The Vatican still refuses to endorse evolutionary theory – setting a billion believers at odds with modern science
By John Farrell 8 May 2015
There was a moment in the recent history of the Roman Catholic Church when an influential Jesuit tried to forge a deep synthesis between religion and modern science. But he was muzzled by the Vatican, and Catholics have been paying for it ever since.
Sunday 10 April was the 60th anniversary of the death of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the priest-paleontologist who struggled to reconcile his beloved Catholic faith with evolution, but failed. Though born and educated in France, Teilhard was exiled for most of his adult life from his native country, and neither his Jesuit superiors nor the officials at the Vatican ever allowed him to publish a single word of his theological reflections on the challenge of Darwinian evolution and what it meant for Christian beliefs: letting go of the majestic but static medieval cosmos of Dante, where Earth was poised perilously between the timeless vault of Heaven above and the abyss of Hell below.
Teilhard laid out the most ambitious synthesis of Christianity and evolution by a Catholic scholar up to that time. His view was truly cosmic, embedding humanity in a dynamic universe whose evolutionary direction from the very beginning of life on Earth was groping its way towards consciousness. In his view, the evolution of consciousness in humanity was but a first step toward the entire cosmos achieving its own universal consciousness, or what he termed an Omega Point.
This optimistic vision hardly inspired Teilhard’s fellow scientists. In a brutal assessment in 1961 , the British Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Sir Peter Medawar wrote that the greater part of Teilhard’s ideas were nonsense, ‘tricked out with a variety of metaphysical conceits, and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself’.
Many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy agreed, but for different reasons. Teilhard incurred the particular displeasure of Rome because he suggested that the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and their Fall from grace as the ultimate origin and explanation for evil in the world, needed to be reinterpreted. Once you adopted an evolutionary perspective, Teilhard argued, evil can be considered a natural feature of the world – a sort of inevitable secondary effect of the creation process itself. As for the age-old belief in a founding couple and an act of disobedience that universally brought sin and death into the world? It was no longer necessary, or even credible, in his view.
In 1950, five years before Teilhard’s death, Pope Pius XII issued the Vatican’s first – and to date, only – official comments on evolution. Here the pope reiterated the Church’s commitment to belief in a historical Adam as the unique father all of humanity, and the man responsible for transmitting sin to the entire species. He did accept, in a provisional sense, the legitimacy of scientific research into the material origins of the human body, but he rejected explicitly the ‘opinion’ that modern humans could have descended from a founding population rather than a single pair.
For as long as he lived, Teilhard’s work was suppressed by the Congregation of the Index, the Vatican office that collaborated with the Holy Office (formerly known as the Inquisition) in monitoring books. After he died, his friends and students began publishing his work – but the Church’s position on evolution remained grudging and reserved.
Indeed, when it comes to human evolution, the Vatican of 2015 is stuck in a time warp, unable to integrate the explosion of new knowledge about humanity’s origins and its potential future into a meaningful narrative for the Catholic Church, whose 1.2 billion members worldwide look to it for guidance in a changing world.
Large parts of the world are becoming vastly more secular. Do we know how to replace the benefits offered by religion?
The inability to adapt to basic knowledge is a monumental failure on the part of Rome and its theologians, one that, in the prophetic words of the late Pope John Paul II, can only lead to the continuing fragmentation of human culture – not to mention the fragmentation of the Church itself. In fact, refusal to accept the findings of science threatens the Church and its membership not just in Europe and the US (where one in 10 of every Americans is already an ex-Catholic), but in Latin America, Asia and Africa, in almost every populated part of the Earth.
If the Vatican were not a powerhouse, it wouldn’t mean much. But without a more rigorous integration of science into theology, the Church is hobbling its ability to serve as a voice of clarity in worldwide debates about climate change, genetically modified crops, vaccinating children, and the controversial nature of assisted reproductive technologies, including human cloning.
It’s true that rhetoric from the Vatican often paints a more congenial picture when it comes to the compatibility of faith and evolution. Pope Francis recently declared that: ‘Evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.’ But this is really an obfuscation, fooling some optimists into thinking that the Vatican has genuinely moved forward.
