A recent post from the Michael Hichborn of the Lepanto Institute took issue with this article from 2014. Click here to read Dr. Brett Salkeld's response

Pope Francis recently (re)asserted that the scientific theory of evolution is compatible with traditional Christian teaching about God and creation.  As we might have expected, the media then completely botched the story.  (For a helpful analysis of this, see Joe Heschmeyer’s post here:  http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/blog/what-the-media-got-wrong-about-pope-francis-and-evolution/4552/)  Among other things, they made this sound like a break from his predecessor, as if Benedict XVI and his inner circle, Cardinal Schoenborn of Vienna in particular, were somehow against evolution.*  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, one of the best books on the topic of evolution and Christian faith is Schoenborn’s Chance or Purpose: Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith? 

The fact is that the Church has been very comfortable with evolution as a scientific theory since at least the pontificate of Pius XII and his encyclical Humani Generis (1950).  John Paul II and Benedict XVI in particular have made strong statements in favour of evolution and its compatibility with Christian teaching about God and creation. 

Nevertheless, the idea persists among some Catholics, and many media outlets, that Catholicism is necessarily uncomfortable with evolution.  This is for a few reasons.  First of all, many people simply assume that the Bible teaches that evolution is false, or, secondly, that evolution is incompatible with centuries of Church teaching.  Neither of these is, in fact, the case.  Finally, many people have bought into the myth that science and religion are necessarily at odds.  This, of course, usually follows on the first two mistakes.

As to the first issue, the Bible makes no claims whatsoever about scientific theories relating to the development of human (or other) life.  The biblical creation stories are meant to convey truth about the relationship between God and humanity, humanity’s relationship to the rest of creation, the impact of sin in our world, etc.  If they were meant to be newspaper-like recountings of historical events, surely the editors would have felt the need to harmonize Genesis 1 (where man and woman are created at the same time) with Genesis 2 (where man is created first and woman is created from man).  The fact that they felt no such need indicates that something other than a literal history is being recounted here.  The same could be said about the fact that, in the Genesis narrative, there are days before there is a sun.  Such examples could be multiplied.  The point is that the first chapters of Genesis have no interest in scientific theories, as Father Robert Barron well explains in the following video.


Barron’s comments actually line up very closely with Francis’s point that God is not some "demiurge" (i.e., some supernatural being that is actually less than God) that is tweaking an already existing creation, but rather the very ground of being itself.  Evolution cannot disprove God, says Francis, because evolution presumes there is something rather than nothing.  Rather, argues Francis, evolution shows both that God is necessary and how God has chosen to work.

As to the second concern, that the Church has always taught something other than evolution, that too is false.  While the Church could not possibly have taught evolution as it has come to be understood with modern scientific advances, both because the information was unavailable and because matters of science do not fall within the realm of what the Church understands herself as competent to pronounce upon, many of the most prominent theologians in the Christian tradition have said things that look remarkably like the theory of evolution. 

Take St. Augustine for example:

It is therefore, causally that Scripture has said that earth brought forth the crops and trees, in the sense that it received the power of bringing them forth.  In the earth from the beginning, in what I might call the roots of time, God created what was to be in times to come.  [Emphasis added]
-St. Augustine, On the Literal Meanings of Genesis, Book V Ch. 4:11

Or St. Thomas Aquinas:

“Nature is nothing but the plan of some art, namely a divine one, put into things themselves, by which those things move towards a concrete end: as if the man who builds up a ship could give to the pieces of wood that they could move by themselves to produce the form of the ship.”
– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Physics II.8, lecture 14, no. 268

Neither the Bible nor the Church teach, have taught, or could have taught that evolution is false.  It simply does not fall into the realm of what either the Bible or Church teaching is concerned with.  The Church is happy to let the findings of the natural sciences be judged on their own merits, confident that faith and reason cannot contradict one another.  (Of course, what we might do with the findings of natural science, e.g., nuclear weapons or embryonic stem cells, is another question.  To be against nuclear weapons is not the same things as being against the progress of the natural sciences.)

Let us look at another issue.  If there is one question, other than evolution, on which the average person on the street thinks the Church has rejected the findings of the natural sciences, it is the case of Galileo and the question of whether the earth orbits the sun or vice versa.

