The Vatican says evolution is okay September 19, 2008

The Vatican says evolution is okay

The Roman Catholic Church has long affirmed the validity of evolutionary science. Unlike some (certainly not all) other Christians at the time, it never condemned Darwin or his ideas; and in 1950 Pope Pius XII described evolution as a valid scientific approach to the development of humans – a stance reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II in 1996.

Thus it’s no surprise that a Vatican representative, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, reaffirmed Tuesday that evolutionary theory “is not incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church or the Bible’s message.”

Apparently the Vatican (together with the University of Notre Dame in Indiana) will be hosting a conference in March celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” Their purpose is to discuss how legitimate scientific discoveries inform philosophy and theology. They accordingly didn’t invite any supporters of “creationism” or “intelligent design”. Nor did they invite anyone who might use evolution as a basis to deny God’s existence.

According to Gennaro Auletta, professor of philosophy at the Gregorian University and head of the “Science, Technology and the Ontological Quest,” project, organizers hope the encounter will help theologians and philosophers be “a bit more humble and learn to listen a bit more” to what science is unveiling about humanity and the world.

As a Reuters article explains,

The Catholic Church teaches “theistic evolution,” a stand that accepts evolution as a scientific theory and sees no reason why God could not have used a natural evolutionary process in the forming of the human species.

It objects to using evolution as the basis for an atheist philosophy that denies God’s existence or any divine role in creation. It also objects to using Genesis as a scientific text.

As Ravasi put it, creationism belongs to the “strictly theological sphere” and could not be used “ideologically in science.”

This same article goes on to state that the organizers of the conference hope that one of the outcomes will be encourage American Catholics to take a more solid stand in the evolution/creationism debate in favor of science and against strict biblical literalism.


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  • SarahH

    Excellent. This sort of thing helps reinforce my belief that religious belief is not incompatible with rational thought, and if the Catholic citizens in America take a stronger stance on evolution being taught in science classes (and not creationism!) then this could be the beginning of the end for the creationists.

    Now if they can get around to having a similar conference regarding birth control…

  • Vincent

    I grew up Catholic, and evolution was viewed as a fact. I never knew people didn’t accept it until fairly recently.
    However, reading the polling results I noticed that a large portion of American Catholics reject evolution, so the Catholic Church needs to do more to educate its congregants.

  • lurker_above

    Vincent: I grew up Catholic, and evolution was viewed as a fact.

    My experience as well, although god was always assumed to be running the whole program, quietly and divinely guiding nature along.

    Of course that view is no longer valid for me, given the complete lack of evidence for theistic—well, theistic anything.

    But I have to wonder: how does the church square its acceptance of evolution with the doctrine of Original Sin? I know many people (Catholics included) view Genesis as allegory. Fine, but if that’s true, whence cometh sin? My understanding of church doctrine has always been that Original Sin was caused by an act of a very real and literal Adam and Eve. After all, somebody had to commit the original Original Sin, otherwise baptism and Jesus dying for our sins, etc., would be rather unnecessary, wouldn’t it?

  • Richard Wade

    Interesting. Does this have any connection to the Church of England issuing an apology to Charles Darwin just the other day for the actions they took against him and his theory? One of his descendants said it’s 126 years too late.

  • In my opinion, accepting evolution (which is great, by the way), by the church, pretty much does away with the whole jesus thing. If evolution is fact (which it is), the whole Adam and Eve story goes out the window. Without Adam and Eve, there’s no Garden of Eden, withou Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden, there’s no original sin. Without the original sin, there’s no point in Jesus “sacrificing himself to save us from our sins”.

    Doesn’t that pretty much do away with christianity?

  • Oops, shoulda read the comments before I left one. It seems I just repeated what lurker_above said.

    Sorry!

  • This is no surprise. My college roommate went to catholic school and her Science education was much less influenced by religion than my Texas public school education (and her school was also in Texas). She actually learned evolution,and when one of her classmates asked if this contradicted the Bible her teacher said “what class do you think this is? Ask your theology teacher.”

