In spite of general assertions by the last three popes that belief in creation is not incompatible with evolution, Darwin continues to pose a problem for traditional Catholic doctrine. As one priest scientist quipped on his webpage, “Catholic theology requires a more clear-cut origin for Homo sapiens than the fuzzy species boundaries generally acknowledged in evolution.” And that means Adam and Eve—our first parents, as the Catechism describes them, the single progenitors of the entire human race, their fall from friendship with God, and the passing on of original sin by descent to the rest of humanity. They loom large in the backstory of Western Christianity.

Created in the image of God and set to be stewards of the earth, the first couple sinned against God’s commandment when they were tempted by the serpent. They lost their innocence and were expelled from Paradise, a story related in Genesis 2 and 3. According to St. Augustine, the founding couple lost more than their innocence when they sinned: they introduced evil and death into the world, the world God had created as good. And they forfeited a state of perfection, a state of “original justice.”

This interpretation of the Fall exercised a huge influence on the church in the West. Church fathers prior to Augustine had formulated milder ideas about the cosmic importance of the first couple’s sin, and the Orthodox tradition never agreed with Augustine, and so never adopted the doctrine of original sin as it was formulated in Roman Catholic tradition.

Two of the early fathers, Clement of Rome and Hermas, writing in the late first century, both acknowledged the universality of sin. They also acknowledged that sin leads to death. But neither referred to sin as being inherited from birth. Indeed, Hermas believed infants to be innocent of all sin. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria argued that sin was indeed inherited from Adam, but as a bad example rather than an ontological state. Likewise Irenaeus interpreted the story of the fall in terms of disobedience, and treated Adam as acting with the impulsiveness of a child. Sin in his view was inevitable, but human beings were still responsible for their own sins. There was no deeper connection with Adam.

It was Tertullian who, in the late second or early third century, suggested the idea that humanity inherited the sinfulness of Adam by descent. He believed that body and soul were both generated together in humans during sexual intercourse and that all the descendants of Adam were linked with him “because all souls were first of all contained in his.” Thus did a major theological claim spring from a primitive theory of reproduction. Augustine developed this idea further into a full-fledged theory of original sin that was adopted by both the Councils of Carthage (in 418 AD) and Orange (in 529) and in its most explicit form by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Catholics were bound by this doctrine to believe in the perpetual tendency to sin as a feature of human nature that had been passed on by propagation from the first man, Adam.

It wasn’t until the advent of Darwinian theory that the Catholic Church awoke to the challenges facing this doctrine. As theologian Tatha Wiley points out, rejection of evolution by the Catholic Church was “not derived from an evaluation of the scientific interpretation of data but from a priori doctrinal and ecclesial judgments, specifically the dogmatic status of original sin defined by the Council of Trent. The magisterium insisted that the historicity of Adam and Eve, their first sin, and the biological inheritance of an actual sin by their descendants were not topics open for debate.” This presented a major problem for Catholic theologians, she writes, for while the magisterium could restrict discussion of the issue, theologians could not avoid all the intellectual difficulties presented by evolutionary theories. Evidence from the sciences increasingly made the historicity of Adam and Eve as well as monogenism—the idea of direct descent of all humans from this single pair—harder and harder to accept.

Indeed, from converging lines of evidence in paleontology, anthropology, and especially genomics, it has become evident that modern humans descend from a population that was likely never smaller than ten thousand before it migrated out of Africa between fifty and sixty thousand years ago. And the most recent discoveries show that this was only the last wave of human migrations. Before Homo sapiens began to branch out, there were earlier expansions of humans, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Homo sapiens later interbred with these now extinct populations; people of European and Asian descent still carry some of their genes.


Given these developments, does it make sense to try to rescue Augustine’s model, to establish a place for the traditional Adam and Eve in this long history? As Teilhard de Chardin observed in his book Christianity and Evolution (published in 2002), “If we accept the hypothesis of a single, perfect [human] being put to the test on only one occasion, the likelihood of the Fall is so slight that one can only regard the Creator as having been extremely unlucky.”

The greatest tension between Catholic doctrine and evolution: the church’s conception of human nature seems to require a more clear-cut origin for Homo sapiens than the fuzzy species boundaries acknowledged in evolution

The devil is in the theological details. And this is a key reason why, at the pastoral level, Catholics are still being taught an account of human origins that is essentially no different from what a Catholic in the sixteenth century was taught. While the Catechism acknowledges the use of figurative language in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the role of the serpent in bringing about the Fall, it retains the traditional belief that humanity is descended from a single pair, an historical Adam and Eve, and that they were exiled from Paradise—an existence without suffering or death—because of their rebellion against God in a single act of disobedience.

