By Elise Flick, The Catholic University of America
Evolution is a topic that those skeptical of the Christian faith—or any faith that holds that the world we know is the result of actions of any type of divine being or beings—are eager to broach. These skeptical folks believe that, with such strong scientific evidence to support the theory of evolution, we Christians are easily backed into a corner by our own beliefs. The creation narratives in Genesis 1-3 lay out two stories of the way in which the world came to be, which appear to unavoidably contradict the idea that Christians could accept any scientific account of that which brought the world and humanity into being.
However, nothing about the Catholic faith is actually opposed to this idea; therefore in order to win over these doubtful hearts and prevent their contagious skepticism from eating away at the confidence of our own Catholic communities, it is clear that we must directly address any and all concerns that arise regarding the compatibility of Catholicism with the largely accepted idea of Evolution. This paper will aim to equip Catholics at all levels of theological education to speak clearly and confidently about the teaching of the Catholic Church on creation, which allows for the viability of certain models of evolution that are consistent with our belief in the inherent dignity of the human person and leave room for God to be viewed as the guiding force in creation.
Before addressing the supposed inconsistencies between Catholicism and evolution, it is important to understand some critical elements of the Catholic Church’s basic teaching on creation. The following is an excerpt from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Man occupies a unique place in creation: (I) he is ‘in the image of God’; (II) in his own nature he unites the spiritual and material worlds; (III) he is created ‘male and female’; (IV) God established him in his friendship.
This part of the Catechism is incredibly important because it affirms one of the most basic ideas in Catholicism—that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and therefore have inherent and inviolable dignity that we must respect and uphold at all times; this truth applies equally to men and women. As Catholics, we cannot accept any version of the Theory of Evolution that suggests that this dignity is not possessed by every single human person.
The following except from the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses a second essential idea in considering the compatibility of Catholicism and evolution:
“The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God.”
Therefore we must hold that the creation of mankind was an intentional act of the Divine. We cannot entertain any theory that requires us to believe that mankind came into being by some sort of happy accident, even if one does still maintain the beliefs that God exists and that God created the Earth; some people would even suggest that God may have observed mankind coming into being as a result of random, coincidentally interactions between the material elements of our world, which was created by God. As Catholics, we believe that human beings were willed into existence and are not an accidental creation.
The first error one can point out when a person claims that Christian beliefs run contrary to scientific evidence regarding evolution is that, if Christians read Scripture as literally as would be required to draw such a conclusion, Christian beliefs would seem to contradict themselves. As mentioned above, Genesis 1-3 contains two creation narratives, not just one. The first narrative, known as the Priestly account of creation, describes the seven days of creation in which God says “let there be. . .” and the thing came into being, including mankind. The second narrative, known as the Yahwist account of creation, describes the Garden of Eden and God creating the first human being out of dust. While these two narratives may appear contradictory at first, they are not so. As Joseph Ratzinger articulates in another context, these stories are meant to communicate essential ideas in a way that is comprehensible to us—and particularly to the human beings of that time—not to be a necessarily literal account of the physical processes through which God created the world. Therefore, Christians do not view the dual accounts of creation as contradictory because we do not read them so literally that we must take issue with the small suggestions of differences between them.
There are two major veins of evolutionary theory. The first proposes that all human beings are descended from the same pair of ancestors—this is known as monogenesis. The second vein—known as polygenesis—proposes that there were multiple original humans around the globe and that evolution occurred simultaneously among these groups. This latter idea is problematic from a Catholic perspective for reasons that we will discuss below, but the first is not.
In defense of the compatibility of Catholic doctrine and evolutionary theory, Joseph Ratzinger writes that “[t]he story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God. . . does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origins and casts light on the project that they are.” The creation narratives help us to understand the relationship of human beings to God and provide clear guidance on our obligation to respect the dignity of every person. For example, Ratzinger takes the following lesson from the creation story referenced above:
Emperor and beggar, master and slave are all ultimately one and the same person, taken from the same earth and destined to return to the same earth.
He goes on to write:
We are all one humanity, formed from God’s one earth. It is precisely this thought that is at the very heart of the creation account and of the whole Bible.
This lesson is critical to our understanding of the dignity and equality of all persons. Ratzinger himself references the Nazi idea that different races are made up of “different kinds of ‘blood and soil,’” which is evidently contrary to the beliefs we draw from this creation narrative. While it is true that a large portion of the Bible could be claimed to make obvious the same Christian principles—that we should enthusiastically respect and offer the greatest charity to every single person, equally—the creation narratives do play a unique role. Despite Christ’s instruction for us to love our neighbors, no one can deny that historically, Christians have often failed to do so. As flawed human beings, we find ways to rationalize our bad behavior toward others, particularly those who are different from us in some way. Both creation accounts make plain the reality that we are all one and the same, and therefore we cannot use our apparent differences to justify assigning a lesser amount of dignity to any other person.
The belief that we are one and the same is a central reason for Christians to reject the idea of polygenesis. Catholics believe that mankind was willed into existence by God and became subject to death through an original sin, which is passed down through the generations. If there had been many original people across the globe, this belief would be very difficult to justify, and it opens the door for an unacceptable conclusion—that many people are not descended from the original couple that God breathed life into and who were banished to this life for their sin. A consequence of this conclusion would be that we could then begin to question (as some have done throughout history) whether these other people are actually human. Clearly, the idea that other people are less than human becomes problematic very quickly.
While we may not be able to accept polygenesis, we do not have to reject monogenesis. The idea that all human beings are descended from an original pair of ancestors is not at all contrary to Catholic doctrine—it is exactly that which we believe. Ratzinger writes the following:
the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary—rather than mutually exclusive—realities.
Our biblical understanding of creation and our scientific understanding of creation help us to understand humanity in different ways. The more science uncovers about the ways in which our world works, the more we should be amazed at that which God has created. We believe in an all-powerful God—the fact that we can begin to understand small elements of the way in which He brought the world into being should not shake our faith but rather increase it. We must always be vigilant in accepting scientific theories to ensure that we do not take for granted those which—like polygenesis—do contradict a central part of our faith. Therefore Catholics must navigate the various intersections of science and religion with an awareness of and respect toward both. There are many ways in which we see God’s work in the world, and the use of a carefully inspected scientific lens is one of them.
Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994.
“Monogenesis Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monogenesis.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.
“Polygenesis Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed November 29, 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polygenesis.
Ratzinger, Joseph. In the Beginning–: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 355.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 362.
 The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018).
 The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible.
 Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning–: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005).
 “Monogenesis Definition & Meaning,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monogenesis.
 “Polygenesis Definition & Meaning,” Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster), accessed November 29, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polygenesis.
  Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning–: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2005).
 Joseph Ratzinger.
 Joseph Ratzinger.
 Joseph Ratzinger.
 Joseph Ratzinger.