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No. 64 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 1996


by John F. McCarthy

        THEISTIC EVOLUTION.   The idea of theistic evolution has been promoted by some Catholic theologians since the beginning of the twentieth century. 1 Known technically as moderate transformism, this theory supposes an upward transformation of species from the non-living to the living and from the simple to the more complex along the lines suggested by Charles Darwin, but, contrary to Darwinism, according to a plan of development instilled in natural bodies by God the Creator. In 1931 Ernest Messenger came out with his Evolution and Theology, wherein he presented at length the arguments in favor of theistic evolution and gave ample quotations from Catholic theologians and from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

        As a starting point for a Catholic theistic approach to transformism (the theory of evolution), Messenger accepts the solemn Magisterium and the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, 2 and he gives "religious and prudential assent" to the Decrees of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of 1909 regarding the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis. 3 He thus gives assent to such historical facts declared by the Commission as: 1) the creation of all things by God in the beginning of time; 2) the special creation of man; 3} the formation of the first woman from the first man; and 4) the unity of the human race (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 3514). 4

        In his final summary and conclusions, Father Messenger avers: 'From the scientific point of view, there is so far no conclusive evidence that man has evolved. There are certain facts that seem to point that way, but we think we may safely regard the theory itself as a working hypothesis, or, better still, as an inference.... From the theological point of view, ... Scripture neither teaches nor disproves the doctrine of the evolution of the human body." 5 Having said this, he goes on to emphasize that "in the light of our modern theological knowledge a Catholic must admit more than one divine intervention in the origin of man. 1) There is first of all the creation and infusion of the rational soul.... 2) Next, we have the raising to the supernatural state. This affected both the body and the soul.... 3) Was there a divine intervention in the formation of the un-supernaturalized body of Adam? ... We think the formation of the human body may well have required a 'special Divine intervention,' at least to give it the last disposition necessary for the infusion of the human soul." 6

        Regarding the development of the inorganic world, it is Messenger's understanding that "Scripture does not mention any secondary causes," but "on grounds of natural reason we are justified in concluding that these played a very definite part.' Regarding the origin of living things, he finds that Scripture definitely asserts that these were all produced with the concourse of the active powers of inanimate matter: "And Elohim said, 'Let the earth sprout forth sprouting grass, herb yielding seed, fruit tree bearing fruit after its kind' ... (Gen 1:11-12). ... And Elohim said, 'Let the earth bring forth living animal after its kind, dumb beast and creeping thing and beast of the earth' ... (Gen 1:24)." 7 Thus, in Messenger's view, 'Holy Scripture, according to its plain and obvious sense, definitely teaches the origin of all living things from inorganic matter, by what may well be called 'spontaneous generation,' " and he prefers to hold "that Scripture really teaches spontaneous generation, and that this must accordingly be accepted as true." 8

        Messenger further maintains that this interpretation of Sacred Scripture has the general support of the Fathers of the Church. 9 Among the lengthy quotations he gives, the following are illustrative.

        St. Ephrem:   "The earth, then, produced everything with the aid of the waters and light." 10

        St. Basil:   " 'Let the earth bring forth.' This short command was in a moment a vast nature, an elaborate system. Swifter than thought it produced the countless properties of plants." ... " 'Let the waters bring forth...' ... The command was given, and immediately the rivers and the sea, becoming fruitful, brought forth their natural broods.... Not even in mud or marshes did the water remain idle - it took its part in creation. Everywhere from its ebullition frogs, goats and flies came forth. For that which we see today is the sign of the past.... 'Let the earth bring forth the living creature.' This command has continued, and earth does not cease to obey the Creator.... In wet weather she brings forth grasshoppers and an immense number of insects which fly in the air and have no names because they are so small; she also produces mice and frogs." 11

        St. Gregory of Nyssa:   " ... all things were virtually in the first divine impulse for creation, existing as it were in a kind of spermatic potency, sent forth for the genesis of all things. For individual things did not then exist actually.' 12

        St. John Chrysostom,   regarding the coming forth of plants on the third day: "He (Moses) says that the Lord commanded, and at once the earth, arousing the pains of labor which belong to its nature [literally, "its in-house pains of labor"] prepared itself for the shooting forth of plants." 13 Regarding the fifth day: " ... now he says, 'Let the waters produce.' See how the two commands correspond to one another. In the former, 'Let it shoot forth'; in the latter, 'Let the waters produce reptiles with living souls.'" 14

        St. Ambrose:   "It was spontaneously that the earth produced its fruits.... The fecundity of the earth still produces now the old abundance by means of its spontaneous fertility. For how numerous are the things which even now are generated spontaneously!' Again: "The order comes, and immediately the waters hasten to accomplish the prescribed births: the rivers engender, the lakes give life, the sea itself begins to bring forth the various kinds of reptiles, and pours forth according to its kind each one of those things it has formed." 15

        St. Augustine of Hippo:   " ... the earth then received in a hidden manner the power of producing them [trees], by which power it comes about that even now the earth generates such things openly and in its own time." He speaks of "those things which the waters and the earth produced potentially and causally before they were to arise in the course of time as they are now known to us, in those works which God works until now." 16 He adds: "Unless some such force were in the elements, those things which have not been sown there would not spring up, nor would so many animals come into being in the earth or in the water without union of sexes." 17

