The Rise and Fall of Father Zahm

My sole, ardent desire, has been to show that there is nothing in true science, nothing in Evolution, when properly understood, which is contrary to Scripture or Catholic teaching; that, on the contrary, when viewed in the light of Christian philosophy and theology, there is much in Evolution to admire, much that is ennobling and inspiring, much that illustrates and corroborates the truths of faith, much that may be made ancillary to revelation and religion, much that throws new light on the mysteries of creation, much that unifies and coordinates what were otherwise disconnected and disparate, much that exalts our ideas of creative power and wisdom and love, much, in fine, that makes the whole circle of sciences tend, as never before, ad majorem Dei gloriam.
--Rev. John Zahm, CSC in Evolution and Dogma

One outcome of Rev. John Zahm’s international reputation as an evolutionary scientist was a necessary shift in political alliances. In the late-nineteenth-century Catholic Church anyone expressly supporting a general theory of evolution was decidedly considered in league with the progressive Americanist movement in the Catholic Church. It was not necessarily a heretical view, but it was certainly one that demanded a turn from the classical understanding of the development of life. Whatever ties Zahm previously held to the anti-Americanist movement, he began to feel a cooling of these relationships as his views reached unprecedented numbers. Zahm’s evolutionary leanings, and thus his explicit ties to Americanism, were made evident by his summer lectures in 1893. These lectures received praises largely from the Americanist Catholic elite, including several major Catholic magazines. Cavanaugh’s 1922 biography well describes the rancor caused by Zahm:

[After Zahm’s lectures] certain Catholic scholars took alarm, and felt that the Church might need a defender against some of her defenders. Father Zahm immediately became a storm-centre of controversy within the Church; one influential and brilliant party attacking him with spirit, while another, not so large, but probably more brilliant, as ardently defended him.

On this point, however, Zahm scholarship remains somewhat vague. When did Zahm first begin to side with the Americanist movement of the late nineteenth-century Catholic Church in the United States? Weber and John Morrison both argue that his outright Americanism began in response to his critics from the Catholic Summer School. R. Scott Appleby contends, however, that Zahm was already well indoctrinated into the Americanist side of the Church in the late 1880s and early 1890s, citing letters from Zahm asking Monsignor Denis O’Connell, the rector of the North American College in Rome, to intercede with the pope on his behalf so that he might receive the honorary doctorate he was finally given in 1895.

The historical record, unfortunately, fails to offer certainty on this transition. It seems most likely that, like so many intellectual transformations, Zahm’s was a gradual one. In his dissertation, Appleby argues that two factors contributed to this turn. First, Appleby notes that  Zahm was constantly in touch with the European scientific community, which “by and large” had endorsed evolution generally. There is little proof of this constant contact during the 1880s, during which the transformation must have taken place. For this reason, it is more correct to explain his transformation by combining whatever contact Zahm had with the European scientific community with the general acceptance of evolution in the American scientific community in the same decade.

Second, Appleby notes that “he simply became a competent scientist,” implying that as Zahm’s own scientific prowess increased, his ability to see the possibilities of evolutionary theories increased as well. A better version of this argument would seek to diminish neither the effectiveness of Zahm’s studies at Notre Dame nor his many years of running a successful science department, science museum, and university library. It seems highly improbable that Zahm accomplished these tasks as an incompetent scientist. One should argue instead that, as a devoted empirical scientist from mid-1870s onward, Zahm accomplished what many scientists accomplish—he grew in knowledge, ever open to new possibilities. He did not, at least as the historical record shows, have a “light bulb moment,” but instead, in the typical intellectual appropriation of novel ideas, he gradually came to understand that while Darwin’s supporters’ antireligious attitudes were certainly untenable, Darwin’s science was not wholly dismissible. This thesis is not a very exciting one, but it helps to explain why Zahm became a leader in the Americanist movement.

In short, Zahm’s passion for science drove him increasingly to accept a general evolutionary hypothesis, and Zahm’s passion for politics and provocation, combined with a firm belief that he had the full support of the Church, drove him to share his newfound understanding with the world. The only sudden movement in the entire affair, it seems, was the astounding reception Zahm received after the Catholic Summer School lectures of 1893.

