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Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Here is the next part of the paper on Human Origins. In it I discuss the Church's contributions to the debate, particularly in the writings of Pius XII, the first pope to deal extensively with this issue.

When the Church addressed the theory of scientific evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin, She did so with the belief that evolution could not counter the Faith. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “Mr. Darwin’s theory need not be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a large idea of divine prescience and skill.”[i] The Church allows for both Creation and evolution, as long as scientists and theologians retain several key doctrines. In 1909, the Pontifical Biblical Commission enumerated the doctrines that Catholics must hold:

The creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future redeemer.[ii]

Though not explicitly named, one sees in the Commission’s response a veiled reference to evolution. If there is a ‘special creation” for man, does that mean man did not evolve? If he did evolve, did the soul evolve with him? Could there have been more than one Adam and Eve? The Commission did not answer these questions, though the tone of the response implies the negative.

It was during the pontificate of Venerable Pius XII that the Church ruled on evolution, particularly the evolution of man. Pius was well aware of the abuses of evolution’s anthropology, especially as incarnated in communism and Nazism.[iii] It is therefore not surprising that he addressed problems concerning evolution and man’s origins. In his encyclical Summi pontificatus, Pius reaffirmed the ancient teaching that all of humanity stems from Adam and Eve (Dz. 2280). In a 1941 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he briefly discussed human evolution: “Only from man could there come another man who would then call him father and ancestor; and the helpmate given by God to the first man came from man himself and is flesh from his flesh, made into a woman and called such because she came from man.”[iv] He continued his reflection by examining the superiority of man over other animals, but then stalled his reflection, stating, “We must leave it to the future to answer the question, if indeed science will one day be able, enlightened and guided by revelation, to give certain and definitive results concerning a topic of such importance.”[v] Nine years later, however, he took up the issue again in Humani generis. Towards the end of the encyclical, Pius mentions that,

The Teaching Authority 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.[vi]

It is a reasonable proposal. Catholics may freely discuss and debate evolution as far as it involves animals and the human body on the condition that those discussing evolution remember that it is still a theory, not a fact. The Church likewise reminds the faithful that the soul cannot evolve, that it is “immediately created by God,” and it is therefore off limits to scientific discussions.

In the next paragraph, however, Pius changes his tone. Here he comes to the issue of polygenism, about which he forbids discussion and debate:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty [of debating]. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[vii]

It is an oft quoted paragraph, and rightfully deserves the attention granted it. Pius places a limit on debating evolution, namely that Catholics cannot hold that a) some men after Adam could not trace their biological ancestry to him, or b) Adam and Eve represent a “certain number” or group of first parents. The first point refers to the theory of so-called pre or co-Adamites, men living before or during Adam’s time that are not his descendents.[viii] The second point refers to the actual word “polygenism,” which means “multiple sources,” indicating that the human race stemmed from multiple sets of first parents.

The average theologian could consent to this teaching with little to no discontent. If polygenism is correct, then there were people who lived after the Fall of Adam that did not descend from him, and therefore did not lose “the state of justice, integrity, and immortality” enjoyed in “the original happiness of our first parents,” as expounded by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. When discussing this problem, Pius cites the Council of Trent’s doctrine on original sin, which teaches that “the sin of Adam” is passed down “by propagation, not by imitation,” meaning that the biological descendents of Adam suffer the curse of original sin (Dz. 790). The sin of Adam would not have affected other hypothetical humans living around his time. Only those who descended from Adam would share his wounded human nature. This theology of original sin is crucial not only to Christian anthropology, but to the very theology of the redemption. If some men did not descend from Adam, then Christ’s redeeming act, His sacrifice on the cross, was not for them. The theological foundation for Christ’s mission, for the sacraments and the Church, and the entire Christian faith rests in the reality of original sin. As truth cannot contradict truth, the thrust of science cannot contradict the Church’s teaching on original sin. The Faith takes precedence over scientific theories.

Could both the Genesis account and the theory of evolution be true? In other words, can a Catholic balance the theory of evolution with the Catholic teaching concerning original sin and the creation of Eve? How would a monogenic theory of man’s origins work in reality, without implying widespread immorality, such as bestiality or incest, or genetic deformity? Several Catholic thinkers have tried to get around these problems by citing the Church’s relative silence on the issue of human origins as proof that She no longer forbids adherence to polygenic theories, adopting instead a more symbolic interpretation of Genesis.[ix] This interpretation rejects the teaching of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Church’s Tradition. Such an approach does not satisfy the above questions, and so a more thorough evaluation is in order. Three provisions, noted by Fr. John Hardon in The Catholic Catechism, highlight the essential doctrines required by Pius XII and the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

1) the essential superiority of man in relation to other animals, by reason of his spiritual soul.

2) the derivation in some way of the first woman from the first man.

3) The impossibility that the immediate father or progenitor of man could have been other than a human being, that is, the impossibility that the first man could have been the son of an animal, generated by the latter in the proper sense of the term.[x]

By keeping these three points, the theologian plants his foot firmly in the Church’s Tradition while incorporating the findings of science.

How could one preserve the belief that man evolved without falling into the error of polygenism? It is a tight rope to walk, where one misuse of a word spells disaster for the theory. Theologians have attempted several formulations to explain a monogenic evolution of Adam, yet many remove one or more of the essential teachings enumerated above, most frequently the one involving Eve.[xi] There is, however, a theory that seems to follow the requirements set out by both Pius XII and evolutionary science. More striking is that this theory might have the backing of recent scientific discoveries.

[i]Quoted in Christopher T. Baglow, Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (Woodridge, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2009), 190.

[ii]Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Historical Character of the Earlier Chapters of Genesis,” (Rome, 1909) in Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Powers Lake, ND: Marian House, 1955), 2123. Emphasis added. All citations from The Sources of Catholic Dogma are from this edition and are henceforth cited parenthetically in the text by paragraph number as follows: (Dz. 2123).

[iii]The main purpose of his encyclical Humani generis was to deal with certain errors developed by these perversions of anthropology.

[iv]Pius XII, “Address to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences” (Rome: 30 November, 1941), available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/p12plen.htm, accessed 7/15/11.


[vi]Pius XII, Humani generis (Rome, 1950), available at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis_en.html, accessed 7/11/11, 36.

[vii]Ibid., 37.

[viii]Anthony Maas, “Preadamites,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12370a.htm, accessed 7/13/11.

[ix]Karl Rahner, “Natural Science and Reasonable Faith” in Theological Investigations, Vol. XXI, Science and Christian Faith, trans. Hugh M. Riley (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1988), 41; Mark Shea, “Interesting Conversation on Polygenism” on Catholic and Enjoying It (February 17, 2009), available at http://markshea.blogspot.com/2009/02/interesting-conversation-on-polygenism.html, accessed 7/15/11.

[x]John Hardon, The Catholic Catechism (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1975), 92.

[xi]Jean De Fraine, The Bible and the Origin of Man, (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1967), 41 – 52. De Fraine interprets Eve’s creation symbolically, rejecting the belief that Eve was physically drawn from Adam.

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