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Brief historical overview of the position of the Church's Magisterium on evolutionism

Author: Santiago Collado. Deputy Director of group of research "Ciencia, razón y fe" (CRYF) of the University of Navarra.
Published in: Temas de Actualidad Familiar. Toledo: Movimiento Familiar Cristiano; 2010, pp. 95-111.
Date of publication: 24 August 2010



The publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 was a true revolution in the way we understand biology and the history of life on our planet. Many have considered that this book made it possible to provide answers to the phenomena observed in the world of living beings from the natural sciences.

By the time Darwin's book was published, transformationalist ideas had already been in circulation for at least fifty years. What Darwin and Wallace apparently provided was a mechanism that allowed a plausible and simple explanation for the increase of complexity in the realm of life without the need for teleological explanations. Such explanations were the basis for the then most widespread arguments for the existence of God. Darwin's book seemed to leave the argument from finality unsupported and, consequently, God seemed to be displaced by science. This contribution created a B division in the cultural world of the time. proposal On the one hand, there were those who saw in Darwinian theory a scientific justification for defending materialism, and on the other, those who found it insufficient from a scientific or philosophical point of view. Many saw Darwin's proposal as a serious threat to a Christian understanding of reality.

Controversy was the hallmark of the publication of the Origin of Species from the outset. His ideas posed problems, as in the "Galileo case", on two different levels. On the one hand, Darwin was confronted with the then prevailing philosophical worldview. In this worldview, finality played an important role. Newton's mechanics had succeeded in stripping the physical world of finality, and teleology had therefore been confined to the world of living beings. The "argument from design" put forward by Paley in the early 19th century was the paradigm of the prevailing teleological worldview of the time. This argument, which was no longer equivalent to the argument from the finality of St. Thomas, seemed to be left without foundation as a consequence of the Darwinist thesis . On the other hand, Darwin's proposals seemed to be in contradiction with the Scriptures. If to these two problems we add the ideological use that some made of Darwinism to defend materialism and atheism and, also, the strictly scientific difficulties that soon arose against the essentials of Darwinism (variation plus natural selection as the main cause of evolution), it is understandable that, despite its initial success, Darwinism went through moments of decline and that many intellectuals and, in particular, most Christian theologians were opposed to Darwinism and considered it as a theory that was difficult to reconcile with Christian doctrine. In any case, Darwinism revolutionised the scientific, cultural and philosophical environment of the late 19th century and left no one indifferent.

Despite the civil service examination that theologians and many philosophers initially exercised against the new doctrine, however, the Catholic Church as such can be said to have made very few and very measured magisterial statements concerning evolutionary theories. There is no doubt that such theories are relevant to the contents of the Faith. Indeed, there were complaints to the ecclesiastical authorities about books defending Darwinism or its compatibility with the Faith. But it also seems clear that the shadow of the "Galileo affair" has been cast over the way in which the Magisterium of the Church has dealt with problems related to Darwinism.

Magisterium and exegesis

In relation to Darwinism there have been two types of magisterial interventions. One refers directly and explicitly to Darwinism. The others, without referring directly to this doctrine, have nevertheless conditioned the theological subject discussions that have been held and have also, in some way, prepared the explicit interventions.

Indirect interventions are reference letter, mainly concerning the way in which the Holy Scriptures are to be read. The statements of the Magisterium in this regard have served to distance the trend of Catholic theology, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century, more and more from the positions held by Protestants in the United States. The latter have been, in general and despite their lack of unity, openly belligerent: they gave rise in the first half of the 20th century to Fundamentalism and, in the second half, to so-called Scientific Creationism. In Catholic theology, on the other hand, although there has been no lack of friction, there was a progressive acceptance of evolutionary theories throughout the 20th century.

It is important to bear in mind when consulting the magisterial sources that, in relation to Evolution, the terminology has been gradually clarified. A distinction is now made, for example, between evolutionary theories and evolutionary doctrines, or evolution and evolutionism. The former are purely scientific theories, while the latter include doctrines of a philosophical or even ideological nature. There are magisterial documents in which words such as "evolutionism" are used in connection with scientific theories, such as reference letter . This is the case, for example, in the "Humani Generis".

Both explicit and indirect interventions have been taken up and interpreted anew by the magisterium of John Paul II, who has paid great attention to the relationship between faith and reason and, in particular, between science and faith. The philosophical and theological implications of evolutionary theories are also receiving attention in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who had already dealt with them before he became pope.

