Do Catholics believe in the theory of evolution? It depends on what you mean by that theory.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
28 February 2018
I’m often asked by my Protestant friends if Catholics believe in evolution. Also, Catholics themselves are often confused about what they can or cannot believe about it. Can they accept the theory or must they oppose it? Is it compatible or incompatible with the divine Christian faith and belief of the Church? The answer is, “It depends.”
It depends on what you mean by the theory of evolution.
The goal here is not to provide a detailed philosophical or theological explanation, but rather to offer some basic, easy to understand principles and information on the topic.
Naturalistic and Materialistic Evolution
Let’s begin with a theory of evolution that is incompatible with the Christian faith and therefore cannot be held by Catholics:
Scientific naturalism and scientific atheism hold with respect to evolution that all living creatures are generated by purely natural causes. Any supernatural causation whatsoever is entirely ruled out. This view holds that all life evolved over time through natural processes alone, without any divine causation or sustainment on the part of God. This view is similar to material evolution, which holds that all living creatures evolved from matter without the aid of any divine and spiritual causation. In philosophy, one definition of materialism is that it refers to the assumed non-existence of any spiritual reality. Said another way, according to materialism nothing other than the physical universe exists—only matter is real.
Scientific naturalism, scientific atheism, and material evolution are incompatible with the divine faith of the Church and therefore cannot be held as valid explanations for the origin and development of life on Earth or anywhere else in the physical universe.
The obvious question is, why are these aspects of a theory of evolution problematic? The answer is, because they are false. They cannot possibly be true. When we ask the question, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?” we touch on the fact that the universe cannot create itself from nothing. The physical universe and all life within it require an explanation outside of itself for its existence. Therefore its creation from nothing is dependent on an uncaused, unconditioned non-physical (spiritual), transcendent agent who exists outside of space, time, matter and energy. We call this transcendent, unconditioned, spiritual reality God.
Some people raise the question of the possibility of infinite regression of the physical universe as an objection. If the universe always existed, stretching back into time infinitely, then God becomes unnecessary, so the idea goes. The universe did not come into being, it always was, always has been. But even if infinite regression were possible, it does not preclude the requirement for a Creator. When we ask the question, “Why does the universe exist rather than nothing?” we arrive at the same conclusion: a transcendent Creator is required for its existence, whether infinitely regressing in time or not. The existence of the universe requires an explanation.
Suppose you could have a chain of infinite length. Its existence nevertheless requires a chain maker; otherwise, it would never exist at all.
Further, leading physicists and philosophers have extensively ruled out the possibility of infinite regression of the physical universe for a number of well-collaborated, evidence-based reasons. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, see Robert J. Spitzer’s book: New Proofs For The Existence Of God: Contributions Of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.
Theistic Evolution: God as First-Order Cause of Creation
Now let’s look at a theory of evolution that is compatible with the Christian faith:
Theistic evolution holds that God is the first-order cause of creation (the physical universe), who activates and sustains natural second-order causes that play a real part in the development and continued unfolding of the universe. The natural development of creatures is God’s intended plan for enriching and diversifying creation. Said another way, although life evolves naturally through a process of natural selection or genetic adaptation, gaining richness and complexity and diversity over time, God is primarily responsible for its origin and continuation. God is the ground of life, who brought the physical universe into being from nothing and who continues to hold it in existence. God is the primary cause of the universe who created it, sustains it, and guides it by his divine, omnipotent power and omniscient providence.
The natural order of the universe, its intelligibility and physical laws, the beauty of its creatures, their origin and development—all have their source in God.
The Catholic International Theological Commission put it this way: “In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain … all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order he intends to produce” (Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, 68).
Dr. Baglow compares God’s first-order causation and activation of second-order causes to a playwright as the author of a play, whose characters within the play bring about his intended outcome:
[T]he more we understand what the characters [in a play] are doing on their own terms, at the level of cause and effect within the play, the more we understand the mind of the playwright, and the more we know what he was up to in writing the play. The primary cause (the author) creates his story through the actions of the secondary causes (the characters). That is why it would obviously make no sense to ask, “Do Beatrice and Benedick get engaged because they love each other, or do they get engaged because that is what Shakespeare wrote?” The answer is “Both.” (Faith, Science & Reason: Theology On The Cutting Edge, 179)
Evolution of Man
What about the question of the evolution of man?
Pope Pius XII taught in Humanae Generis that the Church does not forbid research and discussions “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” (36).
It is possible that God used lower life forms in order to develop and prepare a human body for the first man. However, as divine revelation in Genesis clearly teaches, at the proper time God “breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (2:7).