  • Fr. Terry Donahue, CC

    Muffin,

    The short answer to your question is that the Catholic Church interprets Genesis 1 as a story with symbolic elements, but which also teaches truths about the dawn of humanity and human nature.

    A fuller answer follows:

    A Catholic who accepts theistic evolution must also believe in the special creation of the human soul:

    – God used evolution as a means to create the variety of life forms on earth.
    – The human body has its origins in pre-existing living matter (i.e. lower life forms).
    – God create man through a direct intervention, giving him an immortal soul with intellect & will capable of knowing and loving God.

    “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being’ (Gen 2:27). Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 362, http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p6.htm)

    “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not ‘produced’ by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.” (Catechism, 366)

    The “Garden of Eden” is symbolic of a state of original holiness and justice that our first parents were given as a special grace from God (cf. Catechism 374-379).

    “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” (Catechism 390, http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p7.htm)

    For even more detail, you can check out the above links.

  • chancelikely

    This is just going to reinforce the wingnut fundie perspective that “Catholics aren’t real Christians”.

    Still, I’m glad to see the Papists along with us godless bastards and heathens over here in reality.

  • mikespeir

    The Vatican says evolution is okay

    I’m so relieved.

  • PrimeNumbers

    So really, the Catholics cherry pick which bits are literal and which are allegorical. This is the kind of sophistry that just turns me off religion.

  • Pseudonym

    Muffin,

    I’m not Catholic (and many thanks to Fr. Donahue for giving us the Catholic interpretation; most helpful), but this might help:

    As you probably know, there’s a difference between the Theory of Evolution proper, and various theories about evolution. Evolution is just the process of change in inherited traits between generations, and theory of evolution says that this is how species came about.

    Theories about natural selection, specific lineages, recombination and so on are theories about evolution. If we discovered a new mechanism for evolution tomorrow, and it were eventually discovered that this was actually the cause of most of what we see in the fossil record… while a lot of people would be very surprised, it wouldn’t discredit the “theory of evolution”.

    Kind of like how the fact that we don’t really understand what “gravity” is doesn’t mean that apples stay suspended in the air while we figure it out.

    Similarly, you can think of “original sin” as being the natural tendency of humans to fail to do what they know they should. It’s the reason that democratic governments have “checks and balances”. We all know that if we didn’t, people would abuse their privileges. There are also theories about the concept, but these should be distinguished from the idea itself.

    In particular, a change in understanding of where “original sin” comes from does not discredit the theory.

    Did that help?

  • False Prophet

    PrimeNumbers, all Christians cherry-pick their bible passages. Near as I can tell, the difference between a Biblical literalist and a contextualist is the number and craziness of the passages accepted.

    Most contextualists, Catholics included, believe the Bible is all “true”, but most of the passages are metaphorical illustrations of things.

    But most fundamentalists do not accept the literal meaning of Bible passages either. Few keep Jewish dietary laws, and as far as I know practically none keep slaves, stone their children for insolence, or avoid work on the Sabbath.

    There are over 200 Bible passages about helping the poor, or indicating that the poor man has a better chance of getting into heaven than a rich one, and maybe half a dozen passages against homosexuality, most of which are ambiguous. There are really no passages that specifically forbid abortion and pre-marital sex (in fact, you could probably find a couple that nominally support them). But you wouldn’t know it listening to the Dobsons and Farrells of the world.

    Vincent, I don’t know about your Catholic upbringing, but mine was fairly useless. Very little doctrine beyond platitudes was taught at my Ontario Catholic School. Hence most Catholics of my acquaintance (including several Catholic school teachers) can’t explain the process of transubstantiation, and none of them knows the correct meaning of the Immaculate Conception.

    For the ignorance of American Catholics on the Church’s stance on evolution, I’d credit three things:

    Poorly worded poll questions
    Conservative US Catholics cleave way too closely to evangelical positions on several items, to the point of heresy*
    US Catholics ignore Church teachings they don’t agree with (I guess the “cafeteria Catholics” that the Pope vilifies can be right-wingers too)

    *For example, from what I’ve read of Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, he doesn’t seem to know what being a Catholic actually means, and seems to have carried over a lot of his Calvinist upbringing into his Catholicism, since he joined an organization that believes the Bible is the first and last word of God. That stance kind of flies in the face of Papism.

