Science in Christian Perspective



A Roman Catholic Statement on Evolution*

From: JASA 15 (September 1963): 79-82.

. Way back when the roar of the 20's was growing in volume, I had the privilege of studying biology from one of those rare professors who can make their subject live in the interest and imagination of their students. We called him Father Hauber, though he owned the title of Doctor and later became Monsignor .

We studied at Davenport, Iowa, and nearby at Linwood was a limestone quarry. Father Hauber used to

*Reprinted by permission from The Catholic Digest, vol. 25, no. 8, June 1961, pp. 120-128. This article appeared in "What Would You Like to Know about the Church?" in answer to this question: "As I understand it, all the great minds of the day accept the theory of evolution. Does your church accept it? And if so, how does she explain it?"

**Monsignor Conway is pastor of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church of Davenport, Iowa. For many years he was in charge of the Newman Club at the University of Iowa and an official in the ecclesiastical court of his diocese. He is past-president of the Canon Law Society of America.

take us there, explaining beforehand that the stone in this quarry had been deposited by slow sedimentation during some 60 million years of the Devonian periodone of the many stages of development of the earth's surface.

There were living things on earth during the Devonian period; and when they died their bodies often became embedded in the rock which was forming at the same time. In our quarry it was easy to find fossils by the hundreds . . .

Back in the classroom Father Hauber explained that if we should visit some of the lead mines at Dubuque we might find an earlier stratum of rock, with fossils of simpler forms of life. And still farther north there would be another . . . . Each of them lasted some 80 million years. In the rocks of those ages we might still find trilobites, but certainly no fish-probably mostly algae and sea shells. But even these were not the earliest forms of life on earth, merely the oldest ones which have left many fossils for us. It seems that the rocks of pre-Cambrian ages were so fused by heat and pressure that they crushed all life forms caught in them.

Now if we were to go south from Davenport, into the coal mines of Iowa and Illinois, we might find remains of amphibians, reptiles, and some primitive land animals; but there would be no mammals or birds. These didn't appear on earth for another 50 million years after our coal was deposited in its seams . . . .

Our study of the history of life in the rocks of the earth was only one small phase of our biology course . . . . We studied embryonic development, and saw how simple, microscopic organisms go through stages of growth reminiscent of the life forms found in our successive strata of the earth . . . Since our days in college I have seen remarkable genetic changes take place in the cornfields of Iowa. And I have read of even more notable mutations in plant and animal life as a result of radiation.

When the evidence from all these different sources is put together, the theory of biological evolution seems both sound and intriguing. It may not explain all the data observed, but it is by far the best working hypothesis available-and most scientists simply accept it as fact.

We usually think of biology when the word evolution is mentioned. But the same general principle of creative growth seems to apply to our entire universe.

The first theoretical stage of cosmic evolution might be called physiochemical. Some of it may have taken place before the stars began. Maybe it started with an enormous cloud of subatomic particles; maybe with a ponderous mass of concentrated atomic material. It is a challenge to speculation that we have been able to change matter to energy, showing that they are made of the same stuff; we have discovered that all atoms from hydrogen to uranium are made of the same building blocks: protrons, electrons, neutrons, and the like ....

I was a student at the University of Louvain in 1927, when one of the priest-professors there, Canon Lemaitre, gained the attention of the world by his theory of an exploding universe. I never really understood what he was talking about, but I mention it as added evidence that a Catholic education need not impart predu dice against evolution, in any of its phases.

Next comes geological evolution. Did some star pass near the sun 3,000 million years ago and pull off a blistering blob of magma, which went into elliptical orbit and gradually cooled off-in a few hundred million years-so that a solid crust could start forming on it? It seems possible.

The most baffling problem to the evolutionist is that of the origin of life. The geologist can give no help; his records have been destroyed. If they were intact they might take us back 1,000 million years. Recently our laboratories have given us some hopeful evidence; if we can't dig up the story of life's origins, maybe we can duplicate them ....