The two most important magisterial interventions concerning the interpretation of the Sacred Scripture are the encyclical "Providentissimus Deus" of Leo XIII, published in 1893, and the encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu" of Pius XII, published in 1943. Although in different contexts, both set out the criteria applicable in the Catholic interpretation of the Bible and address the problems arising in the exegetical work from two contexts, in a certain sense, opposed to each other. The first insisted on the inspired character of the sacred texts when that character seemed to be threatened by liberal exegesis. The second encouraged the integration of the true contributions of literary criticism and the consideration of the different literary genres in order to illuminate the true meaning of these texts. A particularly enlightening intervention by John Paul II that glosses both encyclicals, in their unity and specificity, was the speech given on 23 April 1993 on the occasion of the centenary of the first encyclical and the fiftieth anniversary of the second:

"First of all, there is an important difference between these two documents: grade . It is the polemical - or, more precisely, apologetic - part of the two encyclicals. Indeed, they both express the concern to respond to the attacks against the Catholic interpretation of the Bible, but these attacks were not directed in the same direction. Providentissimus Deus", on the one hand, wants above all to protect the Catholic interpretation of the Bible from the attacks of rationalistic science; on the other hand, "Divino afflante Spiritu" is more concerned to defend the Catholic interpretation from attacks which oppose the use of science by exegetes and which want to impose a non-scientific, so-called "spiritual" interpretation of the Bible Sacred Scripture" (n. 3). (...) "We note that, despite the great diversity of the difficulties to be faced, the two encyclicals are perfectly united on a deeper level. Both refute, one as much as the other, the rupture between the human and the divine, between the scientific research and the gaze of faith, between the literal sense and the spiritual sense. On this point, both are fully in harmony with the mystery of the incarnation" (n. 5). (n. 5).

The spirit in which the Church has encouraged the exegesis of sacred texts is expressed by John Paul in the same text in these words: "[It is a matter of] understanding the meaning of the texts as accurately and precisely as possible and, therefore, in their historical and cultural context. A false idea of God and of the Incarnation pushes a certain issue of Christians to follow a contrary orientation. They tend to believe that, since God is the absolute Being, each of his words has an absolute value, independent of all the conditioning factors of human language. (...) When [God] expresses himself in human language, he does not give each expression a uniform value, but uses the possible nuances with extreme flexibility, and also accepts their limitations" (n. 8).

John Paul II has also made interventions that adapt the principles of previous documents to the interpretation of biblical passages that are more closely related to new scientific knowledge. In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1981, speech , he said: "The Bible speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its constitution, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but to clarify man's relationship with God and with the universe. The Sacred Scripture simply wants to declare that the world was created by God, and to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology customary at the time of the writer. The sacred book also wants to communicate to men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as other cosmogonies and cosmologies taught, but that it was created in the service of man and for the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and constitution of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which is not intended to teach how heaven was made but how to get to heaven. Any scientific hypothesis about the origin of the world, such as that of a primitive atom from which the whole of the physical universe would be derived, leaves open the problem concerning the beginning of the universe. Science cannot solve such a question by itself: we need that human knowledge which rises above physics and astrophysics and which is called metaphysics; we need, above all, the knowledge which comes from the revelation of God".

The universal interventions of the Magisterium in relation to evolutionary theories, which have been few in number, have been consistent, as far as compatibility with Scripture is concerned, with these principles.

Interventions on Darwinism in the second half of the 19th century

Consistent with the above, the atmosphere surrounding meeting between Darwinism and Catholic theology reflects the tension that existed in the second half of the 19th century between science and Christianity. The perception of many was that theology was threatened by science. But this perception was a consequence of doctrines and ideologies that were presented as being supported by science. In the last quarter of the 19th century, for example, books were published defending the thesis permanent conflict between science and theology. In these years there were theologians who argued that the divine and immediate creation of the body belonged to faith.

The Vatican, consistent with the principles outlined above, did not at this time consider evolution a theological doctrine on which it had to pronounce itself. The Congregation of the Holy See official document is competent to condemn doctrines contrary to the Faith. But, in fact, there is no intervention of the congregation of the Holy official document on evolution. There is, however, one magisterial intervention in direct relation to evolution in these years. It was the Council of Cologne in 1860. In the first part of its decrees, degree scroll IV, chapter XIV, we read: "The first fathers were created [conditi] immediately by God. Therefore, we declare that the opinion of those who are not ashamed to affirm that man, as far as the body is concerned, originated by a spontaneous change [spontanea immutatione] from the more imperfect nature into the more perfect and, in a continuous way, finally human, is completely contrary to Sacred Scripture and to faith".

