Fr. Paul Robinson writes for Rorate Caeli : In the first months of 2015, I started what turned out to be the most difficult thing I had ever done, namely write a book (The Realist Guide to Religion and Science, Gracewing, 2018). Anyone who starts such a project knows that they have to have a strong motivation to do so. In my case, I wanted to set the record straight on the Church’s teaching on science in relation to the Bible. I could see that what I was taught as a seminarian and what I was teaching as a seminary professor somehow was not being passed on to the faithful. The book ended up having a much broader scope than originally intended, but it still very much included the originally intended corrective.
Why is the corrective needed? Because many faithful, on the one hand, make a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1 into a matter of faith and so, on the other hand, hold that the Big Bang Theory and Darwinian evolution are, of themselves, against the faith. For them, the authentic Catholic reading of Genesis 1 is that the universe was created in a full formed state 6000 years ago.
But this is simply not the case, and making that interpretation into a dogma creates theological, philosophical, and scientific difficulties, as I have explained elsewhere. What I would like to consider in this article is, firstly, the authentic teaching of the Church; secondly, why some Catholics are little inclined to accept that teaching; and finally, why their fear to accept it is groundless.
The authentic teaching of the Church
The first real evidence that the Earth is millions, if not billions, of years old came to light in the middle of the 19th century. It would not be until the 20th century that scientists figured out that there are other galaxies than our own and started to work their way to a 13.7-billion-year age for the universe. But it is much easier to investigate the geological processes that are going on in front of our eyes, and so scientists were able to determine the Earth’s ancient age more quickly than the universe’s ancient age.
What was the Church’s reaction when the evidence came forward? It was certainly not one of fear, as if the Earth being ancient could in any way impinge upon our Catholic faith or the inerrancy of the Bible. It was rather one of respect for the evidence and of careful explanation why that evidence was compatible with the faith.
The careful explanation included:
- Pope Leo XIII saying in Providentissimus Deus that there can be no contradiction between faith and science, that Scripture speaks in popular language and not scientific language, that Catholics are not bound to follow the opinions of the Fathers in matters of science, and that whatever science finds to be true must be reconciled to a proper interpretation of Scripture.
- Fr. Fulcran Vigouroux, the future Secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission under St. Pius X, stating in each edition of his seminary Scripture manual Manuel Biblique between 1890 and 1901 that the Bible gives no chronology, that there is no obligation to understand ‘day’ of Genesis 1 as a 24 hour period, and that the expressions ‘day’, ‘evening’, ‘morning’, and ‘rest’ in Genesis 1 are metaphorical.
- The Pontifical Biblical Commission itself, in a decree signed by Fr. Vigouroux, stating in 1909 that ‘day’ can be interpreted as a certain period of time instead of a natural day and that, since the Fathers and Doctors were never certain in their interpretation of Genesis 1-3, Catholics may hold their own opinion on their meaning, as long as their opinion is not against the faith.
- Pope Pius XII saying in Humani Generis that “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”.
These are the weightiest of the Catholic authorities of the time speaking on these questions. But, in point of fact, I have not been able to find any Catholic authority saying that the evidence for an ancient Earth must be rejected on grounds of faith, after consulting many seminary manuals and Catholic books on science from that period. Whether it be Cardinal Wiseman, Fr. Gerard Molloy, or St. Maximilian Kolbe; whether it be the great manualists Fillion, Gigot, Simon-Prado, and Renié; or whether it be the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia or the pre-Vatican II catechism My Catholic Faith—none of them require a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1; none of them have a problem with the Earth being millions of years old.
It was this climate of complete acceptance of real scientific evidence and reconciliation of that evidence with the faith that allowed for someone like Fr. Georges Lemaitre to propose the Big Bang Theory and for Pope Pius XII to embrace it in his 1951 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
In short, there are simply no grounds for Catholics to believe that an ancient age for the Earth or the universe is in conflict with a Catholic interpretation of the Bible or any of the articles of the Catholic Faith.
Yet, the reality of the situation is that there are a fair number of Catholics in 2020 who shudder at hearing about the Big Bang Theory or Darwinian evolution. If pre-Vatican II teaching is open, at least, to these theories being proposed, why are such Catholics so afraid?
The fear of naturalism
I think that the answer to this question can be found in I, q.2, a.3. That is perhaps the most famous article of the Summa Theologica, the one where St. Thomas asks if God exists. As usual, he provides objections to his own thesis and it turns out that the two objections found in that article are the only two atheist arguments that have any real bite to them.
The first objection is about the problem of evil and does not concern us here. The second objection goes like this:
It is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore, there is no need to suppose God’s existence.
The upshot of this argument is that we don’t need God to explain anything. Nature is self-explanatory. In other words, when we investigate nature, we are able to find a sufficient explanation for it completely within itself. There is no need for the “God hypothesis”, because there is nothing for God to explain.