In this area there is no basic conflict with Catholic thought. Our ancient and medieval ancestors-the Fathers and Doctors of the Church-rather took for granted that living things sprang up right before their eyes: from the sea or from decaying organic matter. Later, science ridiculed such naive notions, and developed a contrary principle that "everything living comes from an egg." Now we are not so sure. But it is still hard to imagine all the ideal conditions, fortuitous circumstances, and catalytic factors which might have developed first life from nonlife.

In our elementary biology course we did not learn much about man but it was clearly implied that his body need not be an exception to the general process by which earlier and simpler forms of life developed into later and more complicated ones. Anthropologists simply took it for granted. We don't like the notion of apes in our family trec~ but we cannot deny that even the most beautiful human body has the same basic physical structure as a chimpanzee.

In our college days it seems that historical evidence to back up the theory of human evolution was not abundant. There were hints of Java men and Peking men, of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon types. But still everyone seemed to be looking for the "missing link." Since then diligent diggers have found our family skeletons in various cavernous closets-and all new discoveries seem to fit nicely into previous theories.

While we were studying biology, the Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee hit the headlines of our newspapers. Our sympathies were frankly with the monkey; it didn't seem fair to blame him for the monkeyshines of two of the nation's most famous lawyers, or for the mass hysteria created by the threat of a "bar simian" on the family escutcheon.

You know about the Scopes travesty from Inherit the Wind, but in the days of the trial the issue was not as utterly false as it may seem to us now. For 50 years the slogan of the atheist had been: "Man is descended from the ape. Hurrah! We don't need God any more! Chance has replaced the Creator!" The beautiful scien tific theory of evolution acquired bad repute in religious minds because of the company it kept in its adolescent years. It has since been baptized and tamed, it serves science faithfully, and it gives magnificent glory to God, if it is rightly understood.

The first problem in human evolution is that anyone who believes in the spirituality and immortality of the soul cannot postulate its natural development from lower animal life. However, this problem can serve an important purpose: it should remind us that our evolution is the constant work of a Creator, who is apart from the world, who gave existence to everything in the world, who drew up the blueprints for every step of creative change, and who keeps His sustaining and guiding hand on the smallest amoeba and the farthest star.

The religious problem of the average scientist is unconscious. He is immersed every day in the material aspects of the world: its natural laws. He seldom has reason to think of a creative power beyond his matter and energy. So by habit he drifts into an attitude of monism, which holds that the created world is all there is, that it is eternal and unlimited, and that it has inherent in itself any "divine" powers which may be needed to explain its existence and activities.

Notions like these are evidently contrary to Catholic doctrine, but they are not a necessary part of evolution. They may result from a conscious effort to push a personal God from the picture, or from the unthinking daily attitudes of a man who saves his faith for Sundays.

To the man who believes in God, the theory of evolution gives most impressive evidence of divine power, wisdom, and constant presence. Surely it requires better planning to develop a vast and complicated world from simple beginnings than to form it all ready-made in the divine workshop. And a growing, changing, purposeful world requires a more active, lively Providence than a static prefabricated world.

We all know that creation is a continuing process; things made from nothing do not stay in existence without the Creator. But still, if God had made everything in finished state right in the first six days, the rest of divine history would be a perpetual Sabbath. He could just sit back and watch his machine work, merely holding on to the string of its existence. In an evolutionary world He must be on the job every moment to perfect his creative work.

Once we get this idea of God's personal power in evolution, the special creation of man's soul offers no great problem. just because He chose to perform most steps in the process in accord with natural laws, using secondary causes, is no reason he must perform every step that way. He is free to exert his power directly when He wishes.

It is our firm Catholic belief that God created your soul and mine, and that of every human person, by a direct personal act. We are made in His image, and this quality cannot be transmitted by genetic process.

We do not inherit our spiritual souls from our hurnan ancestors; so Adam presents no special problem. Certainly he could not inherit his immortal soul from some subhuman ancestor he might have had. God intervened in a special manner for Adam and Eve, just as He did for you and me.

