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Roman Catholicism, science, and evolution

wikipedia.org nicolas-steno
Nicolaus Steno, widely recognized as the father of geology, was a Roman Catholic creationist.
Published: 16 January 2016 (GMT+10)

Christianity was the ideological ground out of which science sprouted. Moreover, the Reformation was a critical factor in the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Protestants were not the only contributors to science. The foundations of the empirical mindset pre-date the Reformation, and many of the most important names in the history of science are Roman Catholics—e.g. Nicolaus Copernicus, Nicolaus Steno, André-Marie Ampère, Louis Pasteur, and Gregor Mendel. But, when we mention the positive role of the Reformation in the history of science, are we thereby purposefully ignoring all Roman Catholic (and pre-Reformation) contributions to science?

M.F. from the United States commented on Richard Dawkins, anti-Christian language and the rise of science, accusing us of this very thing (his comments in red).

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds, with comments interspersed.

‘Purposefully ignoring Roman Catholic contributions to science’?

“Good science has developed in the West because … an acceptance of the creation account and the Reformation—not in spite of it. The ‘new atheists’ wilfully ignore this historical evidence … ” [Sibley, in CMI’s article]
This is absurdly hypocritical. Most of the people at CMI are protestants who purposefully ignore all Catholic development and contributions to science.

We do not “purposefully ignore all Catholic development and contributions to science.” We have written articles (The biblical roots of modern science) and favourably reviewed books that stressed that science was not a purely Protestant phenomenon, but was birthed in the pre-Reformation era (specifically in the universities of Europe) out of a biblical theism that Catholics and Protestants share—e.g. Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God and The Victory of Reason. Moreover, we have commented on the monumental contributions to science of a number of Roman Catholics—e.g. Nicolaus Steno, Blaise Pascal, and Louis Pasteur. We have even published papers from Guy Berthault, a well-known modern Roman Catholic biblical creationist, on his groundbreaking research in sedimentology! If we purposefully ignore Roman Catholic contributions to science, why would we publish groundbreaking science from a Roman Catholic? For the most part, we focus on these scientists’ biblical creationist credentials, which is a doctrine Protestants and Roman Catholics have not historically disagreed over, and which is of course our ministry focus.

Nonetheless, you are no doubt objecting to Mr Sibley’s use of the work of Peter Harrison, who does emphasize that certain concerns nurtured by the Reformation were instrumental in the blossoming of the scientific enterprise in the 16th and 17th centuries, namely, the centrality of the literal sense of Scripture, and the revival of an Augustinian understanding of the complete fallenness of man. The 16th and 17th centuries were clearly a unique time of amazing scientific discovery, unprecedented in the development of a thoroughgoing empirical approach to the study of nature, and these ideas prominent in Reformation theology provided major impetus for this blossoming of science.

However, the divergent perspectives of Stark and Harrison are not necessarily contradictory. Consider this possible harmonization: the Christian universities, as well as biblical theism, provided a foundation for the empirical research mindset and the collegiate atmosphere needed to encourage the development of science. However, to a certain degree, too much attention to synthesizing Christian theology with Aristotelian philosophy stymied the ideational progress of science (though far from completely and albeit with a somewhat critical eye). There is, after all, little doubt that most Roman Catholic theology is deeply indebted to Thomas Aquinas, in whom we find a sympathetic (though not uncritical) synthesis of Aristotle with the Bible (though Thomas was indeed a biblical creationist).

However, the heliocentrism of Copernicus’ Dē revolutionibus shook this program of synthesizing Aristotle and Scripture to the core, as did the Protestant emphasis on the sole supremacy of Scripture, especially in their biblically based rejection of e.g. transubstantiation,1 which is heavily reliant on Aristotelian metaphysics (not that the Protestants were the first to reject transubstantiation; it’s just that the Reformation was the first time in centuries that a rejection of transubstantiation gained considerable traction in Western Europe). In the light of this shaken synthesis, new ways of looking at nature were sought, almost all remaining grounded in biblical theism (since it remained dominant in both Protestant and Catholic Europe through the Reformation era), but with more willingness to abandon Aristotle. (One place where the battle between Aristotle and the new empirical mindset bubbled up was the Galileo affair, though it was as much a clash of egos as it was a clash of empirical philosophies.)

