What is the Catholic Position on Creationism and Evolution?
The Catholic Church is not against science, nor does it subscribe to every whim of the scientific community. The Church is quick to applaud science when it does something great for humanity, like cure a disease. However, the Church will stand against scientists who violate moral principles, on things such as embryonic stem cell experiments, which is barbaric experimentation on five day-old humans.
The big question that the Catholic Church asks when examining a scientific theory is "does it contradict Scripture?" which is infallible. This can be complicated, which is what we found out with Galileo. Any Catholic theory must adhere to the following Dogmas:
- God created everything out of nothing ("ex nihlo" in Latin)
- God created an orderly universe (the universe is not a product of chance)
- God sustained everything in being (everything depends on God for existence)
Investigation about the age of the earth is not about Evolution or Darwinism
The age of the earth is derived from at least 5 distinct and independent areas of astrophysics. The only thing Darwinism has to do with the age of the earth is that his theory requires lots of time. Darwin was a biologist and his theories are biological. Some of his theories are compelling, such as fossil records and observed micro evolution within species, while other aspects of evolution theory have been proved wrong by science itself. The irreducible complexity of each species is something modern science has been unable to explain.
The two sides of Genesis question
People get really emotional about the subject of Creationism, almost as if our salvation depends on whether or not we accept it. Some Christians attribute all of our modern problems to society's lack of belief in Creationism while others think that the insistence on Creationism is what alienates many reasonable people from the Bible and Christianity. They cite St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who warned:
"one should not try to defend the Christian faith with arguments that are so patently opposed to reason that the faith is made to look ridiculous... irrisio infidelium, the scorn of the unbelievers."
Show Augustine's warning against a literal interpretation of Genesis (354-430AD)
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.... Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by these who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.(pp. 42-43, A Commentary on Genesis: Two Books against the Manichees)
He says he ...
... worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, We have not rashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. I have thought that each one, in keeping with his powers of understanding, should choose the interpretation that he can grasp. Where he cannot understand Holy Scripture, let him glorify "and fear for himself." (pp. 43-44, ibid)
As an institution, the Catholic Church embraces an old earth theory, evidenced by the Catechism, statements of all recent popes, and Catholic theological commissions (discussed below). Some traditionally minded Catholics bitterly dispute this, blaming Vatican II. The Church won't ever turn it into a Dogma (necessary belief)
In fact, if someone believes the world is flat, they can still be a faithful Catholic. Most early Christians were flat earthers and still went to Heaven. God is in search of a faithful heart, not a degree in science. Jesus said "become as children." (Mat 18:3) Most children don't know how old the earth is and don't care.
What happened with Galileo?
Galileo was condemned by the Church for teaching a theory that was contrary to Scripture. At that time, Catholic theologians pointed to scriptural references about the world being "immovable" to reject the idea that the world is spinning. (i.e., 1 Chronicles 16:30, Judges 5:31, Ecles 1:5, James 1:11, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5). Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley also rejected the "Copernican" system (a round world spinning around the sun) that Galileo championed. They were wrong, the earth did move around the sun. In 1 Chronicles 16:30b which said "Yes, the world stands firm, never to be moved," God was not giving us scientific facts about the earth but rather, He was trying to a communicate spiritual truth. Just because humans interpreted Scripture wrong doesn't mean the Bible is inaccurate, or fallible. It just means we didn't properly understand what God was saying to us in the passage. Our understanding of Scripture is evolving, but the Truth is unchanging. We are on a pilgrimage towards the Truth. However, the Church was not entirely out to lunch when it censored Galileo. Fr. Mateo writes:
Galileo actually taught that the sun was at the center of the universe, not just the solar system; later evidence showed that the sun also orbits the center of the Milky Way galaxy; it thus would have been bad if the Church had given an unqualified endorsement to Galileo's theory, for his specific form of the theory turned out to be false.
The Church's official position on the complete inerrancy of the Bible
The Catholic position on Scripture has always been that it is without error on faith and morals and also on everything else. It is the word of God, word for word. The imperfect people who received inspiration to write it did not mess up when they put the pen to paper, even though they were fallible humans. Even with the rise of science, Vatican I asserted the inerrancy of Scripture. Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pious XII, and Vatican II all reasserted the complete inerrancy of Scripture.
