The church, as the Body of Christ and custodian of the Deposit of Faith, does not debate the scientific evidence that has led to the theory of evolution. Truth is truth, and as we reach deeper into the truths of creation, we cannot help but come to know the Creator, and his Providence, more profoundly as well. St. Pope Leo XIII puts it this way: “No real disagreement can exist between the theologian and the scientist provided each keeps within his own limits … . If nevertheless there is a disagreement … it should be remembered that the sacred writers, or more truly ‘the Spirit of God who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men such truths (as the inner structure of visible objects) which do not help anyone to salvation.’”
For this reason, the church has upheld the proper place of science to develop and propose the theory of evolution in order to account for the biological diversity, and genetic and structural similarity, that we see across creation. Pope Pius XII gives the first papal pronouncement on evolution as such: “The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into 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.”
St. Pope John Paul II spoke similarly that “it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have gradually been prepared in the form of antecedent living beings,” cautioning again that man’s soul, that divine breath that creates him in the “image and likeness” of God cannot be the product of natural selection or random chance. Pope Benedict XVI touched on precisely this question when he said that “the doctrine of evolution does not answer everything and does not answer the great philosophical question: Where does everything come from?”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up what we are required to believe about man’s creation: “With his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the ‘seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,’ can have its origin only in God.” [CCC 33, citing Gaudium et Spes 13].
So, the Catholic Church upholds the place for science to investigate the natural development of all creation, including how our own bodies came to be the way they are, but it also cautions that we never see ourselves merely in that natural/scientific/bodily way. Science has confronted its own limitations in showing the stupendous, providential, complexity of our world, as well as when it puzzles over the irreducible spiritual depth of each human being. We are conscious, we can know, we can love and give ourselves in relationships, we can hope and believe; and none of that can be done by merely material robots, nor can those capacities be acquired by genetic mutation or natural selection. Science offers us a glimpse at those attributes by which we transcend science, and it thereby offers us a glimpse at the Creator who bestows on us those gifts.
Father Dominic Rankin is parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and has a license in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Rome.