Theistic Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church

"Theistic evolution" and "Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church"

adapted from Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia (as of 1/28/2006).

Theistic evolution, less commonly known as evolutionary creationism, is the general opinion that some or all classical religious teachings about God and creation are compatible with some or all of the scientific theory of evolution.

Theistic evolution holds that the acceptance of evolutionary biology is not fundamentally different from the acceptance of other sciences, such as astronomy or meteorology. The latter two are also based on a methodological assumption of naturalism to study and explain the natural world, without assuming the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural. In this view, it is held both religiously and scientifically correct to reinterpret ancient religious texts in line with modern-day scientific findings about evolution. This synthesis of the teleology underlying faith and religious teachings with science can still be described as creationism in holding that divine intervention brought about the origin of life or that divine Laws govern formation of species, but in the creation-evolution controversy its proponents generally take the "evolutionist" side. For this reason, some on both sides prefer to use the term "theistic evolution" to describe this belief.

The term evolutionary creationism is used in particular for beliefs in which God transcends normal time and space, with nature having no existence independent of His will. It allows interpretations consistent with both a literal Genesis and objective science, in which, for example, the events of creation occurred outside time as we know it.

Spectrum of viewpoints

Evolutionary creationism is a variant of creationism which accepts microevolution and macroevolution while retaining a theistic interpretation of evolution. Theistic evolution is accepted (or at least not rejected) by major Christian churches, including Roman Catholicism; some Judaism denominations; and other religious organizations that lack a literalist stance concerning holy scriptures. With this approach toward evolution, scriptural creation stories are typically interpreted as being allegorical in nature. Many individuals stress the unreliability of Genesis as a scientific text, believing that God guided an evolution of life up to and including human beings.

As cited below, several religious organizations accept evolutionary theory, though their related theological interpretations vary. Additionally, individuals or movements within such organizations may not accept evolution, and stances on evolution may have adapted (or evolved) throughout history.


Deism is belief in a God or first cause based on reason, rather than on faith or revelation. Most Deists believe that God does not interfere with the world or create miracles. Some deists believe that a Divine Creator initiated a universe in which evolution occurred, by designing the system and the natural laws, although many deists believe that God also created life itself, before allowing it to be subject to evolution. They find it to be undignified and unwieldy for a deity to make constant adjustments rather than letting evolution elegantly adapt organisms to changing environments.

One good example of this is the recent (December 2004) conversion to deism of the former atheist philosopher Professor Antony Flew, who now argues that recent research into the origins of life supports the theory that some form of intelligence was involved. Whilst accepting subsequent Darwinian evolution, Flew argues that this cannot explain the complexities of the origins of life. He has also stated that the investigation of DNA "has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce [life], that intelligence must have been involved."

Other variants

Another perspective is that a Divine Creator engineers quantum events, in a manner which is apparently random, thus exercising authoritative power over nature. Alternatively, a Divine Creator may intervene through miracles, in the creation of souls, in an afterlife, or ways beyond known physics.


Anglicanism: (see "Catechism of Creation, Creation and Science")

Although Anglicans (Episcopal Church, Church of England) believe that the Bible "contains all things necessary to salvation," nonetheless "science and Christian theology can complement one another in the quest for truth and understanding." Specifically on the subject of creation/evolution, Anglicans view "Big Bang cosmology" as being "in tune with both the concepts of creation out of nothing and continuous creation." See the above link for more information.

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church: (a summary, see below for more detail)

The Roman Catholic Church in 1950 under the leadership of Pope Pius XII, in the papal encyclical Humani Generis, stated 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" with the stipulations that souls are direct creations of God, and all true humans are descendants of particular historical individuals, Adam and Eve. This doctrine is known as "monogenism" versus "polygenism."

In October 1996, Pope John Paul II stated that "new knowledge has led to the recognition in the theory of evolution of more than a hypothesis" and restated from Humani Generis that "if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God." However, as John Paul II recognized in his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, "In his Encyclical Humani generis [1950], my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points." Thus, as a practical matter, evolution had been taught in Catholic primary and secondary schools, not to mention universities, for decades before 1996.