One way of dealing with the dissonance is simply to ignore or even deny the science. The influence of Evangelical churches that embrace creationism has clearly had an impact on Catholics, particularly in the United States. The last Pew survey (2013) showed that 26 percent of white U.S. Catholics do not believe that humans evolved over time. For U.S. Hispanic Catholics the number was even higher—31 percent.

At the other end of the spectrum, progressive theologians have argued that the time has come to discard the notion of original sin altogether. In his book Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration (2011), Fr. Jack Mahoney argues that, after Darwin, there is no longer a need or a place in Christian belief for the doctrines of the Fall, original sin, and human concupiscence resulting from that sin. John Haught and Ilia Delio have built upon Teilhard’s argument that sin, evil, suffering, and death were all going to be inevitable in a truly evolving cosmos. In their view, acknowledging this only enlarges the scale and importance of the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

In a more moderate vein, theologians such as the late Piet Schoonenberg and Herbert McCabe adopted what became known as a situationalist view of original sin. While letting go of the idea of an historical Adam and Eve, they advanced the idea that original sin was a state of spiritual impoverishment, a lack of grace, in which all human beings find themselves from the moment of birth, and which is perpetuated by the structural evils of the institutions in which their lives are embedded.

For scientists like Daryl P. Domning, a Catholic paleontologist and coauthor with the late Monika K. Hellwig of Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (2006), this approach is not very satisfying because it overlooks the very real nature of selfishness, programmed by natural selection not only into the human species from its origins, but also into all living species going back to the very origin of life itself. Far from setting aside Augustine’s notion of original sin as a real privation passed on by propagation, Domning argues that evolution grounds the idea even more concretely than the church’s tradition has since Trent. The theological difficulty here has to do with Teilhard’s suggestion that natural evil, like natural selection, was programmed into creation from the beginning—that the world never existed in a state of perfection prior to Adam’s Fall.

But apart from these theological complications, the fear of science in general must also be seen as one reason the church has been so slow to embrace evolutionary theory. As Josef Ratzinger pointed out in his book ‘In the Beginning...’: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, many of the faithful fear the encroachments of science. Ever since Galileo,

...on the whole, the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of ‘reason’ that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

That the question has become a matter of pastoral concern is shown by the emergence of new efforts to promote dialogue between faith and science, and in particular to address the questions surrounding what science tells us of human origins. Take, for example, a new online resource created by a team of Dominicans, called Thomistic Evolution. Lead by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, professor of biology at Providence College, the aim of the site is to provide a kind of modern quaestiones disputatae, in the style of the medieval scholastics, to answer point by point the challenges that modern evolutionary biology poses for doctrine. In particular, the Thomistic Evolutionists embrace Aquinas’s use of theological arguments of fittingness to reveal the meaning, beauty, and wisdom of God’s actions in the world.

For starters, they tackle the question of why Catholics should even accept evolution in the first place. Why, after all, should it be considered fitting for God to have created the world via the apparently “wasteful” process of evolution rather than by immediate special creation? The answer, according to the Thomistic Evolutionists, lies in secondary causality. In Aquinas’s view, secondary causality means that God “shares his perfections with his creatures by inviting them to participate in his causality, which in the world manifests itself in his governance of his creation. It is a greater perfection, and therefore, more fitting, for God to share His causality with His creatures, making them authentic causes that can cause by their own natures, than for God to remain the sole cause acting within the universe.”

While broadly accepting the consensus of contemporary science, Thomistic Evolution also reflects the Dominicans’ longstanding devotion to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature, which Aquinas integrated into Catholic theology. This philosophy of nature assumes that each species is clearly marked out according to its own unique attributes or essence, and that in the case of humanity this essence includes the metaphysical addition of a rational soul.

And this brings us to the greatest tension between Catholic doctrine and evolution: the church’s conception of human nature seems to require a more clear-cut origin for Homo sapiens than the fuzzy species boundaries acknowledged in evolution. One way to finesse this distinction is to concentrate only on the distinctiveness of the human soul and leave the human body to evolution. As Pope XII wrote in his 1950 encyclical Humani generis:

For these reasons the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.