  • I also grew up Catholic, and we were also taught evolution as fact. Furthermore, we were taught about Creationism and Intelligent Design, both of which were treated skeptically. I was under the impression that the Papal encyclicals were in support of this position. But over time I’ve been dismayed to find that many conservative Catholics reject evolution. I partly blame this on the Church being so waffly on the issue, just so they can keep as many adherents as possible. And that’s why this conference is a good thing.

    However, I also agree with PZ Myers on a few points. A Jesuit said the conference is “strictly scientific”, but that’s not really true if it includes theology, and confines itself to theistic evolution. I also think it’s weird that an Archbishop referred to atheistic evolutionists as “proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection”. Um… “overly scientific”? But maybe they just misspoke.

  • mikespeir

    In particular, a change in understanding of where “original sin” comes from does not discredit the theory.

    You don’t think sin necessarily has anything to do with Original Sin? You’re not talking a change of mechanism here, you’re talking a change of definition. Evolution without, say, natural selection would still be evolution. Evolution without evolving would not be. Likewise, if you delete sin from Original Sin, the whole concept goes away. The simple observation that people often do evil things is not what Original Sin is.

    Original Sin is a religious attempt to account for evil by pointing to a definite event–a sin–of the past. Adam, as the so-called Federal Head of the human race, sinned for all of us. The mechanism, if you will, of this is Mediate Imputation, where God supposedly “imputes” this sin to Adam’s progeny. Take Adam’s sin away and the whole concept evaporates.

  • So really, the Catholics cherry pick which bits are literal and which are allegorical. This is the kind of sophistry that just turns me off religion.

    Why is it so impossible that a book should be partly literal and partly allegorical? Obviously, Jesus’ parables are allegorical, and all those genealogies are historical (though not necessarily accurate). For everything else, you have to use a little something called “Biblical scholarship” to discern the genre of any particular part of the Bible. You’re welcome to claim that Biblical scholarship is unduly biased, but please don’t dismiss it as a priori ridiculous.

    Anyways, your perspective is too Bible-centric. Catholic beliefs are determined by tradition and the Church, not just the Bible.

  • Monkey Deathcar

    I also went to 12 years of catholic school. I don’t remember creationism, intelligent design (although it wasn’t called that at the time) or theistic evolution coming up as part of the science curriculum. It was brought up in religion classes. Fortunately science was taught in the various science classes. Although it may be a good idea (for them) to start going back to teaching creationism, because their students who end up understanding the scientific process and its benefits might just end up as godless heathens, like me. 🙂

    There’s a lot of us ex-Catholics out there… isn’t it nice.

  • HeathenBreathin’Flame

    Classic case of Vatican doublethink.

    I grew up Catholic as well (Catholic to lapsed Catholic to atheist!), and I was always permitted to be fairly outspoken about my beliefs regarding science and skepticism. I never encountered religious dissent regarding any of that until I ran into Protestant Evangelicals.

    I think the Catholics are the one Christian denomination that realizes they need to take ’em any way they can get ’em, or else they’ll be a dying breed. And hey, as long as the coffers in St. Peter’s are full, I don’t think that they care much either way.

  • cautious

    As an ex-Catholic, any move that the RCC can make to put itself into the 21st century is welcome news to my ears. But, uh…well…

    “In the United States, and now elsewhere, we have an ongoing public debate over evolution that has social, political and religious dimensions,” he [Professor Philip Sloan of Notre Dame University] said.

    “Most of this debate has been taking place without a strong Catholic theological presence, and the discussion has suffered accordingly,” he said.

    When people say things like that, it makes me wonder. Is he trying to suggest that Catholics should actually *do* something to help the discussion, such as donate to, say, The NCSE? Or help schools (and not just Catholic ones) across the country be able to afford textbooks that teach evolution?

    Or is he just suggesting that Catholics should talk? Since, I mean, with all snarkiness aside, that would be helpful too.

