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Pope John Paul II. “Message to the Vatican Observatory Conference on Evolutionary and Molecular Biology."

In a cordial greeting to the 1996 conference out of which this volume emerged, John Paul II emphasized that the search by philosophers, theologians, and scientists for a fuller understanding of life in the universe and the role of humanity is consistent with the Church’s commitment to intellectual inquiry. Still, science, philosophy and theology can benefit humanity only if they are grounded in truth as found in the works of the Creator and particularly in the human person, created in God’s image. They help to clarify the vision of humanity as the focus of creation’s dynamism and the supreme object of God’s action. Thus science and the betterment of humanity are intimately linked. He closed by reaffirming his support for this series of conferences as they contribute to the exchange between religion and science.

In the following October John Paul II addressed the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He emphasized that the questions of the origins of life and of the nature of humankind as they are explored by the sciences are of deep interest to the Church. Will the scientific conclusions coincide with, or will they appear to contradict, Revelation? Here his response is that truth cannot contradict truth. Moreover, by understanding these results and their potential impact on humankind, the Church will be strengthened in her concern regarding issues of moral conduct. He recalled the position taken by Puis XII in 1950, that evolution and theology are not in opposition regarding humanity and its vocation. He claimed that evolution, though studied as a scientific theory, can also be interpreted philosophically in many ways, and that Revelation must be considered in the process. John Paul II also noted that in 1992, when speaking in regard to Galileo, he had emphasized that exegetes and theologians must understand science as they seek a correct interpretation of Scripture.

Today the theory of evolution is no longer a mere hypothesis. It is increasingly accepted by scientists and supported by the convergence of research from a variety of fields. What then is its significance? John Paul II addressed this question by first turning to the philosophy of science, commenting on theory construction and its verification by data. A scientific theory such as evolution also draws on natural philosophy, for example, in providing an explanation for the mechanism of evolution. The result is the presence of several theories of evolution based diversely on materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist philosophies. This raises the question of the authentic role of philosophy and of theology in these discussions.

Of direct concern to the Church is the concept of human nature, particularly the imago Dei. Being of value per se and capable of forming a communion with others and with God, people cannot be subordinated as a means or instrument. John Paul II then reiterated the position stressed by Pius XII: while the human body comes from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. He rejected a view of mind as epiphenomenal or as emergent from matter as incompatible with the Church’s view of the nature and dignity of the human person. Instead humanity represents an ontological difference from the rest of nature. Such a claim is not irreconcilable with the physical continuity pointed to by evolution, since the transition to the spiritual is not observable using scientific methods. Here philosophy is needed to account for self- awareness, moral conscience, freedom, and so on, and theology then seeks out their ultimate meaning. John Paul II concluded by reminding us that the Bible offers us an extraordinary “message of life,” calling us to enter into eternal life while speaking of God as the living God.

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