A Very Short Introduction to the History of Catholic Evolutionism

About six years ago Michael Chaberek, OP published an English translation of his history of Catholic thought about evolution. Unfortunately, it gets many things wrong. It is historically inaccurate, sometimes in ways that merely put historical events out of focus, but at other times in ways that are much more serious. It makes logical errors as well, claiming as conclusions of evolutionary biology things that unarguably do not follow from that theory. And its interpretations of central documents are generally tendentious.

When that book appeared, I had already been working for some years on my own history of the topic (or at least of the evolution-friendly side of Catholic thought on the question), a book which is at long last nearing completion. I want to present here a brief outline of the history of Catholic evolutionism as I see it. I will begin with some thoughts about the intellectual and social background of the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology, some of which make it different from the history of the Protestant reception and then will suggest a kind of periodization of that history.

The substantive questions that Catholic evolutionists needed to address were three. The first was the general question of evolution—whether biological species owe their origin to the transformation of other species. The second was the extent to which that idea was applicable to man. Although all Catholic evolutionists agreed that the origin of man, properly so-called, came only with the creation of the first human souls, there was a long controversy over whether evolutionary processes could fully account for the origin of the first human bodies. The third was the question of whether the human race began with (and whether all human beings are descended from) a single original human couple (monogenism) or many (polygenism).


There are two reasons why the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology is different from that of the various Protestant churches.

First, as can be seen in the CDF document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, Catholicism is distinctly conservative in its theology, but not literalistic in its hermeneutics. For one thing, it has always acknowledged the place of allegorical interpretation in reading the Bible, though the allegorical sense of a passage was supplementary to, not alternative to, the literal sense. Moreover, it has always been more open to metaphorical interpretation than are some of today’s Protestant literalists. It is important to note that in the Catholic tradition, metaphorical interpretations are considered to be part of the “literal sense” as the Church has traditionally used that term. Finally, in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the Church came gradually to accept the use of historico-critical and other scientific methods of the study of scripture. Unlike some branches of conservative Protestantism, it has never been committed to the kind of plain-meaning hermeneutics that made literacy (and piety, of course) a sufficient preparation for scriptural interpretation.

Some Protestants worry that to interpret the Hexaëmeron (i.e. the “Six Days” of creation) as anything but an account of six literal days is to step onto a slippery slope. Tennessee Judge John T. Raulston, who presided over the Scopes Trial, later said, “If I listen to evolution and lose my faith in Genesis, I am afraid I’ll lose my faith in the rest of the Bible; and if I want to commit larceny I’ll say I don’t believe in the part of the Bible that says ‘Thou shalt not steal.’” Catholics, of course, rely on the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, to distinguish between passages that are not to be interpreted metaphorically (“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” [John 6:53]) and those that may (“on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” [Genesis 2:2]).

Second, the Catholic debate over evolution differed from the debate within Protestantism as a result of Catholicism’s nineteenth-century revival of Thomistic philosophy. The commitment of Pope Leo XIII to make that philosophy a prominent feature of Catholic intellectual and educational life affected the reception of evolutionary accounts of the origin of species in several ways. Most importantly, it offered a philosophical defense of the human exceptionalism that was central to Catholic theological anthropology and that had been explicitly rejected by Darwin in The Descent of Man, a rejection which was the grounds for (not, it is important to note, a consequence of) his evolutionary account of anthropogenesis.

In addition, Thomistic anthropology embedded its account of human nature in a larger philosophy of nature, a “hylomorphism” [each individual thing is a composite of matter and a substantial form] that was both essentialist and teleological. Thus, in addition to the question (important to all Christians) of whether Darwinism, or other theories of biological evolution, denied the existence of souls or just ignored them, Catholic intellectuals faced two further questions. The first was how the Darwinian concept of species related to the concept of biological species used in Thomistic (essentialist) philosophy. The second was whether natural selection (in the judgment of some, a non-teleological process) is compatible with a generally teleological philosophy of nature.

In addition, it is helpful to keep in mind that the Catholic response to evolutionary biology had to be worked out at the same time as the Church fended off the attacks of an aggressively anti-clerical, when not explicitly anti-religious, liberalism (the Kulturkampf in Germany, the Risorgimento in Italy, and counterparts in France, Spain, and Latin America). To take just one example, historian Harry W. Paul wrote in The Edge of Contingency that:

In France, there was a clear attempt to base anti-clerical republican politics on a scientistic ideology. Darwinism was most susceptible to exploitation by anti-clericals. The intellectual problem of reconciling religious beliefs with new scientific developments was thus connected with republican anti-clericalism. This meant that republicans were encouraged to accept Darwinism and that Catholics had a good political reason to be suspicious of it as an ideological weapon against Catholicism. Only the finest minds were capable of separating the purely scientific aspects of Darwinism from the wider social and political implications.

