There is a great misperception in the culture that Catholicism is anti-science. Many college students confront this error when they encounter reductionism, rationalism, and materialism through their professors. These students do not know how to respond–and far too often–dismiss Catholicism outright because they don’t realize answers to their questions exist within the Church’s 2000-year history. One of greatest causes of confusion is the topic of evolution.
The reason for this confusion is two-fold. First, many Catholics do not realize the Church’s position on evolution and may not even look for answers before accepting the materialist position. Second, the abandonment of philosophy as the joining discipline between science and theology has destroyed much of the dialogue that has taken place between these two fields over the centuries. An example is the bridge created through St. Thomas Aquinas’ first-cause argument. The first-cause argument grounds scientific inquiry in the first-cause, who is God. Without this argument, science quickly devolves into materialism, and ceases to look out beyond itself.
The divorce from philosophy creates an environment where both theology and the natural sciences overstep their bounds. This is most evidenced by the rationalist-materialist declaration that there is no God, while the biblical literalist tells us the world is only 6000 years old, even though God-given reason tells us otherwise, on both accounts. Answers to the complexities of life are reduced to either a material level or turned into a faith-based system devoid of reason. The Catholic approach is not an either/or, it is a both/and system. We say yes to scientific discovery, yes to Aquinas and Aristotle, and yes to the Book of Genesis. That’s far more yeses than we are given from either the scientism camp or the creationism camp. I only have the space to provide a brief overview of the Church’s view of evolution, but I will return to the philosophy problem at a later date.
Today I will briefly outline the Church’s historical position on evolution through a series of documents and talks given by Popes in the last 66 years. First, it is important to understand that the Church makes no official pronouncements on matters of science. That is not within her authority. She promulgates teachings of faith as given to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. She cannot overstep her boundaries and make judgments on matters of science. The only time she formally responds to scientific matters is when theological or spiritual issues are involved. Popes and theologians discuss scientific discoveries, but the Church has no official position on any scientific theory. Which leads us to the Church’s first discussion of evolution.
Humani Generis: The Church formally speaks on evolution for the first time.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Humani Generis, which deals with various intellectual trends in matters of science, philosophy, and theology. Darwin’s theory of evolution was nearly 100 years old and clearly influencing all disciplines within the natural sciences. Humani Generis demonstrated a position held by the Church throughout those 100 years, but one that had not been formally recognized until its promulgation. Evolution of the body and nature does not contradict Catholic doctrine, so long as it is held that God is the first cause of the universe.
[T]he 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. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church.
Humani Generis 36.
Humani Generis addresses two issues in this section. First, there can never be evolution of the soul because it is created with God as its first cause. Since the soul is immaterial it cannot evolve as things in the material universe evolve. This means the faculties of the soul—intellect and will—do not evolve as the body evolves. The Church has a clear obligation to clarify this position for the Mystical Body and the world.
Second, the Church wants to make it clear that no one is required to submit to evolutionary theory and that open and reasoned dialogue should take place between persons on this topic. Each member within the Church is permitted to agree or disagree with various aspects of evolutionary theory, but the Church also dismisses outright, an overly literal interpretation of Genesis as a book of science.
Why is the Church open to the possibility of evolution?
The Church does not presume to limit the creative power, will, and scope of God. The Church herself holds that God acts primarily through secondary causes [i.e. an antibiotic curing an infection]. This is why the cause for sainthood is such a rigorous and scientific process. God rarely acts as the first cause in healing a person or through other direct interventions in the natural order. If God is found to be the primary cause, after rigorous scientific inquiry, then a miracle is declared. The Church recognizes the natural order God created including the powers and potentialities that exist within nature.
The use of intermediary [i.e. secondary] causes does not indicate a God who is less intelligent and powerful than one who would make things directly, but one who is more intelligent and powerful. Getting non-intelligent beings to participate in the production of the world is more difficult than doing everything oneself—one has to design the instruments (the elements) themselves in such a way as to allow them to share in this task…making things not only to be, but to be causes shows greater power.
Christopher T. Baglow, Faith, Reason, & Science: Theology on the Cutting Edge, quoting Marie George, 179-180.
Saint John Paul II on evolution.
In 1986, Saint John Paul II returned to Humani Generis while expanding in light of new scientific findings. It has become increasingly clear through the research of multiple disciplines–not just biology–that evolution is proving to be more than a hypothesis in numerous cases. While many in the scientific field may be impatient with the Church’s cautious attitude, scientists need to remember that the Church lives according to the virtue of prudence. For example, the Church took hundreds of years to formally clarify her Christology. Plus, the Church is never going to make any formal declarations on the validity of evolution. This does not mean the Church is not involved in scientific study and discussions on a wide range of topics. Saint John Paul II continues the discussion on evolution:
There are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body by means of the theory of evolution. According to the hypothesis mentioned it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have gradually been prepared in the form of antecedent living beings [i.e. living beings that existed prior to humanity].
John Paul II, “Humans are Spiritual and Corporeal Beings”, April 16, 1986.
In 1996 John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the topic of evolution stating that new scientific findings “lead us toward recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”
The limitations of evolution.
While this may be the case, it by no means leads us to conclude that evolution is the answer to everything, which is the mistaken belief of far too many people today. Pope Benedict XVI stated in 2007:
But the doctrine of evolution does not answer everything and does not answer the great philosophical question: Where does everything come from? And how does everything take a path that ultimately leads to the person? It seems to me that it is very important that reason opens up even more, that it sees this information [about evolution], but that it also sees that this information is not enough to explain all of reality.
“Pontiff: Evolution Does Not Exclude a Creater”, in Zenit: The World Seen from Rome Daily Dispatch, July 27, 2001.
Evolution is a valuable theory in explaining how God uses secondary causes within the universe. Science is a good that should be pursued and God gives us reason so that we can come to know him through the beauty, wonder, intelligibility, and grandeur of his Creation. The natural sciences, however, do not tell us everything we need to know about the natural order of things. Science cannot address matters related to the immaterial, or spiritual, realities of man and God. Science can never penetrate the ontological level of mankind. This is why philosophy and theology are essential. Philosophy and theology help us to understand God, human beings, the universe, and eschatology at the deeper level of faith guided by reason.
The Church walks the middle road. She always walks the middle road, which is why she is derided by both sides during most battles. The Church teaches us that God is the first cause of the universe. He spoke Creation into being through a gratuitous act of charity. God is “to be” itself. Man and woman are material and immaterial, “embodied spirits” per Saint Thomas Aquinas. The body may be a product of God driven evolution, but the soul does not evolve. The soul is created by God as its first cause.
It is important for us to remember that faith and reason must always be ordered to truth. That means no scientific finding can ever contradict the teachings of the Faith. When we understand this reality we can live in freedom, rather than in fear and confusion. It is also important to look for the Church’s answers rather than assuming they do not exist. This type of mentality is a form of intellectual laziness, which needs to be discarded. As Catholics, we have an obligation to seek out answers to questions that arise. Seeking truth goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.
This is a very brief introduction on the topic of evolution and the Church. Hopefully, it will lead people to examine the relationship between Catholicism and science more closely. The Catholic Church is where science, philosophy, and theology all converge as mankind continues on its journey towards truth, who is the Triune God.