May 27, 2005


Another controversy about evolution

The state of Kansas has put the controversy over creation back in the news. The State Board of Education there held hearings to determine whether or not schools there must teach an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution in their science courses.

The alternative is what has come to be known as intelligent design. Those who object to teaching this are well aware that intelligent design requires an intelligent designer and the intelligent designer of the universe is God. This is, therefore, equivalent to teaching that God created the universe, and the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1987 that it is unconstitutional to teach that God created the universe because that is a religious belief.

It seems to be OK to teach the “Big Bang Theory,” that the universe occurred as the result of a gigantic explosion, as long as no one asks who might have caused the big bang.

The Catholic Church does indeed believe that God created the universe, but not the way the Book of Genesis described the creation. Since at least the time of St. Augustine in the fifth century, the accounts of creation in Genesis have been seen as largely symbolic. The Bible is not a scientific textbook, and if the congregation of cardinals that condemned Galileo in the 17th century had been more aware of that the split between science and religion would not have occurred.

Back in 1925, when G. K. Chesterton wrote his masterpiece The Everlasting Man to refute some of the claims of H. G. Wells, he began with a discussion of evolution and its limitations. He noted, “It is really far more logical to start by saying ‘In the beginning God created heaven and earth’ even if you only mean ‘In the beginning some unthinkable power began some unthinkable process.’”

Author Frank J. Sheed, in his book Theology and Sanctity, pointed out that Genesis “tells us of the fact but not the process: there was an assembling of elements of the material universe, but was it instantaneous or spread over a considerable space and time? Was it complete in one act, or by stages?”

And Pope John Paul II wrote in 1986, “The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world, as presented in the Book of Genesis.” He was even stronger in 1996, in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, when he said that “the theory of evolution has a great deal of scientific basis.”

We should note, though, that Charles Darwin, when he first published his book The Origin of the Species in 1859, did not concern himself with the creation of the world, but with how human beings might have evolved. The first 50 pages of his book, in fact, are mainly about pigeons and how, through selective breeding, they could be made to develop certain characteristics.

His theory was that, through the process of natural selection, higher forms of life have, over a long period of time, evolved from lower forms. It’s possible, but certainly not proved, that humans evolved in that manner. If so, though, as Pope John Paul said, “The doctrine of faith invariably affirms that man’s spiritual soul is created directly by God.”

We also firmly believe that we did not evolve accidentally, as Darwin would have it. Whatever the process was by which we arrived at our present form, we did so through God’s intention.

We should also note that scientists are far from unanimous in accepting Darwin’s theory. Many biologists point out that, from the study of fossils from the Cambrian era about 550 million years ago, we have learned that species appear suddenly in a fully developed stage, change little or not at all, and then become extinct. There seems to be no scientific evidence that they evolve.

Therefore, it would seem appropriate, even in science classes, to teach students that the Darwinian theory is controversial and has never been proved, either through the study of fossils or through experimental breeding.

— John F. Fink

For more information about the Catholic approach to evolution, click here

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