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Evolutionism and Christian faith
Evolutionism and Christian faith
Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: seminar room of the CRYF
Date of publication: 3 October 2005
Although science and Christian faith do not contradict each other, these words of St. Josemaría Escrivá are always timely: "With periodic monotony, some people try to resurrect a supposed incompatibility between faith and science, between human intelligence and divine Revelation. This incompatibility can only appear, and apparently so, when the real terms of the problem are not understood. If the world has come from the hands of God, if He has created man in His image and likeness (cf. Gen. I. 26) and has given him a spark of His light, the work of intelligence must - even if with a hard work- unravel the divine sense which all things naturally already have; and with the light of faith, we also perceive their supernatural sense, that which results from our elevation to the order of grace. We cannot admit the fear of science, because any work, if it is truly scientific, tends to truth. And Christ said: Ego sum veritas (Ioh XIV, 6). I am the truth" * (1).
In our time, evolutionism is one of the main sources of misunderstanding in the relationship between faith and science. Some use it to defend materialistic or atheistic theories which, in reality, have nothing to do with science. Others criticise it because they think that this is the only way to curb the excesses of materialism. However, if evolutionary theories are not projected outside their scientific scope and, on the other hand, the Christian doctrine of creation is kept in mind, it is not difficult to see that evolution and divine action are compatible and even complementary.
Catholic doctrine on creation
One of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith is that God is Creator and Lord of all that exists. This means that "nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator" * (2). Creatures depend entirely on God in their being and action, and are therefore not self-sufficient: they certainly have a consistency of their own, and this responds to the divine will; but they are limited, changeable and contingent: they require a radical foundation, which is to be found in the divine action that gives them being and preserves it. And this is true for all creatures and for all their being and action: there is nothing that is independent of divine action.
Moreover, God governs everything created from agreement with his providence: nothing happens without his will or his permission, outside his plan. "Creation has its own goodness and perfection, but it did not emerge fully finished from the hands of the Creator. It was created "on the way" (in statu viae) towards an ultimate perfection still to be attained, to which God destined it. We call divine providence the dispositions by which God leads the work of creation towards this perfection. God guards and governs by his providence all that he has created, reaching powerfully from one end of the world to the other, and arranging everything with gentleness (Wis 8:1). For everything is naked and manifest in his sight (Heb 4, 13), even that which the free action of creatures will produce (Vatican Council I: DS 3003)" * (3).
The divine action on creation is not something generic, but very concrete, and it extends to everything: to all processes, natural or artificial, ordinary or extraordinary: nothing can exist or happen apart from God's plans. The Church teaches this doctrine in complete harmony with Sacred Scripture and Tradition. "The testimony of Scripture is unanimous: the application of divine providence is concrete and immediate: it takes care of everything, from the smallest things to the great events of the world and of history" * (4).
In governing the world, God relies on the action of creatures, who act in accordance with the nature that God Himself gives them. agreement . No doubt God can intervene in an extraordinary way at any time, producing miracles; but ordinarily God brings about his plans by relying on the normal activity of creatures. "God is the sovereign Lord of his plan. But for its realisation He also makes use of the help of creatures. This is not a sign of weakness, but of the greatness and goodness of Almighty God. For God not only gives his creatures existence, he also gives them the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles of one another, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan" * (5).
In final, God is the First Cause of all that exists, and counts on the action of creatures who are second causes. "It is a truth inseparable from faith in God the Creator: God acts in the works of his creatures. He is the first cause who works in and through the second causes (...) This truth, far from diminishing the dignity of the creature, enhances it" * (6). It is not that God is simply the first among a series of causes of the same subject: his action is the foundation of theactivity of creatures, which could not exist or act without the permanent influence of this divine action.
The scope of natural sciences
Scientific progress enables us to gain an ever better understanding of nature, whose being and action are based on divine action. However, in order to contribute to this progress it is not necessary to think about divine action; it is enough to work from agreement with the demands of the scientific method. But this does not mean that what science studies is independent of divine action: it only means that we can consider nature from different perspectives, and that the scientific perspective does not address the problems of the ultimate foundation and meaning of nature.
The natural sciences bracket the basic dimensions of nature, which are considered by Philosophy and by religion. But this bracketing cannot be interpreted as a negation: it would be wrong to attribute an absolute value to methodological limits. Natural science only studies what can be subjected in some way to repeatable experiments; but it would be a gross error to conclude that only what can be studied in this way exists.