But why move toward a more thoroughgoing empirical approach? This is where Harrison’s thesis becomes important. A focus on the literal sense of Scripture fostered a more vigorous interest in the literal sense of nature, hence the rejection of Aristotle in favour of what people could actually observe and measure. Moreover, the revival of an Augustinian anthropology of the complete fallenness of man brought about a renewed impetus to ‘reclaim’ the knowledge of nature that the pre-Fall Adam was widely supposed to have had, in order to properly get the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 back on track. In our post-Fall state, however, the only way to achieve what Adam had naturally was by studious attention to observation and methodology in studying nature. Of course, none of these ideas were new in the Reformation era; they had ancient pedigree in church history. Rather, they had become distorted, or forgotten, or downplayed, or rejected by certain portions of the church, and the Reformers simply saw themselves as bringing a needed emphasis back to these important doctrines.

‘Christian theism’ and the ‘Catholic’ church

Science did not start to develop under “Christian theism” as a result of the reformation, it had been developed over the course of 15 prior centuries under the Catholics before the thousands upon thousands of various denominations of Protestantism ever showed up on the map.
wikipedia.org louis-pasteur
Louis Pasteur, a Roman Catholic creationist, was instrumental in falsifying spontaneous generation in the 19th century.

We happily acknowledge that the foundations of the scientific enterprise go back well before the Reformation, and find their proper home in the university system of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages. However, it’s simply anachronistic to call the pre-Reformation church in the West (and the ‘pre-Great Schism’ church) ‘Catholic’ as if the Roman Catholic Church is the only church that bears any sort of continuity with the apostolic church. First, the term ‘catholic’ simply means universal, and the Roman Catholic Church is hardly a universal representative of Western Christianity, let alone all of Christianity. The “holy catholic and apostolic church” that confesses the Nicene Creed is far broader than that branch of Christendom that submits to the Pope. Nor is the Roman Catholic Church the only church with ancient institutional links. The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church have institutional ties that go back at least as far. And as Protestants we would of course argue that any institutional continuity the Roman Catholic Church can claim with the apostolic church is seriously undermined by its failure to maintain doctrinal continuity with the New Testament. Institutions, like the people that comprise them, are fallible.

As such, ‘Christian theism’ (i.e. the revelational Trinitarian monotheism summarized well in the Nicene Creed) is not the sole property of Protestants or Roman Catholics; we share it. Likewise, the foundations of science are found not so much in Protestant or Roman Catholic Christianity as they are found in Western Christianity, which is a heritage Protestants and Roman Catholics share. In fact, one can probably say that science developed in Western Christianity even in contrast to Eastern Christianity largely because Western Christianity has a more positive assessment of the value of cataphatic theology—speaking of what God is (apophatic theology describes God via negation; i.e. what He is not). If there is enduring value in speaking about what God is, there is also enduring value in speaking about what nature is. Pillars of the scientific enterprise such as Nicole Oresme, Roger Bacon, and John Buridan belong just as much to the history of the Protestant churches as they do to the Roman Catholic Church.

Church history and the ‘literal’ reading of Genesis

A literal reading of Genesis was in no way a result of the Reformation, Catholics had been reading it literally for the most part for 1500 years prior.

Not only were pre-Reformation Christians not ‘Catholic’ in the Tridentine sense, this fails to understand the point that was being made. The Reformation brought with it a new emphasis on the literal (i.e. historico-grammatical) sense of Scripture, in large part because it was the Reformer’s use of the literal sense of Scripture that undermined the prevailing ‘papocentric’ worldview in the Western church of the day. This has nothing to do with the fact that the prevailing understanding of the literal sense of Genesis 1–11 throughout the history of the church (and the synagogue) was the historical reading that we as a ministry defend.

All the Catholic Church Fathers held that plants and creatures were created suddenly or instantaneously when God gave the creative command, as well that the word “day” meant a literal 24 hours, and that Adam and Eve were created literally from the dust of the earth and from Adam’s rib (or side).

Once again, the church fathers are not the sole property of the Roman Catholic Church, which is merely one branch of western Christendom. Nonetheless, some of the church fathers did deny that the word “day” in Genesis 1 referred to a historical 24-hour period. For example, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine thought the world was made instantaneously. Augustine called his view “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” because he thought it’s what Moses intended to convey (since ‘literal sense’ in those days was synonymous with ‘what the human author intended to convey’).

All the Church Fathers and Doctors, Saints, and magisterial pronouncements held a literal interpretation of Genesis, and this was not the fruit of the reformation.

