Today, the Pope Pius V University in Rome will be the setting for a day-long conference with the arresting title, “The Scientific Impossibility of Evolution.” The sponsors of the event are known crusaders against Darwin. But they go further than most Darwin dissenters and postulate a “young earth” chronology based on a literal reading of Scripture. Needless to say, the Catholics among them are not comfortable with what the ordinary Magisterium has to say on the subject. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have affirmed that the Book of Genesis is not meant to teach science and that theories of evolution are permissible so long as God is not excluded from the big picture.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that the test of a first-rate mind is to hold two apparently contradictory ideas and still be able to function. In the debate over evolution, a Catholic must allow both revelation and science their due authority, reconciling the apparent contradictions between Genesis and modern research. Catholics also have to be skeptical about the claims of materialist ideologies disguised as science, while being open to the genuine findings of geneticists and paleontologists.
In 1986, John Paul II gave a series of general audiences on the subject of Creation. In them, he laid down a principle of Biblical exegesis that has been around since the Church Fathers: The Book of Genesis is not meant to teach science. Genesis tells what God did, not how he did it. “Indeed,” writes John Paul, “the theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about creation. . . .as presented in the Book of Genesis. . . .It must, however, be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. . . .[But] it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings.”
In an address to Italian clergy on July 24, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI also recognized evolution as a legitimate scientific theory. At the same time, he expressed impatience with the false polarities of “creationism” and “evolutionism.” The doctrine of creation and the theory of evolution, he said, are not “mutually exclusive alternatives.” The world need not be divided between fideists who cram scientific data into a Biblical template never meant to receive them and materialists who think that soothing phrases like “random fluctuation in the quantum void” dispense with the need for a Creator.
While allowing for the possibility of evolution, neither pope has issued a free pass to evolutionary materialism. The Church has nothing to fear from legitimate science, but is wary of materialist philosophies tricked up as science – which is what Darwinism often amounts to. In Truth and Tolerance, Benedict complains that evolutionists often trespass their legitimate bounds by making sweeping metaphysical claims. As a result, the educated public has the vague impression that “evolution” explains everything. Why, it even explains Darwinists whose purpose in life is to explain that the universe has no purpose.
Benedict reminds us that there are fundamental questions that science in principle cannot answer. Such as: Why is there something rather than nothing? As G. K. Chesterton, an astute observer of the evolution wars, remarked: “Nobody can imagine how nothing could turn into something. Nobody can get an inch nearer to it by explaining how something could turn into something else.”
Apart from the origin of the universe, there are two other ontological leaps that elude scientific explanation. First, the origin of life: Life only seems to come from life. Second, the human person: How could a purely “natural” process produce a creature so unlike anything else in nature? Mankind did not need the ability to write Hamlet or compose Don Giovanni in order to compete with the apes.
While aspects of evolutionary theory are certainly open to criticism, I don’t think a conference of Christian scholars who read Genesis as a textbook in geology is very helpful. One could argue that there is not a single scientific datum anywhere in Scripture – for the simple reason that the sacred writers had no notion of science in the modern sense. Whenever I encounter a creationist, I like to ask how we can see the Milky Way if the universe is only a few thousand years old. The response, needless to say, is wonderfully baroque.
The Big Bang is a perfectly reasonable model – as is the common descent of species, since all animals share genetic coding and homologous structures like wings and limbs. Still, we know very little about the origin of species. Darwinists have not satisfactorily explained how bacteria, which appeared over three billion years ago, gradually morphed into everything from trilobites to Homo sapiens. Paleontologists like Steven Stanley and Niles Eldredge tell us that the fossils do not show gradual Darwinian evolution. Geneticists never observe the systematic mutations they deem necessary for major evolutionary changes. Breeding experiments show species stubbornly clinging to their blueprints: Dogs remain dogs, fruitflies remain fruitflies. All Darwinists can show are small adjustments within species (e.g., the famous beak of the finch) from which they extrapolate macro-evolutionary changes which occur off-stage, as it were.
Catholics should take their cue from the Magisterium: Welcome the genuine discoveries of modern science while casting a skeptical eye on evolutionary “science” that for philosophical reasons dispenses with a Creator and treats man as a thing. At the same time, Christians who insist on explaining the universe in terms of ancient Hebrew cosmology are going to have a difficult time engaging the modern world.