God’s Big Bang: The Church and Evolution
ISSUE: What does the Church teach regarding evolution?
RESPONSE: The Church rejects all theories of evolution that do not reflect the revelations of God. Pius XII “already stated [in Humani Generis] that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one not lose sight of several indisputable points.” As explained by John Paul II, “the theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis.” Any such theory must affirm that our all loving, omnipotent God created all things, that human souls are created immediately by God, and that we are all descended from the same set of human parents—Adam and Eve—from whom we inherited our fallen condition (Catechism, nos. 404, 416-17). In a nutshell, Catholics are free to accept some theories of evolution, within certain guidelines, but they are under no obligation to do so. Likewise, teaching theories of evolution that contradict truths of the Catholic Faith represents an attack on the Faith itself.
DISCUSSION: To understand the Church’s stance on evolution, one must properly understand the concepts of scientific theory, nature and divine revelation. Misunderstanding the relevance of these things and how they relate to each other will encourage a misunderstanding of the Church’s position.
Theory, Nature, and Divine Revelation
Scientific theories relate and interpret observable, natural data. This data reveals the natural laws of creation. Theories are accepted, modified, or even discarded depending on how well they fit known data. Generally speaking, acceptance of a scientific theory is always tentative because new natural data may be discovered in the future. Good theories account for all known data without incorporating logical fallacies.
Natural data is not the only available data. Christians must also take into account “supernatural data,” the content of divine revelation. Only theories that account for all known natural and supernatural data are truly worthy of Christian acceptance. A Catholic must never accept any theory that does not take both kinds of data into just consideration. Because God is the Author of nature and revelation, these will never truly conflict, though some people’s interpretations of them may.
Those who favor evolutionary theories must recall the words of Pope Pius XII: “If… conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized [by the Catholic religion] can in no way be admitted.” Those who favor “special creation,” the belief that things were created as they now are, must also bear in mind the words of Pope John Paul II:
It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences.
In short, whether one prefers special creationism or evolutionary theories, he must still take all natural and supernatural data into account, because God is the Author of both.
As explained above, the Church has certain guidelines within which theories of evolution may be considered acceptable. Generally speaking, acceptable evolutionary theories cannot, in the words of Pius XII, “directly or indirectly oppose” revealed truths. The Church has, on various occasions, provided concrete examples.
For example, Catholics must believe that God is the free Creator of all things, spiritual and material, and that any possible development or “evolution” occurring within His creation is guided by His providential action and ordered to His glory.
This one, true God, of His own goodness and “almighty power”… with absolute freedom of counsel “and from the beginning of time, made out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and the corporeal….” By His providence God protects and governs all things which He has made, “reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.” For “all are open and laid bare to His eyes,” even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.
The truth that God is at work in all the actions of His creatures is inseparable from faith in God the Creator. God is the first cause Who operates in and through secondary causes… . Drawn from nothingness by God’s power, wisdom, and goodness, [the creature] can do nothing if it is cut off from its origin, for “without a Creator the creature vanishes.
These truths exclude atheistic, materialistic, deistic, or pantheistic theories which attribute evolution entirely to natural or random causes and events. Atheism, materialism, deism, and pantheism are erroneous philosophical assumptions which may be expressed in some scientific theories, but the assumptions are not themselves science. Pope John Paul II has warned about the dangers of erroneous philosophical assumptions masquerading as science:
The Church is not afraid of scientific criticism. She distrusts only preconceived opinions that claim to be based on science, but which in reality surreptitiously cause science to depart from its domain.
Catholics must also believe that each human soul is specially created by God, and not descended from the bodies or souls of biological parents. Pope Pius XII was explicit on this point:
…the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.
Our belief in the origin of the human soul excludes both “traducianism,” which held that a person’s soul is derived from the soul of his parents, and the non-scientific evolutionary theories of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
On the basis of divine revelation, Catholics must affirm that all human beings are descended from the same two parents, namely Adam and Eve. Some people have theorized that humans arose in several places independently, but the Church rejects the belief that not all humans are biologically related to each other. With regards to this theory, named “polygenism,” Pius XII stated:
When, however, there is a question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.
This affirmation, that all humans are descended from the same two parents, excludes the denial of an original sin which affects all men and the polygenist arguments of some racists for the superiority of some men.
Recognizing the provisional nature of scientific theories and the number of evolutionary theories in existence, the Church does not allow Catholics to “rashly…act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.” Catholics must exercise the virtue of prudence, taking into account all the natural and supernatural data, and be willing to reform their acceptance or rejection of scientific theories according to the discovery of new natural data or the judgment of the Church.