In July 2004, the International Theological Commission published a statement titled "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God" on creation, evolution, and God's providence. The president of the commission was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of doctrine in the Catholic Church, who the following year became Pope Benedict XVI. The statement made explicit the Church's support of the findings of modern science and biological evolution, calling universal common descent "virtually certain," and that "even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation." (See especially paragraphs 62-70).

In July 2005, in a controversial editorial Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna stated: "Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not..." (New York Times editorial, 7 July 2005) but this argument against "unguided evolution" has been contradicted by Paul Cardinal Poupard and Vatican astronomer Fr. George Coyne, and later clarified by Cardinal Schönborn himself in a series of catechetical lectures on the topic (to be published in book form). Schönborn's true position is that he has no problem with the natural sciences as such but wishes to preserve the Catholic teaching that God is the Creator, that faith and reason do not conflict, and that scientists need to be aware of and respect one another's worldviews. Catholic dogma obviously rejects an atheistic materialism (philosophical or metaphysical naturalism) that some have interpreted as the meaning of evolutionary science:

"I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, but under the prerequisite that the borders of scientific theory are maintained. In the citations given above (from Julian Huxley, Will Provine, Peter Atkins), it is unequivocally the case that such have been violated. When science adheres to its own method, it cannot come into conflict with faith. But perhaps one finds it difficult to stay within one's territory, for we are, after all, not simply scientists but also human beings, with feelings, who struggle with faith, human beings, who seek the meaning of life. And thus as natural scientists we are constantly and inevitably bringing in questions reflecting worldviews... I am thankful for the immense work of the natural sciences. Their furthering of our knowledge boggles the mind. They do not restrict faith in the creation; they strengthen me in my belief in the Creator and in how wisely and wonderfully He has made all things." (Cardinal Schönborn, 2 October 2005, "Creation and Evolution: To the Debate As It Stands")

Christian Justification for Evolution

Evolution contradicts a literal interpretation of Genesis; however, according to Catholicism and most Protestant Churches, these days, Biblical Literalism is not mandatory. Some feel that seeing Genesis as a myth or as an allegory has been considered a "cop-out," and that it was always interpreted literally until biological evolution came and disproved it. Others would state that the concept of myth is not synonymous with being "false"; and that a myth is "a truth in unfamiliar clothing" (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield all support this interpretation).

Historically, it is claimed that Biblical Literalism came about with the rise of Protestantism; before Protestantism, the Bible wasn't interpreted completely literally. Fr. Stanley Jaki, Benedictine priest, distinguished physicist and theologian, states in his Bible and Science (Christendom Press, 1996):

"Insofar as the study of the original languages of the Bible was severed from authoritative ecclesiastical preaching as its matrix, it fueled literalism... Biblical literalism taken for a source of scientific information is making the rounds even nowadays among creationists who would merit Julian Huxley's description of 'bibliolaters.' They merely bring discredit to the Bible as they pile grist upon grist on the mills of latter-day Huxleys, such as Hoyle, Sagan, Gould, and others. The fallacies of creationism go deeper than fallacious reasonings about scientific data. Where creationism is fundamentally at fault is its resting its case on a theological faultline: the biblicism constructed by the [Protestant] Reformers." (Jaki, pages 110-111)

However, the Russian Orthodox hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Rose has argued that the leading eastern saints such as Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian believed that Genesis should be treated as a historical account. (Genesis, Creation and Early Man, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000).

For example, St. Basil the Great rejected an allegorical interpretation in his Hexaemeron, and affirmed 24-hour creation days:

"I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense. 'For I am not ashamed of the Gospel' [Romans 1:16]." (Basil, Homily IX:1)

"'And there was evening and there was morning: one day.' And the evening and the morning were one day. Why does Scripture say 'one day the first day'? Before speaking to us of the second, the third, and the fourth days, would it not have been more natural to call that one the first which began the series? If it therefore says 'one day,' it is from a wish to determine the measure of day and night, and to combine the time that they contain. Now twenty-four hours fill up the space of one day -- we mean of a day and of a night; and if, at the time of the solstices, they have not both an equal length, the time marked by Scripture does not the less circumscribe their duration. It is as though it said: twenty-four hours measure the space of a day, or that, in reality a day is the time that the heavens starting from one point take to return there. Thus, every time that, in the revolution of the sun, evening and morning occupy the world, their periodical succession never exceeds the space of one day." (Basil, Homily II:8)

Others from the so-called "Alexandrian school" were not strictly 24-hour day literalists (e.g. Origen of Alexandria). See "Early Church Fathers on Genesis" from Glenn Morton's site.