The method of the natural sciences is very effective precisely because it limits itself to the repeatable, controllable aspects Materials, and deliberately leaves out of its consideration the more radical dimensions of reality. At final, the scientific knowledge of natural causes in no way affects the Catholic doctrine of creation, which refers to dimensions that are not studied by the sciences.
Evolution and divine action
The Catholic doctrine on creation shows that creation and evolution are not in contradiction, that is, that they are compatible, provided that evolution is not attributed a scope that it does not really have, as would be the case if it were interpreted as a support for materialistic or atheistic doctrines that have nothing to do with science.
One can go further and say that, in so far as evolution exists, it manifests in a peculiar way the power and wisdom of God. Indeed, evolutionary theories must assume that the fundamental laws of nature are very specific and that, on many occasions over enormous periods of time, circumstances have arisen which have enabled nature to arrive at its present state, in which there is an astonishing Degree of organisation.
Pope John Paul II has affirmed this compatibility on several occasions, and has recalled what Pope Pius XII had already taught many years before* (7). If creation and evolution are correctly understood, says John Paul II, there is no civil service examination between the two: it can even be said that "evolution presupposes creation, and creation is presented in the light of evolution as an event extending over time - as a continuous creation - in which God becomes visible to the eyes of the believer as 'Creator of heaven and earth'". * (8).
Difficulties and their roots
How can it be explained that the difficulties persist, even though they have no real basis? Leaving aside any possible passion that may lead to a lack of objectivity, the difficulties often stem from ignorance of the Christian doctrine of creation.
The Church attaches great importance to this doctrine. "The catechesis on Creation is of paramount importance. It concerns the very foundations of human and Christian life: it makes explicit the answer of the Christian faith to the basic question that people of all times have asked themselves: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is our origin? What is our end? Where does everything that exists come from and where does it go? The two questions of origin and end are inseparable. They are decisive for the meaning and direction of our life and work" * (9).
Some seem to think that evolutionary theories fully explain the origin of all that exists and that, therefore, nothing remains to be explained by divine action. They do not realise the limits of these theories which, however perfect they may be, leave out the radical dimensions of existence. The remedy to these difficulties does not consist in undervaluing them, but in appreciating their value while pointing out their limits and the need to complement them.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The question of the origins of the world and of man is the subject of numerous scientific investigations which have magnificently enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of living forms, and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to admire even more the greatness of the Creator, to thank him for all his works and for the intelligence and wisdom he gives to the wise and to researchers" * (10). And then Catechism itself warns that the deepest questions cannot be answered by the methods of the natural sciences alone: "The great interest aroused by these investigations is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the cosmos materially arose, nor when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of this origin: whether it is governed by chance, by blind fate, by anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent Being, intelligent and good, called God. And if the world proceeds from the wisdom and goodness of God, why does evil exist, where does it come from, who is manager of it, where is the possibility of freeing oneself from evil?" * (11).
The knowledge of divine action: reason and revelation
The Church teaches that we can know God the Creator through our reason and that, in order that this knowledge may reach everyone easily and without error, revelation certifies this knowledge with new force. "Human intelligence can certainly find for itself an answer to the question of origins. Indeed, the existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty by his works thanks to the light of human reason (cf. DS: 3026), although this knowledge is often obscured and disfigured by error. Therefore faith comes to confirm and enlighten reason for the right understanding of this truth: By faith we know that the universe was formed by the word of God, so that what is seen is the result of what does not appear (Heb 11:3)" * (12).
The doctrine of creation is based especially on the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. These texts have been the subject, since ancient times, of many programs of study by the Holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and it has always been recognised that they involve difficulties of interpretation, because the fundamental truths taught therein are accompanied by details which do not always necessarily have an immediate meaning.
For this reason, and taking up what the Magisterium of the Church has taught in other documents over the years, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "Among all the words of the Sacred Scripture on creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary point of view, these texts can have various sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture in such a way that they express, in their solemn language, the truths of creation, of its origin and its end in God, of its order and its goodness, of man's vocation, and finally, of the drama of sin and the hope of salvation "* (13).
It is important to note that some of the controversy surrounding evolution comes from fundamentalist Christian groups, non-Catholic and generally in the minority, who sometimes interpret certain accounts of Genesis in an excessively literal way, as if cosmological and biological knowledge could be extracted from them to form a body of Christian doctrine and, at the same time, of natural science, in conflict with evolutionary theories. In the face of some of the actions of these groups, the Catholic hierarchy, together with other Christian communities, has publicly pointed out that such interpretations have nothing to do with Catholic doctrine.
