You never stop learning, do you? I have had to reach my eighth decade to encounter a Catholic who believes that Genesis stands as an historical account of how the world came into being. I had thought, in my innocence, that this was a perverse position held by some eccentric Americans Protestants of a fundamentalist temperament. Now such Catholics leap out at me – not only from the pages of this newspaper, but on Second Sight Blog and in direct correspondence.
We shall of course avoid another Galileo incident, where the refusal of the Church establishment to accept the scientific evidence long after it had been soundly established has caused great scandal and is still used as an effective brickbat today.
We avoid it because the Church has not condemned evolution. Darwin’s work was never put on the Index of Prohibited Books. And Pius XII, John Paul II and our present Pope have accepted the compatibility of scientific evolutionary theory with our beliefs, with a caveat against regarding it as an explanation for the whole of reality, and in particular, the direct creation of the soul. Science and religion, each working in their proper spheres, can do nothing but bring us closer to our understanding of the truth
It may be as well to start by saying that biological evolution is simply a matter of well-evidenced fact. Much stronger evidence than Galileo was in a position to produce for his discoveries at the time. It is not merely a question of Darwin, but confirmed by geology, palaeontology, biology (including cell biology), the fossil record, and nowadays by the great steps we have made in the study of DNA.
Of course there are numerous gaps – which is hardly surprising given that we are often talking about events which occurred hundreds of millions of years ago. And the Darwinian mechanism, important though it was and continues to be, is far from the only mechanism at work. As indeed Darwin himself suspected that it would be.
The experts argue about many important details, and will no doubt do so for generations to come. But the arguments are not about whether or not evolution is true – that is already established – it is about questions of mechanism, the pace of development, or the placing of creatures in the right position and sequence. How the first life began remains an outstanding problem. Moreover, scientists are sometimes given to triumphalism or stretching their evidence to pontificate on matters beyond the necessary limits of their discipline. This is not a fault unknown in other areas.
And so we come to the Genesis account of creation. We know that it is both inspired yet cannot be a historical account. It stands in the same position as the biblical belief that the sun goes round the earth. So its truth must lie deeper. To attempt to claim its historicity is a cause of scandal. St Augustine (De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim) warned us against such ”foolish opinions” which would endanger the credibility of our true doctrines in the eyes of the world.
It has been urged that until recently two millennia of Christian tradition has treated the Genesis account as literally true. Can we really have been wrong all that time? Moreover, Christ himself clearly shared this view, when he must certainly have known that it was erroneous. But this is a false inference from Christ’s possession of two natures. There is insoluble mystery here of course, but Christ’s knowledge through his human nature was human knowledge. Much, as he tells us, was revealed to him by his Father, but what we know of that was, by definition, transmitted in human concepts. We have no more reason to suppose that he understood evolution in his human nature than that he might have given us a quick lecture on quantum mechanics sitting up from his cradle.
I am no exegete, but I see the Genesis account as a poetic story. Pius XII speaks of “metaphorical language”. Its real truths lie behind the narrative account – which was merely the form in which such truths were communicated in the culture of the time. We have to look behind the accidental form to find the substance.
And the substance starts with God creating the world out of emptiness (tohu in Hebrew). So we learn that God is the source of existence but, in himself, standing outside what he has created. Of all created things, one is pre-eminent: humankind – the only creature given his image and likeness. The account continues (apparently derived from a different source) and speaks of God as craftsman (yatsar) rather than creator (bara’). So God is active in the construction of the world. The fuller account of the fashioning of Eve out of Adam tells us symbolically of the essential complementarity of the first couple to be expressed in their becoming one.
I could continue, but I hope I have shown that, understood in its substantial truth, we are told nothing that either confirms or conflicts with evolution. It is however just at this point that we meet the question of whether we are descended from one couple or from more. Pius XII tells us “it is in no way apparent” how polygenism can be reconciled with the doctrine of original sin. But, from a faith perspective, this is not a problem. No doubt we should return to it if science, and this seems highly unlikely, could demonstrate incontrovertibly that polygenism was necessary. Pius XII’s wise phrasing did not rule out the possibility of a reconciliation. The essential history of salvation will remain intact.