In his message to a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which had taken the origin of life as its theme, John Paul described the shift in the church's view of evolution that has taken place since Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950. "Humani Generis," John Paul wrote, "considered the doctrine of 'evolutionism' as a serious hypothesis, worthy of a more deeply studied investigation...Today...new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis." Pius was skeptical of evolution but tolerated study and discussion of it; the statement by John Paul reflects the church's acceptance of evolution. He did not, however, diverge at all from Pius on the question of the origin of man's soul: that comes from God, even if "the human body is sought in living material which existed before it."
The statement is unlikely to influence the curriculum of Catholic schools, where evolution has been taught since the 1950s. Indeed, reading the entire Bible literally has not been a dominant practice among Catholics through much of the 20th century. Asked about the Pope's statement, Father Peter Stravinskas, editor of the 1991 Catholic Encyclopedia, said, "It's essentially what Augustine was writing. He tells us that we should not interpret Genesis literally, and that it is poetic and theological language."
Creationists do not make the distinction between faith and science that John Paul does, and his statement will not discourage them in their battles against the teaching of evolution in states like Tennessee and Alabama. "The Pope is just an influential person; he's not a scientist," says Henry Morris, president emeritus at the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, California. "There is no scientific evidence for evolution. All the real solid evidence supports creation." Bill Hoesch, a spokesman for the institute, says, "[John Paul] would say that man's dignity does not suffer even if God used the process of evolving him from pond scum through the apes to the present so-called dignified position, and we would differ with that."
John Paul stopped short of addressing a point on which Pius was emphatic: that a particular man named Adam must have been our ancestor. Any other theory, Pius maintained, was inconsistent with the doctrine of original sin. But the teaching about Adam has also been superseded, says Father Richard P. McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame. "No Scripture scholar today would say we are literally descended from two people." To such scholars, and John Paul, the evolution of our bodies matters much less than the evolution of our souls.