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The Catholic Two-front War: Against Scientism and Scriptural Literalism

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. Pope St. John Paul II,”Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.”

Introduction

Originally this post was to be about a three-year old article on Smithsonian.com,”The Pope [Pope Francis] would like you to believe in evolution and the Big Bang.”   This article was the taking-off point for a Stations of the Cross podcast by Fr. Shannon Collins, who adheres to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, against evolution and cosmology (the Big Bang).  Before arguing against Fr. Collins, I want to point out that the Smithsonian article itself had several errors of commission and omission:

  1. It conflated evolution–the common descent of living things–with the neo-Darwinian model for evolution; there are eminent scientists and philosophers, atheists or agnostics, who accept evolution but reject the neo-Darwinian model for how it works, so accepting or rejecting Darwin is not to be correlated with religious belief;
  2. The article ignored Pope St. John Paul II’s incisive statement on evolution “My predecessor, Pius XII, has already affirmed in his Encyclical, “Humani Generis” (1950) that there is not opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the fall of man and his vocation provided that certain fixed points are kept in mind.”  Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1996 (my translation from the French).
  3. The distinction between evolution of a physical body and the implantation of an immortal soul done only by God, was ignored;  this distinction was pointed out by Pope St. John Paul II and is discussed in one of my posts,
    Did Neanderthals have a soul?

Now the title above speaks of a two front war–one front against scientism, those who propose science or “naturalism” as an explanation of everything and as a basis for atheism; the other against Catholics who say that Genesis 1 is the literally true in all details, six days of creation, Eve from Adam’s rib, etc. Since I’ve written many posts against scientism (see here, here, here, here, and here), I’ll not repeat those arguments.

What I will attempt below is to refute  what Fr. Collins had to say about cosmology and evolution.   Why do I believe this refutation is important?  As a recent article in Our Sunday Visitor pointed out, one of the main reasons young Catholics are leaving the Church is that they believe that science contradicts Catholic teaching.  This belief is not true, and those who propose a literal interpretation of Scripture do not gain reverts or converts to the Church,  but only strengthen this false proposition of naturalistic atheism, that you can’t believe what science has to say about the world and be a believing Catholic.

Against a Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2

If we believe that Genesis 1 is literally true in everything it says, then we must believe that the universe, despite cosmological and geological evidence to the contrary, was created in six days; we must also believe that Adam was created literally from dust, that the first woman, Eve, was created from his rib, and that the order of creation of animals was given as in Genesis 1 and 2, even though these two accounts are contradictory.

We must also, if we believe Genesis 1 to be literally true and go to the original Hebrew, believe that the Catholic doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo contradicts Scripture.  One translation of Genesis 1 gives “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’.”   The term “formless void” in Hebrew is “Tohu Bohu” or “Tohu va-Bohu”, which a Hebrew scholar (a scholar in Hebrew–this guy was a retired Irish-American physician) has said is better translated as “topsy-turvy” or “chaos.”   And the translation mentions “waters,” which is not “nothing.”   Actually the “chaos” or “formless void” description is in better accord with the materialist proposal for pre-Big Bang:  a sea of virtual quantum fluctuations.

Moreover, the notion of Creatio ex Nihilo is first given in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 7:28 and in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:3.   The first Christian writer to promote the doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo was Theophilus of Antioch in the late 2nd Century.  It was St. Augustine who developed arguments about time and Creatio ex Nihilo, that time could have begun with creation, which is a view remarkably in accord with much of modern cosmology.

“…no time passed before the world, because no creature was made by whose course it might pass.“–St. Augustine, “City of God,” book 11, ch.4.

For a more detailed account of the history of the doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo and the translation of Genesis 1,  see here and here.   My general point is that the sense of the original Hebrew in Genesis has been altered and modified in various translations to fit with that doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo; and I must emphasize that I truly believe this doctrine.  I also should emphasize that I interpret Genesis to say that God created the universe and man, and found this creation “good” (“tov”).

Fr. Collins’ case against evolution and cosmology

I don’t believe that Fr. Collins made a good case against evolution and the Big Bang in his podcast.  Let me again make the distinction between evolution, common descent from one species, and the Darwinian model for evolution.  The same distinction was made by  Pope St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution…” 

First, Fr. Collins argued that evolution was inconsistent with philosophical principles set forth by Aristotle and Aquinas.   Of course not all that Aristotle proposed was valid–his theories of gravity and kinetics have been superseded by physics going back to Galileo.    Moreover, the Dominican scholars, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP; Fr. George Brent, OP; Br. Thomas Davenport, OP; and Fr. James Ku, OP, have given a convincing account of the Thomistic support for evolution.

Second, Fr. Collins says that evolution is not supported by paleontology–there are no fossil records of transitional forms.  This is not true.  While there are gaps in the fossil record for such transitional forms, there are some found–see here, for examples.   Moreover, the  existence of early forms without later in dated fossil records is in itself evidence for the development of species: that in rocks dated a billion or more years ago there was evidence of bacterial forms, but no higher species, that in eras when reptiles and dinosaurs were the dominant species, there was no fossil record of developed mammals, etc.  (By the way, Fr. Collins made a serious error by saying that cave drawings of early man showed dinosaurs–they did not, the drawings were of mammoths).  Finally, Fr. Collins did not address one of the most important pieces of evidence for common descent, evolution:  the phylogenetic tree  that show sequence of genetic similarities and differences correlating with species evolution.

At the end of his talk, Fr. Collins evaded a question that asked his opinion about cosmological evidence for a universe some 14 billion years old.   His response that a universe had to be that old to allow for evolution and since evolution was not true, this age for the universe was not so did not say why the physical evidence was incorrect.

Final Thoughts

I have written in other posts about this: “Can a faithful Catholic believe in science?” and “God’s Periodic Table and Evolution.” In those articles and this one I argue, along with Pope St. John Paul II, that man is carried to truth on the two wings of faith and reason.   I cannot undertake that cognitive dissonance in which I believe that science tells us the truth about the world on Mondays through Saturdays and Scripture an entirely different story on Sundays;  to put it more succintly in the word of Pope St. John Paul II: “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.    God is not a prankster who plants evidence that would mislead us from a story of Creation given in Genesis that has to be taken as literally true.   The two stories from science and Revelation are the same: “The heavens declare the Glory of God” (Psalm 19A).