Catholic Creationism as a Conspiracy Theory

Catholics are often heard to proclaim that, while some other Christians read the Bible “literally,”[1] we take a more nuanced approach. We know that Genesis was not meant to be taken as “literal history.” We know that evolution provides no real threat to the Christian doctrine of creation, properly understood.

Those responsible for teaching the faith, then, find it important to teach our people that they need not worry that their faith is somehow opposed to science just because some Christians, most atheists, and, following these two groups, a good chunk of the popular media, assume such an opposition. It was this task that I was engaging in six years ago when I wrote a little piece for our local Archdiocesan website entitled, “Can Catholics Believe in Evolution?

It was a short piece and did not make any attempt to engage the concerns of creationists. Its goal was simply to demonstrate that the basic idea of evolution is not incompatible with established Catholic teaching regarding both the doctrine of creation and the interpretation of Holy Scripture, and that Catholics need not worry that the findings of the natural sciences have somehow undermined the faith.

I even asserted that, given the strength of the scientific consensus and the attitude of the magisterium towards that consensus, that Catholics not only could, but probably should, believe in evolution. To oppose evolution when there was no theological or scriptural reason to do so, I suggested, damaged the credibility of the faith in the modern world. In this, I considered myself to be saying no more than what St. Augustine had said at the very beginning of the 5th century in a work titled (of all possible titles!) “On the Literal Meaning of Genesis,” namely, that:

It is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these [scientific] topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Now, an Archdiocesan blog is not the most widely-read forum, and the post generated no controversy in my small circle. Indeed, the reaction I generally get when teaching on this question is one of gratitude and relief. Many Catholics live uncomfortably with the idea that they are somehow expected to believe both science and the Bible, despite the two being ostensibly at odds on the matter of evolution, and so they are genuinely happy to see this false premise overturned.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a few Fridays ago I received an e-mail informing me that my work had been mentioned in a widely-disseminated electronic newsletter from a kind of self-appointed Catholic watchdog. As it turns out, the writer of this newsletter belongs to a homeschooling cooperative that had recently hired a biology teacher. The teacher, bless him, had shared my piece with the parents to put them at ease about his teaching of evolution to their Catholic children. This did not sit well with the watchdog who decided that a takedown of my piece would be of interest to his readers, several of whom forwarded it to me.

The Evolution of an Evolutionist

My dad was a creationist. Despite being a Catholic, he had sympathies for many elements of fundamentalist Protestantism and from his contacts in that world he had become convinced that evolution was contrary to Christian faith. Also a practicing Catholic, my mom saw no real difficulty with evolution and did not see what the fuss was about. But the literature I was exposed to on this question came from Dad.

As I wrote a response to share with anyone who was following the watchdog’s link to my original piece, my experiences of reading creationist literature as a young man reawakened in my mind, and something that I had intuited back then came into clearer focus. I had never warmed to my dad’s creationism. Something about it always seemed off. It was not a matter of this or that argument not sitting right, though there was plenty of that. Rather, there was something about the entire presentation that felt intellectually dishonest. Creationism was, and this is what crystallized for me as I wrote my response, essentially a conspiracy theory.

I think what initially turned me off was the constant need, in creationist literature, to cast aspersions on the moral and intellectual character of “evolutionists.” Things were never presented as simply new findings of science that should be considered, or better interpretations of scientific data that challenge the regnant paradigm, as would be the case in any legitimate scientific dispute. Instead, they were couched in language that presumed those holding to the scientific consensus were at least duped, and in most cases themselves duplicitous. Evolution was not a mistake. It was not even a scientific theory that had outlived its usefulness. It was a lie. And Christian scientists who held to evolution were worst of all, because they had sold their souls for worldly respect.

Consequently, creationist literature did not feel like scientific literature. It did not seem at all interested in following the evidence where it led. Instead it began, not with a scientific claim, but with a whole set of claims about history, culture, and even ethics, that seemed to be steering the bus. But the fact, e.g., that social Darwinism was bad, seemed to me irrelevant for discerning whether evolution was true.

