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August/September 2006

Evolution as Heresy?

FRANK M. REGA, S.F.O.

"Science, my son, for all its greatness, is still an inferior thing; it is less than nothing when compared to the formidable mystery of Divinity."
- Padre Pio

In an address by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996, entitled "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth,"(1) the Holy Father made this controversial statement: "...new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis."

This assertion greatly inflamed many in the anti-evolution camp, who felt that it set back the causes of creationism and "intelligent design," which had been making great headway.

Natural selection within species

However, one aspect of evolutionary theory is "natural selection", and in certain limited cases dealing with changes within a species, natural selection is in fact "more than a hypothesis."

For example, some studies have shown that beak sizes in finches can vary depending on selection due to environmental factors.

The same phenomenon of variation has been found in classical studies of the survival value of changes in wing coloration of peppered moths.

Yet, in the end, we still have finches and peppered moths. The changes are due to natural selection and the environment acting on variations in the genetic information within members of a species.

Common evolutionary descent

However, the aspect of evolutionary theory that is most often questioned and debated is the supposition of "common evolutionary descent."

It is questionable because there is no experimental, scientific proof that one species or family has descended from another. It is merely a hypothesis, and has not progressed beyond this stage for a century and a half.

The term evolution in this essay will refer to this concept of common evolutionary descent.

Unproven hypothesis

In recent years the work of scientists who employ intelligent design theory has effectively debunked the notion of neo-Darwinism, i.e. evolution of new species arising from the interaction of natural selection, the environment, and genetic changes primarily due to mutations.

Among the active pioneers in the intelligent design community are the London-educated Michael Denton, and the Americans William Dembski, and Michael Behe, a Catholic.

Nevertheless, the new developments that have effectively challenged neo-Darwinism have not prevented evolutionists from brazenly referring to their model as the "fact of evolution."

But evolutionary descent can be labelled neither a fact, nor as "more than a hypothesis", since it has never been scientifically proven that higher animals and plants developed from other species or simpler forms of life. Controlled laboratory experiments on genetic mutations have failed to produce evidence of new species evolution or even an "improved version" of an existing species.

"Theistic evolution" anomalies

Unfortunately, evolution is still uncritically accepted as true by large segments of the Catholic population. Perhaps some are so apprehensive of another Galileo incident that they bend over backwards to accommodate evolution theory to religion. Thus the compromise of "theistic evolution" is embraced, whereby God somehow used or permitted evolutionary descent to be the mechanism of creation.

Speculation along this line of thought is permissible to a believing Catholic, as detailed in the encyclical Humani Generis issued by His Holiness Pope Pius XII. The encyclical explains that in light of the current (1950) state of opinions on evolution by scientists and theologians, it is permissible to discuss and explore the possibility of "…the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter - for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God."(2)

In the more than half a century since then, and in the century and a half since Darwin, the discussion of the possibility of human descent from lower animals has been ongoing, and it still remains no more than an unproven hypothetical possibility.

Theistic evolutionists who have accepted the false premise of the "fact" of evolution, must try to reconcile it with their Christian faith, but cannot do so without diluting that very faith.

For example, they must come to terms with the Biblical teaching that God created man not only with an immortal soul, but with a body that was not subject to death – a death which entered into the world with the fall of Adam. "Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned" (Romans 5:12).(3)

And from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1008): "Death is a consequence of sin. The Church’s Magisterium, as authentic interpreter of the affirmations of Scripture and Tradition, teaches that death entered the world on account of man’s sin."

Further, the book of Wisdom seems to indicate that initially no living beings of any kind were subject to death: "For God made not death, neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living. For he created all things that they might be" (Wisdom 1: 13,14).

Yet, the proponents of theistic evolution maintain that God used survival of the fittest, violence, death, and natural selection, in order to create creatures by an evolutionary process. Therefore they must explain and reconcile with scripture the issue of how beasts who fought, killed and ate each other for survival, eventually evolved to such a state of perfection that God saw fit to impart to humans an immortal soul and an indestructible body. "For God created man incorruptible, and to the image of his own likeness he made him" (Wisdom 2: 23).

Confused astronomer

There are a number of other serious problems that become evident in examining the evolution issue from a Catholic standpoint.

Some excellent examples of these difficulties, and of what can happen to one’s concept of God as a result of accommodating evolution to Catholicism, are apparent in a recent address by Father George V. Coyne S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory. He gave a talk affirming the "fact" of evolution in January 2006 entitled "Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution," delivered at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida (USA).(4)

The reasons he presents for defending, explaining, and justifying evolution are actually the very reasons why evolution theory is a pitfall of dangerous assumptions for Catholics.