“ironically, Darwin’s own book never made it to the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books”
In reality, the Church has been on the wrong side of history ever since the 17th century when Galileo was brought up on charges by the Inquisition for defying the pope and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859), some bold theologians sought to reconcile those ideas with Christianity, arguing that, as long as Catholics retained the notion of humanity’s exalted status as a special creation of God, there was nothing wrong with accepting the notion of the world having been created through a gradual process of evolution, as Darwin had outlined. Their efforts were quickly muzzled, although the Church was careful not to repeat its highly publicised mistreatment of Galileo. Between the years 1878 and 1899, books on evolution and Christianity by Father Raffaello Caverni in Italy, Father Dalmace Leroy in France and Father John Zahm in the US were censured. Caverni’s book was placed on the Church’s Index of Prohibited Books. (Ironically, Darwin’s own book never made it onto the list.) Leroy and Zahm’s books escaped the Index, but they were both forced to retract them.
A decade after de Chardin’s death almost a century later, the Dominican priest and scientist Raymond J Nogar in the US reflected ruefully on the damage done to the Church by the silencing of the priest-scientist. ‘The matter would simply be pitiful or laughable,’ Nogar wrote in Lord of the Absurd, ‘if it were not for the fact that censorship within the Christian theological tradition… still has the power of cutting off a man’s life work and delivering his final years to the melancholy of failure.’
Today, popular attitudes toward evolution and religion take three forms, and the Vatican sits uneasily between two of them. The first, and most widely touted in recent years by prominent atheists, is that science in general and evolution in particular have completely debunked the claims of the major monotheistic religions.
The second, what might be called the deist alternative, acknowledges that Darwinian evolution undermines key beliefs of Christianity but is completely compatible with a generally theistic view of the cosmos, one that owes its creation to a God who is content to wind up the clock, as it were, launch the Big Bang, and let the Universe run by itself. This view does not embrace the traditional understanding of a benevolent deity who takes a personal interest in human history and answers people’s prayers. But it’s a middle ground between atheism and theism – and it tends to annoy atheists as much as it does religious traditionalists.
The third position, one embraced by many fundamentalist Christians and more conservative adherents of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, is the frank rejection of science where and when it directly contradicts Christian doctrine or scripture, such as the belief that God created the world in six days, the story of Noah and the flood, or that Adam and Eve were the first parents of the entire human race.
For ample reasons, the Vatican is unwilling to embrace this third option. It has long had a proud tradition of balancing faith with reason, as in the classic works of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. It is clear, however, that when it comes to evolution, Rome is not sure how to find a way to balance a continued support for the Catholic tradition and the consensus of science.
But such a way must be found. In 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote a remarkable letter to the head of the Vatican Observatory. It was a document later made public and can still be found on the Vatican’s website, though few really appreciate its audacity. The late pontiff not only found evolution to be compatible with Christianity, he directly challenged Catholic theologians to mine the science of evolution for deeper insights into the human condition.
‘Do we dare to risk the honesty and the courage that this task demands?’ he wrote. ‘We must ask ourselves whether both science and religion will contribute to the integration of human culture or to its fragmentation. It is a single choice and it confronts us all.’
He wondered whether an evolutionary perspective could bring new light to bear upon what the Church has always taught to be the special status of the human person, made, as the Bible states, in the image and likeness of God. A few years later, the Pope made worldwide headlines – and also irked many Catholic conservatives – when he publicly declared that evolution was more than just a hypothesis. ‘It is indeed remarkable,’ he said, ‘that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favour of this theory.’
“how should people in the pews harmonise their faith with the modern evolutionary view of the world?”
Blander acknowledgements of evolution’s importance have come from the mouths of both Pope Benedict XVI and more recently Pope Francis. The media often has a field day with such utterances, but they have little impact on official Church doctrine. There’s the rub: the Church’s official manual of Catholic beliefs, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, simply does not discuss evolution. Where the Catechism does mention science, it’s usually to affirm in bland terms how scientific discoveries can inspire people to appreciate ‘the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers’.
