Dear Friends of the Kolbe Center,
Glory to Jesus Christ!
In our previous newsletter, I quoted Blessed Cardinal Newman from his Idea of a University as follows:
Holy Scripture, it is perfectly true, does declare a few momentous facts, so few that they may be counted, of a physical character. It speaks of a process of formation out of chaos which occupied six days; it speaks of the firmament; of the sun and moon being created for the sake of the earth; of the earth being immovable; of a great deluge; and of several other similar facts and events.
My purpose in quoting him was to show that as late as the end of the nineteenth century an intellectual of the stature of Cardinal Newman still recognized that these “facts” were presented as such by the sacred authors, whether or not he personally believed them to be true. However, one of our readers rightly corrected me for giving the impression that Cardinal Newman himself believed in the truth of these facts, as if I were trying to cite him as a modern authority in defense of the traditional Catholic interpretation of Genesis. I am grateful for the fraternal correction, because there is no doubt that Cardinal Newman asserts later on in the same paragraph that the Scriptures that set forth these facts are actually open to varying interpretations because the Church authorities have not spoken definitively as to which Scriptures are to be taken as statements of literal historical or scientific truth and which are to be understood allegorically or metaphorically. He writes:
It is true; nor is there any reason why we should anticipate any difficulty in accepting these statements as they stand, whenever their meaning and drift are authoritatively determined; for, it must be recollected, their meaning has not yet engaged the formal attention of the Church, or received any interpretation which, as Catholics, we are bound to accept, and in the absence of such definite interpretation, there is perhaps some presumption in saying that it means this, and does not mean that. And this being the case, it is not at all probable that any discoveries ever should be made by physical inquiries incompatible at the same time with one and all of those senses which the letter admits, and which are still open. As to certain popular interpretations of the texts in question, I shall have something to say of them presently; here I am only concerned with the letter of the Holy Scriptures itself, as far as it bears upon the history of the heavens and the earth; and I say that we may wait in peace and tranquility till there is some real collision between Scripture authoritatively interpreted, and results of science clearly ascertained, before we consider how we are to deal with a difficulty which we have reasonable grounds for thinking will never really occur.
It is remarkable how well this statement articulates the position that has characterized the overwhelming majority of Tradition-friendly Catholic theologians in regard to Genesis 1-11 during the past 100 years. Yet it is even more remarkable to realize how far Newman’s position deviates from the view of Scripture held by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. I wrote above that my purpose in quoting him in the previous newsletter was to show that as late as the end of the nineteenth century no less an authority than Cardinal Newman recognized that the “facts” he cited in regard to the origin and early history of man and the universe were indeed considered facts by the sacred authors, whether or not he personally believed them to be true.
But there’s the rub!
The Authority of Holy Writ
St. Thomas summed up the mind of the Fathers in regard to such historical “facts” when he wrote:
It is unlawful to hold that any false assertion is contained either in the Gospel or in any canonical Scripture, or that the writers thereof have told untruths, because faith would be deprived of its certitude which is based on the authority of Holy Writ.
Here the Angelic Doctor faithfully expressed the conviction of St. Augustine and of all the Fathers that the facts set forth in the sacred history of Genesis were not to be called into question simply because they described events and realities that were not “familiar” to later generations of believers. Writing specifically of the sacred history of Genesis, St. Augustine writes:
The narrative indeed in these books is not cast in the figurative kind of language you find in the Song of Songs, but quite simply tells of things that happened, as in the books of the Kingdoms and other like them… [S]ome people think they should not be understood in their proper sense, but just figuratively, and they suggest that history, that is, the account of events that actually happened, begins from the moment when Adam and Eve, turned out of Paradise, came together to have children—as though forsooth we are quite familiar with people living as many years as they did, or with things like Enoch being taken, or a very old and barren woman giving birth, and other things of that sort! (Lit. Mean. Gen. VIII, 2(1))
From this passage we can see that skepticism about the literal historical truth of Genesis 1-11 is nothing new. What is new is the view that Catholics should not simply take God at His Word in Genesis but rather wait for some explicit decree from the Pope or an Ecumenical Council that such and such a passage in Genesis means X, Y, or Z. On the one hand, Newman’s writings may have won converts to the Catholic Faith from Protestantism by showing how Protestantism had abandoned many doctrines of faith and morals and liturgical practices that had been handed down from the Apostles. On the other hand, readers schooled in Newman’s way of thinking might easily lose their Faith altogether when they realize that he calls into question the meaning of the First Article of the Creed as it was believed and taught by all of the Apostles, Fathers and Doctors of the Church! It is especially ironic that Cardinal Newman includes the Scriptures regarding the position of the Earth in the solar system among those that have not been definitively interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church—when few passages in Scripture have been defined as authoritatively as those that pertain to the position of the Earth in the solar system by the decrees of 1616 and 1633—decrees that have never been abrogated at the same or a higher level of authority!
