toward creationism.

Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that "the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36). So whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are.

While the Church permits belief in either special creation or developmental creation on certain questions, it in no circumstances permits belief in atheistic evolution.

Much of the current Church thinking on evolution was laid out over sixty years ago under Pope Pius XII. The excitement over this relatively banal commentary from His Holiness seems to owe to this tired canard about religion and science being perpetually at loggerheads. Doctrinaire creationism and beliefs in things like a 6,000 year old earth are really the domain of dogmatic fundamentalism, not the Vatican.

While newspapers and bloggers blather ecstatically about sixty year old news, the Church continues to drag its feet on issues that really affect people's lives. There was much confusion and disappointment over what looked at first like meaningful progress on gay tolerance during the recent synod. Like so much under Pope Francis's tenure it wound up being an exercise in feel-good optimism, resulting in almost no forward movement.

Even the threat of gay tolerance sent some Bishops into such a panic that they publicly broke ranks with the pope.

[Archbishop Charles] Chaput is expected to host Pope Francis in Philadelphia next September for a global World Meeting of Families, and his criticisms tracked complaints by other conservatives who were upset with Francis for encouraging a freewheeling discussion among the 190 cardinals and bishops at the Vatican’s two-week Synod on the Family.

The 70-year-old archbishop, who was not part of the Rome summit, made his remarks in response to a question after a lecture event sponsored by the conservative journal First Things.

“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion."

The problem for the Church, though, is that their membership is evolving far more rapidly than the hierarchy. Just as Argentina left Pope Francis behind by legalizing gay marriage, young Catholics here in the US are not in line at all with these angry, frightened bishops. Even older Catholics are more gay tolerant than their peers in the clergy.

Close to 85% of self-identified Catholics between the ages of 18 and 29 believe gays and lesbians should be accepted by society, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. 

These younger Catholics are also supportive of legalizing same-sex marriages, with 75% throwing their weight behind the concept.

The positive attitudes toward homosexuality are less likely to be found among older adults. About 57% of Catholics aged 65 and older told Pew that they believe homosexuality should be accepted.

One way or another the Church will have to adapt or it will go the way of the dinosaurs.

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