Catholicism and Evolution
While Pius was willing to concede that there was reason to believe the human body was the product of evolution, he was adamant that the special status of Adam as the father of the human race should not be a matter of question. “For the faithful,” he wrote, “cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.”
Pius declared that it was not apparent how such a theory of a founding population of humans, and not a single couple, could be reconciled with original sin. That Catholic doctrine regards the Fall as an historical rebellion against God; a sin actually committed by an individual and which is passed on through the generations from him to all men and women.
Subsequent research into genomics, however, has settled this question against Pius. It’s not that scientists cannot trace human ancestry back far enough to an Adam and Eve; it’s that in principle, the level of genetic variation present in the species today rules out a founding population with fewer than several thousand individuals.
John Paul II, for his part, called evolution “more than a hypothesis,” and went so far as to indicate that, while there is necessarily an “ontological leap” from ape to human, that perhaps the timing of such a leap could be gleaned where signs of human self-awareness, conscience, etc. may be observed. In sum–there’s no real shift from Pius in insisting that the creation of the human soul must have been direct, a supernatural grace bestowed on some lucky ape. His reasoning is that no materialist notion of the soul could ground a strong concept of human dignity. He doesn’t take on the problem of a founding population and whether that causes our doctrine of Original Sin to run aground. (It wasn’t that kind of document, but I’m unaware of any other papal statement since Pius’ on that point.) That question seems to remain. I see an echo of this concern in the CDF’s 1981 reiteration of the warning against reading Teilhard de Chardin, who argued for a more evolutionary conception of human history altogether.
So what’s at stake here? Well, lots of big doctrines are in play–the nature of the soul, Original Sin and its transmission, and Christology, for starters. Is it time perhaps to re-open the possibilities raised by Teilhard’s evolutionary mysticism? Where might that take us?
HT: The Daily Dish, Zoe Pollock