    As one example, I don’t remember any official Catholic organizations giving opinions about Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, even though Catholics were involved as witnesses for the prosecution and the defense. Did the Church (or any bishops/archbishops in the US) have anything to say about the trial or the verdict? Citation required, y’all.

  • Maria

    I grew up Catholic, and evolution was viewed as a fact. I never knew people didn’t accept it until fairly recently.
    However, reading the polling results I noticed that a large portion of American Catholics reject evolution, so the Catholic Church needs to do more to educate its congregants.

    agreed. I too grew up Catholic and never even heard of creationsim until I was in college. those of you saying it’s “double speak”, would you rather they take it literally??? At least they’re not trying to put creationsim in our schools. I’m grateful for that at least. Now if they could just mind their business on some other stuff……

  • A Jesuit said the conference is “strictly scientific”, but that’s not really true if it includes theology, and confines itself to theistic evolution. I also think it’s weird that an Archbishop referred to atheistic evolutionists as “proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection”. Um… “overly scientific”? But maybe they just misspoke.

    Yeah, I found those phrasings weird too. I had to read the article a few times to get what (I think) they meant.

    Re: “strictly scientific”, I think he meant that they wanted the theologians and philosophers to interact with ideas that were “strictly scientific” – hence “intelligent design” is out – but they weren’t expecting the theologians and philosophers themselves to be “strictly scientific”.

    Re: “proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection” – I think perhaps he meant something more like “overly naturalistic” (i.e. the philosophical presupposition that there is nothing “supernatural” or “divine” at work in the world), not “overly scientific” per se. I think he just misspoke or got his concepts confused (or was misquoted – I’ve found that you can’t always trust journalists to get philosophical and theological nuances right. What they hear isn’t always what you actually said.)

  • Similarly, you can think of “original sin” as being the natural tendency of humans to fail to do what they know they should. It’s the reason that democratic governments have “checks and balances”. We all know that if we didn’t, people would abuse their privileges. There are also theories about the concept, but these should be distinguished from the idea itself.

    In particular, a change in understanding of where “original sin” comes from does not discredit the theory.

    I get what you’re saying Pseudonym and I think it’s a great analogy. Well said.

    The reality is that there are many different Christian ideas about what sin is and where it comes from and even about how Jesus’ life and death does something about it. But these differing theologies don’t change the underlying “theory” that pretty much all Christians would subscribe to, which is that we humans tend to go wrong and something Jesus said or did will help us make things right.

    On a slightly related note: does anyone familiar with evolutionary theories know whether the current consensus would say that there was one original homo sapien sapien, or did humankind evolve independently in many different places? I was under the impression that there was only one original homo sapien sapien and that this person could in fact be considered the mother of the human race (i.e. the primordial “Eve”).

    I’m not saying that this necessarily correlates at all with the Eden story (which I think is a mythic narrative, not a historical one). However, I also don’t see why accepting evolution necessarily negates the possibility of an “Adam & Eve”. Doesn’t evolution also hold that there were “first parents” of the human race?

  • mikespeir

    I’m not saying that this necessarily correlates at all with the Eden story (which I think is a mythic narrative, not a historical one). However, I also don’t see why accepting evolution necessarily negates the possibility of an “Adam & Eve”. Doesn’t evolution also hold that there were “first parents” of the human race?

    But there’s also no reason, independent of the Bible, to even refer to them as Adam and Eve. Furthermore, there was no magical moment when our early ancestors were suddenly Homo sapiens sapiens. There was a virtual continuum of gradations, which might in fact be going on today. At what point along the line, then, were Adam and Eve? In short, there is simply no reason, other than faith, for introducing the story into the discussion.

  • Yeah, I found those phrasings weird too. I had to read the article a few times to get what (I think) they meant.

    I was unhappy with the whole conference right after I had read what PZ said, but now I realize that PZ based his attack on just a few odd comments.

    On a slightly related note: does anyone familiar with evolutionary theories know whether the current consensus would say that there was one original homo sapien sapien, or did humankind evolve independently in many different places?

