A case study in the battle over evolution

An issue of the Italian journal La Civilta Cattolica is seen at the Vatican in this 2013 file photo.
CNS photo/Paul Haring

The Vatican journal run by the Jesuits named La Civiltá Cattolica recently published an article about the American political situation that has caused waves to ripple internationally. (The authors described what they saw as worrisome convergences between certain apocalyptic forms of American evangelicalism and some contemporary Catholic ideologies, contrasting these tendencies with the teachings and global strategy of Pope Francis.)

A column on faith and science is not the appropriate place for me to offer opinions on that piece. But I introduce the topic at hand because the journal plays a large role in the issues I do wish to explore. What follows is not to be read as commentary on the competency of the current journal, but rather as a historical case study.

La Civiltá Cattolica (CC) was founded in 1850 and remains the only Catholic publication to be vetted by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State before publication. Thus, it has long been viewed as an unofficial organ of the papacy, in a way different from L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper.

Charles Darwin

In the late 1800s, CC was instrumental in the Catholic response to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Australian scholar Barry Brundell explored their archives to trace the story in a fascinating article for The British Journal for the History of Science.

As the growth of the historical-critical method in biblical studies, the political realities of the French Revolution and the Risorgimento, and the growth in natural and social sciences like archeology, geology and biology confronted the ecclesial order in the 19th century, thinkers — like the French Dominican Father M.D. Leroy and American Notre Dame Professor of Physics Father John Augustine Zahm, CSC — sought to reconcile Christianity with Darwin’s theories.

Popes Pius IX (1846-78) and Leo XIII (1878-1903) were locked in a furious battle with liberal and anti-clerical forces in Europe, and Italy in particular. Pius had moments where he seemed open to engaging the social and intellectual developments of his day in various ways, but it cannot be disputed that he far more frequently called upon Catholics to resist the incursions into the status quo.

Leo was more amenable to the sciences and advocated a (largely Thomist) theological engagement with them.

Yet, the reactionary forces of a small clique of highly influential Roman Jesuits — who Brundell found were in fact clustered around CC at the time — convinced the pope to remain consistently negative and anti-conciliatory toward any supposed conflict with Christian beliefs. This small but powerful group of thinkers, motivated by fear and political unrest, have unfortunately had a lasting legacy on the way theology and evolution are viewed even unto our own day.

The turn against Leroy and Zahm, and evolution more broadly, did not represent the wider theological discourse of the day. The persistence of a relatively small group caused a severe “dissonance between the centre of Catholicism and the periphery” where intellectual and moderate thinkers were open to Darwin’s theories. In fact, a few American bishops, like O’Connell, Gibbons and Ireland visited Rome frequently to try to ease these tensions and the growing condemnation of “Americanist” ideas, as well as to defend Zahm in particular.

It was the editors of CC who are largely seen to have blunted the papal and curial willingness to see what the scientists had to say. This obstructionist path was, thank God, only temporary.

Subsequent popes like Pius X, Pius XII and John XXIII came to recognize the possibility that Darwin’s theories did not discount the Bible’s salvific, if not literal, truth. Paul VI challenged theologians to interpret original sin in a way that did not summarily preclude polygenism: the idea that life sprang up in multiple places simultaneously and not from one unique set of primordial parents. John Paul II went even further, implicitly accepting evolution (he once called it “more than just a hypothesis”) while continuing to insist upon the direct creation of the soul by God.

Brundell claims that the church, whether those reactionary forces liked it or not, was and is a part of the modern world. “Thus views that were officially censured at the end of the 19th century were officially adopted at the end of the 20th by the highest teaching authority in the Catholic Church.” A not uncommon occurrence if you study church history. And yet today we live with the legacy of casual observers thinking the Catholic Church defends creationism because of the vociferous voices of a miniscule number of well-intentioned but certainly ill-informed men.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.