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theistic evolutionAuthentically Catholic liberal-arts colleges and universities accept the harmony of faith and reason. The overall intellectual bent of Catholic schools should thus be, at least to some extent, and hopefully to much extent, Thomistic; and the teaching of Thomism and the philosophia perennis with regard to the philosophy of nature and science is, as opposed to nominalist, scientistic, materialist, and fideist rationalities, that secondary causes are truly causal, and that God likes to do things in the world through them, even giving them genuine co-creative power. In other words, nature, a robust nature, is distinct from God (yet never separate from Him, for, through created esse, He is closer to all beings than they are to themselves), and possesses a relative autonomy and causal power that does not require God’s perpetual interventions, though He can and does intervene. Nature is so powerful that it would appear to have full autonomy, and this is the misguided pretext and source of the prima facie credibility of materialism and atheistic scientism. Furthermore, nature’s causal structures can be known through man’s unaided reason, and the effects of these causes, including biological phenomena, can be explained without the use of Revelation, though, of course, not explained exhaustively, as all things, especially man, possess a certain unfathomableness due to their having been created and sustained in existence and activity by an ultimately unfathomable, transcendent, and mysterious God.

All this is to say that science should be taken seriously at any Catholic college or university, and where modern science has discovered truth about the material world—well, it has discovered truth about the material world, period. If “fundamentalism” is something bad—it is bad if it denies this, in a misguided attempt to vindicate sacred Scripture.  Scriptural interpretation must take such truths into consideration, and sometimes previously held views, such as six literal days of Creation and a 10,000 year-old universe, must be looked at anew in the light of the latest and true scientific evidence (and one has to be careful to discriminate between genuine scientific discoveries and counterfeit claims by the so-called “overwhelming consensus of scientists”—when I hear that phrase, I suspect ideology).  Science has the capacity and duty to take care of its own, as it were, that is, without any undue interference from other disciplines, even the higher ones of philosophy, metaphysics, and theology—unless, of course, it oversteps its humble charge of cataloging, describing, law-making, predicting, interpreting, shaping, and controlling matter, and offering up its material data to the higher sciences for ultimate, and more certain, interpretation and adjudication. If modern, empirio-metric science attempts to teach on things that it knows nothing about, such as the metaphysical truths of the philosophia perennis, the purpose and meaning of things, the mystery of man, the supernatural, and God, and dares to trespass against the natural and supernatural hierarchy of wisdom, then Aristotelian natural philosophy, Thomistic metaphysics, and orthodox theology are in their rights to step in and put science in its place.

Have there been some oversteppings and trespasses in the modern era up to the present? Of course, Catholics of a traditional cast know all about the Enlightenment, modernism, rationalism, etc., and the incessant and insufferable ignorant machinations of the four-horsemen of atheism.  But the transgressions of the atheistic Darwinians is not the focus of this essay. I am speaking of the Catholic theistic evolutionists. They overstep science’s bounds when they claim that debatable theories, such as the theory of evolution, are “facts”—something that Pius XII condemned very unequivocally with regard to evolution in Humani Generis.  They overstep science’s bounds again when they attempt to render certain non-verified, non-facts, such as common descent from mono-celled organisms, as verified, indisputable facts by recourse to, not actual indisputable evidence, but the social force of the so-called “scientific consensus,” that same force that fires and character-assassinates people who publish peer-reviewed scientific articles that conclude to, say, intelligent design of certain cellular processes, and that excludes anyone but committed evolutionists to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. They overstep philosophy’s bounds when they teach debatable and idiosyncratic philosophical theories about causality in the natural world and its relation to God, claiming, for example, that God’s providence over the world is compatible with genuine chance in nature—yes, not just the appearance of chance, but chance!—as if this were the only rational and Thomistic way to explain things, as if serious and sophisticated philosophical challenges to it, such as found in the work of Robert Koons, are just, a priori, otiose and tending towards fundamentalism. They overstep theology’s bounds when they dismiss the very serious challenges, not just to evolutionary theory, but to the very fact of evolution itself, from not only the Catholic Magisterium and Fathers of the Church, but also from the latest scientific evidence, which has, it must be said, proved neither common descent of humans from primitive organisms,  nor the generation of all life, in all of its glorious complexity and design, from mindless natural selection conserving random genetic variation and mutation.