In effect, what Cardinal Newman helped to institute was an approach to Scripture that takes a high view of the traditional faith in the truth of the literal and obvious sense of Scripture whenever “science” raises no objection to that interpretation, but which backs away from the traditional interpretation whenever “science” raises an objection to that view—pending a “formal interpretation” from the Magisterium of the Church. In Cardinal Newman’s day this meant “backing away” from the traditional understanding of the chronology of the universe, the special creation of the bodies of Adam and Eve and of the various kinds of plants and animals, the longevity of the Patriarchs, the global extent of the Flood, and the traditional geocentric model of the universe. However, he could hardly have been able to foresee that in our day there is scarcely a doctrine of faith or morals that has not been called into question on the grounds that “science” has advanced and rendered the traditional interpretation of Scripture obsolete—for example, in regard to usury, homosexuality, contraception, and capital punishment!
Pope Benedict XVI and the Legacy of Cardinal Newman
In contemporary theological discourse, the writings of Pope Benedict XVI on Genesis 1-11 and evolution exemplify the ambiguity and diffidence that results from Cardinal Newman’s approach to Sacred Scripture. It is an approach that leads to what seems like a patristic reverence for the sacred history of Genesis when approached from a theological perspective, but which turns to a complete lack of confidence in the historical truth of Genesis 1-11 in the face of the consensus view in natural science. In Jesus of Nazareth, for example, Pope Benedict writes of the original harmony of the first created world in a way that echoes the constant teaching of the Church Fathers:
In his short account of the temptations, Mark brings into relief the parallels between Adam and Jesus, stressing how Jesus “suffers through” the quintessential human drama. Jesus, we read, “was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.” The desert—the opposite image of the garden—becomes the place of reconciliation and healing. Wild beasts are the most concrete threat that the rebellion of creation and the power of death posed to man. But here they become man’s friends, as they once were, in paradise. Peace is restored, the peace that Isaiah proclaims for the days of the Messiah: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” Once sin has been overcome and man’s harmony with God restored, creation is reconciled, too.
The Holy Father here refers to the original harmony of the first created world, including the original harmony between man and the wild beasts before the Original Sin. He also affirms the patristic teaching that Jesus came to restore this original harmony through the Incarnation, an idea that clashes violently with the Teilhardian world-view which denies the first perfection of the universe and focuses all of man’s attention on an evolutionary progression to a utopian “omega point” in the future. Elsewhere in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict continues to write in a patristic vein of the genealogy of Christ and his descent from Adam whose origin lies at the beginning of creation:
In contrast to Matthew, Luke uses his genealogy to journey from Jesus back into past history. Abraham and David make their appearance but without any particular emphasis. The family tree goes back to Adam, and so to creation, for once Luke comes to the name Adam, he adds: “of God.”
Here we see that the Pope identifies Adam with the time of creation, just as the Fathers did—or, at the very least, he recognizes that this is the plain meaning of the genealogy in Luke, Chapter Three. At a Holy Mass with Priests and Religious at the Latin Parish of the Holy Cross in Nicosia, Cyprus, Pope Benedict XVI shared his thoughts about Adam, Seth, Original Sin and the Cross, in words that one would not have been surprised to hear on the lips of St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great:
There is an ancient tradition that the wood of the Cross was taken from a tree planted by Adam's son Seth over the place where Adam was buried. On that very spot, known as Golgotha, the place of the skull, Seth planted a seed from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree in the midst of the Garden of Eden. Through God's providence, the work of the Evil One would be undone by turning his own weapons against him.
Beguiled by the serpent, Adam had forsaken his filial trust in God and sinned by biting into the fruit of the one tree in the garden that was forbidden to him. In consequence of that sin, suffering and death came into the world. The tragic effects of sin, suffering and death were all too evident in the history of Adam's descendants. ...
Reading these statements, while recognizing that the he is not placing “ancient traditions” on the same level as the inerrant Word of God, one would be tempted to think that Pope Benedict would be willing to shed his last drop of blood for the literal historical truth of every word in the sacred history of Genesis—like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and all of the Fathers of the Church before him. But that illusion would quickly be shattered on reading the Holy Father’s response to a question at a press conference as to whether there is a conflict between creation and evolution. Without clarifying how the Catholic doctrine of “creation” and evolution could be harmonized, the Pope simply stated that it would be “absurd” to assert any conflict between the two.
