One of the peculiar ironies I have noticed over the years has been the divergent ways in which the notions of evolution have, er, evolved in the minds of Catholics and some of the more anti-Catholic folks among our Fundamentalist brothers. One of the distinctions between Catholics and Bible Christians is that Catholic theology has never especially demanded a literalistic interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 and is therefore not particularly shaken by evolutionary theory or the discovery of the immense age of the earth. As John Hardon, S.J. says in his Catholic Catechism, “Charles Darwin (1809-82) undoubtedly sparked a new era in anthropology and allied sciences, but Darwinism as such had only minimal impact in Catholic thought, whereas it struck many believers in evangelical Protestantism like a tornado. The issues raised by latter-day evolutionists directly affected the interpretation of the Bible, notably the first three chapters of Genesis. Christians who had only the biblical text as their guide, and no extrabiblical tradition or less still an authoritative Church, were left with only the literal words of Scripture. It was not enough to cope with the rising tide of criticism from scientific quarters, which made the simple narrative of Genesis look like another cosmological myth.”
This was borne out again in October 1996 when Pope John Paul II, standing in the context of a train of Catholic thought which stretched back at least to Augustine and which had been reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis said, in essence, “Looks like there’s some good evidence for biological evolution.” That is, he said, as so many Catholics have already said, that there is nothing in divine revelation that particularly forbids you to believe that God made Adam from the dust of the earth r e a l l y s l o w l y rather than instantaneously. This comment, a blinding non-news flash to Catholics, was an immense shock to many journalists, who seem to divide the world into “those who have absolute faith in naturalistic evolutionary dogma” and “Fundamentalists.” Where could the Pope fit in such a black and white world?
Now, before I proceed, I think I should mention that I believe Fundamentalists get entirely too much guff from the media for their concerns about evolutionism. Granted, I think the Creation Science attempts to turn the obvious language of myth in Scripture into the language of a science text are stupendously wrong-headed. I do not believe for a moment the bad science adduced to prove that the earth is at most 10,000 years old, nor the zany theories that earth’s atmosphere was shielded by giant ice shell (the “waters above the heavens”) which melted and produced the Great Flood of Noah. I think it a tremendously dumb (but entertainingly quixotic) effort to show that “God created the earth with dinosaur bones already in the ground to test the faith of True Bible Christians and lead the ungodly astray.”
But, having said all this I also think Fundamentalists have a healthy moral reservation about evolutionism which we do well to listen to despite the badness of Creation Science. For as C.S. Lewis points out in his fine little book Miracles, the mere fact that somebody is wrong about one thing does not mean they are wrong about everything. Lewis talks about a little girl he once knew who had the notion that poisonous things had to have “horrid red things” in them in order to be poisonous. Her science was bad. But as Lewis says, “If a visitor to that house had been warned by the child, ‘Don’t drink that. Mother says it is poison,’ he would have been ill advised to neglect the warning on the ground that ‘This child has a primitive idea of poison as Horrid Red Things, which my adult scientific knowledge has long since refuted.”
Similarly, Fundamentalists seem to me, despite their absurd creation science, to have more moral common sense in their little fingers than the great thinkers and social planners of the 19th and early 20th Century had in their whole bodies. For it was these “intellectual giants” and not Fundamentalists who took the basic premises of materialistic evolutionism and “survival of the fittest” and, with inexorable logic, constructed the whole edifice of Social Darwinism, laissez faire capitalism, eugenics, euthanasia, racial theory and, in its final apotheosis, Nazi racial theory and genocide. It was the Best and the Brightest, the Educated and the Advanced who labored to create such living hells as Auschwitz in the name of the Fitness of the Race. For all their daffy science, Fundamentalists preserve in their bones an essential insight to which materialist evolutionists are stone blind: If a man’s nose is simply a slightly different product of the same kind of accidents that made a pig’s snout, there is ultimately no reason you cannot butcher him like a pig. Fundamentalists recognize that, as Dostoyevsky says, if there is no God, everything is permissible. Catholics, while eschewing the bad science of Fundamentalists, ought to be grateful that they have passed to their children this inchoate refusal to call man an unusually clever piece of meat. Insofar as they do this, Fundamentalists are on the side of the angels (and of the Holy Father, who also stresses that evolutionary theory does not provide a philosophical basis for reducing the human person to a mere product of material forces). Thus, when we are embarrassed by the bad science of Fundamentalist Creationism, we Catholics do well to remember, as St. Paul says, that God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.