        Venerable Bede:   " ... at the one command of the Creator, the earth, which was dry, brought forth suddenly an abundance of plants...." "God therefore commands the earth to produce beasts and reptiles and beasts of the earth .... This is to make us understand that all things that God willed came into existence quicker than speech, and that it does not matter that human speech puts certain creatures first, for the Divine Power made all things at once." 18

        Messenger considers Gregory of Nyssa's "profound doctrine of the virtual creation of all things at the beginning of time" to be 'one of the greatest achievements of the Patristic period, if not of the whole Christian era." 19 Messenger notes how John Chrysostom explains, on the one hand, that the world did not arise by chance or from below, but 'by the ineffable power of the Creator" and 'according to God's command," and yet "does teach the efficient causality of inorganic matter in the production of animals and plants.' 20 Again, St. Ambrose like St. John Chrysostom "accepts the literal meaning of the six days," but he "categorically affirms" the activity of secondary causes "in the production of living beings." 21 And in St. Augustine's doctrine of the potential creation of living things, "these things pre-existed in the active causality of the elements, just as the tree did in the seed." 22

        Messenger admits that, since the time of Thomas Aquinas, the "seminal reasons" of St. Augustine "have often been interpreted as merely passive potentialities." 23 In fact, St. Thomas taught that "in the first institution of things the active principle was the Word of God, which produced animals from the material elements." 24 But Catholic transformists "have maintained that they are, on the contrary, active principles."25

        In examining the work of the sixth day of creation, St. Thomas addresses the question of generation from corrupting bodies. Could those animals which are generated from the putrefaction of flesh and bones have emerged in the first institution of things? He replies: 'Since the generation of one thing is the corruption of another, it does not conflict with the first institution of things that the more noble be generated from the less noble. And so, animals which are generated from the corruption of inanimate things and of plants could have been generated then. But those things which are generated from the corruption of animals could not have been produced then unless potentially only.' 26 Again St. Thomas says: 'Also new species, if such should appear, pre-existed in-certain active powers. Just as animals generated by putrefaction are produced by stellar and elemental powers which they received from the beginning, so also if new species of such animals should be produced...." 27

        Messenger maintains that, when St. Thomas says that "in the first institution of things, the active principle was the Word of God," he must not be taken to mean "that God directly and immediately created all animals, but only the higher ones, i.e., those which generate their kind by seed." 28 Yet, the idea that all plants and animals were in the beginning of things formed directly and immediately by God became the general catechesis of the Catholic Church due to the influence of Francisco Suárez, who declared: "It is clear that corporeal causes could not have concurred effectively in this work by natural power, because it took place suddenly and throughout the whole earth." 29 Messenger notes that from early in the twentieth century some Catholic theologians were opening the door to evolution as a possible hypothesis, although in opposition to this hypothesis he quotes Cardinal Lepicier, who in 1928 wrote that transformism 'openly contradicts the Sacred Text" as well as "the universal opinion of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church," who teach that "things were immediately created in their own natures by the supreme Maker of all things." 30 Messenger concludes that "there is no reason whatsoever" to prevent a Catholic from adopting 'evolution as a hypothesis applied to the origin of plants and animals.' 31

        SPONTANEOUS GENERATION.   The central issue in examining the idea of theistic evolution, or moderate transformism, is the question of spontaneous generation. Father Messenger maintains that "Scripture really teaches spontaneous generation." 32 He willingly concedes that "there is no scientific evidence that spontaneous generation takes place now,' but he hesitates to admit "that it never could have happened, even at the beginning," in view of "a very general and firm conviction" among the Fathers of the Church "that living beings all arose out of inorganic matter, by virtue of special powers given to the matter by the Creator for this end.' 33 The elements of an answer to Messenger's view of creation are present in the quotations presented in his book and already given in this article. It is clear from Sacred Scripture that God did not make the individual things of the inorganic and the organic world out of nothing, but rather out of primordial matter created by Him at the beginning of time. Therefore, even the miraculous emergence of individual things in the world, living or unliving, could mistakenly be regarded as a kind of "spontaneous generation," in the sense that the creative intervention of God is not visible. But this is not the issue. The discussion with transformism has to do with whether or not the species of living things emerged from the 'active powers" present in lower species of living things without a new creative intervention on the part of God and by a process in which individuals of the lower species "gave birth" to individuals of the higher species by a gradual process of transformation. None of the Fathers maintained that they did so emerge. For St. Ephrem, "the earth produced everything ...," not the next lower species of living things. For St. Basil, at the command of God, it was "the earth" that brought forth all the living species lower than man, and it did so "in a moment," not over millions of years. For St. John Chrysostom, "(God) simply says, 'Let the earth shoot forth,' and immediately He excites it to its labors of bringing forth," and 'Let the waters produce reptiles with living souls.' For St. Ambrose, "It was spontaneously that the earth produced its fruits."