It is certainly an explicit condemnation of the evolutionary origin of man, but with nuances. It did not condemn the evolutionary origin as such, but only those who claimed that this evolutionary process had taken place spontaneously, i.e. without the assistance of divine action. In this case, only the origin of the body was under discussion, and not the soul, for which, of course, a special divine action was assumed to be required. It should also be noted that this council had no dogmatic authority, nor was it recognised by Rome. What this meeting does reflect well is the theological climate in which Darwinism was received by the Church. But even if this climate was contrary and, initially, theological manuals criticised evolutionary theories, their authors could not provide authoritative arguments in the Catholic sphere. Between 1877 and 1900 the manuals, in their attacks on evolution, do make reference letter to alleged direct interventions of the authority of Rome, but the source was always La Civiltà Cattolica. The references to the authority were always indirect and not concrete quotations of interventions of the magisterium, which, in fact, did not occur at that time.

The most noteworthy of these years, which correspond to the papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903), are the denunciations made to the competent authorities about books by Catholics who defended the compatibility of evolution with the Faith. This forced the Congregation of the Index to intervene on several occasions. A study by Mariano Artigas and Rafael Martínez focuses on six Catholic authors on whom this congregation pronounced itself. They are the most representative cases of the pontificate of Leo XIII. The result of work shows that the theory of evolution was the subject of discussion and discussions within the Congregation of the Index. Although there was a diversity of opinions, and some of them openly conciliatory, in general the positions against the new theory prevailed. But this civil service examination was always conducted with great prudence.

Of six cases studied, 2 bishops, 2 religious, 1 priest and 1 layman, only three provoked an intervention by the Roman congregation. Of these three, only one, that of the priest of the diocese of Florence named Caverni (1837-1900), provoked a condemnation which was published by decree in 1878. His book New programs of study from Philosophy. Speeches to a young student was included in the Index of banned books. This was in fact the only case in which a book by a Catholic was put on the index because of its evolutionary ideas. In connection with this case it should be noted that the congregation itself speaks of an "indirect condemnation" of Darwinism. The Congregation of the Index could not rely on previous statements on this doctrine, and had no competence to say that something was contrary to the faith, but only to warn of the dangers that a reading could have for Christians. The main architect of the condemnation was Cardinal consultant Tommaso Maria Zigliara. On his report he wrote: "the theory of evolution is absurd from the metaphysical point of view, because it is based on false principles, it is an arbitrary and even contradictory hypothesis, and it is even absurd from the point of view of physiology". This statement is an example of the views of some theologians of the time. Although it was not the only position, it nevertheless had a determining influence on these interventions of the Congregation.

A book by Leroy (1828-1905), a Dominican friar, and another by John A. Zahm (1851-1921), an American priest and professor of physics at Notre Dame, also provoked the intervention of the Congregation. Leroy's case was the most hotly debated. There were as many as four consultants, the first, for example, was clearly favourable in his opinion in which he explicitly quoted the Providentissimus Deus published only a few months earlier. The fourth consultant was, however, much more unfavourable and led the congregation to invite the author to retract it. No condemnation was ever published and the book was therefore never included in the Index. The value of the condemnation, since it was not published, was subject to various interpretations. Zahm's case became more notorious because, when he was denounced, he was postulator general of the order "Congregation of the Holy Cross" and because of his links with some exponents of "Americanism". The consultant in charge was the same one who intervened against Leroy. In this case, he also obtained a condemnation of Zham's book and was urged to make a retraction. The consultant, Enrico Buonpensiere, even tried, and failed, to have the Congregation condemn the doctrine that man was created immediately and directly from the slime of the earth. In the end, the condemnation was not made public, nor did Zham have to retract it. Therefore, there was no public document by the Roman authorities either for or against evolutionism in this case.

The following can therefore be said in general terms about this period:

  1. That the Congregation of the Holy official document did not intervene in any of the cases.

  2. That, although a majority of theologians were opposed to evolution, there was no determined policy regarding this doctrine on the part of the Vatican authorities. The Vatican authorities were aware that there was no doctrinal decision on evolution, and it seems that they were not overly interested in provoking one.

  3. That the interventions of the Congregation of the Index were in response to specific complaints made to that congregation, and therefore the initiative did not come from the Roman authorities. When some authors defended the compatibility of evolution with Catholic doctrine, the authorities preferred not to condemn them by a public act, but rather to persuade them to retract their ideas, even with a simple letter published in a newspaper.

