Since the 1633 trial of Galileo, church relations with the world of science have often been strained. Galileo was put on trial by papal authorities for publishing a book defending Copernicus's theory that the earth revolves around the sun. Copernicus had died nearly a century before, and his "heliocentric" view of the solar system was already generally accepted by astronomers and even by some theologians. Nevertheless, the Vatican insisted Galileo stop discussing the idea; threatened by the Inquisition with torture, he recanted his views and spent the last nine years of his life under the equivalent of house arrest. The episode became symbolic of many things, all negative -- religious closed-mindedness, intolerance, antiscientific attitudes, etc.

Three and a half centuries later, it was the Vatican's turn to recant. In 1979, a year after he became Pope, John Paul II signaled that he wanted the Galileo case set right by giving a speech at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at which he declared in typically elliptical Vatican language that "theologians, scholars, and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply." In case anyone missed the point about the Pope's desire for a reconciliation of science and religion, John Paul II choose as the date for this speech the centenary anniversary of Einstein's birth.

In October 1992, Cardinal Paul Poupard presented the Pope with the findings of the Galileo study commission, which declared, "From the Galileo case we can draw a lesson which is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them." By Vatican standards, this rotund language was an apology. The Pope responded by saying that Galileo's realizations about the sun and earth must have been divinely inspired: "Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." Through its 1992 ceremony, the church finally lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo, who went to his grave a devout Catholic, despite the church's treatment of him.

Today, partly inspired by John Paul II's pro-science attitude -- the current Pope is as liberal on this point as he is conservative on many issues of doctrine -- the Vatican has been seeking out favorable relations with many aspects of the science world. One example is the Vatican Observatory, a serious astronomy program run in conjunction with the University of Arizona. In the Middle Ages, the church studied the stars and sun hoping to correct the calendar and fix the correct annual date for Easter; today its Observatory scans for supernovae and neutron stars. The Vatican Observatory's website even has a FAQ section in which it assures the curious that Catholic astronomers are not scanning the heavens looking for any physical sign of the empyrean, merely trying to advance the state of astronomy.

Evolving Attitudes Towards Evolution

As long ago as the fifth century, Augustine, the church's most revered ancient theologian, had cautioned not to take the Genesis creation accounts too literally. Thus the Vatican never directly denounced Darwin or his theories, though church officials did not exactly leap for joy over natural selection. Most prominently, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, was during much of his lifetime banned by his order from speaking in public because he believed the fossil record showed that human life evolved gradually, rather than arose in a single divine act. Within a short time after Teilhard's 1955 death, the church felt sufficiently disconcerted by its treatment of him and by the general assumption that believers could not be scientists, that Pope John XXIII went out of his way to issue an encyclical letter asserting that it was fine for a Catholic to be a working scientist, if only to influence science from "within." The Pope wrote, "Since our present age is one of outstanding scientific and technical progress and excellence, one will not be able to enter these organizations and work effectively from within unless he is scientifically competent, technically capable, and skilled in the practice of his own profession."

It's important to remember that when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin's thinking became a source of formal science-versus-religion conflict mainly in England, where an anti-clerical movement was attempting to wrestle down the Anglican denomination's position as Britian's "established" church and to win academic freedom for Oxford and Cambridge universities, where hiring decisions still had to be submitted to Anglican bishops for approval. In the United States, Darwinism initially caused no such splash, being seen as an indication of the mechanism of divine creation. The Fundamentals, a series of popular tracts published beginning in 1909 that established the modern Protestant fundamentalist movement, embraced evolution as a theory that showed nature to be subtly ordered by the hand of a higher power. Only in the 1920s did the idea evolve in American Protestant thought that Darwin and God stood opposed. Edward J. Larson's Summer for the Gods, the Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes trial, explained how the 1920s cultural environment shifted to cause a Darwin-religion conflict.

For Catholics, the first important statements on church views of Darwin came with the papal encyclical Humani Generis ("The Origin of Humanity"), published by Pius XII. In this document, the Pope acknowledged that God might have used evolution as the mechanism of creation, and therefore Darwin's theories did not necessarily contradict faith. But, Pius XII said, evolutionary theory is insidious because it can be used to argue against the existence of God. Pius XII called evolution a serious hypothesis whose drawback was that it "has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences," a description that still pertains today. He went on, however, to complain of "fictitious tenets of evolution which repudiate all that is absolute, firm and immutable" and to protest that "the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all." Humani Generis concluded with the dictum that Catholics could teach and learn Darwin's ideas about how existing living things change, but that the view that humanity is entirely natural in origin must "not be advanced in schools, in conferences or in writings of any kind, and that they be not taught in any manner whatsoever to the clergy or the faithful."

Papal views of Darwin came closer to biology department views with Pope John Paul II's 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This teaching, called Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, argued that faith should never fear any scientific finding, even one that upsets cherished views. Scientific truths, the Pope said, must be taken as they are because they add to the world's store of truths.

At the 1996 session the Pope allowed that "new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis," noting that the idea of natural selection "has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge." John Paul II all but endorsed natural selection as a description of how animals evolve, but found the theory wanting as an explanation of the soul, rejecting "theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter." The soul, the Pope said, must arise divinely, in ways that science does not see. With this teaching, John Paul II staked out what might be called the modified limited religious endorsement of evolution: that it exists but only explains the biological part of us, not the spiritual mystery. Interestingly, in this teaching the Pope said nothing about Adam, the Garden, or the Genesis account of creation. Since what is significant about papal pronouncements is often what is not said, the Pope's 1996 reasoning seemed to back the church away from its previous insistence on a sudden, from-nothing creation of humankind.

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