By Cardinal Justin Rigali

We know that one of the most ancient of Christian symbols is the icthus, the Greek word for fish. The Greek letters that make up the word for fish are also the first letters of the words identifying “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior.” In the early centuries of the Church, which was a time of great persecution, the fish was a symbol of faith among Christians. It was sometimes placed on their homes and it is found among the inscriptions in the catacombs, where they worshiped in secret during the time of persecution. There has been something of a resurgence in the use of this symbol in the past twenty or thirty years and we now see it in various contexts. It is sometimes found on bumper stickers.

Recently, you may have seen another bumper sticker that picks up on this theme in a different way. Instead of the traditional fish design, with the Greek word for fish written inside it as an act of faith in Jesus Christ, the fish is displayed as mere bones and inside this are found the letters that spell the name “Darwin.” Of course, this is a reference to Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English naturalist who developed what is known as the scientific theory of evolution.

Simply stated, Darwin explained the various types of creatures as having been descended from primitive forms, which developed over time through a process he called “natural selection.” Natural selection describes the adaption of different species, including what we ultimately know as the human being, from the surroundings in which they were placed. Since 2009 is the two-hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of his famous book, “The Origin of Species,” he has been in the news quite a bit.

The unfortunate aspect of this attention is that Darwin and religion are often seen to be at odds. Hence, the seemingly competing bumper stickers. We will see that this does not have to be so because we are speaking about two different studies, which do not have to be mutually exclusive. One is a scientific study on the physical origin and development of species and the other is the theological study of God, who created the first beginning from nothing and who crowned His creation with the human being, having an immortal soul and made in God’s image and likeness.

Conference in Rome on this topic
The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome will be sponsoring a conference on this subject from March 3 to March 7 called, “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories.” It will be presented with the collaboration of Indiana’s University of Notre Dame and under with patronage of the Pontifical Council for Culture. In a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, Father Marc Leclerc, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Gregorian University, explained why there does not have to be a tension between Darwin’s theories and Christian faith.

He wrote: “Many, whether they are fans or foes of Darwin, have confused the scientific theory of evolution, which should be discussed at a scientific level by competent persons, with the reduction of it to an ideological system. As then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, the controversy has not come from the theory of evolution as such, but from the turning of some of its elements into a universal philosophy, in order to explain all of reality. Man, as a living being, can find his own place in the evolution of species which, when read after the fact, had prepared for his coming for a long time. But man cannot reduce himself to a pure product of the evolution of species without contradictions. In other words, man is not reducible to mere animality. The human being has a capacity for reflection, self-knowledge, and freedom that necessarily transcends pure animality and cannot be simply the product of evolution. As Catholic theology rightly affirms, each human person is the object of a singular creative act by God, who also inserts himself naturally into the human species, and appears at the end as the culmination of an immense evolutionary process about which some secrets are now being discovered.”

Evolution and the Bible
The astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) famously wrote: “The Bible shows the way to heaven, not the way the heavens go.” God’s inspired word is filled with answers to the question “why” but not necessarily answers to the question “how.” Why did God make me? What role does suffering play in human existence? Why must I love my neighbor? Certainly, we have an account of creation in the Book of Genesis and there are very basic elements, that answer the question “why” but the “how” of creation can be looked upon with certain nuances.

It is important that we not set science and religion against each other as adversaries, with each trying to make its point while using the Bible as a source of “ammunition.” However, we also cannot deny the reality and power of human reason. It would be erroneous to deny the reality of a Supreme Being as the First Cause of all things, even if we were basing our opinion on human reason alone. To take a scientific theory, which seeks to explain the development of various species in the universe, and spanorce it from the power of reason, which is the glory of the human person, is ultimately to deny reality and surrender all common sense. Since this is such a basic but also a highly technical and sensitive issue, I would like to conclude by sharing three quotes from three Popes of the last fifty years which express the clear teaching of the Church.

Teaching of recent Popes concerning evolution
In 1950, Pope Pius XII taught: “The Church does not forbid that research and discussions, on the part of those experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter” (Humani Generis, 36). Pius XII also makes clear that the direct and willed creation of each inspanidual, with an immortal soul, must always be maintained.

In a talk Pope John Paul II gave during an Audience in 1985, he said: “All the observations concerning the development of life lead to a similar conclusion. The evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to discern the mechanism, presents an internal finality which arouses admiration. This finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge, obliges one to suppose a Mind which is its inventor, its creator. To all these indications of the existence of God the Creator, some oppose the power of chance or of the proper mechanisms of matter. To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements and such marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be to abdicate human intelligence, which would thus refuse to think and to seek a solution for its problems” (Audience, 10 July 1985).

Cardinal Ratzinger, before being elected Pope, taught: “We cannot say, creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The 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 origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, 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. Human beings are not a mistake but something willed; they are the fruit of love. They can disclose in themselves, in the bold project that they are, the language of the creating intelligence that speaks to them and that moves them to say: Yes, Father, you have willed me” (In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, p. 41, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Eeerdmans Press, 1986, 1995).

This has, obviously, been a very brief attempt to address a complicated issue. However, with this summary of the Church’s teaching on this question, you may have a desire to study it further.

26 February 2009