In his catechesis on creation, Pope John Paul II has analysed the narratives of the book of Genesis, and taught that "the theory of natural evolution, when understood in a way that does not exclude divine causality, is not opposed, in principle, to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the book of Genesis" * (14).
The above considerations refer to evolution as a whole, and take on special nuances when considering the different steps involved in evolution: the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the evolution of living things, and the origin of man.
The origin of the universe
According to the model accepted by many scientists, all the subject and energy of the universe was, some fifteen billion years ago (between ten and twenty thousand), condensed in a relatively small region of enormous density and temperature, which exploded causing the successive expansion and the training of stars, galaxies and planets. However, scientists warn that this model, although well corroborated, may need to be corrected in many respects.
If science affirms that the universe has a specific age and is organised from an initial state, it seems to support the reality of divine creation. This question was addressed in a speech by Pope Pius XII to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Pope noted this convergence, but also warned that natural science alone cannot prove creation. What Pius XII stressed on that occasion is that scientific progress, instead of putting obstacles in the way of God's knowledge , facilitates it, even though the proofs of God's existence use reasoning that goes beyond what the sciences can say* (15).
Years later, Pope John Paul II recalled that speech of Pius XII, quoting verbatim a central passage of it, and adding that "The Bible speaks to us of the origin of the universe and of its constitution, not to provide us with a scientific treatise, but to specify 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 usual 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 alone cannot resolve such a question: 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" * (16).
Indeed, natural science studies processes from one state of nature to another, but they cannot study the absolute production of being or divine government: these are matters for metaphysics and natural theology. For example, even if scientists claim that there was an initial state of the universe, fifteen billion years ago, they can and do ask whether it came from an earlier state, and it can never be proved that any particular state was absolutely the first. Natural science alone cannot affirm divine creation.
Sometimes the problem of the creation of the universe is identified with that of its duration, as if they were one and the same problem. St. Thomas stated, however, that these are two different problems: we can rationally know that the universe has been created, but "that the world has not always existed we know only by faith and it cannot be rigorously demonstrated (...) It is useful to bear this in mind lest, presuming to be able to demonstrate the things which are of faith, someone should present arguments which are not necessary and which provoke laughter in non-believers, for they might think that they are reasons for which we accept the things which are of faith" * (17).
Some speak of a presumed self-creation of the universe, claiming that the universe could have begun to exist from nothing from agreement with the laws of physics. To support this assertion, they appeal to quantum fluctuations, which would allow physical entities to appear without a cause, and to the theory of quantum gravity, which would unify the four basic interactions. But such self-creation, which would amount to creation without a Creator, is impossible if we understand creation to mean the complete production of being: indeed, if we assume impossibly that absolutely nothing existed, not even God, then nothing would ever have come into existence, because there would be no subject, no laws, and nothing that could produce the universe.
The origin of life
Different scientific explanations have been proposed for the possible passage from the inorganic subject to the first living things, although it is always assumed that these primitive living things would be very elementary single-celled organisms. There are serious disagreements among scientists about the likelihood of this step: some think it would be extremely unlikely and would have happened only once, while others suggest that the properties of subject would favour the emergence of life relatively easily in many different places.
These questions do not relate directly to the Catholic faith, and the Magisterium of the Church has said nothing about them; they only relate to the faith indirectly, insofar as they have to do with divine providence.
In fact, some think that to affirm the evolutionary origin of the first living creatures would be tantamount to denying divine action in this area. But this is not true: it is always necessary to admit divine action, and moreover, in this case, the more we know about the mechanisms of life, even in the most elementary living things, the more clearly it appears that it is a very sophisticated organisation which provides a firm basis for tracing it back to the existence of a divine plan; and this is true whether the origin of life was a single event or not. If one does not admit the existence of a divine plan, one must either have recourse to blind forces which cannot be an ultimate explanation, or attribute to nature a kind of unconscious intelligence, admitting a pantheism which is groundless and contradictory.
The evolution of the living
The central claim of biological evolutionism refers to the origin of living things from other living things of different species (hence also called transformism).
Many scientists, especially biologists, claim that such evolution is a fact, even if they do not always agree with agreement about its explanation. Of course, the evidence for such a process, which would have taken place on Earth from more than three billion years ago to the present day, is always indirect, but that does not mean that it lacks seriousness: in other areas of science, too, indirect evidence has to be satisfied.