The First Generation (1830–1885)

I want to begin by identifying three scientists who might be called the pioneers of Catholic evolutionism. The first was Belgian geologist Jean-Baptiste d’Omalius d’Halloy, who studied natural history at the Sorbonne under both the early evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the anti-evolutionist Georges Cuvier. One of the geological problems of the day was to explain the newly recognized fact of faunal succession in the history of life on earth. Cuvier’s solution (successive catastrophes and new creations) d’Halloy rejected, in his Éléments de géologie (1831), as “a purely gratuitous hypothesis not based on any analogy with phenomena which take place in historical times.”

The idea of partial extinction followed by immigration of geographically new species from an unaffected region would leave as “singular coincidences” such facts as the similarity between living and extinct animals in the same region, similarities among organisms geographically adjacent to one another, and the generally progressive succession found in the geological column. “However great the stability of species is,” he concluded, “it is not absolute” and in that idea he anticipated the transformism that was central to Darwin’s later, more comprehensive theory, an anticipation that Darwin himself later recognized.

The second of those pioneers was Filippo De Filippi, professor of zoology at the University of Turin and one of the leading Italian naturalists of his day. In his 1864 lecture “L’Uomo e le scimie,” which did much to launch the debate over Darwinism in Italy, he combined an expression of support with Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species (including man) with a defense of the idea that the difference between man and animal was a difference in kind not just in degree. It is perhaps too easy to read his statement that “to say that man is descended from an ape is to do no more than to express an anatomical fact” as though the emphasis were on the word “fact.” It would express his larger view equally well (perhaps better) if the emphasis were put on the word “anatomical.” De Filippo’s second point, and in his view one even more important than the first, was that there is more to man than anatomy.

The third of the pioneers was St. George Jackson Mivart, the English anatomist and systematic zoologist who, at age seventeen, gave up his dreams of an Oxford education in order to enter the Catholic Church. His On the Genesis of Species (1871), the first book-length Catholic comment on Darwin’s work was, like d’Halloy’s Éléments de géologie, fundamentally a work of science. He accepted Darwin’s transformism but expressed reservations about the reach of natural selection, as did many other scientists in the decades following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. Two points in Mivart’s book are particularly worth noting.

The first is his distinction between absolute and derivative creation, between the “origination of any thing by God without pre-existing means or material” and “the formation of any thing by God derivatively; that is, that the preceding matter has been created with the potentiality to evolve from it, under suitable conditions, all the various forms it subsequently assumes.” Creation does not necessarily mean absolute creation and evolution is not a negation of providence.

Mivart’s second contribution was to offer a more detailed account of the origin of the first human being, something not explicitly elaborated by either of his two predecessors. He proposed to combine the ideas of the evolution of human bodies with the creation of human souls:

Scripture . . . says that “God made man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” This is a plain and direct statement that man’s body was not created in the primary and absolute sense of the word, but was evolved from pre-existing material (symbolized by the term “dust of the earth”), and was therefore only derivatively created, i. e., by the operation of secondary laws.

The soul of every individual man is absolutely created in the strict and primary sense of the word, that it is produced by a direct or supernatural act, and, of course, that by such an act the soul of the first man was similarly created.

The official Church was largely silent on the question during this period. A provincial council of the Archdiocese of Cologne, held in 1860, condemned the idea of a “spontaneous” and “continuous” evolution of the human body. Although Catholic anti-evolutionists have long argued that this condemnation would rule out Mivart’s view, in fact Mivart did not propose a spontaneous process of evolution. Indeed, if spontaneous means non-providentialist, then no Catholic evolutionist has ever done so. The First Vatican Council was prorogued before it got to addressing the question, but drafts written by one of its preparatory commissions suggest that the concerns of the Council extended to polygenism, but not to the origin of the human body.

The Second Generation (1885–1910)

We can distinguish a second generation of Catholic evolutionists beginning in the 1890s with three sets of authors. The first set includes two authors who rearticulated Mivart’s account of anthropogenesis—French Dominican Dalmace Leroy, who published L’Évolution des espèces organiques (1887), revised as L’Évolution restreinte aux espèces organiques (1891), and American Holy Cross priest John Augustine Zahm, whose Evolution and Dogma (1896) was quickly followed by translations into French, Italian, and, eventually, Spanish. Both books were delated to the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books, the Vatican office responsible for maintaining a list of books which Catholics were prohibited from reading. The judgment at the Congregation was that the books were “rash,” a technical term in theological epistemology meaning, as Sixtus Caterchini puts it, “one which opposes a proposition generally held by the Fathers or theologians without sufficient reason.” Although some of the Congregation’s consultors and cardinals would have put the books on the Index, Pope Leo XIII only allowed them to go so far as to require the authors to make a public retraction of their views and to withdraw the books from sale. Leroy complied; Zahm did so only in part. Although the adverse decision by the Congregation was made known through the public retractions, the books were never formally or explicitly prohibited.