The internet was not much of a thing when I was a teenager, so I could not easily check all the scientific claims—and there is no shortage of such claims, on everything from cell biology to plate tectonics to astrophysics—but many were so implausible that I quickly became disinclined to take even the less fantastical ones at face value.

To give just one example, there is an obvious difficulty for young-earth creationists with the fact that we can see light from stars that are more than 10,000 light years away if creation is less than 10,000 years old. This was resolved, variously, by claiming either that

  1. God created the light itself in transit (i.e., that he had made creation look older than it was—this same logic was sometimes applied to geology and the fossil record as well), or that
  2. the speed of light was much greater in the past.

These were not things I could disprove. But they strained credulity. Indeed, the first is not the kind of thing that could be disproved. It is not a scientific claim at all, but a post hoc rationalization. I did not have that language as a teenager, but I knew something was not right.

Worse than this, the same sources that could claim that God might well have created fossils that looked old, could also claim that the geological record clearly favored a young-earth interpretation. As is typical of conspiracy theories, there did not seem to be any desire for internal consistency. Any argument against evolution was, and for that reason, a good argument.

Following from this was a kind of scattershot methodology. These sources would list dozens or hundreds of reasons why evolution was a lie. This seemed desperate to me. If any of those reasons were as conclusive as they were asserted to be, why not take it and offer it to the scientific community for reflection? Why this overwhelming amount of unsystematized, disconnected, sometimes even inherently contradictory (I hesitate to say “argument”) assertion?

As I learned later in life, the answer is that that is how conspiracy theories work. They are designed to overwhelm, not to persuade. They appeal not to the intellect, but to fear. The intellect is to be confounded, not convinced. Conspiracy theory arguments are designed to comfort and affirm those who already have other reasons to believe them and to evade the arguments of those who do not. They are full of unverifiable claims. But, and here is part of what makes them so slippery, alongside those unverifiable claims, they are also full of verifiable claims. And the conspiracy theorist makes no distinction between the two.

This is what makes arguing with a conspiracy theorist so impossible. If I do not have the expertise to show that the speed of light has not slowed down in the recent past, I am over a barrel. But even if I do have such expertise, the creationist can fall back on the unverifiable claim that God created the light in transit. And they are not troubled in the least that their first claim was shown to be false. Whenever any of their myriad claims are disproved, they simply move on, unhindered. It is a shell game. Conspiracy theories are constructed to be immune to evidence.

To wit: the watchdog, in his critique, described a conversation he had with his 14-year-old daughter about evolution in light of my original piece. Just think about it, he had told her, if evolution were true, if by some unimaginable fluke, life did emerge from non-life, that life would have nothing to eat and would starve almost immediately. Evolution is not merely scientifically problematic. It is logically impossible!

Now, it must be said, that the question of what the first life metabolized in order to go on living would be a pretty insightful question coming from a bright middle-schooler who is first being introduced to the idea of evolution (and abiogenesis in particular). But it does not function here as an honest question that seeks understanding. It is, rather, a “gotcha” question. It seeks neither truth, nor genuine engagement. It is triumphantly presented as self-evidently irrefutable, a dagger to the heart of evolution.

It was this kind of thing that made the teenage me ask, “Surely this has not completely escaped the notice of the thousands of scientists who work on this stuff?” But that is also how conspiracy theories work. They truck in assertions that purport to be both self-evident and willfully ignored, even suppressed, by the conspirators. Scientists, it is implied, are either really dumb to have missed something this obvious, or, what is more likely, are in on it, conspiring to keep this knowledge from the public. The conspiracy theorist is always a hero in his own mind, bravely sharing the truth that the powers that be want kept under wraps.

Not being a biologist, I did not immediately know the answer to this question. But, not being a conspiracy theorist, I knew that there was an answer. And it did not take me 60 seconds to find it with Google. As it turns out, there are creatures alive today that metabolize non-living matter, and, what is more, such creatures were the only living things on the planet for more than half of the history of life on earth.