Zahm’s aforementioned letter to Fr. Sorin about his “great mission” was actually written after the summer lectures, in late 1893. It seems clear that while Zahm was aware of the nature of the field generally, he did not anticipate quite the reaction he received. In fact, he was invited to give the lectures one year earlier, in 1892, but declined the invitation, citing previous engagements over the summer and noting that he could “serve as lecturer” for 1893 if his assistance in the Catholic Summer School project was requested. This is certainly not a John Zahm who sees himself publishing unceasingly for the next six years.

After giving the lectures, Zahm’s adoring public awakened an eagerness in him that pushed him perhaps beyond what he would have done otherwise. Zahm became famous overnight, and this fame had political consequences. Anti-Americanists found him an opponent, Americanists an ally and spokesperson, and Zahm willingly became swept up in the debates. After the lectures, and especially after his 1894 trip to Europe, he had a voice, and an audience, for whatever he wanted to write. This, more than anything else, explains the dramatic shift present both in the lectures and eventually in Evolution and Dogma. Zahm wanted a progressive Church, perhaps, but this was not why he joined forces with the Americanist crowd in the 1890s. Zahm truly wanted people to understand what he understood, and he wanted to use his voice in the best way possible to help people gain this understanding.

He wrote to his friend and Catholic editor, Augustine F. Hewit, a year before publishing Evolution and Dogma,

My object is not to prove that the theories discussed are true, but that they are tenable, that they are not the great bugbear they are sometimes declared to be. I wish to show that Catholics have no cause for alarm even should certain theories by which modern scientists set such store be proved to be true. My desire is to quiet the doubts of many Catholics who are now sorely puzzled about certain questions to show them that there is no possibility of conflict between science & religion, & that in controverted questions the Church allows her children the utmost liberty.

This desire, it seems, pushed him to ignore even the recommendations of trusted advisors such as Hewit in publishing the 1896 book. Zahm may have been hopeful that the highest ranks of the Church would approve of the book, but he could not have been certain, even as early as 1895.

The main differences between Evolution and Dogma and Zahm’s previous publications (especially Catholic Church and Modern Science) lie in two areas: the immediate international fame of the book and the degree to which Zahm accepted pieces of Darwin’s theories on the evolution of humans. In Evolution and Dogma, Zahm spent half of the book covering science and the other half theology, so as to convince people of the tenability of both the scientific theories and the idea that these theories are compatible with Catholic dogma. The book was anticipated with a tidal wave of publicity, sold in droves, and, like any controversial book on science and religion—even today—met with strongly worded reviews both from the United States and around the world, with nearly as many critiques as praises.


The story of Zahm’s silencing begins, of course, with the publication of Evolution and Dogma in 1896. Due to the predictable international acclaim for the book, French and Italian versions were already in press when the English edition was published, and both translations were soon printed thereafter

Archbishop Zardetti, a friend of Archbishop Corrigan of New York, opened the case against Zahm with a letter condemning Evolution and Dogma to the Congregation of the Index dated November 5, 1897. The prefect of the congregation assigned the case to Dominican consultor Enrico Buonpensiere, who soon produced a comprehensive review. Buonpensiere’s April 14, 1898 report condemned the book, citing numerous errors of philosophy and theology throughout some fifty-five pages. He stated that the book should at least be removed from sale and that Zahm should issue a formal retraction.

Following Buonpensiere’s report, the congregation commissioned an investigation on whether the Italian translation of the book was equivalent to the English, since the consultor’s report was based on the former. This task was given to a Franciscan named Bernhard Doebbing, who in his report simply stated that the Italian version “is most faithful” to the English. So much so, Doebbing notes, that he may call it “ad litteram.