A second possible Catholic account of evolutionary anthropogenesis was articulated hypothetically by the eminent Dominican, Thomist, and former Primate of Spain, Zeferino Cardinal González in his two-volume La Biblia y la Ciencia (1891). He proposed consideration of an alternative:

Juxtaposition of Mivart’s hypothesis with a possibility noted by St. Thomas, regarding the possibility that causes or agents other than God intervened in the formation of Adam’s body, that is to say, in its preliminary preparation up to an imperfect stage of development, reserving the final stages of its preparation to receive a rational soul to divine action. In this way, the essence of Mivart’s hypothesis is preserved, with due regard to the direct and immediate action of God in the formation of the body of the first man, action which traditional Biblical exegesis seems to require.

Although González never endorsed the alternative which he had articulated, it did find a defense a few years later in the work of another Spanish Dominican, Juan Arintero, in La Evolución y la Filosofía Cristiana (1898).

The Holy Office (the Church office responsible for matters of doctrinal orthodoxy) was aware of Arintero’s book, and reviewed it in response to a more comprehensive complaint about Arintero’s alleged modernism in 1908, but did not deem any action against Arintero to be necessary, a decision approved by Pope Pius X.

The third of the major second-generation Catholic evolutionists was the German Jesuit entomologist Erich Wasmann, the only scientist among the authors of this generation whom I discuss here. His Moderne Biologie und die Entwicklungstheorie first appeared serially in the Jesuits journal Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, and then in two editions (1904 and 1906) from Herder. It was subsequently translated into Italian, English, and Polish. We should note two points about the book.

First, he argued that his work on ants provided good support for evolution (i.e., transformism) itself. He was not, however convinced that all living things were descended from a single first kind of organism and thus, in contrast to Ernst Haeckel, defended a polyphyletic origin of life. Second, there is the question of the relevance of evolutionary theory to the origin of the first human body. In his articles in Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, he had suggested that this was a theologically open question, but the judgment that this was rash was not limited to the officials at the Congregation of the Index. His Jesuit superiors shared that concern and subsequent editions weakened his claim, although never fully to their satisfaction. His work was never delated to the Congregation of the Index and achieved a widespread popularity among Catholics. He was, for example, invited to write an article on evolution for the American Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1907–12.

What did the official Church say about evolutionary theories during this period? The Congregation of the Index had no authority to make decisions about Catholic doctrine. The most it could do was to prohibit the reading of certain books. The list it published included no explanations. Decisions about doctrine were the responsibility of the Holy Office, which did not address the orthodoxy of the new evolutionary ideas, even when it was given the opportunity to do so.

The question of the origin of our first parents was addressed in a public and official way by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909, as part of its answer to eight questions on the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis. It said that the literal historical sense of “the distinctive [peculiaris] creation of man” may not be called in doubt. Catholic evolutionists argued that the creation of the human soul made the origin of man distinctive.

Catholic encyclopedias by the beginning of this period were already stating that the evolutionary origin of plants and animals was not a matter of theological concern. Pierre-Julien Hamard wrote the following in the Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique (1889):

The Bible grants equal freedom to transformists and to the defenders of successive creations . . . Whenever it is not absolutely explicit . . . anyone who invokes its authority puts at risk both the Bible itself and the religious cause of which it is the support.

It would be superfluous and irrelevant to say any more about a question which concerns religion only indirectly . . . The teaching of evolution is in no way incompatible with Christian dogma . . . What aggravates the debate is the making what is, in itself, a purely scientific question into a question of orthodoxy, as if the evolutionist principle were absolutely irreconcilable and incompatible with religious faith.

Of course, the denial that the evolutionary origin of plants and animals was not a theological question was not the same thing as acceptance of the theory as true, but Hamard’s remarks are important for what they show about the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology.

The Third Generation (1910–1950)

Salient among what I want to call the third generation of Catholic evolutionists were two other authors.

The first of these was Belgian priest-geologist Henry de Dorlodot, whose Le Darwinisme au Point de Vue de l’Orthodoxie Catholique (1918) is devoted to “the Darwinian theory in general,” i.e., the origin of species “apart from the special question of the origin of man,” which he promised to take up in a second volume. Particularly noteworthy is his designation as “Christian naturalism” of a theology of nature on which Catholics have long relied and which lays the foundations for Catholic evolutionism. The book was translated into English and received a generally positive reception in the Anglophone world.

