Msgr. Charles Pope, of the archdiocese of Washington, wrote a helpful post yesterday titled, “Can a Catholic Accept Evolutionary Theory Uncritically?” Although he addresses it to Catholics, I think most of my fellow evangelicals would agree with his approach:
It is common to experience a rather simplistic notion among Catholics that the Theory of Evolution can be reconciled easily with the Biblical accounts and with our faith. Many will say something like this: “I have no problem with God setting things up so that we started as one-celled organisms and slowly evolved into being human beings. God could do this and perhaps the Genesis account is just simplifying evolution and telling us the same thing as what Evolution does.”
There are elements of the truth in this sort of a statement. Surely God could have set things up to evolve and directed the process so that human beings evolved and then, at some time he gave us souls. God could have done that.
The problem with the statement above is less theological than scientific because there is a word in that sentence that is “obnoxious” to evolutionary theory: “God.” The fact is that most Catholics who speak like this over-simplify evolutionary theory and hold a version of it that most Evolutionary Theorists do not hold. They accept the Theory of Evolution uncritically.
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Now what this means is that God is excluded as a cause by evolutionary theory. It would be fine if evolutionists (as natural scientists) were either silent on the question of God. Or, perhaps if they simply stated that things may be acted upon by an outside force or intelligence but that is beyond the scope of their discipline. But that is not what is being said by most proponents of evolutionary theory. They are saying that biodiversity results MERELY from natural selection and random (i.e. non intended or non-purposeful) genetic mutations. They are saying that observable effects of biodiversity are wholly caused by something natural, random and without any ultimate goal or plan.
But a Catholic cannot accept all of this. Even if a Catholic wants to accept that things have evolved in some way (whether through macro or microevolution) a Catholic cannot say that this process is simply random, chance, blind, or with no purpose. We believe that God alone created all things, and that he sustains all things. Neither do we confess some sort of “deist” God who merely started things off and then lets them take their own course. Rather, God sustains and carries out every detail.
No doubt some people will take issue with his brief handling of technical concepts. But on the broad issue he is right to point out that what many Catholics and other Christians affirm when they say they have no problem with evolution is a position that would be repugnant to many natural scientists.
In my experience, most people haven’t considered the issue of how the theological and scientific claims can be compatible. For instance, to be a “theistic evolutionist” in the sense that modern scient will accept, requires one to adhere to polygensism (the theory that Adam was not one historical man but, rather, a euphemism for “mankind”). That position, however, is not compatible with the teachings of the Bible, the Church, or of Jesus. (Msgr. Pope will be taking up the question of polygensism later today. I’ll post a link to that when it is ready.)
The polygensism problem is, for me, the biggest stumbling block to uncritically accepting the theory of macroevolution. I’m not sure how to resolve the issue, so for now I’ll simply follow Pope’s advice when I’m asked about evolution: Seldom Affirm, never deny, always distinguish.