Can Catholics believe in evolution?

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Q: I saw a poll that said 57 percent of evangelical Christians reject the theory of evolution, and it got me wondering: What does the Catholic Church teach about it? Can Catholics believe in evolution?

A: This is a question I look forward to answering! As you may know, my undergraduate studies were in the natural sciences and I have a Bachelor of Science in geology. So I’m excited to discuss evolution from both a theological and a scientific perspective.

Pope Francis recently said, “The evolution of nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.” What’s most remarkable about the pope’s statement is that there’s nothing remarkable about it at all. Seriously.

Pope Francis’ statement was simply a continuation of previous papal observations that there is no inherent conflict between the process of evolution and the teaching of the Catholic Church. St. John Paul II called Darwin’s theory of evolution “more than a hypothesis” in 1996. Before he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger commented in 2002 that “converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on Earth.” In his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII wrote, “The Church does not forbid that … research and discussions … 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.”

If so many popes have said that the process of evolution is not necessarily incompatible with Christianity, then we might wonder what all the controversy is about. Before I get to that, I want to stress that the Catholic Church has neither denied nor affirmed the theory of evolution to be a matter of fact. Rather, it has simply said that this theory is not inherently incompatible with Christian faith. That is an important distinction to remember.

Let’s get back to the controversy and why it exists. The main reason for controversy concerns what is meant by the term evolution and to what it can refer. We need to understand the difference between evolution as an autonomous principle and evolution as a divinely guided process. We also need to understand what can be generated through the process of evolution and what cannot. Lastly, we need to understand how human cultural and moral development influences evolution itself.

There are some who believe that evolution is a principle unto itself and that living creatures randomly come into existence based on chance and circumstance. This view would see the evolutionary process as a kind of autonomous process that just happened to generate the lifeforms we see today. This understanding of evolution as an autonomous principle is fundamentally atheistic and is incompatible with the Christian belief in God as Creator.

However, there is another understanding which considers evolution to be the process through which God’s creative power is manifested. According to this understanding, God is always the principal agent in the creative order, and evolution is the process that explains how God works. It is this understanding of evolution that is compatible with Christianity because it affirms the primary creative power of God.

It should also be noted that human beings are distinct from the rest of creation in that we possess an immortal soul. The soul is spiritual in nature and not part of the evolutionary process. Rather, the soul is a gift from God elevating human beings to a higher order and granting them the capacity to be in relationship with the Creator now and forever. While evolution may explain the process by which we received our physical bodies, it cannot explain or provide for the reception of our immortal soul.

This question about evolution also raises the larger issue about the relationship between the Catholic Church and science in general. There are those who mistakenly believe that the Catholic Church is somehow anti-science. Nothing could be further from the truth. As St. John Paul II stated in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, “There can never be a true divergence between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals the mysteries and bestows the gift of faith has also placed in the human spirit the light of reason.”

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - November 2017

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.