Some modern "theologians" at Vatican II wanted to limit the inerrancy of Scripture to "faith and morals" allowing "errors" in Scripture on historical events, dates etc... but Pope VI stood by the Church's consistent position. The Vatican II statement "for the sake of our salvation" probably meant that God gave us Scripture for the purpose of our salvation.
It does not make sense to say that God would put exactly what he wanted in Scripture and create an error there. To assume that the inspired writers made mistakes is to put the Bible on the same level as every other inspired book, which clearly it is not.
Show the Church's official position on the complete inerrancy of the Bible.
- Vatican I: These books [of the canon] the Church holds to be sacred and canonical, not because, having been composed by human industry, they were afterwards approved by her authority; nor only because they contain revelation without error; but because, having been written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author (De Fide Catholica 2:7).
- Pope Leo XIII: "it is absolutely wrong and forbidden either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred" and condemned "the system of those who, in order to rid themselves of these difficulties, do not hesitate to concede that divine inspiration regards the things of faith and morals, and nothing beyond" (Providentissimus Deus 20).
- Pius XII regarding Pope Leo XIII's quote: "[a] solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the ‘entire books with all their parts’ as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever." He repudiated those who "ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals" (Divino Afflante Spiritu 1).
- Vatican II: In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things that he wanted. Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth that God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation (Dei Verbum 11).
Interpretation of Scripture
There are various ways to articulate truth, one is through scientific language. Another is through artistic and literary means. Some of our greatest truths are communicated using literary language. When I (Hugh) lost my voice and my career singing on Broadway, I would often say "I am devastated." Scientifically speaking I was not. My organs worked fine, I was breathing and had a healthy pulse. Yet, my experience of being "devastated" was a profound truth. Scientific language such as "Chronic Laryngitis" cannot always adequately describe truth.
When interpreting Scripture and what it is saying to humanity, we must pay careful attention to the genre that is being presented. Some sections of the Bible are historical facts, some are allegories, others are poetic. For instance, the Gospel of Luke describes events from eyewitness accounts and therefore is historical. As for books like Job and Jonah, the Catholic Church says we don't know for sure.
Asking people to pay attention to literary genre does not imply that the Bible has errors. However, sometimes what is written needs to be distinguished from what is being asserted by the Holy Spirit through the author. Let's consider a man who is in love with the woman. He might say something like this:
"Oh my love, your eyes are radiant pools of light, which transport me to the stars."
The woman replies: "No, my eyes are globules of protoplasm reflecting the color spectrum onto the back of my retinas, sending the signals to my brain."
Here the woman did not understand the genre with which the man was speaking. We must be very careful of the genre that each biblical passage is written in. If we misinterpret the genre, we may very well misinterpret what God is saying to us in that particular Scripture passage. Theologians call this hermeneutics. Each passage of Scripture is there to teach us something. Theologians must examine Scripture asking "what was God saying to us" and "what spiritual principles was he trying to communicate to humanity."
The approach we are discussing is that of all the great Christians of history, the good guys, who gave us the faith, who died for the faith, who preserved the faith through all kinds of threats and dangers.
Did God create the world in seven literal days as we understand them today?
Some faithful Catholics believe in the first 3 days God created the sky, earth and water, in the next 3 days he populated sky, earth and water. Then on the last day he rested. They say the Hebrew word “Yom” is always used in the Bible as one literal day and they suggest that if we are asked to rest on the seventh day (as God did) then it is literally “one” day. There are several groups in the Church that dispute the theory of an "old earth," based on their interpretations of various scriptures, writings of the fathers and interpretations of various scientific findings. They are perfectly welcome in the Church. It is highly unlikely that the Vatican will ever make a dogmatic pronouncement on this issue, just as it has never made a pronouncement on the shape of the earth.
However, most Catholics think the world is old, not young. They do not think this interpretation is liberal or a compromise of God's Word anymore than Augustine did. They would say that in the book of Genesis, God was using the language of Love, rather than the language of science. They emphatically assert that everything in the creation story did in fact happen. It was not a myth or a fable. They say the number 7 in Scripture is often used to represent perfection, and that the 7 days of creation were not to be interpreted literally but rather to signify the perfection of God's creation. They say that the 3 days to create the forms, 3 days to fill them, and one day to rest, is a teaching mechanism. They believe these Scripture passages back up this position:
"a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when its past or like a watch in the night" (Ps 90:4)
"...all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water... But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day" (2 Peter 3:18).