Now, there are readers of this piece who can see what is coming and who are smiling wryly at my folly. For you see, I believed that the information I had uncovered—information that conclusively and irrefutably exposed the bogus logic of my critic by means of indisputable scientific fact—made a difference. It did not.

The Hits Keep Comin’

If I was surprised to receive that first e-mail, imagine how I felt when, a few Fridays later, I opened my inbox to find a 53-page manuscript with no less than 8 signatories. Our watchdog had not let the matter rest after my initial response as I had vainly hoped. He had forwarded it to a group dedicated to demonstrating the incompatibility of evolution and Catholic doctrine. The members of this group managed to put together a document that runs to nearly 28,000 words and includes 113 footnotes!

Now, there is a spiritual battle that one engages when reading such a document. For one feels, at the same time, a strong urge to reply point by devastating point, and, from a deeper, stiller place, the certainty that such a reply would be utterly futile.

Indeed, I am informed in this new document that it is utterly inconsequential that there is life on earth today that metabolizes non-living matter because there are innumerable other problems with the evolution of life from non-living matter. Instead of acknowledging that I had refuted a point which creationists should henceforth refrain from making because it is patently false, the issue is framed as if I were the one who had initially brought up the question of creatures metabolizing non-living matter in order to demonstrate the truth of evolution and that this fact is quite inadequate to that task. I had never imagined that it was. All I had intended with that information was to demonstrate that the supposedly devastating logical problem with evolution that my interlocutor had proposed was not devastating at all. This is what arguing with conspiracy theorists looks like.

One could, indeed, respond point-by-point to the whole 53 pages, but what would that accomplish? My mind knows it is a fool’s errand, even as my heart goads me toward the quicksand.

Prayer, reflection, and consultation with some wise friends, who have the benefit of critical distance, have led me to think that a more fruitful approach would be a study, not of the all the particular “scientific” or “theological” claims made in the document, though some of those will inevitably come into play, but of the kind of argumentation the document engages in and the presuppositions behind that argumentation. In this way, I hope that, rather than getting dragged into a quagmire to no good end, I might be able to help others articulate just what it is about creationism that is so off. Furthermore, as the creationism that most Catholics are likely to be familiar with is of the fundamentalist Protestant variety, I also hope to convey something of the distinctive character of Catholic creationism.

Catholic Creationism

For a fundamentalist Protestant (and not all evangelicals are such), the question of creationism is fairly straightforward. The Bible says that God created the world in six days, so that is literally what happened. The Bible seems to indicate, if you take the time to add up all the genealogies, that the world is around 6,000 years old. So that is how old it is. If geology or astronomy or biology seem to indicate something else, those findings must be false. The choice is simple: either the Bible is true or evolution is.

For the Catholic creationist, the picture is a little more complicated. While he has no compunction about using the revisionist biology, geology, or astronomy of his fundamentalist Protestant counterpart (though he is much more likely to consider him a heretic than a brother in Christ, Vatican II having broken with the traditional Catholic teaching on ecumenism—yes, that is also in the document), he must deal, not simply with what scripture says, but with how the tradition and magisterium of the Church have treated the question. This is tricky, given just how dominant a non-fundamentalist reading of this question is in both Catholic tradition and official teaching. While both Protestant and Catholic creationists need to marshal their arguments against the mainstream scientific consensus, the Catholic creationist has the additional task of taking on the mainstream theological consensus as well.

Consequently, in addition to the theories that the average Protestant creationist holds about the destructive impact of evolution on culture and ethics, the Catholic creationist holds theories about the destructive impact of evolution on the Catholic Church itself, implicating it in things as varied as the loss of evangelical zeal, permissiveness about abortion, degradation of the liturgy, the failure to uphold the traditional Catholic teaching that the husband is the head of the household, and the exploits of allegedly wayward priests.

