Peter McKnight is a former Templeton-Cambridge fellow in science and religion at the University of Cambridge.
Is the Pope Catholic? You might not think so if you've perused the headlines this week, as Pope Francis, who's been making more news than Justin Bieber of late, set the media abuzz with his supposedly heretical bons mots on evolution and the Big Bang theory.
Cautioning against a literal interpretation of the Bible, the Pope told the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that "evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve." Yet if we read Genesis literally, "we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything." And this image of God-as-Harry-Potter would be idiotic, wouldn't it?
Don't take it from me. Take it from St. Augustine, who, 1,600 years ago, also cautioned against Biblical literalism, particularly about nature, saying it would be "disgraceful and ruinous" for a non-Christian to "hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters." If heresy is what Francis is after, it seems he's come 16 centuries late to the party.
Indeed, throughout history, Christians have recognized that parts of the Bible should be read allegorically, that the creation story in Genesis is just that – a story about the spiritual relationship between God and humanity rather than a literal natural history of the world.
You would think, then, that the Roman Catholic Church is not necessarily opposed to the theory of evolution. And you would be right: Since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, successive popes, including Pius XII and John Paul II, have stressed that evolution does not necessarily conflict with the faith.
So where did we get the idea that Christians demand fidelity to Biblical literalism, that Christianity and evolution must ineluctably collide? Or perhaps I should ask when we got that idea, for, contrary to popular belief, it's of amazingly recent vintage.
Literalism wasn't emphasized until the Protestant Reformation, which began in the 16th century, after more than 1,500 years of Christianity. And the core belief of Young Earth Creationism – that God created the world about 6,000 years ago, more or less in its present form – wasn't firmly established until the mid-17th century, when Anglican Archbishop James Ussher concluded, from a literal reading of the Bible, that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C.
It would take another couple of hundred years, however, before literalism was embraced by Christian communities – primarily American Southern Baptists – and nearly 300 years before creationism would even pretend to be based in science.
Indeed, it wasn't until the 20th century that George McCready Price, a New Brunswick-born Seventh-day Adventist and amateur geologist, tried to provide a scientific basis for Young Earth Creationism. Although his work was savaged by professional geologists of his day, it received a sympathetic hearing in 1961 from Henry Morris, "the father of creation science," who set the stage for the current war between Christianity and evolution.
That war is clearly not inevitable, however, and it's a war few Christians are willing to fight. Recent popes have not seen fit to join that battle, which means that Francis is following in the footsteps of his forebears, rather than leading the church into new and unexplored territory.
Oh, and before I go, I should say a quick word about the Big Bang theory. That theory was first proposed by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian physicist who, in addition to his star-gazing, spent a great deal of time studying the heavens. Like Pope Francis, he was a Jesuit priest.