It seems that his talk is primarily a vehicle to present his objections to an article in the New York Times by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (July 7, 2005).

In this Op-ed piece, entitled "Finding Design In Nature," the Cardinal explicitly denies that evolution is "somehow compatible with Christian faith." He writes that
"evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection ..." is not true. In speaking of evolution as an overall system of thought and ideology that seeks to "explain away" evidence of design in nature, he writes: "... scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity’ are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence."
(5)

Schönborn’s paper does not address the theory of "intelligent design," per se. Rather, he asserts that by the light of reason alone, as the Church proclaims, "... the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things."

Fr. Coyne enumerates, in his talk, five reasons why he considers the stance of Cardinal Schönborn against evolution to be incorrect, "... the cardinal is in error on at least five fundamental issues...."

Following is a brief description of Fr. Coyne’s arguments, and the reasons why each of them is invalid.

I

The first point he makes is that evolution is "completely neutral with respect to religious thinking." By this he is of course implying that intelligent design is not religiously neutral. But, as those active in the field emphasize, intelligent design theory makes no statement as to who or what is responsible for such design, and makes no assumptions whatsoever about religion. Since the scientific hypothesis that there is design and purpose in the universe does not concern itself with religious viewpoints, it is as neutral in this respect as is evolution theory.

II

Fr. Coyne’s second disagreement with the cardinal’s views cites the talk of John Paul II wherein he noted that evolution is "more than a hypothesis." However, as we have shown above, only in limited areas of natural selection have findings been verified as more than a hypothesis. Further, the Holy Father does not give blanket approval to all of the theory of evolution.

III

Fr. Coyne’s third objection is interesting because he first contends that Neo-Darwinian evolution is not the "unplanned process of random variation and natural selection" that Cardinal Schönborn says it is. He then proceeds later in his talk to present his own version of evolution theory (not standard Neo-Darwinism), in which randomness combines with "necessity" and "fertility."

Fertility is apparently described by the following: "The universe has a certain vitality of its own like a child does. It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement." He states that, "God is working with the universe", but then describes evolution as a process in which God does not directly intervene: "God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves."

Thus we have a God that does not intervene in his own creation – this is quite a surprising statement in light of the Incarnation, which was quite an intervention! Regarding randomness and necessity, we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 295): "We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance."

IV

His fourth objection to Cardinal Schönborn merely begs the question, since Fr. Coyne pre-supposes the validity of the evolutionary process: "... the apparent directionality seen by science in the evolutionary process does not require a designer...."

However, this objection is in contradiction to the words of Pope John Paul II, in his talk before a general audience July 10,1985 and cited by Schönborn. "This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator."

In this same catechesis, the Holy Father also adds, "To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements, and such a marvellous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be an abdication of human intelligence which would thus refuse to think, to seek a solution for its problems." (6)

Fr. Coyne emerges as a lonely figure standing on very thin ice when he asserts that the directionality evidenced in nature does not oblige consideration of an intelligent designer.

V

His fifth objection is that "... Intelligent Design is not science...."

This time he is essentially correct; since it is not a science, it is a theory, a way of conducting scientific investigation. It predicts that if there is an organic structure it must have a purpose, and determining its purpose can be the object of scientific investigation.

Evolution theory, on the contrary, makes no assumption that a natural structure has a purpose, since such a structure might be a vestigial leftover from an evolutionary ancestor, or an anomaly that persisted by chance even though it had no survival value.

Therefore evolution is not a useful tool for scientific prediction, while intelligent design, on the other hand, predicts that a use will be found for any living structure found in nature. In fact, almost all of the bodily parts that evolutionists once considered as vestigial human organs or structures have been found to have a purpose.

Non-interventionist and needless God

Fr. Coyne’s talk presents a useful example of how one’s understanding of God is affected by attempts to reconcile the precepts of evolution with long-standing tenets of the Faith.

The net conclusion of his modified theory of evolution as a combination of necessity, chance and fertility is, as he remarks, a God who does not intervene in the "lottery" of evolution:

"For 13.7 billion years the universe has been playing at the lottery .... A good example of a chance event would be two very simple molecules wandering about in the universe. They happen to meet one another and, when they do, they would love to make a more complex molecule because that is the nature of these molecules ... as this process goes on and more complex molecules develop, there is more and more direction to this process…. In such wise did the human brain come to be and it is still evolving."

He adds, "...it would be scientifically absurd to deny that the human brain is a result of a process of chemical complexification in an evolving universe."

In contrast to this wandering lottery of molecules and chemically evolving human brains, is the Word of God.

