By Benjamin Wiker
When people ask me "What does the Catholic Church think about evolution?" they are rarely prepared for my answer: "Let's sit down for a few months and talk about it." The problem is this. The Catholic Church doesn't just think about evolution. It sees the theory of human evolution in the much larger context of its understanding of human being, human reason, human science, human sin, human morality and the redemption of humanity by God incarnate. The Church can't think about something, without thinking about nearly everything because everything is made by God.
I make this point straight off, because the tendency of our sound-bite culture is to land on some short quote made by a pope in a speech or encyclical, or by a Vatican official, or a Catholic scientist, or a Catholic theologian, and treat it in isolation as if all we needed to know about evolution as Catholics could be written on an index card and carried in our wallet or purse for handy reference.
But that is not how the Catholic Church thinks about evolution, or anything else for that matter. The Church doesn't think in sound bites crafted for the impatient. It thinks like a cathedral where everything is connected, stone placed upon carefully balanced stone, complexly and intimately interdependent, built in centuries to last for even more centuries according to the eternal plan, all harmoniously crafted for worship of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so that everything human is redeemed, nature transformed by grace as it stretches to heaven.
Perhaps the best place to begin to understand what that might mean in regard to evolution is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. You will find some isolated statements specifically about evolution, but these statements are an integral part of the entire Catechism, the vast cathedral-like presentation of the faith. Like individual stones in a cathedral, you can't snatch out the isolated statements without causing the whole edifice to crumble. More directly, we may say that the Catholic consideration of evolution takes place within the Catholic catechesis on creation and redemption. Within this catechesis there are certain givens -- both natural and supernatural -- that set definite limits to the consideration of evolution.
Let me offer two examples from the Catechism that haven't appeared in the popular press' coverage of the Catholic Church and evolution. "By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works" (No. 50). That is actually a dogmatic assertion based upon the wonderful capacities of natural human reason and the fact that nature itself -- including the biological aspects of nature -- manifests the glory and wisdom of its Creator, each creature reflecting "in its own way a ray of God's infinite wisdom and goodness" (No. 339).
What does that mean for our consideration of evolution? That any view of evolution that assumes on principle that biological nature is entirely governed by chance and blind laws must be in error. On that view of evolution -- championed today by such prominent atheists as Richard Dawkins -- nature reveals the entire absence of wisdom -- that is, the absence of a wise Creator. Against this, the Catechism stoutly maintains: "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate and chance" (No. 295).
Aha! That must mean that the Catholic Church rejects evolution! No -- sorry. There are no such quick and easy answers. The Catholic Church doesn't reject evolution, because it doesn't reject -- but, in fact, welcomes -- any legitimate scientific inquiry. Science studies nature, and the truth of creation can never contradict the truth of the Creator. So (quoting from the First Vatican Council's Dei Filius), the Catechism informs us that "methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God" (No. 159).
So what does that mean for evolution in particular? Well, read on. "Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created 'in a state of journeying' (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it" (No. 310). "In God's plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature" (No. 310). On this view, as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, O.P., has noted, evolution is understood as creation "extended over time."
Aha! That must mean that the Catholic Church accepts evolution! No -- sorry. There are no such quick and easy answers. The Church can't simply accept the theory of evolution, because there isn't some one thing, evolutionary theory, that it can accept. There are, instead different theories, different approaches to evolution. As Pope John Paul II wisely noted, "rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here -- in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved." That was from the same famous speech where the late pope inadvertently produced the memorable sound bite about evolution being "more than an hypothesis" -- inadvertent because he never intended the "bite" to be taken out of context.
The media loved the sound bite, but as a consequence, entirely missed the real message. "The Catholic Church Now Believes Evolution!" the headlines trumpeted. The headlines should rather have said, "John Paul II Cautiously Affirms That Enough Evidence Has Been Gathered In The Half-Century Since Pope Pius XII's Encyclical Humani Generis That We May Consider Evolution As Moving Beyond the Condition of Being A Mere Hypothesis, Yet Warns That The Church Cannot Simply Affirm Evolution Because Evolution Is Not One Clearly Defined Theory But A Human Science, And That Means That There Are Actually A Variety Of Competing And Incompatible Accounts of Evolution Out There Now Which Offer Different Explanations of the Way Evolution Takes Place and Which Are Grounded in Different Philosophies, Some of Which Are Entirely Incompatible With Common Sense and Catholic Doctrine." But as you may have guessed, no such headline appeared.
The truth of the matter is this. The Church cannot whole-heartedly affirm evolution because evolution as a science itself isn't wholly firm. We have to distinguish between the thing itself (evolution), and our knowledge of the thing (what scientists at this point in time happen to think they know about evolution).
Evolution, we have every reason to believe, is something that happened, but what actually happened in evolution is something that must be discovered on the long, difficult road of scientific discovery, along which we have only traveled part of the way. That is why the Church is rightfully cautious.
The process by which existing organisms have developed from earlier forms through transformations of characteristics in successive generations. The theory explaining this process was originally advanced by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858. According to this theory, evolution occurs by natural selection in combination with hereditary adaptations.
In the wide meaning, it refers to any belief that the world is created by God. A narrower meaning of creationism has become popular, especially among conservative Protestants, in opposition to the widespread secular assumption that the biological theory of evolution makes God's creative deed meaningless.
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. Through the study and analysis of a system's components, a design theorist is able to determine whether various natural structures are the product of chance, natural law, intelligent design or some combination thereof.
Sources: Our Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, Revised Edition; intelligentdesign.org
"It is not the elemental spirits of the universe, the laws of matter, which ultimately govern the world and mankind, but a personal God governs the stars, that is, the universe; it is not the laws of matter and of evolution that have the final say, but reason, will, love -- a Person. And if we know this Person and he knows us, then truly the inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free."
-- Pope Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi ("Saved by Hope").
Benjamin Wiker holds a doctorate in theological ethics and is the author of several books, including "Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God" (Emmaus, $12.95).
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