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We're all fallible

National | The pope, evolution, and the importance of good translation

Issue: "Follow the Greenback Road," Jan. 25, 1997

Last fall, Pope John Paul II delivered a speech in French on evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Science. The Catholic News Service and Vatican Information Service wrote stories quoting the pope as saying that evolution is &quotmore than a hypothesis." The implication was that the church's historic teaching that man was uniquely created by God is itself evolving toward a scientific, non-creation model. That was the spin put on the pope's remarks by The New York Times, which carried a front-page story on this &quotnew" teaching, and by other newspapers, the wire services, and me.

I was critical of the pope's &quotremarks" and suggested he was moving in the direction of a materialistic worldview that is at the heart of communism, a system this pope has consistently opposed and worked to ensure its collapse in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The problem was that the initial English translation of the pope's remarks was incorrect. L'Osservatore Romano, the official publication of the Holy See, provided this translation of the key phrase in the pope's address: &quotToday, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution."

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Acting independently of L'Osservatore Romano, the Catholic World News service posted its own translation from the pope's original French text. The critical passage read: &quotToday, 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."

In both of these translations, it is clear that the pope was not watering down or liberalizing the church's view that the origin of man remained open to debate. He said that there are several theories of origin within the scientific community. Many Catholics who wrote me to complain about the mistranslation said that the Catholic catechism teaches the possibility of dual origins--possible evolution of the body, but divine creation of the soul, a view that could weaken claims to the authenticity of other miraculous events later in Scripture.

The correct translation is a long way, indeed, from U.S. News & World Report's statement that &quotthe pope declared that evolution is 'more than just a theory,'" and Time magazine's twist, claiming the pope said, &quotnew knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis."

Not only the mainstream press was confused. Writing in The Catholic World Report, Rick DeLano of West Covina, Calif., said, &quotMy own diocesan newspaper, the Tidings of Los Angeles, in a Catholic News Service article entitled 'Blessing Evolution' ran the statement: 'The Pontiff said it was time to recognize evolution as more than a hypothesis. Pope John Paul went a step further [than Pius XII].'"

While secularists may have been initially thrilled by the pope's apparent move toward the thinking of the &quotkingdom of this world," they and the pope are back to where they started. John Paul II seemed to be saying that science can explain only what exists, and it frequently must revise its conclusions. Occasionally, science can explain how some things came to be, again, sometimes having to correct itself. But science cannot explain who made what is and, in most cases, cannot explain how it came to be. As God said to Job, &quotWhere were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?"

It is the ultimate question, and the pope did not budge from the source of the ultimate answer. It was the translator, not the pope, who proved fallible on this one. It is said that truth rarely catches up to error. Maybe, but the effort must be made.

copyright 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Cal Thomas
Cal Thomas

Cal, whose syndicated column appears on WORLD's website and in more than 500 newspapers, is a frequent contributor to WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It. Follow Cal on Twitter @CalThomas.

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