Evolution seems like a bad word to many conservative Catholics. And I have to admit that this reputation is justified. Rightly associated with materialistic and atheistic worldviews and connected historically to such things as the eugenics movement, the concept of biological evolution seems to rightly deserve the bad reputation and cold welcome it so often gets in certain circles. The question of life’s origins seems a complete cut and dry atheistic evolution versus Divine creation ball game.
Three years ago that was how I considered the debate. Fresh out of a high school education that primarily used the Protestant creationist Apologia Press Exploring Creation series for science it bothered me a lot to here the words “billions of years” let alone the term “evolution” itself. And so when a professor used these terms in a positive light, as if they were a possibility for a faithful Catholic, for an honest intellectual thinker who was also a faithful Catholic to believe in without contradiction with the Faith my fury arose.
But three years later I now find myself in the middle of writing my senior thesis at Wyoming Catholic College in defense of the idea of evolution. Further, I’m now not just defending evolution as a possibility but going so far as to say that something like the messy, convoluted, billions of years long process which Charles Darwin described to us a century and a half ago might actually be something God might want to use. In other words I’ve come so far as to say that faith and evolution aren’t just compatible, but that our faith might actually lead us to the thing I once thought to abhorrent to even consider.
Interestingly, it all began for me with a sprained ankle, a sign of our materiality and its weakness in this fallen world, or perhaps more properly the merely natural world as well.
I was bothered as I said by the idea of evolution being brought up by our Field Science teacher in the first weeks of our first semester Freshman course. But I was so bothered that I brought it up to an older student I had never met before. The meeting happened by accident. Because I had sprained an ankle a week before I hadn’t gone on a week-long outdoor trip (part of the WCC Experiential/Outdoor Leadership Program ELP/OLP) and, remaining in town instead, I ran into (let’s call him) Ray by accident. Somehow we got onto the topic of the thing I was bothered by, and… Ray wasn’t bothered by evolution!
It bothered me. We didn’t talk that long, not much longer than necessary for me to realize that Ray, even though he had the same high-school education (Mother of Divine Grace homeschool curriculum) the education here at WCC had led him in only a year to accepting evolution as a possibility.
Throughout the next year or so I talked several more times with Ray, not understanding much but continually piqued with an interest in understanding what could have convinced him to “jump ship” to accepting evolution’s compatibility with the faith.
Nothing of what he had said again made any sense at all until I took some of the sophomore courses he was attempting to describe (and I was failing to understand) but my interest was deepened in trying to see what he had seen with a view towards disproving it and keeping the (in my mind) seemingly more logically honest and faithful account of literal seven-day creationism.
It didn’t work out that way.
Rather three steps brought me towards reversing my position entirely over the last two years.
Step 1: God as the Cause of Causes
Theology 202: Creation and Providence at Wyoming Catholic College covers Aquinas’ account in his Compendium Theologiae of the effects of Divinity, the Divine Nature and the Trinity being the focus of the prior semester. Here I realized the true limits of imagination when considering what humans and the causes we see around us do versus what God can and does do.
Too often we limit causality, that is one thing changing or affecting another to merely the types of changes and motions we see around us. Since what we see around us is typically of a forming, molding, moving, etc. type, the mode of a craftsman who works with preexisting material and merely changes its external appearances, this view often falsely colors our imagination including even how we consider God’s action.
Here, we (as I did before) falsely suppose that it is necessary to separate a transcendent “poof” moment of Divine causality creating out of nothing the the first instant of time and space from subsequent operations, motion, and changes. I falsely thought of the two as separate which led me to see the second as God acting on the level and in the manner of a creature, molding and shaping the universe and the creatures inside it like we would Play-Dough or LEGO bricks.
However, as Aquinas’ account shows God is both more transcendent and more proximate and present than our imagination thinks could be possible. God does not merely call matter, time and things into existence, play around with them for a week and let them do their thing for millenia (or billions of years). Rather He is the continuously causal principle of their existence and operation. When you, me, or anyone raises their hand, throws a ball, or shoots a squirrel we are truly acting by moving around and reshaping matter to correspond to an activity initiated by our will. However, simultaneously to our acting God is also the cause of that motion. He gives it being, He sustains in existence the beings which are giving and receiving the motion and He confirms the end result in existence.
Furthermore God does this not in some, vague, general, or absent sort of way, but particularly and proximately, embracing every action, creature, atom, molecule or force ever in existence or ever to exist.
God is not just a really big cause, but a transcendent cause because His causality includes causing things to themselves also be real causes (in a mysterious way that is partly the subject of Kathy Swift’s upcoming Thesis).
