God is "not a magician with a magic wand", Pope Francis said in a trenchant speech backing science against creationism and intelligent design theories.
In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pople said that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang were not incompatible with the existence of a creator.
However, he also stressed the distinction between human beings and the rest of creation, saying: "God gives human beings a different sort of autonomy from that of nature, which is freedom.
"No matter how limited, man's activity partakes of the power of God and is able to build a world fit for his dual life of body and spirit, to build a humane world for all human beings." He added: "He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.
"The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. "Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve."
The Roman Catholic Church has suffered from a perceived anti-science bias since it forced Galileo to retract his revolutionary theory that the earth went round the sun rather than vice versa. However, creationist interpretations of the beginning of the universe are much more commonly found in Protestant churches. Pope Pius XII told the Academy at its opening meeting in 1951 that the Big Bang theory of origins did not conflict with the Catholic doctrine of creation. In 1996 Pope John Paul II went further and suggested evolution was "more than a hypothesis" and "effectively proven fact".
Pope Francis also praised his predecessor Benedict XVI as he unveiled a bronze bust of him at the Academy's headquarters in the Vatican Gardens, describing him as a "great Pope".
"No one could ever say of him that study and science made him and his love for God and his neighbour wither," he said. "On the contrary, knowledge, wisdom and prayer enlarged his heart and his spirit. Let us thank God for the gift that he gave the church and the world with the existence and the pontificate of Pope Benedict."