        None of these Fathers visualized living species springing in a long upward series from lower living species, but only from the earth and from the water. They saw this happening "in a moment," when called for by 'the command of God." Now, the expression, "the command of God," contains a certain anthropomorphism. It does not mean that the earth, as a sentient being, "heard" the command of God and proceeded to act by its own powers. What it means is that God induced the earth to produce living beings, Whether or not God made use of "active powers," that were already in the elements is not crucial to the question, because the intervention of God is there as the elevating Cause, and, thus, the production of higher species is miraculous in any case - it is beyond the natural powers of the elements involved.

        According to Scholastic principles, when a substantial change occurs, one substantial form takes the place of another while prime matter abides the change. A material thing has a passive potentiality to become something else, but does it have the active power to turn itself into something else? Here a distinction needs to be made. Hydrogen gas and oxygen gas have the "active power" to combine to form water. Many such chemical changes are observed in nature. The issue in this discussion is whether or not a mixture of chemicals could have had the "active power" to become a living being without the direct causal intervention of God at the moment of the transformation, whether a vegetative being could become a sentient being without the direct intervention of God, whether a reptile could have become a bird, and so forth. Genesis 1 clearly tells us that God intervened in each of these cases to create the higher levels of being, and the various major species.

        Messenger quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa to the effect that in the first divine act of creation all things existed "in a kind of spermatic potency, sent forth for the genesis of all things." And he quotes St. Augustine as saying that the earth received "in a hidden manner the power to produce vegetation," and as speaking of "those things which the waters and the earth produced potentially and causally before they were to arise in the course of time as they are now known to us." But St. Augustine adds his belief that "even now the earth generates such things openly and in its own time," and "in those works which God works until now." Thus, we see that belief in on-going spontaneous generation motivated Basil, Augustine, and others to have this opinion. In fact, in ancient times and all the way down to the time of Louis Pasteur in the nineteenth century, the spontaneous generation of some lower species of plant and animal life was a commonly accepted belief. Thus, St. Augustine makes the remark: 'As for the small creatures that come forth from the bodies of animals, particularly from corpses, it is absurd to say that they were created when the animals themselves were created, except in the sense that there was present from the beginning in all living bodies a natural power, and, I might say, there were interwoven with these bodies the seminal principles of animals later to appear, which would spring forth from the decomposing bodies, each according to its kind and with its special properties, by the wonderful power of the immutable Creator, who moves all His creatures." 34 This quote reflects St. Augustine's famous theory of "seminal reasons," planted in the elements at the beginning of time, from which animals would spring forth in due time, "by the wonderful power of the immutable Creator, who moves all his creatures."

        We know today that maggots and worms do not spring forth spontaneously from putrefying flesh, nor are mice and frogs generated from moist earth. The discovery that in nature "life comes only from life," and, indeed, from the same species of life, was a colossal event that has transformed the whole discussion of the origin of species.

        Patrick O'Connell tells the story in these words: "It was the common belief of all, both pagans and Christians down to the seventeenth century, that spontaneous generation was a fact.... In 1668, Francesco Redi from Italy proved by experiment that maggots could not be generated by rotting meat.... The belief that bacteria could arise spontaneously persisted down to the time of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who proved by an experiment somewhat similar to that of Francesco Redi that such was not possible.... In [a] lecture which he delivered at the Sorbonne in 1864, he explained his experiment and concluded his address with these words: 'Never will the doctrine of spontaneous generation recover from this simple experiment.' ... (However), in 1868, ... [Thomas] Huxley [a noted Darwinian evolutionist], publicly claimed to have discovered that a primitive form of life is actually generated spontaneously in the depths of the sea. He got some mud that had been dredged from the ocean and examined it with a microscope, and thought he discovered that it moved.... He lived under the delusion for eight years until it was proved conclusively that the movements that he observed in the mud could be produced by treating it with alcohol. Huxley admitted his error and withdrew his claim." 35

        Messenger is driven to suggest that, 'if science could prove the reality of spontaneous generation, a Catholic should welcome this, for it would enable him to give complete assent to the teaching of the Fathers on the point." 36 By no means! Science has done Catholics a favor by disproving the occurrence of spontaneous generation, because in doing so it has undermined the credibility of transformism. We could just as easily say, in reply to Father Messenger's wish, that 'if science could prove the formation of the world and of all the species of life within the space of six 24-hour days, a Catholic should welcome this, for it would enable him to give complete assent to the teaching of the Fathers on this point." Evolutionists appeal vaguely to "science" as the reason for their belief, but modern natural science, by demonstrating that spontaneous generation does not occur in nature as well as by numerous other observations, has undone all of the wished-for results that Charles Darwin visualized in his Origin of Species and in his Descent of Man.' 37

        Like most theistic evolutionists, Ernest Messenger seems to have spent little time investigating whether the claims of Darwinists had any real substantiation on the level of natural science and historical fact. He simply accepted the conclusions of his teacher at the University of Louvain, Canon Henri de Dorlodot. Messenger translated de Dorlodot's book into English in 1922 under the title of Darwinism and Catholic Thought. Messenger's own work consisted mainly in proposing reasons for a theological acceptance of evolution in the Catholic Church, supposing, of course, that the transformation of species is likely to have taken place, but he did not seriously investigate the evidence against such an alleged historical occurrence. Messenger was led to adopt the theory of human evolution as an inference from ape-man discoveries that have since been shown to be either hoaxes or misreadings of the facts.' 38

