Below is part of a short post called “What does the Catholic Church teach about evolution,” appearing on The Catholic Difference, produced by the Parish of St. James in Hopewell, Virginia—very close to where I went to school in Williamsburg. This is pretty much official Catholic doctrine as I understand it. The emphasis in the second paragraph is mine.
Doesn’t the theory of evolution go against the biblical account of creation?
This question can be answered only if we understand clearly what the Bible actually says about creation. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis indicates clearly that the so-called “six day” account of the creation is a poetic description of the origin of the world, which makes two points very clear: first, that everything in the universe was created by God and that, therefore, contrary to what some other religions teach, nothing in creation is to be worshipped as though it were a god or a part of God. The story of the creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a scientific document giving the scientific details of how the universe came into being and how it has developed since its origins.
The view prevailing among most theologians today is that there is no conflict between the evolution model of the origin and development of life and the truths presented in the Book of Genesis. It still remains true that the origin of every human soul is a new act of creation by God and creator. (That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person.)
A few points:
1. They use the old canard that Genesis wasn’t meant to be a “scientific document giving scientific details.” I wish they’d just be explicit and say “Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken as literal truth: it’s an allegory.” That goes for the whole Bible, which is often excused by theologians as “not a textbook of science.” But if the Bible is an allegory (i.e., an extended metaphor), are there any parts of it that are true? Tell us, Catholics, which ones? And how do you know?
And if it’s “very clear” that Genesis is mere poetry and not fact, why do roughly half of Americans feel otherwise? Where does it say in Genesis: “WARNING: The following book is allegory, and is not intended as a representation of fact. DO NOT CONSTRUE IT OTHERWISE.”? It’s curious that Church fathers such as Aquinas and Augustine, who were presumably very careful readers of Genesis, did construe much of it as fact!
2. The Catholic Church certainly does not see all of Genesis as an allegory. Church doctrine is still that all modern humans descend from Adam and Eve, the sole ancestors of humanity. Science tells us that that is wrong: that the bottleneck of the Homo sapiens lineage was around twelve thousand people, not two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his extended family). Now how Adam and Eve continue to relate to Original Sin is something for Catholic fabulists to decide. If the Church maintains, as they still do, that Adam and Eve were the only two ancestors of humanity, then they are in clear conflict with science. If they agree that Adam and Eve were made-up metaphors, then either Jesus died for that metaphor or Catholics must confect a new story about where “original sin” came from. This is a severe problem for Catholicism.
3. Before genetics definitively ruled out Adam and Eve, the one big conflict between Catholicism and evolution was the Church’s insistence that somewhere in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens, a soul was inserted by God. Not only that, but each new human being involves God creating a new soul.
Of course what a soul consists of isn’t defined explicitly, but its insertion is a violation of naturalistic evolution. A soul is obviously something that distinguishes us from all other species, and is presumably something connected to the possibility of an afterlife. But the statement above implies that it’s also something deeply connected with the human ability to be “conscious” and to “think,” “feel,” and “decide.”
Well, some animals can do all that, but they don’t have souls. And all of those mentations can be explained by evolution, for we see them in our soul-less relatives. No, I thought a soul was something more than that. To Alvin Plantinga, the human trait that cannot be explained by evolution is the “sensus dvinitatis,” the ability to apprehend truth that leads us to perceive and worship God. Plantinga argues, falsely, that humans’ ability to perceive truth is something that also couldn’t have evolved, though I don’t think he’d see the sensus as a soul. I won’t go into detail about how our ability to perceive truth (and our inability to perceive many truths) can be explained by natural selection, with no God needed. I’ve done that here, and I do that in my book.
It’s time for Catholics to tell us precisely what they mean by “soul,” and how they know that our species has it but other creatures don’t. Maybe they’ve done this, but I’m not about to go digging into the theological literature again. All I know is that they haven’t specified exactly when God put it into the human lineage.
4. Please, religionists, if you do accept evolution, stop calling it a “model”! That is a term that creationists used when opposing the “creation model” with the “evolution model.” Call evolution either a “theory” or a “fact.” It’s far from just a model.