Posts filed under: evolution

So, I know that we catholics believe science and faith should go hand in hand, thus we dont interpret the bible literally and we believe in things like evolution, while remaining creationists; my question being what is the catholic stance on the science of intelligent design. While I believe in evolution and in the big bang theory, I still see the presence of God in his beautiful creation, thus, in my mind, intelligent design and conventional science coexist with no problem. - amigocesar

Hey, good question, and so sorry to take forever to get back to you!

Discovering design in the universe (part of which we recognize as beauty) has always been part of the way Catholics have said that you can prove that God exists. Saint Paul essentially says it himself in Romans 1:20… “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.”

But how do we discover that design? Is it through human philosophical intuition, or can we actually prove scientifically that something is designed? The Catholic intellectual tradition has always said that it’s just through the first. The intelligent design movement, which dates from the end of the 1990s, says that it can be done scientifically, i.e., experimentally. Catholic philosophers and theologians tend to disagree with that: What conceivable experiment could show scientifically that something is or isn’t a product of natural processes or some sort of designer?

So yes, if intelligent design really seemed to be a scientifically tenable position, I too would be on that bandwagon. But what you won’t read in creationist circles is that ID has pretty much totally stalled out at a scientific level. Beyond a couple of books, mostly famously Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, ID really hasn’t produced any significant scientific output. A few people got into it but then got out quickly; there just wasn’t any real way to quantify design inference, and if you can’t do that, you can’t design an experimental research program. As far as I know, there has been virtually no peer-reviewed ID publication going on recently. Behe’s core claims and examples have been pretty much taken apart, and William Dembski’s follow-up attempt was imaginative but didn’t do much better (here’s a critique that is somewhat technical, if the philosophical lingo doesn’t throw you).

So there isn’t a “Catholic stance on the science of intelligent design.” The Church will simply leave it up to philosophers of science as well as scientists themselves to hash it out. ID, like a lot of seemingly fresh ideas in science, really hasn’t panned out in practice.

So I would just slightly modify your last sentence, and then I’ll agree entirely with you: “While I believe in evolution and in the big bang theory, I still see the presence of God in his beautiful creation, thus, in my mind, discovering and acknowledging design and conventional science coexist with no problem.”

I personally think it’s far more impressive to discover a God who brings galaxies and planets and gorillas and paramecia into existence by simply letting physical laws “set in stone” from the very beginning of time run their course and shape our universe than to think of a “mechanic” God who has to personally wire and configure every species that he sets in motion. Of course, the Church also has some very clear things to say about the human soul not arising from evolutionary processes (it would be impossible, since the soul is spiritual), but that’s really not the issue here.

Here are some more things I’ve written about evolution recently. A complex topic, to be sure!

God bless you.

- Father Shane

I have a question about Paul and how he refers to Adam. What is he doing when he relates Jesus to Adam? Is he saying that Adam is real, and if so how do i reconcile that with evolution and archaeological discoveries of early humans. Your answer would be greatly appreciated. - Anonymous

Sure! A couple basic parameters:

1) This is an open theological question and has been for 30-40 years. Theologians disagree amongst themselves, and the Church hasn’t given any hard-and-fast teaching that we have to follow. So there is a certain amount of room for exploration of new styles of answers to this, but that also means that there’s no “standard” answer I can give you.

2) What really differs between a Catholic response to this and a fundamentalist Protestant response is that Catholics don’t interpret Scripture “literally” (and never have, even going back to St. Augustine and before). In part because Scripture doesn’t make sense in a “literal” sense so very often. Instead, God uses it in many different ways: to speak to us in a spiritual way or even sometimes a literal way, etc., but Scripture isn’t the sort of cut-and-dried “history” that we have come to expect in the last couple centuries.

That means that we can discuss Genesis using terms like “mythical language.” Careful: We’re not saying that Genesis “isn’t true” or is simply “a pious fable.” What we’re saying is that the biblical writers felt free to employ means of expression that were in basic use by the peoples around them in order to deal with realities that nobody can fully explain in any sort of ordinary language. Everybody, even the peoples of the Middle East, know that serpents don’t talk and that God doesn’t have a body with which to breathe life into Adam or to walk in the garden… that sort of language instead is a vehicle for deeper truths.

Pope Benedict sort of echoed that idea in his Easter homily this year, which touches on some other very important points about creation that are worth reading if you’re interested:

At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being.

Having said that, we have to be *very* careful about how we apply it. Because what we’re going to get at is that Genesis 1-3 contains some critical truths about the world and our place in it, but that we end up assuming things that the writers didn’t mean if we take other things too literally. Just some of the truths present: the world was created good by God and it expresses order; man and woman are made for each other and marriage and sexual union are blessed by God; disorder in the world and strife among humans are somehow a result of very ancient human sin that disfigured us, etc., etc.

So if you read #397-399 of the Catechism, you’ll see right away that it defines that first sin in general terms, and then says “Scripture portrays” it. 

You know, of course, that the word “Adam” means simply “the man.” In fact, in Hebrew it wouldn’t even be capitalized, so though we use it as a man’s name, in some Bible translations you’ll simply find “the man” being used instead of the word “Adam.”

So was Adam a real historical person? At times in the Church it’s been said that we have to believe that literally. But with recent Biblical scholarship, Church documents have really backed away from that. In part because it’s not really necessary in order for us to understand the truth of the story. No matter whether you consider evolution a scientifically credible explanation for human origins (I do) or not, there would have had to have been first humans. For us, it’s easy to speak of a number of humans (whether it’s two or two thousand) who were born from non-humans (i.e. primates without immortal souls) and to whom souls were given; for fundamentalist creationists, God simply fashioned man directly. Either way, that first set of humans would have been responsible for whatever it was that happened. It’s shrouded in history to such an extent that we probably can’t understand it fully without some sort of further revelation by God, but for some reason God seems to have thought that Genesis 1-3 was enough for us to understand it.

