Adam and Eve: Science and Theology

In August I raised the question of whether Catholic theology understands Adam and Eve as real, historical persons, especially in light of new scientific evidence reagrding the origin of human beings, evidence which was now being considered by evangelical scholars. Albert Mohler warned against this move, arguing it would pull down the Christian edifice, built on the Fall and Original Sin. DotCommonweal's David Gibson has taken up the issue in What Do Catholics Believe About Adam and Eve?, citing John Farrell's piece from Forbes Can Theology Evolve? Like me, he was surprised that the Catholic position might not be what he thought it was. I would encourage readers to go back and look at my piece from August, which deals more extensively, I think, with the actual theological statements from the Church, but do follow the links at all of these sites. This is a fascinating and significant issue, not simply at a scientific level, but at a theological level.

John W. Martens


Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens 

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Marie Rehbein
7 years 2 months ago
I have more questions than comments on this topic. 

Who descended from Adam and Eve besides Cain?  Did Cain marry a sister that came along later; were there other siblings in that generation that are not mentioned that married one another and from which we are descended, or are we all descended from Cain?

If we are evolved from some primate that was also the ancestor of today's primates, is it possible to be descended from more than an original pair?

What about the suggestion that aliens from outerspace interbred with creatures existing on earth, thereby contributing that bit of DNA that makes us so superior to the other creatures?


Susan Mulheron
7 years 2 months ago
I just read your August article for the first time, and was a bit surprised by your position on this question. For my MAT coursework, I wrote a paper on this exact issue, and was excited to learn about how evolutionary theory contributed to the development of Catholic scripture scholarship in the 19th and 20th centuries, and impressed with the similar developments in systematic theology. Only 10 years after Darwin's Origin of Species was published, this statement was issued at the First Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:
"Although faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason, since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, and God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truthThe false appearance of such a contradiction is mainly due, either to the dogma of faith not having been understood and expounded according to the mind of the Church, or to the inventions of opinion having been taken for the verdicts of reason."

This provision made in the Constitution for the possibility of faith being misunderstood left the door open for theological developments to be influenced by scientific progress. The Church was hesitant about accepting unproven scientific theory for sure, but as stated in Providentissimus Deus (1893),when faced with an apparent contradiction between science and revelation, all efforts must be made to remove it by discovering where the mistake has been made.  Until the discrepancy is cleared, the Church must refer to the test of time and “suspend judgment for the time being.”  For "as time goes on, mistaken views die and disappear, but truth remaineth and groweth stronger for ever and ever" (23).

Humani Generis (1950) raised the issue of the soul and human creation imago Dei, precisely because the development of science was outpacing that of theology. Before the Church could embrace evolutionary theory, there had to be a theology to appropriate it.

The words in the Catechism are an interesting issue. Because it represents the firm and revealed teaching of the Catholic Church, the Catechism is the last source to reflect any theological developments that may emerge. In the Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains that the Catechism intentionally concentrates on the “metaphysics of creation,” and the truths that remain valid independent of the questions that concern the cosmic picture of the biblical message.  Noting the “particularly delicate subject” of original sin, the Introduction describes how a special commission spent much time deliberating how to approach the subject.  The commission eventually came to the conclusion that “it cannot be the task of the Catechism to represent novel theological theses which do not belong to the assured patrimony of the Church’s faith,” and therefore the Catechism is limited to the sure doctrine of the faith.

While the doctrine of a soul created imago Dei is difficult to reconcile with the evolutionary understanding that humans to have only gradually matured to self-realization, this is for theologians to figure out and explain. Maybe it causes us to re-evaluate our understanding of the creation of the soul and the existence of so-called "Original Sin," process theology is doing just that. If chimpanzees are someday found to encompass rudimentary conscience and self-awareness, theology must be able to provide a response.

The Catechism explains that “the human body shares in the dignity of the ‘image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul.”  Because true human beings must possess a human soul, it seems then there must be a point in evolution where a true human emerged with the powers of intellect and free will. The theologian is left to explain how the distinctly human qualities of this emerged being that has a soul are so different from its ancestor that does not.

Cardinal Ratzinger notes that the historical-critical method of reading biblical texts tends to isolate particulars in the text from the Bible as a whole.  This separation has contributed to a conflict between natural sciences and theology that remains a burden for the faith (In the Beginning, 17). Ratzinger asserts that this conflict has led to a misappropriation of belief in creation.  The essence of the biblical account of creation is to offer some orientation for appreciating the human person and human dignity.  While evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments, Ratzinger states, it cannot account for the inner origin or particular nature of humans.  On the other side of the question, “the story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God…does not in fact explain how human persons come to be, but rather what they are."  Evolution and creation may complement each other, but they nonetheless correspond to two different realities.  Ratzinger therefore calls for “faith in creation,” which he states is an essential part of understanding Christianity, redemption, Christ, and being made imago Dei.

