Are Evolution and Faith Really Irreconcilable?

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“Truth cannot contradict truth.” So taught Pope Leo XIII, and so the Catholic Church approaches science and God’s revelation. There is not a single scientific truth that contradicts God’s word. If the things of the natural world were created by an omnipotent God and reflect his presence, then they must also be in accord with what God revealed concerning himself and the universe through sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture.

Sometimes new scientific discoveries may seem to challenge our religious understanding of the world, such as when we learned that the sun – not the earth – is at the center of the solar system. This fact not only fails to minimize the centrality of human beings in God’s creation (the dogma supposedly in question at the time), but it even adds a new perspective on another truth of revelation: that Christ, depicted in the earliest Christian piety and iconography as the sun, is the true center and life source of creation and of our lives.

There is no need, then, to make the claim – as one biologist recently opined in the New York Times – that science and religion cannot be reconciled. Nor must we settle for the concession that science and religion form “non-overlapping magisteria” that concern facts and values, respectively. Rather, the natural “facts” of science are the rational foundation upon which supernatural revelation and its attendant “values” rest. Of course, science and faith have different objects that allow for their inherent differences, but, with Saint John Paul II, we know that there is “no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action.”

More than other current scientific theories, evolution has presented a vociferous attack on the Judeo-Christian understanding of human origins. From the car ornament that portrays the Christian fish symbol with legs (often with “Darwin” added beneath) to the latest Times article that tries to explain why faith and evolution are incompatible, certain proponents of evolution have been claiming publicly that their version of humanity’s genesis is correct and that Genesis is merely a lame story.

Meeting the challenges of evolutionary theory and the origins of humanity are critical issues for the Church, which teaches infallibly that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, who has endowed each directly with an immortal soul. (The Church has never taught how this happens because that has not been revealed to us.) Some theories of evolution (there are several variations) contradict this truth by asserting humanity’s existence is a material accident resulting from genetic mutation, not from divine intervention. Such theories must be regarded as incomplete because they exclude God from the creation process.

          TIME magazine: November 4, 1996

Saint John Paul famously called evolution “more than a hypothesis,” though in the same address he pointed out the problems with certain philosophical approaches to the theory. But let us leave the merits of evolutionary theory itself to the side. The Times biologist offers his college students and readers three reasons why evolution requires the abandonment of the Judeo-Christian faith in creation. These reasons, which pertain more to human-drawn conclusions than to science itself, can be answered on their own terms.

First, the author argues that “an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection” accounts for the complexity of organisms that seemingly require a supernatural and intelligent designer. Even if we accept this as true, this “statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon” excludes only a Deus ex machina creation advocated by certain Fundamentalist misreadings of the Bible. This method does not exclude physical creation by God through secondary causality, God’s normal modus operandi in the world. As for the supposed randomness, Saint John Paul taught that in the eyes of God there are no coincidences.

Second, the author points to the phylogenetic linkages among different species. But this fact also does nothing to exclude God from the creation process. If anything the extraordinary distinction in ways of living between humans and other primates with similar DNA structures (how often do chimps debate their own origins?) points to the existence of a human soul infused into humans by God – the “difference maker” between man and beast. The author is right on one score: “no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens.” Evolutionary biology alone cannot measure the immaterial soul, which is a product of God, not material creation.

Finally, the problem of evil is proposed with an evolutionary twist: predation, disease, and death imply that humans “are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” To offer but one brief response, the effort of humans – across all times, cultures, and religions – to find meaning in suffering and to attach moral codes to procreation show that there is far more to these rational animals than merely their animal nature. Biologists have tried to find a “moral gene,” but meaning and morals transcend the limits of what any other animal in the kingdom can do. It is odd that a species supposedly generated by purposeless chance is so innately driven to find purpose in all things.

With apologies to our biology professor, his students and readers need not abandon their faith in Judeo-Christian creation in light of evolution. At least in terms of the three critiques he offers, there is nothing in the actual science of evolution that excludes God creating humans and giving them souls. Perhaps instead our professor should re-examine his own faith in evolution interpreted through an intentionally atheistic lens.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York.
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David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.