The Catholic Church and Evolution

The Catholic Church has come a long way since the infamous Galileo affair. To our knowledge, they never officially opposed the theory of evolution, but it took a long time before they issued this statement by Pope John Paul II in 1996: Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he said:

[F]resh knowledge has led to the recognition that evolution is 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 favour of this theory.

But he left a bit of wiggle-room by adding:

[I]f the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter the spiritual soul is immediately created by God. … . Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.

They’re still mulling things over in the Vatican. This can be considered a companion piece to our older post, The Vatican and Evolution. In the St. Louis Review there’s this article: Church scientists see no conflict between evolution, hand of God, which they got from the Catholic News Service. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

VATICAN CITY — Evolutionary science is still grappling with understanding how the human species, with its unique capacities for language, culture, abstract reasoning and spirituality, may have emerged from a pre-ape ancestor. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that God “freely created man,” the Church still considers the scientific investigation of the origins of humanity to be a valuable contribution to human knowledge.

That’s good to know. The article continues:

In its continuing dialogue with world-renowned scientific experts, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences brought together evolutionary biologists, paleoanthropologists, archaeologists, neuroscientists, theologians and philosophers to discuss the major physical and cultural changes that occurred during mankind’s evolution.

The working group on “The Emergence of the Human Being” met April 19-21 to discuss topics such as the mastery and use of fire, the beginning of burial and funeral rites and the emergence of language, culture and conscience.

Interesting choice of topics. Here’s more:

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, science academy chancellor, told the group that scientific truths are part of divine truth and “can help philosophy and theology understand ever more fully the status and future of the human person.”

Science investigates the external world and how it works, while religion is concerned with “the internal world of the self, which belongs to the spirit present in his being and to his relationship with God,” the bishop said. As such, theology and philosophy “must not engage in a losing battle to establish the facts of nature that constitute the very scope of science,” he said.

We like that he described opposition to science as a “losing battle.” They’ve definitely come a long way. The article continues:

Bishop Sanchez said the evolutionary laws of heredity and genetic mutation pose no conflict to the Catholic faith and offer a biological explanation for the development of species on earth. However, he said, the beginning of the universe, “the transition from nothing to being,” is not a mutation; God is the first cause of creation and being.

We certainly agree that the Big Bang wasn’t a mutation, but it sounds like they’re sticking with the First Cause doctrine. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, that seems harmless. But then a little more Oogity Boogity slips in:

“In this first transcendent origin of the human being we should in fact admit the direct participation of God,” which occurs with each conception of human life, he said. Human beings are not just biological creatures, but spiritual, too, whose “incorruptible soul,” he said, “requires a creative act of God.”

This is an amazing exercise in — what shall we call it? — grudging acceptance of science. One last excerpt:

Msgr. Fiorenzo Facchini, who is an anthropologist and paleontologist, said evolution could have ended at the pre-human stage, but thanks to God’s will, humans emerged with the capacity for self-reflection and knowing the transcendent.

Make of that what you will, dear reader, but they’re centuries ahead of people like Ken Ham. Maybe there’s hope after all.

Copyright © 2013. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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13 responses to “The Catholic Church and Evolution

  1. retiredsciguy

    All the more reason for the Southern Baptists et al. to distrust the Vatican.

  2. Human beings are not just biological creatures, but spiritual, too, whose “incorruptible soul,” he said, “requires a creative act of God.”

    This is a necessary statement for without it there would be no use for the Catholic Church, or any other religious body, for that matter. But also, if the soul is incorruptible, then how did Adam and Eve get corrupted and then the rest of humanity must pay for their corruption?

  3. To our knowledge, they never officially opposed the theory of evolution

    Origin of Species was on the Index of Prohibited Books, along with Galileo’s book and a lot of great novels. Galileo’s book was taken off ~1860′s. Origin of Species could still be there for all I know.

    Mein Kampf was never on the Index, of course. Great sense of priorities.