There is surely indisputable scientific evidence for mirco-evolution, that living beings change and adapt, and that living species have genetic similarities. But, as there is no indisputable scientific evidence that all species have descended from a primitive ancestor, that species macro-evolve, and that evolution of species has taken place at all, we are dealing here with a dialectical topic, not a demonstrative one. In fact, the many missing transition fossils in the fossil record, the Cambrian species explosion, and the irreducible complexity of many biological phenomena, along with a host of other evidence that has been censored, belittled, or ignored by academia and the mainstream scientific community, seem to disprove Darwin’s original theory as well as the neo-Darwinianism of the theistic evolutionists, or at least make these debatable.

Intelligent design, and I would also include some of the findings of the creation scientists, is as scientific and confirmed by the evidence as neo-Darwinian theistic evolution, and perhaps even more scientific and reasonable, but you would never know that intelligent design and non-evolutionary biological theories were even debatable theories, let alone possibly true, due to the irresponsible deference among so many in academia and media, including Catholics, to the idols of the tribe, the sacred cows of Darwin and the so-called “scientific consensus.”  Such bespeaks not loyalty to reason and science, but kneeling to the world.

holycrossWhat is the educational upshot of this? It is beyond obvious that a good case can be made for intelligent design, as the debate has been raging in the pages of First Things for years. Catholic colleges or universities should give as much deference to the possible truth of intelligent design as neo-Darwinian theistic evolution for the sake of the students’ intellectual good and the integrity of the school, regardless of the private beliefs of the professor, which he is, of course, free to express to students. Students taking science in a Catholic liberal-arts college should be led to investigate all the issues with an open mind, conducting dialectical inquiry into all the reasonable positions that are inside-the-pale, as it were, of Catholic orthodoxy, philosophical possibility, and scientific evidence. The point of such courses is not indoctrination into a certain debatable scientific or philosophical or theological viewpoint, but to teach the students how to think scientifically, how to think philosophically and theologically about science, and how critically to assess scientific and philosophical theories so as to be able to arrive at truth. Of course, the teaching of the relevant scientific facts and actually confirmed theories is essential to such courses, but the status of “fact” and “theory” is not always something finalized in science–Kuhn’s paradigms–as any liberally educated, non-scientistic, scientific theorist knows, and this should also be made clear to students. The idolatry of Science is ensconced in culture, as John West recently argued in First Things, and Catholics must go against the grain to combat it. The proper suspicion of claims of science is not fundamentalism or conspiracism, but prudence.

There is simply no view-from-nowhere on the issue of evolution, that is, no knockdown, theological, philosophical, historical, or scientific argument that resolves the evolution issue to one side over the other. One’s presuppositions and starting points, usually quite implicit and unconscious, tend to determine what kind of data is taken to be legitimate evidence, what data to ignore, what kinds of arguments are deemed “scientific,” and which conclusions appear plausible. The claim to have “overwhelming evidence,” made incessantly and insufferably by pro-Darwinists, such as Laurence Krauss, and, not to mention, by the theistic evolutionists, does not render a manifestly debatable issue a non-debatable one. Evolution, in both in its factual and theoretical claims, is, most certainly, debatable. It is, after all, being debated, at least among the open-minded truth seekers among us, perhaps only a small minority these days. But even if it were no longer a topic of debate, at least among mainstream scientists and intellectuals, this alone would not prove its having been definitively resolved and concluded.

The purpose of a Catholic college course on this debatable issue, as well as all the other ones at the nexus of science and religion, such as the historical existence of Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and the universe, and the geography of the cosmos, is to introduce students to the debates, and to present the best case for each side, even if the professor leans to one of them—and he is surely permitted, even encouraged, to share his leanings and the reason for them with the students. The purpose of both liberal and specialized education is not to teach only one side of a debatable issue as the only possible truth of the matter, whatever the so-called “overwhelming consensus of scientists” says. The sad fact is—and it is so obvious that it can no longer be relegated to “conspiracy theory”—that much evidence against both the fact and theory of evolution is censored/belittled/ignored by the materialist and atheistic scientific establishment—just consider the work of Pierre-Paul Grassé (1895-1985), the renowned French zoologist and die-hard evolutionist, who himself admitted, “Through use and abuse of hidden postulates, of bold, often ill-founded extrapolations, a pseudoscience has been created. It is taking root in the very heart of biology and is leading astray many biochemists and biologists.” He is entirely ignored. And have you heard of the soft blood tissue found in dinosaur bones? Thought not.