To quote just two of many relevant passages:

"By the word of the Lord the heavens were established; and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth: Gathering together the waters of the sea, as in a vessel; laying up the depths in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord, and let all the inhabitants of the world be in awe of him. For he spoke and they were made: he commanded and they were created" (Psalm 32: 6-9).

"I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven and earth, and all that is in them: and consider that God made them out of nothing, and mankind also" (II Machabees 7:28).

Not only does Fr. Coyne propose a non-interventionist God, he also questions the absolute need for God: "Do we need God to explain this [the origin of life]? Very succinctly my answer is no. In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need." And further on: "We should not need God; we should accept her/him when he comes to us."

No need for God? Citing only one scripture verse of the plethora available: "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15: 4,5). Who else can forgive us our sins? Who else answers our prayers?

Slave to science

Further, his concern for taking "modern science seriously" causes him to minimize the vision of the truly personal God that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Although he makes mention of "the personal God I have described," Fr. Coyne then goes on to write: "We can only come to know God by analogy. The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive an analogical knowledge of God."

It is wonderful to learn that modern science can teach us something about God, even if only by analogy. However, as Catholics and Christians we know God independently of science, because he has revealed himself to us in the Incarnation, in scripture, through the sacraments, particularly Baptism and Confirmation where we receive the Holy Spirit, and most especially through the Holy Eucharist. "And we know that the Son of God is come: and he hath given us understanding that we may know the true God, and may be in his true Son. This is the true God and life eternal" (1 John 5:20).

Furthermore, when we receive his Body and Blood, Jesus comes to us in reality, and not merely by analogy. "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him" (1 John 6: 57).

Evolving beyond Christ?

This reference to the Eucharistic Body and Blood leads to the crux of the present paper, which is to identify some of the problems and issues that revolve around the relation of the evolution of the human body to the humanity of Jesus.

Once again Fr. Coyne’s talk supplies a controversial statement that brings up the first of these issues.

Discussing the process of evolution, which he considers to be ongoing, he says, "In such wise did the human brain come to be and it is still evolving." That is, creation by means of evolution (randomness, necessity, and fertility) is a continuing process, and included is the evolution of the human being. Without belabouring how this obviously conflicts with the completed six-days of creation described in Genesis, another more subtle problem arises.

Approximately two thousand years ago, Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnated as a human being, the most perfect of all human beings in all aspects, including his flesh, mind, and brain. This same Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven in his glorified body.

According to Fr. Coyne and any others who accept his position, our earthly human bodies will eventually evolve into something superior to what they now are. This would mean that some future human being would have a humanity superior to the flesh that clothed the Son of God in his Incarnation.

But any proposal by a Catholic evolutionist that the human brain or body is still continuing to evolve is in conflict with, for example, this declaration of faith of the Council of Chalcedon:

"We declare that he [Jesus Christ] is perfect both in his divinity and in his humanity, truly God and truly man composed of body and rational soul; that he is consubstantial with the Father in his divinity, consubstantial with us in his humanity, like us in every respect except for sin."(7)

Therefore, it would seem impossible for the Church to ever be able to accept any theory of bodily evolution that allows for a future human being to have a body superior to, or essentially different from, the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Adam’s sub-human parents?

Next comes the problem of the origin of Adam. (In all fairness to Fr. Coyne, it should be noted that this and the subsequent issues were not addressed in his talk.)

The Church in conformity with Sacred Scripture has always taught that Adam was the first man. However, the Catholic evolutionist, while admitting that Adam was the first human and even admitting a special creation of Eve, would have to provide Adam with some sort of parents of flesh and blood. But these parents of course could not themselves be of the race of "man," and they could not have had rational human souls.

In other words, Adam’s parents would have to be sub-human hominids that gave birth to the first true human being.

The third chapter of Luke presents a genealogy of the Messiah, tracing his roots back in time. For the earliest ages, the last verse describing the ancestral line is "Who was of Henos, who was of Seth, who was of Adam, who was of God" (Luke 3:38).

The evolutionist requires other non-human members of this family tree in order to bridge the gap between Adam and God. As the tree is extended further back in time, Adam’s ancestors are not even hominids, but other mammals, then more primitive creatures, perhaps birds, reptiles, amphibians, and finally fish – or whatever version of evolutionary descent is currently in vogue.

Further, these lower animals progressed to the level of human beings by their ability to survive. According to this premise of survival of the fittest, these creatures passed on to future generations the various genetic adaptations which enabled them to hunt, kill, and eat their prey more efficiently than their neighbouring jungle denizens.

These then, according to the Christian evolutionist, are the ancestors of Jesus Christ. This conclusion should not be taken to imply that there is something "evil" or negative about matter in itself; rather it points out some of the awkward implications of theistic evolution that its advocates must admit are necessary to their theory.

