Pope Francis says the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are real, and God did not wave a “magic wand” to create the universe.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church said Tuesday that current scientific theories concerning the start of the universe and the development of life are compatible with church doctrines – a landmark declaration for a religion often challenged to harmonize scripture with science.

Speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Vatican City on Monday, Pope Francis urged Roman Catholics to embrace current scientific theories as “required” methods to understand existence. The pope’s suggestions fly in the face of more traditional views that read the Bible as a literal record of the creation and development of the world.

“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,” Pope Francis said.

The creation story in the Book of Genesis tells how God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day after creating the first human man, called Adam. Later in the book, God creates Eve, the first woman, using a rib taken from Adam.

Francis made his comments at a ceremony to unveil a bust dedicated to his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Francis has made numerous gestures of respect toward the still-living former pope since Benedict resigned due to health issues in 2013.

Francis’ comments on evolution and the Big Bang are a marked step toward more commonly held scientific views. Others in the church have pushed for it to embrace the more creationist-friendly, pseudo-scientific intelligent design theory, which views the world as a complex creation developed through constant guidance from a supernatural being. Pope Benedict showed leanings toward this theory, though he stopped short of ever fully endorsing it. However, he did say in 2005 that the world is an "intelligent project" created by God.

But Pope Francis suggested on Tuesday that such theories still rely too much on God as a supernatural force who breaks the laws of nature. Instead, Francis said God “created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfillment.”

The Argentina-born Pope Francis has been a progressive voice since he assumed the papacy last year, downplaying the Roman Catholic Church’s hardline views on homosexuality, contraception and abortion in favour of a more open, moderate approach.

However, the Roman Catholic Church as a whole has been slower to embrace the pope’s more inclusive views.

Earlier this month, Roman Catholic bishops watered down a landmark proposal penned by a Pope Francis appointee to view homosexuals as having “gifts and qualities” to offer as members of the church. The bishops rewrote the proposal to use vague, less inclusive language instead.

Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst with the National Catholic Reporter, said Pope Francis’s views are, in fact, not that shocking, given that the Catholic Church “actually made its peace with science in the 20th century.”

In 1950, Pope Pius XII said there was no conflict between evolution and creationism, Reese told CTV News Channel from Washington, D.C.

“We’re not like some of the fundamentalists who take a literal interpretation of the Bible,” Reese said.“We see no problem with seeing God as creator of the universe, but creating a universe that in fact evolves.”

He acknowledged that some Catholics do “still believe that the world was created in seven days, but they’re a real minority in the Catholic Church.”

In fact, a recent survey of American beliefs by Chapman University found people in the U.S. remain deeply divided over the origins of human life. About 40 per cent of respondents said they believe God created humans as they are within the last 10,000 years. About 37 per cent of respondents said they believe humans developed from less advanced forms of life with the guidance of God, while 19 per cent said humans evolved independent of any supernatural force.

Of 1,573 respondents to the Chapman survey, more people said they believe in the lost city of Atlantis than the theory of evolution, either with or without a God involved.

More respondents said they believe in UFOs and Bigfoot than in evolution without the interference of a God.

Reese noted that Pope Francis does well in public opinion polls in the United States, even among conservative Catholics.

When Pope Francis preaches compassion toward others, including the poor, it is a “message that resonates” for those who read the gospel, Reese said.

“What Pope Francis is trying to preach is the gospel of Jesus, the gospel of love and compassion toward everyone,” he said.

“But it’s also a gospel in the Catholic tradition that believes there’s no conflict between faith and reason. That our reason, our intelligence, seeks truth just as the gospels tell us about the truth about God’s love for us.”