The Magisterium of the Church has not pronounced itself on these problems either. At present, without engaging in opinionated scientific questions, it tends to emphasise the aspect that is most closely related to Christian doctrine: that evolution is compatible with creation and providence, and that it is therefore not the result of a simple play of blind forces.
However, some claim that the blind forces of nature are sufficient to explain evolution. According to the most widespread version of Darwinism, a combination of random variation and natural selection would suffice; variation occurs randomly in genetic material, and natural selection filters the results of that variation so that only the best adapted organisms survive: this would explain the appearance of purpose and plan in living things, without the need to claim that there is a divine plan. This explanation may be true, but it is not complete. Indeed, it only deals with living things from the point of view of natural science: what they are composed of and how they function; but it leaves unanswered the questions posed by Philosophy and religion.
One difficulty often raised against evolution is that the more perfect cannot come from the less perfect. However, current knowledge allows us to understand that the information Genetics potentially contains very sophisticated plans that will, given the right circumstances, serve to build organisms, and that some changes in that information can lead to new types of organisation (although, in many cases, they will lead to unworkable results).
Problems concerning the psychic dimensions of animals are indeed difficult. The different types of psychism are closely related to the types of material organisation, and there is a wide scale on which different Degrees types of organisation and psychism occur. This scale culminates in man, which, of course, is the central problem of evolutionary theories.
The origin of man
At this level, the scientific status is similar to the one described above: scientists often claim that the human organism comes from other organisms, although there are many uncertainties about the concrete explanations. However, there is a new factor that introduces a difference B with respect to the case of other living things: that man is a person endowed with spiritual and moral dimensions.
The Magisterium of the Church has intervened to clarify this question. In the middle of the 20th century, Pope Pius XII declared that "The Magisterium of the Church does not forbid that, according to the present state of human disciplines and of the Sacred Theology, the doctrine of "evolutionism", insofar as it seeks the origin of the human body from a pre-existing living subject - since the Catholic faith commands us to maintain that souls are created directly by God" * (18). The Pope then added an appeal for objectivity and moderation, because of the relationship of the doctrine on man to the sources of divine revelation.
Pope John Paul II quoted Pius XII's teaching , stating that "on the basis of these considerations of my predecessor, there are no obstacles between the theory of evolution and faith in creation, if they are correctly understood" * (19). It is clear that "rightly understood" means admitting that the spiritual dimensions of the human person require a special intervention on the part of God, an immediate creation of the spiritual soul; but these are dimensions and an action which, as a matter of principle, fall outside the direct object of natural science and do not contradict it in any way.
Pius XII taught, moreover, that "when it is a question of another conjecture, namely polygenism, then the children of the Church do not enjoy that freedom, since the Christian faithful cannot accept the opinion of those who affirm either that after Adam there existed on this earth real men who did not proceed from him, as the first father of all, by natural generation, or else that Adam means a certain multitude of ancestors, since it is not seen how such an opinion can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth and the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church propose concerning original sin, which proceeds from the sin truly committed by one Adam and which, transmitted to all by generation, is proper to each one" * (20).
Monogenism affirms that we all come from a first couple, and the Church affirms this because of its relationship to the sources of revelation and to the doctrine of original sin. However great scientific progress may be, it seems very difficult to reach clear conclusions about monogenism or polygenism on the basis of science alone: even if it is sometimes attempted, such affirmations often contain many debatable aspects. On the other hand, while monogenism poses some difficulties for our attempt to represent the origin of the human species, polygenism also poses non-trivial difficulties.
Taking into account the above clarifications and referring again to the teaching of Pius XII, John Paul II taught in his catechesis: "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 a body, by means of the hypothesis of evolutionism. It must be added, however, that the hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. On the other hand, the doctrine of faith invariably affirms that the spiritual soul of man is created directly by God. That is to say, it is possible, according to the above hypothesis, that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, has been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings. But the human soul, on which man's humanity depends at final , being spiritual, cannot have emerged from the subject"* (21).
In 1996, Pope John Paul II, in a letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, stated that evolutionism is now more than a hypothesis. While carefully distinguishing evolutionism as a scientific theory from the ideological interpretations that are sometimes made of it, it was clear that he regarded evolution as a fact supported by a variety of independent evidence. John Paul II recalled Pius XII's teaching in the 1950 encyclical Humani generis and added new considerations: "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 research and reflection, as well as the opposite hypothesis". And shortly afterwards he added: "Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge leads us to think 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" * (22).
