Two of the most controversial topics among Catholics and Protestants are evolution and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Great quantities of ink and electrons are expended in print and on the Internet each day, arguing about these things. “Catholics call Mary the cause of salvation!” complain our Evangelical friends. “Not only that, their Pope caved in on evolution and thereby denied God is the Creator!” Meanwhile, secularists complain of the exact opposite thing against Catholics. Not only do we deny pure materialism and hold that God is the Creator, we also credulously believe in the Virgin Birth, when science has supposedly disproven the miraculous, according to the Richard Dawkinses and Carl Sagans of the world.
How do Catholics manage with such frequency to be at the center of flatly contradictory accusations? In the case of Mary and evolution, I think it is paradoxically because of a common philosophical muddle shared by both secularists and many Evangelicals which lands them in opposing and contradictory difficulties with the Faith: the failure to grasp the reality of First and Secondary Causes.
What’s a First Cause? A First Cause is just that: a first, but not a sole cause of something else. Ultimately, God is the First Cause of everything. But he sovereignly prefers to involve his creatures in his work to various degrees, which makes them secondary causes. What’s a Secondary Cause? It is a dependent but real cause.
Think of it this way: Michaelangelo is the First Cause of the Statue of David. His chisel is the Secondary Cause. When Michaelangelo carves the statue, is it he or his chisel that does the carving? The answer is “Yes.” Similarly (though with a significant difference), Michaelangelo’s mom and dad were the Secondary Causes of Michaelangelo (God, of course, being the First Cause). When Michaelangelo was brought into the world, was it God or his parents that caused him to be born? Again, the answer is “Yes.” So what’s the significant difference between Michaelangelo’s mom and a chisel? Mom is a person, not a mere tool. She chose to not only give birth to Michaelangelo, but to give herself in some way to his nurture and formation as a person.
When this relationship between First and Secondary Causes is pointed out, it seems fairly obvious. Most Evangelicals, for instance, would not balk at the statement “The Apostle Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans” even though they affirm (as do Catholics) that God is the True Author of Scripture. Like Catholics, Evangelicals understand that God, the First Cause of the epistle to the Romans, made Paul a Secondary Cause of the epistle. Yet, curiously, the idea of First and Secondary Causes often gets ignored when the topic of conversation turns to the first or the second Adam. All of a sudden, everything becomes either/or instead of both/and. Humans, say many of our Evangelical friends, cannot owe their bodily origins to any kind of evolutionary process because God created them (which is, to Catholic thought, like saying “Bread cannot owe its origin to wheat, yeast, salt and water because the Baker made it.”)
In contrast, Catholics note that Scripture says man is formed of the dust of the earth. But they also note that Evolution, as Pope John Paul II spoke of it merely adds the caveat that there’s nothing necessarily contrary to Scripture in saying God took a reeeeally long time to form man from the dust of the earth and involved creatures in the process along the way. If we accept the idea of First and Secondary Causes, however, there is nothing necessarily to get worked up about. Especially since God still uses creatures (called parents) to bring brand new Adams and Eves into the world every minute of every day.
Similarly, many Evangelicals think it wrong to say Mary’s “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) was an active choice with real effects. They fear the thought that Mary, by these words, became a real cause of the Incarnation, and therefore of the salvation that flowed from it. Somehow, the idea that Mary had a real say in the matter appears to Evangelicals to impugn the sovereignty of God. They insist that God is not just the First, but the only, cause of the Incarnation.
Nonetheless, Mary’s having a say is the witness of both Scripture and common sense. Further, our having a say in what goes on in our response to God is also the clear witness of Scripture. For, in the creative act of God, his sovereignty and our freedom are corollaries, not opposites. That is why Paul says “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3:17) That’s why Paul commends “self-control” (not God-control) as a virtue and fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). Does Paul therefore mean we are to all run off and be Stoics, “controlling ourselves” without relying on the Spirit? No. Rather, he means that submission to God as First Cause of our sanctity will make us into mighty Secondary Causes. This is why he says elsewhere that we must “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling [i.e. be the Secondary Cause of your salvation] for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure [i.e. God is the First Cause of your salvation]” (Philippians 2:12-13). And that is why Mary’s “Let it be to me according to your word” really mattered and was not simply a piece of empty religious-sounding rhetoric. Her “Yes” to God really did, by grace, open the gate of salvation and give flesh to the Word.
However, pop science magazines abound with discussions which snicker at the Church’s belief in miraculous events like the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth and which make equally dogmatic statements about the purely material origins of human beings. Result: lots of confusion for the lay Catholic, whose tradition, a moment ago attacked as “anti-biblical” is now attacked as “anti-scientific”. How do we make our way through this puzzle?
The answer is the same: give proper place to First and Second Causes. If we say, as Pope John Paul II said, that there’s nothing in Catholic teaching that forbids us to think evolution may play a role in human origins, we are within the pale of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope John Paul II observed with great common sense that, “Today, … new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.” In short, there’s a lot of evidence pointing to evolution as one of the major chisels in the heavenly tool kit by which God sculpted the first human beings. At the same time though, we are under no obligation to fall for the materialist philosophy which commits exactly the same fallacy as the Evangelical, but in reverse, by singling out the Secondary Cause instead of the First Cause and declaring it to be the only one that matters. For that, of course, is what is going one when a materialist tries to use evolution as a weapon to attack theism by intoning the antiphon, “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be” and then professing the Creed of his faith that, ” Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” The materialist is simply the photo negative of the Evangelical who denies Mary had anything to do with the Incarnation. Both are pitting First and Second Causes against each other. The only difference is that the Evangelical only believes in the First Cause and the materialist only believes in Secondary Causes.
Catholics are free to affirm both, in their proper order. Indeed, they must affirm both, otherwise we get the chaos of believers chattering as though everything is directly done solely by God or insisting that everything is done solely by mindless natural processes. Like all heresies, both these ideas only give us part of the truth, but the gift of God is the fullness of truth in the Catholic revelation of Jesus Christ who is fully God (the First Cause) and fully man (the Secondary Cause). Settle for nothing less.