Evolution in the Eyes of the Church (Part 2)

Father Edward Oakes on the Difficulty of Reconciling Science and Faith

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MUNDELEIN, Illinois, JULY 28, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Since the time of Pope Pius XII's encyclical "Humani Generis," Catholics have made great efforts to determine what constitutes legitimate opinion on scientific evolution and the question of human origins.



However, Father Edward Oakes, who teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, notes that simply going back to the method of Thomas Aquinas can always be a fruitful exercise when dealing with questions at the intersection of science and theology.

He shared with ZENIT why recent scientific findings, along with help from St. Thomas and the Church fathers, can assist in reconciling Catholic doctrine and scientific fact, as well as why other attempts to reconcile the two, such as the Intelligent Design movement, come up short.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Wednesday.

Q: What are Catholics bound in faith to believe about human origins? Was Adam really our first parent, or could there have been an entire race of original human beings endowed with immortal souls -- an accurate rendering of the Hebrew word "adam"?

Father Oakes: In my opinion, the debate about "monogenism" -- the doctrine that says that all humans share the same primal parents -- and "polygenism" -- that the races come from independent lines of evolution -- has been misconceived, for both are true depending on where you stop along mankind's family tree.

All of us, after all, have one set of parents, but four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on, all the way back. But eventually, the number of these putative ancestors will grow absurdly large: in each generation, the number of my direct ancestors must grow exponentially: two, four, eight, 16, 32 and so on.

Even more strangely, the number of actual human beings inhabiting the planet will begin to shrink the further back into history we go. This means that, eventually, the further back you go in history, this vast number of ideal "slots" of ancestors will have to be filled by just one person or two; for example, if two of my grandparents were first cousins, I would have only six great-grandparents, not eight.

Fascinating studies have been done, using the genealogical records of the Mormons in Utah, to show how most Caucasians now dwelling in the United States can trace their ancestry back to just one couple living in eighth-century Europe; and no doubt Americans of other racial background could do the same with their native lands.

For a riveting account of this field of "population genetics" for the general reader, see "The Mountain of Names: A History of the Human Family," by Alex Shoumatoff.

So does this process ever reach one couple? According to genetics, yes. In fact, according to the theory of evolution, it could hardly be otherwise, the whole point of the theory being to stress common ancestry.

Of course, if genetics establishes that there is a primal couple, that couple could then trace its ancestry back to a common set of ancestral parents. So according to genetics, both monogenism and polygenism are true, but at several times and at various points along the evolutionary tree. See "The History and Geography of Human Genes," by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

The theological question then becomes: Do we ever reach the Adam and Eve described in the Bible? Here I think we get to the core of the issue.

Often the problems that Christians have with the theory of evolution have centered on questions of the inerrancy of Scripture. But I have often thought that the real problem centers on the doctrine of original sin.

Speaking personally, I see no conflict between evolution and original sin; and I tried to explain why in an article I wrote in November of 1998 for First Things [magazine] called "Original Sin: A Disputation," where all of these questions are more thoroughly aired.

Q: What type of evolution is acceptable for Catholic doctrine, and up to what point can a Catholic follow evolution?

Father Oakes: Well, as I said, if evolution means "descent with modification," then evolution is quite acceptable, since that's just the way things are. Anaxagoras said that "the seed of everything is in everything else," a teaching that dovetails very nicely, in my opinion, not just with evolution but also with the patristic teaching of the "logoi spermatikoi" found in all rational beings -- and, according to St. Augustine, in every identifiable being.

My real worry would be rather about the more amateurish attempts to reconcile evolution and the Christian religion -- which, in my opinion, aren't in conflict to begin with. In other words, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I am referring above all to the Intelligent Design movement, something at least this Catholic doesn't want to follow!

Q: What are your objections to the Intelligent Design movement?

Father Oakes: Primarily that ID advocates seem regularly to confuse finality with design. Now because people only design things for a purpose, the two concepts are too often conflated. But they are different.

I think the great medievalist Etienne Gilson got the distinction exactly right in his book "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again: A Journey in Final Causality, Species, and Evolution." Here's what he says on pages 9 and 10 of the book:

"Aristotle conceives the [designing] artist as a particular case of nature [the realm of finality]. This is why, in his natural philosophy, art imitates nature, rather than nature imitating art. The contrary is imagined because -- every man being more or less an artist, an artisan, and a technician -- we know, more or less confusedly, yet with certitude, the manner in which art operates.

"But insofar as we are natural beings, we are the products of innumerable biological activities of which we know practically nothing, or very little. The manner in which nature operates escapes us. Her finality is spontaneous, not learned. …

"In nature the end, the 'telos,' works as every artist would wish to be able to work; in fact, as the greatest among them do work, or even as the others work in moments of grace when, suddenly masters of their media, they work with the rapidity and infallible sureness of nature.

"Such is Mozart, composing a quartet in his head while writing down its predecessor. Such is Delacroix, painting in twenty minutes the headpiece and mantle of Jacob on the wall of Saint-Sulpice.

"A technician, an artist, who worked with the sureness of a spider weaving its web or a bird making its nest would be a more perfect artist than any of those that anyone has ever seen. Such is not the case.

"The most powerful and the most productive artists only summon from afar the ever-ready forces of nature which fashion the tree and, through the tree, the fruit. That is why Aristotle says that there is more purposefulness [in Aristotle's Greek 'to hou heneka'], more good, and more beauty, in the works of nature than in those of art."

I quote this passage at such length not only to show how design piggybacks on nature but also to hint at how design can gum things up. Think of Hamlet, whose tortured conscience led him to do the wrong thing at almost each step of the way after he heard of his father's murder.

I also object to the way the ID Movement conflates the Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causality. The advocates of this movement claim that if it can be proved scientifically that God must intervene on occasion to get various species up and running, then this will throw the atheist Darwinians into a panicked rout.

I disagree. My view is that, according to St. Thomas, secondary causality can be allowed full rein without threatening God's providential oversight of the world.

Q: But aren't you making God recede from the world, just as the deists did with their concept of the clockmaker God?

Father Oakes: Actually, no. Remember that for Aquinas God's primary causality does not refer to an initial moment of creation, after which secondary causality kicks in and runs things from then on out.

No, God must sustain the world in each moment of its existence. God keeps the world in being because God is "He Who Is." God is Being itself; and because of God's self-sufficient Being, the universe "is," albeit derivatively.

Think of primary causality, in other words, less like the ignition of a motor and more like a singer singing a song: the song is sustained only while the singer sings. But that does nothing to abrogate the laws of sound waves, of musical harmony, of the biology of vocal chords and so on.

Furthermore, the doctrine of providence as primary, pervasive causality in no way asserts that God directly causes as secondary causality some events in order to bring about the later good that he has foreseen.

A believer can well say, "From my mother's womb you called me." But that does not mean that God led this man's mother and father to meet in just the way they did first meet.

For example, I once had a student whose father met his mother because the father got into an automobile accident and had to be hospitalized for a lengthy stay, where he met his wife, who happened to be the nurse assigned to attend to him while he was in traction. Let's not say God caused the accident that led to this student's conception, even if the student can see God's hand at work in bringing him to existence!

Let me just conclude by saying that I hope the Holy See will approach this controversial subject with the same serenity and robust confidence that Pope John Paul II adopted when he took up the topic of evolution.