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The Mystery of Human Origins: Which theories are compatible with Catholic faith? | Mark Brumley
Scientific and religious debates over claims about
biological evolution and intelligent design have recently made front-page
headlines in the United States. Not only scientists have been publicly involved
in the fray, but also politicians, journalists, local school boards and even a Catholic cardinal.
The arguments focus on these questions: Can the work of a
Designer be seen in the diversity of life forms? Does evolution fit with
intelligent design -- and if so, then how? And most importantly for Catholics:
What does the Church teach, if anything, about the matter?
The intellectual landscape surrounding the debates is rather
complicated. Strict "neo-Darwinians" claim that evolution altogether precludes
any design or purpose in organisms. For them, evolution disproves God. "Creationists," on the other hand, reject any
form of evolution, theistic -- that is, caused by God -- or otherwise. They
usually hold that scientific evidence disproves evolution and supports their
interpretation of the biblical account of creation. Although most creationists
are evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants, a few are Catholics.
Proponents of "intelligent design" -- including both
Protestants and Catholics -- claim that science itself can discern a Designer.
They are often cool, if not hostile, to the theory of evolution, though they
reject for themselves the title "creationist." The Creator, or Designer of
life, in their view, can't be scientifically specified as God, but neither can God be ruled out.
Some argue that no natural process can account for the
emergence of human beings and that therefore we must invoke supernatural action
by God. Others argue only that supernatural action is the best of the possible
explanations for man's origin.
Finally, those who accept both evolution and design are
called "theistic evolutionists." They often disagree about whether science,
philosophy or theology best does the job of detecting design, but they agree
that evolution occurred and that God was behind it.
Some theistic evolutionists think God was deeply involved as
the first cause working in and through certain secondary causes: biological
processes and what appear to us as "random" events. He has providentially
"guided" these processes and events to bring about human evolution. Others hold
that God established only the general principles and conditions for human
evolution, leaving the details to be worked out by chance.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI
In recent years, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict
XVI (when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith) stated publicly their conclusions that evolution
has taken place and that God has been closely involved in it, rather than
letting evolution take its course without Him.
In his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,
Pope John Paul declared: "Today . . . a half-century after the appearance of [Humani
generis, the encyclical of Pope Pius XII],
some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a
hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively
greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries
in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these
independent studies -- which was neither planned nor sought -- constitutes in
itself a significant argument in favor of the theory."
The media made much of the Pope's comments, but those
weren't his first remarks on evolution. In an address to a Symposium on
Evolution in April 1985 he had stated: "Rightly comprehended, faith in creation
or a correctly understood teaching of evolution does not create obstacles:
Evolution in fact pre supposes creation; creation situates itself in the
light of evolution as an event which extends itself through time -- as a
continual creation -- in which God becomes visible to the eyes of the believers
as 'Creator of heaven and earth.'"
Several months later he declared: "All the observations
concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution
of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern
the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This
finality, which directs beings in a direction for which they are not
responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its Inventor,
its Creator" (General Audience, July 10, 1985).
The following year, the Pope stated "the theory of natural
evolution, understood in a sense that does not preclude divine causality, is
not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world,
as presented in the Book of Genesis" (General Audience, Jan. 29, 1986).
Pope John Paul insisted, as did Pope Pius XII, that while
evolution isn't necessarily opposed to creation, the human soul did not evolve. "It can therefore be said that, from
the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith" -- according to Pope John Paul --
"there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the
body, by means of the theory of evolution. But it must be added that this
hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty.
"However, the doctrine of faith invariably affirms that
man's spiritual soul is created directly by God. 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 been gradually prepared in the
forms of antecedent living beings. However, the human soul, on which man's
humanity definitively depends, cannot emerge from matter, since the soul is of
a spiritual nature" (General Audience, April 16, 1986).
In his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,
the Pope explained that materialist, reductionist and spiritualist forms of
evolutionary theory couldn't be reconciled with Christianity. These are
philosophies, he noted, not science. As such, they are subject to philosophical
refutation. The final judgment regarding their truth or falsity belongs to
philosophy and in a certain way to theology.
In 1995 Cardinal Ratzinger published a series of homilies on
creation entitled "'In the Beginning . . .' A Catholic Understanding of the
Story of Creation and the Fall." He argued there that we shouldn't speak of
"creation or evolution," but of "creation and evolution"
(emphasis added). He also referred to what he called "the inner unity of
creation and evolution and faith and reason."
With his predecessor, however, Pope Benedict has opposed the
misguided notion that evolution somehow proves there is no God who created us
in love. In his very first homily as pontiff, he insisted: "We are not some
casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a
thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is
As Catholics we can disagree with Popes John Paul II and
Benedict XVI about whether evolution occurred. That's an issue for the physical
sciences to determine. But we can also affirm with these two pontiffs that at
least some forms of evolutionary theory are compatible with the Catholic faith.
If we reject evolution altogether -- not just some philosophically erroneous
versions of it -- we must do so on grounds other than incompatibility with
The International Theological Commission
Last fall , the International Theological Commission
(ITC) touched on issues of creation and evolution in its document "Communion
and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God." This text takes
the theistic evolutionist position.
"Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on
earth are genetically related," the ITC declares, "it is virtually certain that
all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging
evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes
mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development
and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace
and mechanisms of evolution" (no. 63).
In other words, exactly how and how fast evolution
occurred remain controversial issues, but that it happened "Communion and Stewardship" seems to
On the question of science and evidence of design, the ITC
notes the debate without entering the fray: "A growing body of scientific
critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological
structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be
explained in terms of a purely contingent process [that is, a process dependent
on chance] and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of
this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and
generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of
design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology" (no. 69).
"But it is important to note," continues the ITC document,
"that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true
contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine
providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and
not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural
process can nonetheless fall within God's providential plan for creation" (no.
In laymen's terms: Even if we accept evolution as an
explanation for the diversity of organisms, including human beings, and even if
we further accept that evolution operates through chance variation, this
position doesn't exclude God, even if His role isn't scientifically detectable.
God can providentially work through what seem to us
to be "chance" or "random" events to achieve his purpose.
"In the Catholic perspective," declares the ITC,
"neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as
evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying
beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a
process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is
contingent can only be contingent because God made it so."
The ITC goes on to quote St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa
Theologiae: "An unguided evolutionary
process -- one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence -- simply
cannot exist because 'the causality of God, who is the first agent, extends to
all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the
individualizing principles. . . . It necessarily follows that all things,
inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine
providence' (Summa Theologiae I,
22, 2)" (no. 69).
Thus, the ITC insists that those who say evolution was
absolutely unguided transgress what the scientific method can discern. Such
people are philosophizing -- and poorly at that.
"Communion and Stewardship" helps clarify the debate over
evolution and creation. Perhaps, as some scientists claim, the guiding hand of
a Creator in biological diversity can't be detected by science alone -- although
some scientists (the promoters of intelligent design) claim otherwise.
Even so, that doesn't mean no Creator exists. What seems to
science mere natural selection working on "chance" events may in fact be
directed, indeed providential. As St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) once said
to a man who claimed such-and-such event happened by chance: "And who, do you
suppose, arranged the chances?"
(This article originally appeared in The Catholic Answer, January-February 2005.)
Intelligent Project Website
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Brumley is President of Ignatius
An former staff apologist with Catholic Answers, Mark is the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith (Catholic Answers) and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
He has written articles for numerous periodicals and has appeared on FOX NEWS, ABC NEWS,
EWTN, PBS's NewsHour, and other television and radio programs.
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
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