But that’s the extent of engagement. The Catechism has nothing to say on questions such as: What are Catholics today to make of genomics? Of the recent discovery that humans interbred with more than one vanished lineage of early hominins such as the Neanderthals? And where do Adam and Eve fit in this picture? It makes no acknowledgment of what genetics and paleoanthropology have determined about the physical origins of the earliest populations of modern humans and how this squares with belief in a single founding couple.
And there are members of the Church hierarchy who simply don’t want to address these questions, including one of the leading co-editors of the Catechism. Not long after John Paul II died in 2005, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times Magazine that the pontiff’s endorsement of evolution was ‘vague and unimportant’, and he explicitly denied that evolution occurred according to Darwinian theory. Many Catholics in the US seem to be following his lead: according to a 2013 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey taken within the US, 26 per cent of white Catholics and 31 per cent of Hispanic Catholics believe humans have existed in their present state since the beginning of time.
What is more, several leading proponents of the ‘intelligent design’ pseudo-science movement in the US are Catholics. This includes Bruce Chapman who heads the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based think tank that not only promotes intelligent design as a supposedly credible alternative to evolution, but repeatedly denigrates the scientific consensus in self-published books, articles and videos – and attacks the very methodology of modern science itself. Their writings are often cited and picked up by parish bulletins throughout the US (including churches in my home town, Newton, MA).
Monsignor Tomasz Trafny, director of the Vatican’s Science and Faith Foundation, is all too familiar with this creationist strain within the ranks of believers. In our discussion, he dismissed intelligent design as a sad hybrid of bad science, philosophy and theology. But he could not tell me whether Pope Francis might soon weigh in with a more official acceptance of evolution.
‘We provide the cultural analysis of the development of the natural sciences,’ he said. ‘My job is to look for those discoveries or for research – whatever is made in the scientific environment – that can be relevant for philosophical or theological or simply the cultural dimension.’ This pertains primarily to biotechnology and bioethics. The same goes for the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, whose president Werner Arber told me that it arranges meetings but plays no role in advising the pontiff on how the Church should treat evolutionary theory.
Father Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, an astrophysicist teaching theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, has expressed far more concern. In addition to his teaching duties and his own research, Tanzella-Nitti edits an online database called The Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science. If his team’s efforts are to be judged purely on the basis of the extensive entry on evolution, the site is first-rate. Not only is its historical account of the development of Darwin’s ideas excellent, but also its attention to the mechanisms other than natural selection.
Over the past decade and more, Tanzella-Nitti has been a rather lonely voice, arguing in lectures and books that Catholic theology must incorporate more scientific insight if it’s to have any lasting impact.
‘To be convinced of how relevant this issue is,’ he writes, ‘it would suffice to think how deep is the need to propose a language on God that may sound more meaningful to today’s people, whose culture is shaped by scientific rationality. The implications in the pastoral domain are obvious to all.’
“how can the continuity of evolution be reconciled with God’s creation of human beings in one miraculous event?”
It is a real challenge, according to William Carroll, a theology professor at Oxford: ‘How do we then speak of man being created in the image and likeness of God, if man is simply a biological and chemical continuity with all the rest of nature?’ he asked me.
Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun and director of Catholic Studies at Georgetown University, suggests that the notion of an immortal soul, in its classical formulation at least, is difficult to reconcile with evolutionary theory. ‘Teilhard de Chardin described evolution as a “biological ascent” from matter to spirit, a movement toward more complex life forms,’ she writes in The Emergent Christ (2011). But from the beginning, Teilhard insisted that spirit is present, even in lifeless matter. There’s no absolute separation between the two.
With doctorates in pharmacology and historical theology, Delio has written several books on the interface between science and religion, most recently editing the collection From Teilhard to Omega: Co‑creating an Unfinished Universe (2014). In her view, theologians need to forge a deeper synthesis between the science and the faith, but almost all of them tacitly accept the old cosmos of the medieval church, the old view of spirit and matter as completely distinct.
‘When I ask theologians,’ she told me, ‘many of them say to me: “Oh… I don’t have time to read on science. I’m not a trained scientist, I would have to take a sabbatical and read up.”’ Few want to venture outside of their comfort zone. An exception is one of her colleagues at Georgetown: the theologist John Haught, author of Deeper Than Darwin (2003), and Making Sense of Evolution (2010).
