There is a battle raging in our culture between science and faith. This battle is centuries old, as various philosophers and theologians have sought to divorce faith and reason. The Catholic Church has stood firmly in the middle of this battle, calling for a ceasefire. Faith and reason are meant to go together, not be torn asunder. One of the primary issues is based on erroneous interpretations of the Genesis creation account, which scientists rightly point out do not comport with reality.
The error in question is based on biblical literalism. This belief, which came about post-Reformation, is the idea that all of Scripture is to be taken literally (except John 6) and that includes the six-day creation account. This has never been the Catholic reading of Genesis precisely because the Church acknowledges that Scripture is a library of complementary, but different, genres; all of which are divinely inspired. Bishop Robert Barron elucidates:
Once of the most important principles of Catholic Biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Scriptural texts must be sensitive to the genre or literary type of the text which he is dealing. Just at it would be counter-intuitive to read Moby Dick as history or “The Waste Land” as social science, so it is silly to interpret, say “The Song of Songs” as journalism or the Gospel of Matthew as a spy novel. In the same way, it is deeply problematic to read the opening chapters of Genesis as scientific treatise.
Scripture and science will never be at odds as long as both are properly ordered to truth. Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, who is the Archbishop of Vienna and well versed on the science-religion problem, remarked:
The Catholic position on [scientific creationism] is clear. St. Thomas [Aquinas] says that “one should not try to defend the Christian Faith with arguments that are so patently opposed to reason that the Faith is made to look ridiculous.” It is simply nonsense to say that the world is only 6,000 years old. To try to prove this scientifically is what St. Thomas calls provoking the irrisio infidelium, the scorn of the unbelievers. It is not right to use such false arguments and to expose the Faith to the scorn of unbelievers.
If we are not meant to read the creation account in Genesis literally, then what was the intention of the inspired author?
A brief glimpse at ancient cosmologies.
In order to begin to understand how Catholics read Genesis, we must examine the environment in which the Israelites were living at the time. The Israelites were surrounded by peoples who submitted to violent and competitive cosmologies. Typically, a god committed some horrendous act of violence or vengeance to bring forth the world. One example is the Babylonian creation account:
It begins with a father god, Apsu, and a mother god, Tiamat, attempting to kill their own children. It continues with them being killed by their offspring instead, and with the leader of these offspring, Marduk, making the earth and sky out of his mother’s body parts.
Needless to say, the story goes on to discuss the blood of a demon being used, as well. You get the idea. It is very violent. This was common in the ancient world. Second, these peoples also worshiped elements of nature as gods: the sun, moon, seas, earth, etc.
The radically new Genesis creation account.
The ancient world was marred by a violent and listless sense of creation. Then Yahweh enters the scene and all of these cosmologies are turned completely on their heads. God brings forth the world through speaking. He says, “Let there be light” and light appeared, but it also was good. With each spoken word, the universe is brought into being and all of creation is understood to be good. There is no other god to murder or vengeful rival. Instead, God gives rise to the universe through a gratuitous act of charity. This charity is explained by Bishop Robert Barron in his recent book, Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism:
This means that the most fundamental truth of things—the metaphysics that governs reality at the deepest level—is peaceful and nonviolent. Can you see how congruent this is with Jesus’ great teachings on nonviolence and enemy love in the Sermon on the Mount? The Lord is instructing his followers to live in accord with the elemental grain of the universe.
The universe does not come into existence through violence, and instead, is predicated upon Divine charity and peace.
The universe is also intelligible, this means it can be studied and understood, which is the realm of the natural sciences, as well as the contemplative. The Genesis account illuminates how it was God who created the sun, moon, stars, clouds, fish, human beings, etc. This means that these elements are not gods within themselves. They are not meant to be worshipped, but they can be studied and contemplated in view of the creator. Only the one true God is meant to be worshiped: The Most Holy Trinity, Yahweh.
