The Church’s Magisterium, Evolution and Contraception: a Reply to a Critic

Vatican Council I

By Hugh Owen

In recent years, defenders of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation have often made a comparison between our current struggle to defend the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation against so-called “theistic” evolution and the struggle to defend the traditional Catholic doctrine of marriage and sexuality against contraception prior to the publication of Humanae vitae. Recently, we have received a letter accusing us of making a false comparison in this regard, and we welcome the opportunity to clarify our position. We will respond to the arguments of our critic below, but first we think that it is important to clarify the exact nature of the analogy that we are making between the relationship between the Magisterium of the Catholic Church and theistic evolution and the relationship between the Magisterium and contraception.

In the first place, we are NOT arguing that the Magisterium stands in the same relationship to theistic evolution TODAY as it did to contraception AFTER the publication of Humanae vitae. Yet that seems to be the position our critic is attacking. If so, he is making a straw man argument. No, our thesis is that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church stands in the same position in relation to theistic evolution TODAY as it stood in relation to contraception in 1965, PRIOR to the definitive statement of Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae.

In other words, our argument is that the overwhelming weight of evidence from Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching upholds the special creation of all the different kinds of creatures “in the beginning” of creation, and that Humani generis—far from giving theologians license to teach evolution—simply exhorted qualified Catholic scholars to examine the evidence for and against the evolutionary hypothesis, JUST AS Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI gave the members of the Birth Control Commission permission to examine the evidence for and against birth control when the overwhelming weight of evidence from Sacred Tradition and Magisterial teaching supported the Church’s constant teaching on the sinfulness of contraception. Therefore, JUST AS Catholics were obliged to hold fast to the traditional teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality PRIOR to the publication of Humanae vitae so are Catholics today obliged to hold fast to the traditional teaching of the Church on special creation, even though the Magisterium has not yet published its (inevitable) official reaffirmation of the traditional teaching on creation.

With this as a preamble, we will try to respond to our critic’s comments in detail, to show some of the ways that he has failed to present the traditional teaching on special creation accurately in his remarks. He writes:

The first what one might call complete theory of evolution was made in the 1800s, long before Darwin. Catholic priests were addressing the topic as early as the 1870s. The Holy Office generally asked that the books be withdrawn, but didn’t punish the authors, and none of the popes stepped in on the matter.

This is not an accurate summary for several reasons. In the first place, pagan philosophers like Lucretius were promoting evolutionary theories very similar to Darwin’s in the early centuries of the Church and the Church Fathers were unanimous in rejecting them as nonsensical and utterly contradictory to God’s revelation to Moses. In the second place, it was not just Catholic priests who were “addressing the topic” of evolution in the 1870’s. In 1860 the Provincial Council of Cologne (1860) made the following pronouncement one year after the appearance of Darwin’s “On the Origin of the Species” (1859):

Our first parents were formed immediately by God. Therefore we declare that the opinion of those who do not fear to assert that this human being, man as regards his body, emerged finally from the spontaneous continuous change of imperfect nature to the more perfect, is clearly opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the Faith.

Nine years later, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), quoting the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), taught the following:

This sole true God ‘immediately from the beginning of time fashioned each creature out of nothing, spiritual and corporeal […] (DZ 1783)

The accompanying anathema reads as follows:

If anyone does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing […] let him be anathema. (DZ 1805)

The First Vatican Council thus reaffirmed the Firmiter of Lateran IV which had defined that God created ALL things, the spiritual and the corporeal creatures, “at once” (simul) from the beginning of time. If you consult the study Creation and Time at this link you will find proof that the greatest Catholic commentators on the Firmiter for 600 years, like St. Lawrence of Brindisi and Cornelius a Lapide, held that it ruled out the creation of all of the different kinds of creatures over long ages of time. Indeed, they held that the Firmiter was compatible with the six days of creation—the overwhelming majority view of the Fathers and Doctors—or an instantaneous creation of all things—the Augustinian minority view—but not with the idea that creation was spread out over a long period of time.

As Creation and Time demonstrates, it was only the acceptance of wildly speculative Lyellian geology as fact that led theologians at the end of the nineteenth century to reinterpret the Firmiter to accommodate Lyell’s long ages of geologic time. This new fashion in geology notwithstanding, Vatican Council I reaffirmed the Firmiter in the same sense in which it was written and anathematized anyone who argued that the progress of the sciences demands that the Catholic doctrine of creation be altered—the very thing that theistic evolution necessarily entails.

Our critic continues:

In 1909 we have the PBC stating that Catholic teaching does not require a six day, young earth creationist understanding of Genesis. It also states that certain things must be believed, including the special creation of man, the creation of the first woman from the first man, and that we are all descended from these two parents. It does NOT condemn the idea of evolution, even though the idea was becoming more mainstream at that point.

