Did Pope John Paul II Demolish Traditional Christianity, as We Know It?

The Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster, popularly known as Westminster Abbey, where Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Charles Darwin are buried

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD

In 1996 Pope John Paul II gave a concession speech in favor of Sir Charles Darwin,  by recognizing his theory.  Darwin missed the glorious occasion as it was 135 years too late.  On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859 and for more than a century had been condemned and criticized by the believing Christians.  Darwin could not celebrate the concession speech, for he had been long dead and buried in  Westminster Abbey.

Over the centuries, it had become one of Britain’s most significant honors to be buried or commemorated in Westminster Abbey.[17] The practice of burying national figures in the Abbey began under Oliver Cromwell with the burial of Admiral Robert Blake in 1657.[18] The practice spread to include generals, admirals, politicians, doctors and scientists such as Isaac Newton , buried on 4 April 1727.  Upon his death, Darwin’s family arranged for him to be buried in St. Mary’s churchyard in the village of Downe. However, William Spottiswoode, the President of the Royal Society, had greater aspirations for Darwin. He wrote to the Dean of Westminster Abbey requesting that Darwin be buried in its prestigious cemetery.  Charles Darwin was buried there on 26 April 1882. Another renowned figure of his time was William Wilberforce, the man who abolished slavery in the United Kingdom and the Plantations, who was buried on 3 August 1833. Wilberforce was buried in the north transept, close to his friend, the former Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Nevertheless, Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Charles Darwin remain the most well known names associated with Westminster Abbey.

Pope John Paul II was generous in his concession speech, he did not mention Darwin but said about his theory, “It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

What was even more remarkable was the fact that when he spoke in favor of the theory in 1996, he was parting ways with a long held tradition and was going against the explicit or implicit denial of the theory by several of the preceding Popes between him and Sir Charles Darwin.  The table in the Muslim Times gives you all the names and pictures at a glance.  The table is borrowed from Wikipedia and starts with Pope numbered 255, Pius IX from 1846-1878.[1]

255C o a Pio IX.svg 16 June 1846
– 7 February 1878
(31 years, 236 days)
Popepiusix.jpg Bd. Pius IXO.F.S.
Papa PIUS Nonus
Count GiovanniMarìa Mastai-Ferretti 54 / 85 —————————————————–
256C o a Leone XIII.svg 20 February 1878
– 20 July 1903
(25 years, 150 days)
Leo XIII.jpg Leo XIIIO.F.S.
Papa LEO Tertius Decimus
Gioacchino VincenzoRaffaele Luigi Pecci ——————– 67 / 93
257Pius X COA.svg 4 August 1903
– 20 August 1914
(11 years, 16 days)
PiusX, Bain.jpg St Pius X
Papa PIUS Decimus
Giuseppe Melchiorre Sarto ————————————– 68 / 79 Encouraged and expanded reception of Holy Communion, and combatted Modernistic theology. Most recent pope to be canonized.
258C o a Bennedetto XV.svg 3 September 1914
– 22 January 1922
(7 years, 141 days)
Benedictus XV.jpg Benedict XV
Papa BENEDICTUS Quintus Decimus
Giacomo Paolo Giovanni Battista della Chièsa ————————————– 59 / 67 Credited for intervening for peace during World War I. Remembered by Pope Benedict XVI as “prophet of peace”.
259C o a Pio XI.svg 6 February 1922
– 10 February 1939
(17 years, 4 days)
PiusXI33861u.jpg Pius XI
Papa PIUS Undecimus
Achille Ambrogio Damiano Ratti ————————————– 64 / 81 Signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy, establishing the Vatican City as a sovereign state.
260Pius 12 coa.svg 2 March 1939
– 9 October 1958
(19 years, 221 days)
PiusXII12.jpg VenPius XII
Papa PIUS Duodecimus
Eugenio Marìa Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli ————————————– 63 / 82 Invoked papal infallibility in encyclical Munificentissimus Deus.
261John 23 coa.svg 28 October 1958
– 3 June 1963
(4 years, 218 days)
JohnXXIII.jpg BdJohn XXIII
Papa IOANNES Vicesimus Tertius
Àngelo Giuseppe Roncalli 76 / 81 Opened Second Vatican Council; sometimes called “Good Pope John”.
262Paul 6 coa.svg 21 June 1963
– 6 August 1978
(15 years, 46 days)
Paolovi.jpg VenPaul VI
Papa PAULUS Sextus
Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Marìa Montini 65 / 80 The last pope to be crowned with the Papal Tiara. First pope to travel to the United States. Concluded Second Vatican Council.
263John paul 1 coa.svg 26 August 1978
– 28 September 1978
(0 years, 33 days)
Pope John Paul I.jpg Servant of God John Paul I
Albino Luciani 65 / 65 First pope to use ‘the First’ in regnal name. First pope with two names, for his two immediate predecessors.
264John paul 2 coa.svg 16 October 1978
– 2 April 2005
(26 years, 168 days)
Bl John Paul II.jpg BdJohn Paul II
Karol Józef Wojtyła 58 / 84 First Polish pope and first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Canonized more saints than all predecessors. Traveled extensively. Second longest known reign after Pius IX (1846–1878; see note on St Peter); recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

As Pope John Paul II revisited the question of evolution in a 1996 in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he was making history.   He had earlier won the respect of many scientists in 1993, when in April 1993 he had formally acquitted Galileo, 360 years after his indictment, of heretical support for Copernicus’s heliocentrism.

