Since a 1950 papal encyclical pronounced that Darwin's theory about the origins of life and Christianity were not in conflict, the Roman Catholic church has viewed evolution as a "serious hypothesis."

But Pope John Paul II, in a letter released to the Pontifical Academy of Science meeting in October in Rome, said that "fresh knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis."

According to Owen Gingerich, an evangelical professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, understanding the significance of the pope's words requires a look at the early sixteenth century, when the Catholic church initially viewed as hypothetical the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun.

"The public generally associates 'hypothesis' with the word mere," Gingerich says. "The pope is essentially saying that evolution is not a mere hypothesis. To the scientist, evolution has for some time functioned as a working hypothesis. To the creationist, it is a mere hypothesis and therefore something deserving of scorn."

The papal letter, which does not carry the same level of authority as an encyclical, reiterates several key Catholic understandings about evolution and Christian doctrine, including:

—"The human soul is directly created by God."
—There is not a single theory of evolution, but many. Yet any theory that ex-cludes the spiritual dimension is "incompatible" with biblical revelation.
—Evolution's validity as a theory must be "constantly tested against the facts."

DARWIN ON TRIAL: While the pope's letter does not stake out new ground, it does bolster the teaching of evolution at a time when Darwin's theories and nearly 150 years of related research have come under ...

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