With the completion of these reports, the Preparatory Congregation (a subcommittee of the Congregation of the Index) began deliberating on Zahm’s case on August 5, 1898. Three members of the Preparatory Congregation argued that Zahm should simply be warned; five argued that the book should be placed on the index, although one wanted to notify Zahm first; one argued that not only should the book be placed on the index but that a notice regarding the incompatibility of evolution and Catholicism should be published simultaneously; one argued that nothing should happen until the Holy Office considers and resolves the matter of evolution; and one simply supported the conclusions of Buonpensiere’s report.

The matter was then taken up by the General Congregation, which met on September 1, 1898, to review the results of the Preparatory Congregation and cast a vote. Besides Zahm’s book, the General Congregation considered six other texts during this meeting. After discussing the books briefly in an audience with the pope on September 3, the General Congregation placed all of the other books on the index and published an official decree dated September 5, 1898. With regard to Zahm’s book, no difference of opinion among the members of the Congregation of the Index was recorded, although this was not unusual at this point in the proceedings. The General Congregation agreed with the opinion of the largest group of the Preparatory Congregation that Zahm’s book should be placed on the index, but that the prohibition should be delayed until Zahm was given a chance to repudiate the book.

This decision, dated September 1, 1898, had been brought before Pope Leo XIII on September 3, with a report that included the following two reasons for Zahm’s prohibition, both taken directly from Buonpensiere’s report. First, he should be condemned because:

Zahm supports the system of evolution not only for plants and lower animals, but also for the body of man: that is, man can be genealogically kin to some unknown simian or monkey species, and that in such a genealogical affinity there is nothing opposed to metaphysics and Dogma.

Second, he should be condemned because Zahm connected this claim to “principles adduced by the two great luminaries of the Church, Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas.” The report concludes, “The Cardinals decreed the prohibition, but that the Decree not be published until Father Zahm, through the mediation of his General, makes an act of submission.” Thus, the prohibition against Zahm’s book was not published on September 5 along with the others, but instead a letter was sent to Gilbert Français, the general superior of Zahm’s order.

Français quickly wrote to Zahm asking for submission, all the while assuring the Congregation of the Index, in a letter dated September 18, that Zahm would soon submit fully. After receiving Zahm’s official submission letter in late October, Français traveled to Rome to speak to the prefect of the congregation in person. On November 4, Français delivered two letters to the congregation, the first noting Zahm’s full submission, and the second pleading with them not to publish the prohibition. The reception of these two letters, and Zahm’s capitulation to the decree, is noted in the official diary of the congregation on November 4, 1898.

The next, and last, entry in the diary concerning Zahm’s case is a note dated February 3, 1899, indicating that during an audience Pope Leo “personally gave instructions to the Cardinal Prefect” not to publish the prohibition until Zahm could present himself in person. But why did the pope give such an instruction? Four factors seem to have had the most impact: first, Zahm’s personal relationship with the pope, as seen from his honorary doctorate and multiple audiences; second, Français’s well-documented relentless petitioning on Zahm’s behalf; third, the petitioning of many others on Zahm’s behalf, especially Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota; and fourth, the pope’s dislike of embroiled political arguments.

In the end, Zahm was never forced to go to Rome and the prohibition was never published. All parties involved seemed to be satisfied with a retraction, upon Zahm’s request to his publishers, of the Italian and French translations of the book. After much prodding by Français,  Zahm requested in a private letter dated May 16, 1899, that the Italian version be pulled from all shelves of bookstores. The letter was leaked to the press in Italy and attached to a similar letter, albeit one with a humorous tone, by the Italian translator, Galea, who wrote:

I too join with the illustrious Dr. J. A. Zahm . . . and ask my sincere friends not to read nor give any further publicity to my miserable translation of the work mentioned, as a courtesy to the wishes of the Holy See, always ready to change my mind if I am asked.

The retraction was picked up by the New York Daily Tribune and word quickly spread that Zahm had been chastened by the Church. This, it seems, was enough. Although the public debate continued for a while, Zahm himself did not enter the scuffles. While his book was considered to have been prohibited by Rome, Zahm was relieved of the burden of the Congregation of the Index actually promulgating the decree.