    — Diogenes

  4. anevilmeme

    Yet, many American Catholics apparently unaware of the official position of their church continue to oppose evolutionary biology as rabidly as the average fundie. Conservative talkers Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham being prime examples. Looks like the Church needs to spend some effort doing public outreach and education with its flock.

  5. Origin of Species was on the Index of Prohibited Books

    According to the Wikipedia article Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church “On the Origin of Species” was never on the Index.

  6. TomS, you beat me to it. However, Erasmus Darwin is on the List of authors and works on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

  7. Ceteris Paribus

    David quotes from the St. Louis Review article:

    Human beings are not just biological creatures, but spiritual, too, whose “incorruptible soul,” he said, “requires a creative act of God.”

    and then David asks: “But also, if the soul is incorruptible, then how did Adam and Eve get corrupted and then the rest of humanity must pay for their corruption?”

    Multiple and mutually contradictory answers to your question can be found by googling on traducionism, “creationism (of soul)”, “infusionism”, and “ensoulment”

    But note that out of abundant care for his readers, (or just avoidance of a suit claiming negligent tort) SC warned us that the paragraph containing that “incorruptible soul” language contained “Oogity Boogity”.

    Many who have delved into Oogity Boogity unprepared have later been found wandering the streets aimlessly. Or making banana videos.

  8. No, the rc church does not accept evolution. Sure, it says it does, but it doesn’t. They simply ignore the ‘natural’ part of the ‘selection’ mechanism and substitute Oogity Boogity for specific insertions and guidance and intention. All of this religious mumbo jumbo stands incompatible with natural selection as it is scientifically understood and accepted. So no, the rc church does NOT accept the theory of evolution but alters it entirely for their own benefit. But hey, religious belief is always has to steal what seems reasonable because it can’t create it on its own. Thievery is actually the metaphysical nature of religion but I guess if it’s done with enough earnest piety then its okay because it’s Holy Thievery (Batman)!

  9. I have a difficulty with mentioning the origins of the soul in the context of evolution. By standard doctrine, each individual has an immaterial soul. If that is true, then no science has anything to say about such an immaterial soul. Moreover, evolutionary science in particular does not deal with the origins of individuals (reproductive biology, developmental biology, genetics or some such would be the relevant sciences).

  10. This is about as an enlightened as I would expect the church to be. It allows them to stay in business but also allows Catholic scientists a lot of leeway so I’m not going to knock it. For the most part, at least in the U.S., Catholics do what they want and think what they want anyway. Attitudes of Catholics tend to align more with the culture than the edicts of the church. This is pretty much in line with a friend of mine who sends his kids to Catholic school but wasn’t exactly attending services. As long as you sign the checks they don’t care.

  11. OK, I stand corrected on “The Origin of Species” being banned on the Index. I must’ve read that somewhere, don’t recall where…

    My kid goes to Catholic school. He’s five. One day he said to me, out of the blue, “Daddy, I don’t want to hear about God and Jesus anymore! Ever again!”

    He didn’t get that from me. Kids know they’re being indoctrinated.

    “I don’t want to sing songs about Jesus anymore!” He says. Let’s admit that religious songs aren’t much fun.

  12. “Bishop Sanchez said the evolutionary laws of heredity and genetic mutation pose no conflict to the Catholic faith and offer a biological explanation for the development of species on earth. However, he said, the beginning of the universe, “the transition from nothing to being,” is not a mutation; God is the first cause of creation and being.”

    Hmmm. I don’t know, but if I read that correctly it seems to me that the Catholic Church has more of an issue (or is it fear?) with modern cosmology than with the modern evolutionary synthesis. I also think that Bishop Sanchez’s understanding of what modern cosmologists consider “nothing” to be is suspect. I’m not sure he understands “nothing” in the modern cosmological sense.

  13. Diogenes observes, ” Let’s admit that religious songs aren’t much fun.”

    It all depends on how you make up new verses:

    “What a friend we have in Jesus,
    Christ Almighty, what a pal!”