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Instruction on Controversial Questions: Evolution
by Ronald L. Conte Jr. 
June 19, 2005

I. Which is correct, creationism or evolution?

Neither is entirely correct.

Creationism is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Church does not teach that the world was created in only six literal 24-hour days. The Church has always understood this passage from Scripture to refer to a much longer period of time. Each 'day' of creation is a metaphorical day, i.e. some period of time, not a literal day. Creationism also errs by ignoring, or unreasonably denying, scientific theories and evidence that are worthy of consideration by the reason of man. However, creationism does correctly teach that God created everything that exists.

The theory of evolution certainly contains some truth and has much scientific evidence to support it. But it also denies (or ignores) the fact that God created all things and guides all things. It denies that God used His power, providence, and grace to cause or to guide the various events of creation and of the development of life. And it particularly denies that God chose to create the human race and to give human persons an immortal soul.

So, both creationism and evolution teach some truth and some falsehoods.

II. What is the correct Catholic understanding of evolution?

Some portions of the theory of evolution have been proven to such an extent that they can be called scientific fact. However, other portions of this theory are a matter of debate and disagreement among scientists, and have undergone, and continue to undergo, substantial revision. For example, the field of genetics has changed and added much to Darwin's original concepts. Also, evolution was once thought of as the accumulation of a large number of small changes over a long period of time; but it is now acknowledged that, at least in some cases, evolution involves significant change in a short time, as well as long periods of relative stagnation. And each new scientific fact has the potential to revise prior scientific facts, no matter how well proven any of these facts may be.

The Church does not forbid its members to consider and to adhere to various scientific theories and teachings, as long as these do not contradict any teaching of the Church on faith or morals. And all Christians should consider it part of their duty in life to make use of the intellectual ability given to them by God, including the ability to reason about ideas presented by various fields of study. On the other hand, the approach of some fundamentalists, who blindly argue against every scientific theory that seems to threaten their point-of-view, is contrary to the will of God and is a sin against the gift of reason given to man by God.

Now the theory of evolution has some aspects that are acceptable to Christians, and it has other aspects that must be rejected by all faithful Christians.
“For these reasons 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.” (Humani Generis, n. 36)
Several categories of ideas about evolution are acceptable to the Christian faith, including, but not limited to the following:

1. Life on earth developed over a long period of time.

2. The development of life progressed in stages, from simpler organisms to more complex ones.

3. The development of species included some species giving rise to other species, through a series of changes that occur from one generation to the next, and some species becoming extinct.

4. Genetic changes are involved in the development of life and of various species.

5. Various factors are involved in these genetic changes, including the survival of one species over another due partly to genetic factors that make a species or individual better adapted to their environment.

6. Random chance may play some role in the development of life and of various species, for example in the random mutation of genes, or in the occurrence of environment-altering events, such as a comet crashing into the earth.

7. Specific details and variations within the theory of evolution, which are debated by evolutionists, often do not contradict the Christian faith, even when scientists cannot agree.

These ideas about evolution are not the teaching of the Church. But, because these ideas do not contradict Church teaching, they may be accepted by individuals in accordance with reason. These ideas may or may not be proven to be true in the long run.

However, several categories of ideas about evolution are entirely unacceptable to the Christian faith, including, but not limited to the following:

1. The idea that the starting point for life on earth was a random or chance event.

On the contrary, the Church teaches that God chose to create the universe, and the earth, and life on earth, and that these events occurred in some cases by a singular act of God (such as the creation of the universe out of nothing), and in other cases by God's Providence guiding all things.

2. The idea that the direction that evolution takes is entirely random, or that it is due solely to a set of factors (such as genetics, environment, etc.) that do not include God.

On the contrary, the Church teaches that God always nurtures His Creation, through subtle Providence as well as through extraordinary or miraculous acts.

3. The idea that the development of life on earth has no particular direction, other than the survival and multiplication of various species.

On the contrary, the Church teaches that God guides all things and that God has a plan for His Creation.

4. The idea that the human species might never have developed and that this was a chance event.

On the contrary, the Church teaches that God intended to create mankind and that He deliberately created the other species of life on earth for the sake of mankind.

5. The idea that the human species developed gradually, such that there could be no clear demarcation of the start of the human species.

On the contrary, if the body of man developed gradually through evolution, the Church nevertheless requires the belief that, at some discrete point in time, by a singular act of God, the human form leapt suddenly from darkness into light by being given a soul and a mind guided by freewill and reason. Just as the earth began as a formless void in darkness, until God said, 'Let there be light,' so also, the progenitors of humanity were like a formless void in darkness, lacking a soul, freewill, and reason, until God gave us the light of an immortal soul.

6. The idea that the first human persons were not one man and one woman, but a group of individuals.
“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 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.” (Humani Generis, n. 37).
7. The idea that evolution is a sufficient theory to explain the origin and development of all living things. Such an idea exalts evolution from a limited scientific theory, to a religion or a substitute for religion.
“Now Catholic theologians and philosophers, whose grave duty it is to defend natural and supernatural truth and instill it in the hearts of men, cannot afford to ignore or neglect these more or less erroneous opinions.” (Humani Generis, n. 9)
8. Since the theory of evolution is not one theory, but exists in many different variations and is subject to on-going revision, there may be other aspects of the theory that offend against the truths of the Christian faith.

III. What should Catholics believe about Adam and Eve?

1. Adam and Eve are two real human persons, who existed at the beginning of human history.

2. Adam and Eve were each created by God, miraculously. Their bodies were created from the dust of the earth, either (a) through a sudden miracle, or (b) through a long process that included evolution, as well as Providence, and, at times, God's extraordinary intervention. In either case, we must also believe that Adam and Eve were miraculously given an immortal soul with freewill and the light of reason.

3. Adam and Eve each had original innocence. They were created by God with sanctifying grace from the first moment of each one's life (either at the moment of sudden miraculous creation of each one's body, or at the moment of conception). And that each had neither original sin nor personal sin, until each one fell from grace.

4. Adam and Eve each fell from grace by committing a mortal sin of deliberate disobedience to God. (For Adam and Eve before the Fall from grace, any sin would be a mortal sin.)

5. We are the descendents of Adam and Eve, physically and spiritually, and we have inherited the effects of original sin, in body and soul, as a result of their fall from grace.

by Ronald L. Conte Jr.

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