                The "seminal reasons," or 'causal reasons," of St. Augustine are visualized, not as seeds in the common sense of 'visible, tangible substances out of which organisms grow," but rather as "seed-like powers in the created world, causing the seeds to develop according to God's plan." Hence, "given the appropriate conditions of earth and moisture, these powers would produce the living creatures intended by God." 39 We readily admit that any avenue of creation is within the omnipotent power of God, but, in terms of empirical observations, there is no way that one can visualize today how the blueprint of future living things could have actually existed in the primordial elements in a natural way, even as what Messenger calls 'special powers." Thus, one can reasonably say that, just as biological transformism is "a theory without a mechanism," 40 so also are the seminal reasons of St. Augustine a "theory without a mechanism," unless at certain points creative (miraculous) interventions by God are included. It is, therefore, more reasonable to adhere, not to the theory of "seminal reasons," but rather to the opinion of those other Fathers of the Church who understand the days of creation in Genesis 1 as representing a chronological series of divine interventions by means of which the different kinds of things were brought into being.

        If Augustine were alive today, he would probably agree. He adopted his non-chronological interpretation of the six days of creation after several unsatisfactory attempts to produce a consistent chronological reading. He was especially troubled by the problem of light created on the first day, when the sun, moon, and stars are placed on the fourth day.41 So he settled for intellectual light and days of intellectual illumination. 42 But he was not utterly attached to this view, as he himself tells us: "Whoever seeks another meaning in the numbering of those days, not figuratively in prophecy, but properly in the actual creation of things, let him seek and with the help of God let him find one. 1 myself may possibly discover some other meaning more in harmony with the words of Scripture. For I do not maintain this interpretation in such a way that I contend that another more preferable one cannot be found, in the way that I maintain that Sacred Scripture did not want to suggest to us that God rested, as it were, after feeling tired or worn out." 43 Thus, he did not firmly oppose the idea that God intervened repeatedly during six chronological days of creation. He also left the matter open in another way. He asks how God made these "causal reasons" in the first place. Did He also provide that "through these reasons creatures would be fully formed instantaneously, as Adam is believed to have been made an adult man without any previous period of development [to the mature individual]?" Augustine goes on to say: 'We must conclude, then, that these reasons were created to exercise their causality in either one way or the other: by providing for the ordinary development of new creatures in appropriate periods of time, or providing for the rare occurrence of a miraculous production of a creature, in accordance with what God wills as proper for the occasion. " 44

        AN UPDATE IN THE DISCUSSION.   Since the time of Ernest Messenger, a growing number of Catholic writers have supported the idea of theistic evolution. A recent example is Enrico Zoffoli, to whom it "seems more likely' that God chose "to project the evolutionary development of matter and to carry it out by making use of the causality of subhuman creatures fittingly programmed and destined by Him." 45 To Zoffoli it seems more likely because: a) it provides a "greater unity and solidarity of the species leading up to man, their highest synthesis;" b) it "elevates the natural productive power of secondary causes;" c) it is 'more fitting to the dignity of man, the most noble product of the cosmic energies, oriented to and subordinated to the formation of the human body;" and d) it ensures that "the higher vital energies of the vegetable and animal world" were not left unutilized in the "greatest event of natural history" (the creation of man). 46

        Zoffoli feels that, in the evolutionary view, the formative process of the universe shows "the greatest possible internal unity," and "reveals the causality of God much more clearly," since it considers that over billions of years "the wisdom and love of God have woven the highly complicated texture of cosmic events without ever losing sight of man."47

        As regards the more recent teaching of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII, in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 30 November 1941, left open to future investigation the question of from what material base the body of the first man was formed, as long as it is not questioned that human souls are created directly by God. This same latitude was allowed in the encyclical letter Humani generis of 1960, in which Pope Pius XII declared also the following conditions:

Wherefore, the Magisterium of the Church, in view of the present state of opinion in the fields of the human disciplines and of sacred theology, does not prohibit that the doctrine of "evolutionism" be looked into through the research and discussion of experts in both fields, namely, to the extent that this doctrine seeks the origin of the human body as having emerged from already existing and living matter - for Catholic faith requires us to hold that the souls are created immediately by God - (proceeding), indeed, in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, of those favoring and those opposed, be weighed and adjudged with due gravity, moderation, and restraint, and with the proviso that all are prepared to abide by the judgment of the Church, to which has been entrusted by Christ the office of authentically interpreting the Sacred Scriptures and of safeguarding the dogmas of faith. But some are recklessly going beyond the bounds of this freedom of discussion, when they comport themselves as if the origin of the human body from already existing and living matter were now completely certain and proven both by the evidence so far discovered and by reasonings deduced from the same evidence, and as though nothing is known from the sources of divine revelation which demands on this issue the greatest moderation and caution (DS 3896).

