Growing up as a Catholic youth in the 80’s and 90’s meant my vision of Catholicism was profoundly shaped by St. John Paul II. Whether it be camping out in Denver’s Cherry Creek Park at World Youth Day or trying to read his dense, philosophical writings, it seemed that almost every word that came from JPII’s mouth became the backdrop for how to interpret Jesus Christ and the Church. I emphasize the phrase “almost every word” because two areas of his writing that were not universally embraced were Catholic Social Teaching and Evolution. Though some argue over the intent of St. John Paul II’s statements about evolution in his 1996 Message on Evolution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the fact remains that he affirmed Pius XII’s teaching from Humani Generis that evolution is not in conflict with Church teaching as long as evolution is restricted to the material origin of ours bodies, affirming that the soul is created by God alone. (paragraph 36)
When reading these documents, I came to the conclusion that, as long as monogenesis and God as Creator are affirmed, evolution is not in conflict with Catholicism. This interpretation seemed dependable when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated that the conflict between creation and evolution was an “absurdity” during a Q and A session with 400 clergy and seminarians. It seemed that the final nail in the coffin of confusion about Catholicism and evolution was hammered in October of 2014 during Pope Francis’ Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he affirmed both evolution and the Big Bang. The media reaction was so wildly spun, Time Magazine ran the piece, Sorry, But Media Coverage of Pope Francis is Papal Bull, affirming the long tradition of the Church’s position on faith and science. Despite all of this, I still find myself approached by Catholics that insist that evolution and Catholicism are at odds with one another.
Growing up in this tension between Papal statements and friends who deeply question evolution created a confusion in me: How could embracing these statements of our previous Pontiffs be against faith? This confusion lead to an interest in the Intelligent Design movement under the rubric of “this is the science that makes room for God!” In defense of ID, it gave voice to a legitimate frustration I had with some of my science teachers (primarily in biology) who rejected God and used evolution as their defense. In short, I began to question mainstream evolutionary science not because of what it taught, but because it was presented as disproving God.
Over time, I began to realize that if your argument for God as Creator is based on uniqueness or complexity (which are cornerstones of Intelligent Design), all one needs to do to undermine God is demonstrate that things are not as complex or unique as once thought. This is what is called the problem of the “God of the Gaps.” Further, when I began to work with evolutionary biologists who were devout Catholics who did not see a conflict between evolution and faith, I learned that I could trust evolution, both in terms of our universe’s origins and our biological origins.
So, where do we go from here? First of all, I need your voices to help flesh out this reflection and allow me to learn from the wisdom of the members of this blog. Second, the discussion needs to avoid the predictable polemics that paint the question of creation and evolution as two, mutually exclusive ideologies. For those of us who live in the United States, we suffer from the disease of “either/or” polemics. The question of our origins will not be resolved amid the dueling of political ideologies that have chosen to hate each other even before the discussion begins. Rather, it will only be resolved when we walk together in charity to discover truth; truth that is not divided, but points us to our common origin of God.
Now, its time for your voice!