Disputed Questions in Evolutionary Creation

There I was, listening to a Catholic argument for Young Earth Creationism. Only a week earlier, I had explained to a friend how Catholics aren’t really susceptible to the fideistic Creationism seen in many Protestant churches. Now, I found myself before a Catholic speaker arguing for a historical reading of the six days of creation and claiming that the earth was only 6,000 years old: Not only did the Bible say so, but the Fathers of the Church said so, and until this century, all the Saints and Councils and Popes said so as well.

To even think of overturning this traditional witness we would need certain scientific evidence, which the speaker claimed the theory of evolution failed to provide on account of a litany of objections. Finally, he went on to illustrate how every symptom of the moral decline of the last two centuries can be linked to a belief in evolution: Nazis, Soviets, contraception, abortion, the sexual revolution, and even the ongoing virtualization of our social lives. The key to the New Evangelization was a renewed confidence in the traditional teaching of God’s creation in six days and a rejection of evolution. Until we proclaim the traditional faith in toto we have little chance of converting people to that faith.

It was frustrating, even painful, to sit through. Frustrating, because of the way both modern science and the teachings of the Fathers and the Magisterium were presented out of context. Painful, because manipulating emotional arguments were employed to explain the evils of our society, ignoring the complexity of historical events and the sinfulness of our fallen human nature, hanging all blame around the neck of evolution—all, of course, in the name of faithful Catholicism. I could understand how the argument might be persuasive to someone seeking an answer to what was wrong with the world. We face so many problems in politics, in society, and in the Church itself; there has to be an explanation, and here was one neatly laid out on a platter.  Fix this evolution heresy and all will be right.

But, as you might expect, the Creationist argument hinges upon a false dichotomy. Ironically enough, it is the same dichotomy proposed by the New Atheists. The parallels are a bit disturbing. The Creationists claim that any difficult problem in science can and should be explained by God and that everything wrong with the world is attributable to belief in evolution. The New Atheists claim that any difficult problem in science can and should be explained by evolution and that everything wrong with the world is attributable to belief in God. Both sides set up their simplistic straw man—the atheists of the Christian faith and the Creationists of the science of evolution—and both proceed to knock their straw man down and declare their case proved to the satisfaction of no one but themselves.

In a sense, both sides are only arguing with each other, but they lump anyone who doesn’t fully agree with them into the enemy camp. Of course, most people don’t actually agree with either extreme, and for good reason. As much as a nice, neat dichotomy can be appealing to the human mind, it simply isn’t reflective of reality.

Your average person, and especially your average Catholic, looks at both of these extremes and intuitively sees something wrong. They may even be able to locate the incoherence in either or both positions. But few, I would guess, are able to articulate a coherent perspective of reality that takes into account the true value of both the truths of human reason and the truths of Revelation. While the coherence of faith and reason has always been an important tenet of Catholic teaching, sometimes it is difficult to see when specific arguments and objections come couched in technical scientific or theological language. While there has been a heroic effort from a variety of sources to show the harmony of faith and reason, there is clearly more work to be done.

In light of this pressing need, several Dominicans, myself included, are collaborating on a new project to better educate the faithful on the beauty and coherence of our Catholic worldview, especially in the light of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. The project is titled, “Disputed Questions in Evolutionary Creation: Thomistic Responses for the Catholic Faithful and Other Curious Minds.” Reflecting the broad range of disciplines engaged in the question of Creation and Evolution, this project will be a collaborative effort between Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP (PhD in Biology), Fr. James Brent, OP (PhD in Philosophy), Fr. John Baptist Ku, OP (STD in Theology) and myself (PhD in Physics).

For this exciting new project, we have received a grant awarded to Providence College from The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution Christian Faith program to create a series of twenty-seven bulletin inserts for Catholic parishes that explain the philosophical and theological foundations of the Thomistic synthesis of faith and reason in light of the findings of modern science. BioLogos was founded by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins to explore and celebrate the compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith.

We especially hope to engage young Catholics at colleges and universities around the country and to create a website to engage an even broader audience. With the BioLogos Foundation’s generous support, I hope that my brothers and I can provide the resources that help many to discover the coherence of God’s gift of reason and his saving Revelation. For in the words of Bl. John Paul II, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

Image: DNA Gel Electrophoresis

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Br. Thomas Davenport, O.P.

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Br. Thomas Davenport was born in Mt. Clemens, MI, the son of an Army officer, and moved a number of times with his parents and older brother while growing up. Eventually he graduated from high school in northern Virginia, where his parents still live and attend Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. He studied physics at the California Institute of Technology and went on to earn a PhD in physics from Stanford University. On DominicanFriars.org