Michael J. Oard
The Catholic Church has been perceived as unresponsive to the
effect of evolution theory and deep
time on culture and theology. At
first the Church addressed the issue
and for a time officially supported
a straightforward interpretation of
Genesis. Unfortunately, its priests
and theologians came to believe
science proved evolution and pressed
for a more liberal interpretation of
Scripture. Michael Chaberek, a Polish
Catholic priest of the Dominican
Order, 1 has written a well-researched
record of the history of the Catholic
Church’s response to evolution. He has
a Doctorate in Fundamental Theology
from Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski
University in Warsaw.
Evolution and the Catholic
Church before 1909
Before the ‘Enlightenment’, Cath-
Theistic evolution takes over
olics as well as Protestants upheld the
straightforward reading of Genesis.
When evolution was first introduced
by Erasmus Darwin’s book, the Cath-
olic Church roundly condemned
it. But, by the time his grandson
Charles’ book the Origin of Species
was introduced in 1859, the attitude
had changed enough to cause it to be
hotly debated by those who feared
they may be denying science and
therefore truth. The Synod of Cologne
was convened in 1860 to discuss
evolution. The synod rejected the
theory, but some theologians tried to
soften the Church’s rejection. The First
Vatican Council convened in 1870 and
supported tradition. Pope Leo XIII
wrote the Arcanum Encyclical of 1880
about the role of marriage, which also
condemned evolution, but by then
theistic evolution was gaining traction.
Several influential theistic evolu-
tionists, including George Mivart,
Dalmace Leroy, and John Zahm, were
pecking away at the Church’s resolve.
Notable early anti-Darwin stalwarts of
the Catholic Church, Raffaelo Caverni
and Luigi Tripepi, tried to counter
theistic evolution. Strangely, theistic
evolutionists saw evolution portraying
a ‘better image’ of God than Genesis.
To do so they had to ignore evolution
theory’s claims of progress through
pain and death, survival of the fittest,
and ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.
Because of the doctrine of Original
Sin, theistic evolutionists exempted
Adam and Eve from having evolved
by declaring a type of special creation.
Zahm, a priest, was probably one of
the first full-fledged and open Catholic
theistic evolutionists. He not only
made the false claim that Augustine
and Aquinas were evolutionary
precursors, but also believed that evo-
lution was a superior view of God.
Zahm even gave Aquinas the title of
the ‘father of evolution’. But Zahm
recognized three huge objections to
Darwinism: ( 1) no one has observed
one ‘species’ changing into another,
( 2) the fossil record lacks transitional
fossils, and ( 3) no one has observed
cross-breeding between ‘species’.
(Zahm meant the Genesis kinds but
evolutionists have several definitions
for ‘species’.) These objections are still
relevant today. To support his position,
Zahm used the Church Fathers, whom
he thinks also believed in evolution.
Considering the Church’s reliance on
tradition, Zahm’s rewriting history
was a useful way to push his claim.
The Pontifical Biblical Commission
of 1909 reaffirmed the Church;s
stand on a literal interpretation of
Genesis 1–3, but the discussion
had moved to accepting something
similar to progressive creationism.
Theistic evolutionists disregarded
the commission. Between 1909 and
1950, the Catholic Church appears
to have avoided the issue entirely.
In 1950 Pope Pius XII wrote the
encyclical Humani Generis. It upheld
the biblical origin of Adam and Eve
and declared that evolution was simply
speculation. Unfortunately, the pope
also mentioned that the church was
open to new research on the question,
which the theistic evolutionists
exploited. By then theistic evolution
had become the accepted paradigm
of the theologians. Although officially
the Catholic Church had not changed
its position on evolution, the theistic
evolutionists had essentially turned
Humani Generis on its head.
Much of the blame for the Catholic
compromise on evolution can be
The Catholic Church’s
response to evolution
Catholicism and Evolution: A
history from Darwin to Pope
Michael Chaberek, O.P.
Angelico Press, Kettering, OH, 2015