You ask, Laurie, if the Church accepts the theory of evolution? Certainly Catholic theologians did not jump on Darwin's bandwagon right from the start, and if they had they would have been pushed off by Spencer, Huxley, Haeckel, and the like. But . . . Canon de Dorlodot . . . was a great admirer of Darwin, and I have just finished glancing through a little book which he wrote 40 years ago to show that a theory of evolution much more thorough than Darwinism would not be contrary to Catholic doctrine.

He claimed that such theories were rather common among early Fathers of the Church, even up to the Middle Ages. He cites particularly St. Gregory of Nyssa, who writes of nature as an artist, the cause of the world's development; and St. Augustine, who believed that in His original creative act Almighty God had implanted in nature "seminal forces"-the seeds which would be effective in future development.

There is another big problem, Laurie, and I don't have much space in which to discuss it. What about the seeming conflict between the theory of evolution and the inspired story of creation told in the first three chapters of Genesis? Frantic fear of this conflict created the false issue of the Scopes "monkey trial." Does not the inerrant Word of God tell us plainly that the whole world and every living thing in it was created in six short days, and that man's body was molded out of dust by the artistic hands of the Creator Himself ?

I would suggest that you get out your Bible and read those three chapters, but keep a few essential points of literary interpretation in mind while reading them.

1. The author of Genesis did not see creation take place. Neither did any other man. There is no evidence that God revealed the details to him.

2. The author's purpose was to teach religious truth, not science. The simplicity of his cosmic concepts is evident: his world was a large plate floating on a vast expanse of waters; it was covered by an inverted bowl, blue and beautiful, in which the sun, moon, and stars were stuck; this bowl kept the waters above it from swamping the earth, but it had floodgates which could be opened to let the rain come down. Need I go on? Remember that he was writing for people who had the same ideas; he used language they would understand. just one mention of nebulae, electrons, or chromosomes and they would have thrown his book away. It would have made no sease to them.

3. The author of Genesis neither argues for evolution nor against it. The idea never occurred to him; he had never heard of it.

4. More than 15 centuries ago St. Augustine warned us against naive notions in interpreting the Scriptures. We must know an author's intent, style, figures of speech, and form of writing before we can get his message.

5. Genesis gives two completely different accounts of creation: the one of seven days, and the other of God the sculptor. Both represent stories which were traditional and well known to the people for whom they were written. The inspired writer used these folk tales to teach religious truths.

6. The seven days are seven poetic stanzas, which serve as an aid to memory, and point out to us the important lesson of the Sabbath rest.

7. The story of God the sculptor, anesthetist, and surgeon is evidently figurative: God comes down to earth, molds clay, blows breath up the argil nose, stages a parade of animals, carves a rib, walks in the garden, and talks casually to man and snake.

What is the real meaning of it all then? Most of its teachings seem matter-of-fact to us. But they were quite unique and much needed in the world of their day.

1. There is only one God; He is deeply concerned with the world and takes a personal hand in its affairs.

2. God is not part of the world. He made it-all of it-right from the beginning.

3. His creative power is the cause of every single thing: die dry land and the seas, the plants and the trees, the wild beasts and the cattle and creeping things -as well as the stars in the firmament.

4. Everything God made is good.

5. Man is a special work of God. The Creator planned man carefully, molded him with loving hands, and gave him life by a special act.

6. Man is the most important creature on earth. In the first story man's creation comes last: a culmination of all the other work. In the second story man comes first.

7. Man is made in God's image, and his special nature makes him master of the birds and beasts, and of the whole world.

8. Man's natural mortality may be implied by the fact that he is made from dust.

9. Woman is made in the same nature as man. the flesh of his flesh, made to be his companion, his helper, and even his equal, as none could be found among the animal .

10. The relationship of man and woman is right and good: a part of the plan of God.

I shall not get into Eden, inviting - yes, tempting - place that it is! That is another story.