Yet at the same time, it also seems to me that Catholics ought to point out to Fundamentalists the curious parallel between the view of natural history they emphatically reject and the view of supernatural history they often emphatically affirm. For one of the weirdest ironies of American Fundamentalism is that it often regards any trace of evolutionary theory with fear and loathing while simultaneously holding a view of Christian history that reads as a kind of Darwinian myth.
The myth runs something like this:
Jesus creates the little cell called “the early church” on the day of Pentecost. It is, as the cell was to Darwin, a featureless, structureless blob of protoplasmic goo which definitely has no bishops, certainly has no Petrine office and reproduces by splitting into other equally undifferentiated blobs of structureless “fellowship” with no authority and no doctrine except “the simple word of God–the Bible.” This “Church as Algae Colony” model does not, however, last. Under pressure from the Greco-Roman environment, the primitive life form of the early Church begins to develop various structures and to mutate. Depending on who you talk to, the date may vary, but many Fundamentalists posit that the Church experienced some sort of Mass Extinction in the first, second, or third centuries. Theories vie for whether mass extinction happened shortly after the death of St. John or when Constantine legalized Christianity. But at any rate, some immense Comet of Apostasy slammed into the earth, according to this scenario, and “true Christianity” was nearly annihilated, hiding in the shrubs and underbrush of Europe like a tiny primitive mammal while, for the next 1500 years, enormous powerful brutes called “Catholics” roamed the earth like herds of tyrannosaurs, holding councils, electing Popes and having terrible earth-shaking doctrinal battles in which they imported all manner of pagan mutations like the Eucharist, Marian beliefs, bishops, statues and relics.
The roots of this apostate Catholic Church are, according to this scenario, from a totally different evolutionary line than that of True Christianity. It turns out that Catholics are actually the descendants of Babylonian Mystery Religions which swelled to immense proportions in the vacuum left by the Mass Extinction of True Christians. Sure, the Babylonian Mystery religionists repudiated paganism wholeheartedly and died for their refusal to renounce Christ. Sure, they fought fiercely to preserve Scripture from the scissors of Marcion. Sure, they defied the might of the State for the name of Jesus. Sure, they held the ecumenical councils, canonized Scripture, settled the most vexing questions concerning the nature of God and Christ, evangelized Europe, established the rule of civilization in the demon-haunted lands of barbarians, fostered the growth of science, philosophy, art, music, law and education, cared for the poor, challenged nations to be holy and preserved learning through waves of Viking, Mongol, Vandal, and Islamic invasions. But such “Christians” were an evolutionary dead end because they believed in bishops, the Eucharist and prayer to Mary. True Christians were the nameless, faceless, unknown “hidden church” that did nothing, said nothing, and accomplished nothing for 1500 years while the Catholics of the Mesozoic Era ruled the earth.