This summary misrepresents reality in a number of important ways. In the first place, the PBC decrees of 1909 placed the burden of proof on the exegete who denied the proper sense of any part of the text of Genesis 1-3. That is apparent if you read all eight of the answers published on Genesis 1-3 in 1909. The PBC specifically states that exegetes must proceed with the “Church and the Fathers” “leading the way.” But ALL of the Fathers believed and taught that Genesis was a sacred history and that God created the entire material universe in six days or an instant less than ten thousand years ago. Thus, any exegesis of Genesis One that allows the Fathers to “lead the way” cannot possibly endorse theistic evolution or progressive creation over millions or billions of years. In the second place, our critic left out the most important of all the “certain things” that the PBC decrees say “must be believed,” namely, “the creation of ALL THINGS by God at the beginning of time.” We cannot help wondering, “Why did he leave that one out?”

That we MUST BELIEVE in “the creation of ALL THINGS by GOD at the beginning of time” establishes a number of points which must ultimately prove fatal to any attempt to baptize evolution. In the first place, if God created all things “IN THE BEGINNING,” how can creation have been spread out over millions or billions of years? In the second place, if God created ALL THINGS “in the beginning,” then how can the evolutionary conjecture be true that tells us that one kind of creature turned into another over hundreds of millions of years? Our critic blithely passes over the difficulty inherent in holding that we MUST BELIEVE that Genesis is to be taken literally when Moses tells us that Eve was created FROM ADAM’S SIDE but that we are somehow free to believe that other verses in the same chapters of the same book may be understood in a purely figurative way! Given what the PBC decrees required Catholics to believe under pain of mortal sin, it was hardly necessary for the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission to “condemn the idea of evolution”—especially when a PBC decree would not have been the appropriate place to publish such a formal condemnation.

Our critic continues by reminding us that:

With this background, in 1950, Pius XII issues Humani Generis, drawing lines which cannot be crossed based on Catholic dogma and permitting continued discussion in the other areas that don’t.

In this instance, our critic implies that allowing “continued discussion” of evolution somehow obviates almost two thousand years of authoritative teaching on creation—just as many of the members of the Birth Control Commission concluded that “permission to discuss” was tantamount to a nullification of two thousand years of traditional teaching on marriage and approval of what was being discussed. But this is completely false. Permission to “discuss” the evidence for and against evolution in 1950 no more constituted approval or permission to teach evolution than permission to “discuss” birth control in 1965 constituted approval of or permission to teach the permissibility of birth control. In both cases, all Catholics were obliged to hold fast to the traditional teaching of the Church on the matters under discussion pending an (impossible) authoritative reversal of the traditional teaching. By encouraging fellow Catholics to think that they are perfectly free to believe and teach theistic evolution in the light of Humani generis, our critic is making the same terrible mistake that so many Catholic theologians made in the early 1960s when they counseled Catholic couples to “follow their own consciences” on birth control, since the Pope was “allowing free discussion” of the matter.

Our critic continues with a condescending summary of his critique:

Now, hopefully the difference between what Pius XII did regarding evolution and what Paul VI did regarding is clear to you, but I’ll help spell out some of the difference just in case.

1) Paul VI was addressing a new situation. Pius XII was not.

As we have demonstrated, in both situations Popes were facing modern challenges to the traditional teaching of the Church on fundamental doctrines. He goes on:

2) Paul VI called (or continued what John XXIII had done) to investigate the issue. When he wrote on the topic, he condemned what was immoral. Pius XII issued a statement also condemning what was contrary to Catholic teaching…and evolution was on the list ONLY WHEN IT CROSSED CERTAIN LINES, such as evolution of the soul, or the adoption of pantheism or monism.

3) In his encyclical, Paul VI did not state that discussion could continue on birth control precisely because the matter was settled as a matter of doctrine. Pius XII did state that discussion could continue on evolution precisely because the matter was NOT settled on doctrine.

As we explained in the introduction to this reply, our critic has misunderstood the analogy we are making. To repeat:

Our thesis is that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church stands in the same position in relation to theistic evolution TODAY as it stood in relation to contraception in 1965, PRIOR to the definitive statement of Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae.

Our critic rests his case as follows:

So in other words, your analogy with birth control isn’t a good one. If anything, it actually works against the position you are trying to take (but everything does, since you’re trying to claim that Catholic teaching condemns something which it actually doesn’t). Now, if the Holy See SHOULD issue a statement at some point condemning what you so desperately want it to condemn (which it has the authority to do if, in fact, evolution is false as a matter of Faith), the analogy will be much better, but I will already have submitted to the authority of the Magisterium so it also won’t be necessary.”

This closing statement is truly heart-breaking, as our critic appears to believe that almost two thousand years of authoritative teaching on creation can be set aside while “discussion” continues on the pros and cons of evolution. How is this any different from the terrible error of the many theologians who argued that couples should be free to endorse and practice birth control while “discussion” was taking place on the birth control commission?