The Catholic creationist is, then, invariably a partisan of what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “hermeneutic of rupture.” Like the progressive Catholics he despises, the Catholic creationist holds that Vatican II ushered in a new kind of Church that teaches things that are fundamentally opposed to what the Church has always taught. In particular, according to him, evolution is completely incompatible with how the Church has always and everywhere interpreted the first three chapters of Genesis.

This is simply axiomatic. It matters not a whit that many in the Church saw almost immediately that Darwin posed no real problem for a Catholic doctrine of creation, nor that the Church has never publically condemned anyone for believing or teaching evolution, nor that Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) explicitly stated that there is no theological difficulty that would prevent faithful Catholics from studying whether human bodies (not souls!) may well have evolved “from pre-existent and living matter,”[2] nor that the last three Popes, in all their writing and speaking on the matter, have basically taken evolution for granted (at least as a scientific theory; they are happy to critique bad philosophy that misuses the theory). The possibility that they, the creationists, are in fact the ones misreading the tradition of the Church and might have something to learn from how the magisterium reads that same tradition is not considered. No. All of this must be explained away.

The Strange World of Catholic Creationists

Nothing is so troubling to the Catholic creationist as the fact that the magisterium of the Church seems so untroubled by the scientific theory of evolution. One can ignore the consensus of the theologians. One can even hope no one notices that the Church has never seen fit to publicly condemn anyone for believing or teaching evolution. But it is difficult to deny that at least the last three Popes have freely spoken of evolution as if it poses no problem for Christian faith. Indeed, even the fairly conservative intervention of Pius XII in 1950, in the encyclical Humani Generis, is deeply problematic for the case of the Catholic creationist.

Earlier we saw a handful of illustrative examples of how creationists, Catholic or otherwise, approach the overwhelming scientific evidence for evolution. But the Catholic creationist has the additional task of refuting, not simply the overwhelming consensus of the guild of Catholic theologians that evolution is quite compatible with what the Catholic Church has always taught about creation, but the teaching of the popes themselves on this question.

To be clear, the magisterium does not require Catholics to believe in the theory of evolution. That would be a category mistake. The magisterium claims competence to teach about faith and morals, not scientific theories. Nevertheless, the theory of evolution is of interest to the magisterium because of its intersection with questions about creation that are matters of faith and morals, e.g., creation ex nihilo or the doctrine of original sin. If the theory of evolution posed insurmountable problems for Catholic teaching, we would expect to have heard as much from the magisterium. But, not only has the magisterium declined to condemn the theory, Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all spoken of evolution (as a scientific theory) as though it were completely unproblematic for the Catholic believer.

The Catholic creationist, then, needs a way to discount the teachings of these popes. The strategy employed, however, is impossible to use in response to Humani Generis, for reasons that will become clear. That papal teaching requires a different treatment from the creationist, one that we will address in due course.

The basic strategy of the Catholic creationist in response to the numerous papal statements that seem to favor evolution is fairly straightforward: simply deny that such statements have any authority.[3] Papal statements about evolution have not, with the exception of Humani Generis, been the province of papal encyclicals, but rather the subject of things like Wednesday audiences and addresses to pontifical academies. These are not, the creationist rightly points out, exercises of papal infallibility, nor even particularly authoritative exercises of the ordinary universal magisterium.

This is true in as far as it goes. Unfortunately, the next element of this strategy is to claim that such non-authoritative statements do not overrule or abrogate what the creationists assure us are the clear and authoritative magisterial statements of the past. But this is a straw man. No one thinks that Wednesday audiences overrule the Council of Trent. And notice what else follows from this: though he never says so directly, the creationist is asking us to believe that the last several popes have taken to openly flouting established Church doctrine. It is one thing to point out that Wednesday audiences do not overturn dogmatic decrees of ecumenical councils. It is another to strongly imply that a succession of popes has been using such occasions to promote rank heresy.

