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Evolution and Creation: Theological Considerations

The Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation
, October 24-25, 2002

by Bishop Andreas Laun

In the face of the fact that it is almost impossible today to question the omnipresent theory of evolution, R. Spaemann spoke of the "modern veto of freedom of thought." It seems to be particularly despicable if a theologian offers his opinion and refuses to burn incense, the incense of the defeated, to the dogma "Everything is evolution!" Nevertheless, the time may well be approaching, when this myth comes to the end it deserves, and it is once more possible to test the arguments impartially according to the Pauline principle: Test all things; hold fast what is good (1 Th. 5,21). Reject what is bad!

1. Concepts

The term "evolution" in general means development, but it can refer to various specific propositions. I shall refrain from a detailed differentiation and restrict myself to three possible meanings:

-   Materialistic "evolution": all differentiation of matter has arisen simply through evolution, in particular the realm of the living, including Man. I am referring here to macro-evolution, i.e. the jump to another species, and not micro-evolution within a species, the existence of which is not in dispute.

-   the "theistic" theory of evolution: God has called the world into being and has set within it that potentiality from which everything has developed, including Man.

-   the theory of evolution "acceptable to Catholics": everything has developed from matter which God has created, or from the primeval cell created by God, apart from the immortal soul of Man, which is created by God.

II. A Note on the Competence of Theologians

It is good to clarify from the start what theologians can do and what they cannot:

Theologians can only answer those questions which are in some way or other contained in the Divine revelation or which are indissolubly connected with it. It follows that theologians cannot judge on the basis of theological criteria whether an elephant would climb out of a pond containing frogs, if one only stood for long enough - for millions of years - at the water's edge and waited. But they do of course have the right to consider the stringency of the proofs for the theory of evolution and to question them.

Theologians like to enter into interdisciplinary dialogue and to meditate on the theories of the natural sciences; sometimes they integrate propositions of another discipline into their thinking. These may, however, later turn out to be false, without the error having been made by the theologian.

It is also important for theologians not to stand still in the interdisciplinary discussion. That means that if they have integrated elements from other sciences into their presentations they must also discard them if it should be shown that these propositions are false.

A particularly important duty of the theologian is to raise objections if someone links scientific facts to ideological interpretations which are not supported by those facts. He may also raise objections when he observes methodological errors in the work of a colleague of the other scientific discipline. In such criticism the theologian, like every other scientist, uses that same logic which is the foundation of all thinking.

It should finally be acknowledged that theologians are completely open towards science. In fact it is one of the "dogmas" of Catholic theology that there is no antithesis between reason and faith and that it is impossible that there should be. There is today a greater danger that theologians accept a scientific theory too quickly than that they reject it without due consideration.

Theologians do not have a tendency to assert a direct act of God. They too in the first instance assume natural causes for an unexplained phenomenon (such as the origin of animals) rather than a particular creative act of God, until the opposite is shown to be true.

III. The Theory of Evolution "Acceptable to Catholics"

Evolution instead of faith in God and creation! Historically the teaching on macro-evolution was combined with the triumphant cry, "We do not need God in order to explain the world; we have another, natural ‘explanation' available: evolution." Richard Dawkins wrote in 1986, "Darwin enabled the ‘atheists to be intellectually satisfied', because at last he had an explanation for the origin of species which did not require belief in God." Dawkins thereby stands in the tradition of J. Huxley, who, in his speech on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1959 said, "In evolutionary thought there is no need and no more place for the supernatural. The earth was not created, it developed through evolution ... So all plants and animals on the earth are also products of evolution - we too, spirit, reason and soul, brain and body. Religion too arose as a process of evolution ... Evolutionary Man can no longer find refuge in the arms of a deified father figure invented by himself."

What senseless but also bad consequences can follow from this way of thinking is demonstrated by the idea which has been seriously put forward that adultery is in accord with the law of evolution because the genes of the adulterer thereby gain an advantage for themselves ...

If anyone thinks that this radical theory of evolution is harmless, he should remember that Hitler was a convinced Darwinist. He was convinced of the doctrine of "nature," that the principle of selection ruled it, that the stronger wins and the weaker is defeated. He therefore held war to be an unchangeable law of life - and he acted on his beliefs!