If our critic has any remaining doubt that the position we are defending is correct, we would beg him to ponder a few final considerations which show that evolutionary errors ought not only to be avoided because they contradict the traditional teaching of the Church on creation but also because they contributed and continue to contribute to the widespread acceptance of the very practices condemned by Pope Paul VI in Humanae vitae. Let him consider first of all that in spite of the fact that ALL of the theologians on the Birth Control Commission recognized that the Church had constantly condemned contraception as a grave sin against the nature of holy matrimony and the natural law, Cardinal Suenens, for the overwhelming majority on the commission said that “science” had given us a new understanding of what is according to nature and that the Church should allow contraception to married couples or face another “Galileo Affair.”

Besides showing how quickly innovators hasten to recall Galileo when trying to force the Magisterium to change her traditional teachings, this statement of Cardinal Suenens shows the extent to which evolutionary thought influenced the advocates for contraception. As his fellow birth control advocate on the commission, Bishop Fuchs stated: “There has been an evolution in doctrines since Casti Connubii under Pius XII and at Vatican II. And this evolution has been moving in one direction: away from the notion that each contraceptive act is intrinsically evil” (Robert McClory, Turning Point (New York: Crossroad, 1995), p. 123).

It is important to recognize just how definitively the Magisterium had defined the intrinsic evil of contraceptive acts. As Dr. William May shows in his paper on Fr. John Ford and Humanae vitae, Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii had defined this doctrine in no uncertain terms:

Since, therefore. ..openly departing from the uninterrupted Christian tradition some [he had in mind the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England in 1930] recently have judged it possible solemnly to declare another doctrine regarding this question, the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her, in order that she may preserve the chastity of the nuptial union from being defiled by this foul stain, raises her voice in token of her divine ambassadorship and through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin” (emphasis added) (http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/key-roles.htm)

In his famous Address to the Italian Union of Midwives in October 1951 (Allocutio Conventui Unionis Italicae inter Obstetrices) Pius XII affirmed:

Our Predecessor, Pius XI…in his Encyclical Casti Connubii… once again solemnly proclaimed the fundamental law of the conjugal act and conjugal relations: that every attempt of either husband or wife in the performance of the conjugal act or in the development of its natural consequences which aims at depriving it of its inherent force and hinders the procreation of new life is immoral; and that no ‘indication’ or need can convert an act which is intrinsically immoral into a moral and lawful one. This precept is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so it will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law (emphasis added) (http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/key-roles.htm)

Writing for the minority, with help from Germaine Grisez, Fr. John Ford defended the constant authoritative teaching of the Church on contraception in precisely the same terms that we defend the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation today. He wrote:

Why cannot the Church change her essential answer to this central question [i.e. contraception]? The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true . . . It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ to show men a secure way to eternal life, could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of history . . The Church could not have erred . . . even through one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose those burdens . . . If the Church could err in such a way . . . the faithful could not put their trust in the magisterium’s presentation of moral teaching, especially in sexual matters.

If contraception were declared not intrinsically evil, in honesty it would have to be acknowledged that the Holy Spirit in 1930, in 1951, and 1958 assisted Protestant churches, and that for half a century Pope Pius XI and Pius XII and a great part of the Catholic hierarchy did not protect against a very serious error, one most pernicious to souls . . . Therefore, one must cautiously inquire whether the change which is proposed would not bring along with it a definitive depreciation of the teaching and the moral direction of the hierarchy of the Church and whether several very grave doubts would not be opened up about the very history of Christianity. (Turning Point, pp. 110-111).

Fr. Ford did not call Cardinal Suenens a “heretic”—although in retrospect one could say that the cardinal subscribed to a material heresy by arguing for freedom for couples to use birth control. Fr. Ford left the final judgment to the Pope, but he appealed to the Magisterium to uphold the constant teaching of the Church and showed the immense harm that would result from its failure to do so. Now, substitute “evolution” for “contraception” and re-consider the words of Fr. John Ford quoted above:

Why cannot the Church change her essential answer to this central question [i.e. evolution]? The Church cannot change her answer because this answer is true . . . It is true because the Catholic Church, instituted by Christ to show men a secure way to eternal life, could not have so wrongly erred during all those centuries of history . . The Church could not have erred . . . even through one century, by imposing under serious obligation very grave burdens in the name of Jesus Christ, if Jesus Christ did not actually impose those burdens . . .

Lest anyone think that there were no grave burdens attached to dissent from the traditional doctrine of creation, they need only recall the Profession of Faith that Pope Pelagius I gave to the King of the Franks (DZ 228a) and the first article of the Apostles Creed as interpreted by the Roman Catechism. The King of the Franks could NOT be a Catholic unless he believed and confessed the special creation of Adam, body and soul, and of Eve from Adam’s side—and ALL pastors were required to teach the doctrine of creation contained in the Roman Catechism for hundreds of years. In the light of these and other examples of authoritative teaching on creation set forth in the article “The Traditional Catholic Doctrine of Creation,” it is apparent that the fiat creation of all things by God in the beginning has been taught at a higher level of authority than the intrinsic evil of contraception. Therefore, it is even more incumbent upon Catholics to defend the traditional teaching of the Church on creation today than it was for Fr. Ford to defend the traditional teaching of the Church on Holy Marriage and human sexuality in 1965.