How Should Christians Make Sense of the Theory of Evolution?

In John Paul II’s message to the Pontifical Academy of Science on Evolution in 1996, he finely summed up the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on evolution, reaffirming the statement made by his predecessor Pius XII in 1950 that “there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation.” The conflict among theologians over evolution according to the pope was not whether Darwinian theories were compatible with Christianity, but rather “the true role of philosophy and, beyond it, of theology.” Some, like Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn in this NYTimes Op-ed, claim that John Paul II’s support for evolutionary theories are overblown. Pope Benedict XVI said in his 2005 inaugural mass that “We are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” But this should not be taken as a Catholic hostility to the theory of evolution, per se. For both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, science and religion are ultimately compatible, each with different questions, tools, and spheres of influence, but at certain points, mutually enlightening.

Evolution is a materialist theory, meaning that it is a theory concerned with matter. It explains the reorganization of matter over time. As an empirical theory, it is based on observations and measurements. The job of the natural sciences is to explain such natural phenomenon like the differences between the species or the biological development of organisms over time.

But there are other disciplines that study phenomena that are not natural, not concerned with matter, and not empirically observable. For example, the soul, according to Christian theology is immaterial. Thus, it cannot be explained by a materialistic theory like evolution. Rather, the question of the soul is a metaphysical question. Metaphysics simply means “beyond or above physics.” Whereas physics and the other natural sciences are concerned with nature, that is, observable and measurable phenomena, metaphysics is concerned with that which cannot be observed, with those deep and abiding questions of why. Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the soul?

It is concerning the question of human evolution, particularly when it comes to humans having an immortal soul, where evolutionary theories and theology really seem to conflict. It seems directly contrary to the Biblical account of creation to say that human are the process of natural selection. Moreover, it seems repulsive to the idea of human dignity rooted in the belief that human beings are created in the image of God to say that human beings and monkeys descended from a common ape-like ancestor. How can human beings bear the divine image if one accepts that they are descended from an animal?

Thomas Aquinas offers us one such solution. Thomas Aquinas adopted Aristotelian biology to explain the biology of the human being. Aristotle thought that human beings were animals, and Aquinas affirmed him on that. According to both, the organizing structure (or form) of the human being was the soul, which was both immaterial and inseparable from the body (unlike Plato who thought the soul was imprisoned in the body). In the Aristotelian view, the human soul had three levels. The most primitive level was the vegetative level that allowed the human being to do plant-like things like grow through cellular division or use energy. The next level of the soul was the animalic level, which allowed the human being to do animal-like things like hunt down food, attack in self-defense, and mate with other human animals. But where humans were distinct from their fellow animal kingdom members was that they had a third level of their soul—the rational part–which allowed them to do things like think, ponder, form communities, create moral codes, resist animal instincts, and wonder about God. Most importantly, it is the rational part of the soul that allows the person to have free will, that is, the ability to act voluntarily and intentionally. The idea of the soul as having multiple levels allowed Aristotle and Aquinas to conceive of the human person as both an animal and more than an animal.

According to Aquinas, it is in the rational part of the soul that we find the image of God. This is an important point to emphasize: for Aquinas, being in the image of God means being able to act (1) voluntarily and (2) with intention or purpose.

So this gets to why the Roman Catholic Church, which is heavily influenced by the theology and philosophy of Aquinas, can accept evolution. It is because the church sees the realm of philosophy and theology to be concerned primarily with the rational dimension of the soul and with the human being as a free and intentional creature, capable of conceiving a realm of reality that is not material, a realm of reality that is concerned with immaterial, or metaphysical phenomena like the true, the good, and the beautiful.

It is not the job of philosophy and theology to explain functioning of the other parts of the soul that control things like cell division and appetite. This is the job of the natural sciences like biology. Theology, since it is based on revelation, cannot explain the exact observable mechanisms of the way the world works or the way God creates. Saying that God created the earth is one thing; explaining how is quite another. Science, on the other hand, cannot explain the deep and inescapable existential questions that arise in human existence. Why are we here? Where are we heading? How do we lead a good life?

There are reductionist tendencies on both sides of the debate. There are some religious folk who say that everything we need to know is in the Bible. This sort of Biblicism (sometimes called fundamentalism) is ultimately self-defeating. The majority of even the most stringent Biblicists or fundamentalists will go to a doctor when they are sick. The Bible talks about healing, so why not turn to the Bible for answers to an illness? Because the Bible does not give us those answers. The Bible does not tell us how to set a broken bone or how to cure strep throat. To think that the Bible provides all the answers is an example of reductionism.

The reductionist tendencies on the scientific side of the debate try and use science to provide all the answers. We said before that religion can provide answers to the deep-seated metaphysical questions that emerge in each of our lives, but scientific reductionists will say that science provides answers to these questions. To the question, “why are we here?” scientific reductionists will say that we are not here for any reason, but are rather the products of chance. To the question, “what happens when we die?” scientific reductionists will say that nothing happens when we die besides the fact that our biological mechanisms cease to function. To the question, “how do we live a good life,” scientific reductionists will say something like “there is no such thing as a good life, only as much subjective pleasure as possible.” But like the religious reductionist position, this scientific reductionism is also ultimately self-defeating. There is no scientific (i.e. empirical) evidence to prove that there is no God or that chance, not God, is the force behind the evolutionary processes. You cannot use the tools of science to examine metaphysical questions like the meaning of life, the nature of God, or the question of final causality.

This is why Darwin’s theories have never been officially condemned by Vatican. Darwin sought to explain a physical question, whereas the church seeks to explain metaphysical questions. Now, metaphysical explanations are partially dependent on physical phenomena, but metaphysics goes beyond what physical theories like evolution can tell us. Theologically, it would be devastating for the acceptance of evolutionary theories if they embraced a view of human beings as wholly material, and indeed, some evolutionists believe this. But Darwin did not, and strictly speaking, evolutionary theories do not contribute to such a view of mankind.


2 comments so far

  1. Becky on

    I have to say that I am a Christian and have never accepted the whole theory of evolution. However after reading “Dominance & Delusion” I would have to say that I now feel that it could slightly be possible- I am not completely sold on the whole idea just yet though.

  2. Joseph on

    Cardinal Schoenborn later made quite clear that his objection (and what he understands to be the Church’s objection) is not to evolution itself, but to a reductionist reading of it. That became very clear in his talk to the Austrian Academy of Sciences (I’ve translated part of it here), where he called the separate creation of complete individual species “absurd” (though I think not in principle, but because of the empirical evidence).

    I’ve recently completed a booklet on creation and evolution from a Catholic perspective. One good thing that I think the theory of evolution does, is keep us from a false notion of the fall and original sin. We could be tempted to think, simplistically, that the pains of childbirth and other penalties associated with original sin are positive flaws inflicted on mankind by God, rather than the withdrawal of a supernatural gift that would have preserved mankind from suffering and evil. The Catholic tradition, in fact, held otherwise. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that fallen nature is metaphysically the state of pure human nature, which can be called fallen only in comparison with the gratuitous gift of original justice (In II Sent., d. 30, a. 1, ad 3, Summa Theologiae I, q. 85, a. 1), and consequently gives an account of how both death and concupiscence follow upon man’s nature (Summa Theologiae I-II q. 17, a. 9 ad 3, I-II q. 85, a. 6). It also follows from the Church’s teaching that original “integrity” was an elevation of nature. But though it was the traditional Catholic understanding anyway, the theory of evolution, by giving us a positive explanation for such bodily defects, makes it easier to avoid the error of thinking that they must be positively inflicted by God.

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