Kolbe Report 8/19/23

Dear Friends of the Kolbe Center,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Almost twenty-one years ago, the Kolbe Center helped to organize our first International Catholic Symposium on Creation in Rome and brought together theologians, philosophers and natural scientists from several countries to defend and proclaim the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation. One of the participants, Fr. Johannes Grun, argued that the one of the necessary conditions for the restoration of the traditional doctrine was to restore the proper hierarchy of the sciences, with theology as the queen, and philosophy, especially metaphysics, as her handmaid, so as to return the lower sciences, including the natural sciences, to their proper boundaries. In an essay just posted on the Kolbe website, Bradford Fellmeth has made an important contribution to this work of restoration, explaining in precise terms the proper relationship between theology and the natural sciences and demonstrating that the creation of all things at the beginning of time is indeed a proper subject for theology and not for natural science. He writes:

It is important for modern man to realize, or perhaps re-discover, that there are realities which surpass the abilities of his natural reason to grasp or comprehend. This is true not only in the case of supernatural or theological mysteries, but even at the level of nature: there are natural mysteries as well, truths of the natural world which can be recognized, but not comprehended in their essence. For hardly do we guess aright at things that are upon earth: and with labour do we find the things that are before us (Ws 9:16). As St. Thomas famously stated, “our manner of knowing is so weak that no philosopher”—much less a natural scientist—“could perfectly investigate the nature of even one little fly.” Our rational intellect is truly amazing, for it is there that the image and likeness to God is principally found in us—but it is far less, infinitely less, than the divine intellect that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all (2Mc 7:23). The mysteries of God, then, and those which He has built into the nature of things, demand our respect—and our humility.

He goes on to treat of “Creation as a revealed mystery,” reminding his readers that:

Creation as a Revealed Mystery

The creation of the world in time is a mystery, known only by divine revelation. This will appear obvious after brief consideration. For it seems to have escaped the notice of even some otherwise sound theologians of the past and present centuries that creation is a necessarily supernatural act. Only God can create; only God can produce something ex nihilo, which is to create in the strict sense, or produce a thing in its entire substance, which is to create in a broader sense. True, man by natural reason (though the pagan philosophers never perfectly succeeded) can come to a knowledge of creation and the Creator generically, but it is only by divine revelation that we could know that the world did not always exist, or when it began to exist and in what circumstances, as St. Thomas ably proves. When and how God created, then, in addition to being an intrinsically supernatural event, are what is known as a past contingent. Just as only God knows future contingent events (which is the basis for true prophecy), so only He knows the past contingent of the precise time and circumstances of His creative act. This is why Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and others refer to Moses as “prophesying of the past” in writing the first chapters of Genesis. The doctrine of Creation, then, is a matter properly of divine revelation, a supernatural mystery, and not a matter for the natural sciences to investigate or explain. For how can one investigate, by means of the natural sciences and the method of observation and experimentation, a supernatural event that took place at a contingent time in the past, and is therefore far beyond the ability of men to observe? But the creation of the heavens and the earth and all things that are in them (Ex 20:11) is just such an event.

While certain theistic evolutionists chide those holding to the traditional view on the grounds that “the author [of Genesis] never intended to provide an astronomical or a zoological record for an event at which he was not present,” rather it is the natural scientists who were not present and can thus provide no “astronomical or zoological record” of any certitude; God, however, who is the primary author of Genesis and all of Sacred Scripture (as the Church infallibly teaches), was indeed present at His own Creative act, and gave us the absolutely inerrant account of both when and how He created—including any astronomical or zoological facts recorded (which would be per accidens revealed truths), as will be seen in the subsequent article. While the natural sciences can and should utilize all the powers of natural reason, illumined and guided by supernatural faith, to investigate the natural world as it is now, offering their service to support (but never prove, let alone disprove) the revealed truth about Creation— nevertheless an understanding of the creation event, or even of the world that then was, which perished in the Deluge (2Pt 3:6), is totally outside of their competence; that belongs to sacred theology alone.