How sure of themselves the evolutionists are and how hard it will be to enter into discussion with them is shown by the remark of Dawkins, "You can say with complete certainty that, if you meet anyone who claims not to believe in evolution, he is either ignorant, stupid or crazy (or evil, but I would prefer not to consider that possibility)."

Further examples can easily be found.

It is always the same picture: God and his creative work are replaced by evolution - it is a central thought of the spirit of the time, present and dominating in all the media and sciences.

Evolution instead of creation - that is a declaration of war against faith which cannot fail to engender rejection by theologians and the Church.

And today? Is the battle over, and if so, who has won and who has lost? It might appear that the Church has finally surrendered to "science" and gotten into line. No less an authority than John Paul II said not long ago to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Science that the theory of evolution is "more than a hypothesis."

Because many people are not used to listening carefully there was a good deal of public excitement and sharp-tongued people asked, "Is the pope a heretic?" Others thought he had now finally "conceded" that Man is descended from the ape.

The facts of the matter are different and can be explained by a closer consideration of the development of Church teaching:

1. Pius XII in Humani generis

Pius XII, having warned against the theory of evolution and other errors of his time, continued, "Now Catholic theologians ... cannot afford to ignore or neglect these more or less erroneous opinions.  Rather they must come to understand these same theories well, both because diseases are not properly treated unless they are rightly diagnosed, and because sometimes even in these false theories a certain amount of truth is contained, and, finally, because these theories provoke more subtle discussion and evaluation of philosophical and theological truths" (Humani generis 9).

2. Theological Acceptance of the Theory of Evolution: K. Rahner and P. Teilhard de Chardin

The theologians accepted the challenge of Pius XII and some have attempted to reconcile the theory of evolution with the faith of the Church. In this context the two Jesuits P. Teilhard de Chardin and K. Rahner are to be mentioned. Whereas Teilhard de Chardin seems rather to have fallen into oblivion, Rahner's theory has been widely accepted.

It was the impression of many that Karl Rahner finally freed theologians from the unpleasant position of supposed backwardness with regard to the dominant theory of evolution. Since Pius XII had laid down that it was permitted to contemplate the development of the body from living matter (HG 36), Rahner developed the concept of "self-transcendence," the idea that a being can grow beyond itself. The first being would then bring forth a second being, the nature of which would be different and even "higher" than that of the first being. Or to put it clearly by means of an example: birds have descended from creatures that are not birds. Rahner surely sensed the irrationality of this proposition, since he added, "This self-transcendence is a causa secunda, a secondary cause, which assumes the primary causation of God."

Several theologians accepted this idea, which is referred to in several standard theological text books.

3. The Comment Expressed by John Paul II

The pope did in fact describe the theory of evolution as "more than a hypothesis." To deduce from this that one must now as a Catholic "believe" in it and may not question it is entirely false:

First of all, the pope speaks only in a very general way of "new perceptions," which support the idea of evolution, but does not say what "perceptions" he means. In addition, his reference to the high degree of acceptance of the theory of evolution is in its nature of low value as an authoritative argument - in the estimation of Thomas Aquinas the weakest of all arguments in science.

Secondly the pope assigns the theory of evolution to the realm of epistemology and thereby ipso facto declines to be responsible for its evaluation.

Thirdly, he reckons with the possibility that it might prove to be unsuitable and that it would then have to be "reconsidered."

Fourthly, he points out the various meanings which the concept "evolution" can have, and does not tie his statement to one particular concept.

Fifthly, the pope states clearly what the competence of the magisterium refers to: the nature of Man. In respect to this he cites Pius XII with the sentence, "The origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God" (HG 36). John Paul II continues, "As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man."

With this statement he has done the same as Pius XII has done: he rejects the atheistic theory of evolution and leaves the question - which is of no consequence for faith - of whether new plants or animals could come into existence, to the natural sciences.

4. The Catholic Evaluation of the Teaching on Evolution

The Catholic attitude can be described by the following propositions:

-  The Church permanently rejects the atheistic-materialistic form of the teaching on evolution-evolution instead of God-as a matter of course, as it always has done.

-  The only theologically possible proposition is that there could have been an evolution of life up to Man, even including the human body.

-  From the point of view of faith the idea that the soul could have developed from matter is out of the question. In the Catechism (366) it states very clearly, "The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God - it is not ‘produced' by the parents."

