Q: Some of my Protestant friends insist the Genesis account is to be taken literally – the Adam and Eve story is a factual account and evolution is a fairy tale. There seems to be a lot of scientific evidence for evolution – do I have to disavow that?
Thanks for sending in this question – it’s a good opportunity for us to take a look at how Catholics read Scripture and what we understand about creation.
Our first principle to think of is this: despite some uninformed statements that get thrown about, we Catholics love science. We embrace the fact that God created us with the incredible gift of curiosity and the means to act on that gift. We are encouraged and challenged by Holy Mother Church to grow in our knowledge of what God created and how it all works. It is a wonderful gift that God has given us.
It seems to me that “outsiders”, if you’ll excuse the term, do not distinguish between Catholics and Fundamentalists. As Catholics, we read the Scripture a bit differently. Dr. Peter Kreeft has a great article on the difference between the way Catholics and fundamentalists read Scripture. In it, he points out a lot of the differences and similarities between these two Christian camps. At one point, it reads:
“Catholics agree that Scripture is infallible, or free from error, but not necessarily grammatical, mathematical, or scientific error, only error in its message.
For example, when a biblical poet speaks of "the four corners of the earth" he's reflecting the common ancient Hebrew belief that the earth is flat; yet his point is not the shape of the earth but the glory of God.”
This is as good a summary as any for what we need to look at here.
So, if the “war between Catholics and science” is a fake one, what do we believe? As Catholics, we are given a lot of wiggle room in terms of what we believe about how the universe came about. Think of it this way: we want to balance what God has revealed to us through Scripture and sacred tradition with what he wants to teach us through our learning and discoveries. St. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “One should not try to defend the Christian faith with arguments that are so patently opposed to reason that the faith is made to look ridiculous.”
So, how do we balance a love for truth and faith together when it comes to how God created? When I was in seminary, I was taught that we look at the story of creation and understand three truths that every Catholic must hold:
First, God created out of nothing
At the end of 1989, the Church held a council that we call Vatican I. From that Ecumenical Council, we have a document called Canons on God the Creator of All Things. The fifth canon of that document reads (in part):
“[Everyone must] confess 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"
Second, God created on purpose
The earth is not an accident, you are not an accident. The interrelated nature of God’s Creation shows us a great deal of design and that speaks to us about who God Is. A simple way to think of it is with the statement ‘whenever we see design, we assume a designer.’ This is true of everything we encounter in life, I believe. Scripture puts it this way: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host [stars, nebulae, planets] by the breath of his mouth." (Ps. 33:6)
Third, God created out of love:
St. Pope John Paul II wrote some amazing things about the Trinity. He described it as “a community of love.” We believe this community of love created the human person for the purposes of love. As one of the prayers priests use at weddings reads, “We were created by love, out of love and for love.” Your purpose and mine is not so much practical as others would tell us – we are a response of love.
Beyond these points, when we look at human evolution, it is important for us to understand that human souls were created by God and placed in the human.
The website for our bishops, www.usccb.org, has a great quote that I’d like to close this out with. I hope you find it helpful and I pray that we all respond to this by fearlessly plumbing the heights and depths of God’s creation, to learn how our God created and what that means for us. I pray we approach all that we learn in humble submission to what God has revealed and passed on to us through Jesus and his bride, the Church.
“The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation.”
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!