David W. Tschanz, PhD, MSPH, MCSE is a demographer, historian, and computer consultant. A former Jesuit seminarian, he has made a special study of the role of the Catholic Church in relation to science, particularly cosmology, and evolution.
One of the most unfortunate results of the popularity of American author Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code is that it is not only at times wildly factually inaccurate. Its portrayal of the Roman Catholic Church as being anti-science is deplorably false. Sadly, perception is often mistaken for reality, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the current discussion on the topic of evolution.
Cosmology and Catholicism
Before looking at the position of the Catholic Church on human evolution, we should start with the related question, what does the Church believe about how and when the universe came into being?
The Church has declared, as an article of faith (meaning Catholics must accept it as a matter of dogma), that the universe was specially created out of nothing by God, that "the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing" (First Vatican Council, 1870).
Beyond that declaration, the Church left to each individual Catholic the choice of how this happened. If they wish to believe that God did it all at once, or that the stars, nebulae, and planets developed over time (for example, in the aftermath of the Big Bang that modern cosmologists discuss), or some place in between, that is perfectly acceptable. In fact, as we shall see shortly, according to Catholic belief, the "how" in cosmology is an irrelevant and pointless question. What is relevant is the role of God. If a Catholic, acting in good faith and intellectual honesty, truly believed that the stars and planets did develop over time, this still ultimately must be attributed to God and his plan.
Let us restate that the means are not as important as the essential truth of God creating the universe. As a result, and obscured by writers such as Brown, is the fact that many of today's leading scientists and astronomers are Catholic priests (the Vatican Observatory is a leading research facility). They are simply following the long tradition of Catholic clergy (and layman) in the sciences that included astronomer Nicholas Copernicus and geneticist Gregor Mendel, among others. The Vatican Observatory even has its own website.
Evolution and the Bible
On the subject of biological evolution, the Church does not have any official position on whether various life forms developed at once or over the course of time. However, it says that if they did develop over time or all at once, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to Him.
When it comes to human evolution, it comes as a surprise to many Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, to learn how little the Church teaches in this area. This is because the Church has chosen to define only a few tenets as true beyond doubt, leaving a great deal of latitude to Catholics for their personal judgment. This is principally because the Church has not been concerned with evolutionary questions as such, but rather with their possible implications for Catholic belief.
The Church allows for the possibility that man's body developed from previous biological forms, under God's guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. The Church insists that man is not an accident; that no matter how God went about creating Homo Sapiens, God from all eternity intended that man and all creation exist in their present form.
The historical meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis, wrote Pope Pius X in 1909, could not be doubted in regard to "the creation of all things by God at the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the unity of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given by God to man to test his obedience; the transgression of the divine command at the instigation of the devil under the form of a serpent; the degradation of our first parents from that primeval state of innocence; and the promise of a future redeemer."
Notice that the Church again says nothing definite about how, in specific detail, God created the world and its various forms of life, or how long any of this took. The only "special creation" mentioned is that of man's spiritual and immortal soul. In the Church's eyes, Genesis deals with historical fact, not scientific process — with the what of creation, not the how.
As long ago as the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, the church's most revered ancient theologian, had cautioned Christians not to take the Genesis creation accounts too literally. So it should not be a surprise that Catholics are not obliged to reconcile scientific data with the early verses of Genesis, but can instead view it as containing truths that are expressed in an archaic, pre-scientific Hebrew idiom. They can also accept with "enjoyment and confidence" modern scientific discoveries which, more often than not, raise fundamental questions which science itself cannot answer. Every new discovery is a source of wonder and a reason for giving praise to God.
Ironically, many scientists engaged in evolutionary studies are devout Catholics. These men and women see no contradiction between what the Church teaches and what science has learned. In fact, their efforts are lauded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (a summary of beliefs and tenets) as follows:
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 the of the 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.
Evolution Does Not Mean Atheism
While the Church does not oppose evolution per se, it does not allow belief in atheistic evolution, nor does it accept the broader implications of evolutionism. The Church's quarrel with many scientists who call themselves evolutionists is not about evolution itself, which may (or may not) have occurred in a non-Darwinian, teleological manner, but rather about the philosophical materialism that is at the root of so much evolutionary thinking. Evolutionists argue the word came about without divine action, as a pure accident.
To Catholics, the universe is not the result of purely random events that have no direction and operate without the hand of God. A universe without God is purely materialistic and secular, this is a position that the church rejects. It does not oppose evolution, but it opposes the argument that evolution disproves the existence of God, or makes Him irrelevant.
Catholicism and Fundamental Protestantism
The Catholic Church's position clearly contrasts with that of many fundamentalist Protestant sects. Fundamentalists have usually insisted on treating Genesis as a scientifically accurate, as well as historically true, account. Unfortunately, this stance has often appeared in the media as definitive Christian doctrine. Its details have contrasted so sharply with established scientific knowledge that "Christian belief" has been held in ridicule.
To give one example, in the 17th century, Anglican clergyman Bishop James Ussher, made a calculation based on Biblical genealogies that God created the world on an October morning in 4004 BCE. Many fundamentalists today hold this as an article of faith. For virtually all scientists, the figure is absurd. From the Catholic point of view, Bishop Ussher spoke only for himself, not for the Church; his feat was one of arithmetic, not theology.
Of course, Catholics may share many of these fundamentalist beliefs as their personal opinions. The point is they are not required to. With the exception of the few matters mentioned above, Catholics may hold whatever scientific positions seem reasonable and intellectually convincing, as long as they accept that everything comes about as the will of God.