Pope John Paul II offered some great clarification on this issue, as well. 
On October 22, 1996, just over a hundred years from the publication of Providentissimus Deus, Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences regarding their research in the area of the origins of life and evolution.  John Paul II reasserted the Catholic Church’s position on evolution and noted the influence of evolutionary theory must be limited to verifiable data.  He clarified the boundaries between science and theology by stating that any question concerning evolution that reaches beyond empirical fact properly becomes a epistemological question.
“Consequently,” John Paul II stated, “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter…are incompatible with the truth about man.  Nor are they able to ground the dignity of the person.” Noting that the “ontological leap” of humanity cannot be accounted for in the “sciences of observation,” the moment of transition to the spiritual in the evolutionary timeline “falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection, while theology brings out its ultimate meaning according to the Creator’s plans.”  John Paul II acknowledged that evolution is beginning to emerge as more than a mere hypothesis, but stressed the difference between accepting the empirical data of evolution and evolutionary theories that attempt to explain humanity in natural terms alone.
In Fides et Ratio, John Paul II explained that the duty of the theologian is to provide an understanding of revelation and the content of faith in a way which meets the needs of the current time. Evolutionary theory is in need of a philosophical context that cannot be provided by biology and anthropology.  Science and theology work best when they are recognized as complementary, each completing the account of the other. That is what our Church teaches, and it is why I am proud to be a Catholic.

Susan Mulheron
7 years 2 months ago
I thought about that after I posted the comment, that I should have clarified that statement further. What initially surprised me was what I interpreted you to be saying in this statement (ad intra): "for those of us who have thought the answers of human origins in Catholic theology were more clearly in line with the findings of evolutionary theory, there seems to be more ambiguity than I was aware. Even if Catholic theology is long beyond Mohler's unease that the Bible is more than history or his rejection of evolutionary theory, it seems that the questions he asks regarding Adam and Eve still have answers vaguely similar to his." (To be fair, you don't exactly stake out a position by saying this, contrary to what I said in my comment.)

In reference to the ambiguities of which you have become aware, you write: "could [the Catholic Church] deny that behind the mythic accounts of Adam and Eve stand two real human beings? This seems to be where the evidence of evolutionary theory is taking us, but it also seems to me that the Church’s position has been somewhat ambiguous on certain matters or silent." I think that the Church has pretty clearly accepted that Adam and Eve were not real historical figures, and that the human race did not descend from these two primordial parents. Another source of my surprise was your references to the Catechism as a source for the stance of the Church on this issue, which it does indeed represent, but only insofar as to what has most recently been definitively accepted by the magisterium, nor does it appropriately account for nuances that are crucial for discussion in speculative theology.

Another thing that struck me was that as I realized through my research, the problem of discoveries supporting evolution affected biblical studies more than any other ecclesiastical discipline, and indeed helped bring about the advance and acceptance of modern biblical criticism, which I guess I was surprised that you didn't reference, but I can also see that it wasn't essential to your point.

If what you meant by ambiguity referred to the theological can of worms also known as creation of the soul imago Dei and Original Sin (as you clarified is indeed the case), then yes I'm right there with you. The theologians have a job ahead of them reworking these concepts so that "truth" does "not contradict truth." But maybe they need the advances in science to come before that can happen, just as it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. The magisterium will be slow to react and acknowledge anything as the official teaching of the Church until it is without doubt, and only until then will this be reflected in a definitive document like the Catechism.
Tom Maher
7 years 2 months ago
Father Marten's August, 2011 article reporting on the theological controversy among Evangelical Protestants from the conclusion by some scientist that scientifically there was no Adam and Eve was very interesting.  The controversy seemed epic and should challenge all Christians in its implications of scientific orgins at odds with the Bible story of Adam and Eve.

Apparently however this is not the consensus of all scientists.  On checking today other scientific inquiry seems to confirm a scientific Adam living 60,000 years ago in Africa.

National Ge?ographic Daily News of Firday, Novemeber 4, 2011 contains a detailed article ?t??????i???t???l???e???d???????? ?????"???M?o?d?e?r?n? ??????????????H?u?m?a?n?s? ???????????W?a?n?d?e?r?e?d? ????????O?u?t? ?o?f? ??A?f?r?i?c?a? ?v?i?a? ??A?r?a?b?i?a???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????"? ?b?y? ???D?a?v?i?d? ????????????B?r?a?u?n?.
Tom Maher
7 years 2 months ago
National Geographic Daily News of Friday, November 4, 2011 contains an article titled "Modern Humans Wandered Out of Africa via Arabia" by David Braun.  This article reviews the current conclusions of National Geographical Society's six year old (since April, 2005) Genograpic Project study of evolutionary history. 
Stanley Kopacz
7 years 2 months ago
To me, original sin is an empirical fact, emerging out of human creativity.  We discover the equivalence of matter and energy, and in 40 years, we have a nuclear fission bomb, a couple years later, fusion bombs.  We discover DNA, and in 25 years, we're putting transgenic genes in our food plants for the benefit of corporate power.  Amazing how we get to the comfortable top of the food chain and still find ways to make each other's lives miserable.  Theological rework, yes, but just modified theories for something really there.  I think the fix remains the same.  Follow Jesus, partake of Jesus.


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