These words should not be interpreted as an uncritical acceptance of any theory of evolution. Indeed, immediately following these words, John Paul II adds important reflections on the scope of evolutionary theories, their different variants, and the philosophies that may be implicit in them. Particularly interesting are the extensive reflections the Pope devotes to evolutionary ideas as applied to the human being. One could even say that this is the core of the Pope's document.
In fact, John Paul II says that the Magisterium of the Church is interested in evolution because the conception of man is at stake. He recalls that revelation teaches that man is created in the image and likeness of God; he alludes to the magnificent exhibition of this doctrine in the constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council; and he comments on this doctrine, alluding to the fact that man is called to enter into a relationship of knowledge and love with God, a relationship that will be fully realised beyond time, in eternity. In this context, he literally recalls the words of Pius XII in the encyclical Humani generis, according to which the human spiritual soul is immediately created by God. And he draws the following conclusion: "Consequently, the theories of evolution which, according to the philosophies from which they draw their inspiration, consider the spirit as arising from the forces of the living subject or as a mere epiphenomenon of this subject, are incompatible with the truth about man. On the other hand, these theories are incapable of establishing the dignity of the person" * (23).
These reflections can be applied to the "emergentist" doctrines which, while admitting that a higher plane than the material one exists in the human being, affirm that this plane simply "emerges" from the material or biological level. John Paul II affirms that we are faced, in the human being, with "a difference of ontological order, an ontological leap", and asks whether this ontological discontinuity does not contradict the physical continuity presupposed by evolution. His answer is that science and metaphysics use two different perspectives, and that the experience of the metaphysical level reveals the existence of dimensions that are situated on an ontologically higher level, such as self-consciousness, moral conscience, freedom, aesthetic experience and religious experience. Finally, he adds that to all this theology adds the ultimate meaning of human life according to the designs of the Creator* (24).
The evolutionary worldview
At final, evolution is not opposed to divine action, but requires it to explain the first origin of the universe, the rationality and subtlety of the laws and processes of nature, and, most especially, the spiritual dimensions of the human person.
This in no way means that consideration of divine action simplifies the problems posed by the evolutionary perspective: those problems are many and difficult, and the scientific uncertainties about them are also great. It does mean, however, that we can affirm the compatibility of evolutionary theories with the divine action that makes possible the course of nature, gives man his spiritual character and staff, and gives meaning to human life.
- (1) Josemaría Escrivá, Christ Is Passing By, no. 10.
- (2) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 338. Cf. also n. 290.
- (3) Ibid., n. 302.
- (4) Ibid., n. 303.
- (5) Ibid., n. 306.
- (6) Ibid., n. 308.
- (7) Cf. Pius XII, Litt. enc. Humani generis, 12.VIII.1950, nn. 29-30: Denz.-Schönm. 3896: AAS 42 (1950), pp. 575-576.
- (8) John Paul II, speech to scholars on "Christian faith and the theory of evolution", 20.IV.1985: Insegnamenti, VIII, 1 (1985), p. 1132.
- (9) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 282.
- (10) Ibid., n. 283.
- (11) Ibid., n. 284.
- (12) Ibid., n. 286.
- (13) Ibid., n. 289.
- (14) Cf. John Paul II, General Audience, Creation and the Call of the World and of Man from Nothingness to Existence, 29.I.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 212.
- (15) Cf. Pius XII, Allocution 22.XI.1951: AAS, 44 (1952), pp. 31-43.
- (16) John Paul II, speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, May the wisdom of humanity always accompany the scientific research , 3.X.1981: Insegnamenti, IV, 2 (1981), pp. 331-332.
- (17) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, 46, 2c.
- (18) Pius XII, Litt. enc. Humani generis, 12.VIII.1950, n. 29: AAS, 42 (1950), pp. 575-576.
- (19) John Paul II, speech to scholars on "Christian faith and the theory of evolution", 20.IV.1985: Insegnamenti, VIII, 1 (1985), pp. 1131-1132.
- (20) Pius XII, Litt. enc. Humani generis, 12.VIII.1950, n. 30: AAS, 42 (1950), p. 576.
- (21) John Paul II, General Audience, Man, the image of God, is a spiritual and bodily being, 16.IV.1986: Insegnamenti, IX, 1 (1986), p. 1041.
- (22) John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 October 1996, n. 4: in L'Osservatore Romano, edition in Spanish, 25 October 1996, p. 5.
- (23) Ibid., n. 5.
- (24) Cf. ibid., n.6.