The Pope, autonomy, internal law, freedom and autonomy (again)

Pope Francis’s statement on the Big Bang and evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences was reported recently, but surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be a full translation of his Italian statement online. So, not speaking Italian, I had to use Google to translate the original if I was to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, rather than via the misleading press reports. Paradoxically, knowing that I was dealing with a poor translation has been a help in understanding the whole.

The first thing to say is that Francis is saying nothing new, but repeating the carefully balanced approach of his predecessors. The second thing to say is that, of course, I don’t regard either the Pope or the Catholic Church as the final authority on science and faith. However, the care Rome takes not to contradict either Scripture or traditional doctrine, whilst respecting science, makes its opinion worth hearing, compared to the various Protestant popes’ tendency to shoot doctrine from the hip.

I shall quote some useful passages using a tidied up version of Mr Google’s translation, and comment afterwards.

I just want to point out that God and Christ are walking with us, and are also found in nature, as stated by the apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech: “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Although there is much in the statement about nature’s laws, and God’s sustaining of it, Francis clearly has in view more than mere conservationism or Deism here. It’s not just that we see God through a creation that ultimately comes from him, but there is a sense of his immanence. We must remember that the starting point for Catholicism’s approach to science is still via Aquinas, and Aquinas was a concurrentist par excellence. So just as much as the Christian experiences the living presence of Christ in daily life, so he is is present in nature.

The same Thomist background is evident when Francis goes on to talk of “the Creator who gives being to all entities.” “Being” here clearly resonates with the Thomist idea of “esse”, which has to do not simply with existence, but with the essential and individual nature of things. That’s how we must understand what, at first sight, might seem like a version of free-process theology in creation:

He created beings and let them develop in accordance with the internal law that He has given to each one, because they develop it until it arrives to its completion [or perfection]. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time in which he assured them of his continued presence, giving being to all reality. Thus, the creation has been going on for centuries, millennia and millennia until it became what we know today, because God is not a creator or a wizard, but The Creator who gives being to all entities.

“Autonomy” literally means “self-law”, and in Thomistic terms is closely linked to the idea of essential, God-given, nature. So when Francis speaks of  autonomy, he parallels the previous sentence that speaks of “internal laws that he has given to each one,” and is not speaking of independence from God in any sense. In fact, this passage is entirely non-Darwinian. What is in view is the Aristotelian idea of things acting according to their God-given natures (seen as internal laws), their potentia becoming act teleologically until each nature arrives at the goal God has set for it – its “perfection”. This, remember, is in parallel with God’s continued presence, and not his deliberate withdrawal or mere conservation of things in existence.

This is a pretty strong endorsement of creation through secondary causes (God is The Creator, not a creator or wizard), but it is also a strong endorsement of evolution as law-like, mediated through the natures of each organism acting instrumentally towards God’s purpose, which at this time is “what we know today” – in other words, the natural creation is both an end in itself and the means to subsequent “ends”. This, in point of fact, puts more stress on orthogenesis than it does on the role of selection, which is not mentioned. If anything, selection would be the mere occasion by which organisms evolve to their pre-ordained goals, just as life’s experiences help us humans arrive at our inbuilt goal of maturity.

As for man, though, there is a change and something new. When, on the sixth day of the story of Genesis, the creation of man comes, God gives human beings another autonomy, autonomy different from that of nature, which is freedom. It tells man to name all the things and move forward in the course of history. It makes him responsible for the creation, in the created domains, in all its developments and so on, until the end of time.

This would make no sense if we had understood creaturely “autonomy” as free-process TEs do, ie God’s giving nature freedom as a loving parent (supposedly) allows an adolescent child its independence. Rather, the internal law of the creatures becomes something quite different in man – a paradoxical law of free will and action, that enables us the unique dignity to manage creation as God’s “viceroy”. Francis illustrates this in relation to the work of science:

So the scientist’s, and especially the Christian scientist’s, attitude is to examine the future of humanity and the earth, and to be free and responsible: to help to prepare and preserve it, and eliminate the risks of the natural and human environment. But at the same time, the scientist must be moved by the confidence that nature hides in its evolutionary mechanisms, the potential that his intelligence and freedom may discover and implement to bring about the development that is in the design of the Creator.

I suspect some quite subtle concepts are at work here. It seems to encompass both the Aristotelian approach of understanding and nurturing creation, and the Baconian approach of manipulating the potentialities of (specifically) evolutionary mechanisms. If so, it seems to be an oblique reference to genetic engineering, and it’s intriguing how he sees this in terms of furthering the design of God inherent in the “internal laws” of organisms. This gives a picture of the genetic engineer as understanding what potentia God has built into, say, the wheat plant, and manipulating it genetically not to divert, but to implement God’s original purpose for it.

