Evangelical Protestants often object to theories of evolution as an explanation for the various species of life on earth. Instead they favor a theory known as Creationism, whereby they take the creation account provided in Genesis 1 literally. Their vocal objection to evolution has led many Catholics to the erroneous belief that evolution is a theory that is antithetical to the Catholic faith.
In actuality, the Catholic Church is not opposed to all theories of evolution. A Catholic may choose to believe that life on earth it was derived scientifically through an evolutionary process. However, that process must be understood to be more than a matter of mere happenstance or chance, but part of God’s larger plan for creation. While many Evangelical Protestants argue against the various theories of evolution, the Catholic Church does not hold this opinion, and permits a believe in evolution so long as it is understood as a process that occurs under God’s guidance.
At the heart of the disagreement between the Catholics and Evangelical Protestants on this issue is the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, specifically Genesis 1. Many Evangelical Protestants hold that the words of Genesis 1 are intended to provide a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe. Therefore scientific explanations that contradict Genesis 1 are invalid. Catholics, on the other hand, maintain that the Scriptures provide a theological account that is not intended to replace modern scientific research. Rather, both modern science and theology can mutually inform each other. Thus, whereas Evangelical Protestants read the six days of Genesis 1 as a literal chronology, Catholics argue that it is possible to interpret Genesis 1 topically. The latter would be in greater conformity with ancient literature, which often sequenced historical material by topic, rather than in strict chronological order.
A topical reading of Genesis 1 observes that at the time the earth was created, it “was without form or shape with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). In the first three days of creation, God provides form and shape to the earth by structuring different aspects of the environment: on the first day He separates day from night; on the second day He separates the waters into ocean and clouds with the sky in between; on the third day He separates the oceans, lakes and rivers from each other (creating dry land). Thus, at the end of three days the world had form. Yet, while the world had form, it was still an empty abyss. Thus, during the second three-day period God filled the sky with creature to provide light; then He filled the ocean and sky with creatures; and finally He filled the land with vegetation and creatures. This reading of the Genesis story is intended to show topically, not chronologically, that God created the earth, gave it shape and form, and populated it with various creatures. In short, He created everything that is. This topical understanding does not preclude God from doing this through an evolutionary process.
Catholics are free to hold to a topical interpretation of Genesis 1. As such they also are free to hold that a given species developed from a previous state or form (e.g. evolution) so long as it is also understood that the process by which this occurred was under God’s guidance. Thus, for a Catholic evolution cannot contradict a topical reading of Genesis, which means that evolution, if true, must be understood as a process under God’s control. As such, there are certain parameters around the theory of evolution.
One such parameter is that God created the universe ex nihilo or from nothing. This means there was a time when the universe did not exist. Catholics therefore, are bound to believe that, “the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing” (Canons on God the Creator of All Things, 5). They cannot hold that the universe itself existed from eternity. Nor can they hold to a model of evolution that occurs strictly by chance, without any direction whatsoever from an intelligible God.
Another parameter applies to the origin of human beings. The Church claims that while it is permissible to propose and believe that the human body developed from pre-existent and living matter through a process of evolution, the same cannot be said for the human soul. Souls, as Pope Pius XII taught, “are immediately created by God.” (Humani Generis, 36). Thus, evolution, if true, is only true on the level of our material bodies. Human souls are directly created by God. Therefore, each soul is unique. As souls are not inherited from parents or part of a biological process of generation they are not subject to an evolutionary process.
With these understanding in mind, it is possible, although certainly not obligatory, for a faithful Catholic to maintain a belief in the theory of evolution as a viable explanation for the process through which God created life on earth. Such a position is not contrary to the Catholic understanding of Sacred Scripture nor the Tradition of the Church. While many saints, Pope sand theologians have provided their personal opinions, the Church neither officially endorses nor opposes theories of evolution that fit within the parameters she outlined. This leaves individual Catholics with the freedom to either accept or reject various theories of evolution.