Why Catholics Can Believe in Evolution:
Part II: Adam and Eve Were Given Souls

Creatio ex Nihilo

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.


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)[1]
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)[2]

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.


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 Dogma of Original Sin and the Dogma/Doctrine of monogenesis  are crucial in determining the present position of the Church on evolution. I’ll use quotations from Pope Pius XII  and Pope St. John Paul II to illustrate this.

“…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?

Pope St. John Paul II in his Encyclical, Fides et Ratio, said

“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.

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11 thoughts on “Why Catholics Can Believe in Evolution: <br> Part II: Adam and Eve Were Given Souls”

  1. I have continued conflating images of creation, big bang theory, dogma and mythology.
    Science say life began on Earth from the tiny creatures in the seas. They presume a big bang theory in which was a cosmic explosion that created the universe. Then there was God’s creation of man. Note the timing?
    Mythology is apparently driving dogma that produced Adam and Eve. Eve was given life by the rib of Adam which may have been the advent of women as second class humans. Eve is portrayed as the temptress who encouraged Adam to eat an apple from the tree of forbidden fruit where the vile serpent hung out, (perhaps why St. Patrick purged snakes from Ireland?).

    It still mystifies me that for eternity all of humanity was assigned “original sin” by an all loving all omniscient and forgiving God would plague his image and likeness for a weak story indicting the origin couple.

  2. Without getting too deep into scientific weeds, I would note that most people have some difficulty in understanding ex nihilo (nothing) because it represents not just emptiness as in outer space but the lack of any dimension. This, however, does fit well with what the condition of pre-universe was since it accepted that God exists outside the physical. This also explains why honest atheists (yes they exist) will admit that even with the big bang theory they don’t don’t know what preceded it. All of which gives an interesting starting point for humanity but only tangential relation to the message of salvation.

  3. Hi Fr. Donahue,

    Thanks a lot for your thought-provoking response. I am always glad to see the Church Fathers, Councils and Catechism cited in any argument.

    Can I please get your thoughts to an unrelated question? The idea is stated in CCC #302 that the world is created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae). In CCC #675-77, it is stated that there will be an ultimate trial before Christ’s Second Coming, which will shake the faith of many believers. Presumably, many will fall away from the faith. To this end, it says: “the kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil” (CCC 677). So we have a journey through time that will only be concluding when Christ comes again to set things right. My question is: what, then, is the point of the Church? If She will not ultimately succeed in uniting all men under the banner of Christ, under assault to the bitter end; if millions will live and die without ever being part of the visible Church; and if only God himself can finally set things right, I am struggling to see what the point of instituting the Church is at all.

    Thank you!

  4. Eric Andrew Wallace

    Thanks for the perspective!

    Reminds me of St. Paul’s elsewhere in Romans: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” (Rm 7:9).

  5. I’m curious to know if anything has been written on whether the infusion of souls is theorized to have been a one-time, “everyone got it at once” situation or a gradual process that evolved (and perhaps continues to evolve) along with humans. It would seem as if there would not have been literally just two people infused but rather an entire community (akin to Pentecost) or else you would have the awkward situation of offspring with souls having parents without them. — a situation which could still have occurred with pre-deceased parents. And what of other species of humans such as Neanderthals and Java men. Is there any reason to believe they, too, would not have been part of the infusion? Was their awareness of death, intellectual capacity and struggle for understanding sufficient to be on a par spiritually with Homo sapiens? If they were a subspecies of modern humans, as some characterize them, then it seems even more likely they would have had souls for being in such close proximity. I don’t know what theological debates have taken place, along these lines, but would love to find out.

    1. John, thanks for your comment and questions. I can’t answer them here, but I think you’ll get at least partial answers or a base for answering them yourself by going to the linked articles on “theological monogenesis” and “Did Neanderthals have a soul?”

  6. Many thanks for your kind words, Eric.

    I think it may be the knowledge of death, rather than death itself that entered into the world with The Fall. Animals do not know of impending death and it is possible that hominids, before the implantation of souls, were also unaware. Certainly Neanderthals with their burial ceremonies had a conception of an afterlife and impending death.

    C.S. Lewis, In the first book,”Out of the Silent Planet,” of his sci-fi trilogy gave a good picture. The three intelligent species on Mars were not afraid to die because they had not comitted original sin and fallen, unlike humans on “the Silent Planet” (earth). The Martians knew there was an afterlife.

  7. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for this great series.

    Does accepting evolution mean accepting the idea that God created death? Clearly, for any animal form to evolve, generations of that species must die. But this means God created death, that it is “built-in” to nature, which seems to contradict utterly His benevolence and His plan for Creation.

    St. Paul tells us, “Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Rm 5:12). So it would seem that death entered the world only after the Original Sin, and therefore any process that depends on death to function, i.e. evolution, could not exist prior to Original Sin. Curious to know your thoughts on this sticky point.


    1. It is hard to argue that there was no _plant_ death before the Fall, since God gave plants as food (Gen 1:29-30). The cells in a leaf, for example, cease to be alive when they are digested.

      Some Church Fathers held that _animal_ death and predation only came after the Fall:

      “We see, however, many wild animals which do not eat fruits. what fruit does the panther accept to nourish itself? What fruit can the lion satisfy himself with? Nevertheless, these beings, submitting to the law of natures, were nourished by fruits. But when man changed his way of life and departed from the limit which had been assigned him, the Lord, after the Flood, knowing that men were wasteful, allowed them the use of all foods; “eat all that in the same was as edible plants (Gen. 9:3). By this allowance, the other animals also received the liberty to eat them.” (St. Basil the Great, On the Origin of Man, 2:6-7)

      Other Church Fathers taught that immunity from physical death was given only to Man, not animals:

      “Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things—namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption.” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, par. 2)

      The Council of Trent dogmatically defined that _human_ death (of body and soul) entered the world only after Original Sin (referencing Romans 5:12):

      “1. If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost, the holiness and justice in which he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of such prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, which God had previously threatened to him (Gen 2:17; 3:17), and, together with death, captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil (Heb 2:14), and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed as respects the body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.
      2. If any one asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that he lost for himself alone, and not for us also, the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost; or that he, defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul, let him be anathema; inasmuch as he contradicts the apostle, who says: By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned (Rom 5:12).” (Council of Trent, “Decree Concerning Original Sin,” Session 5, par 1-2, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Canons_and_Decrees_of_the_Council_of_Trent/Session_V/Original_Sin )

      The fact that God created a physical universe that is subject to decay and death (physical evil) is not contradictory to His benevolence:

      “But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature. With physical good there exists also physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.” (CCC 310, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p1s2c1p4.htm#310)

    2. I forgot to include that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that predatory animals (and animal death) existed before the Fall:

      “In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state [before the Fall of Adam], have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this…” (Summa Theologica, Part I, Q 96, art 1, reply to objection 2, http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1096.htm)

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