Humani Generis, the 1950 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, could be interpreted as representing a watershed in Catholic theology–the acceptance of the theory of evolution. Consider these paragraphs:
36. … the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that … research and discussions … 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. …
37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. 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 no 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.
While it expresses a degree of caution, it admits that Catholics can legitimately consider that the body evolved, while maintaining 1) that the soul is in each case a special creation of God and 2) all humans (understood as having such a soul) are descended from Adam, and receive original sin from him.
In paragraphs that follow, while Genesis chapters 1-11 are said to teach truth, and cannot be seen as “myth” (which is carefully defined), there is wiggle room, which allows evolution to get a foot in the door.
This failure to uphold the literal nature of the creation account did not represent new teaching at that time. As noted in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholics had always been accorded freedom in how they interpreted the days of creation; it also noted that Catholics were free to reject the geographical universality of the flood.
In 1996, Pope John Paul II, speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said, referring to Humani Generis,
Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.
But the caution of Pius XII, that the soul is created directly by God, must be retained, as well as the teaching of Vatican II about the uniqueness of man, “the only creature on earth that God wanted for its own sake,” called to relationship with God. It is that immediately created “eternal soul” that gives dignity to the whole person, including his body.
In 2002, the International Theological Commission, under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed at that time by Joseph Ratzinger, considered evolution in Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God. It has no questions about evolution itself.
63. … However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution. …
64. … [While John Paul II affirmed evolution, his 1996 message] cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe.
68. With respect to the evolution of conditions favorable to the emergence of life, Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes. God’s action does not displace or supplant the activity of creaturely causes, but enables them to act according to their natures and, nonetheless, to bring about the ends he intends. … Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation. Although there is scientific debate about the degree of purposiveness or design operative and empirically observable in these developments, they have de facto favored the emergence and flourishing of life. …
69. … [I]t is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. … Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. … Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so.
Thus Catholicism can not only embrace a long time frame and the evolution of the human body from earlier life forms (and, implicitly, the existence of death prior to human sin), but also a view of God’s role in creation that accepts genuine contingency–that is, randomness and uncertainty, or chance.
This was underscored in 2005 by George Coyne, SJ, the Vatican astronomer, in an article in The Tablet, “God’s Chance Creation,” responding to a New York Times op-ed by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, “Finding Design in Nature,” which denied that chance could play a role.
In the universe, as known by science, there are essentially three processes at work: chance, necessity and the fertility of the universe. The classical question as to whether the human being came about by chance, and so has no need of God, or by necessity, and so through the action of a designer God, is no longer valid. And so any attempt to answer it is doomed to failure. The fertility of the universe, now well established by science, is an essential ingredient, and the meaning of chance and necessity must be seen in light of that fertility. …
Life began on the earth, which formed about 4.5 x 1 billion years ago, within about the first 400 million years, a relatively rapid transition to life. In fact, the search for life’s origins may be in vain. There may be no clear origin, no clear threshold as seen by science, between the non-living and the living.
This process of continuous evolution, called by scientists chemical complexification, has a certain intrinsic natural directionality in that the more complex an organism becomes the more determined is its future. This does not necessarily mean, however, that there need be a person directing the process, nor that the process is necessarily an “unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection” as Cardinal Schönborn describes it. It is precisely the fertility of the universe and the interaction of chance and necessity in that universe which are responsible for the directionality. …
… if we confront what we know of our origins scientifically with religious faith in God the Creator – if, that is, we take the results of modern science seriously – it is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the believer, science tells us of a God who must be very different from God as seen by them.
This stress on our scientific knowledge is not to place a limitation upon God. Far from it. It reveals a God who made a universe that has within it a certain dynamism and thus participates in the very creativity of God. … God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution.
Some imagined that Benedict XVI would come out in defense of Schoenborn. He didn’t. The 2006 Schülerkreis was not an official meeting of the Catholic Church, nor did any of the presenters suggest changing Catholic teaching on evolution. The proceedings are now in print, and I’ve mentioned the volume already.
It’s not surprising that Benedict would not rock the boat on this subject. He was the convener of the 2002 ITC gathering that affirmed contingency. And his 1968 reflection on the creed, Introduction to Christianity (available from Ignatius Press), completely ignores the locus of creation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provided the traditional wiggle room to get away from the implications of Scripture, accepting that Scripture has a literal and a spiritual sense, the latter including the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. Thus the Catechism can reject Scripture’s teaching that the world was created complete and good, saying (302),
Creation … did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection.
Thus, instead of standing on Scripture, its plain sense is changed to allow for an evolutionary perspective. It does not affirm that natural evil, and death, are a consequence of human sin.
By pulling the rug out from under Scriptural authority, and its account of creation and the fall, redemption and eschatology must also be affected.
One wonders why, having abandoned these Bible teachings, the Catholic Church is so insistent on retaining the unscriptural notion of the immortality of the soul, and the soul as something created immediately by God, which is, nevertheless, infected by original sin (which is illogical–it doesn’t come into being as a result of normal generation, so why should it be affected by human inheritance?).
Clearly, the doctrine of creation and the fall, instead of being teachings Catholicism shares with Protestantism, are, in fact, teachings on which it has departed from Biblical teaching.
Thus we see how relevant is the Bible’s last message, which is to go to all people, calling them to affirm and worship the Creator, whose judgment is come.