Vatican's slow evolution as it discovers Darwin

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One hundred and thirty eight years after the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, and 6,000 years since the creation of the world as calculated by Archbishop Ussher, the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged the theory of evolution as true.

The Vatican yesterday published a letter from Pope John Paul II to a group of scientific experts in which he said: "New knowledge leads us to recognise in the theory of evolution more than a hypothesis ... The convergence, of results of work done independently one from the other, constitutes a significant argument in favour of this theory."

However, the Pope's letter continues to resist the doctrine that the human spirit arose as the result of unaided natural processes, or that human consciousness is not a distinct and important factor in the world. There are "spiritual readings of evolution", he wrote, as well as "materialistic and reductionist ones", and the faithful must distinguish between them.

"[Even] if the origin of the human body is sought in living matter which existed before it, the spiritual soul is directly created by God ... Consequently, the theories of evolution, which consider the spirit as emerging from forces of living matter or as a simple epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

The Pope's acknowledgement of the truth of the evolutionary, scientific view of the world's history ends a long rearguard action fought by the Roman Catholic Church to maintain some literal sense for the book of Genesis. In 1950, Pope Pius XII allowed Cath-olics to believe in the truth of evolution, although he insisted that it was not proven, and that full weight should be given to the arguments against it.

He also maintained that the Genesis account of creation, though "not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time" nevertheless "pertained to history in a true sense".

In particular, Pius XII claimed that Catholics must believe there was a literal Adam, a first man from whom all subsequent humans descend, and all of whose ancestors were beasts. This, he thought, was necessary in order to preserve the doctrine of original sin.

It is not clear whether this teaching still binds Catholics: the catechism says only that the account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man."