The second was the English priest Ernest Messenger, de Dorlodot’s former student and English translator. Messenger’s Evolution and Theology (1931) was a comprehensive review of the theological aspects of the question. On the question of the origin of man, he took the line first articulated by González, a direct divine modification of an animal body into a form suitable for the reception of a rational soul.

Both books were delated to the Congregation of the Index. Although the recommendation at the Congregation was to suppress de Dorlodot’s work in the same way that it had done in the cases of Leroy and Zahm, Pope Pius XI would not allow it to do so until it had consulted with the eminent Belgian cardinal Désiré Mercier. In the end de Dorlodot agreed not to publish his planned second volume and the matter ended there, with de Dorlodot’s book still commercially available.

When the complaint against Messenger’s book came, Pope Pius XI instructed the Congregation of the Index to seek an opinion on the scientific state of the question from Austrian priest-anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD. In a brief reply, Schmidt emphasized that the question was scientifically open. In the words of the summary prepared at the Holy Office, “The science is uncertain and subject to continuous revision. It would, therefore, be best to continue waiting.”

This period also saw the emergence of the question of whether the human race began with a single couple, as the traditional account—reinforced by its connection to the doctrine of original sin—had it. The idea of a polygenetic (indeed polyphyletic) origin of the human race, can be traced back at least as far as the seventeenth century, to Isaac de La Peyrère’s Pre-Adamitae (1655). Darwin’s own account of the origin of man (as of any other species) was a monophyletic polygenism, which brought science at least part way back towards orthodoxy from the polygenetic accounts defended by Louis Agassiz and others in the first half of the nineteenth century. Some broadly Darwinian evolutionists (e.g., Carl Vogt and Ernst Haeckel) differed from Darwin in defending a polyphyletic anthropogenesis which the Church opposed as inconsistent with its doctrine of the unity of the human race.

Catholic evolutionists followed the Church doctrine on unity, but some thought that the scientific evidence required following Darwin in giving up monogenesis. French priest-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, was particularly outspoken on this point. This, along with his broader attempt to recast the doctrine of original sin, resulted in his order removing him from his teaching responsibilities in France and sending him off to China to dig up fossils.

The Fourth Generation (1950–Present)

The idea of a fourth generation of Catholic evolutionism cannot so easily be focused on a few authors. It comes in the wake of the Church’s first explicit statement about evolution. The theologically unproblematic character of an evolutionary origin of plants and animals had won general acceptance long before 1950, as indicated above. What remained controversial were the two questions of anthropogenesis—first, the origin of the first human body and, second, the question of monogenesis. In his encyclical Humani generis (1950), which was addressed more generally to “some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine,” Pope Piux XII took up both questions. The evolutionary origin of the human body, he said, was open to discussion among experts, as long as the theological significance of the question was acknowledged. About polygenism, he said, in words carefully chosen not to be stronger than they are, that “it is in no way apparent how polygenism can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin.” Catholics were not, therefore, at liberty to embrace that view.

Many Catholic theologians, starting in the 1960s have tried to recast the doctrine of original sin in a way that would be consistent with polygenism. This effort was perhaps given added motivation by new genetic evidence that seems to make a monogenetic anthropogenesis practically impossible. My judgment about their prospects of success in this effort is not as sanguine as is theirs. In 2011, I proposed an account of the origins of the human race in which an original first fully human (i.e., ensouled) couple interbreeds with their not quite human (i.e., biologically human but not ensouled) relatives in a way that produces fully human offspring and leads, within a few generations, to a biological population every member of which is fully human.

In 1996, St. John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in a way that re-emphasized human exceptionalism while asserting that “Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of Humani generis, new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Presumably, if he had not meant the word “evolution” to include the evolutionary origin of the human body, he would have said so. Indeed, on an earlier occasion, he had explicitly said that “from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith, there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution.” He did not address the question of monogenism.

So there we have, in brief, a short history of Catholic evolutionism—Christian naturalism, an exceptionalist anthropology, an anthropogenetic synthesis of evolution and creation—a synthesis of faith and reason.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This article is part of a collaboration with the Society of Catholic Scientists (click here to read about becoming a member). You can ask questions and join a wider discussion of this essay at the bottom of this page where the original version of it is linked, which includes an extensive appendix.

Featured Image: Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1510; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Kenneth Kemp

Kenneth W. Kemp is Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota and author of the forthcoming book The War That Never Was: Evolution and Christian Thought.

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