What a year was 1996 for the discussion of evolution, with the publication of several key books, the inaugural meeting of an energetic new group of critics, a lively debate in the thought journal Commentary, and headlines created by the pope.
On October 22, John Paul II sent greetings to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "the Church's scientific senate." His message was reported in the general press as "Pope accepts evolution" as if it were "Church finally accepts heliocentrism." Phew. What a relief.
The pope's message was no such thing. Papal teaching had previously accepted the idea of the descent of all life forms from common ancestry. John Paul II was largely reiterating in a much less formal manner Pius XII's understanding and reminding the scientists that if they were to be faithful Christians there were limits beyond which their science could not take them. Those limits were theological: no theory of evolution was acceptable that was purely materialistic and that did not recognize the direct divine origin of the human soul.
Having laid down those limits, the pope encouraged the scientists to follow where their researches led them. Truth cannot contradict truth, he said.
From design to Designer
Perhaps the pope asked too little of his scientists. For although the pope made the headlines, it was a good Catholic boy at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania who was challenging evolutionary thought at a more fundamental level. Biochemist Michael Behe has demolished the idea that complex biological structures could possibly happen by means of gradual accretions of random mutations chosen and preserved by natural selection (see the review of Behe's Darwin's Black Box in CT's sister publication Books & Culture, Nov./Dec., 1996).