The "metaphorical/literal" distinction arose with the rise of the Scientific Revolution, although its source could be found in earlier writings, such as those of Herodotus (5th century BC). It was even considered heretical to interpret the Bible literally at times (cf. Origen, St. Jerome). Saint Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church, was in fact the first person to propose a theory similar to evolution (cf. De Genesi ad litteram or The Literal Meaning [or Interpretation] of Genesis). He suggested that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason. From an important passage on his "The Literal Interpretation of Genesis" (early fifth century, AD), St. Augustine wrote:

"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation." (Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20 [AD 408])

"With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation." (ibid, 2:9)

However, Augustine also defended what would be called today as "young earth creationism." He rejected both the immortality of the human race proposed by pagans, and contemporary ideas of ages (such as those of certain Greeks and Egyptians) that differed from the Church's sacred writings:

"Let us, then, omit the conjectures of men who know not what they say, when they speak of the nature and origin of the human race. For some hold the same opinion regarding men that they hold regarding the world itself, that they have always been... They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed." (Augustine, "Of the Falseness of the History Which Allots Many Thousand Years to the World’s Past," The City of God 12(10) AD 419).

St. Augustine also comments on the word "day" in the creation week, admitting the interpretation is difficult:

"But simultaneously with time the world was made, if in the world's creation change and motion were created, as seems evident from the order of the first six or seven days. For in these days the morning and evening are counted, until, on the sixth day, all things which God then made were finished, and on the seventh the rest of God was mysteriously and sublimely signalized. What kind of days these were it is extremely difficult, or perhaps impossible for us to conceive, and how much more to say!" (The City of God 11:6)

Before the rise of modern science, it is fair to say most theologians and scientists believed in a young earth and the geocentrism of Ptolemy, which stood for 1,500 years as the best "science of the day."

Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott in his authoritative Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, under the section "The Divine Work of Creation," (pages 92-122) covers the "biblical hexaemeron" (the "six days" of creation), the creation of man, Adam/Eve, original sin, the Fall, and the statements of the early Fathers, Saints, Church Councils, and Popes relevant to the matter. Ott makes the following comments on the "science" of Genesis and the Fathers:

" the hagiographers in profane things make use of a popular, that is, a non-scientific form of exposition suitable to the mental perception of their times, a more liberal interpretation, is possible here. The Church gives no positive decisions in regard to purely scientific questions, but limits itself to rejecting errors which endanger faith. Further, in these scientific matters there is no virtue in a consensus of the Fathers since they are not here acting as witnesses of the Faith, but merely as private scientists... Since the findings of reason and the supernatural knowledge of Faith go back to the same source, namely to God, there can never be a real contradiction between the certain discoveries of the profane sciences and the Word of God properly understood." (Ott, page 92)

"As the Sacred Writer had not the intention of representing with scientific accuracy the intrinsic constitution of things, and the sequence of the works of creation but of communicating knowledge in a popular way suitable to the idiom and to the pre-scientific development of his time, the account is not to be regarded or measured as if it were couched in language which is strictly scientific... The Biblical account of the duration and order of Creation is merely a literary clothing of the religious truth that the whole world was called into existence by the creative word of God. The Sacred Writer utilized for this purpose the pre-scientific picture of the world existing at the time. The numeral six of the days of Creation is to be understood as an anthropomorphism. God's work of creation represented in schematic form (opus distinctionis -- opus ornatus) by the picture of a human working week, the termination of the work by the picture of the Sabbath rest. The purpose of this literary device is to manifest Divine approval of the working week and the Sabbath rest." (Ott, page 93, cf. Exod 20:8)

