For nearly a century and a half after the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, the Catholic Church did a coy dance with evolutionary theory, deciding at last to accept it in the same way it decided Galileo deserved an apology—glacially and partially.
I at least give the Vatican credit for noticing something too often denied by others: that evolution, properly understood, presents a fatal problem for some of the most fundamental assumptions of their religion.
Since Darwin, a few popes had skated at the margins of the question. They rarely mentioned evolution in the last decades of the 19th century but repeatedly affirmed “the special creation of man”—one of the fundamental assumptions that evolution quietly eviscerates.
In Providentissimus Deus (1893), Leo XIII decried “the unrestrained freedom of thought” (his actual words) that he saw running rampant as the 20th century approached, warning that religion and science should stay out of each other’s sandboxes.
Whatever sharpens your hat, I guess.
A step forward came in 1950 with Humani generis, in which Pius XII said “the Church does not forbid” research and discussion related to biological evolution. But the encyclical contains a self-canceling message typical of papal pronouncements: “Men experienced in both fields” (science and theology) are free to study the issue, so long as their conclusions do not contradict certain assumptions—that “souls are immediately created by God,” for one, and that humans cannot have ultimately come from non-living matter.
Excluding possibilities out of hand before you begin is one of the best ways to get things wrong, of course. But before we jeer too much at the Vatican for taking 91 years to get it even half right, we should recognize that much of the scientific community had only fully accepted evolutionary theory in the previous decade. It was the modern synthesis with genetics, articulated by (among others) Ernst Mayr in 1942, that answered the most serious remaining questions and cemented the scientific consensus on evolution.
Then came the strongest concession. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, John Paul II improved on Pius XII. He noted that Pius had recognized evolution as a “serious hypothesis…worthy of a more deeply studied investigation and reflection on a par with the opposite hypothesis. [But] today,” he continued, “more than a half-century after the appearance of [Pius XII’s] encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.”
Ignoring the fallible math, here’s where it gets interesting: The original speech was in French, with the last sentence rendered thus:
Aujourd’hui, près d’un demi-siècle après la parution de l’encyclique, de nouvelles connaissances conduisent à reconnaître dans la théorie de l’évolution plus qu’une hypothèse.
Like all major papal holdings-forth, the address was translated into several other languages. The English language edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the papal paper, translated it like so:
Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution.
(*gasp*) Somebody diddled with His Holiness!
The difference in the two translations is enormous. If the pope said there is “more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution,” that’s a yawn. If he said “Evolution [is] more than an hypothesis,” that’s an earthquake.
A correction appeared three weeks later, but you know how that is. The faithful worldwide jumped on the translation they preferred. Some major media stories even got it backward, claiming that “more than an hypothesis” was the original error, and that “more than one hypothesis” was the correction. Answers in Genesis and other creationist organizations accepted the correct translation as evidence against the Catholic church. That’s all the expected gum flapping, none of it as interesting as the initial act of mistranslation.
In the correction, the English edition editor explained that they had taken an “overly literal” translation of the French text. But one enterprising media outlet ran the text by four French language experts, none of whom saw any possible reading other than “evolution [is] more than an hypothesis.”
Whether the switch was intentional is the fascinating question here. It’s always safe and fun to play the cynic and assume the conspiracy, but it’s pretty hard to picture anyone in the Vatican having sufficiently well-developed cojones to intentionally scramble the Pope’s words, something that was easily discovered. The fact that the editor in question was transferred from Rome to a parish in Illinois seems at first to suggest retribution, but that was five years after the bungle. And he was returning home.