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.”