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The Mystery of Human Origins: Which theories are compatible with Catholic faith? | Mark Brumley

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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 necessary."

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 Christianity.

The International Theological Commission

Last fall [2004], 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 accept.

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. 69).
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.)

Related Resources:

Intelligent Project Website
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | Thomas Dubay, S.M.
Deadly Architects | An Interview with Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker

Mark Brumley is President of Ignatius Press.

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.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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