Evolution and the Catholic Church: Still Unresolved?

11/14/2012 11:26 am ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

The science of evolution poses some thorny problems for Roman Catholic tradition. And those who write about it, especially for a publisher whose books require the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur of a Catholic bishop, have to walk a very fine line indeed between the physical and the metaphysical.

Dr. Gerard M. Vershuuren is the latest and by far I think the most successful of an admittedly small group of scholars to tackle the topic. A geneticist and programmer by training, he not only gets the science of evolution right -- there is an obvious sense of joy that he takes in writing about the subject from his firsthand experience as well as from his reading of the research literature. (There are nice plugs on the back cover from Kenneth Miller of Brown University and Francisco Ayala of University of California, Irvine.)

The book, "God and Evolution?: Science Meets Faith," written for the Catholic laity, is organized into five chapters. The first, introductory chapter, "The Roman Catholic Position," does not discuss evolution but rather lays out the Church's traditional teaching on Faith and Reason, drawing most heavily on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to assure readers the Church has always affirmed that Faith and Reason complement each other and this has always been a part of the Catholic tradition. There cannot in principle be any conflict between Faith and Reason, Vershuuren writes, provided both disciplines are aware of their limitations.

The Catholic Church has no fear of science or scientific discovery, but stands in a long tradition of defending the position that faith and reason -- or religion and science for that matter -- do not contradict but rather complement each other as coming from the same source: God. The Church unquestionably acknowledges that God speaks to us in two different ways: That is: through the Book of Scripture as well as through the Book of Nature -- both coming from the same source: God. (p. 9)

Well, fine. Though to my mind, Vershuuren slips a little too easily between Faith and Reason and Religion and Science without carefully distinguishing between the two. For example, he does not point out the Church's acceptance of the notion that when the Book of Nature is found to contradict the Book of Scripture (as Galileo argued) then the latter needs to be reinterpreted in light of the new findings. Galileo famously suffered for making this argument, though it is accepted now. (While failing to note this, Vershuuren does repeat a bizarre revisionist argument, popular among some apologists, that Galileo was actually punished by the Church for not having enough evidence to prove heliocentrism.)

The second chapter, "Where We Come From -- According to the Bible," discusses the Genesis account of the world's creation and the many interpretations of it over the centuries. Not surprisingly, Vershuuren eschews any literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2, writing that neither can be received as a modern, scientific report. On the other hand, Catholic thinkers over the centuries took some parts of the Bible more literally than others, and one does not have to look far to find starkly opposing opinions among the Church Fathers about the usefulness of science in interpreting Scripture. To his credit, Vershuuren touches on this in the chapter, while affirming the Catechism's position that, whatever one makes of Adam and Eve, a serpent and a tree in a garden, a primal event alienating humanity from God is to be taken historically. More on that below.

In chapter three, "Where We Come From -- According to Science," Vershurren lays out the scientific evidence for evolution. For me this is the best and most necessary part of the book for Catholics wanting an unbiased appraisal of the science.

And Vershuuren anticipates all the standard objections of creationists. (Further, he bluntly compares people who deny evolution with people who deny the Holocaust. ) Here's an example:

I often hear laypeople say that no one has ever seen new species emerge in the laboratory, or even in nature. Does that falsify the theory? I don't think so, for several reasons. The first is that hybrids tell us that speciation may be a process that has begun but is not yet finalized. A second reason is that cases of actual speciation have been found in the lab. Another reason is that we know of new species with fused chromosomes (like our chromosome 2) or genes transferred to different chromosome sections, or that have newly inserted repetitive DNA segments. Such changes may at some point prevent pairing and mating, and thus would isolate their carriers reproductively. (p. 55)

In the fourth chapter, "Beware of Worldviews," Vershuuren tackles what's wrong with Creationism as embraced by American evangelicals and what's wrong with Intelligent Design -- both scientifically and from a theological point of view. And this too, is helpful for his target audience, as the ID movement is prone to feature its Catholic proponents.

Of course, given the concerns raised by Catholic theologians and bishops about the more aggressive polemics of some atheists who are scientists, Vershuuren is obliged to outline the problems with materialistic philosophies born of evolution and other sciences, carefully distinguishing them from the fields in science from which they were inspired.

