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How the media got everything about the Pope’s Big Bang announcement fantastically, deliberately wrong

The amnesiac reporting of the Papal announcement is more than old news warmed up; it represents a shocking dereliction and acquiescence to myth-making.

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square
Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square

Religion and science are not in conflict, evolution is compatible with Genesis and “both creation and evolution are right”. Sound familiar? The Pope’s statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 28th is nothing new, nor is the swooning reaction of the liberal press.  The story has less to do with groundbreaking shifts in Vatican doctrine (there have been none), and more to do with the culture wars raging in the United States and palpable topical ignorance of the authors writing about it.

Tuesday October 28th saw a growing wave of stories reporting the announcement by Pope Francis I that “The big bang, which is today posited as the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine act of creation; rather, it requires it” and that “Evolution of nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation because evolution presupposes the creation of beings which evolve.” National and international press, from USA Today to The Independent to NBC News picked up the story and ran with the shocking news that the findings of modern science were compatible with the existence of the God of Abraham, according to the Holy Father.

Catholics have a right to be bemused by the attention given to the story. It is no ‘news’ to them given Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Genesis accepted the basics of biological evolution in 1950. Likewise, the Big Bang should pose no qualms for any Catholics aware that the Big Bang was first proposed as a cosmological model in 1927 by a Catholic priest, Fr. Georges-Henri Lemaitre.

But the very treatment of the story as headline news raises questions of the alignment of the media’s priorities and the nature of reporting on matters of religion and science in much of the popular press and scores of online media such as The Daily Beast and Gawker, who appealed to their 18-35 progressive and evolution-accepting demographic with the respective headlines ‘Even the Pope Isn’t a Hard-Core Creationist’ and ‘Cool Pope Says Evolution Is Real, God not a Magician with a Magic Wand’. Gawker lazily reported that Francis had “acknowledged” the truth of evolution followed by a feel-good liberal hurrah of “Congratulations to His Holiness Frankie for staking out yet another brave, cool position for the Catholic Church. Someday, maybe we’ll even get women in the clergy.”

The reporting of the announcement by ‘Cool Pope’ Francis is just the latest in a string of positivisms representing the Pontiff as an enlightened liberal progressive making bold departures from the conservatism of predecessors – just earlier this month were reports of a radical shift in Church policy on gays and gay marriage, greeted with a flurry of excitement followed by clarification, correction and retractions.

American readers have been raised and educated in an environment where hostility to the most foundational principles of modern science; evolutionary biology and astrophysics among them; has become the norm, with the ideas of the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) movement enveloping around 45% of the American population for the past thirty years according to the Gallup organization in June 2014. Further still, around 30% of Americans believe in variants of theistic or ‘God-guided’ evolution; whilst representing a step apart from fossil and genome-denying creationism, it is still not the explanatory model accepted by modern science. A prominent Christian leader accepting evolution in public might be ‘news’ to American Protestant fundamentalists and their neighbours – and many publications reporting it are certainly trying to make it newsworthy.

Furthermore, the statement by Pope Francis does not represent a humble obeisance by the Church of the findings and methods of modern science, nor any extension of an olive branch. The statement triumphantly proclaims the subordination of scientific models and phenomena to divine will, proclaiming that the Big Bang “requires” and evolution “presupposes” a supernatural creation. This is not science, but a reassertion of theological supremacy over it. In ‘Stop Celebrating the Pope’s Views on Evolution and the Big Bang. They Make No Sense’, the University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne goes a step further, calling Francis’s pronouncement “simply the Church’s traditional view of non-naturalistic, theistic evolution, expressed in words that sound good, but that still reflect a form of creationism.”

The mainstream reporting of Pope Francis’s announcement got it wrong on just about every level: rehashing long-held Catholic doctrines as radical new policies, vastly oversimplifying the relationship between Christianity and science, fawning toadyism to a potentially liberal Pontiff and taking unscientific pronouncements at face value. Consulting the reports published on the story, finding a write-up which quotes a scientific authority on the efficacy of the Pope’s cosmological assertions will be more than a challenge. The entire episode is insulting to Catholics, insulting to science, and embarrassing for religion and science journalism.

 

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/28/pope-says-evolution-and-creation-both-right

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/28/pope-says-evolution-and-creation-both-right

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/10/28/pope-francis-evolution-big-bang/18053509/

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/pope-francis-declares-evolution-and-big-bang-theory-are-right-and-god-isnt-a-magician-with-a-magic-wand-9822514.html

[5] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pope-francis-evolution-big-bang-theory-are-real-n235696

[6] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis_en.html

[7] http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2007/03/12/catholic-priest-proposes-new-model-for-creation/

[8] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/28/pope-francis-god-is-not-a-magician-with-a-magic-wand.html

[9] http://gawker.com/cool-pope-says-evolution-is-real-god-not-a-magician-wi-1651810775

[10] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/10/28/pope-francis-god-is-not-a-magician-with-a-magic-wand.html

[11] http://gawker.com/cool-pope-says-evolution-is-real-god-not-a-magician-wi-1651810775

[12] http://time.com/3502522/pope-francis-vatican-catholic-church-homosexuality/

[13] http://www.gallup.com/poll/170822/believe-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx

[14] http://www.newrepublic.com/article/120025/pope-francis-quotes-evolution-big-bang-are-nothing-celebrate