The Hebrew word for day, "Yom", is used in both in Genesis 1 and 2. Genesis 2:4 is describing the same creation story as Genesis 1.
"...On the day (Strong's 3117) that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens." (Genesis 2:4)
This contradicts a literal reading of the word "day" (yom) in Genesis 1, which spreads the creation over 6 days, not one. God cannot contradict himself. Scripture is perfect. Perhaps this discrepancy is an indication God was not intending Genesis to be understood literally as 24 hour periods. This was St. Augustine's position in the 4th century.
Pope John Paul II said that Genesis 1 and 2 are not trying to communicate scientific data to us. However, he was not making an infallible statement which can only be made on faith and morals, not on scientific theories.
The Catechism says:
337 God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine "work", concluded by the "rest" of the seventh day. On the subject of creation, the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation, permitting us to "recognize the inner nature, the value and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God." See also Chapters 282-289 of the Catechism. (our emphasis added)
The International Theological Commission, headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI, held plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002, and wrote a paper "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," published July 2004. It sided with an old earth. The full publication is here.
In 2008, Professor Michael Heller (Kracow, Poland) is a cosmologist and Catholic priest won the Templeton Prize for Science and religion. He was a friend and confident of Pope John Paul II and an avid proponent of an old earth. Heller would say to non-Christian scientists:
"You and I agree that we live in a rational universe. The difference between you and me, is that I spell rational with a capital "R".
If there was a "Big Bang" and a certain amount of progression and change within each species, it was God that made it happen and continues to make every atom move, and the creation of the human being (body, mind and soul coming together) was something very deliberate and a singular event (even if he used a series of steps to get a human body ready to receive the soul).Pope Benedict XVI elegantly reconciled an old earth and a faithful interpretation of Scripture
Show Pope Benedict's quote
"... the progress of thought in the last two decades helps us to grasp anew the inner unity of creation and evolution and of faith and reason. It was a particular characteristic of the 19th century to appreciate the historicity of all things and the fact that they came into existence. It perceived that things that we used to consider as unchanging and immutable were the product of a long process of becoming. This was true not only in the realm of the human but also in that of nature. It became evident that the universe was not something like a huge box into which everything was put in a finished state, but that it was comparable instead to a living, growing tree that gradually lifts its branches higher and higher to the sky." Cardinal Ratzinger, In The Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, 1986, 1995
What about dinosaurs in Job 40:15-24? Did they live with humans?
Some advocates of a young earth point to Job 40:15-24, as a description of a dinosaur, and proof that they lived concurrently with humans.
“Behold now, behemoth, which I made as well as you; he eats grass like an ox. Look, his strength is in his loins. And his force is in the muscles of his belly. He moves his tail like a cedar: The sinews of his thighs are knit together. His bones are as tubes of brass; his limbs are like bars of iron. He is the chief of the ways of God: only he who made him gives him his sword. Surely the mountains bring forth food for him — where all the beasts of the field do play. He lies under the lotus-trees, in the covert of the reeds and the marsh. The lotus trees cover him with their shade; the willows of the brook surround him. Behold, if a river overflows, he does not tremble; he is confident, though a Jordan [swift river] swell even to his mouth. Shall any take him when he is on the watch, or pierce through his nose with a snare?” (Job 40:15-24).
The passage describes certainly a large creature. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) thought it was an elephant. This was long before any human being had heard of dinosaurs, which were first discovered in the 1800's. Most young earth advocates think it is a Brachiosaurus. They say the Elephant theory has problems because it doesn't "move its tail like a cedar". The Greek word, זָנָב or "zanob" means "tail, end, or stump". A stump is not always a tail, so there is legitimate room for interpretation (a trunk perhaps?). An elephant has no natural enemies so the line about "Only God can give it the sword" fits. It reclines under trees. The word "Behemoth", means beast and is usually used in a generic way in Scripture. (cf. Genesis 6:7) Alternatively, a hippopotamus tail is "stump" like. A hippo has a huge mouth that could "swallow the Jordan".
The Brachiosaurus theory has problems:
- The Greek seems to indicate that only God could give kill it. But every plant eating dinosaur had a natural enemy, a meat eating predator such as an Alosaurus, or Tyrannosaurus Rex. Young earth folks say these were not meat eaters, which has huge logistical problems as a theory.