        I do not think that scientific research since 1960 has made any more likely the emerging of the first human body from a simian ancestor. Indeed, the opposite is the case. 48 Regarding the teaching of Humani generis quoted just above, Enrico Zoffoli certainly does not pretend that the origin of species and of the human body by transformist ascent from the chemical elements to a simian ancestor is a proven fact, but neither does he present with due consideration the many serious points of evidence that are being advanced against this theory, as the encyclical requires such writers to do, and he favors the evolutionary theory in spite of the warning expressed in the encyclical, "as though nothing is known from the sources of divine revelation which demands on this issue the greatest moderation and caution." Here is the full treatment that Father Zoffoli gives to the evidence on the other side: "Everything considered, the evolutionist hypothesis seems much less distant from the biblical text and context than does the contrary one; it, above all, explains better some data that have emerged from comparative anatomy, palaeontology, embryology, etc." 49 About these data he says nothing more, and one is led to suspect that he has not reviewed any of the serious counter-evidence that has been brought against those alleged findings from comparative anatomy, palaeontology, embryology, etc., and especially from microbiology during the last few decades.

        It was Father Zoffoli's intention in writing this voluminous "compendium of Christianity" (1369 pages) to expound the unquestionable truths "that every believer must accept," and not to court the favor of the surrounding secular culture (Preface). And he has very largely succeeded in this purpose, but I think that he momentarily veered away from his aim while he was composing his six pages on the creation of life. To me his reasons for giving "more likely" status to the upward transformation of one biological species into another are weak and easily gainsaid.

        a)  That man represents a microcosm of the entire universe has been well brought out in traditional theology without recourse to the theory of transformism. The "unity and solidarity" of all living species is illustrated by their similarity in design and by their parallel life processes. It is this very pattern of similarity that led Darwin and his followers into imagining an origin through the upward transformation of one species into another. But traditional theology has also brought out the essential difference between one major species and another (and especially between the inorganic, vegetative, sentient, and rational levels of existence), a difference which coherent transformism necessarily minimizes and seeks to eliminate.

        b)  To say that the theory of transformism "elevates the natural productive power of secondary causes" is to confuse otherwise clear concepts. That Moses used a wooden staff to perform a series of miracles in Egypt has a certain symbolic significance, but to claim that, by the use of this staff, God elevated its natural productive power would be to indulge in poetic fantasy. That God gave a man (Moses) the possibility to be a secondary cause in the working of miracles is also a tribute to the man, but to minimize the miracles in favor of the man would be a mistake that a transformist can easily make. The whole purpose of Darwinism, as understood and taught by the majority of its followers, is to eliminate the miraculous in the origin of the natural world in favor of an unproved spontaneous power supposed to be inherent in nature itself. It is just such an "elevation," conferred by the subjective intent of the believer in transformism, that traditional theology has taken care to avoid. To imagine a case, a theistic transformist (who, unlike most transformists, continued to believe in the historical truth of the Mosaic account), might theorize that in the first plague in Egypt the water actually turned spontaneously into blood as the result of "special powers" inherent in its nature, and subsequently that frogs emerged spontaneously from the waters, and then gnats came forth spontaneously from the dust of the earth, and flies as well (Ex 7-8), and, finally, that the waters of the Red Sea formed spontaneously into a walled passageway by virtue of their own special powers (Ex 14) - but what advantage would such a supposition add to the understanding of history? It would only detract without reason from the miraculous interventions of God, as does also the theory of the evolution of species.

        c)  The transformist hypothesis is not 'more fitting to the dignity of man," because it detracts from the special way in which Adam was created, and it contradicts the special way in which Eve was created. The material energies of the cosmos are not at all oriented towards the creation of mankind, nor are its vegetative and sentient energies. The emergence of mankind is simply miraculous. Father Zoffoli, of course, acknowledges that God is the First Cause of the emergence of man and of all other species of life, and he reasons that, in the evolutionary hypothesis, God alone gave the finality for the 'final push" from a simian form to man. But such a conjecture does not adequately portray the dignity of mankind for several reasons: 1) it does not sufficiently describe the immensity of the difference between any brute animal and man; 2) it conceals the miraculous causality of God behind alleged "secondary causes;" 3) there is no reliable evidence from palaeontology that any links between apes and man have ever existed. 50 Father Zoffoli affirms that "the distinct creation of the separate species is uniquely proper to the omnipotence of God: this would be the first of all miracles." 51 But his transformist theory hides the miraculous interventions behind a seemingly natural occurrence, as an ape, for example, is imagined to have turned into a man, or a reptile into a bird. This is exactly what modern atheists dream to have happened, although they can find no objective evidence to verify it. We must ask ourselves why atheists are so wedded to this contrived causality. I think because it provides them with a pretext for turning the worship due to God the Creator into a superstitious reverence for a mysterious (and non-existent) creative force within the cosmos and for glorifying mankind as the highest existent reality. Such unbridled pride does not truly represent the dignity of man.

