How do Catholics understand
the creation account of Genesis and evolution?
In an address to a recent meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996), the Holy Father commented on the subject of evolution and recognized the progress of science in explaining the origins of life and the process of creation. However, the Pope also underscored the compatibility of scientific evidence with the truths of faith, and of science with theology: “Consideration of the method used in diverse orders of knowledge allows for the concordance of two points of view which seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure with ever greater precision the multiple manifestations of life… while theology extracts… the final meaning according to the Creator’s designs.” The Pope further reminded the Pontifical Academy that the truth of revelation cannot contradict truth of scientific evidence, and vice versa. Instead, the questions to be addressed are “How do the conclusions reached by the various scientific disciplines coincide with those contained in the message of revelation? And if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions, in what direction do we look for their solution?” Before focusing on the specific issue of evolution, let us first approach the Genesis account of creation and the truths of faith we find revealed in it.
We must remember that Genesis was not meant to be a scientific explanation of how creation occurred. The first three chapters of Genesis which address creation, the fall of man, and the promise of salvation do not pretend to be a text of physics or biology which provides a scientific understanding of mankind and the world. Rather, the Genesis account of creation is a work of theology which focuses on the who, why, and what of creation. Writing centuries before the birth of our Lord, the inspired sacred authors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit wove a story to capture truths of God and His creation. Since Abraham lived approximately 1850 BC, the stories of Genesis were probably preserved orally for centuries before ever being produced in written form.
To appreciate the beauty and significance of the Genesis account, we must examine the pagan cultures surrounding the Jewish people. They lived among these various cultures, each of whom had their own religion and likewise their own creation stories. For instance, the Babylonians had a story called the Enuma Elish. Here the deities Apsu (male) and Tiamat (female) begot another god named Ea, who is turn had a son named Marduke. Ea slayed Apsu, and Marduke then slayed Tiamat. From the carcass of Tiamat, Marduke fashioned the world. Marduke also slayed Kingu, Tiamat’s counselor, and with his blood, fashioned mankind.
The Egyptian cult of the Sun based at the city of Heliopolis described how Atum-Re (or Ra), the sun god, was produced from Nun, the waters of chaos. Atum-Re then fertilized himself committing an act of divine masturbation and ejaculated Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), giving them his vital force or ka. Shu and Tefnut in turn produced Geb (earth) and Nut (sky), and other gods. This same story told of how humans were produced from the tears flowing from the eyes of Atum-Re.
Other Egyptian religious cults had other creation stories. The cult at Memphis told of how whatever the god Ptah had conceived in his heart and had spoken with his tongue produced all living beings. The cult of Elephantine described the god Khnum as a potter fashioning all living beings on a potter’s wheel from clay. Granted, some elements from these stories are similar to ones found in Genesis, yet the difference between these stories and Genesis is vast.
Take a good look at the first Genesis account of creation, 1:1 – 2:4. Here we find an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, eternal, and infinite God. He creates freely according to His divine wisdom and is motivated by genuine love.
God creates all things from nothing (ex nihilo), creating even that from which creation is made. However, He is distinct from His creation. The Hebrew text uses the word bara’ for “create,” and this word is used only for an action of God on the world. The object created is always something that is new, wonderful, and astonishing. The creative word of God is not only personal, responsible, and efficacious, but also life-giving. Recall that the Lord said to Isaiah: “…So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Therefore, the created world owes not only its existence to God, but also all that it is, its nature, its purpose, and its design.
In Genesis, God creates in a very orderly fashion, following a seven-day plan. The number seven was considered a perfect number for the Jews. Although the word day normally means a twenty-four-hour period of time, it can also be used for a season, a particular time or event (e.g. “judgment day”), or a period of time. We must remember that God is infinite and thereby is not bound by time. Consequently, in Genesis, day and the seven-day sequence refer more to a designed, purposeful span of time over which God creates.
Although not a scientific account, the unfolding of creation follows a divine plan that makes logical sense from a human perspective. Most importantly, at the end of each day, God looks at creation and recognizes it as very good. This point about the goodness of creation is emphasized repeatedly to refute any notion that the material world is evil, corrupt, or depraved, as some cultures or cults thought.
Moreover, Genesis climaxes with the creation of man and woman: “God created man in His image; in the divine image He created them; male and female He created them” (1:27). This beautiful verse highlights that only man and woman reflect God’s image and likeness. Moreover, both man and woman, although different, equally reflect the image and likeness of God. From this belief, we believe that God has created and given to each of us an unique and immortal soul.
Another beautiful point is in the verse that follows: Genesis reads, “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.'” Here we find the institution of marriage, and can posit that the fullness of being in the image and likeness of God occurs when man and woman enter into the blessed union of Holy Matrimony as husband and wife becoming one flesh. Here man and woman as husband and wife may even participate in God’s creative love and bring forth new life. Moreover, man and woman are called to be good stewards, using creation wisely and for the good of all.