- A tree would never give shade to a 50' high, 70' long dinosaur.
- It's mouth could not swallow up the Jordan. Sauropods had very small heads.
It could perhaps be referring to a dinosaur who lived long before any man, it says "First in the ways of the Lord", which could mean it was before man. God certainly knew about dinosaurs, even if Job didn't. Perhaps he meant that passage for today's Christians. Again, we don't have to figure this out to be good Christians. It is just that the Bible is probably not the best primary source of scientific answers to this question. For those who think it is a good source for dinosaur stories, the fact that there are only a couple of oblique references to large creatures, "Behemoth" (Job 40:15-24) and "Leviathan" (Job 41:1-34), is highly problematic. If dinosaurs co-existed with man, one would think the Bible would be rift with such descriptions and analogies, and one would think there would be thousands of such examples in ancient literature, rather than just a few questionably oblique references.
How did God create of the Human Body and Soul?
We've moved the section on the creation of the human body and soul to a separate article
Intellectual humility is a necessity when reading Scripture
We believe that we must have intellectual humility when reading Scripture. The great theologian Augustine in the fourth century said this:
God wished difficulties to be scattered through the sacred books inspired by him, in order that we might be urged to read and scrutinize them more intensely, and, experiencing in a salutary manner our own limitations, we might be exercised into submission of mind. (Divino Afflante Spiritu, 45, cf. At. Augustine)
Augustine did not believe that God was making scientific assertions in Genesis, he may or may not be right. But regardless of whether we agree with his position on Genesis, his point about the difficulties in interpreting Scripture stand.
Science can be the ally of Christianity, not the enemy of it
We must be very careful when we condemn science. When science is applied as a pure art, it is neither atheistic or religious. It simply tries to find the truth based on natural observation of phenomenon. However, what has happened in last century is that human secularism has tried to hijack science for its own purposes. Its purposes are to set itself against Christ and his message. Science when used in this way, is very dangerous, and it is resulting in all kinds of misdirected applications of research money, including experimentation on human embryos. This leads to all kinds of difficult moral questions. We believe the Catholics and Protestants need to actually win back the scientific community.
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]
Show statements from the Popes on science and evolution
Pope John Paul II said this:
Today, almost half a century after the publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. [the exact words in French were: Aujourdhui, près dun demi-siècle après la parution de l'encyclique, de nouvelles connaissances conduisent à reconnaitre dans la théorie de l'évolution plus qu'une hypothèse.] It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory...rather than the theory of evolution, we should speak of several theories of evolution. On the one hand, this plurality has to do with the different explanations advanced for the mechanism of evolution, and on the other, with the various philosophies on which it is based... theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, [that] consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person. (Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996)
Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world. A world in which both can flourish... (Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, 1988)
The Church does not propose that science should become religion or religion science. (JPII)
The unprecedented opportunity we have today is for a common interactive relationship in which each discipline retains its integrity, and yet it's radically open to the discoveries and insights of the other. (JPII)
Science cannot prove or disprove God's existence because God is outside the limits of empirical measurement. Therefore atheism is only a philosophy. Even with all the scientific quotes they use, it is not based on science. We must be very diligent in making sure human secularism based on atheism does not hijack science which is independent of any religious belief, including atheism.
"For my part, when I received those taking part in your Academy's plenary assembly on 31 October 1992, I had the opportunity, with regard to Galileo, to draw attention to the need of a rigorous hermeneutic for the correct interpretation of the inspired word. It is necessary to determine the proper sense of Scripture, while avoiding any unwarranted interpretations that make it say what it does not intend to say. In order to delineate the field of their own study, the exegete and the theologian must keep informed about the results achieved by the natural sciences." (JPII, L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 30 October 1996, N.44)
In 1893, forty years after Darwin's The Origin of Species, Pope Leo XII wrote an encyclical Providentissimus Deus in which he said:
The Catholic Church has always taught that "no real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits. . . . If nevertheless there is a disagreement . . . it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation’; and that, for this reason, rather than trying to provide a scientific exposition of nature, they sometimes describe and treat these matters either in a somewhat figurative language or as the common manner of speech those times required, and indeed still requires nowadays in everyday life, even amongst most learned people" (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus 18).
Thanks to Fr. Terry Donahue, CC for many of the insights in this article.