God also creates man and woman imago Dei, in the image and likeness of God. Man and woman are the ontological joining of matter and the immaterial, body and soul. We are the bridge between two realities. We have the supernatural element of spirit, also found in the angels, and in God Himself, who is pure Spirit, but we are also matter. We dwell within the created universe. This creation by God was born of love, not violence, pride, or vengeance. Man and woman are made for God. Our ultimate end is to live eternally in communion with the three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity.
How are we to interpret the Genesis creation account?
Genesis is a theological work. It is meant to teach us about Divine truths and realities. It does not teach us the time it took to create the universe in any literal sense. What it does teach us is that we are made imago Dei, we are body and soul, God spoke the universe into being through a sheer act of love, the world is intelligible, and creation is not divine. For Catholics, the central truth of Genesis is that God created us to love and be in communion with Him. We can see that the universe is good and intelligible, therefore, we can study and come to know and understand it through science, philosophy, art, music, theology, and any other human pursuit. The universe, through its beauty and grandeur, reveals to us that God is good and gratuitous in His giving. Genesis tells us about the supernatural beginning of the universe, not the scientific timeline for the beginning of the universe.
Where is the conflict for science and Catholicism on Genesis, then?
There isn’t one. Much of the battle being waged is based on a variety of factors. I don’t have word space to cover all of them here, so I will only mention a couple. Rationalism and reductionism, or the beliefs largely held by today’s scientists, hold that the only things that can be known (the only things that are real) are those that can be tested by the scientific method and reason. All we can truly know is through our senses and experiences. The limitations of rationalism should be obvious immediately. The scientific method, nor reason for that matter, can provide us with a complete explanation of the experiences of love or beauty.
The problem with atheist scientists of the last few centuries is they overstep the bounds of their respective fields. Science by its very nature cannot tell us anything about God because even natural theology falls outside the bounds of the scientific method. Science can support theological and spiritual truths in demonstrating that God is good, He created a beautiful universe, the universe is intelligible, etc., but science cannot go beyond the scope of the natural universe. Its role is purely to test, understand, and postulate about those things which can be tested through the scientific method. God, who is purely supernatural, cannot be put through the rigors of the scientific method. The realm of metaphysics belongs to philosophy and theology. Science will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God, regardless of the rather arrogant claims of some scientists.
Faith, revelation, religion, these elements are devised from the supernatural and so they belong to the Church. It is the Church who studies, prays, and learns the truths revealed to us from God. She can speak on matters of a supernatural nature, where science cannot. The Church also cannot speak on matters of science, except through her scientists. In other words, the Church never makes pronouncements on scientific discoveries. She may teach that science always must conform to truth, but she does not make pronouncements on specific theories. She speaks in order to clarify theological points in relation to scientific discoveries on certain matters, such as in the case of evolution and Humani Generis–which I will cover next week–but she will never uphold one scientific theory or another in any formal sense.
The Catholic Church has within her a wide array of scientists working day and night in the pursuit of scientific inquiry. Many of these scientists are priest, brothers and sisters religious, and members of the laity. Since the universe is good, beautiful, and reflects the glory of God, it is only natural for the Mystical Body to marvel, study, and deepen her understanding of creation through scientific study. Reason and faith are both meant to be employed in every single human person.
The Catholic Church does not take the creation account in Genesis literally. Science has clearly shown that the universe is billions of years old. Genesis is not meant to give a real-time play-by-play of God’s first six-days working on creation. Rather, it is meant to teach us about who God is and how he operates within the universe. Creation is born of a gratuitous act of love, not violence and retaliatory violence. Human beings as “embodied spirits” are rational creatures made for love with an ultimate end of communion with the Beatific Vision.
The issue here is not that Catholics reject scientific discoveries, far from it. The issue is that far too many scientists have overstepped their boundaries by thinking they can wade into the supernatural. The supernatural cannot be observed or tested through the scientific method. Scientists are limited by the natural universe. They will never be able to prove or disprove the existence of God. Those matters are left to the Church and the revelation given to us through the very real, and historical God-man, Jesus Christ.