Interventions of the Magisterium on Darwinism in the 20th century

In the Catholic sphere, unlike what happened with Protestants in the United States, the compatibility of evolutionary thesis with revealed doctrine was gradually accepted. In the early 1930s, an author such as Ernst Messenger defended this compatibility in the academic sphere with little or no support civil service examination. In the 1940s this subject of programs of study became more and more frequent. Finally, the first explicit statement in a magisterial document was made in Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, published on 12 August 1950. This statement has been a constant point of reference letter for subsequent documents.

In the theological sphere, the current status is a far cry from that which prevailed at the beginning of Darwinism and even from that which dominated at the beginning of the 20th century. The complete consonance between the Magisterium and the current theological climate can be seen in documents such as Communion and Service. The human person created in the image of God of 23-VII-2004, drawn up by the "International Theological Commission". This document synthesises and sets out in a unitary and harmonious way, in its numbers 62-70, the knowledge on origins provided by the natural sciences and the magisterial declarations pronounced throughout the 20th century.

Humani Generis

In this encyclical, Pope Pius XII expresses his concern about the erroneous doctrines that were being spread in a hidden or open manner, to the detriment of souls and the authority of the Church. He denounces those who advocate that theological concepts should be replaced according to the philosophical systems which at any given time support the explanations of dogma. He calls this dogmatic relativism. He affirms that it is imprudent to want to replace what has taken so much effort to formulate and evaluate work with new fashionable notions that prove to be extremely ephemeral. In this context he defends the theology of St Thomas.

The encyclical warns of the spirit of novelty that is taking hold of many of the Church's children and the damage this causes, and is obliged to recall the power of reason when it is nourished by a healthy Philosophy, the Philosophy used by the Magisterium, confirmed and commonly accepted by the Church.

The first statements concerning Evolution, which are made in the introduction to the text, refer to the ideology which is partly born of evolutionary theories and which should properly be called Evolutionism: "A glance at the modern world, which is outside the fold of Christ, easily reveals the main directions which the learned follow. Some actually admit, without discretion and without prudence, the evolutionary system, although it has not been proved to be indisputable even in the field of natural science, and they claim that it must be extended to the origin of all things, and with temerity they hold the monistic and pantheistic hypothesis of a world subject to perpetual evolution. Hypotheses, of which the Communists make good use in order to defend and propagate their dialectical materialism, and to tear from the souls all idea of God" (n. 3).

He further regrets that some have section of the principles and hermeneutical norms established by the encyclicals Providentisimus and Divino afflante Spiritu and whose poisonous effect has been noted in almost all theological treatises.

The last section is entitled Sciences. It is here, in n. 29, that we find the text core topic to which we have already referred reference letter: "The Magisterium of the Church does not forbid that - according to the present state of science and theology - the doctrine of evolutionism, in so far as it seeks the origin of the human body in a pre-existent living subject - but the Catholic faith commands us to defend that souls are created immediately by God - should be the object of study in the investigations and disputes between the most competent men in both fields. But all this is to be done in such a way that the reasons of both opinions, that is, the proponent and the opponent of evolutionism, are examined and judged seriously, moderately and temperately; and provided that all are willing to submit to the judgment of the Church, on whom Christ conferred the task of authentically interpreting the Holy Scriptures and defending the dogmas of the faith. But some, however, go beyond this freedom of discussion, acting as if the origin of the human body from a pre-existent living subject were already absolutely certain and demonstrated by the data and indications hitherto found, and by the reasoning founded on them; and this, as if there were nothing in the sources of revelation which requires the utmost moderation and caution in this subject".

It is clear from the context that here the term evolutionism, as mentioned above, refers to the scientific theory of evolution and not to the evolutionary ideology mentioned at the beginning of the paper.

Magisterium of John Paul II

John Paul II referred on numerous occasions to the relationship between science and faith. He warned of the danger of scientism as a new form of positivism that relegates theological and philosophical knowledge to the realm of mere imagination (n. 88 of Fides et Ratio) and, at the same time, recognised the benefits received by the Church from science and promoted various initiatives in which he sought to highlight the compatibility between the two or to resolve old disputes, such as the well-known "Galileo case". In particular, he made several statements related to evolutionary doctrines.