Since “evolution” is generally understood to mean the descent of all of the different kinds of organisms up to and including the human body from one or a few common one-celled ancestors, through a process of mutation and natural selection over hundreds of millions of years, the Pope’s dismissal of any contradiction between “creation” and “evolution” as “absurd” without any qualification, risked robbing the faithful in his audience of any solid conviction that the sacred history of Genesis is true, in the sense in which all of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church understood it to be true. And yet the same faithful, reading the Pope’s reflections on Genesis in Jesus of Nazareth, might easily conclude that the Pope had the same respect for the literal historical truth of Genesis 1-11 as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church!
The irony of this contradiction between the Pope’s attitude to the sacred history of Genesis from a theological perspective and his attitude to the same “sacred history” when approached from a natural science perspective becomes all the more bitter when one realizes that he is well aware of the lack of evidence for microbe-to-man evolution. In the work printed in English as Truth and Tolerance, published shortly before his elevation to the papacy, the Holy Father recognized the dispute over the claims of evolutionary theory. He wrote:
There is . . . no getting around the dispute about the extent of the claims of the doctrine of evolution as a fundamental philosophy . . . This dispute has therefore to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides—something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent.
In the same work, then-Cardinal Ratzinger also acknowledged that leading evolutionists frankly admit the lack of any convincing evidence for microbe-to-man evolution:
R. Junker and S. Scherer, in their “critical reader” on evolution, have this to say: “Many examples of such developmental steps [microevolutionary processes] are known to us from natural processes of variation and development. The research done on them by evolutionary biologists produced significant knowledge of the adaptive capacity of living systems, which seems marvelous.” They tell us, accordingly, that one would therefore be quite justified in describing the research of early development as the reigning monarch among biological disciplines. It is not toward that point, therefore, that a believer will direct the questions he puts toward modern rationality but rather toward the development of evolutionary theory into a generalized philosophia universalis, which claims to constitute a universal explanation of reality and is unwilling to allow the continuing existence of any other level of thinking. Within the teaching about evolution itself, the problem emerges at the point of transition from micro- to macro-evolution, on which points Szathmary and Maynard Smith, both convinced supporters of the all-embracing theory of evolution, nonetheless declare that: “There is no theoretical basis for believing that evolutionary lines become more complex with time; and there is also no empirical evidence that this happens.” (emphasis added)
With these words then-Cardinal Ratzinger recognized that it is not possible to extrapolate from so-called microevolution—i.e., variation within species—to macroevolution—i.e., land-mammal-to-whale evolution. But, without micro to macro extrapolation, “evolution” as an explanation for the origin of the different kinds of living things, is untenable. These statements demonstrate that the Pope has known for some time that there is no conclusive scientific evidence for the evolution of all of the different kinds of living organisms from a common one-celled ancestor. And yet, in the tradition of Cardinal Newman, he wants to remain “open” to the possibility that this evidence might be discovered in the future—and thus, as Pope, he dismissed the idea of a contradiction between “creation” and “evolution” as “absurd.”
The problem with this suspension of belief in the sacred history of Genesis out of “openness” to the possibility that natural science might one day come up with evidence beyond any reasonable doubt for its claims is that this “openness” is incompatible with supernatural faith in God’s Word as it was handed down to us from the Apostles. At the Thomistic Evolution conference we attended two weeks ago, we were told that "embryonic recapitulation" is no longer the most striking proof for the truth of the evolutionary hypothesis; that proof, we were told, is now provided by genomics and molecular biology. But anyone who has studied evolutionary claims in those areas knows that the evidence from molecular biology is far more consistent with the sacred history of Genesis than with microbe-to-man evolution. As a scientist friend of mine--with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology--likes to say, "With Darwin, the check is always 'in the mail'"!
Orestes Brownson and the Authentic Catholic Response to Evolution
Perhaps at this point you may be wondering if there are any Catholic intellectuals since the days of Darwin who exemplified the kind of response one would expect from a modern Father or Doctor of the Church. And indeed there are! Blessed Pope Pius IX, Pope Leo XIII, Pope St. Pius X, the Servant of God Dom Gueranger, and the American Catholic convert Orestes Brownson all come to mind. But Orestes Brownson may well offer the best example of how Catholic intellectuals ought to have met—and ought to continue to meet—the evolutionary challenge to the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation.
Orestes Brownson (1803-1876) was one of the greatest Catholic apologists in the history of the United States--some would say the greatest. A convert to the Catholic Faith, Brownson entered the Church after having earned a stellar reputation as an original writer and thinker, a member of the intellectual circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His Review offered a bold and uncompromising defense of the Catholic Faith which earned the respect and admiration of the entire episcopate. On May 13, 1849, Brownson received a letter from Bishop Kenrick of Philadelphia, signed by the Archbishop of Baltimore and by all of the American Bishops in attendance at the Council of Baltimore in 1849, to encourage him by their "approbation and influence" to continue his "literary labors in defense of the faith."
