Periodically in the United States, we witness a battle between “evolutionists” and “creationists”. This battle is usually fought over public school curricula with “creationism” championed by fundamentalist Protestant Denominations. Although, the Catholic Church does not have “a dog in that fight”, it is important to clarify what the Church teaches on this subject so that we understand why Catholics can rightly integrate scientific learning with the truths of faith.
For us Catholics, truth is one. In that sense, there can be no real contradiction between faith and science. Thus, the Catholic Church does not need to fear the teaching of evolution as long as it is understood as a scientific account of the physical origins and development of the universe. As Catholics we profess faith in “one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth”. Our faith teaches the fact that God is the Creator of everything that is. While our faith does not bind us to any particular scientific theory about the origins of the universe, evolution is one such theory that has over the years has been supported by significant scientific research and has gained measured acceptance by the Church.
Research has shown that all living organisms on earth are genetically related – and therefore, there must be some common “ancestor” from which all life has evolved. As a theory, evolution helps to explain the development and diversity of living things over time.
And so the Church supports the teaching of evolution as the best available account of how nature works. But, at the same time, the Church rejects certain erroneous philosophical theories that are sometimes associated with it. To insist, as some scientists have done, that evolution requires a materialistic or an atheistic understanding of the human person or of the entire universe is to stray beyond the proper realm of science itself. To argue such a neo-Darwinist conception of a mechanistic universe without any sign of intelligent order is to argue from a philosophical bias and not from the results of any scientific investigation.
The scientific method has proven to be a powerful instrument in assisting mankind to come to a greater understanding of the world and how it works. However, as a method is limited to the physical objects and their relationships. Scientific knowledge does not extend beyond the physical and therefore it is not sufficient to answer all the questions that men inevitably pose about themselves and their world.
As Catholics we believe that mankind was created by God for himself: that is, we are destined to share the communion of the life of the Holy Trinity. We are in physical continuity with the rest of life on the planet through the process of evolution. But, because we each have a spiritual soul created directly by God, we also are qualitatively different from other living beings. Science can rightly explore man’s continuity with the rest of life and thus uncover the causal chains by which God prepared the way for appearance of the human race. But, it is theology’s realm, aided by Divine Revelation, to explore those dimensions of human existence that cannot be the objects of scientific explanation.
The Catholic Church does not have to reject the theory of evolution in order to affirm our belief in our Creator. As Catholics we can affirm an understanding of evolution that is open to the full truth about the human person and about the world. With appropriate catechesis at home and in the parish on God as Creator, even our children in public schools should be able to achieve an integrated understanding of the means God chose to make us who we are.