Finally, in the fifth chapter, "A Fair Balance: Creation and Evolution," he returns to the Church's position on the compatibility between Faith and Reason with which he began: the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature in perfect harmony, provided theologians and scientists observe the boundaries of what the late Stephen Jay Gould famously called their non-overlapping magisteria. (Gould's model of accommodation has never satisfied either scientists skeptical of theology or traditionalist Christians hostile to evolution, but a discussion of its problems would require a separate essay.)

To sum up: Taken as a book intended for Catholics who want to know more about the science of evolution and the debate about its role in society and culture, "God and Evolution?" serves admirably.

Still, given the asserted balance between creation and evolution, the book is striking for what it does not discuss. What it leaves unsaid, and this is what fascinated me the most.

For example: original sin. It's one of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. And however compatible one believes Faith and Reason to be on a priori grounds, the accommodation between religion and science cannot be achieved here without some work -- on the theological side.

Here, Vershuuren demurs and in a sense he can hardly be blamed as it's highly unlikely that Pauline Books would have published his book if he had ventured to speculate what theologians should make of the challenges to doctrine posed by evolution.

There are several reasons for this, but theologian Talitha Wiley really summed it up in her book
"Original Sin: Origins, Developments, Contemporary Meanings":

More than Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic teaching office resisted early scientific theories of human evolution. Rejection of evolution was not derived from an evaluation of the scientific interpretation of data but from a priori doctrinal and ecclesial judgments, specifically the dogmatic status of original sin defined by the Council of Trent. The magisterium insisted that the history of Adam and Eve, their first sin, and the biological inheritance of an actual sin by their descendents were not topics open for debate.

The situation has not really changed.

While the Catholic Catechism, issued in 1994, makes a nod to the reading of Scripture in a figurative sense, in deference to modern biblical scholarship, it nevertheless repeats the Council of Trent's affirmation that Genesis Two is to be understood historically: The human race is biologically descended from a single couple, and that a real sin has passed by generation from them to all of humanity.

Patricia A. Williams, in her book "Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin," offered some reasons for this development. In her estimation, the early Christians were convinced Jesus' terrible crucifixion made atonement for human sinfulness, and so they sought a horrific historic catastrophe to explain the ultimate reason for the cross. They found it, she writes, in the Hebrew Scriptures:

Eventually this led them to Genesis 2 and 3. The Catechism says that without knowledge of Jesus' death and resurrection, we cannot correctly interpret Genesis 2 and 3. Here, the Catechism confesses that we must import Christian theology into the narrative to find there the catastrophic origin of sin and the corruption of human nature. That is, to find the fall in Genesis 2 and 3, we must read the text with our ideology in hand.

The necessity of maintaining the historicity of Adam and Eve as actual first parents of the entire human race is where Vershuuren is forced to pass over aspects of evolution and anthropology that challenge it.

Consider two putative contradictions, as an example. The first and obvious one is that human evolution cannot be true and Genesis 2 and 3 also be true, insofar as the latter claims the human animal had no animal progenitors.

Now, in deference to science, the Church's position, as articulated by Popes Pius XII and John Paul II, is that such a contradiction can be avoided if the separate creation of the human soul by God is affirmed alongside the material "preparation" of the human body by means of evolution. But these concessions are comparatively recent in Catholic tradition, and have not at all been encouraged, let alone passed down to the pastoral level. (They are also vehemently disputed by many well-read Catholics on any web site that discusses the topic.) Or, to paraphrase one priest/biologist from the Order of the Dominicans whom I know, if Catholics at the local parish are given the choice between what Richard Dawkins affirms about human origins and what their grandmother told them, you should not be surprised when they opt for Grandma.

But this brings on a second putative contradiction with Catholic tradition, the transmission of guilt down through the generations. If each and every human soul is directly created de novo by God, then would not theologians expect it to be untainted by the stain of any sin? (Interestingly, this was the position of Pelagius, contra St. Augustine who believed the soul was generated with original sin by the parents.) Unless we are to assume God directly creates tainted souls, then this is another problem to address.