The fact that Brownson later lost the support of many of the Bishops when he rightly upheld the authority of the Church above that of the state in her proper sphere does not diminish the extraordinary character of this recognition by all of the American bishops of his skill as an apologist. When Charles Darwin published his speculations on the origins of man and living things, beginning with his Origin of Species and continuing with the Descent of Man, Brownson recognized immediately that the Emperor of Evolution was naked but that his nakedness needed to be exposed swiftly, lest the world begin to admire the magnificence of the Emperor's New Clothes as described by Darwin’s devoted disciples. In his critique of Darwin’s work, he wrote:
...[Darwin’s theory] denies the doctrine of the creation and immutability of species, as taught in Genesis, where we read that God said: “Let the earth bring forth the green herb, and such as may seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after its kind, which may have seed in itself upon the earth. And it was done.” “And God created the great whales and every living and moving creature which the waters brought forth, according to their kinds, and every winged fowl according to its kind.” “And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds, and cattle, and everything thing that creepeth on the earth.” Genesis I, 11,21,25. Now this doctrine, the doctrine of the whole Christian world, and which stands directly opposed to Mr. Darwin’s theory, is, as say the lawyers, in possession, and therefore to be held as true until the contrary is proved. It is not enough, then, for Mr. Darwin to set forth his theory and ask us as Christians, as believers in Genesis, to accept it, unless able to disprove it; nor is it enough for him even to prove that it may be true. The onus probandi is on him who arraigns the faith and convictions of the Christian world, which are the faith and convictions of enlightened and living mankind. He must prove his theory not only may be, but is, true, and prove it with scientific or apodictic certainty, for only by so doing can he oust the Christian doctrine from its possession, or overcome the presumption in its favor; and till he has ousted and made away with that doctrine, his theory cannot be legally or logically entertained even as a probable hypothesis. This he hardly pretends to have done. As far as we can discover, he does not claim apodictic certainty for his theory, or profess to set it forth for ant thing more than a probable hypothesis, which he leads us to suspect he hardly believes himself. But in the present case we must prove it to be true and indubitable, or he has no right to publish it at all, not even as probable; for probable it is not, so long as it is not certain that the Christian doctrine in possession is false.
This principle, which is the principle both of ethics and logic, is disregarded by nearly the whole herd of contemporary scientists. They make a point of ignoring Christianity, and proceed as if they were perfectly free to put forth as science any number of theories, hypotheses, conjectures, guesses, which directly contradict it, as if they were under no obligation to consult the universal faith of mankind; and theories too, not one of which, even if plausible, is proved to be true, or deserving the name of science. We by no means contend that the general belief of mankind, or the consensus hominum, is in itself an infallible criterion of truth; but we do maintain that it is, as the lawyers say, prima facie evidence, or a vehement presumption of truth, and that no man has the moral right to publish any opinions, or uncertain theories or hypotheses, that are opposed to it. It can be overruled by science that is science, by the truth that is demonstrated to be truth, and which cannot be gainsaid. He who assails it may plead the truth, if he has it, in justification; but not an uncertain opinion, not an unproved theory, or an unverified hypothesis, however plausible or even probable it may appear to himself. Sincerity, or firmness of conviction on the part of the defenders of the adverse theory or hypothesis, is no justification, no excuse even; and no one has any right to assail or contradict the Christian faith, unless he has infallible authority for the truth of what he alleges in opposition to it. And this no scientist has or can have.
Orestes Brownson realized that it would be a fatal mistake to dignify molecules-to-man evolution’s challenge to the traditional doctrine of creation by taking it seriously when its champions had not come close to offering proof beyond a reasonable doubt for its wild conjectures. Indeed, he saw that it would be a species of the same fatal error that Eve made six thousand years ago, when she engaged in conversation with Satan—as he sowed doubt in her mind about the truth of the Word of God she had received through her husband and asked, “Did God really say? . . .”
How different the world would be if Eve had refused to dignify Satan’s question with an answer! And how different the world would be today if most of our Catholic Bishops and intellectuals had responded to Darwin’s challenge to the traditional doctrine of creation with the firmness of Orestes Brownson instead of with the diffidence of Blessed Cardinal Newman!
Yours in Christ through the Immaculata in union with St. Joseph,
P.S. Pamela Acker and I will be giving an all-day seminar in Tryon, North Carolina on Saturday, December 4. Please see our Events Page for details. From approximately March 25 until April 7, I will be giving seminars in the Midwest again. I have definite commitments to speak at a school in Kansas on Wednesday, March 30, and in a parish in the Detroit area for four days, but I would be able to go to a wide range of places between Kansas City and Virginia on my way to or from Kansas if I have enough advance notice. If you would be willing and able to organize a Kolbe talk or seminar somewhere in the area between Virginia and Kansas between March 25 and April 7, please let me know as soon as possible, and we will plan accordingly.