Three and a half centuries ago, the Galileo incident happened. In the public, mind the Church was seen as a hidebound oppressor of intellectual freedom, while Galileo was portrayed as a martyr for the cause of science.
This incident helped shape the split between faith and science, and it provided a pretext for those attached to the scientific worldview to fault the Church with all manner of intellectual villainy. The fact that the Church’s actions in the Galileo episode weren’t as they are often portrayed is beside the point. The Church suffered a horrible public relations disaster, and it isn’t anxious to have one happen again.
Thus when evolution—the next big worldview-affecting science issue—came up, the Church was determined not to get burned in the same way again and proceeded quite cautiously.
As the Church recognized, certain theories evolution are incompatible with the Catholic faith, as are the materialistic ideas often associated with them. That evolution would operate apart from God’s sovereignty, for example, or that it produced the soul of the first man, or that man has no soul—all of these are incompatible with the faith and unprovable as matters of science.
On the other hand, it is not clear that every possible theory of evolution is incompatible with the faith. Though the majority interpretation of Genesis 1–3 in Christian history had been quite literal, there was also a strain of less insistence on the literal. In fact, the greatest of the Church Fathers, Augustine, speculated in ways that were congruent with certain.aspects of modern cosmology and evolutionary thought (see his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis).
In view of this—and the Galileo incident—the Church took its time before weighing in on the new evolutionary thought that became popular in the nineteenth century. By the mid-twentieth century it was ready to do so.
Though there had been lesser interventions on the subject before, Pius XII issued in 1950 the encyclical Humani Generis, which pronounced against certain philosophical and evolutionary ideas, particularly some associated with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.
At the same time, he gave the most authoritative statement to that date regarding the possibility of Catholics holding certain versions of evolutionary theory. He wrote:
"The magisterium of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation, and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically sacred Scripture and of defending the dogmas of faith" (HG 36).
Reading this passage, one notes how tentative Pope Pius is. He speaks of "research and discussions" being conducted regarding human evolution by experts in the fields of science and theology. He warns that we must regard the soul as created by God. He warns not to bias the discussions in favor of evolutionism. And he warns that the magisterium could in the future decide that the authentic meaning of Scripture precludes the possibility of human evolution.
After Humani Generis
Following the release of the Humani Generis, many Catholics—including high-ranking churchmen—gradually got more comfortable with the idea of human evolution. This parallels the growing ease that was gained with heliocentrism following the Galileo affair.
There are certain passages of Scripture that make it sound like the earth stands still while the sun rotates about it (e.g., Josh. 10:13; Ps. 93:1; 104:5; 19, 22; Eccles. 1:5). This is understandable, since the biblical writers—like people in every land—spoke and wrote as things appeared to them, and it does appear from the earth that the earth is stationary while the sun moves.
Before the Copernican Revolution, the Church had taken these passages at face value and had not considered the literary nature of these statements—that they were written in the language of appearances (what is sometimes called phenomenological language) and did not express a God’s eye view of cosmology.
Following Copernicus and Galileo, theologians rethought these passages, saw that they could be taken in a phenomenological sense, and gradually got comfortable with the idea. The same thing happened after Humani Generis. Taken at face value, Genesis 2:7 seems to say that God created the first man directly from the dust of the ground, and that is how most folks took it. There had always been a strand in both Christian and Jewish interpretation—even before the rise of modern science—that recognized that the early chapters of Genesis contain non-literal elements, that they present the mysterious, unseen-by-human-eye work of the Creator in a stylized manner. But the majority had tended to take these passages literally.
After the discoveries of modern biology and Humani Generis, it took a while for many Catholics to get comfortable taking these passages in a less literal sense. But, just as they grew at ease taking the geocentric-sounding passages in a heliocentric manner, they also began to take passages like Genesis 2:7 in a manner compatible with human evolutionism.
By the time of John Paul II, one would be hard pressed to find a high-ranking churchman who did not approve of such a reading. In fact, anxious not to have a repeat of the public relations fiasco that happened with Galileo, many Church officials went out of their way to make positive comments about modern science, including the idea of human evolution, as long as it was proposed in a way compatible with the Catholic faith.
John Paul II
In 1996, Pope John Paul II gave an address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on the subject of evolution, which set off a controversy regarding the subject.
Much of the controversy was fueled by rash press reports that distorted what the Pope said and made it sound as if evolution was something in which Catholics were obliged to believe. Those who do not believe in evolution—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—were taken aback by the reports.
Also fueling the controversy were claims that John Paul’s remarks (which had originally been given in French) had been mistranslated. These reports proved to be exaggerated, though there was enough of a basis to them that a slightly emended translation was issued.
We cannot conduct a full analysis of what the Pope said, but the general tone of the address was positive but cautious. He said nice things about science but also stressed the limits of science to tell us about human origins. He also discussed the varieties of human evolutionism that would not be compatible with the Catholic faith.
