Some time ago, someone asked me:
Suppose–just for the sake of argument–you were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical. Would you be able to do it, or do you think that Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith?
I think this is the question that worries a lot of Catholics without a strong scientific background as they watch the evolution/creationist/ID debate on Catholic blogs. Here are these otherwise solid Christians taking common cause with the likes of the Richard Dawkins against their brother Christians. What gives? Are these folks really Christian? Do they care more about science than about faith? Do they only accept Catholicism so long as it agrees with science?
To the extent that one is confident that one’s scientific understanding of the physical world is accurate, a religion’s agreement or rejection of science can certainly affect one’s judgment of the religion. Augustine, in the Confessions, writes of how he was initially leery of Christianity because some of the apologists he heard endorsed cosmological models he knew to be false. Once again, one of the factors that caused him to reject Manichaeism was that his questions about physics and cosmology were put off with cheap rhetorical tactics rather than knowledge and substantive explanation.
The reason I would be troubled if I “were convinced that an honest reading of the Tradition of the Church required you to believe that the initial chapters of Genesis were historical” is not because I think that “Darwinism is so irrefutable that you would have to abandon or radically redetermine your faith” but rather that a whole host of fields from evolutionary biology and paleontology to geology, astronomy, physics and more all point to a very old universe. It is certainly true that I find the scientific evidence for the descent with modification of biological organisms to be quite convincing, but a truly literal/historical reading of Genesis such as Anglican Bishop Usher proposed in the 19th century (and which, I would argue, represented very much a 19th century approach to the Bible, at odds with the tradition of the Early Fathers and Medieval scholars) requires much more than the rejection of the details of the current evolutionary synthesis.
For instance, we know that light travels at a set speed of approximately 186,282 miles per second. For various reasons subject to fairly rigorous mathematical proof, we believe that various astronomical objects that we can observer are hundreds of thousands or millions of light years (the distance that light can travel in one year) away from us. Were the universe only 6-10 thousand years old, we should not be able to see those objects. (This is but one example among literally thousands that point to an ancient universe.)
If someone asked me to believe that the universe was created ten thousand years ago, he would be asking me to believe that the physical world, as examined with our God-given senses and faculty of reason, is intensely misleading. Not just difficult to understand, but directly misleading.
Some suggested that these apparent inconsistencies are a mystery, to which faith must be applied. The Eucharist, after all, does not look like the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. You could perform no scientific test that would allow you to determine that a consecrated host is different from an unconsecrated one. Yet Christ, the Bible and the Church all tell us that while retaining the physical accidents of bread and wine, the consecrated bread and wine are in substance the body and blood of Our Lord. And this I believe, and believe without question. Should the necessity come, I pray that I would die in and for that believe in union with all the holy martyrs throughout history.
However, I would maintain that the Eucharist is fundamentally different from the question of the creation of the universe. Christ told his disciples that unless they ate his flesh and drank his blood there would be no life in him. His disciples said “this is a hard saying” and some left him over it. Christ specifically presented the mystery of the Eucharist as something which runs contrary to our perceptions yet is necessary for our salvation. If Christ has put forward the doctrine that the earth was created within the last 10,000 years (contrary to all appearances) as a mystery of our salvation, then as in the case of the Eucharist we would be called to set aside the evidence of reason and our sense and believe Him. However, he did not. Nor, honestly, can I imagine why a young earth would be a necessary mystery of salvation — unless one adheres to what are traditionally Protestant standards of biblical interpretation in which the “plain meaning” of every passage of the Bible is necessarily true.
Circling back to the original question, I hope this at least provides some understanding of how I (as an orthodox Catholic who also is very attached to the findings of modern science) look at the issue. Honestly, the question of what I would think if the Tradition of the Church required a literal/historical interpretation of Genesis barely makes sense to me, since it seems to me that one of the great signs of wisdom in the Church (as opposed to the many sects that have broken off from her) is that she melds faith and reason so well in this regard — and has throughout her history. It’s not so much that I find the Fathers and Doctors of the Church silent in regard to whether it is possible that the history and cosmology of the universe are not literally as described in Genesis, but rather that it seems to me that they are nearly universally in agreement (when they address the matter) that Genesis is not primarily a historical or scientific narrative. Aquinas and Augustine both seem to agree that it is not only possible but indeed likely that the history and cosmology of Genesis are not literally true.
I am certainly willing to believe mysteries of the faith which are beyond any scientific proof — and contrary to any scientific data — (such as the Eucharist) but I simply cannot see how the creation of the universe is a mystery of this sort.