Pope John Paul II wrote to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the subject of cosmology and how to interpret Genesis:

"Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven." (John Paul II, 3 October 1981 to the Pontifical Academy of Science, "Cosmology and Fundamental Physics")

The "Clergy Letter" Project, drafted in 2004, and signed by thousands of Christian clergy supporting evolution and faith, states:

"We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator." ("An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science")

Evolutionary biologists who were also theists

Although evolutionary biologists have often been agnostics (most notably Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin) or atheists (most notably Richard Dawkins), from the outset many have had a belief in some form of theism. These have included Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), who in a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858, proposed the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace was effectively a deist who believed that "the unseen universe of Spirit" had interceded to create life as well as consciousness in animals and (separately) in humans.

An early example of this kind of approach came from computing pioneer Charles Babbage who published his unofficial Ninth Bridgewater Treatise in 1837, putting forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator, making laws (or programs) which then produced species at the appropriate times, rather than continually interfering with ad hoc miracles each time a new species was required.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is a noted geologist and paleontologist as well as a Jesuit Priest who wrote extensively on the subject of incorporating evolution into a new understanding of Christianity. Initially suppressed by the Catholic Church his theological work has had considerable influence and is widely taught in Catholic and most mainline Protestant seminaries.

Both Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) and Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975), were Christians and architects of the modern evolutionary synthesis. Dobzhansky, a Russian Orthodox, wrote a famous 1973 essay entitled "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" espousing evolutionary creationism:

"I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God's, or Nature's, method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way... Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts... the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness."

More recently, Kenneth R. Miller professor of biology at Brown University, has written Finding Darwin's God (Cliff Street Books, 1999) in which he states his belief in God and argues that "evolution is the key to understanding God." Dr. Miller has also called himself "an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Darwinist" (the 2001 PBS special "Evolution"). Other Christian evolutionary creationists include Derek Burke, Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Warwick; R. J. Berry, Professor of Genetics at University College London; evangelical Christian and geologist Keith B. Miller (no relation to Kenneth) of Kansas State University, who compiled an anthology Perspectives on an Evolving Creation (Eerdmans, 2003); biologist Denis Lamoureux of St. Joseph's College, University of Alberta, Canada who has co-authored with evolution critic Phillip E. Johnson Darwinism Defeated? The Johnson-Lamoureux Debate on Biological Origins (Regent College, 1999); biologist Darrel Falk of Point Loma Nazarene University, author of Coming to Peace with Science; theologian-philosopher John Haught of Georgetown University; Keith Ward, author of God, Chance, and Necessity; Rev. John Polkinghorne of Cambridge University; Fr. George Coyne of the Vatican Observatory; paleobiologist Prof. Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University, well known for his groundbreaking work on the Burgess Shale fossils and the Cambrian explosion, and author of Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe; physician-geneticist Francis Collins, author of The Language of God; and many other scientists and theologians, past and present.

Criticisms of theistic evolution

The major atheistic criticism of evolutionary creationism focuses on the belief in a supernatural creator, which violates the methodological naturalism and the falsifiability requirements of scientific philosophy. This criticism would be accurate in the case of a theistic evolution proponent trying to portray his view as a scientific theory instead of explaining it as a view that adds scientific knowledge with more personal beliefs. On the other hand, an atheist portraying his personal rejection of the idea of a Creator as part of the scientific explanation of evolution would also be in error. An important distinction to make is that materialism and naturalism are in science specifically for methodological reasons, not for ontological ones. In other words: science doesn't deal with the question of the existence of a Creator, and argues neither for nor against it.

Another criticism of some forms of evolutionary creationism (especially those of deists) is that they are simply a belief in a God of the gaps, where anything that cannot currently be explained by science is attributed to God. For example, the physicist Dr. Paul Davies has stated: "I flatly reject the argument that the origin of life was some sort of miracle. To be sure, we don't yet know how it happened, but that doesn't mean a cosmic magician is needed to prod atoms around." Theists reject evolution primarily on the basis of their scriptures. Most monotheistic scriptures contain a creation story describing an event in which animals and humans are instantly created by a supernatural being, typically each in a different way, which contradicts the process of natural selection if taken literally.

