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Pope Francis may believe in evolution, but 42 percent of Americans do not

Months ago, an Argentine woman picked up the telephone and heard an unexpected voice on the line. It was Pope Francis. He told the woman, who was married to a divorced man and forbidden under church dogma from taking communion, that she could receive the Eucharist. She explained her priest had told her she couldn’t. So Francis responded: “There are some priests who are more papist than the Pope.”

Turns out many Americans are the same way.

Pope Francis amassed international popularity through stunning and progressive statements that put him at odds with the conservative wing of the Catholic Church. On Tuesday, he similarly put himself at odds with a significant portion of Americans by saying he believed in evolution, not creationism — an idea 42 percent of Americans espouse.

“When we read about creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said. “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.” He added: “Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Compare that statement with one in this June Gallup poll: It found 42 percent of Americans believe God created humans “in their present form 10,000 years ago,” disputing scientific consensus that humanity slowly evolved from primates over millions of years.

Despite the deluge of headlines the pope’s comments produced, little was new about his comments. The Catholic Church has been much less conservative on evolution than many Americans, who contend God created Adam from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib.

Gallup started asking the question in 1982, when 44 percent adhered to creationism — a rate that rose to 47 percent in 1994 before falling to 42 percent today. “There is little indication of a sustained downward trend in the proportion of the U.S. population who hold a creationist view of human origins,” Gallup said in a release. “At the same time, the percentage of Americans who adhere to a strict secularist viewpoint — that humans evolved over time, with God having no part in this process — has doubled since 1999.” Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who believe humans evolved over time, but with God’s help, fell from 38 percent in 1982 to 31 percent today.

The Catholic Church has, more or less, embraced Charles Darwin since at least 1950, when Pope Pius XII said there was no friction between evolution and Catholic doctrine. Decades later, in 1996, Pope John Paul II said evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.”

But Catholic clergy, like Francis on Tuesday, emphasized God had a major role in humanity’s progression. “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not,” wrote Christoph Schönborn in a widely-read 2005 opinion article in the New York Times. “Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

The American people’s commitment to creationism, Gallup said, represents the “ongoing discontinuity” between general scientific consensus and the public’s beliefs.

“Overall, the nation has a big problem,” Brian Alters, the president of the National Center for Science Education, said in 2006. “Approximately half of the U.S. population thinks evolution does (or did) not occur. While 99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution, 40 to 50 percent of college students do not accept evolution and believe it to be ‘just’ a theory.”