Which brings us to the second problem with this narrative. Who gets to determine the meaning of the supposedly clear and authoritative teachings of the past? As is typical with conspiracy theories, we are to imagine that this is a straightforward matter. Anyone, we are assured, can simply look at the teachings in question and know that they contradict what recent Popes have been saying. Since their meaning is so obvious, however, the overwhelming consensus of the theologians, including those theologians sitting on the throne of Peter, requires some explanation.

Therefore, the pope or theologian who has no trouble with evolution suffers the same fate as the Catholic scientist who accepts the evidence for evolution; they are either in on the conspiracy themselves, or they have, at the very least, been duped. The popes unfortunately “trust their advisors” or “have succumbed to the spirit of the age” or “seek to curry favor with the elite.” If they are not crooks, they are sycophants. If they are neither, they are patsies. Because rational disagreement with the conspiracy theorist’s view is unimaginable, the only things that are imaginable are ulterior motives, however implausible.

The real question is not, as the creationist’s false framing would have us believe, whether Wednesday audiences trump the Council of Trent. The real question is, what do the supposedly clear and authoritative teachings consistently put forward by the Catholic creationists actually say? When we look at that question we will see—even apart from the question of who actually has authority to interpret such matters, the popes or the creationists—that the teaching of the recent popes is not at all difficult to reconcile with the teachings in question.

It is remarkable that, for all his bluster about the “constant teaching of the Catholic Church,” the Catholic creationist hangs almost his entire case on just two instances of official teaching that he finds congenial. First, though he generally avoids quoting it directly, he points out that the council of Trent forbids any interpretation of Scripture that does not accord with “the unanimous consent of the Church Fathers.” These Fathers, we are assured, all read Genesis as if it were literal history and so, according to the Council of Trent, Catholics today have no freedom to do otherwise. He is particularly eager to point out that the Fathers believed that creation was less than 10,000 years old. For this reason, the typical Catholic creationist is a “young-earth” creationist.[4] Second, he leans heavily on a 1909 Response of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis which, to his mind, makes reading Genesis as anything other than strict literal history virtually forbidden for Catholics.

Before we consider them in turn, it is worth noting what the creationist treatment of each has in common. First, in both cases, the creationist ignores any sense of historical context. One might be tempted to think the creationist incapable of such nuance, but that would be a mistake. The Catholic creationist is quite aware, for example, that Thomas Aquinas only taught what he did about the beginning of human life because of his inadequate embryology. The creationist is quite capable of employing this tool when it leads to conclusions he finds amenable. Rather, his disregard for historical context here is selective, his ignorance feigned. In addition to ignoring the historical context in which the teaching emerged, the Catholic creationist also ignores the history of its interpretation by the magisterium. Evidence is selected to fit the preconceived conclusion. What does not is ignored. Our treatment will furnish examples.

The Unanimous Consent of the Fathers

There are at least three different kinds of problems with the creationist’s approach to Trent’s teaching on the unanimous consent of the Fathers. The first is the presupposition that the teaching of Trent applies to this kind of question at all. Is the age of the earth even the kind of thing Trent was talking about when it insisted that no one could presume to interpret scripture contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers? The second is the notion that the Fathers were, in fact, unanimous on this matter. How, indeed, are we to judge the unanimity of the Fathers on this question? The third has to do with the status of the teaching itself. For the creationist speaks as if the teaching in question were a dogmatic definition when it was, in fact, a disciplinary measure. What, then, does the status of this teaching within the decrees of Trent itself tell us about its application?

