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jpiiI’m in the research phase for some really engaging writing projects right now. That’s good except for one thing: while I’m overturning cool rocks, I always find some fantastic tangent wriggling underneath. I chase after it, giggling like a wee lass, and forget all about the original task.

It’s an actual problem.

Exhibit A: I’m under contract for a fun anthology project I’ll tell you about later. In the course of that, I uncovered the way Darwin’s agnosticism and critiques of religion were hidden from view by his own family as they edited his Autobiography. That led to my “Screwing with…” blog series, which I knew needed to start with Sam Pepys.

As I finally got to Darwin in that series, I needed the date on which Pope John Paul II made the strongest-yet Vatican acknowledgement of evolution as established fact.

And you won’t believe what was wriggling under THAT rock.

First some background: The Vatican came to accept evolution the same way it agreed that Galileo deserved an apology — glacially and partially. This isn’t entirely a strike against Rome. I’ve always at least given the Catholics credit for seeing something that is too often denied by others: that evolution, properly understood, presents a very serious problem for some of the most fundamental assumptions of their religion. More on that another time. (See what I mean? Even tangents birth tangents.)

Since Darwin, a few popes had skated at the margins of the question. They rarely mentioned evolution in the last few decades of the 19th century but repeatedly affirmed “the special creation of man” — one of the above-mentioned fundamental assumptions that evolution severely guts.

In Providentissimus Deus (1893), Leo XIII decried “the unrestrained freedom of thought” — yes, his actual words — that he saw running rampant as the 20th century approached, and warned that religion and science should stay out of each other’s sandboxes.

Whatever sharpens your hat, I guess.

In Humani generis (1950), Pius XII said “the Church does not forbid” research and discussion related to biological evolution. But the encyclical contains a self-cancelling 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 assumptions x, y, and z. Included in that list: that “souls are immediately created by God,” and that humans cannot have ultimately come from non-living matter.

Excluding possibilities a priori is, of course, one of the best ways to get things entirely wrong. But that’s not the wriggle I’m chasing at the moment. And before we jeer too much at the Vatican for taking 91 years, we need to 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.

In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, John Paul II improved on Pius XII. “Today,” he said, “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 (shall we say) fallible math, here’s where it gets interesting. The speech was in French, with the above 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 October 22 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.

Somebody diddled with the Pope!

The difference is huge. If the pope says “[there is] more than one hypothesis within the theory of evolution,” that’s a yawn. If he says “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 whichever translation they preferred. Some major media stories even got it backwards, 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. And 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.

Now to find my way back to whatever the hell I was working on before this shiny object caught my eye.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.