This is part 3 of a series about the relationship between religious faith and science, according to the history and Tradition of the Catholic Church. In Part 1 we looked at the contributions the Catholic Church has made to history. In part 2 we looked at the difference between knowledge we receive through the scientific method and the knowledge we receive through divine revelation.
Today, we are going to look at the theory of evolution, because this is one particular theory that many people use to prove “Religion” to be false. Many Catholics are also a little bit confused about how evolutionary theories are compatible with our faith and how they are incompatible with our faith.
Recently, Popes have spoken favorably of evolution as an explanation of how physical characteristics of lifeforms came to be. In article 36 of his encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII said, “the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that… research and discussions… take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body…” [edited for length]
Years later, Pope John Paul II expanded on Pope Pius’ comment, explaining how continued scientific study has given us more reasons to accept the truth of evolutionary theory. Speaking to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in 1996, he said, “Today… some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis…The convergence in the results of these independent studies… constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.” [edited for length and simplicity]
Pope Benedict XVI had some strong words about the apparent clash between evolutionary theories and religious faith. In 2007 he said, “This clash [between creationism and evolutionism] is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.” Pope Francis has echoed his predecessors saying that Evolution should not necessarily conflict with the belief that God created the world.
However, all of these Popes recognize that evolutionary theory has its limits and that taking this theory too far (which we might call “Evolutionism”) has some problems. Evolution can explain how human bodies came to be and it can even perhaps explain certain basic human behaviors and proclivities, but Catholics must reject evolution as an ideology. Certain evolutionists will argue that human beings came about by random chance, and this is where we draw the line.
Catholics simply cannot believe that human life came about by some random process of nature. Human life is not an accident. You are not an accident, and neither is any other person. If humans evolved from a more primitive species, it did so by the hand of God which guided this process. Human life was always in the mind of God. Evolution is one way, albeit a very convincing way, to explain how it came about.
Furthermore, Evolution cannot account for the presence of an immortal soul within the person. Going back to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, we read that, “whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are.”
To put everything above as succinctly as possible, evolution is perhaps the best scientific theory to explain how the human form came to be and Catholics should accept it as such, but Catholics cannot accept that human life is an accident.
For more information, consider reading: Adam Eve and Evolution on Catholic.com. For those looking for something deeper, I suggest, “In the Beginning…: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and Fall,” By Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).