In a text on his catechesis of 16 April 1986 he stated: "It can therefore be said that, from the point of view of the doctrine of faith, there is no difficulty in explaining the origin of man, as far as the body is concerned, by means of the hypothesis of evolutionism. It must be added, however, that the hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. The doctrine of faith, on the other hand, invariably affirms that man's spiritual soul was created directly by God. That is to say, according to the hypothesis to which we have alluded, it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, has been gradually prepared in the forms of earlier living beings. But the human soul, on which man's humanity depends at final , being spiritual, cannot be so from subject." This text is in complete harmony, even in its structure, with the text of Humani Generis: there is no problem in accepting the evolutionary theories concerning the origin of man as regards the body, but caution in making these affirmations since it is not yet a matter of absolute scientific certainty and, most importantly, the human soul requires a direct intervention of God. It is taken for granted that evolution in the non-human realm does not present any problem for the Faith.

research John Paul II went a step further when he stated in a frequently quoted message to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 22 October 1996: "Taking into account the state of scientific research at that time and also the demands proper to theology, the encyclical Humani generis considered the doctrine of "evolutionism" as a serious hypothesis, worthy of a thorough study and reflection, just like the opposite hypothesis. Pius XII added two conditions of a methodological order: that this opinion should not be adopted as if it were a certain and proven doctrine, and as if it were possible to make total abstraction from Revelation at purpose from the questions which this doctrine raises. (...) Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge leads us to believe that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis. Indeed, it is B that this theory has gradually imposed itself on the minds of researchers, due to a series of discoveries made in various disciplines of knowledge. The convergence, in no way sought or provoked, of the results of work carried out independently of each other, is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory" (n. 4).

What this text adds to the previous doctrine is the recognition that the scientific theory of evolution has clearly established itself in the scientific sphere, attaining the status of a true scientific theory. In the content of the message he makes another series of interesting epistemological considerations on the scope and significance of a scientific theory and its close relationship with Philosophy. He states that one can speak of theories of evolution rather than a single theory of evolution. This is true from a purely scientific point of view, but also as a consequence of the diversity of philosophical contexts in which these explanations are framed. This fact leads to the possibility of materialistic and spiritualistic readings of evolution. The pontiff affirms, in continuity with the previously formulated doctrine, the existence of an "ontological leap" when referring to man. He makes it clear that defending this ontological leap when speaking of the origin of man is not in contradiction with the research of the sciences: "Consideration of the method used in the various fields of knowledge makes it possible to put two points of view, which would seem irreconcilable, on the same page agreement . The observational sciences describe and measure more and more precisely the manifold manifestations of life and place them on the timeline. The moment of the transition to the spiritual is not the subject of an observation of this subject which, however, on an experimental level, can uncover a number of very valuable signs of the specific character of the human being. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-awareness and its reflective nature, of moral awareness, of freedom or even of aesthetic and religious experience are the domain of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology deduces the ultimate meaning according to the designs of the Creator" n. 6.

Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI already expressed his interest in these themes before he became pope. This was reflected in a series of homilies on the first chapters of Genesis which were later published in a book graduate "Creation and Sin" in 1985. As pope he wanted to devote a meeting, as he used to do with his university students during his academic years, to topic on the relationship between Creation and Evolution. He has also made many statements on this topic in different speeches. The beginning of the third millennium has seen a resurgence of the discussion science-faith and, in particular, that of creation-evolution. The interventions have not always been in line with what has been set out by the Magisterium of the Church. The pontiff's statements, in continuity with John Paul II and the previous magisterium, stress the non-existence of contradiction between the biblical vision and our scientific knowledge. Rather than contradiction, there is a complementarity that is mutually enriching.

In these interventions Benedict XVI has taken special care to avoid the materialistic interpretations that have been openly spread by some authors. One expression of this concern of the Pope's was the words he spoke in his homily at the beginning of his pontificate: "We are not the casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the fruit of a thought of God. Each of us is wanted, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary" (24 April 2005).


  • Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, 22-VIII-1950, n. 4 (available at
  • John Paul II, Man, the image of God, is a spiritual and bodily being, catechesis of 16 April 1986.
  • John Paul II, speech on the centenary of "Providentissimus Deus" and the fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical "Divino Afflante Spiritu" of 23 April 1993.
  • John Paul II, speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 October 1996.
  • International Theological Commission, Communion and Service. The human person created in the image of God, 23-VII-2004, nn. 62-70.
  • Martínez, R., The Vatican and evolution. La recepción del darwinismo en el file del Índice, "Scripta theologica" 39 (2007), pp. 529-549.
  • Artigas, M., and Turbón, D., Origen del hombre. Ciencia, Filosofia y Religión, Eunsa, Pamplona 2008 (Chapter X: Evolution and Christianity).
  • Artigas, Mariano; Glick, Thomas F.; Martínez, Rafael A., Seis católicos evolucionistas. El Vaticano frente a la Evolución (1877-1902), BAC, Madrid 2010.
  • Ratzinger, J., Creación y pecado, EUNSA, Pamplona 2005.