Finally, after centuries pass, God sends yet another comet, the Black Death (and a Wycliffe, a Hus and a Renaissance or two), to cause another mass extinction. The Beasts of Popery reel and fall! And then, out of the chaos God again raises up one organism (Martin Luther) who receives the divine spark and evolves to a higher plane of being. But, according to the scenario, Luther is not evolved enough. He still venerates Mary, for instance, and he believes in baptismal generation. So, ever reforming, God abandons this early evolutionary theological equivalent of the Megatherium and continues the march through the ages, “raising up” Calvin, then Wesley, then Finney, then Moody, then the Asuza Street Revival, then the Latter Rain Revival, and so forth till at last, today, we have… Me and My Sect who have finally arrived at highly-evolved, truly spiritual purity. And this must go on ad infinitum. For the only thing that keeps the spiritual gene pool pure is precisely the constant battle for survival among the various sects. That is why Loraine Boettner suggests in Roman Catholicism that “the diversity of the churches, with a healthy spirit of rivalry within proper limits, is one of God’s ways of keeping the stream of Christianity from becoming stagnant.”It is not love, but competition, that ensures the life of the Church. Indeed, Boettner goes on to quote Walter Montano to say that competition is essential in order for the Christian to know the freedom of the gospel at all. In Montano’s words: “Organic unity is a foreign element in Protestantism. The lack of organic unity is the strength, not the weakness, of Protestantism, and assures us of our freedom before God… Unity and liberty are in opposition; as the one diminishes, the other increases. The Reformation broke down unity, it gave liberty…”
Now, for a theology that utterly repudiates “survival of the fittest” ideologies and claims faith in a supernatural God of love, this is a very curious way of looking at God’s dealings with the human race. It does not look very much at all like the desire of Jesus who prayed to the Father for his Church that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). One does not see between the Father and the Son a “healthy spirit of rivalry” as a model of the unity of the Church. One seldom notices Jesus teaching the disciples to quarrel over who is “stagnant.” One does not see St. Paul issuing ultimatums to choose freedom over unity or telling the Philippians (whom he urged to be “one in spirit and purpose”) that unity is a prison and competition is strength. Indeed, the idea of flushing weaklings out of the spiritual gene pool or throwing off the chains of love in order to survive is not something that seems to look anything like biblical teaching. But it does look a great deal like Darwinism.
Fundamentalists rightly apprehend in the Darwinian paradigm of “survival of the fittest” a naturalistic ideology which, applied to human beings, has served as the basis for some of the most brutal regimes in history. They rightly decry the view of human beings as mere “naked apes” living in the illusion of morality. They are appalled by the secularization of the human person which has reduced him from a creature made in God’s image to a mere animal motivated by sex, hunger and power. They are opposed to the relativism that pits hedonism and materialism against the claims of family and children. They rightly detest the ideologies that pit class against class, race against race and man against woman. They recognize that such applications of “survival of the fittest” ideology to the socio-political sphere are anti-Christian assaults on the dignity of the human person. They recognize that a feminism which opposes the union of marriage as a “slave relationship” and declares that the freedom of woman can only be found by revolt against man is a stunningly short-sighted understanding of what marriage is all about. They argue strongly that it is a grave mistake and a sin to say that, in some ultimate sense, competition, not the love of Christ, is the great driving force behind the world.
Yet people like Boettner and Montano hold exactly this view of freedom when it comes to the unity of the Church. Cockeyed Church “histories” which prop up various anti-Catholic notions of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Great Apostasy, the Hidden Church and so forth owe an enormous amount, not to “true Bible teaching” but to the view of life which says that competition, not the love of Christ, is the great driving force behind the Church. In so doing, their anti-Catholic zeal blinds them to what they see elsewhere with such clarity: that the great proponent of this view of life is not Jesus Christ, but Charles Darwin.
Catholics therefore have the obligation both to support and oppose the Fundamentalist in the matter of evolutionism. Insofar as the Fundamentalist grasps the insight that human beings are in fact, creatures in the image of God who are made for love, he is simply right and Catholics ought to support that insight. However, insofar as Fundamentalism offers crackpot science and, in fact, contradicts itself by holding a Darwinian view of the Church, Catholics ought to make clear what is going on in the hope that the Fundamentalist will rub his eyes and see the irony of his attack on the Catholic Church. For as Paul recognized clearly, we are not only created by the one God of love, we are intended to live by him in love, not competition. That is why he says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:3-6).