As Catholics we believe that God is the creator of all things visible and invisible. But does that mean that Catholics don’t believe in evolution? Several popes, including Pope St. John Paul II taught that evolutionary theory has solid scientific grounding, so Catholics can certainly believe in evolution. But there is one aspect of it that does contradict our Catholic faith.
Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, president of the Spitzer Center for Ethical Leadership at the Magis Institute, stopped by A Closer Look™ this week to explain what Catholics can believe about evolutionary theory and the one thing they can’t.
“You can believe in evolution as a Catholic,” he said. “That’s not only in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humanae Generis, but it’s also in the papal allocution delivered by St. John Paul II to the Papal Academy of Sciences where he definitely indicates that evolutionary theory is more than a hypothesis. It has good scientific grounding for a theoretical acceptance on many levels. So Catholics can certainly believe in evolution.”
“However, Catholics cannot believe in what you might call a pure evolution,” he said. “That is to say, they cannot deny the existence of a unique, human, trans-physical soul. And, of course, since it’s trans-physical it can’t come from an evolutionary process, it’s going to have to come from a trans-physical cause.”
Not all who believe in evolution see the world in a purely materialistic way, but some do. And so it is important to point out to Catholics the ways in which evolutionary theory can stray from the truths of existence that include the divine.
“What we’re talking about is pure materialistic, Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. So that is excluding a soul, excluding any kind of divine influence on the evolutionary process,” Fr. Spitzer clarified.
He explained that Catholics cannot believe in a theory that denies the divine because it denies the very basis of the truths taught by the Catholic Church. Fr. Spitzer said, “You have to believe as a Catholic that every human being has a trans-physical soul that comes from a trans-physical cause. Namely, God. And that is not going to be part of a physical, organic, evolutionary process because it is created by God, anew, at the time of conception.”
If this seems like a case of science vs. faith, Fr. Spitzer pointed out that it is merely a case where we cannot hold two opposing theories to be true at the same time. Additionally, he pointed to peer-reviewed medical studies on near-death experiences and terminal lucidity that provide evidence of the existence of a soul. So, if there is evidence for the existence of a soul and evidence of the evolution of species, how can we reconcile these two theories?
The Church teaches that we must use faith and reason in pursuit of truth, and Fr. Spitzer explained that the fact that Catholics cannot believe in pure evolution is not a barrier to believing evolutionary theory, but an invitation to work toward greater understanding. Fr. Spitzer pointed out several “glitches” that have been discovered in different theories of evolution, but these don’t mean we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, it has lead to more research to help us better understand the world around us and how we were created.
Pointing to a book titled Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by linguists Noam Chomsky and Robert C. Berwick, Fr. Spitzer said this was an example of people seeing gaps in a theory and using their expertise to explore it and seek the truth. In a similar way, Catholics are called to seek the truth in matters both spiritual and physical and, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.”
Listen to the full conversation with Fr. Robert Spitzer below: