Lest you think that Sophisticated Theology™ has fallen on hard times, here we have an article pondering at great and tedious length the immensely important question, “Did Christ die for Neanderthals?” That can be rephrased, according to author Simon Francis Gaine, as “Did the Neanderthals have immortal souls?” (The “OP” after his name stands for Ordinis Praedicatorum, meaning of the Order of Preacher in the Dominican sect of Catholicism.)
And he gets paid to write stuff like this; his biography gives his bona fides, include a degree from Oggsford:
Fr Simon is currently assigned to the Angelicum, Rome, where he teaches in the Theology Faculty of the Pontifical University of St Thomas. He lectures on the Theology of Grace and Christian Anthropology, and oversees the Faculty’s Doctoral Seminar.
Fr Simon holds the Pinckaers Chair in Theological Anthropology and Ethics in the Angelicum Thomistic Institute, of which he is also the Director. He is a member of the Advisory Board of Blackfriars’s Aquinas Institute, the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas, Rome, and the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
He studied theology at Oxford, and completed his doctorate in modern Catholic theology before joining the Dominican Order in 1995.
Click on the screenshot for a paradigmatic example of Sophisticated Theology™. The paper appeared in 2020 in New Blackfriars, a Wiley journal that’s apparently peer reviewed.
Here’s the Big Question:
I have no expertise in any of these sciences, but have tried as best I can to understand what they have to say, in order to take account of what they have to say within a theological framework. Today I am going to look at the Neanderthals and their relationship to us from a theological perspective in the Catholic tradition, asking what a disciple of St Thomas Aquinas should make of them. Are they to be counted among the humanity God created in his image and likeness and which fell into sin, or are they to be counted instead among the other animal species of our world represented in the first chapter of Genesis? Or are they something else? While creation itself is to be renewed through Christ at the last, according to Christian faith Christ is said to die for our trespasses, for our sins. So did Christ die for Neanderthals?
This comes down to the question, says Gaine, of whether Neanderthals had immortal souls, so we have to look for evidence of that. If they did, then they could be saved by Jesus, though since the Neanderthals’ demise antedated the appearance of Jesus by about 40,000 years, their souls must have lingered in somewhere like Purgatory (along with the souls of Aztecs and other pre-Christian believers) for millennia. Gaine does not take up the question of whether other hominins, like H. erectus or H. floresiensis, much less the Denisovans, also had souls.
Since we have no idea whether Neanderthals had immortal souls (indeed, we can’t be sure that anybody else has an immortal soul, since it’s like consciousness), we have to look for proxies for souls. The question is complicated by the fact that Neanderthals interbred with “modern” Homo sapiens, so that most of us carry some a few percent of Neanderthal genes in our genome.
To answer his question of whether Neanderthals are “theologically human” (i.e., whether they had immortal souls), Gaine turns to his hero Aquinas:
So were Neanderthals theologically human or not? I think the only way we can approach this question is to ask whether or not Neanderthals had immortal souls, as we do. But, apart from Christian teaching, how do we know that we even have such souls? We cannot just have a look at our immaterial souls, and Aquinas thought that we only know the character of our souls through what we do. Aquinas argues from the fact that we make intellectual acts of knowledge of things abstracted from their material conditions, to the immateriality of the intellectual soul. Our knowledge is not just of particulars but is universal, enabling pursuits like philosophy and science, and the potential to be elevated by God to supernatural knowledge and love of him. If human knowing were more limited to a material process, Aquinas does not think our souls would be such subsistent, immaterial souls. Finding evidence of intellectual flights throughout the history of sapiens is difficult enough, however, let alone in Neanderthals.
. . . What we need to look for in the case of Neanderthals is evidence of some behaviour that bears the mark of an intellectual soul such as we have.
And so an “intellectual soul” then becomes a proxy for the immortal soul, which is itself the proxy for whether you can be saved by Christ. Did Neanderthals have these? Gaine uses several lines of evidence to suggest that they did.
- Neanderthals buried their dead (religion!)
- Language. We don’t know if Neanderthals could speak, but they had a vocal apparatus similar to that of modern H. sapiens. Gaine concludes that they had language, though of course that’s pure speculation. But since when have Sophisticated Theologians™ bridled at usupported speculation?
- Neanderthals made cave paintings and may have adorned themselves with feathers and jewelry: signs of a “material culture” similar to H. sapiens.
And so he concludes, without saying so explicitly, that Neanderthals had immortal souls and were save-able by Christ. This supposedly allows us to use science to expand theology:
How though does any of this make a difference to theology in the tradition of Aquinas? If Neanderthals were created in God’s image and saved by Christ, this must expand our understanding of Christ’s ark of salvation and raise questions about how his saving grace was made available to them. Because the Church teaches that God offers salvation through Christ to every person in some way. theologians have often asked in recent times how this offer is made to those who have not heard the Gospel, members of other religions, and even atheists. It seems to me that, just as modern science has enlarged our sense of the physical universe, the inclusion of Neanderthals in theological humanity must somehow expand our sense of human salvation, given that it was effected in the kind of life Neanderthals lived.
. . . But even if Neanderthal inclusion does not pay immediate theological dividends, at least for apologetic reasons it seems necessary for theology to take account of their discovery. Unless theologians do, they risk the appearance of leaving faith and science in separately sealed worlds, as though our faith cannot cope with advancing human knowledge, leaving it culturally marooned and seemingly irrelevant to many. That is exactly the opposite of the attitude of Aquinas, who, confident that all truth comes from God, in his own day confirmed Christian wisdom by integrating into it what he knew of human science.’
But why stop at Neanderthals when you’re “expanding your faith through science”. There are lots of other hominins that must be considered (see below). Can we rule most of these out because they might not have had language?
And what about other mammals? In 2015 the great Sophisticated Catholic Theologians™ Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart argued about whether dogs can go to Heaven. (Hart said “yes,” while Feser said “no”, both of them furiously quoting Church Fathers like Aquinas to support their positions.)
These are tough questions, and of course to answer them theologians have to construct confected arguments based on casuistry. What amazes me is that people get paid to corrupt science with such ridiculous theological questions. It is unsupported speculation about unevidenced empirical assertions.