Again, these are just a couple of issues -- books and books have been written about others. That Vershuuren holds off discussing the topic of human origins till the very end of the book is therefore not surprising.

To be sure, the problem is not insoluble from the theological perspective. The works of Germain Grisez, Raymund Schwager, Karl Rahner and John Haught, come to mind. In one view, original sin can be spoken of analogously as the moral corruption that every human being absorbs from the surrounding culture, even if it does not induce in the individual any specific acts. Any number of philosophers would agree with the notion that once we are born into a culture, we come to share in its collective guilt.

But even more traditionalist workarounds have been offered, to preserve the notion of inherited sin -- and some are very clever. For example a recent paper in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly by Kenneth W. Kemp, "Science, Theology and Monogenesis," relies on the speculation that the first true human couple interbred with evolutionary sub-humans, from whom the entire human race is now presumably descended.

Now, to preserve the traditional Catholic interpretation of original sin, the assumption must be made that the difference between "true humans" and our animal forbears is metaphysical -- and that this metaphysical difference is applied from without in a special act of creation by God. Each of us being, then, the beneficiary of a so-called ontological leap.

Pope John Paul II affirmed on more than one occasion, that the "ontological leap," when hominids went from merely animals to fully metaphysical humans cannot be located in history by science. From his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order -- an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way -- although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience -- these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator's designs.

Vershuuren adopts John Paul II's view wholesale:

The Church has taken an unambiguous stand on this issue, stating that humanity started with one couple. Is this in conflict with science? Not really, for the simple reason that human beings become human only thanks to God, as he endows each of them with an immaterial human soul that comes with rationality and morality. And this immaterial soul is definitely beyond the reach of science and paleontology. I don't inherit my soul from my parents, and my soul certainly doesn't come with their DNA, nor did it come through the umbilical cord. So where do I come from then? The simple answer is as follows: My DNA comes from my ancestors, but my soul comes from God. The Book of Nature may be about our biological roots, but the Book of Scripture deals with our spiritual roots. (p. 182)

He stops short of adding, "and the Book of Scripture always takes precedence." But he may as well have. And this is why I think the problems are not going to go away soon. An accommodation is made to science on human origins, but at the price of adopting what appears (at least to me) to be a dualism that is at odds with earlier Church tradition.

Benedictine Abbot, James A. Wiseman, points out in his book, "Theology and Modern Science," why this need not be the case:

A similar uneasiness with this kind of distinction has appeared more recently within Roman Catholic theology, due no doubt in part to a sense that the notion of a self-subsistent soul is non-scriptural and/or that the notion of God's immediately creating each human soul does not fit easily into the continuum of living beings that marks the theory of evolution. We have already seen that Pope John Paul II alluded to this latter point by saying that the 'ontological leap' that marks the emergence of human beings with their spiritual souls is something beyond the ken of the observational sciences as such. One may readily grant his point that philosophical and theological issues cannot be adjudicated by the natural sciences and also agree with his evident desire to affirm a transcendent dimension to human beings against materialist denials of such a dimension and nevertheless wonder whether there may not be a way of arguing for this transcendence that is more in accord with what he calls the 'sciences of observation.' (emphasis mine)

One fear of traditional theologians is that obviously original sin will need to be discarded in light of recent findings. Indeed, this was reinforced by Sandro Magister in a recent post for his Vatican Diary, "Those Who Reject Original Sin."

While theologians like Fr. Jack Mahoney have argued for dumping the doctrine of original sin altogether, most not only disagree, they find in an evolutionary understanding of humanity even more solid grounds for accepting the doctrine as an aid in informing ourselves of the generally wretched state of the human condition since humans spread out from Africa.

Indeed, Nobel laureate Christian de Duve, who has no stake whatsoever in religion, argues for exactly such an evolutionary understanding of humanity's deeply ingrained flaws in his book, "Genetics of Original Sin."

De Duve finds the matter urgent and argues that not only the future of humanity but the very future of the planet is at stake.

One could go on. The point is, evolution poses many challenges for the Catholic tradition. Vershuuren's book, while it may come up short on the questions I've raised, gives me hope the topic will be more deeply explored by Catholic theologians (and publishers) in the future.