15 September 2009

Catholics & Evolution (UPDATED)

A question. . .

Please comment on how the Church deals with evolution.

A very quick response*: As far as I know, there are no magisterial documents that address evolution per se. Pope John Paul II caused a stir when he (correctly) distinguished between the use of evolution as a theory** about biological development and its use as a philosophical system. In effect, he argued that Catholics are free to understand the development of the human species as a process of evolution, but that an analogous application to philosophical, political, or theological questions is off-limits. This makes sense given that evolutionists often jump from "humans evolved over time" to "there is no Creator" or "there is no such thing as a soul." Social reformers have used evolutionary theory to propose all sorts of dangerous political ideas that have nothing to do with how humans developed/evolved biologically. Also, current attempts to explain human behavior in terms of "genetic survival" tell us nothing about why we are here in the first place. The only proper scientific answer to the question "why are we here?' is: we can't tell you.

UPDATE: Consider this book, Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI. I have to warn you--the talks can get very technical.

Several points to keep in mind:

1). There is no single, comprehensive scientific theory about evolution. The broadly construed notion of evolution is actually made up of many other "smaller theories" that purport to describe and explain fossil evidence and biological diversity. Get ten evolutionists in a room and you will have one hundred theories about how it all happens.

2). What almost all evolutionists agree on is that their theories attempt to describe and explain how an already existing species evolves over time. Evolution as a scientific theory does not and cannot tell us why anything exists in the first place.

3). Historically, Christian opposition to evolutionary theory is often based on a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the creation story in Genesis. Since St. Augustine, the Church has taken this account of creation to be metaphorical in its details but nonetheless true in its central claim: we are creatures of a loving Creator. Evolutionary theory does not and cannot tell us anything about God or His activity in His creation.

4). As a way of describing and explaining the fossil record and contemporary observations about biological development, evolutionary theory is good science, and as such, it tells the truth about biological entities and processes. Aquinas teaches us that truth has a single source: Truth Himself. If evolutionary theory accurately describes and explains the physical evidence available to us, then it is true and cannot contradict the faith.

5). Some evolutionists (cf. Dawkins) go well beyond the biological theory and make philosophical, political, and theological claims that do not follow from the theory itself. The key is to keep evolutionists honest by insisting that they do what they claim to do best: tell us about how biological entities develop over time. Out of their theory alone they have nothing to say about political, spiritual, or religious issues. Of course, evolutionists can hold any opinions that strike their fancy. But these opinions are not given scientific weight simply because they are held by scientists.

6). In modern/contemporary western culture science is to presumed to be the final arbiter of truth. Insofar as science describes and explains the physical world, this is largely true. However, human experience entails far more than the merely physical. Science can tell us how the sun shines. It cannot tell us why. Science can tell us how the universe came to be. It cannot tell us why. When scientists presume to answers outside their methodical purview, they are playing at being philosophers and theologians. The same is true for philosophers and theologians who play at being scientists!

Bottom-line: as a theory about how biological entities develop/evolve over time given a particular environment, evolutionary theory is no threat to the Catholic faith. In fact, if evolutionary theory is true, it is made true by Truth Himself.

* I'm answering this "off the top of my head," i.e. I'm not researching the answer in any substantial way, just commenting informally.

** "Theory" here should not be taken in its commonly understood sense; i.e., a guess or speculation about. In the scientific world, "theory" is understood to be a global explanation of available evidence. The Laws of Thermodynamics are scientific theories insofar as they accurately describe and explain phenomena in the real world. They are not guesses.


  1. I have discussed the issue of Genesis chapter 1 and what science tells us at:




    I will also try to e-mail to Father Powell two slide show presentations I delivered on this topic at my church St. Therese last year. (What's your e-mail? Sened to mine at iprimap "at sign" yahoo.com if you want the presentations.)

    I also encourage the reader to study Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis at:


    and Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio at:


  2. The history of the interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is a bit more complicated. Aside from Origen and Augustine (who admittedly are two very important Fathers of the Church), the Fathers mostly understood these chapters in a surprisingly literal manner (surprising given both the nature of the writing, and their general recognition of metaphorical expressions and spiritual expressions in Scripture). Augustine did not have as much influence on this matter as we might expect. The Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909, speaking on the Historical Character of the First Three Chapters of Genesis (Enchiridion Biblicum 324-331), said that one may not call into question the "literal and historical sense of Genesis" as regards things pertaining to the foundations of the Christian religion, including "the special creation of man" and "the formation of the first woman from the first man," adding that the exegetical systems which sought to exclude the historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis, and which were "defended by the pretense of science," did not have a solid foundation. This was not, of course, a doctrine statement, but a prudential guideline for what exegetes should teach. The Biblical Commission allowed exegetes to interpret the "six days" as literal 24 hour periods, or as longer periods, but it didn't assert that these days were figurative.

    As far as I am aware, the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church is the first magisterial document to actually assert that Genesis uses figurative language (n. 337).

    Pius XII, in Humani Generis addresses evolution directly, but very briefly. A document which is non-magisterial, but is important, is the International Theological Commission's "Communion and Stewardship". Its value lies particularly in its explanation of the relationship between the theory of evolution and the doctrine of creation, even as regards things coming from chance or random events: "even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation." And because God's causality extends to all kinds of causes, both determined and contingent, evolutionists who claim that random genetic variation and natural selection shows that evolution is ultimately unguided are "straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science." I give a summary of this part of the document in my booklet Darwin and Evolution From a Catholic Perspective, just published by Catholic Truth Society.

  3. Joseph, the Genesis account can be true w/o it being scientific. This is actually the thrust of my thesis: how do both science and theology go after truth in their respective domains? It is fruitless for believers to take Genesis as a scientific account. By definition such a thing is impossible.

  4. Fr. Philip,

    I was not disagreeing that the Church since St. Augustine took the creation story in Genesis to be true in its central claim (in fact the Church took it this way since the very beginning), but with the statement that since St. Augustine the Church has taken the account to be metaphorical in its details.

    I was not intending to set a dichotomy between figurative/untrue and scientific/true, but was contrasting the two poles of literal and figurative interpretation. There are in fact many degrees in between the extremes of absolutely literal and absolutely figurative, but if we try to draw a line somewhere between the literal and figurative interpretations of Genesis, Augustine's and Origen's interpretation would fall on the figurative, but that of many other Fathers would fall on the side of a literal interpretation... sometimes even what we would consider a fundamentalist, literalistic interpretation. That doesn't mean that one side or the other considered Genesis true, and the other didn't. They all considered Genesis to be stating truth, and truth taught by God; but some considered it to be stating real truth about the world, God, and creation in a literal manner, others considered it to be stating this truth in a figurative manner.

  5. Fr. Jaki postulates that the whole point of Genesis is simply that God ACTED, making all things.

    And Evolution is also the name behind "progress" as in Progressive/Nietzsche (et al.)

    Maybe Darwin did not want to establish a school of philosophy, but that's where it went.

  6. As I scientist, I would say that 1. is not entirely accurate. The "bones" of those theories are not all that different and the differences between them (while indeed mattering greatly to those 100 evolutionary biologists you have popped into the room) are not significant at the level most people will or will need to understand evolutionary biology.

    And thank you for the definition of theory in science!

  7. Michelle, in the reading I have done on the subject, there is quite a lot of disagreement among evolutionists about the specifics of the theory. Some of these disagreements seem fairly substantial. But I'm not a scientist, so...

  8. Michelle, in the reading I have done on the subject, there is quite a lot of disagreement among evolutionists about the specifics of the theory. Some of these disagreements seem fairly substantial. But I'm not a scientist, so...