This doesn’t in itself prove evolution by any means, but thinking about God’s causality more broadly and properly in the way this course helped me to achieve was the first step towards where I am now. For if the action of secondary causes operates only because of and through the simultaneous causality of the First Cause (God) then it is possible perhaps to say that maybe evolution happened by God using the secondary causes of matter, motion, and later bacteria, lizards, and dinosaurs to move matter around. Since God is ultimately the cause of the motion and activity in these causes, we can say that God is acting by sustaining the ordinary natural operations of the things we see around us (that is, He causes with mediation by natural creatures) just as much when he miraculously intervenes above the regular order of nature (that is, He acts without mediation).
Many Catholics trying to reconcile evolution to the Catholic faith stop here (like the author of Thomistic Evolution, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco), confident that they’ve proved compatibility between the two, showing that natural agents can be completely responsible for the production and origins of living creatures and simultaneously God is wholly acting by causing their operation. However, things are a little messier in reality as I later realized myself.
Step 2: Substantial Change Versus Accidental Change (and what can cause each properly speaking)
Fr. Chad Ripperger for one objects to this simple account of reconciliation between evolution and the Faith by questioning the limits of what natural agents even if they are to quote a saying “doing the Lords work” can actually do. Living things aren’t just mere arrangements of matter alone, but something active, something more than the individual properties of the parts which make them up. Philosophically we call this “something more” a substantial form, in the case of human beings we call it the soul (and sometimes for other living things as well). This is the principle of activity, that which makes the thing to be living, that makes the living thing’s eye to actually see, the flower to grow, etc. It is that in a thing which makes it able to perform its natural operations, to receive inputs (matter, air, sunlight, sense inputs, … grace) from the outside and to perform actions or move outwards (growing, moving, communicating, knowing). But as Fr. Ripperger objects such a principle cannot come directly from the mere action of material agents because it is not something material but a principle forming and acting upon matter to make it more than the matter was by itself. There is more to his objections, available at the website of the Kolbe Center: The Metaphysical Impossibility of Human Evolution but in general this seems to impose a limit on evolutionary change such that no new nature, no new kind of living being could ever be produced by the process.
And so, after an overenthusiastic month when I thought my reading of Aquinas made the question of evolution all simple and straightforward it all seemed too convoluted and messy. Until that is I accidentally came across an old lecture of one of my professors, one that he hadn’t mentioned to me even when I asked him about the question of evolution: Dr. Michael Bolin: And Man Became A Living Being: The Genesis of Substantial Form
Bolin’s lecture (the “Bolin Thesis”) proposes to answer Fr. Ripperger’s objection that evolution is metaphysically impossible and is in one way extremely simple and in another sense so complicated that even after months of pondering and discussing it I’m still not convinced that I fully understand it. However, here’s a quick try. Whenever a new living being comes into existence the matter can be given by secondary causes, that is things in nature, but God always gives the substantial form directly (Technical clarification that I’ve since found important: Without mediation by secondary causes but not as a miracle because this is simply the way God has set up the natural world).
In other words God gives the soul and natural agents supply the matter. God makes a thing to be actually alive at the time and place where natural agents have arranged matter so as to be properly disposed for God to act. In a way we already see this to be true with regard to human reproduction. According to the Catholic Church’s teaching (and sound logic) we already must hold that God directly provides the human soul at the moment of conception with the human parents providing the matter, properly arranged, for God to gift something more than that matter, that being the soul which makes it an actually living human being.
Again this idea is quite difficult to actually imagine properly and precisely, but it is a sort of silver bullet that opens the door anew for the idea of evolution and Divine causality. God in the viewpoint stemming from this account (which Dr. Bolin provides proofs for in his lecture) sets up the “nature” of matter to have the potential of taking on different substantial forms, or that is, more properly, being formed by them. But if the giving of a certain substantial form in the order of nature as a whole, something coming alive follows upon a certain proper disposition or arrangement of matter then it is possible perhaps for two creatures of one nature to be the parents of an offspring of a different nature, of a different nature. Perhaps even natural causes that are not living could be conceived of as providing the appropriate arrangement of matter for the bestowal of the first living substantial form, the first life. Here we could then even say that natural causes alone, operating over aeons, can explain the origin of living things as origins can be described scientifically. We must still invoke God as the metaphysical cause, that is boththe cause of the substantial form existing and forming the matter of each living thing without mediation and with mediation as the cause of the process of formation. God, working transcendentally outside of time is the cause of the being of a thing, evolution and natural causes, it is possible for us to say, are instrumental causes within the order of time.
