Evolution and the Christian: response to an article

Recently I found an article that my brother got from his school ( which is a diocesan Catholic high school by the way) on the Catholic Church and evolution. The article favorably discussed the Church at the beginning, rightfully claiming that the Catholic Church for many years has accepted evolution as posing no threat to Christian doctrine. The article then proceeds to say how there is a problem however in positing “theistic evolution” because it doesn’t jive with the mainstream scientific accounts of evolution. This is a common error that is made even by Christians. In this series of posts I want to examine the article and analyze its claims. The article itself is not what is significant here, more importantly are the ideas behind the article which cause a lot of confusion about how God creates and designs the universe. The article may be found here: http://io9.com/does-the-new-pope-believe-in-evolution-453874239?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+io9%2Ffull+%28io9%29 but is copied into this series of posts and put in italics.

(It seems like the article is relatively old…just over a year… but I recently stumbled across it and it makes for a good discussion).

The answer is actually yes. And in fact, the Roman Catholic Church has recognized Darwinian evolution for the past 60 years. It openly rejects Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism saying that it “pretends to be science.” But the Church’s unique take on the theory, what it calls theistic evolution, still shows that Catholics have largely missed the point.

This is in fact not entirely accurate. Although it certainly isn’t anti-Catholic garbage meant to attack a straw-man caricature of the Church, it still misunderstands something about the nature of the Church. The Church in fact has no competence to determine what “pretends to be science.” The Church has authority to decide matters which relate to salvation, i.e. faith and morals. This is because of the goal of the Church (lead men to heaven) and because of the origin of the Church (Christ). The Church has been trusted with an unchanging body of truth called the deposit of faith which contains God’s revelation to man. This revelation confirms the likewise unchanging natural law written on our hearts. The Church has the authority, granted by God (in the person of Jesus) to teach on these facts and the ability to do so free of error. Insofar as science is related to one of these, the Church has the competence to take a stand. However, apart from its relation to revelation, science is outside of the Church’s authority. That said, it is true that the Church teaches that evolution is acceptable because it does not contradict revealed truth in Scripture.

This point is important because it goes beyond evolution. Those who misunderstand this point wrongly think that Catholics hold that the Church is somehow unable to commit any error. Also, without understanding this point, it is impossible to understand why the Church is infallible.

Finally, as for the ID movement, the Church leaves this to scientists and philosophers.

Back in 1950, Pope Pius XII laid out his papal encyclical, “Humani Generis,” in which the Church’s official position on natural selection was laid out. The statement said that there’s no intrinsic conflict between Christianity and evolution. The theory, as articulated by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species, has withstood scientific scrutiny since its publication in 1859 — and the Church does not dispute this.

This is true.

But — and this is a big but — Catholics can believe in evolution just as long as God’s involvement is acknowledged. Just what this involvement actually entails has never been made entirely clear, but the Church is adamant on one point: The human soul is a creation of God and not the product of material forces. On this point, the Church will never waver.

This is true as well except for one point, namely, that it has never been made actually clear.

To the contrary, how God guides evolution simply follows from the doctrines of creation and providence.

Catholics believe that humans are descended from apes, but that we all share a common male ancestor, Adam. He’s the lucky guy who got to hand down Original Sin to all his descendants. This means that Catholics don’t believe in polygenism, the idea that humans are descended from a group of early humans.

Actually, it’s not so much that Catholics believe that humans are descended from apes but that scientists hold that modern day apes and modern humans share a common ape-like ancestor (the term “ape” is often used very loosely so whether or not we descended from apes is a misleading question. The reality is that there are ape-like creatures which are the great ancestors of modern day humans and what we would consider modern day apes).

As for the second part of this paragraph, it is correct, Catholics hold that there was a literal Adam.

Interestingly, all humans may be descended from a common female ancestor, the so-called Mitochondrial Eve. But that’s science, not Biblical conjecture.

Sometimes this mistake is made. It is actually unfortunate that the term “mitochondrial eve” is used to describe the woman in question. The reality is that mitochondrial eve has nothing to do with eve. She is the most recent common female ancestor traced via mitochondrial DNA, i.e. through the maternal line. This does not mean she is the first woman or that all people ever descended from her.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve

To help explain this point, look at an example closer to home. The most recent common ancestor of me and my brothers is my mom. Between me and my cousins, my grandparents are our most recent common ancestors, however, if we traced this back through mitochondrial DNA, we would find a woman much further back in history because not all of my cousins share my grandmother’s mitochondrial DNA. On the other side of things, my mom’s line of mitochondrial DNA must continue through my female cousins as I have no sisters. In any case, the point is to illustrate that most recent common female ancestor has nothing to do with first woman.

At any rate, the fact that science has not shown a literal Adam and Eve should not be a problem for theologians for a number of reasons. We may post on this in the near future. In the meantime, see here: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/09/modern-biology-and-original-sin-part-ii.html

and http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/09/modern-biology-and-original-sin-part-i.html

At the same time, Catholics take no issue with the Big Bang theory, along with cosmological, geological, and biological axioms touted by science. The Church rejects the notion that humans can find traces of God’s work or his intention by looking for “design signatures” (i.e. specified complexity) in the world around us — a central contention of the ID crowd.

This is not the case. The Catholic Church teaches that the existence of a supreme first cause, i.e. God can be known through natural reason alone from the created world. This means that we can reason, without faith, miracles, Scripture, or Church doctrine that there is a first cause of all that exists. However, the Church does not specify which exact arguments do succeed in demonstrating God’s existence. The Church is merely pointing to Scripture when St. Paul teaches in Romans 1:20 that the power of God is known through the created world.

This of course does not mean that whatever arguments succeed are obviously successful to anyone. Any great philosopher knows that this is a complex issue. It takes a lot to fully grasp an argument. That said, even the common person can know God exists without grasping much of philosopher because many can intuitively see the need for a first cause and designer even if they don’t have a rigorously defended metaphysical argument.

In any case, Christians have always held that there are many arguments for God. It would be strange that the main one, or the definitive one were based in evidence from modern day biology. This would be strange since for most of human history people would be incapable of reasoning to God. So it seems reasonable to say, as theologians always have, that the more certain arguments for God are metaphysical and not scientific. The Church does leave open the possibility of scientific claims supporting the existence of God however. Therefore, the Church certainly leaves open the possibility that God has a “signature” in living things specifically which points towards Him as creator and designer.

God, says former Vatican astronomer Rev. George Coyne, is “not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves.”

This claim, without context, is problematic. I do not presume to know what Rev. Coyne said and meant in the original context in its entirety, however this statement alone is misleading. According to tradition, God is continually creating the world, in other words, it is God’s will which sustains all things in existence at every moment in time. Second, God’s providence does involve intervention in our daily lives. It involves the conferring of grace and inspiration to people as well as answering prayers, etc. This doesn’t mean God is regularly suspending the laws of nature which He established, in other words, He is not regularly performing miracles, but He is still regularly guiding His creation.

The previous Pope, Benedict XVI, saw the conflict between creationism and evolution as absurd. He wrote:

Currently, I see in Germany, but also in the United States, a somewhat fierce debate raging between so-called “creationism” and evolutionism, presented as though they were mutually exclusive alternatives: those who believe in the Creator would not be able to conceive of evolution, and those who instead support evolution would have to exclude God. This antithesis is absurd because, on the one hand, there are so many scientific proofs in favour of evolution which appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life and being as such. But on the other, the doctrine of evolution does not answer every query, especially the great philosophical question: where does everything come from? And how did everything start which ultimately led to man? I believe this is of the utmost importance.


To Be Continued

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