        Zoffoli sees an inconvenience in the fact that the traditional approach "obliges one to multiply the miracles to as many as there are created species," and yet he himself admits that "the distinct creation of the separate species is uniquely proper to the omnipotence of God." He thus seems to be affirming the miracles and denying the miracles in one and the same breath. He admits, of course, with no hesitation that God is the "only Cause of the spiritual [human] soul, created time after time for each individual," 52 and that God has thus intervened tens of billions of times in these creations, yet he is troubled by the thought of God's intervening creatively to produce the various species of living things - much, much less in number.

        Zoffoli conjectures that the body of Adam sprang from the body of an ape, but became human through the infusion by God of a rational soul which also made the body human. Thus, he believes, was probably effected the final step in a hymn of the universe leading up to man and testifying to the solidarity of the entire universe with man, such as would not have been realized if God had made Adam directly out of clay, or from the dust of the earth. I wonder how Fr. Zoffoli visualizes the final resurrection of the dead. Will our bodies arise directly from the dust of the earth, as most of us imagine? Or will a second long process of evolution take place, in which all of the physical and vital forces of the new creation will have their share in the production of our human bodies, while we in our separated souls wait patiently for a few billion years, gratified by the fact that in this way our true dignity as men is being affirmed? I think that the answer to this question is obvious.


1. For a sketch of this movement, see Patrick O'Connell, Science of Today and the Problem of Genesis (2d ed., 1969: Christian Book Club of America, Hawthorne, California 90250), bk. 1, pp. 61-81.

2. E. Messenger, Evolution and Theology (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1931), p. 1.

3. Ibid, p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 7.

5. Ibid., p. 275.

6. Ibid., p. 276.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. Ibid., p. 16.

9. Ibid.

10. Ephrem the Syrian, Explanatio in Genesim, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 17.

11. Basil the Great, Hexaemeron, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., pp. 20-22.

12. Gregory of lyssa, Apologetic Treatise on the Hexaemeron, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 25-26.

13. John Chrysostom, Fifth Homily, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 32.

14. John Chrysostom, Seventh Homily, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 34.

15. St. Ambrose, Homilies on the Hexaemeron, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 38.

16. Aurelius Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram, bk. 5, ch. 23, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 51.

17. Augustine, op. cit., quoted by Messenger on p. 51.

18. Bede the Venerable, Hexaemeron, quoted by Messenger, op. cit., p. 59.

19. Messenger, op. cit., p. 26.

20. Messenger, op. cit., p. 35.

21. Messenger, op. cit., p. 37.

22. Messenger, op. cit., p. 52.

23. Messenger, op. cit., p. 40.

24. Messenger, op. cit., p. 49, quoting Aquinas, S. Th. I, q. 71, ad l. However, the text of St. Thomas says "ex materia elementari," which is literally translated "from elementary matter."

25. Messenger, op. cit., p. 40.

26. Aquinas, S. Th. I, q. 72, ad 5, quoted by Messenger on p. 73.

27. Aquinas, S. Th. I, q. 72, art. 1, ad 3, quoted by Messenger on p. 74.

28. Messenger, op. cit., p. 74.

29. Messenger, op. cit., p. 77, quoting F. Suárez, De opere sex dierum (Lyon: 1621), bk. 2, ch. 7.

30. Lepicier, De opere sex dierum (Rome: 1928), p. 238, quoted by Messenger on p. 80.

31. Messenger, op. cit., p. 84.

32. Messenger, op. cit., p. 16. To Messenger's declaration that "Scripture really teaches spontaneous generation,' Patrick O'Connell replies as follows (op. cit., bk. 1, p. 30): "'The plain and obvious sense' of the words quoted is that all living things were produced from inanimate matter by the command of God, and that cannot be called 'spontaneous generation' even by a stretch of the imagination."

33. Messenger, op. cit., p. 60.

34. A. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis (translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, New York: Newman Press, 1982), bk. 3, ch. 14.

35. O'Connell, op. cit., bk. 1, pp. 28-29.

36. Messenger, op. cit., p. 84.

37. See, for example, Walt Brown, In the Beginning (Center for Scientific Creation, 5612 N. 20th Place, Phoenix, AZ 85016, U.S.A.), 6th edition (1995) - and my review of the same in Living Tradition No. 63 (March 1996).

38. See O'Connell, op. cit., bk. 1, pp. 64-68.

39. In Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translator's note, vol. 1, p. 253.

40. Brown, op. cit., p. 17.

41. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, bk. 5, ch. 1. A chronological solution to the problem of the placing of the sun in the heavens on the fourth day is offered in J.F. McCarthy, "The Creation and Formation of the Physical Universe," Living Tradition 50 (January 1994), p. 11.

42. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, bk. 1, ch. 17.

43. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, bk. 4, ch. 28.