That sounds a risky philosophy, in view of what I wrote recently on GM crops, so it’s not surprising that he goes on:

So, no matter how limited, the action of man partakes of the power of God and is able to build a world fit for his dual life bodily and spiritual; build a humane world for all human beings and not to a group or class of privileged people. This hope and trust in God, the Author of nature, and the ability of the human spirit are able to provide the researcher with a new energy and profound peace.

Note how human responsibility has been introduced – if the welfare of all human beings, rather than a privileged few (in this case directors and shareholders of multinational companies, perhaps, or even the career ambitions of researchers) is not held central, then all may not be so good:

But it is also true that the action of man, when his freedom becomes autonomy – which is not freedom but autonomy –  destroys creation, taking the place of the Creator. And this is the great sin against God the Creator.

Here we see, perhaps through our poor translation, that “autonomy” has acquired a different, and less benign, meaning. For organisms, “autonomy” was the internal law God has put in their natures that brings them infallibly to his goal. Man was created with a different manifestation of that “autonomy” – an internal law of moral freedom. But that can (and through sin, does) become a different kind of autonomy – man can “become a law unto himself”, perverting his freedom so that instead of willingly following God’s law, he creates his own which, inevitably, tends to destroy God’s creation. That’s obvious really, because apart from such sinful autonomy, everything else was aiming at God’s purpose for his world – the “internal laws” of creatures, and the obedient freedom of humans, all informed by the living presence of the Logos mediating the Father’s will through the Spirit.

It’s very hard to find anything to object to here as a Christian, including an admirable latitude of scientific approach that doesn’t tie theology into any one theoretical approach. But Jerry Coyne, it seems, doesn’t like it one bit. And I think that, too, is inevitable, for Francis’s statement really isn’t that open to a pure Neodarwinian approach. Whether it is more in line with Evangelical Evolutionary Creation, with its precoocupation with contingency, is uncertain – simply because, unlike even this general statement of Pope Francis, ECs persist in fudging, or more frequently remaining silent on, the nitty-gritty questions.


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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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6 Responses to The Pope, autonomy, internal law, freedom and autonomy (again)

  1. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


    Amidst the load of journalistic rubbish written on the Pope’s statement on evolution, this piece is somewhat refreshing:

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The affinity of our society wilfully to believe sheer myth has almost become so mundane a truth that I didn’t refer to it… but of course the reason I tried to find what he actually said was because I knew the press reports and blogs could be relied on to get it wrong.

      It’s for much the same reason that I try to read what the Church Fathers said, rather than what modern theologians say they said, and likewise why I try to find out what those said to have made ridiculous or superstitious errors in science actually said (Paley, Wallace, Goethe, etc come to mind).

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    I agree the Pope’s comments are measured and indicate a desire to seek harmony between faith and science. However, I feel it is instructive to look at Darwinian thinking with a great deal of scepticism. I have made critical comments in the past regarding the speculative nature of much of Darwinian evolution, in that much of it defies established science. One of these comments has pointed (and others have noted this) to the distribution of elements into stable compounds during the early formation of earth, and established science indicates that oxygen needed for life as we know it would not be available (it would be consumed to form H2O and CO2 and various silica and aluminium oxides). A recent article in Science by Planavsky et al., 346 (6209): 635-638, “Low Mid-Proterozoic atmospheric oxygen levels and the delayed rise of animals” – presents empirical data that shows this – yet you will note that no-one will question the assumptions derived from our friend Darwin or suggest that scientists should consider other views regarding life on earth. Soon I expect Darwin’s disciples to experience another epiphany and proclaim that this is an addition to their mountain of empirical evidence proving the Darwinian ideas, and always mysteriously supported by widgie-board science.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      The points you make are one reason I was interested to see how little homage the Pope paid to Darwinian evolution, as opposed to the general concept. It’s hard to read someone else’s traition, but I wonder if they’re more aware – as I’ve become over the last few years – of just how much (both data and theory) has been sidelined by the current mythology that (a) Neodarwinianism is unchallengeably true, and has been since 1859, and (b) current science itself is an accumulating body of sacred and objective truth to which all should commit themselves.

      • Lou Jost says:

        When will you both ask the same kinds of questions, with the same degree of hyper-skepticism, about the current mythology in your part of the world regarding the existence of the Christian god?

        Professional scientists are mostly aware of the contingent nature of scientific theories. As we discussed in earlier posts, the history of science amply demonstrates the willingness of scientists to discard even their most cherished theories.

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