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How Does the Church Teach Us to Interpret the Creation Story in Genesis?

Responding to a question about the validity of the Ark Encounter attraction in Kentucky, Karlo Broussard explains which parts of the biblical creation account the Catholic Church professes to be actual historical events, which parts she leaves open to interpretation due to the narrative style of Genesis, and how free Catholics are to interpret Genesis as literally or symbolically as they please.


Host: We go now to Susie in Alpena, Michigan, listening on Veritas Radio. Susie, you’re on with Karlo Broussard.

Caller: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

Karlo: Happy to.

Caller: I just have a question when it comes to creation and Genesis. The new Ark Encounter that was opened just this past July, down in Kentucky—would you advocate people going to that? Or does the Catholic Church teach something definitely different than…I mean, I know they advocate, obviously, at the Ark, a literal interpretation of the six days.

Host: Are you familiar with this—hang on one second, Susie—Karlo, have you heard of this, the new Ark thing?

Karlo: I’m actually not familiar with it.

Host: It’s—they built the ark.

Karlo: Oh, yes. Okay, yes.

Host: And then they have, like—

Karlo: Trent wrote a blog on that when it came out.

Host: Yeah. So they’ll have, like, a scene where there’s a dinosaur, and a cow, or something—you know—or people with dinosaurs—so that you get the idea that creation is just a few thousand years old. So it’s a creationist—

Caller: A Young-Earth.

Host: A Young-Earth. Thank you, that’s exactly what I was looking for.

Karlo: Yeah, Susie, I would recommend you go to our website, Catholic.com. My colleague and friend Trent Horn wrote a great article, using this event when it first came out as sort of a tee-up in order to present the Church’s position and the Church’s understanding on the creation story in the book of Genesis.

And basically, Susie, the Church gives us no definitive interpretation of the narrative that we find in the creation story. The Church allows for Catholics to hold to various interpretations. So one could take a literalistic view of the narrative in the creation story, where the whole entire universe was created in six 24-hour periods, if one is inclined to take that interpretation. A Catholic is permitted to take that interpretation.

But it’s important to note, Susie, that a Catholic is not bound to hold to a literalistic interpretation of the narrative of the creation story in Genesis. A Catholic is permitted to hold to the idea that the ancient author was indeed affirming historical truths. That’s something we MUST hold to. But he does so in a manner that’s unique to the mode of writing and the literary genre of the ancient authors at his time.

So for example, we must hold that he’s affirming that God exists; he created the universe from nothing—ex nihilo; that the matter, that the material world in creation is good; human beings are good, you know, they’re not just simply playthings for the gods, like among pagan cultures, but that human beings have dignity, they’re called to be in a relationship with almighty God; that the universe was created with order, and with an intelligent ordering; and that there was a primeval fall, there was a sin that was committed by our first parents against God that wrought a bunch of havoc for creation and for the whole human race. These are things that the Church says we must affirm as real, historical events.

However, we are permitted to acknowledge that the author does use figurative language in order to communicate, or convey, or teach us those historical truths. And the document you want to look to, Susie, is Pope Pius XII’s document Humani Generis, in 1950, where he sort of gives us the parameters, for us as Catholics, with regard to reading the creation story.

And even the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the citation is slipping my mind right now—but in the Catechism, the Catechism specifically refers—in its section on the creation and the six-day succession, the Catechism explicitly states it’s symbolic, sort of like a literary tool that the author is using; and in its section on the Fall, the Catechism affirms that figurative language is being used by the ancient author in order to teach us about the primeval event of the fall and how the human race fell out of relationship with God.

So is it a pure figment of the imagination? Is it a pure fictional story? No. The Church says no to that. There are historical truths the author is affirming, but the author’s doing it in a way that might not be familiar for us in 21st-century America. He’s doing it in a way that was very familiar of ancient authors at the time, using figurative speech, even using popular narrations from the culture—but as Pope Pius XII said, any popular narration the author uses to describe and teach us about these theological and anthropological truths—that is, truths about God and man—he does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Host: How’s that for you, Susie?

Caller: Yeah, I just—I really found it interesting when I went there and to the museum—the one that’s about 50 miles more north—how one of the points that is made is, they always show you both points of view; like if you’re a naturalist or if you’re a person who believes in creation, whether it’s literal or, you know, if you believe in millions and millions of years, then when God says in Genesis that he created man and it was good, and then obviously sin entered the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, how could you have millions and millions of years of death and suffering before man?

Karlo: So here’s the key: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its section on the problem of evil—I think it’s right around late 300s, maybe, in the paragraph sections—but whenever it talks about the problem of evil, it affirms that, prior to the Fall, due to the very nature of the material universe that God created, there was generation and corruption; the appearance of some things, and the disappearance of other things, where the goodness of one thing would curtail the goodness of others.

Which implies that the Church affirms that death, within the material world itself, existed prior to the fall of man—that is, death consisting for sentient life, namely, animals and even vegetative life—I mean, Adam and Eve were told to eat the fruits of the trees in the garden, except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which implies that vegetative life would have died, right? So death existed among those types of living beings.

But what the Church teaches is that death did not exist for human beings. I think it’s right around paragraph 377 and paragraph 400 where the Catechism talks about how if Adam and Eve had remained in divine intimacy, they would not have suffered death—they would not have suffered or died. So God was going to preserve Adam and Eve from death; and death entered into the world whenever they sinned—for humans. Death entered into human history, as the Catechism puts it, not necessarily history itself.

So the Biblical account in Genesis of God creating the world fits perfectly with the Catholic understanding of the scientific narrative, that billions of years would have went by, and there would have been destruction and death among various forms of living beings, prior to the Fall. And as theology tells us, with the Fall, death enters into human history.

Does that help?

Caller: Yeah. Now at least I’ll know the Church’s standing.


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