The Creation of Light and the Angels

The Distinction of Sciences

The importance of these distinctions for the doctrine of creation begins to appear when we consider this important principle: habits and sciences are distinguished by their formal object, not by their material object. This means that there can be many sciences dealing with the same material object, the same subject matter, but from many different points of view—that is, having different formal objects. Take, for example, a man: this man may be considered by a theologian as made in God’s image and likeness; by a philosopher as a rational animal; by a microbiologist in the operations of his cells and genetic information; by a psychologist in his mental processes or childhood experience; by a physician in the function of his bones, muscles, and organs; by a physicist as having a certain velocity while walking; and so on. While each of these scientists is considering the same material object, namely a man, they are all doing so with a different formal object, under a different formal aspect, depending on their science. Further, from that formal object distinguishing them flows the method proper to the given science. Therefore the method proper to one science will not be proper for another science. Failure to observe this principle results in an error in methodology, and thus an error in one’s conclusions. It would be an error, for example, to try and investigate theological subjects by the “Scientific Method,” or teach natural sciences with the method proper to sacred theology, namely by arguments from infallible authority.

The Textbook Objection (In More Ways Than One)

Now, one often hears in the context of the creation debate the objection that “the Bible’s not a science textbook.” In other words, the objector is asserting (at least tacitly) that, as a religious book, the Bible is only meant to teach on religious subjects; if it happens to say something about matters pertaining to the natural sciences, the natural sciences have the higher authority, since this is their proper object, and especially since these sciences have progressed so much since the times when the books of the Bible were written.

This objection, in addition to being very old, makes at least three errors: first, it implies that sciences are distinguished by their material rather than formal object; second, it ignores the formal motives of both the natural and sacred sciences; third and following upon the second, it implicitly denies the inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. This third error will be addressed in a subsequent article; we will visit the first two here in turn.

Formal Objects and Creation

The first error of the common objection is that it implicitly claims that faith and theology are distinguished from the natural sciences by reason of their material objects. It implies that the portions of Sacred Scripture which touch on matters also considered in the natural sciences have no relevance to the faith, and so are not inspired, revealed truths, and thus not inerrant. Rather, the implication is that these are the domain solely of the natural sciences, which have the true authority in these matters—faith, Sacred Scripture, theology: these only deal with “matters of faith and morals,” so the argument goes.

On the contrary, we saw above that habits and sciences are distinguished by their formal object, whereas many habits or sciences can share some or all of their material objects; St. Thomas explains:

[If] we consider, in faith, the formal aspect of the object, it is nothing else than the First Truth. For the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God. […] If, however, we consider materially the things to which faith assents, they include not only God, but also many other things, which, nevertheless, do not come under the assent of faith, except as bearing some relation to God.

Faith—and thus sacred doctrine, which rests upon faith as upon its first principles—is distinguished from other habits and sciences by its formal object, namely God the First Truth: that He is First Truth is the formal object quod; His supreme authority as First Truth is the formal motive. In this light, St. Thomas rightly delineates the material object of faith, saying:

In sacred science, all things [i.e. its material object] are treated under the aspect [i.e. formal object quod] of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end.

“By Faith We Understand that the World Was Framed by the Word of God”

St. Thomas is making a very important point: the material object of sacred theology, and of the faith itself, includes virtually everything insofar as it has some relation to God. Now the most fundamental relation that any thing can have to God is that of a creature to its Creator; therefore it pertains to faith and theology to consider the creation of things, the origins of the universe, or things insofar as “they refer to God as their beginning”: for it is by faith we understand that the world was framed by the Word of God (Hb 11:3).

The beginning, the origin of things, is thus a theological subject; it does not fall under the formal aspect of the natural sciences. For the natural sciences, being experimental, can only treat of things insofar as they can be observed and experimented upon. But Creation, being (1) a supernatural act, as shown above, and (2) being long past and beyond any present human experience, is thus unobservable. Further, as is divinely revealed in Genesis 6–9 and 2 Peter 3, the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished (2Pt 3:6); the world as it was before the Deluge is gone, and therefore we cannot reasonably extrapolate from present observations back to the circumstances prior to that cataclysm. Therefore, the first origin of things cannot be the material object of the natural sciences, not falling under their formal object.

Granted, we can know God as the origin of all things from natural reason, deducing His existence as the one necessary being and first cause from the things that are made (Rm 1:20); but this is a metaphysical truth. The natural sciences, being lower than that of metaphysics and other strictly philosophical disciplines, must receive their principles from those higher sciences as they deal with the secondary causes, not the ultimate causes, of material things—their proper subject. “And if writers on [the natural sciences] travel outside the boundaries of their own branch,” Pope Leo XIII teaches, “and carry their erroneous teaching into the domain of philosophy, let them be handed over the philosophers for refutation.” How much more if they stray into the domain of sacred doctrine!

Through the prayers of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, of St. Maximilian Kolbe, and of all the Holy Angels and Saints, may the Holy Ghost guide us all into all the Truth!

Yours in Christ through the Immaculata in union with St. Joseph,

Hugh Owen

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