The historical context makes it unlikely that the Fathers at Trent imagined their teaching to apply to such a question. In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Church was concerned about novel interpretations of scripture on doctrinal matters such as justification or the sacraments. The idea that a scientific question like the age of the earth, which was not being disputed, is to be included within what the Council Fathers had in mind by “in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine”[5] seems far-fetched. Making it more far-fetched is the fact that, when the age of the earth did become a question, due mainly to discoveries in geology, the magisterium did not feel much bound by the opinions of the Fathers on the matter. But we are not left merely to speculate about what the Fathers at Trent did or did not have in mind. Because in Providentissimus Deus (1893), paragraph 19, Leo XIII teaches explicitly that:

In commenting on passages where physical matters occur, [the Fathers of the Church] have sometimes expressed the ideas of their own times, and thus made statements which in these days have been abandoned as incorrect. Hence, in their interpretations, we must carefully note what they lay down as belonging to faith, or as intimately connected with faith-what they are unanimous in.

In other words, part of the subsequent magisterium’s own interpretation of the teaching in question is that it does not apply to questions about "physical matters." Leo seems not in the least troubled that the Fathers of the Church believed certain things about “physical matters” that have been proven incorrect. Further, Providentissiumus Deus was promulgated 34 years after the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. It is simply unthinkable that Leo XIII was not aware of that work’s implications. He was not going to embarrass the Church the way she had been embarrassed in the Galileo affair. (Though even then the Church’s best lights, notably Cardinal Bellarmine, were proposing a way forward that closely resembles Leo’s approach here.)

To top it off, when certain Catholics chose to emphasize this teaching of Trent in response to concerns about historical critical scriptural study, Pius XII found it opportune to temper their zeal by pointing out, in Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), paragraph 47, that, “there are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church, nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous.” According to Pius, the biblical texts on which the Church Fathers speak unanimously are rare. And, if he agreed with the creationists that there are texts in which the Bible tells us the age of the earth and that those were among the rare group on which the Fathers were unanimous, failing to mention it at this historical juncture, when the question was very much a live one, would have been a remarkable oversight. Which brings us to our second problem.

For there simply is no text of Scripture that even purports to speak to the question of the age of the earth. The matter does not seem to have been a question for any of the biblical authors, whose intentions, it must be noted, are what the Church says determine the “literal” (not “literalistic”) meaning of Scripture. Those who approach Scripture with this question must rather painstakingly cobble together a large number of genealogical passages and make a whole series of interpretive decisions about how to add up the numbers they find there. And while there is no denying that many of the Fathers did bring this question to the text, it is telling that they could not agree on an answer.

The Catholic creationist tells us that the Church Fathers were unanimous in teaching that Scripture taught that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. This is sleight of hand. This only looks like unanimity against the backdrop of a 14 billion year old universe. The Venerable Bede certainly did not think he was speaking unanimously with earlier Fathers when his calculations from the same texts found the world to be 1200 years younger than many of them had concluded. A difference of 1200 is tiny out of 14 billion. Out of 5,200 (the number Bede rejected), it is enormous. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better argument for the idea that the Bible does not mean to teach the age of the earth than the disunity of the Fathers who, reading the same texts, could come to such dramatically different conclusions.

But, even if Trent’s decree was interested in scientific matters and even if the Fathers of the Church actually were unanimous on the question, the creationist case would still face great difficulty from the fact that the decree at Trent to which they refer was not doctrinal (there were no anathemas attached), but disciplinary. As Jimmy Akin shows quite clearly in his explanation of the matter, the canonical provisions to which the decree led were abrogated with the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Part of the creationist hermeneutic is that less authoritative statements do not trump more authoritative statements from the past that have not been abrogated. Those pushing this narrative either do not know the status of Canon Law on the question, or they are hoping that you do not.

The 1909 Response of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis

The other instance of Church teaching on which Catholic creationists lean is a response given by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909 to a series of eight questions about the interpretation of the book of Genesis and, in particular, on its first three chapters. Of the eight, the Catholic creationist generally focuses only on the first two. Some of the others are not so convenient for his case. The first question is fairly straightforward:

Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation?—Reply: In the negative.