We did not say that the literal interpretation of Genesis was birthed in the Reformation; we believe it was birthed well before the New Testament church even existed! (Though the Roman Catholic notion of ‘saints’ is definitely post-biblical, since the NT use of the word applies it to all Christians.) We not only have articles demonstrating that the historical understanding of Genesis 1–11 is the consensus view of historic Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of Judaism. Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and even Jews, all share Genesis as authoritative Scripture. We have plenty of disagreements with each other, but this historically was not one of those disagreements. What was new in the Reformation was not the literal sense per se, but the central focus on the literal sense combined with a de-emphasis on allegorical senses of Scripture.

Has the modern Roman Catholic Church accepted theistic evolution?

There is a big misunderstanding among modern-day protestants, that the Catholic Church has somehow “accepted” or “permitted” evolution theory, but if you know anything about the Catholic Church you know this to be false, and that if there is any accepting the “theory” of evolution it is the result of the faithful ignoring the Church’s commands and warnings, and not in any way the fault of the Catholic faith or the Magisterium (See: A Catholic Assessment of Evolution Theory, and Repairing the Breach, as resources to back up my claims)

The 1950 Papal encyclical Humani Generis,2 John Paul II’s address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996,3 and Pope Francis’ 2014 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences4 are some of the main reasons why so many Roman Catholics think it's OK to believe in theistic evolution. Humani Generis opened up Genesis and origins to discussion and debate, though it put two caveats on any church acceptance of evolution—i.e. that the naturalistic origin of the soul must be rejected, and polygenism must be rejected. However, John Paul II’s comments suggest that he thought the debate had swung in evolution’s favour since Humani Generis, and Pope Francis’ recent comments are even more accepting of theistic evolution than John Paul II. Now, the ‘private’ statements from John Paul II and Francis are not regarded as official dogma, so that theistic evolution has not been officially sanctioned as acceptable for Roman Catholics to believe. Nonetheless, the comments of successive popes ‘as private theologians’ in favour of theistic evolution convince many Roman Catholics that there’s no harm in accepting it. Why? Even when the pope is only speaking as a private theologian, he doesn't stop being the pope, so all his statements carry a persuasive force no other ‘private theologian’ can carry. Even if the ‘Magisterium’ is not to blame (since ‘Magisterium’ refers to the definitive teaching of the Roman Catholic church), modern popes must shoulder much of the blame for the large-scale departure of the Roman Catholic church from biblical creation.5

References and notes

  1. Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic teaching that during the Lord’s Supper, when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, they are transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus. In other words, they believe that the bread and wine, once consecrated, are no longer really bread and wine, though they retain their appearance of bread and wine, but are actually the body and blood of Jesus. Return to text
  2. Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html, 12 August 1950. Return to text
  3. Pope John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: on evolution, ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP961022.HTM, 22 October 1996. Return to text
  4. For the text of Pope Francis’ speech, see Pope Francis, Address of His Holiness Pope Francis on the occasion of the inauguration of the bust in honour of Pope Benedict XVI, w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141027_plenaria-accademia-scienze.html, 27 October 2014. Return to text
  5. This paragraph has been altered (29 January 2016) to more accurately describe the Roman Catholic understanding of authority (though it does not imply an endorsement of Roman Catholic notions of authority). Return to text

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Readers’ comments

John L.
I am Catholic, and am a big fan of your work. I love your website and have learned so much from it and your magazine. I just have a few brief comments about your article, "Roman Catholicism, science, and evolution," in which you use the expression "Roman Catholic" 28 times. I am a member of the Catholic Church, not the "Roman Catholic Church." Most of us in the west belong the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but there are also Maronite, Ruthenian, Ukrainian, and several other rites. In fact, there are 23 Eastern Rite churches. They are all Catholic, and are in union with the pope, but they would definitely object to being called "Roman Catholic." That expression is a mildly derogatory term arising from Martin Luther, who referred to us as the "Romish Church". It is true that catholic (with a small "c") means universal, but words can have different meanings and senses. I'm sure if someone asked you if you knew where the nearest Catholic Church was, you wouldn't ask, "Which catholic church? The Episcopalian? The Roman?" etc. No, everyone understands that the Catholic Church is the one with a pope in Rome.

Secondly, none of the statements of recent pontiffs favorable to theistic evolution have been authoritative. The Catholic Faith holds that ambiguous, tentative or non-authoritative teaching of a pope, bishop, or council cannot supersede a clear, unambiguous teaching that has been handed down from the Apostles. Therefore, these recent statements should be viewed more as opinions of important churchmen, not official church teaching.