The language of what happened with Zahm’s book is, honestly, tricky. It seems acceptable to consider the book “censured” and Zahm “silenced” but not “prohibited,” although this was certainly the original intention of the Congregation of the Index. In Negotiating Darwin, Mariano Artigas, Thomas Glick, and Rafael Martínez note many times that Zahm’s case, among others, is proof that evolution itself was never condemned by the Vatican, even while books supporting various degrees of evolution were condemned, or nearly so.

But this argument fails to satisfy the historical record. While evolutionary theory was never pronounced upon by the Holy Office or the Congregation of the Index, and while the pope never officially condemned it, the censuring of books and silencing of people who wrote such books effectively acts in the same regard, at least temporarily.

While my Faith and Science at Notre Dame outlines the nuances of the philosophical differences between Zahm, Zardetti, and Buonpensiere, and thus helps to explain why his book was censured, the main reasons that the General Congregation gave were clear. Zahm argued that humans descended from apes, which, according to the Congregation of the Index, was undeniably against Catholic doctrine, and Zahm supported this argument by falsely employing the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas. If this is reason enough for the General Congregation, one must accept that evolutionary theory, especially applied to humans, was, for all intents and purposes, an implicitly condemned theory according to the highest authorities of the Catholic Church in the 1890s until proved otherwise. While the silencing of John Zahm may neither have defrocked him nor removed him from his elevated political post as provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross (more on that in a moment), it certainly removed his voice from the conversation, proving to any and all following the same conversation around the world that the Vatican strongly disapproved of the idea.


The adventures of Zahm’s life were marked, quite distinctly, by his political and ambitious character. In some ways, one might liken his vision to the twenty-first-century phenomenon of the prosperity gospel, in which God not only wills salvation but material success for those on this earth. This concept, of course, is not new in Christian history. As early as the accounts of divinely willed military conquests in the Torah, there have always been those who believed that God desired their personal and national success as much as their spiritual salvation. Constantine’s battle for the empire and subsequent conversion was one marked, throughout history, for Christian victory.

The nineteenth century was a harrowing one for Roman Catholicism. It was a century marked by wars, papal imprisonment, and the gradual and violent loss of nearly all political power. The concept of a divinely inspired monarchy, for example, which dominated the Catholic theological landscape at least until the First Vatican Council, was forced to give way to a pope who governed by moral and theological statements alone. In his own life, Zahm witnessed the American Civil War as a young teenager and during his time in university studies heard about the loss of the Papal States and the imprisonment of the pope. When Pope Leo XIII was elected, Zahm was filled with a renewed sense of purpose and ministry for the road ahead. His determination, combined with his naturally political character, made for an imposing figure in 1890s Catholicism.

Français appointed Zahm provincial of the Congregation of Holy Cross in 1898 precisely because of these characteristics, but Zahm’s time in this office, predictably, did not go as desired for the superior general. Zahm’s political character and vision for the grandeur of Notre Dame, likely fueled even more by his intense disappointment and resentment at the censure, drove him to overlook the personal well-being of many of the order’s religious. Furthermore, as Weber notes, Zahm’s ambitious drive was incompatible with the pressures of such an elevated office. He worked too many hours for too many years, giving himself little sleep and little rest. His time after administrative life, while fruitful, was scattered and undisciplined.

It is difficult to look at this period and not wonder what could have been had he not been silenced. He would still have been made provincial, since this happened before the censure, but would he have pushed himself so hard in this role? Would he not have continued writing on the topic of evolution, studying the science of acoustics, physics, and biology? Undoubtedly he would have written more— given Zahm’s prolific history, much more—on the subject. What contributions would he have made? How would the twentieth century be different? It is impossible to know. What is known, however, is that the censure from the Congregation of the Index, while stemming from good intentions, forever changed both the landscape of American Catholic theology and John Zahm’s life. Given that Zahm’s book would be considered remarkably conservative today, this turn of events is all the more tragic. 

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an excerpt from Faith and Science at Notre Dame: John Zahm, Evolution, and the Catholic Church. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Father John Zahm, CSC, taken on on before 1921, PD.


John Slattery

John Slattery is a senior program associate with the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


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