In 1996, the Pope said it’s okay to think God may have used evolution to create the body of the first humans. In other words, he said Catholics may, if they like, believe God formed Adam from the dust of the earth reeeeeally slowly rather than very quickly. This commonplace liberty of Catholic teaching (which merely echoed Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis and which can be traced back to the patristic era) was hailed as a complete theological revolution in a Church which, the media seemed to imagine, had hitherto forbidden the very mention of Darwin. The Pope, we were informed, had finally “conceded” the possibility that evolution might be true. To anybody with even an elementary knowledge of the Faith, this was akin to saying the Pope had “admitted” the gospels were composed in Greek and not English. It was a blinding non-news flash.
What accounts for this queer misperception of the Faith? It is the unspoken assumption that, say what we will about the Church’s enormously long and varied history of support for the life of the mind (a support which produced minds ranging from Thomas Aquinas to Edith Stein), Catholics must have a deep-rooted fear of questions. It is the idea that “faith” means terror at the prospect of looking too deeply into things lest our fragile god evaporate forever in the fierce light of inquiry.
Yet, even a cursory glance at the New Testament reveals the Catholic Faith was born in the midst of very real and very hard questions. Cheeky questions like Peter’s “Lord, we have left all to follow you? What’s in it for us?” Honest questions like Mary’s “How can I have a son, seeing that I am a virgin?” Skeptical questions like Zechariah’s doubts about the conception of his son, John the Baptist. Incredulous questions like “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Tricky, accusing questions like, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
In short, if God is afraid of questions, he has a funny way of showing it. For he chooses people who have done nothing but question and argue with him since the time of Abraham (whose earliest recorded words spoken to God are a question (Gen. 15:2)). And in becoming incarnate 2000 years after Abraham, this God chose disciples who had no misgivings about peppering him and each other with all sorts of questions. For all the folk notions in the press that God thinks he is the Great and Terrible Oz, it appears the reality is something much different: God treats us, not like cringing, mindless slaves, but like persons. And persons ask questions. They want to know things like who they are, where they came from, what they are supposed to be doing now that they are here and where they are going.
The gospel, so far from squelching these questions, answers them. It says we are creatures made in the image of God, but who rebelled against God. It says God became man, died, and rose in order to rescue them from the consequences of that rebellion. It says we are a mysterious mixture of spirit and mud (and that we are unbalanced if we make ourselves all spirit like the New Agers or all mud like the extreme evolutionists). It says we must join ourselves to the God-Man Jesus in his Body, the Church, in order to knead him into our bones and into the world. And it says that, if we do, we will be with him forever, starting now.
Those are real answers to real questions–the realest questions in the world. So far from fearing them, the Holy Father has all he can do to convince a few of us timid critters to consider pondering them briefly. Maybe that’s why he keeps saying, “Be not afraid.”