Keep up the good work!
In Christ,
John Lewis
Shaun Doyle
I'm glad you find our website profitable. And my widespread use of "Roman Catholic" was indeed deliberate. It was aimed in large part at the idea that science originated apart from the tradition history of Protestantism. And I happily acknowledge that most people use the term 'Catholic' to refer to the churches that are in communion with the Pope. But then, 'Roman Catholic' is not necessarily derogatory; it just defines the 'Catholic' church as the churches that submit to the Bishop of Rome.
Darryl B.
We should not ignore the fact that when the shift from theology to scientism occurred in the 18th Century during the disputably termed age of "enlightenment", that the reaction of a vast majority of Calvinist protestants was to ignore and condemn science as an evil pursuit. That being the primary reason why science was able to go off in the horrendous tangent that it did.
Shaun Doyle
The problem is that in the 18th century scientists did start biting the biblical hand that had fed their enterprise. The deterministic clockwork universe and deep time geology arose among deists at that time, and both were used as powerful weapons to scare the church into a positivistic compromise. And that compromise infected practically all branches of Western Christianity.
St Ferdinand S.
The reader's message is entirely appropriate. As a Catholic I question if the Protesters are really Christian - an oft cited calumny directed at the Church by Protestants. No free will ? This is what Luther and Calvin screamed about.

The poorly named Reformation did not usher in science. During the 'age of science' which is in effect nothing but Protestant and even Atheist propaganda; abiogenesis, phlogiston, disavowal of germ theory, ignorance of micro-biology, and witch burnings in Protesting areas were rife.

Luther himself lamented that his revolution was dripping in blood. Read his last letters. 200 years of Euro civil war, tens of thousands of Catholics killed [70.000 alone by Henry VIII]; hundreds of churches, monasteries, libraries ripped apart, burnt, stolen, or defaced. Yes part of the Church was corrupt and needed a reform. But the above is simply anarchy, not a reform.

Then we have the Protestant cry - no free will - ie Sola Scriptura. How does that enable 'science'? Everything is in the good book? That is unscientific.

Yes Protestant scientists did and do exist. But claiming that the Catholic church did 'a little' to foster the same is ridiculous. Not only did the Medieval church invent science, modern math, universities, optics, advanced machinery etc. it also save Europe from Islam, whilst fighting off the Northmen, Avars and Magyars. Luther viewed the Moslem Turk for eg. as a 'punishment' rightly visited upon Europe for its supposed sins. I don't see much science in that. We hear the same echoes today from Protestants re Islam.

In sum Protestants have much maligned the Church and it does them no credit or benefit. US is quite anti-Catholic for eg but propaganda is not science, nor is it factual.
Shaun Doyle
This shows no understanding of the spectrum of views in the Protestant tradition on free will (or even that Luther and Calvin had their disagreements on the matter!), or on what we mean by sola scriptura.