The pontiff began his statement in 1996 with the hope, “We will all be able to profit from the fruitfulness of a trustful dialogue between the Church and science.”  Evolution, he said, is “an essential subject which deeply interests the Church.”  He recognized that science and Scripture sometimes have “apparent contradictions,” but said that when this is the case, a “solution” must be found because “truth cannot contradict truth.”[2]  Pope was right in expressing this truism, , but there was a catch.  He was alluding to the Bible and science and about harmony between the two, for his truism to be applicable, the Bible has to be literal word of God and preserved over time.  But, that discussion is for another time.

When the Pope came to the subject of the scientific merits of evolution, it soon became clear how much things had changed since the Vatican last addressed the issue before.  Pope John Paul said:

Taking into account the state of scientific research at the time as well as of the requirements of theology, the encyclical Humani Generis considered the doctrine of “evolutionism” a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study equal to that of the opposing hypothesis. Pius XII added two methodological conditions: that this opinion should not be adopted as though it were a certain, proven doctrine and as though one could totally prescind from revelation with regard to the questions it raises. He also spelled out the condition on which this opinion would be compatible with the Christian faith, a point to which I will return. Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. …  It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.[3]

But, there was a little catch.  In the above mentioned 1800 word declaration by Pope John Paul, evolution was now accepted as a fact.  The declaration had the title ‘Truth Cannot Contradict Truth’, but any mention of the words ‘Adam’ and ‘Original Sin’ or even ‘sin’ were conveniently missing.  He did not explain away the reasons why the prior Popes and the growing number of Christians, governing all continents of the world, had been so uncomfortable with the theory for more than a century.

The Pope Pius XII, who preceded Pope John Paul II by about two decades, obviously knew about theory of evolution and all the writings of the Church over the centuries.  That made him very uncomfortable about the theory but it was gaining momentum and it could no longer be ignored.  So he had to talk about it.  Therefore, he directly addressed the issue of evolution in a 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis.[4]  This was the Encyclical Letter, titled, Concerning Some False Opinions Which Threaten to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine.  He was right the theory not only undermined the Christian doctrines but spelled death for them.

The document made plain the pope’s fervent hope that evolution will prove to be a passing scientific fad, and it attacks those persons who “imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution … explains the origin of all things.”[5]  Despite the title of the encyclical, Pius XII stated that nothing in Catholic doctrine is contradicted by a theory that suggests one species might evolve into another, even if that species is man.  The clause 35-37 are of special interest to us here.  His discomfort with the subject of evolution can be judged in the clause 35:

It remains for us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. in fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

So when Pope John Paul II gave his concession speech it was an occasion of grand importance, greater than the coronation of any of USA Presidents or any royalty in Europe, but, not many people seem to remember it today.  Why is this concession speech being ignored and forgotten?  Why is this not etched in the memories of believers and non-believers alike like the fiasco of Galileo?
How come?  For the answer to this conundrum, we need to study  Friedrich Nietzsche’s, The Parable of the Madman, from 1882:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.

Friedrich Nietzsche’s vision expressed in this parable is not only applicable to larger issues pertaining to the Western civilization, agnosticism and atheism, but, also to the Pope’s concession speech in favor of Sir Charles Darwin.  The Christians have not fully woken up, from the slumber of 20 centuries, to the implications of the of the facts of evolution, namely common ancestry between all animals and plants including the humans and the fact that humans have existed for much longer than we thought before Sir Charles Darwin.  Certainly for more than 6000 years.

It is hard to wake up from the anesthesia of indoctrination of 20 centuries.  But, slowly but surely the Christians are accepting the theory of evolution and gradually accepting the inferences of the theory also.

The Christians, both the Catholics and the Protestants, have not fully thought through the concession speech of Pope John Paul II yet.  It has been less than 20 years, not enough time for the repercussions to sink in the psyche and the sub-conscious of the two billion Christians around the world.

If evolution is true, Adam and Eve were not the first human couple.  Humans existed long before Adam and Eve, who lived only 6000 years ago.  All of us are not children of Adam and Eve.  There was no such thing as the Original Sin, for which Jesus had to die on the cross!

Was the Christian story only in the fertile mind of St. Paul and not something that made every human vulnerable?  The main scriptural affirmation of the doctrine of Original Sin is not found in the Old Testament or the Gospels, but in the writings of St. Paul and particularly in Romans 5:12–19, a difficult passage in which Paul establishes a parallelism between Adam and Christ, stating that whereas sin and death entered the world through Adam, grace and eternal life have come in greater abundance through Christ.   Was St. Peter an accomplice in Paul’s plan?

Sir Charles Darwin lies in peace, in a historic church, named after St. Peter.  What an irony of fate!

Neanderthal-man and a baby in a museum in France – Neanderthal went extinct some 24,000 years ago.

 Suggested Reading

Clone a Neanderthal baby for the Sake of Science and Religion

Debate: Is it time for all religions to accept evolution?

Evaluating Original Sin against scientific discoveries


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_popes#19th_Century

[3] http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02tc.htm

[4] http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_pi12hg.htm

[5] http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/vaticanview.html

Categories: Biology, CHRISTIANITY, Highlight

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