The Church has surely given us strict guidelines on the legitimate interpretations of Genesis and other relevant Sacred Texts, but she has also approved of a certain level of openness to the possibility of the truth of certain modern scientific theories, such as evolution.  We do know that scientific, philosophical and theological theories cannot be true if they trespass against known natural and metaphysical principles and revealed truths: Something cannot come from nothing, potency cannot actualize itself, unformed matter cannot alone cause form, on the one hand; Adam and Eve existed, Eve was created from Adam (she did not evolve from an ape!), they alone committed the Original Sin, God created the universe from nothing, and specially creates every human soul from nothing, on the other. Positions that fall within the limits of genuine reason (not consensus-obsessed, secularist, scientistic, materialist or fideistic “reason”) and Catholic orthodoxy (and this requires us not facilely to dismiss challenging statements of Popes and Church Fathers as outdated or irrelevant, as many in the theistic evolution camp do)—and, of course, the most difficult part of the dialectic is to determine definitively these limits and which positions fall within them!—are genuinely debatable, and students need to learn to see them as such.

If a professor thinks a particular debatable issue has been resolved in one way or the other, while he is in his rights to say so to students and to present his case and the case of others, he is not in his rights to make the students think that his view of the matter is somehow indisputable and “the obvious truth of things,” especially if this is done by presenting the other case as a strawman, with that exquisite condescension and sarcasm and selective use of evidence that is legion these days among Catholics. On genuinely controversial and debatable issues, it is a grave disservice to students for Catholic theistic evolutionists to use canards and conversation stoppers such as “science tells us”, “we now know,” “evolution is a fact.”  Of course, science does tell us some indisputable things, such as the fact of micro-evolution (since we have actually observed this taking place), and we do “now know” certain things we didn’t know in the past, such as the existence of genetic similarities between different species. And, of course, there are indisputable facts (pace post-modernism) that modern science, and modern science alone, has enabled us to see, such as the unfathomable distance of the universe, but macroevolution is simply not one of these facts, and thus it should be taught as precisely what it is, a debatable theory.

On a practical note, the policy upshot of my position relates to academic freedom. Professors who teach  a course on evolution or other debatable scientific issues have the freedom to select the texts they think are most appropriate and excellent—some would choose Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, others Stephen Meyer’s Darwin’s Doubt (the creationists would go for Gerald Keane’s Creation Rediscovered), for example—and, although the course should be taught dialectically, the professor is in his rights to teach one of the positions as the evidently true one, as long as he refrains from using his mere authority as a professor or as degreed scientist to make claims, and avoids the use of inappropriately dogmatic language (unless it’s a matter of philosophical principle, manifestly true established fact, and magisterial teaching) and facile arguments to influence the students to think that such-and-such must be true, that no other positions have any merit or plausibility, and that only “those people” would talk that talk way about the origin of species.

science_faith_evolution_creationismAm I saying one cannot support evolution as a Catholic? No, but I wonder about being an adamantly pro-evolution Catholic, which is the position of the Catholic theistic evolutionists. Even to have an open mind about the possible wrongheadedness of the theory of evolution, let alone the “fact”, is to be cast into the outer darkness, to join Ken Ham and the biblical-literalist morons, the theistic evolutionist judges. Of course, it is not moronic to be a “literalist”–indeed it is demanded by orthodoxy as the Catechism makes clear: “The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal’.” (CCC 116). All Christians must be scriptural literalists, as long as the literal meaning is not considered a priori both the beginning and end of every Scripture verse. However, the “evolution as fact” attitude directly goes against Pius XII’s teaching in Human Generis, which, if anything, is even more germane now than it ever was. As Stephen Meyer has shown, and many biologists have now admitted—Stephen J. Gould, for one—since 1950, the evidence for Darwinian macro-evolution has become less compelling, so it makes Pius XII’s condemnation of “rash transgression” even more pertinent now:

Some, however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

My main concern is that such moderation and caution is not being exercised by Catholic evolutionists and other Christians, especially in today’s Catholic and Christian colleges and universities, and in Christian and Catholic intellectual circles in general. It seems to me that many academics and professors are afraid to question evolution for fear of being ridiculed or at least being put on the outskirts, to become, “one of those people,” and a fortiori for the Catholic scientists who question the Sacred Cow, as all the smart Catholic science people know that evolution is the indisputable truth and the only position for the educated Catholic to hold. It seems to me that an evolution cult has developed among conservative Catholics. Father John McCarthy describes it well:

The movement to accommodate traditional Catholic doctrine, as well as the traditional interpretation of the accounts in Sacred Scripture, to the supposed “fact” of the evolution of man from primitive matter by a relentless process of spontaneous transformations of species over an enormous period of time has become so widespread in Catholic intellectual circles that it has now assumed the appearance of a “mainstream” point of view. The assumed “fact” of biological evolution, as pictured in contemporary biological theories, has moved in our time from a far-out to a central theological position and is now threatening to become a supposition of the updated “teaching of the Church,” with all the inevitable consequences of such a development, not only as regards the two-thousand-year-old teaching of the Church on such issues as Original Sin, but also as regards the very credibility of Church teaching as such. At this moment in the historic assault of modern secular humanism upon Catholic belief, we are witnessing to our dismay more and more heretofore “solid” defenders of Catholic tradition ceding to Darwinism and its progeny ground without which they cannot survive for long as orthodox thinkers.

It is my hope that a continuing conversation about this—most debatable—issue will help to expose and thus dispel this cult and the “rash transgression of the liberty of discourse” that is its trademark.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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4 replies to this post
  1. But of course, evolution takes place in between the major strokes of creation. Can evolution account for the emergence of mammals, including the sudden appearance of breasts as “random mutation”. Hardly.

    However, more important is the problem of retracing history for little practical application, in lieu of working out the problems of the world today. That is one reason God has us here. So, I would like the author to think about how returning people to a faithful life, will reap dividends in the area of environmental reservation, and temper his hand-wringing over the purported “ideology” of climatologists and other scientists studying precipitous losses of plant and animal species. It is not these people who have a vested interest in vigorous use of fossil fuels and other manifestations of human greed and ambition, that are changing the earth.

  2. “In other words, nature, a robust nature, is distinct from God (yet never separate from Him, for, through created esse, He is closer to all beings than they are to themselves), and possesses a relative autonomy and causal power that does not require God’s perpetual interventions, though He can and does intervene.”

    That is not quite what St Thomas is saying.

    Acc to St Thomas God is on some levels intervening all of the time, notably in turning the universe in its daily turn westward around the earth.

    Also, though “secondary causes” include things like Ohm’s law on resistance for electromagnetics, the noblest ones of them are created spirits, human souls for what is done by human bodies, but also angelic spirits. Who are ALSO always intervening, like in bringing sun and moon and other planets around the zodiac and presumably alpha Centauri along is “parallactic” movement with sun each year and 63 Ophiuchi along its “antiparallactic” movement against sun each year (yes, that is basically what negative parallax means).

    Your philosophy is not Thomistic, it is Newtonian and Deistic, with exception of acknowledged miracles.

    The main tune of day and night and of creating souls for eternity is played by God Himself, and the Universe is not a music box, but a harp which he is playing. Subsidiary tunes are however played by … angels, human wills, mechanical automaticisms … a k a secondary causes.

  3. The Catholic concept of Faith and Reason has been distorted to reach a compromise with Darwinism and the Faith. Nothing wrong with reason but if it is used to promote a false teaching that The Church has rejected, for the most part, it has to be restrained. The Church Fathers were clear (despite what most popular so called ‘orthodox’ theologians of today have said). The Bible means what it says and says what it means.

  4. I find it interesting that in the same encyclical (Humani Generis) that Pope Pius XII defended the Catholic doctrine of original sin, he also complained that “Some reduce to a meaningless formula the necessity of belonging to the true Church in order to gain eternal salvation.” (paragraph 27). It is my opinion that the practical denial of original sin by so many Catholics today is precisely why the thrice infallibly defined Catholic dogma of exclusive salvation is so often explained in a way as to make it almost meaningless by the great majority of those who bother to acknowledge the dogma at all. Most Catholics today no longer believe baptism is necessary for salvation, despite that truth being de fide. Why would they believe that baptism is necessary if they are taught in Catholic schools that the book of Genesis is mythology?

    The completely out of proportion talk of so many Catholics today about “invincible ignorance” is also another sign that Catholics have abandoned belief in original sin in favor of a Pelagian/Rousseauistic view of human nature. In this new view, bad will is no longer considered the primary reason non Catholics refuse to convert “And he said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead.” (Luke 16:31). No, with the new Pelagian/Rousseaustic view of human nature it assumed that man is naturally so good that all men would accept the Catholic faith if only they weren’t “invincibly ignorant,” it is not bad will that is keeping them away from the Church, but the environment they grow up in!

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