St. Paul’s contrast between “Adam’s work” (original sin) and Jesus’ work (redemption) is fine either way. Thanks to some action by some human or humans, sin came into the world, etc. 

Anyway, I think that if you take this perspective, it’s pretty easy to go back and read Romans 5 (as well as other passages; there’s a good list here) and see how St. Paul’s words apply perfectly well either to a mysterious scenario at our origins or to a man-woman duo in Eden.

Hope it helps! (And I think this is accurate enough, though if anybody with deeper theological knowledge of the issue can correct any points, I’d be happy to fix them.) God bless you.

- Father Shane

How does the story of Adam and Eve fit into evolution? - Anonymous

If you think that evolution is a good explanation for how lifeforms came to be what they are today (and I think it’s an excellent one, though obviously the Church is right in saying that human beings can’t fully be explained by biological evolution, that we have a spiritual component that must have arisen some other way), then you’re just like a “6-day creationist”: You think that there were some “first human beings.” The first ones with real intellectual powers, full power of free willing, etc., everything that we Catholics associate with the spiritual soul.

Science can’t really tell us much about what those first human beings were like. But our faith does tell us something about them. Here’s how the Catechism puts it:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. (#390)

So their sin happened. What was it exactly? Well, that’s pretty difficult to ascertain from the story we’re told. The language it uses isn’t the journalistic style with which we would like it to be told to us.

Here’s an excellent video by Fr Robert Barron that explains the basic style with which we have to read those first 3 chapters of Genesis. (Then he got asked to explain further and recorded this.)

Hope that helps. God bless you!

- Father Shane

I'm having problems when it comes to the soul and evolution. When did God infuse us with a soul. If you could go intoore depth about evolution and the creation of the soul that would be much appreciated:) - Anonymous

That’s one of the thorniest questions in theology right now!

But it’s fairly easy to untangle in this sense at least… When did God infuse you with a soul? The answer of course is “at conception.” The soul wasn’t in a father’s sperm or a mother’s egg, and it wasn’t preexisting somewhere in heaven. It was given by God to you, forming you, at the moment you came to be.

So if that happens in the case of every single human being, as soon as, in the classic formulation, “predisposed matter” was there, it’s not actually that hard of a question to answer. Having a soul isn’t a biological property — it’s a spiritual one. So we shouldn’t expect biological evolution to ever have brought it about.

Rather, at some point, as “theistic evolutionary” theories have it, creatures that weren’t human — didn’t have a soul — gave birth to creatures that were given souls by God. Do we know much about that event? No. Did it change us a lot? Definitely.

We’re not random products of random events; God was somehow in his providence guiding the process by which human beings came to be. And the process by which you would come to be! God is good.

God bless you!

- Father Shane

What is the Catholic Church's belief about evolution? - Anonymous

Well, you really can’t have a belief about evolution. It’s a scientific theory, so either you’re convinced by it (after hearing it out and doing a careful and thorough evaluation in a competent and scientific way, something that folks on either side tend not to do with evolution and climate change) or you’re not. It’s not a matter of “faith” strictly speaking.

So the Church doesn’t rule on strictly scientific matters. But she does have a lot to say about creation and human nature, which brings up a few important points that can’t be neglected:

  • God is the one and only creator of the universe.
  • Evolution doesn’t imply either materialism or atheism. (Materialism is a philosophical viewpoint anyway, not science. You can’t prove with the scientific method that nothing spiritual exists.)
  • God doesn’t just cause existence, but he causes things to cause other things. So whatever means by which life came to be, he was the author of them.
  • The human person is totally unlike all other life forms since we have an immortal and immaterial soul — if you can’t figure out that we’re different from everything else just by looking around, then you wouldn’t make a good scientist anyway ;-) — and no spiritual life can arise from something merely material, so God must be the creator of our souls.
  • At some point, there were first humans, whose souls were created by God in the same way that yours and mine were.
  • Science is very powerful, but it can’t answer all of our questions about the human person.
  • So evolution isn’t in conflict with our belief in God the Creator, and any apparent conflicts with Genesis 1-3 are based on our own human misunderstandings of what Genesis 1-3 are trying to tell us.

So the YouCat says (#42):

Although it is a different kind of knowledge, faith is open to the findings and hypotheses of the sciences. Theology has no scientific competence, and natural science cannot dogmatically rule out the possibility that there are purposeful processes in creation; conversely, faith cannot define specifically how these processes take place in the course of nature’s development. A Christian can accept the theory of evolution as a helpful explanatory model, provided he does not fall into the “heresy” of evolutionism, which views man as the random product of biological processes. Evolution presupposes the existence of something that can develop. The theory says nothing about where this “something” came from. Furthermore, questions about the being, essence, dignity, mission, meaning, and reason for the world and man cannot be answered in biological terms. Just as “evolutionism” oversteps a boundary on the one side, so does creationism on the other. Creationists naively take biblical data literally (for example, to calculate the earth’s age, they cite the six days of work in Genesis 1).

I could go on and on, but we’ll leave it at that… God bless you!

- Father Shane

Hey Father!
I was wondering what the Catholic view on Creationism was?
- Anonymous

Here’s something I wrote a little while back on that. If the answer isn’t clear enough, feel free to write back and ask!

God bless you.

- Father Shane

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