Now, some Catholics seem to think that the objection is true. They seem to believe that when natural causes are used to explain natural effects, God becomes useless. They seem to think that natural explanations of phenomena, using secondary causes, somehow eliminate the explanatory territory that belongs to the first cause.
Whenever this happens, that is, whenever a believer comes to think that natural explanations are in competition with metaphysical explanations, that natural causes are capable of accomplishing what is accomplished by the supreme, transcendent cause, then he necessarily sees science as an enemy of faith and tries to head off science at the explanatory pass with a theological shutdown.
Now, the Big Bang Theory and Darwinian evolution attempt to give naturalistic explanations of the physical and biological realms.
The Big Bang Theory holds that the universe, with time and space came into existence 13.7 billion years ago, that it has been expanding ever since, and that a very, very fine-tuned configuration of the universe’s physical constants have resulted in the formation of the billions of galaxies and stars in our night sky.
Darwinian evolution holds that lifeforms competing for food and other resources undergo random mutations in that competition, some of which are advantageous. Then, nature “selects” those lifeforms that have advantageous mutations to survive, while it eliminates the lifeforms that have deleterious mutations. This, in time, results in two things: one is the diversification of biological form—the advent of new plants and animals; the other is the evolution or progressive improvement of plants and animals.
Just for the record—and this is explicitly in The Realist Guide to Religion and Science—I find the scientific arguments for the Big Bang Theory to be quite compelling, while I find the scientific arguments for Darwinian evolution to be completely uncompelling, at least for anything more than trivial changes in plants and animals.
But what I would like to point out here is that some Catholics would believe that the Big Bang Theory and Darwinian evolution are not primarily scientific questions but are rather theological questions. And the reason that they believe this is that they think that scientific explanations are in competition with metaphysical or theological explanations. For them, if the Big Bang Theory is true, then God is not needed to explain physical phenomena, and if Darwinian evolution is true, then God is not needed to explain biological phenomena.
That is why they attack those scientific theories as being godless and insist that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in a strictly literal sense. They save God and defeat science by their interpretation of the Bible.
Their fear, however, is groundless. The reason for this is that all material things have need of God to explain two things that are not even considered by science: why those material things exist at all and why they operate according to certain laws.
That is how St. Thomas answers the objection:
Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle.
There must be a metaphysical first cause for anything that is limited in its existence. But everything in the universe is limited in existence. Therefore, everything in the universe has God as its first cause. Therefore, it is impossible that any scientific naturalistic explanation of the way that things move or the way that things change can remove the need for a first cause. Therefore, there is no need for Catholics to worry that faith is being attacked—and the pre-Vatican II Catholic world did not worry—when scientists bring forward naturalistic explanations for the becoming of limited creatures. Those explanations will never, ever account for the being of limited creatures, as a First Cause alone can account for the being of contingent existences.
Moreover, whatever science finds out about the physical or biological world is going to reveal, to a greater degree, the intricate design that God has placed into our world, by His power as first cause. Naturalistic explanations, by definition, are going to showcase the laws that God has established for our world and the careful planning that He put into it.
The reason for this is that scientists have to give explanations for phenomena and explanations always seek to provide regular, ordered causes behind what we observe. But the only one who could establish the regular, ordered causation is the one who established the creatures of the material universe in their very being, namely God.
The Big Bang Theory, for instance, demands a choreography for the development of our universe that is utterly astonishing and which human minds could never have anticipated. Because it is a scientific theory, it does not touch metaphysics, which considers God’s direct causal activity in the order of being. But it does provide a clearer pointer to metaphysics because it makes all the more manifest that every single entity in the universe has been designed by one Being who has masterfully coordinated them all. We have far more reason to believe that an all-wise, all-good Creator has ordered the universe when we understand its fine-tuning that we would if we set science aside and could only have recourse to metaphysics or theology.
What is ironic in all of this is that the real danger to believers is not scientific discovery, but scientism, the idea that science is the only discipline of thought in which humans can attain certainty. It is the scientists who are also scientistic who are also atheistic. They have reduced all explanations to purely material explanations, excluding metaphysical and theological explanations by a simple fiat of their own wills.
This is ironic because believers who fear that scientific explanations are in competition with metaphysical and theological explanations can only possess such a fear if they themselves have fallen into scientism, at least in some degree. They do not consider, with St. Thomas, that all created things need a metaphysical explanation as well as a scientific explanation. As such, when scientific explanations become more complete and more compelling, they believe that reason is no longer able to prove the existence of God. This leads them to rush to theology and find an interpretation for the Bible which they can make authoritative over science, beating it into submission. But this is completely unnecessary, very dangerous, and contrary to the mind of the Church, as I hope this article has shown.