Looking at the situation from the perspective of the Aristotelian Four Causes, material, formal, efficient and final we can also say that evolution offers a partial explanation for the material and efficient causes of a thing (the only causes which science as it is done in the modern sense can probe) while direct unmediated Divine action, that is, creation explains the formal and final causes of a thing.
Step 3: The Gratuitous Gift
But I still have not yet gotten to the most important part of all this, the why. All I have really said so far explains why evolution is compatible with Divine creation. I have not yet answered the question of why it is true. In a way this is itself two questions. We can ask why something is the way it is from the perspective of the cause of its being. Or we can ask why something is true from the perspective of our knowledge. For evolution this splits into the two distinct but related questions of first, why God would or would not have wanted to use a process like biological evolution in creating and second, why we might come to think evolution is true.
Most researchers and writers on the topic of evolution focus on the second question, my upcoming senior thesis intends to focus on the first. Even though most people come to know a truth to evolution, to believe it, based on scientific evidence pointing towards that fact, I’ve changed my position on the subject and am now writing my thesis on it due to my conclusions on why God would want evolution to be true.
I have come to accept and believe that something like biological evolution happened because of the way it makes other parts of the Faith make more sense, how it seems, that is, as something God would want to do given what we know of the purpose of creation.
God creates for the sake of His glory and goodness, that it might be manifested and shone forth as best as possible in things that by their existence and activity point back towards Him and reflect His perfections as St. Thomas Aquinas also tells us. Among visible material beings this means that a multiplicity of interrelated objects ordered by Divine Wisdom and Providence together represent more perfectly what they less perfectly imitate alone.
This means that visible things inasmuch as they better reflect their Creator, better transmit His glory and act as signs pointing back towards Him, making by an order of wisdom in their operation a beauty that shines forth an image of the Divine goodness,
And to me this is what evolution, as in the account I have above began to outline does.
Evolution makes creatures causes, not only of something of their own nature, as we see in ordinary natural generation, but of beings of a different nature entirely. They are not causes in a complete creative sense, but in supplying and arranging matter for the creation of a new creature of a different nature they are a cause of the coming into being of the complete creature. They act, and God bestows to them the honor of contributing to something more than what is deserved by their nature, the normal operation of which is static, merely reproducing their own natural kind.
Instead they receive a gratuitous gift. God as knowable naturally to us, is primarily known as the first cause of all being and existence, giving by creating not out of any necessity but completely, freely willed for the sake of His glory and goodness. Thus the best and closest approach that can be made by a creature in its existence and activity is to be a cause of being and goodness to others, to be a cause like unto God in the grand sweep of history and Salvation, a return of the creature to God, God reaching down and creation reaching up (see also St. John of the Cross’s Romances on the Incarnation).
Evolution in my mind thus accomplishes this. God shares an imitation of His causality to creatures and is thus more highly exalted by having created a better cosmos that more perfectly represents His nature as a gratuitous giver.
As C.S. Lewis writes in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays:
“For He seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures. He commands us to do slowly and blunderingly what He could do perfectly and in the twinkling of an eye. He allows us to neglect what He would have us do, or to fail. Perhaps we do not fully realize the problem, so to call it, of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication. We are not mere recipients or spectators. We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work, “to wield our little tridents.” Is this amazing process simply Creation going on before our eyes? This is how (no light matter) God makes something—indeed, makes gods—out of nothing.”
Evolution being true to me carries weight because knowledge of its truth carries practical implications for us. Evolution tells us of a Divine abdication, God making living creatures, sharers in what He might more easily do Himself for the sake of Divine glory. What evolution tells and underlines for us, however, is the theme I’ve been exploring on this site this summer. God is in control and His creatures have to participate. Evolution and creation end in man who is the culmination of all material creation, the only creature the Church tells us, who exists for His own sake, with all other creatures existing for the sake of man. But man exists still for the sake of the Divine glory, which he supports and enables by reaching back to God, attaining the Beatific Vision in heaven. As Lewis tells us, even though the whole story is a tale of God’s “We are either privileged to share in the game or compelled to collaborate in the work.” We need to act. “We are not mere recipients or spectators.”
We need ourselves to become gratuitous givers of being to others by following God’s will, whether that be in the natural order by literally giving being to other future sharers of the Beatific Vision through procreation within the Sacrament of Marriage or on the supernatural order by being a cause of grace coming to be in others.
I have further arguments for why evolution is true and why God would want to use it that go beyond this and that I will likely bring up in my thesis or oration. However, I’m writing my senior thesis in support of God willing to use evolution, because it is my belief that to use part of a saying in a different context, evolution charges the world with the grandeur of God, and underlines our mission now to continue to let this grandeur shine forth in our own lives.