The accusations from history are one sided; what of the reactions of Spain and France to the Reformation? What of the Conquistadors? A lot of blood was spilled by both sides. Besides, such appeals don't establish the truth of either perspective.
Kathy G.
I found this article on "Roman Catholicism, science and evolution" interesting and mostly well researched. You missed a bit though in understanding Humani Generis. Sadly, so have recent Popes as you did point out. But, the statements by recent popes are not authoritative and do not change the official teaching of the church. Additionally, you failed to mention the existence and worldwide work of the Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation. I recommend you read the book "Creation, Evolution, and Catholicism: A Discussion for Those Who Believe" by Tom McFadden. Along with discussing summary scientific issues, it explains Humani Generis in detail, and yes, how the church has failed its directive. The magisterium of the church has not adopted nor does it accept evolution. Catholics who do so do it in direct contradiction to the actual teaching of the church. It is the Kolbe Center's mission as well as the recent writing of Tom McFadden's book which seek to educate the catholic population on the true teaching of the church. You all have review Fr Warkulwiz's book as well, "The Doctrines of Genesis 1-11." That would have been a nice one to mention in the article.
Shaun Doyle
Thank you for the compliments. I'm well aware that the comments of recent popes are not considered ex cathedra pronouncements. Nonetheless, they are the public comments of successive popes (I didn't mention Benedict XVI, since he seemed more amenable to intelligent design, but he didn't categorically reject theistic evolution either, and he upheld Humani Generis). And I also pointed out that Humani Generis did not categorically accept evolution and deep time, but it did call for discussion and debate of those questions (within limits). This is why I called this openness to theistic evolution "the semi-official position of the papacy". [Added 29 January 2016] I have nonetheless changed the last paragraph to better depict the issue, though I am still convinced that the modern popes must shoulder much of the blame for the Roman Catholic church moving away from biblical creation.
Dan M.
I just wanted to add one more thought.
Not all protestant leaders and churches believe in the literal creation account ether, proving it is not a Catholic-Protestant issue but an authority issue.
I stand immovable on Jos 24:15 and will take no prisoners.
Shaun Doyle
Very true. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic creationists face a lot of opposition within our own traditions.
Dan M.
M.F., anyone who has studied creation science knows of the contributions to and the stance on creationism by the early Catholic scientists but creationism is not a Catholic-Protestant issue; it is a biblical authority issue. Ether god meant what he said in Genesis or there is no god and we are just a temporary accident, (you cannot reconcile the two).
I applaud the defense of creationism by you but I have to point out that the Catholic leadership has steadily marched toward accepting long age evolution. Just recently the pope revealed publically his belief in long age evolution and it is documented by the media.
My friend you are defending a crumbling castle as Catholicism has moved steadily away from Gods truths as written in the bible. You need to decide if you want to stand on Gods word or follow a faith that is increasingly moving the other direction.
I will pray for you to stand strong and for the catholic faith to return to its biblical foundations.
Melvyne C.
As a creationist Catholic, the state of Catholicism to evolutionism can be summed up by the number of Catholic creationist web sites. Two readily come to mind, (there may be more) the Kolbe Centre for Creation, and one in England; Daylight Origins.
CMI is an excellent source of true creationist teaching, and true science.
True Christian unity will come with the sharing of each others Eucharistic riches.
Twice God has asked to remember great events, the first, every Sabbath, to remember He created in six days. The second, Jesus, God in part and God in whole, asked us to remember him in the Eucharist.
From scripture, many left when He said we should eat and drink His body and blood (Jn. 6:51-67).
As for Pope Francis, he should listen to St Peter and his Saviour on six day creation.
God bless your work.

Wolfram H.
I think that most Roman catholics in the Third World are creationists. In that area, they take the Bible more seriously than in the First World. There are even some catholic organisation which support creationism:

[link deleted as per feedback rules]

You can criticise Roman catholic church very much. But it would be better for us to contact such organisations as they also cope much resistance. And we should better build the kingdom of God than the kingdom of the devil
Shaun Doyle
It is very true that many Roman Catholics are biblical creationists, and this article highlights a lot of the common ground that we share. Nonetheless, we are Evangelical Protestants. CMI exists to defend biblical creation as a corollary of the sole supremacy of Scripture, and as vital to the integrity of the Gospel of God's salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Don N.
I find that many Christians find it hard to admit that their denomination teaches in their schools that evolution is a fact. In my country accreditation would be withdrawn if the school did not do so in their science classes.

Very few mainline churches are bold enough to have text books in their science classes which oppose evolution. Most mainline churches would not allow such text books in any case as the accreditation process for bible colleges subtly opposes scriptural literal creation.

I believe it is time that Christianity realised that very subtly the mainline denominations are strong protectors of evolutionary "science". The accreditation process is not the only reason of course for the present sad situation.

Auke F.
True. Well written and indeed the popes have accepted evolution, thus say that an atheïstic view of the emerging of life is true. It's a contradiction.
Charbel T.
We are all Christians, we all believe in one God, we all believe in Jesus and we all follow the bible therefore we share the same belief. All Christian Scientists (Modern and in the past) (No matter if Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox and etc) Must be respected and be taken as an example, I absolutely disagree with the person said about Creation.com that they ignore Catholic Scientists, I as a catholic fully support Creation.com and i hope you continue spreading the word. God bless.
Edwin M.
Thanks for showing `good courage` to be faithful to scripture in this apostate, thus confused age.
The gifts and calling are without repentance - - Roms 11:29, Ephesians 4:8 so any, humbling himself 2 Chron 7:14, while within any religious system even, may receive grace to reveal a truth while not justifying all his present involvement. Luther the prime example. While in the 70s a pontiff once carelessly said he considered the Appendix to be an evolutionary leftover. No matter how many mixed messages a man may sow the Holy Bible is substantiated by Luke 21:33
“Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.”
*FATHER* requires we keep our word so how much more has *HE* kept *HIS WORD *.Fear not little flock. Luke 12:32. So happy to see a scripture early within Your writings of late Psalm 68:11. Zec 9:8 KJV. 1 Sam 2:30. Jude 20 aplenty. *G*BU keep up the GOOD FIGHT OF FAITH.

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