“If Catholic theologians took seriously the Universe as a drama still unfolding, they could rekindle people’s sense of hope for the future”
Haught sees himself as picking up where Teilhard left off. In his view, the problem of the immortal soul and the physical body being distinct entities is a holdover from old theology, which tends to divide reality between the eternity of Heaven and the time-bound vicissitudes of life on Earth. Such a view, Haught told me, is almost destined to see the human being as a lonely exile.
‘It’s a beautiful story,’ he admitted. ‘The problem is it leaves out the dramatic history of the development of humans from the Big Bang up until today.’ And that story is not over, he said. Not by a long shot. If Catholic theologians would take seriously the fact that the Universe is a drama still unfolding, and that we are a key part of the drama, they could rekindle people’s sense of hope for the future.
There has to be hope, Haught says, or theology is meaningless. In a universe that is still evolving, still not finished, there is a real sense of an open-ended future – and with that comes hope, and freedom. That has to be part of theology if it’s going to be relevant to people today.
None of Haught’s or Delio’s work is getting any official encouragement from the Church hierarchy. But neither are they being censured. Indeed, Delio believes that the Vatican is making a greater effort to listen, and she appreciates the work of Trafny’s office. ‘It will listen to all the latest scientific insights. It will bring in quantum physicists and astronomers; it’s done some wonderful publications.’
But more is needed than academic discussions and publishing, she said. ‘We need a new way to actually implement some of these things.’ In Delio’s view, the Church is still too much of a closed system, unable to evolve and adapt to its environment. But she feels optimistic that Pope Francis is trying to steer it in this direction, at least in terms of making the Vatican’s operations more transparent.
Since the Galileo debacle, the Church has been more accepting when it comes to physics and the other hard sciences. These are ‘safe’ areas. What happens in the Universe outside of Earth has little impact on doctrinal questions. The science behind the Big Bang is largely congenial to the religious view that the world had a beginning in time. And the successive stages of cosmological development suggest a goal-directedness about the Universe that fits comfortably with Catholic doctrine.
Evolution is different: biology is messy. The lines between species in the long extinction-ridden, trial-and-error aeons of evolution are much fuzzier than textbook diagrams of the ‘tree of life’ suggest. And the more we learn about the contingencies involved in the evolution of life, the less and less privileged the human species seems to be.
How are such facts to be incorporated into the faith? How are they to be treated? A new papal encyclical? Pope Francis has already got conservatives worried about his upcoming encyclical on the environment. Is he the pope to finally write a new Letter on Darwin and the Church? Would the Vatican officially mothball its vague and embarrassing disclaimer on Teilhard’s work? Would it consider whether the French Jesuit is a candidate for sainthood?
Perhaps in the end, the Vatican cannot integrate evolutionary science because it really is too threatening. It would require a thoughtful reinterpretation of the Church’s understanding of the doctrine of original sin – the fundamental idea that Adam and Eve’s epic act of disobedience wounded human nature for all who came after. Theologians from St Paul and St Augustine down to the present day have viewed the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as God’s ultimate response – the redemption for this sin.
Can such a theology be maintained within an evolutionary understanding of human origins? The few, scattered Catholic theologians exploring the issue largely believe that it can. But the Vatican’s long silence on the question suggests that it doesn’t agree.
And there’s a price to be paid for stalling. Millions of people are walking away from the Church. Not just because of the clerical abuse scandal, and not just because of disagreement over points of morality such as gay marriage or abortion. But because the Church no longer speaks to people in a way that is meaningful to humanity in this scientific age.
The result is a slow but steady implosion. The Church is slowly collapsing from within, in a sort of progressive diminution. ‘Instead of evolving, it is devolving,’ Delio writes, ‘its very presence is thinning out to the extent that in some areas of the world, such as parts of western Europe, it is dissolving into history.’
The Church has accepted the Big Bang, the start of the world’s evolutionary journey – but this isn’t enough. It must follow in Teilhard’s footsteps. Unless it embraces not just the evolution of the Universe, but the evolution of all life, including humans, and reclaims a truly cosmic view in which the faith makes sense, the Church is pulling the wool over its own eyes as its people continue to file out the door.