-  It does not follow from the theological possibility of evolution in the realm of the living that the proposition is either true or false. It can be "theologically possible" and nevertheless a gigantic scientific or philosophical error. The belief that the earth is a disc and a thousand other scientific theories were and still are compatible with faith and were nevertheless false or can be false.

-  K. Rahner's theory of "self-transcendence" may well be precisely this: theologically possible, but philosophical nonsense and, in the light of the criticism of the teaching on evolution which is arising at the present time, completely unnecessary. It should be abandoned as soon as possible. For self-transcendence explains nothing at all; it is a mere assertion and at the most a further enunciation of what has to be explained, namely the multiplicity of species.

IV. A New Orientation of Theology

In the light of the present situation the theologian, in the sense explained by Pius XII and also by John Paul II, should be concerning himself with the following projects:

First he should endeavor to demonstrate with all clarity the weakness and erroneousness of that "theory of evolution" which connects the scientific proposition of the origin of species with the metaphysical assertion of atheism in an inadmissible manner. He should above all point out the following:

The atheist and the materialist are necessarily in a bad position, which actually forces them into subjectivity. For, if God does not exist, they have to assert that everything has evolved. That means that their atheistic prejudice takes away their scientific freedom. They must assert the truth of evolution in the face of all the evidence and without any real proofs. If atheists assume the existence of a "primeval cell" they have simply pushed the problem onto the "primeval cell," but they have not solved it. For they are left with the question, "Where does the primeval cell come from?"

Secondly the theologians should take up the criticism which has been recently formulated and proved and which shows that evolution really is impossible. Darwin himself said, "If it could be proved that some kind of complex organ exists, which could not possibly have come into existence through many small changes following on one another, then my theory would completely collapse." But since then it has long been shown that not just one but many such organs exist, which, according to Darwin's own criterion, refute his theory. I shall name just two examples which have particularly impressed me.

-  The "bombardier" ground beetle (Brachynus crepitans): this creature has an incredibly astonishing defense mechanism, and careful consideration shows that it is absolutely impossible that this creature could have developed in an "evolutionary" manner in small steps.

-  The electro-motor of bacteria: as Scherer shows, there are bacteria which use a real electro-motor to propel themselves. Again, it is absolutely impossible that these motors could have developed in the small steps of evolution, just as impossible as the famous example of the ape, which would by chance write the works of Shakespeare in millions of years ...

I come to the following conclusion: the theologians should take leave of the theory of evolution "acceptable to Catholics" and in consequence write a new presentation of the teaching of creation-without being caught up in an antiquated theory and without philosophically untenable phantasies.


Behe M., Darwin's Black Box, New York 1996.

Hildebrand, D. v., Das Trojanische Pferd in der Stadt Gottes (The Trojan Horse in the City of God), Regensburg 1968.

John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, Rome 1995.

John Paul II, Fides et ratio, Rome 1998.

John Paul II, Christliches Menschenbild und Moderne Evolutionstheorien (The Christian view of the Nature of Man and Modern Theories of Evolution), a message of Pope John Paul II to the members of the Pontifical Academy of Science on the occasion of their general assembly of 22nd October 1996.

Junker R.- Scherer S., Evolution. Ein kritisches Lehrbuch (Evolution: A critical textbook), 4th edition, Gießen 1998.

Laun A., Anmerkungen zur Evolution aus der Sicht des Theologen (Notes on Evolution from the Point of View of the Theologian). In P. Weingartner (ed.), Evolution als Schöpfung? (Evolution as Creation?) Stuttgart 2001, 45-59.

Lennox J., Grundfragen des öffentlichen Verständnisses von Evolution und Schöpfung (Basic Questions on the Public Understanding of Evolution and Creation). In: P. Weingartner (ed.) Evolution als Schöpfung? Stuttgart 2001, 97-122.

Overhage P.-Rahner K., Das Problem der Hominsation (The Problem of Hominisation), 3rd edition, Freiburg 1965.

Pius XII, Humani generis. Rome 1950.

Seifert J. Leib und Seele (Body and Soul) Salzburg 1973.

Scherer S., Probleme bei der Erklärung Molekularer Maschinen durch Evolution (Problems in the Explanation of Molecular Machines by Evolution). In: P. Weingartner (ed.), Evolution als Schöpfung? Stuttgart 2001, 161-186.

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