44. Ibid., bk. 6, ch. 14.

45. E. Zoffoli, Cristianesimo: corso di teologia cattolica (Udine: Edizioni Segno, 1994), p. 355.

46. Ibid.

47. Zoffoli, op. cit., p. 356.

48. See Living Tradition 63 (March 1996), cited in note 37 above.

49. Zoffoli, op. cit., p. 355.

50. See Brown, op. cit., p. 11.

51. Zoffoli, op. cit., p. 356.

52. Zoffoli, op. cit., p. 357.



by Brian W. Harrison

        A recent article on Jesus' Resurrection in a Catholic magazine generally noted for its sound doctrine and defence of the Church's magisterium is symptomatic of the uncertainty and confusion which have plagued Catholic biblical studies in recent decades. While upholding the truth of Our Lord's bodily triumph over the grave and the reality of his appearances to the disciples, the author of the article nevertheless remarked in passing that the various Gospel accounts of the Easter events are "contradictory" in regard to some secondary points. To its credit, the magazine subsequently published a clarification stating that the true intention of the editorial had been to admit only apparent contradictions in these biblical narratives. Nevertheless, since the view that Scripture includes real contradictions is now common even among many who consider themselves orthodox and even conservative Catholics, it seems opportune to offer some observations on this question.

        Since contradictory statements cannot both be true, such concessions obviously imply that the biblical writers can err, at least on points of history. Catholics who take this position now generally hold that only some biblical statements present 'religious' or 'salvific' truth - in other words, matters connected in some way with faith or morals - and that it is only in such matters that Scripture is guaranteed to be free from error. That is, they think the Bible also includes other merely 'profane' statements, which, being without any relevance for our salvation, are not covered by the guarantee of inerrancy.

        We must admit that those who sustain this theory of limited biblical inerrancy can now claim plenty of prestigious company. Given today's crisis of faith within the Church, the great majority of professional biblical scholars claiming to be Catholic now appear to have adopted this theory, which has been openly and unambiguously championed even in the authoritative Roman review La Civiltà Cattolica (cf. its unsigned editorial article of 4 January 1986, p. 11). But this does not alter the fact that the theory has been clearly condemned in every papal encyclical dealing with biblical interpretation: that is, in Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus of 1893 (Enchiridion Biblicum 124);1   St. Pius X's Pascendi of 1907 (EB 264);2   Benedict XV's Spiritus Paraclitus of 1920 (EB 454);3   and in two encyclicals of Pius XII - Divino afflante Spiritu of 1943 (EB 538)4   and Humani generis of 1950 (EB 612).5   The reason given for the condemnation has always been the same: God is the primary Author of all the individual affirmations made by the human authors of Scripture, irrespective of their varied subject-matter. And God cannot err. This is the essential and immutable meaning of the Catholic dogma of biblical inspiration.

        At Vatican II the 'European Alliance' led by the German- and Dutch-speaking Fathers openly contested this perennial Catholic doctrine. They claimed that modern scientific and historical research had made it impossible to defend, and urged the removal from the schema on Divine Revelation of the statement that Scripture is "without error" (cf. Acta Synodalia Ill, III 275-276). Thanks to the resistance of the conservative minority, that statement was retained: article 11 of Dei Verbum upholds the doctrine that everything affirmed by the sacred writers is affirmed by the Holy Spirit, and so is both necessarily true and in some way profitable for salvation. Since Vatican II, however, most exegetes have gone their own way, dismissing the authentic Catholic doctrine with mere pejorative labels ("fundamentalism" and "concordism"), and 'interpreting' the Council not according to what it really teaches, but according to what they wanted it to teach. Predictably, this admission of Scriptural errors in supposedly unimportant ('merely profane') matters has turned out to be the proverbial camel's nose under the Arab's tent. After all, every scholar has his or her personal opinion about what is in fact 'unimportant,' and, in the absence of any commonly accepted judge, the most radical theories will soon be considered just as acceptable within the scholarly peer-group as the more cautious ones. To use another metaphor, the 'limited inerrancy' theory has quickly led Scripture scholars down a slippery slope of scepticism, at the bottom of which is the now common view that so much in the Gospels themselves (never mind the Old Testament!) is due to the "creativity" of their anonymous redactors, and of the early Christian communities, that any given passage is to be presumed as historically unauthentic until the contrary is proven. Doubt and confusion thus reign supreme as to what Jesus really did and said.

        As regards the alleged contradictions in the Resurrection narratives (concerning the number of angels at the tomb, the number of women who visited it, the sequence of the various appearances, etc.), these difficulties have been known - and dealt with - since Patristic times. The Church has not left us without sound hermeneutical guidance as to how these and many other Scriptural difficulties of a historical and scientific character are to be approached. Contrary to much post-conciliar propaganda, the traditionally approved Catholic approach to the Bible was not some kind of crude literalism. The three great biblical encyclicals - Providentissimus Deus, Spiritus Paraclitus, and Divino afflante Spiritu - are magnificent documents which set out perennially valid principles for exegesis which is both scientific and orthodox. And to show that it does not consider these encyclicals out-of-date, Vatican Council II repeatedly cites all three of them in the Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, in explanatory footnotes which are sadly neglected in the tendentious commentaries of typical post-conciliar exegetes.

