Do Catholics have to believe in the Big Bang now?

Pope Francis publicly endorsed the prevailing scientific theories on the origin of the universe and of complex life, while emphasizing God's role in creation. 

L'Osservatore Romano/AP
In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis is flanked by Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Mons. Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, during the unveiling of a bronze bust of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, Monday, Oct. 27, 2014. Pope Francis has heaped praise on retired Pope Benedict XVI, hailing his person and papacy amid continuing fallout from a meeting of bishops that exposed divisions between progressive Catholics backing Francis' call for a more merciful church and conservatives nostalgic for Benedict's emphasis on doctrine. Francis unveiled a bronze bust of Benedict on Monday in the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Pope Francis splashed in controversial waters Monday, saying the Big Bang theory supports evidence of a divine creator.

The Roman Catholic pope touched on the debate over the origins of human life while addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which gathered at the Vatican to discuss "Evolving Concepts of Nature."

There the pope said literal interpretation of the creation story in the Book of Genesis can lead to imagining God as a magician with a wand able to do anything.

That's not so, he said, according to Religion News Service, which quotes the pope as saying, "He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment."

The beginning of the world was not chaotic, he continued, but rooted in love. And beliefs in creation and evolution can co-exist.

"God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life," the pope said. "Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve."

To some Evangelicals, the pope's remarks may sound un-Christian, but they do not represent a major departure for the Catholic Church, which has a long history of supporting scientific theories that run contrary to literal interpretations of Scripture.

In fact, it was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who in 1927 first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory. Later, Pope Pius XII asserted evolution and Catholic doctrine are not contrary, and St. John Paul II backed him.

Even though the pope's words probably don't represent a crucial shift in Catholic doctrine, Giovanni Bignami, a professor and president of Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics, welcomed Francis' comments, calling his statements "significant."

"We are the direct descendants from the Big Bang that created the universe. Evolution came from creation," he told Italian news agency Adnkronos, saying the pope has buried the "pseudo theories" of creationists.

So what does this mean for Catholic doctrine? Nothing, actually. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra – with the full authority of office – and made no changes no the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But his words do reaffirm existing doctrine.

The Catechism states catechesis on creation is of major importance as it concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: "for it makes explicit the response of the Christian faith to the basic question that men of all times have asked themselves: 'Where do we come from?' "

283 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me."

284 The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called "God"? And if the world does come from God's wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?

Francis spoke on the Big Bang theory and evolution while unveiling a bust in honor of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican.

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