Catholicism and Evolution
By David W. Tschanz
David W. Tschanz, PhD, MSPH, MCSE is a
demographer, historian, and computer consultant. A former Jesuit
seminarian, he has made a special study of the role of the Catholic
Church in relation to science, particularly cosmology, and
One of the most unfortunate results of the popularity of American
author Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code is that it is not only at
times wildly factually inaccurate. Its portrayal of the Roman
Catholic Church as being anti-science is deplorably false. Sadly,
perception is often mistaken for reality, and nowhere is that more
obvious than in the current discussion on the topic of evolution.
Cosmology and Catholicism
Before looking at the position of the Catholic Church on human
evolution, we should start with the related question, what does the
Church believe about how and when the universe came into being?
The Church has declared, as an article of faith (meaning
Catholics must accept it as a matter of dogma), that the universe
was specially created out of nothing by God, that "the world
and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and
material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by
God from nothing" (First Vatican Council, 1870).
Beyond that declaration, the Church left to each individual
Catholic the choice of how this happened. If they wish to believe
that God did it all at once, or that the stars, nebulae, and planets
developed over time (for example, in the aftermath of the Big Bang
that modern cosmologists discuss), or some place in between, that is
perfectly acceptable. In fact, as we shall see shortly, according to
Catholic belief, the "how" in cosmology is an irrelevant and
pointless question. What is relevant is the role of God. If a
Catholic, acting in good faith and intellectual honesty, truly
believed that the stars and planets did develop over time, this
still ultimately must be attributed to God and his plan.
Let us restate that the means are not as important as the
essential truth of God creating the universe. As a result, and
obscured by writers such as Brown, is the fact that many of today's
leading scientists and astronomers are Catholic priests (the Vatican
Observatory is a leading research facility). They are simply
following the long tradition of Catholic clergy (and layman) in the
sciences that included astronomer Nicholas Copernicus and geneticist
Gregor Mendel, among others. The Vatican Observatory even has its
Evolution and the Bible
On the subject of biological evolution, the Church does not have
any official position on whether various life forms developed at
once or over the course of time. However, it says that if they did
develop over time or all at once, then they did so under the impetus
and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to
When it comes to human evolution, it comes as a surprise to many
Catholics, as well as non-Catholics, to learn how little the Church
teaches in this area. This is because the Church has chosen to
define only a few tenets as true beyond doubt, leaving a great deal
of latitude to Catholics for their personal judgment. This is
principally because the Church has not been concerned with
evolutionary questions as such, but rather with their possible
implications for Catholic belief.
The Church allows for the possibility that man's body developed
from previous biological forms, under God's guidance, but it insists
on the special creation of his soul. The Church insists that man is
not an accident; that no matter how God went about creating Homo
Sapiens, God from all eternity intended that man and all creation
exist in their present form.
The historical meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis,
wrote Pope Pius X in 1909, could not be doubted in regard to "the
creation of all things by God at the beginning of time; the special
creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first
man; the unity of the human race; the original happiness of our
first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality;
the command given by God to man to test his obedience; the
transgression of the divine command at the instigation of the devil
under the form of a serpent; the degradation of our first parents
from that primeval state of innocence; and the promise of a future
Notice that the Church again says nothing definite about how, in
specific detail, God created the world and its various forms of
life, or how long any of this took. The only "special creation"
mentioned is that of man's spiritual and immortal soul. In the
Church's eyes, Genesis deals with historical fact, not scientific
process — with the what of creation, not the how.
As long ago as the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, the
church's most revered ancient theologian, had cautioned Christians
not to take the Genesis creation accounts too literally. So it
should not be a surprise that Catholics are not obliged to reconcile
scientific data with the early verses of Genesis, but can instead
view it as containing truths that are expressed in an archaic,
pre-scientific Hebrew idiom. They can also accept with "enjoyment
and confidence" modern scientific discoveries which, more often than
not, raise fundamental questions which science itself cannot answer.
Every new discovery is a source of wonder and a reason for giving
praise to God.
Ironically, many scientists engaged in evolutionary studies are
devout Catholics. These men and women see no contradiction between
what the Church teaches and what science has learned. In
fact, their efforts are lauded in the Catechism of the Catholic
Church (a summary of beliefs and tenets) as follows:
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is
carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral
laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the
world and the things the of the faith derive from the same God. The
humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is
being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for
it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.
Evolution Does Not Mean Atheism
While the Church does not oppose evolution per se, it does not
allow belief in atheistic evolution, nor does it accept the broader
implications of evolutionism. The Church's quarrel with many
scientists who call themselves evolutionists is not about evolution
itself, which may (or may not) have occurred in a non-Darwinian,
teleological manner, but rather about the philosophical materialism
that is at the root of so much evolutionary thinking. Evolutionists
argue the word came about without divine action, as a pure accident.
To Catholics, the universe is not the result of purely random
events that have no direction and operate without the hand of God. A
universe without God is purely materialistic and secular, this is a
position that the church rejects. It does not oppose evolution, but
it opposes the argument that evolution disproves the existence of
God, or makes Him irrelevant.
Catholicism and Fundamental Protestantism
The Catholic Church's position clearly contrasts with that of
many fundamentalist Protestant sects. Fundamentalists have usually
insisted on treating Genesis as a scientifically accurate, as well
as historically true, account. Unfortunately, this stance has often
appeared in the media as definitive Christian doctrine. Its details
have contrasted so sharply with established scientific knowledge
that "Christian belief" has been held in ridicule.
To give one example, in the 17th century, Anglican clergyman
Bishop James Ussher, made a calculation based on Biblical
genealogies that God created the world on an October morning in 4004
BCE. Many fundamentalists today hold this as an article of faith.
For virtually all scientists, the figure is absurd. From the
Catholic point of view, Bishop Ussher spoke only for himself, not
for the Church; his feat was one of arithmetic, not theology.
Of course, Catholics may share many of these
fundamentalist beliefs as their personal opinions. The point is they
are not required to. With the exception of the few matters
mentioned above, Catholics may hold whatever scientific positions
seem reasonable and intellectually convincing, as long as they
accept that everything comes about as the will of God.
Disclaimer: The article reflects the opinions of