The Pope's Big Bang

The Pope's Big Bang
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Pope Francis made recently waves for articulating before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences an utterly uncontroversial view: Catholic theology does not reject the biological theory of evolution through natural selection nor the Big Bang theory. Pope Francis was not the first pope to articulate this view, either.

The hounds of befoggery nevertheless came unchained. One story has it that Pope Francis "trashed the Bible's version of creation." The Washington Post, in what is intended as a deflationary account, incomprehensibly likens Pope Francis's position to the Enlightenment idea of the clockmaker God. NBC, meanwhile, described Pope Francis's remarks as a "theological break from his predecessor Benedict XVI, a strong exponent [sic] of creationism." It may be too exacting a standard to expect NBC to grasp the ancient intricacies of how Catholic theology is promulgated (hint: an address to the Pontifical Academy does not have the binding power of an encyclical), but to saddle Pope Francis' predecessor with "creationism" is another matter.

If by creationism NBC means the theological view that God created man (and, well, everything), then it should be attributed without ceremony to Pope Benedict XVI and his successor (and indeed to all popes and all believers). If, however, by creationism NBC intends the belief that the Biblical account of creation is literally true, then it should not be attributed to any modern Pope (in fact, Augustine rejected this view in the 4th century). And that is hardly news.

Pope Pius XII's 1950 encyclical, though more reticent than John Paul II's address, outlines the canonical Catholic view that the scientific explanation of man's material being via evolution through natural selection is compatible with the theological doctrine of creation. The Big Bang, meanwhile, far from being a problem for Catholicism, was first proposed by a Catholic priest: Georges Lemaître.

A few media outlets, notably Time, have emphasized as much, while the comparatively recherché New Republic has published a case study in mystification penned by the noted "new atheist" Jerry Coyne. Coyne concedes that Pope Francis "appears to be a voice of modernity," but "parses" the pontiff's words only to find "tinges" of pre-modern creationism. But if we parse Coyne's words we find tinges of the same confusion that plagues the NBC story.

What does Coyne mean by "creationism"? Apparently the idea, supposedly endorsed by the Catholic Church, that God intervenes "to produce a species made in His own image." But of course this is precisely the view of creation that Pope Francis was "trashing" (as one article puts it). God, according to Catholic theology, does not "intervene" into or tinker with the process of evolution in the sense that an artisan tinkers with his creation. God is not a tinkerer, even one with a "magic wand." God is, rather, the source of all being, which is governed by its own "internal" and natural laws. These latter may be probabilistic, deterministic, or whatever the latest natural scientific theory indicates.

In this sense, Pope Francis' linking evolution to the Big Bang was not haphazard. Both theories provide naturalistic explanations of our origins: the first of biological, the second of physical, phenomena. But neither confirms nor disconfirms theological creation. As philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued over 300 years ago (and I pointed out in a piece on theology, evolution, and the Big Bang last summer), the conception of God as constantly "tinkering" in creation has theologically untoward implications.

A tinkering God is no better -- and possibly worse -- than a human watchmaker. The latter, at least, does not need to intervene constantly in his creation. A supremely wise, powerful, and benevolent God, by contrast, will create the most perfect universe possible -- not a defective one in need of tinkering. Of course, such a God does not stand passively outside creation, according to Leibniz (or scholastic theology for that matter). God is, rather, the sustaining cause of his perfect creation. More importantly still, Leibniz argued, to posit God as the cause of natural phenomena (e.g., as guiding evolution or intervening in cosmological development) is to mistake God for a natural cause. But the God of traditional Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought is, on the contrary, the transcendent cause of nature, not one cause among many.

To be sure, as Pope Francis emphasizes, natural phenomena, such as the Big Bang, "require" divine intervention in some sense. But so too does a big sneeze. If God is the source of all being, then all beings, from Big Bangs and fossils, to genes and sneezes, depend upon, presuppose, and imperfectly reflect the divine creator. Audaciously enough, however, Coyne accuses Pope Francis of equivocating in his use of the word ‘creation.' The pontiff, we are told, might mean "God's creation of the Universe through the Big Bang," or God's creation of "the first living form itself," or even of "the human lineage itself." Conspicuously absent from this set of possible meanings is the theological notion of metaphysical creation articulated by the pope and long defended by the Church.

What surprises Coyne most, however, is Pope Francis's "claim that 'God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life.'" What is surprising is that this claim is not to be found in Pope Francis's remarks. What Pope Francis did say -- and the line to which Coyne's garbled translation presumably refers -- is that "God is not a demiurge or a magician, but the Creator who gives being to all entities." The demiurge, of course, is a reference to Plato's famous dialogue Timaues, an allegory of creation in which the demiurge or supreme craftsmen fashions the cosmos (from the Greek meaning "order") out of chaos (from the Greek meaning "disorder") in accordance with the eternal unchanging forms.

No, Francis did not "misspeak on that one;" the word was well chosen indeed. For a demiurge, like the clockmaker, is a "tinkerer," albeit endowed with supreme (magical) powers. The craftsman is too anthropomorphic a metaphor to capture the theological doctrine of creation: artists create using pre-existent material, but the God of traditional theology creates out of nothing -- ex nihilo. No materials "pre-exist" divine creation, since time itself is created along with it.

Coyne's "surprise" at his own misquotation is nevertheless revealing. The "surprise," presumably, is that God, the "divine creator," is (allegedly) said not to be a "divine being." But herein lies the key to metaphysical creation which Coyne systematically fails to appreciate: the God of Catholic theology is not a being among other beings or an "entity" among other entities. God, rather, is the source of all being, the creator of beings, that which "gives being to all entities...the Supreme Principle who creates out of love."

Coyne is right about one thing: "physicists haven't put that factor into their equations yet." Nor will they -- ever.

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

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