Immediately, we can see the differences between Genesis and the creation accounts of surrounding cultures. Genesis has no generation of a god or gods; in Genesis, God is eternal. In the other accounts, creation is the product of divine sexual activity, power struggles, murder, accident, and whim; in Genesis, God creates through His eternal Reason– His Word– and His creativity has order, design, uniqueness, and purpose. Unlike the other creation stories, Genesis emphasizes a loving God who freely created all things good, and made mankind in His image and likeness, endowing them with an unique, immortal soul. The God of Genesis is not part of creation; rather, God transcends creation, but is present to, upholds, and sustains creation which is “good” in His eyes. Finally, we must not forget that all creation– the whole story of the Old Testament– is moving toward Christ and derives its true meaning from Christ through whom all things were created and who reconciled all things in His person (cf. Colossians 1:15-21). (Confer Catechism, #295-301).
Given this understanding of Genesis, how then can we reconcile it with the scientific theories of “Big Bang” and evolution? First, we must remember that a theory is a statement, or “story,” which tries to explain a set of phenomena. Just as Genesis is a story– albeit inspired by the Holy Spirit– which presents truths of God’s creativity, Big Bang coupled with evolution form a story or theory posited to explain scientific evidence surrounding creation. According to these theories, billions of years ago, an explosion– a “Big Bang”– started the expansion of the universe which continues to this day. In essence, creation has evolved over time and will continue to evolve. One must pause however and note that the Big Bang theory presents creation by chance, error, and dissonance rather than a reasoned, ordered, designed progression. Nevertheless, scientific evidence does give some credence to this theory, and for this reason the Holy Father said, “Today… new knowledge leads us to recognize that the theory of evolution is more than a hypothesis.” Note, however, the Holy Father did not say that either theory– Big Bang or evolution– captures the whole truth surrounding creation.
To date, scientists are continually refining the Big Bang theory and evolution, especially in light of DNA research, NASA’s Hubbel space-telescope findings, and recent fossil discoveries in the Namibian desert of southwestern Africa. Honest scientists would be the first to admit that they simply do not have all of the answers regarding creation. Legitimate questions still are left unanswered: “If evolution has occurred, why haven’t any fish recently climbed onto the beach or an ape evolved into a human? If “Big Bang” is true with its chaotic chain reaction, how did such order come to the universe and all creation, including our own physical being? How did life ever come about, especially human life with all of its abilities to create and to think?” Such questions lead one to admit that science does not have all of the answers, and probably never will. We can accept much of the findings of science and yet tenaciously hold onto the belief of an omniscient, omnipotent, eternal God who freely and lovingly creates and continues to guide creation to its fulfillment. Even Einstein admitted that in the laws of nature “there is revealed such a superior Reason that everything significant which has arisen out of human thought and arrangement is, in comparison with it, the merest empty reflection.”
What then about Adam and Eve and the evolution of human beings? Here we also struggle with science, especially those who would contend that human beings evolved from a lower life form. We also wonder how the world grew in population when according to Genesis God made Adam and Eve who had three sons– Abel, Cain, and Seth, yet later Cain has relations with his wife who seem to appear in the story (Genesis 4:17). Keep in mind that science focuses on how we came to be whereas theology is more concerned with who we are. Science again does not have all of the answers, and the Bible does not provide all the details of creation. Anthropologists continue to revise their “theories” about the development of man and the transition from homo habilis to homo erectus to homo sapiens. Actually, studying DNA sequences, Allan Wilson of the University of California at Berkeley, with other scientists, have posited that all living human beings share a single common female ancestor (whom they interestingly have dubbed “Eve”) who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago. (In all fairness, other anthropologists offer critiques of this theory, again showing that no one has all of the details about creation.)
Responding to the creation of human beings and evolution, Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani generis (1950) reminded that in our Catholic faith we believe that God directly creates and infuses an unique soul to each individual. (In Pope John Paul’s address, he cited Humani generis and underscored this truth.) Concerning Adam and his progeny, Pope Pius XII asserted, “For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teachings authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.” While “in no way is it apparent” now does not entail that it will not be later.
Reflecting on the story of Genesis and its compatibility with science, Cardinal Ratzinger in a homily preached in 1981, “We must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance and error. Nor are they the products of a selective process to which divine predicates can be attributed in illogical, unscientific, and even mythic fashion. The great projects of the living creation point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly today than ever before. Thus we can say today with a new certitude and joyousness that the human being is indeed a divine project which only the creating Intelligence was strong and great and audacious enough to conceive of. The human being is not a mistake but something willed; he is the fruit of love. He can disclose in himself, in the bold project that he is, the language of the creating Intelligence that speaks to him and that moves him to say: ‘Yes, Father you have willed me.'” From Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks, we see the need to appreciate the scientific understanding while maintaining the truths of faith.
The Catechism summarizes the discussion well: “Among all the Scriptural texts about creation, the first three chapters of Genesis occupy a unique place. From a literary standpoint, these texts may have had diverse sources. The inspired authors have placed them at the beginning of Scripture to express in their solemn language the truths of creation– its origin and its end in God, its order and goodness, the vocation of man, and finally the drama of sin and the hope of salvation. Read in the light of Christ, within the unity of Sacred Scripture and in the living Tradition of the Church, these texts remain the principal source for catechesis on the mysteries of the ‘beginning’: creation, fall, and promise of salvation” (#289).