It is impossible to say that the first man, Adam, was the son of—or born from—an animal because the immaterial, spiritual soul cannot evolve from pre-existent matter. No amount of biological evolution can produce the human spirit, which is the form of the body and its life-principle. God is required for its creation. It is the irreformable and definitive teaching of the Church that God directly and immediately created the spiritual soul of Adam and infused it into this first man’s body, making him a rational, living being, made in God’s image and likeness (see Gn 1:26 ff). God does the same for each human person at the moment of his conception.
If by the evolution of man, we mean that God used a process of biological evolution in order to prepare the first man’s body and then breathed a soul into that body, creating the first man we call Adam—that understanding is compatible with the Christian faith.
If by the evolution of man, we mean that man evolved into his present state through natural processes alone without any direct or indirect intervention by God—that belief (and it is a “belief,” not a scientifically proven fact) is incompatible with the Christian faith and cannot be accepted by Catholics or other Christians.
The Creation Story in Genesis
What about the creation story found in Genesis, chapter one? Doesn’t it teach that God directly created the physical universe and the world in a period of six 24-hour days? Does not that disprove the theory of evolution?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that with respect to the creation and fall of man, Genesis utilizes figurative and symbolic language in order to affirm primeval events and deeds that really took place at the dawn of human history (see 362, 390). This does not mean that the Genesis creation story is fiction. Rather, it is a kind of sacred poetry conveying truths about the creation of the universe, the world, man, and his subsequent fall from grace through original sin. By virtue of the use of figurative and symbolic language in Genesis, the depth of its divinely revealed truth is enriched and its meaning is magnified.
The Catechism explains why sacred scripture begins with the creation stories and man’s subsequent fall from grace, and gives the purpose of these stories and the divine revelation they contain:
The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation – its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the “beginning”: creation, fall, and promise of salvation. (289)
The Genesis creation story is not a scientific textbook on the development of the universe. It’s the story of God’s superabundant, omnipotent creative love, setting a progression of cosmological events in motion that continue to unfold in the present.
Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it 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. (CCC 302)
Reading Genesis literalistically in rejection of its use of figurative language results in a misunderstanding of the purpose and meaning of its text.
This does not mean that Catholics do not read the bible according to its literal sense. In fact, Catholics always begin with the literal sense of scripture, which is defined as the “meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation” (CCC 116).
The sacred authors of Genesis did not intend to convey scientific facts about how the physical universe was created or formed. Rather, they intended to teach why the universe was created and by Whom. They did not know about cosmology as a science nor were they, even if they had known about it, interested in teaching it. The main message of the Genesis creation narrative is that God created all things (as their first-order cause), including man, and that the world was created by God as a gift to man, a place upon which he could live, grow and thrive in communion with others.
It’s often the case today that science and evolution are inappropriately pitted against the divine Christian faith as if the two are at war. However, science is not the enemy of the Christian faith or the Church. Faith and reason are compatible and complementary because both originate in God who is himself absolute and perfect truth. Vatican I taught in Dei Filius:
[I]t is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason. God cannot deny himself nor can truth ever be in opposition to truth.
Faith and reason mutually support each other. Faith builds on reason and delivers reason from errors, such as a purely naturalistic and atheistic explanation of evolution that leaves divine providence entirely out of the equation.
In Pope St. John Paul II’s opening paragraph of his encyclical letter, Fides Et Ratio, he writes about the unique interconnectedness of faith and reason:
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8-9; 63:2-3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).
The physical sciences are distinct disciplines, utilizing specific methods of inquiry ordered toward obtaining a better understanding of the physical universe. They have their limitations: evolutionary scientists and/or biologists cannot make determinations with regard to the infusion of the spiritual soul into the first man. While they can see evidence of when the first rational human beings began to exist, such as through the findings of archeological study, the reality of the spiritual human soul is beyond the competence of their scientific field. That type of study, the study of the immaterial, is the realm of the divine sciences of philosophy and theology.
Although Catholics are not required to believe in the theory of evolution because it is not a matter of faith, they need not be afraid of it as a viable theory for the development of life, nor of its theory of natural selection or natural explanations as a basis for understanding how life may grow in complexity over time. The theory of evolution takes nothing away from God; on the contrary, it shows forth his power and glory. God, as the author and conductor of the great symphony of creation, uses evolution according to his intended design, in order to populate and enrich the world in all its diversity and beauty as he so wills it to be.
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Photo Attribution: By Haeckel, Ernst, 1834-1919 [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.