What does this tell us? Nothing more than that, in 1909, the exegetical systems on offer by which Genesis 1-3 might be interpreted to exclude the “literal historical sense” were not yet solid. It says nothing whatsoever about whether other such systems might be produced in the future and what the status of those might be. Indeed, many theologians who accept evolution and who are familiar with the state of the exegesis in 1909 might wholeheartedly accept the answer to this question without batting an eye. Question 2 is indeed more challenging. It asks:

Whether . . . it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls?—Reply: In the negative to both parts.

To the Catholic creationist this is the trump card. But is it really? The Commission itself was careful not to make certain statements too categorically. Note, for example, the teaching that Genesis “corresponds” with “historical truth.” This leaves open the possibility of just how such a correspondence is to be understood. Note also that the “unanimous opinion” of the Fathers is qualified as “almost.” That alone is enough to show that the stricture of Trent does not, according to the creationist’s own criteria, apply. Note, finally, that among the vast majority of theologians who accept evolution, it is a rare one indeed who would argue that the Genesis narratives in question are “devoid of a basis in objective reality.” For instance, however variously understood, the fact of some primordial sin at the beginning of human history is widely accepted. Surely that is an “objective reality” at the heart of the creation narratives.

Furthermore, a thoroughly rigorist read of this question is ruled out later in the document itself. For Question 5 teaches that it is quite possible that there are times where necessity forces us to abandon the “proper sense” and read the text “metaphorically or anthropomorphically” and question eight explicitly allows for the freedom of exegetes to disagree about whether the word “days” is to be taken in its “proper” or “improper” sense. To be perfectly blunt: if “six days” does not necessarily mean “six days,” it is clear that the question about exactly how Genesis “corresponds” to “historical truth” is left much more open than the creationist is willing to admit.

Beyond the fact that even this document, probably the most favorable document to the creationist position in the whole sweep of magisterial teaching, does not quite say what the creationist wants you to believe it says, there are the contextual considerations around its creation and subsequent interpretation that the creationist chooses to ignore.

This response is one of a series produced by the Commission around this time that took a very wary stance vis-à-vis the developing method of historical-critical biblical study. And the theologian working today can happily grant that in its basic concern to protect the scriptures from being reduced to mere historical documents of little or no use for the life of faith, the Commission was not simply correct, but prescient.

That said, a whole host of the particulars (e.g., Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, Matthean priority) that the Commission doubled-down on at this time have been more or less completely abandoned by the theological guild, the papal magisterium, and the Commission itself. Subsequent magisterial teaching has had to handle these questions with delicacy, beginning at least as far back as Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1943. But the fact that Pope Benedict himself could publish a book (even if he was clear that the book was not an act of the magisterium) favoring the interpretation that the Gospel of John was not written by John the Apostle himself shows just how marginalized is the interpretation that finds all the particular assertions of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of this era to be binding on Catholics today.

As Pope Benedict himself freely granted with reference to this period in the Commission’s history in a centenary address he gave as its President: “The Magisterium overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty and that, as a result, the Magisterium’s credibility was injured and the freedom needed for exegetical research and interrogation was unduly narrowed.”[6] As in the case of the decree from Trent, the response of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909 neither says what the creationist thinks it says, nor carries the authority the creationist thinks it carries.

Humani Generis

The one papal encyclical that does deal with the question of evolution is an obvious problem for the Catholic creationist for the simple fact that it explicitly says what he considers heretical: that Catholic faith does not preclude the possibility that the human body evolved. Moreover, because it is not a Wednesday audience, but a papal encyclical from 1950, the basic hermeneutic used to dismiss more recent papal teaching will not work. Given this situation, the creationist is forced into a painfully awkward reading of the document. On the one hand, he seizes on Pius’s admonition that both sides of the issue be studied as a rebuke against those who would reject creationism out of hand. On the other, he must find a reason why the pope would permit the study of evolution at all. The results are not compelling.

To begin, taking an instruction to study the matter in “such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution be weighed and judged”[7] as if those two options have the same standing today that they had in 1950 is disingenuous. The fact is that experts in theology and science have undertaken precisely this work for 70 years, and the results are overwhelmingly in favor of evolution. And this not only in the natural sciences. Indeed, it is hard to come up with a better example to illustrate traditional Thomistic metaphysics regarding primary and secondary causality than evolution itself.

