The history of theology and Darwinian evolutionary theory continues to attract significant attention by historians, philosophers and theologians. Michael Chaberek’s latest book, Catholicism and Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis, takes up this history in a fresh and detailed way. In addition, Chaberek’s new EPS web contribution, “Thomas Aquinas and Theistic Evolution,” hones in on the arguments for and against use of Aquinas in the evolution debate. In an EPS interview with Chaberek, he unpacks both contributions and their implications. Here is an excerpt from that interview:
Given debates among ‘creationists,’ ‘theistic evolutionists’ and ‘intelligent design’ advocates, what can each potentially learn from your book?
In my book Catholicism and Evolution I offer a different typology: Young Earth Creationists, Progressive Creationists, Theistic Evolutionists and Atheistic Evolutionists. These four groups include all positions in the current debate regarding the origin of species. As you see, there aren’t intelligent design advocates, because one can find them among all “theistic groups” (although theoretically even atheists can adopt the basic claims of intelligent design theory).
What is the relationship between intelligent design theory and a theological framework?
My division is made with reference to a theological standpoint whereas intelligent design is a scientific theory and, as such, is essentially independent from any particular theological views. The book Catholicism and Evolution is mostly historical, covering only the post-Darwinian debates about evolution.
How does your book develop?
The introductory part deals with the controversy within natural science. Its climax is marked by the emergence of the intelligent design theory. The core of the book presents theological debates regarding evolution in the Catholic Church. Two great stages are clearly distinguishable – first is an explicit rejection of the evolutionary story whether in its atheistic or theistic form. The second stage is a moderate acceptance of the theistic form of evolution in the Church. However, even this acceptance is not quite explicit; it leaves many questions opened and is not accompanied by a rejection of either of the competing ideas (i.e. Young Earth Creationism and Progressive Creationism).
How does your perspective differ from other books on the history of this debate?
Unlike the majority of the books on the topic, my goal was not to diminish the initial rejection of the Darwinian theory by the Church and then highlight its acceptance in contemporary theology, but to present the “true” history including both the initial resistance to theistic evolution and the current confusion in the Church on this issue.
How do present debates about science and theology, especially the topic of origins, reflect past developments?
When we look to the past we see a battlefield packed with dead ideas and arguments, and smoke after fiery debates. When we look into the present we do not see a definite answer to the question of the origin of species and the human body in particular. These facts make believers ask a few questions: Can Catholic doctrine evolve to the degree of a complete abandonment of a given truth of faith? Is Revelation so vague and vulnerable to scientific scrutiny that at the end of the day we cannot say anything positive about origins based on Revelation alone? Does the Bible provide us only with moral teachings on how to get to heaven, or does it also shape our worldview, that is, our understanding of the beginnings and the destination of physical reality? As a detailed historical description of ongoing theological debates, my book provides a factographical knowledge which is an indispensable though insufficient tool to resolve these greater questions.
How does your EPS web paper extend your book’s discussion?
Catholicism and Evolution recounts the evolutionary debate of the past 150 years. To provide the full Catholic answer to Darwin’s theory we need to refer to the broader Catholic tradition, specifically the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Darwin tried to justify his grand metaphysical claims about universal common ancestry, transformation of species and the animal origin of the human body by employing some biological facts (like bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics) and laws (like natural selection).
How might Thomists respond?
Today, many Thomists accept those facts and laws, and they think that they indeed justify Darwinian metaphysics, i.e., those grand claims about the universal common ancestry or the transformation of species. Besides, many Thomists accept the theologically unfounded premise that the natural history of the universe cannot contain the so-called “physical leaps”. In other words, they assume that God did not act supernaturally in the natural history of the universe. In order to defend those Darwinian grand claims and the natural explanation of the whole history of the universe, they try to employ Aquinas’ ideas.
Why might some Thomists thinks that defense is needed or compelling?
Some Thomists are honestly bothered by the fact that if Aquinas’ teachings were incompatible with biological macroevolution then either Thomas or evolution must be wrong. Because they believe in evolution and also do not want to challenge the theory reigning in science, they choose to reinterpret Aquinas’ doctrine and show how it is “compatible” or “leaves room” for Darwinian metaphysics.
In my paper, I show that Aquinas’ metaphysics is incompatible with and in fact, contradicts Darwinian metaphysics. And this is true regardless of whether or not one agrees with Aquinas and even regardless of whether or not Aquinas was right.
So, is there a need for a ‘renewal’ of the Catholic theology of creation to address contemporary scientific advances and challenges? If so, what might the contours of that look like?
There is a twofold reason why such a “renewal” is necessary. First, modern science really enriched our understanding of the origins of the visible universe. For instance, throughout the centuries there were two interpretative traditions of the Genesis account. One was attributed to St. Ambrose. According to him different species of living beings were created independently over a time, which Genesis calls “six days”. Another tradition was attributed to St. Augustine. According to him, species were also created distinct from each other but their creation happened in one moment at the beginning of time. Some of them were created in a developed and other in a hidden form or seminal reasons (Lat. rationes seminales).
How does Aquinas factor into this historical theology?
When Thomas Aquinas summarizes the Christian interpretative traditions, he says that he would defend both, and that they agree in their essential points (i.e., supernatural creation of species as distinct since their inception). Modern knowledge in paleontology, however, shows that plants and animals appeared on Earth successively over a long time. This strongly favors the Ambrosian tradition over the Augustinian one. Apparently, contemporary knowledge enables us to settle the question of which of the two traditional interpretations of Genesis is closer to the truth.
What is the other reason for a renewal?
The second reason why the renewal is necessary stems from the fact that the traditional doctrine of creation has been nearly completely abandoned in contemporary Christianity. Even in the seminaries and theological departments, the classic theological treatise “On Creation” (De Deo Creante or De Creatione) has been replaced with the teaching about different science-faith models and vague speculations about “God working entirely through secondary causes”. In Biblical scholarship the historical and literal meaning of Genesis (1-3) was abandoned, giving place to all kinds of reductive interpretations. But new science shows how little the Darwinian mechanism can actually accomplish.
Paleontology reveals striking discontinuity in the fossil record. Thus at the beginning of the 21st century, biological facts stripped of theoretical interpretation encourage us to return to the classic Christian doctrine on creation. There is no contradiction between natural facts and the belief in creation – the contradiction is between the doctrine of creation and evolutionary theory, that is, an abstract construct built upon (or even regardless of) the facts. The renewed teaching on creation needs to take into account both the best scientific discoveries and traditional theological interpretations.
Fr. Michael Chaberek O.P. is a fundamental theologian, and author of Catholicism and Evolution (Angelico Press, 2015).