According to the popular version of this story, the Church taught that the earth orbited the sun because Scripture says it does and Galileo proved otherwise.  The Church imprisoned Galileo for teaching this heretical doctrine and is still wiping egg of its face all these centuries later.

Almost none of this is true.

In fact, St. Robert Bellarmine, the head of the Holy Office of the Inquisition during the Galileo case agreed with Galileo that, if the science demonstrated it, certain passages of Scripture that seem to indicate that the earth orbits the sun would have to be reinterpreted!  He was sure that faith and science could not contradict one another, and he also knew that having the sun as the center of the solar system was not an essential truth of the faith.  The question for Bellarmine was not how to stop Galileo, but whether or not Galileo had proved his hypothesis.

It is easy to forget that the idea that the sun orbited the earth was not a religious doctrine, but rather the state of the question in astronomy that pre-existed the Church.  The Ptolemaic system was the best available explanation of the movement of heavenly bodies as yet discovered and would need significant refuting to be overthrown.

The simple fact is that, while Galileo’s intuition was dead on, his proofs were severely lacking and he could not demonstrate his hypothesis.  (We cannot go into all the details here, but any interested reader should have a look at this in depth study of the Galileo controversy: http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/the-galileo-affair.html)

But even that is not what had him end up under house arrest.  Instead, his choice to publically mock the Pope in one of his writings, along with other such indiscretions is what cost him his freedom.

Should Galileo have been locked up for insulting the Pope?

Of course not.

And for that John Paul II has accepted responsibility and apologized.  The unfortunate side effect, however, is that many people assume that both the original lock-up and the apology indicate that the Church was against science in the Galileo episode.

But Bellarmine’s approach, that the legitimate findings of the natural sciences are to be accepted if demonstrated and that any interpretations of the Bible or the faith that contradict the legitimate findings of the sciences are in need of correction, stands today.

A Catholic is never put in the position of choosing faith over reason or vice versa, but only of carefully double-checking both faith and reason when apparent contradictions arise in order to see where the problem lies.

This, of course, begs the question: how can we know the legitimate findings of the natural sciences?

Not everyone has the time, talent, or inclination to study evolutionary biology and so pronounce on the question of evolution from within their own realm of expertise.  Nevertheless, Catholics can be comfortable with the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community on this question.  Of course we are still learning more about just how evolution works, but that it works is virtually** universally accepted among professionals in the field and has even been witnessed in real time.

Indeed, none of the Popes who have pronounced on this question were evolutionary biologists themselves (though Pope Francis did study chemistry), but could trust the consensus of the experts in the discipline who include not only some atheists who think that evolution disproves the existence of God (and some atheists who don’t think it does that!), but also many faithful Catholics and other Christians who know that it doesn’t.  Anyone interested in the perspective of a Catholic biologist should look at the excellent work of Kenneth Miller whose book, Finding Darwin’s God, is not only scientifically valuable, but also very theologically literate.

Catholics need not feel they need to denounce evolution just because some people try to use evolution to denounce Christianity.  Those people are mistaken about what Christianity teaches, not only about the origins of the universe, but also about the relationship between faith and reason.  To denounce evolution because it seems to contradict the faith is to give these people more ammunition with which to attack us.

So yes, Catholics can believe in evolution.  More than that, given the state of the scientific evidence, the Church’s understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, and the counter-witness to the gospel that is given by taking a stand against evolution, they should believe in it.


*The confusion stemmed from the fact that Schoenborn wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that seemed to endorse Intelligent Design, a variant of creationism.  Schoenborn was unaware of what ‘Intelligent Design’ meant in an American context and was simply making a very traditional argument about the intelligibility of creation.  His book offers excellent clarification on this point, and specifically rejects Intelligent Design theory.

**Those in the field, or out of it, that reject evolution never do so on a strictly scientific basis.  It always follows from a prior judgment made about the incompatibility of evolution with Christian faith.  A judgment that is out of step with the Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and reason.

***I found several of the quote I went looking for in the following blog by Mark Shea, which includes several other interesting links:



Recommended Reading:

Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution and a Rational Faith

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, In the Beginning . . .': A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall

Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin's God: A Scientists's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution

Page URL: http://archregina.sk.ca/blogs/31427/3945/2014/12/can-catholics-believe-evolution