    I’m not really familiar with the theories, but I’m sure the evolution of humans started with more than two people (it at least started with a small population). However, I don’t think this poses a problem for Christian theology or anything. You could consider Adam and Eve to be the first couple to receive a soul, or maybe they’re entirely metaphorical constructs. Whatever.

  • cautious

    does anyone familiar with evolutionary theories know whether the current consensus would say that there was one original homo sapien sapien, or did humankind evolve independently in many different places?

    The ancestral population of all modern humans was just one population (in Africa), not several different populations in various continents. Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam were probably both part of this population, although apparently the time-span of Y-chromosomal Adam is more questionable, and then different researchers choose any of a few hypotheses to explain why that is.

    Furthermore, there was no magical moment when our early ancestors were suddenly Homo sapiens sapiens.

    Well…since species and subspecies are mostly philosophical concepts (and become increasingly difficult to define the more that time is introduced as a variable)…yes.

    However, if we had every fossil hominin’s DNA and skeleton and looked really, really hard (and had a lot of funding) there would eventually be a specimen we would have to label H. sapiens sapiens. Some individual that had the morphology and haplotype combination that identify an organism as a modern human.

    If that moment is when people want to complicate matters and add a soul into the mix, then so be it. Just as long as they don’t throw out the rest of science in order to do so, I don’t see much harm done.

  • Michael Edward Davis

    To speak of “theistic evolution” is to imply that evolution as a process is driven by some force or being towards an end. What catholics mean by this is that god intended, through evolution, to produce us. This is NOT good science, but rather a bastardization of evolutionary theory. There is no evidence whatsoever that evolution is directed. Natural selection acts upon naturally occurring variations in populations of organisms that exist in changing environments. There is no way to foresee what changes are going to occur in the environment, and there are geological, astronomical, and other forces occurring over time. The process is one of contantly selecting for organisms most suited to conditions as they are at any particular point in time. The process isn’t going anywhere in particular, and there isn’t any “end goal.” If the conditions down through the ages had been different, there would have beem different outcomes to evolution, and a different constellation of organisms and ecosystems would exist now. There does appear to be some tendency toward cephalization in vertebrates on Earth, i.e., the increasing prominence of the head and its development, but nothing in this suggest that the evolution of humans was inevitable. Had our primate progenitors been wiped out at some point due to a disease or climate change or an asteroid collision, we would not be here at all to be having this discussion. My point is that the whole process is not preplanned or scripted, and as such has no preordained end. No god is needed, and the addition of that concept is superfluous.

  • Jan

    On Original Sin:

    While it is true that not every book of the Bible was intended to be taken literally by the sacred writers, that does not mean that what is written does not describe real events that happened to real people. For example, in Genesis, we can be assured that we had original parents who were created by God with special grace. Our first parents fell from that grace by disobeying God; thus the grace they lost, we could not inherit. Did they literally eat fruit from the forbidden tree, or does that act symbolize something else? Does it matter what the sin is, or is the important thing to know that God forbade something, our first parents did what was forbidden with full knowledge and consent, that we are born with the effects of that original sin, which is a lack of sanctifying grace, and that while in sin, God gave them hope of restoring what was lost?

    The Catechism explains:

    Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint these texts may have had diverse sources. 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).

  • Regis

    The “Great Chain of Being” is part of the so-called “Perennial Philosophy” shared by all of the world’s great cultures, not just Christians or Catholics. The common understanding is that there are similarities but also essential differences between the various orders of creation, and that they are connected in a hierarchical way.

    Thus, human beings share similar physical forms with our immediate hominid ancestors; however, we are on a higher level in the chain of being because we possess self-consciousness. That quality is understood by Christianity to be the consequence of the infusion of the human spirit by God.

    Whomever was the first human being to have self-consciousness (or the first couple, or group) are the first parents of the human race — the individuals described in mythological terms in the book of Genesis as Adam and Eve.

    The Catholic Church does not see any conflict within the various fields of human knowledge, and in fact has been a big patron of philosophy, science and the arts for many centuries. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the Western canon in any of these fields apart from the Church — as sponsor, archivist, educator, and promoter, but also as providing a philosophical and theological foundation for the knowability, coherence, and value of human knowledge in all forms.