In the most controversial passage of the address, the Holy Father stated: "Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical [Humani Generis], new knowledge has led to the recognition in the theory of evolution of more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory" (Message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences [Oct. 22, 1996] 4).
This passage was controversial because it was taken as a statement of Catholic doctrine. It is not. John Paul is summarizing the attitude of mainstream science regarding evolution, and recognizing that, in the prior fifty years, evolution had become regarded in mainstream science as more than a hypothesis.
The note that the convergence of scientific discoveries bearing on evolution was "neither sought nor fabricated" struck many non-evolutionists as naive, but in this case the Pope was expressing a personal assessment and not a matter of Catholic doctrine. It is also undeniable that this convergence constitutes an argument in favor of evolution; whether it is a good argument or a bad argument is a separate question.
The Holy Father went on to note that "a theory’s validity depends on whether or not it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; whenever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought" (ibid.). He means here that, although mainstream science has elevated evolution from a hypothesis to a theory, it still must be open to the fact that further data may require the whole thing to be rethought.
He also noted: "And to tell the truth, rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution" (ibid.). Thus, all theories of evolution cannot be true.
The Catechism touches briefly on the subject of evolution. It says: "The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies that have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers" (CCC 283).
When the Catechism speaks of "many scientific studies" splendidly enriching our knowledge of "the development of life-forms and the appearance of man," it is thinking of mainstream science. It is not thinking of studies done by the Institute for Creation Research or similar places.
If the Catechism did have such groups in mind, it would be pastorally irresponsible to speak in such a manner, for the average reader of the Catechism would be certain to think that mainstream science was being referred to. In fact, one would be certain to regard this as some kind of positive comment regarding the theory of evolution—which it is.
The question is: Does that make it a matter of Catholic doctrine?
The Catechism is certainly among the most authoritative ecclesiastical documents there is. It is the product of a collaboration among the world’s bishops, issued by the authority of the Pope, who declared it to be "a sure norm for teaching the faith" (Fidei Depositum 3). Given this, the only thing comparable to it among non-papal Church documents would be the decrees of an ecumenical council.
Unfortunately, there have been too few such Church-wide catechisms to determine their exact role in the scheme of ecclesiastical documents. (There have been only two of them.) But it remains clear that this is a weighty document.
It also is much more guarded in what it says than the Pope’s message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences. The fathers of the Catechism (if one may so term them) willed that there be a remark gesturing toward evolution in a favorable manner, but they are far less specific than the Pope was in his address.
This is, no doubt, because of the weight and the prominence of the Catechism itself. Whatever it said was more likely to be regarded by the public as Catholic doctrine. So, does the Catechism’s positive but general statement regarding evolutionism make this a matter of Catholic doctrine?
Actually, it doesn’t.
Evolution and the Deposit of Faith
The fact is that at this juncture it does not look like evolution can be a subject of Catholic teaching. The reason has to do with its relationship to the deposit of faith (Scripture and Tradition).
Basically, a scientific claim can have one of three basic relations with the sources of faith: (1) It can be required by them, (2) It can be precluded by them, or (w) It can be free with respect to them.
A scientific claim can be required by the sources of faith because (a) it is directly taught in them or (b) it is needed to protect a truth that is taught in the deposit of faith. An example is that the world has a beginning, that it does not go back forever in time.
Similarly, a scientific claim also can be precluded by the sources of faith because (a) they directly teach it to be false or (b) its falsity must be recognized to protect something else they teach. An example would be the idea that the universe extends back infinitely in time.
Matters that do not fall into either of the above categories are free with respect to the sources of faith, and they must stand or fall on their own scientific merits. As the Pope pointed out in his address, new data accumulates with time, so such claims may seem to stand at one time, fall at another, then get up and stumble again later.
However that plays out, Catholic doctrine is unconcerned because the sources of faith neither require nor preclude them. They are apart from the faith and the Church’s ability to pronounce on them.
It is possible for it to be unclear which of the three relationships a scientific idea has, but doctrinal development can clarify this. Initially, it looked to many as if the idea of geocentrism was required by Scripture and that therefore heliocentrism was precluded. Over time, it was recognized that this was not the case. This matter is free with respect to the sources of faith.
The process of coming to that conclusion was so painful that the Church was determined not to get burned that way again, and so it is entirely natural that Church author would want to say positive sounding things about evolution, but that doesn’t make it a teaching of the faith.
Initially it looked to many like the theory of human evolution was precluded by the sources of faith. In the mid-twentieth century, Pius XII issued a tentative finding that this was not the case. In the remainder of the century, this conviction strengthened.
But nobody has gone to the extent of saying that it is required by the sources of faith. That hasn’t been remotely suggested.
Until such time as the magisterium would either reverse its twentieth-century finding that human evolution is not precluded by the deposit of faith or would make a new finding that it is required by the deposit, human evolution as a matter that is free with respect to the sources. It is a matter that must stand or fall on its own scientific merits; it is not a matter of Catholic teaching.
The sooner both sides in the evolution debate within the Catholic Church recognize this, the better for all concerned.