Austriaco believes that a Thomistic approach offers a way to embrace the science and yet still defend entirely the idea that all of humanity can be traced in descent to a metaphysically unique first man. In a recent essay for the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, he argues that the evolution of language suggests that modern human beings share an intrinsic essence that puts them into a unique natural kind of their own—one distinct even from the early modern humans that made up our biological species Homo sapiens. He notes that it’s important to distinguish ourselves from our earlier ancestors, because in his telling they did not possess the capability of abstract symbolic thought. That arose, in Fr. Austriaco’s view, with the birth of a unique man, with a unique capacity for language.

It’s a bold thesis. Some scientists I’ve spoken with tell me this theory tries too hard to save Adam by positing special assumptions. It’s also undercut by the most recent evidence that Neanderthals, too, were capable of symbolic thought and representation. The cave paintings in Spain have now been dated to 64,800 years ago—before Homo sapiens had moved into Europe.

Philip Lieberman, a professor at Brown and the author of Toward An Evolutionary Biology of Language and The Theory That Changed Everything, points out that multiple lines of evidence show that language evolved over millennia, just like every other human trait. Far from being due to a sole faculty that might have emerged suddenly, the capacity for language relies upon many of the same neural processes that evolved to facilitate fine balance and motor capacity and the development of the key physical features that make human speech possible.

On the other hand, Domning agrees with the Thomistic Evolutionists on at least one point: the church does need to preserve a cohesive founding story because “we human creatures, embedded in history as we are, still need etiological myths, even in the twenty-first century—only now we demand of them not only mythic power, but historical concreteness as well.” But Domning thinks evolution provides this—and something more. “We want a metaphysics that does not just promise us a hopeful future, or even just help us deal with the imperfections of the actual present, as opposed to a perfect ‘eternal present’ in some timeless realm ‘above’ creation. Rather, our metaphysics must be adequate to embrace, and valorize, the actual past as well as the present and the future.”

Domning believes that we should just let go of Adam and Eve as historical figures but uphold the reality of original sin—in the Darwinian sense of original selfishness, a condition that is indeed passed down by propagation, as Pius XII asserted, but one that leaves room for free will. In Domning’s view, the Incarnation is God breaking into the world to draw us beyond our selfish natures. Like Irenaeus, Domning believes human sins have an aspect of immaturity about them: sin is due less to lost innocence than to incompleteness, which is more in keeping with what evolution reveals about humanity. As Domning sees it, God knew from the beginning that humans would need divine help to get beyond what evolution by itself could do for them. In other words, we needed the example of Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—in order to finish growing up. Other scholars, such as the evangelical John Schneider, believe some version of this view is not only more compatible with what science tells us, but also more in keeping with the writings of the church fathers prior to Augustine.


But there remains the nagging question of the soul’s special creation. In 1996, Pope John Paul II expanded upon Pius’s earlier assertions on the soul, and he added his own view that the emergence of the human being, endowed with a soul directly created by God, amounted to an “ontological leap” in the history of evolution, one that could not be uncovered or located by science. Can the special creation of the soul be integrated into an evolutionary understanding of our emergence as a species?

As it happens, perhaps the best answer to this question was provided by the man who would succeed John Paul II as pope. Back in 1973, Josef Ratzinger was pondering the question of the soul as it related to evolution, and his solution is as startling as it is simple. Ratzinger looked back to Teilhard’s observation that the history of matter is best understood as the prehistory of the spirit, a spirit that emerged when man spoke out for the first time to recognize the Thou beyond himself and beyond the world. “If creation means dependence of being, then special creation is nothing other than special dependence of being,” Ratzinger wrote in his book Dogma and Preaching.

The statement that man is created in a more specific, more direct way by God than other things in nature, when expressed somewhat less metaphorically, means simply this: that man is willed by God in a specific way, not merely as a being that “is there,” but as a being that knows him; not only as a construct that he thought up, but as an existence that can think about him in return. We call the fact that man is specifically willed and known by God his special creation.

From this vantage point, one can immediately see that an adam emerged in history at that moment when a human being was first capable of forming, however dimly, the thought “God.” As Ratzinger writes, “The first ‘thou’ that—however stammering—was said by human lips to God marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed.” If this is true, then the theory of evolution neither invalidates nor corroborates faith. But, as Ratzinger acknowledges, “it does challenge faith to understand itself more profoundly and thus to help man to understand himself and to become increasingly what he is: the being who is supposed to say ‘thou’ to God in eternity.”

Published in the July 6, 2018 issue: View Contents

John W. Farrell is the author most recently of The Clock and the Camshaft: And Other Medieval Inventions We Still Can’t Live Without.

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