Our Lady’s beastial heritage?

There are still other extremely important reasons why it is distressing to hear Catholic intellectuals allege that evolution is compatible with Catholicism.

Let us focus a little closer on the humanity of Jesus by considering the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of the God-Man, Jesus Christ.

The Virgin Mary announced at Lourdes to St. Bernadette, "I am the Immaculate Conception." She was and is immaculate, sinless and pure in both body and soul.

Consider further our devotion to her Immaculate Heart. At the Church approved apparitions of Fatima in 1917, Our Lady revealed to the seers, "... God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart ... I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart." And, perhaps most importantly, "In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph."(8)

Theistic evolutionists would have to acknowledge that through the line of Adam’s supposed evolutionary descent, this purest and most perfect woman’s ancestors must be traced to half-human, half-beast primitive creatures.

In simpler and more shockingly blunt terms (at the risk of sounding harsh and crude – but this needs to be brought out): as part of God’s plan of guided evolution, the great great .... great great grandfather of the Blessed Virgin Mary would have to be gorilla, monkey or lemur of the jungle, or an even more primitive ape-human common ancestor!

These creatures would not only be progenitors of human flesh in terms of genetic development, but would also be ancestors in terms of the progressive evolution of their psychological makeup. Those who support theistic evolution cannot escape the fact that such is the necessary and logical conclusion of their beliefs.

This is not to deny the possibility of such descent, whose final cause would be the will of God, since this is the meaning that some give to the "slime" of the earth from which man was formed (Genesis: 2: 6). However, those who accept this view must be prepared to admit the existence of a sub-human, pre-Adamic genealogy for the genetic origins not only of man in general but of the House of David, the Holy Family, and in particular the Eucharistic Jesus.

Evolution as heresy

At the Incarnation, the body of Jesus was taken from Mary’s flesh, and we receive this same Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord into our own bodies when we consume the Eucharistic species. The argument for common evolutionary descent entails the proposition that the flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Precious Body and Blood of Jesus are ultimately derived from primitive ancestral animals and lower life forms, which killed and ate each other. Are we then to say that the Body and Blood of our Saviour, which we receive at Holy Mass, is the flesh (albeit now glorified) of someone whose mother’s distant ancestors included monkeys, reptiles and the lowest creatures?

Yet, this disturbing conclusion is an inescapable result of the position taken by those who advocate any sort of human evolution. Even if such concepts can be rationalized, there is an innate offensiveness in such thoughts and images on a devotional level.

Such are the issues that a truly theological analysis of theistic evolution must address and satisfactorily resolve before evolution could ever be said to be compatible with the Catholic Faith. The response of common sense, however, is to view such ideas as unthinkable and perhaps even blasphemous.

Although it is now permissible according to Church teaching to freely discuss the hypothetical evolution of the human body, one may legitimately pose the following question: is it not possible that the concepts of common evolutionary descent and theistic evolution might one day be considered heretical?

For example, the Incarnation of Christ in time seems to eliminate, at least on theological grounds, the proposition that the human body is continuing to evolve.

Secondly, since "death" is an integral part of the process of evolution, the burden of proof is on the theistic evolutionist to explain why the author of life (Acts 3:15) would use death and killing over eons of time in order to "create" human beings.

Finally, how could the Church ever maintain that the Body and Blood of Jesus, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25), which we receive in the Holy Eucharist, is the same humanity whose "creation" was the result of a fatalistic combination of natural selection, randomness, mutations, and a cruel impersonal process of birth, death, destruction and killing, in order to perfect the most efficient survival machine?

"In him was life, and the life was the light of men" - John 1:4.


FOOTNOTES:

(1) Pope John Paul II, "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth," Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996, www.newadvent.or/library/docs_jp02tc.htm

(2) Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, Encyclical of August 12, 1950.

(3) Biblical Quotations use the Douay Rheims version with Challoner revisions, online version.

(4) Coyne, Fr. George V., S.J., "Science Does Not Need God. Or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution," January 30, 2006, www.catholic.or/national/national_story.php?id=18504.

(5) Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, "Finding Design in Nature," New York Times, July 7, 2005. (Reprinted in CO, October 2005)

(6) Pope John Paul II, "Proofs for God’s Existence are many and Convergent," General Audience of Wednesday, July 10, 1985, www.its.caltech.edu/~nmcenter/sci-cp/sci85071.html.

(7)The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation, Jesuit Fathers of St. Mary’s College, St. Marys, Kansas, 1973, TAN Books and Publishers, p. 172.

(8) Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World, Donal Foley, Gracewing, Leominster, 2002, pp. 238-243.

 

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