        When was the last time, for instance, that you heard or read a Catholic Scripture scholar pointing out that, according to Vatican II, faithful exegetes must always seek to reconcile apparent contradictions in the Bible? It is far more probable that you have been hearing the exact opposite! The fact is that most contemporary exegetes, having once accepted the pernicious principle that Scripture can contain historical errors, no longer feel obliged to defend it from the charge of error in any given case. That is, they take the line of least resistance, sliding straight to the bottom of the slippery slope. For instance, they follow a norm which Msgr. John McCarthy has aptly termed the modern biblical scholar's one-minute rule. This is a piece of unwritten 'legislation' stipulating that the biblical scholar, if faced with two apparently contradictory texts in Scripture, shall) examine them for a period not in excess of one minute. If within that period he has not succeeded in seeing how they are to be reconciled, he is to declare the contradiction to be real, not just apparent, so that any further attempt on the part of others to reconcile the said texts is to be dismissed scornfully as a naive exercise in 'pre-conciliar concordism.'

        Yet in footnote 5 to Dei Verbum 11, which cites various authoritative sources explaining more fully how we are to approach the question of biblical inerrancy, the Second Vatican Council includes a reference to the paragraph EB 127 from Providentissimus Deus, wherein Pope Leo XIII, far from endorsing the one-minute rule, enjoins the contrary procedure as the authentically Catholic one. This paragraph reads as follows:

Moreover, all the Fathers and Doctors were so utterly convinced that the original texts of the divine Writings are absolutely immune from all error that they laboured with no less ingenuity than devotion to harmonise and reconcile those many passages which might seem to involve some contradiction or discrepancy (and these are for the most part the same passages as are now raised as objections in the name of modern science). They professed unanimously that these Books, entire and in their parts, were equally inspired by God Himself, who, in speaking through the sacred authors, could not have uttered anything at all which was foreign to the truth. What Augustine wrote to Jerome is equally valid for all: "For I confess to your charity that I have learnt to regard those books of Scripture now called canonical - and them alone - with such awe and honour that I most firmly believe none of their authors has erred in writing anything. And if I come across anything in those Writings which troubles me because it seems contrary to the truth, I will unhesitatingly lay the blame elsewhere: perhaps the copy is untrue to the original; or the translator may not have rendered the passage faithfully; or perhaps I have just not understood it."

        Defending the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, in accord with the perennial doctrine of the Catholic Church, can at times be a difficult and faith-challenging task; but it remains necessary, not only in order to remain loyal to the Church's Magisterium, but also in order to uphold the rational foundations of Christianity, which is a revealed and yet historical faith in its very essence.


1. "It is absolutely forbidden either to restrict inspiration to only some parts of Sacred Scripture, or to concede that a sacred author has erred. Equally intolerable is the theory of those who, in order to free themselves from these difficulties [in the Bible], do not hesitate to maintain that divine inspiration pertains to matters of faith and morals and nothing more, since they falsely think that, when the truth of judgements is at issue (de veritate sententiarum quum agitur), one should seek to discover not so much what God has said, but rather, the reason why He said it." This passage of Providentissimus Deus is also cited by Vatican II in footnote 5 to Dei Verbum 11, in order to explain more fully the Council's own teaching on biblical inerrancy.

2. "Thus, according to them [the modernists whose theories are condemned in this encyclical], very many errors of a scientific and historical nature are found in the Sacred Books. However, they say, Scripture does not treat of science or history, only of religion and morals: science and history are there as a kind of clothing which envelops religious and moral experiences in order to communicate them more easily to the common people.'

3. "Yet no one can pretend that certain recent writers really adhere to these [i.e., Leo XIII's] norms. For while conceding that inspiration extends to every phrase - and, indeed, to every single word of Scripture - yet, by endeavouring to distinguish between what they style the primary or religious and the secondary or profane element in the Bible, they claim that the effects of inspiration - namely, absolute truth and immunity from error - are to be restricted to that primary or religious element. Their notion is that only what concerns religion is intended and taught by God in Scripture, and that all the rest - things concerning 'profane knowledge,' the garments in which Divine truth is presented - God merely permits, and even leaves to the individual author's greater or less knowledge. Small wonder, then, that in their view a considerable number of things occur in the Bible touching physical science, history and the like, which cannot be reconciled with modern progress in science!"

4. After referring back in this opening passage of his 1943 encyclical to the First Vatican Council's solemn teaching on the divine authorship of Scripture, Pius XII continues: "Subsequently, however, certain Catholic writers dared to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture to matters of faith and morals alone, relegating everything else, whether of a physical or historical character, to the status of 'obiter dicta' which (so it was claimed) are in no way connected to the faith. But since this was opposed to [Vatican I's] solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, which insists that the biblical books, 'entire and with all their parts,' are endowed with such divine authority as to enjoy freedom from all error, Our Predecessor of immortal memory Leo XIII responded in the Encyclical Letter Providentissimus Deus... by justly and fittingly striking down those erroneous opinions, while at the same time laying down very wise precepts and norms for the study of the Divine Books."

5. "Some are boldly perverting the sense of the [First] Vatican Council's words which define God to be the author of Sacred Scripture, and are reviving the opinion - so often condemned already - that would restrict the inerrancy of Scripture to what concerns God and matters of religion and morals. Indeed, they speak falsely of a human sense of the Bible, under which is supposed to lie hidden the Divine sense - the only infallible one, they claim."

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