Humani Generis and Evolution

A journalist informed me that Pope Pius XII, later in his life, opened the door for the legitimacy of the teaching that men *may* have evolved from apes, in his Papal Encyclical "Humani generis". This Encyclical gives a cautious but nonetheless clear approval to Catholics to discuss and investigate into the *possibility* that the human BODY (not the soul) evolved from PRE-EXISTENT AND LIVING MATTER. The only thing Pius XII appears to strongly frown upon here is the attitude that this type of evolution is already a proven *fact*. That being said, it is clear to me that, although he made it clear the SOULS of men are IMMEDIATELY CREATED by God, Pius XII has legitimized placing a question mark over the issue of whether or not God used the alleged process of the evolution of apes (or as he phrased it, "pre-existent and living matter") to men in creating the physical human body. Pius XII insists that both sides must submit to the judgement of the Church in this matter, but it is obvious that "the Church" has NOT yet made such a final judgement on this vital question, otherwise there would be NO room for discussion or debate (just as I am sure you would agree there is NO room for faithful Catholics to debate with one another over whether or not Christ is God, as if one in disagreement with that truth had a valid opinion acceptable within Catholicism). What do you think? The following is the citation from the Encyclical I would like you to comment on: 
"For these reasons 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. However this must be done in such a way that the reasons for BOTH OPINIONS, that is, THOSE FAVORABLE and unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgement of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and defending the dogmas of the faith. 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."

What Pius means here is that neither science nor sacred theology has undeniable and indisputable proof whether man was formed instantaneously and independent of any progressive development, or whether the language of Genesis is to be understood metaphorically to the extent that man could be the product, at least indirectly, of an evolutionary time-scale.

Since the Church cannot make official dogmas on matters of science, she desires to investigate how the facts and theories of science coincide with the dogmas of theology. As Augustine held in The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, the Church is not beholden to science unless science can prove, indisputably, the fact that it proposes. If there is a case, Augustine proposed, in which science shows the Church that a certain scientific fact is proven and indisputable, then the Church must adjust its interpretation of Scripture so as to coincide with the indisputable scientific fact.

We must remember here that the Church prior to the theory of evolution had made no dogmatic proclamation regarding man's origin or distinctions thereof, since it was assumed that the only mechanism for man's origin was special and instantaneous creation. No one in science had proposed, prior to Darwin, that man could have evolved from lower forms. In other words, the Church never had to face the question. The only thing the Church had stated dogmatically regarding origins prior to Darwin was that man's soul was directly created by God and infused into him.

Thus, in areas where the Church has not made a dogmatic decision, she can and must open herself up to investigate, scientifically and theologically, any new theories of cosmogony and cosmology that show any evidence of being supported by scientific facts. In time, the Church may proscribe any leanings toward evolution, but on the cclesiastical time scale, that would not be expected for many decades or perhaps centuries, since the issues at stake are very complex and require many years of study in order to prove or disprove what is hypothesized.

Already in 1950, only a few decades after the Scopes Monkey trial, various scientists and theologians were holding that evolution was a scientific fact. Hence, Pius warns that those making the investigation must not assume that evolution is fact or fancy, but must go to the evidence with an open mind, which is the protocol for any true scientific endeavor. In the final analysis, the Church is the ultimate authority on the interpretation of Scripture. Even if evolution, sometime in the next century, were to be proven indisputably as either directly or indirectly involved in the origin of man, the Church would still have the final say as to how this scientific fact was to be integrated into the interpretation of Genesis. The Church would do so in a way that would preserve every other dogma she had previously proclaimed, including the direct and miraculous creation of a soul in the body of man, as well as Original Sin.

When earlier Pius said that he wanted "both opinions, that is, those favorable and unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged," he was referring mainly to those who were assuming evolution to be fact rather than theory. As you know, some in the Catholic Church had already begun to make such assumptions, such as Teilhard de Chardin. The Jesuits have been notorious in this area, as they have been in many other theological areas for the past hundred years or so. Moreover, with the successes of Einstein and other scientists that virtually saved the world from the aggression of hostile nations, the populous in Pius' day was prone to accept almost any scientific theory with little reservation. Pius is to be congratulated for showing restraint with regard to the successes and claims of science. This is especially ironic in light of new theories in cosmology and cosmogony that show even Einstein's theories are not as impregnable as they were once thought to be. I cover some of these in my book Not By Bread Alone.

Pius is also speaking about the Church's traditional approach to take Scripture at its word. Unless there is some compelling reason to interpret Scripture figuratively, then the Church will side with a literal interpretation. In the area of evolution, the Church would have to have indisputable proof that man was the product of evolution in order for her to integrate this knowledge into her interpretation of Genesis.

Without that indisputable proof, the Church will make no motion toward accepting the tenets of evolution, besides making casual remarks on the progress or retardation of its theories, such as John Paul II's remark a few years ago that "evolution was more than a hypothesis." Today, in the eyes of some, evolution may seem more than a hypothesis, but we must understand that these kinds of statements are very early in the ecclesiastical time-line, for the facts may show us tomorrow that evolution is less than a hypothesis.

This is precisely Pius' hope for the scientific investigation of evolution. If science eventually discovers the evolution is true, the Church will adjust its interpretation of Genesis, yet still preserve its previous dogmas (e.g., Original Sin, Infusion of a Soul, etc). If science discovers that evolution is false, then the Church will make even more steadfast its present literal interpretation of Genesis. Again, this is a process that could take many years, if not centuries. It would only become a matter of real concern if the Church determined that people were losing their faith over evolution or that some people were forcing unrealistic interpretations on Genesis and thus perverting the message of Scripture. Whether that day will come we do not know.

Ultimately, the Church determines whether science has indeed proven its theories, and thus as Pius said above, "...all [must be] prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and defending the dogmas of the faith."

Robert Sungenis
Catholic Apologetics International
October 19, 2000

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