Creationists cannot appeal to Humani Generis to get a hearing from scientists or theologians unless they themselves can make a compelling case against that consensus. Humani Generis could not have meant that the state of the question would be always and forever indeterminate. The evidence is in. The appeal to authority does not work. And it gets worse—it is very difficult, within the creationist narrative, to understand how Pius XII could have written that:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.[8]

Because it is their contention that the possibility of the human body coming from pre-existent matter is incompatible with Catholic doctrine, Catholic creationists argue that Pius could not be allowing the study of this question to ascertain whether it might be true, but only because such study would allow the Church to demonstrate just how false it is. If that is not already prima facie incredible, it is made so by the caveat Pius includes about the immediate creation of human souls. If evolution is to be ruled out altogether, why rule out the evolution of souls specifically? No. Any honest reading of the document must admit that Pius is teaching that there is nothing contrary to Catholic faith in the possibility that human bodies evolved. Which is just how subsequent Popes have interpreted him.


It is unfortunately inevitable that Catholic creationists will respond to this piece by expressing their disappointment that I declined to take up their arguments point by point. But that is a trap. For when they are refuted, they simply carry on as if nothing had happened. Conspiracy theories are immune to refutation by design. Evidence against the theory magically disappears or morphs into evidence for it. If there really were a cover-up, then a theologian like me would write a piece just like this. If the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences rejects the offer of Catholic creationists to pay their own way to present at a conference the Academy was sponsoring on Darwin (conspiracy theorists are not only heroes in their own minds, they are victims as well), then that just shows how high the cover-up reaches.

Conspiracy theorists often complain at the injustice of their not being taken seriously. And the lack of the engagement they desire then becomes further proof that the conspiracy is true. But if they genuinely desire engagement, they should consider whether it is not their own bad faith arguments that are the problem. It is quite easy to tell oneself that the reason others do not engage is because those others are afraid or dishonest or sycophantic. It is harder, but probably more productive, to ask whether there is anything in one’s own approach that makes dialogue seem like a futile effort to one’s hoped for interlocutors.

[1] In fact, Catholics are asked to read the Bible “literally.” Though this word means something quite different in Catholic teaching than in general parlance.  

[2] “The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (§36).

[3] On the other hand, any papal statements that express concern about false philosophies that misuse the scientific theory of evolution to promote atheism, materialism, or scientism, are taken not only as authoritative, but as critiques of the scientific theory itself, despite the clear intentions of the authors to distinguish between the two. Conspiracy theorists are masters of equivocation. Moreover, appeal to the same authorities (e.g., peer reviewed journals) that one is rejecting is a standard conspiracy theory tactic.

[4] Many people who find evolution difficult to reconcile with the Biblical narrative admit that the scientific evidence for a planet and universe that are each billions of years old is overwhelming. Such “old-earth” creationists accept much of the basic narrative we get from contemporary science but believe in the special creation of humankind at some point in the relatively recent past. Young-earth creationists, on the other hand, believe the Bible teaches creation is less than 10,000 years old and so must also explain away much of what we know about, for instance, geology and astronomy.

[5] Here is the full decree: “Furthermore, in order to restrain petulant spirits, [the Council] decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine—wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church—whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures—hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published.
Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries [i.e., bishops], and be punished with the penalties by law established.”

[6] Ratzinger, “Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church,” in Opening Up the Scriptures: Joseph Ratzinger and the Foundations of Biblical Interpretation, ed. José Granados, Carlos Granados, and Luis Sánchez-Navarro (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 133.

[7] Humani Generis, §36.

[8] Ibid,

Featured Image: Józef Mehoffer, Strange Garden, 1903; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and is the co-host of the Thinking Faith podcast. His latest book is Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity.

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