At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacred Scripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way of telling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not information about the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came into being. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did not interpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, but rather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and end of our being.[emphasis added] Pope Benedict XVI speaking at Easter Vigil
This is the second of two articles that give Catholics justification to believe that evolution, both cosmological and biological, does not contradict Catholic teaching. The first gave a brief summary of the scientific evidence for evolution directed by a Supreme Intelligence, which we call God. In this article I’ll examine what a literal interpretation (and that means word for word) of the Genesis Creation story involves.
I’ll also try to explain why implantation of souls into the first humans, Adam and Eve, was the essential act of their creation. It is this implantation of souls, not the creation of a physical body, that marks the creation of the first human pair. This perspective, emphasized by Pope Pius XII and Pope St. John Paul II, can be called “theological monogenesis.”
Before recounting what popes and saints had to say, let’s see what was in the original Hebrew of Genesis about Creation of the universe.
CREATIO EX NIHILO AND TOHU VA-BOHU
A fundamental Catholic teaching is the dogma Creatio ex Nihilo, God created the universe from nothing. Did this dogma come from the Creation story of Genesis 1? In an article, “Creatio ex Nihilo—Why We Believe,” I’ve answered “not necessarily.” Here is the Hebrew for Genesis 1:2 with the conventional translation (from Wikipedia):
אָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְהֹ֑ום וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם
—Genesis 1:2, (Westminster Leningrad Codex)
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
—Genesis 1:2, English translation (New International Version)
The conventional translation for the Hebrew “tohu-bohu” (or “tohu va bohu”) in Genesis 1:2 is “formless and void”. (these words are in red, bold, in the quote above.) A scholar in Hebrew (as distinguished from a Hebrew scholar—this guy was a retired Irish physician) told me that the real translation of “Tohu Bohu” was topsy-turvy, a mess, confusion. That would be more in accord with notion held by many physicists that Creation arose from quantum fluctuations. Another Jewish scholar disputes the conventional translation, “formless and void.” (See here.)
Chaos is not nothing, so again, where did “ex nihilo” come from? One citation from the Old Testament can be used to justify this:
“I beseech thee, my son, look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them of things that were not; and so was mankind made likewise.”
—2 Maccabees 7:28, (KJV)
And in the New Testament:
“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible”
—Hebrews 11:3 (KJV)
The first Christian writer to promote the doctrine of “Creatio ex nihilo” was Theophilus of Antioch in the late second century, who gave this famous piece of reasoning:
And what great thing is it if God made the world out of existent materials? For even a human artist, when he gets material from some one, makes of it what he pleases. But the power of God is manifested in this, that out of things that are not He makes whatever He pleases.[emphasis added]—Theophilus of Antioch, “Letter to Autolycus, Chapter IV”
So we see that the Catholic dogma, God created the world out of nothing, did not really originate in the Creation account given in Genesis, but developed via other parts of the Bible and Tradition.
Now let’s examine patristic and papal teachings on how literally Genesis should best be interpreted.
SAINT AUGUSTINE AND POPE BENEDICT XVI ON THE LITERAL INTERPRETATION OF GENESIS
Here’s a relevant quotation from my favorite saint, Augustine of Hippo, on one bad consequence of interpreting Genesis too literally:
Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances,… and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn. —St. Augustine of Hippo, “De Genesi ad litteram; the Literal Meaning of Genesis.”
We can add to St. Augustine’s criticism from 1600 years ago the comment by Pope Benedict XVI given in the beginning quotation. Earlier Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Cardinal Ratzinger, had remarked in his book “In the Beginning” that the Bible was not a science textbook. See this essay by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, for a detailed analysis of Pope Benedict’s (Cardinal Ratzinger’s) treatment of Genesis, not as a literal account of Creation, but as a path to the Gospel.
Let’s see now how two popes emphasized that ensoulment was a critical element in the creation of the first two humans
THE PRESENT POSITION OF THE CHURCH ON EVOLUTION
“…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 [but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” [emphasis added]–Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis
“Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God…[emphasis added]” Pope St. John Paul II, Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences:”On Evolution”.
“there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.” St. John Paul II, 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Science.
“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. [emphasis added] The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution, and in part because of the diversity of philosophies involved.
“As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man…” ibid.
Thus both Pope Pius XII and Pope St. John Paul II emphasized that the critical element in the creation of the first two humans was the implantation of souls. This removes all conflict between evolution, the scientific explanation for how the physical bodies of humans developed, and monogenesis, the Catholic dogma that God created the first two humans, Adam and Eve. We can term God’s Creation by the implantation of souls, theological monogenesis.
I’ve given a more detailed account of this in a post, Do Neanderthals have a soul?
“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
Because we do not understand at present the mechanism of evolution are we to reject it as a magnificent work by God and rely on a literal interpretation of Genesis? We don’t do this for the creation of matter and the universe, for which physics gives a clearer explanation than molecular biology does for evolution. The Church today does not require that we do so; the Church requires only that we do not fall into the trap of believing materialistic theories that attempt to explain evolution.