Young Earth creationists criticize theistic evolution on theological grounds (see links below).

Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church

From Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia (as of 1/28/2006).

The position of the Roman Catholic Church on the theory of evolution has changed over the last two centuries and remains a great focus of controversy. The Church's position is fairly non-specific, stating only that faith and scientific findings regarding the evolution of man's material body are not in conflict, and that the existence of God is required to explain the spiritual component of man's origins.

Pope Pius IX

Darwin's Origin of Species appeared during the papacy of Pope Pius IX, who decreed papal infallibility during the First Vatican Council in 1869-70. The council has a section on "Faith and Reason" that includes the following on science and faith:

"9. Hence all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the Church; and furthermore they are absolutely bound to hold them to be errors which wear the deceptive appearance of truth." (Vatican Council I)

Although there is no explicit mention of biological evolution here, this statement has been interpreted by some (e.g. Stephen Jay Gould in his book Rocks of Ages) as being anti-evolution in intention. However, the same council under Pope Pius IX states in the following paragraph that faith and reason do not conflict:

"10. Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds." (Vatican Council I)

On God the Creator, the Vatican Council was very clear. The definitions preceding the "anathema" (as a technical term of Catholic theology, let him be "cut off" or excommunicated, cf. Gal 1:6-9; Titus 3:10-11; Matt 18:15-17) signifies an infallible dogma "of Catholic faith" (De Fide):

1. On God the creator of all things

1. If anyone denies the one true God, creator and lord of things visible and invisible: let him be anathema.

2. If anyone is so bold as to assert that there exists nothing besides matter: let him be anathema.

3. If anyone says that the substance or essence of God and that of all things are one and the same: let him be anathema.

4. If anyone says that finite things, both corporal and spiritual, or at any rate, spiritual, emanated from the divine substance; or that the divine essence, by the manifestation and evolution of itself becomes all things or, finally, that God is a universal or indefinite being which by self determination establishes the totality of things distinct in genera, species and individuals: let him be anathema.

5. If anyone does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, were produced, according to their whole substance, out of nothing by God; or holds that God did not create by his will free from all necessity, but as necessarily as he necessarily loves himself; or denies that the world was created for the glory of God: let him be anathema.

According to Ludwig Ott and his authoritative Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, these condemnations are to be understood of the error of modern materialism (that matter is all there is), the error of pantheism (that God is all there is), and ancient pagan and gnostic-manichean dualism (where God is not responsible for the entire created world, since mere "matter" is evil not good, see Ott, page 79).

Pope Pius XII

The Church, beginning in 1950 with Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, took up a neutral position with regard to evolution:

"The Church does not forbid that...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." (Pius XII, encyclical Humani Generis)

Pope Pius XII can be summarized as follows:

  • The question of the origin of man's body from pre-existing and living matter is a legitimate matter of inquiry for natural science. Catholics are free to form their own opinions, but they should do so cautiously; they should not confuse fact with conjecture, and they should respect the Church's right to define matters touching on Revelation.
  • Catholics must believe, however, that the human soul was created immediately by God. Since the soul is a spiritual substance it is not brought into being through transformation of matter, but directly by God, whence the special uniqueness of each person.
  • All men have descended from an individual, Adam, who has transmitted original sin to all mankind. Catholics may not, therefore, believe in "polygenism," the scientific hypothesis that mankind descended from a group of original humans (that there were many Adams and Eves).

Some theologians believe Pius XII does not explicitly exclude polygenism. The relevant sentence is this:

"Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion (polygenism) 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." (Pius XII, Humani Generis, 37 and footnote refers to Romans 5:12-19; Council of Trent, Session V, Canons 1-4)

Modern theologians do not necessarily see a conflict between polygenism and Catholic teaching on original sin. For example, from The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (1996 edition), on Humani Generis the authors / editors Fr. Neuner and Dupuis, S.J. state:

"In the context of other errors, Pius XII treats two questions regarding the origin of the human person. Firstly, the human being's origin through evolution from other living beings: while formerly evolution was rejected as irreconcilable with the biblical account of creation (which was interpreted in too literal a sense), and as implying a materialistic conception of the human being, the question is now left open to scholarly investigation, provided that the creation of the soul by God is maintained. Secondly, monogenism or polygenism, i.e. the question whether the human race must be conceived as descending from a single couple or can be considered to originate from several couples: polygenism is rejected because 'it does not appear' [or 'it is not at all apparent'] to be reconcilable with the doctrine of original sin inherited by all from Adam. Recent theology, however, is seeking explanations of original sin under the supposition of polygenism, and so tries to remove the reason for its rejection." (J. Neuner, J. Dupuis, The Christian Faith [1996], page 169)

Further, see also the EWTN article published in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, "The Credo of Paul VI: Theology of Original Sin and the Scientific Theory of Evolution" by Roberto Masi:

"....according to the opinions of the above mentioned exegetes and theologians, it results that Revelation and Dogma say nothing directly concerning Monogenism or Polygenism, neither in favour nor against them. Besides, these scientific hypotheses are per se outside the field of Revelation. Within this context, different combinations of the scientific theory of evolution are therefore hypothetically possible or compatible with the doctrine of original sin. One can nevertheless consider biological monogenism together. Humanity has its origin in a single couple; this couple committed the sin against God and as a result of this all their children are born in original sin. This is the classical doctrine. Or it is possible to admit a biological polygenism and a theological monogenism. Evolution brought about not a single couple but many men, who constituted the primitive human population. One of these, who may be considered the leader, rebelled against God. This sin passed on to all men, his contemporaries, not by imitation, but by real propagation (Council of Trent Session V, DS. 1513), that is by a real solidarity already existing in this primordial human population. In them actual sinful humanity has its origin. It is also possible to combine biological and theological polygenism: all the primitive human population rebelled concordantly against God and from them are born the other sinful men. These hypotheses are only suppositions which many think are not contrary to Revelation and the bible. Even if we accept as valid the scientific theory of evolution and polygenism, it can still be in accordance with the dogma of original sin in the various manners indicated." (Roberto Masi, from L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Holy See, weekly edition in English, 17 April 1969)

Pope John Paul II

In an October 22, 1996, address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II updated the Church's position to accept evolution of the human body:

"In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points....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. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies -- which was neither planned nor sought -- constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory." (John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution)

In the same address, Pope John Paul II rejected any theory of evolution that provides a materialistic explanation for the human soul:

"Theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

Papacy of Benedict XVI

Because of recent statements by Cardinal Schönborn and Pope Benedict, confusion has arisen over whether they plan to retreat from the Church's traditional teaching that evolution and Catholic dogma are not in conflict.

Having learnt a lesson from the Galileo Affair, the Church leaves the evaluation and endorsement of specific scientific theories to scientists. The Church has always agreed with scientists on matters such as the age of the earth and the authenticity of the fossil record. Papal pronouncements, along with commentaries by cardinals, have accepted the findings of scientists on the gradual appearance of life. In fact, the International Theological Commission in a July 2004 statement endorsed by Cardinal Ratzinger, then president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI, includes this paragraph:

"According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the 'Big Bang' and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 - 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. 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." (paragraph 63, from "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002, published July 2004)

The Church's stance is that this gradual appearance has been guided in some way by God, but the Church has thus far declined to define in what way that may be. Commentators tend to interpret the Church's position in the way most favorable to their own arguments. The International Theological Commission statement includes these paragraphs on evolution, the providence of God, and "intelligent design":

"In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain in act all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. 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. Catholic theologians can see in such reasoning support for the affirmation entailed by faith in divine creation and divine providence. In the providential design of creation, the triune God intended not only to make a place for human beings in the universe but also, and ultimately, to make room for them in his own trinitarian life. Furthermore, operating as real, though secondary causes, human beings contribute to the reshaping and transformation of the universe." (paragraph 68)


"A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it 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. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation." (paragraph 69)

In addition, the Vatican's chief astronomer, Fr. George Coyne, issued a statement on 18 November 2005 saying that "Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be. If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science." Cardinal Paul Poupard added that "the faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity." He also warned of the permanent lesson we have learned from the Galileo case, and that "we also know the dangers of a religion that severs its links with reason and becomes prey to fundamentalism." Fiorenzo Facchini, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Bologna, called intelligent design unscientific, and wrote in the January 16-17, 2006 edition L'Osservatore Romano: "But it is not correct from a methodological point of view to stray from the field of science while pretending to do science....It only creates confusion between the scientific plane and those that are philosophical or religious."

In a commentary on Genesis authored as Cardinal Ratzinger titled In the Beginning... Benedict XVI spoke of "the inner unity of creation and evolution and of faith and reason" and that these two realms of knowledge are complementary, not contradictory:

"We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the 'project' of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary -- rather than mutually exclusive -- realities." (Cardinal Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall [Eerdmans, 1986, 1995], see especially pages 41-58)

Catholic Dogma on Creation

The most relevant paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, revised 1997) on faith, evolution and science are 159, and 283-284:

159. Faith and science: "...methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (Vatican II GS 36:1)

283. The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which 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....

284. The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin....

Concerning the doctrine on creation, Ludwig Ott in his authoritative Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma affirms the following points (De Fide are infallible dogmas "of Catholic faith"):

  • All that exists outside God was, in its whole substance, produced out of nothing by God. (De Fide)
  • God was moved by His Goodness to create the world. (De Fide)
  • The world was created for the Glorification of God. (De Fide)
  • The Three Divine Persons are one single, common Principle of the Creation. (De Fide)
  • God created the world free from exterior compulsion and inner necessity. (De Fide)
  • God has created a good world. (De Fide)
  • The world had a beginning in time. (De Fide)
  • God alone created the world. (De Fide)
  • God keeps all created things in existence. (De Fide)
  • God, through His Providence, protects and guides all that He has created. (De Fide)

These are the specific De Fide statements found in Ott on "The Divine Act of Creation," pages 79-91. The various Councils (Lateran IV, Vatican I, Florence, and others), the traditional statements of the Saints, Doctors, Fathers, and Scriptures are cited by Ott to document the Catholic dogma that God is ultimately the Creator of all things however He chose to do the creating (Genesis 1; Colossians 1:15ff; Hebrews 3; Psalm 19).

Recommended Books on theistic evolution:

Miller, Kenneth R. (1999), Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.
Miller, Keith B. (2003), Perspectives on an Evolving Creation.
Falk, Darrel (2004), Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology.
Collins, Francis (2006), The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

Proponents of theistic evolution:

Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution subtitled "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth", by Pope John Paul II, 22 October 1996.
On Cosmology and Fundamental Physics, by Pope John Paul II, 3 October 1981.
Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God Statement on creation and evolution from the International Theological Commission headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, 23 July 2004.
The "Clergy Letter" Project signed by thousands of clergy supporting evolution and faith.
DMD Publishing Co. home page by Glenn Morton, essays arguing that even a literal treatment of Genesis requires theistic evolution.

Opponents of theistic evolution:

Why is evolution so dangerous for Christians to believe? by Answers In Genesis
Theistic evolution: what difference does it make? by Dean Davis (Answers In Genesis)
The Compromise Road by Henry Morris (Institute for Creation Research)
Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation (Catholic creationism)

References on "Evolution and the Roman Catholic Church"

Vatican Council I, the full documents.
Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis 1950 encyclical.
"The Credo of Paul VI: Theology of Original Sin and the Scientific Theory of Evolution" by Roberto Masi (L'Osservatore Romano, 17 April 1969).
Pope John Paul II, general audience of 10 July 1985. "Proofs for God's Existence are Many and Convergent."
Pope John Paul II, 22 October 1996. "Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution."
International Theological Commission (2004). "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God."
Cardinal Ratzinger's Commentary on Genesis Excerpts from In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall.
"Evolution and the Magisterium" article by Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers, January 2004.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, "Finding Design in Nature," published in the New York Times, July 7, 2005.
Paul Cardinal Poupard, "Vatican Cardinal: Listen to What Modern Science has to Offer," November 3, 2005.

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