How the magisterium uses Aquinas to explain the fact of evolution
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
The Catholic Church teaches that God directly creates every human soul in a special act of creation. The human parents contribute the material conditions, but God alone is able to create an immortal soul at the moment of conception perfectly united with the body of that new human life. No other animal has a soul of this special human type, i.e., intelligent and immortal, created in the image of God.
“The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, adopting the philosophical teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas; “i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (#365)
The first two human souls directly created by God in history belonged to Adam and Eve. By definition, the two of them could not have had parents who possessed human souls.
The immediate creation of the souls of Adam and Eve by God therefore occurred under unique conditions, never since repeated. Yet, ever since, God has still been directly creating human souls, at every moment of conception.
Catholic theology need not set itself in opposition to what evolutionary science has discovered: an emergence of material conditions, providentially suited for a special creation (i.e., the creation of the first human souls by God as forms for animal bodies).
Evolution supplied animal bodies made of matter, but God then directly created the first human souls united to the animal bodies most suited for them.
Ever since Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis in 1950, the official Catholic position on this has been clear.
Catholics can embrace whatever material truths evolutionary science reveals about human origins, as long as they preserve the spiritual truth: the direct creation of the soul as form of the body is reserved for God alone (and that is what Aquinas is talking about when he argues the “formation” of bodily matter in Adam and Eve was “immediately from God” [Summa Theologiae, I, 91, 2]).
Since 1950, the magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, including St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis) has been a gentle guide and a veritable model for how to think about evolution: John Paul in speeches and writings; Benedict in books and seminars; and Francis, with a folksy paraphrase of Aquinas on how God creates.
But there are some people out there who discount this shining witness. They discount every word of the magisterium on evolution since 1950 as “low-ranking,” thereby setting themselves in opposition to some of the best theological minds in papal history.
Instead, they argue Genesis must be read in a literal way that contradicts scientific knowledge. To justify this, they misread magisterial documents, and misread Aquinas, in an unhistorical way.
Despite the witness of the magisterium for the past 65 years, they maintain the true teaching of the Catholic Church has been kept hidden: God had to have directly created not just the souls of Adam and Eve, they say, but also their bodies (by miraculous acts: Adam’s from some mud, and then Eve’s from his rib while he was taking a nap).
But do we really need to believe their conspiracy theory?
The Genesis story conveys truths through symbolism: God’s direct creation of the soul results in man, the only creature who is a union of matter and spirit (“mud” and God’s “breath”); also, woman is absolutely equal in dignity to man.
Their unreasonable literal reading leads to other unreasonable claims, like “evolution is just a theory.”
“That evolution is a theory in the proper scientific sense means that there is both a fact of evolution to be explained and a well-supported mechanistic framework to account for it. To claim that evolution is ‘just a theory’ is to reveal both a profound ignorance of modern biological knowledge and a deep misunderstanding of the basic nature of science,” notes biologist T. Ryan Gregory in “Evolution as Fact, Theory, and Path”.
They also unreasonably deny “macro-evolution” while admitting “micro-evolution.”
In fact, scientists have directly observed speciation: i.e., cases where a single species, whose members interbreed within its population, is seen to evolve into two new species that cannot interbreed (which is the very definition of “macro-evolution”).
Regardless, the critics of evolution are motivated by a fideistic interpretation of religious dogma. Hence their position merits comparison with the geocentrist theologians who refused to look though Galileo’s telescope at the evidence against geocentrism.
Like the geocentrists, they’re not really interested in scientific evidence, because they will never let science disturb their misreading of Scripture, their misreading of Church documents, and their misreading of Aquinas.
Even if one day they were to admit satisfaction with the abundant scientific evidence for evolution, they would still deny that any of it is relevant to their fundamentalist dogma about Adam and Eve.
Notice, therefore, what their position amounts to: they unwisely discard the key distinction made by the magisterium; namely, that God directly creates human souls in special spiritual acts, but He otherwise lets the material conditions unfold according to a natural order knowable by science.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Catholic Pacific College.