By John A. Hardon, S.J.
Origin and Nature of Man
The history of Christian thought is not a straight line, but a waving curve, as the mysteries of faith move through time and adjust themselves (without collision) to new discoveries and ideas created by the human mind. Man’s origin and his nature are classic examples of such an adjustment without compromise of the known data of revelation.
Body of the First Man. Until modern times there were two principal areas of controversy about the origin of Adam’s body. One theory required angelic co-operation in the process; the other discussed the question of how precisely God formed the body of the first man, whether in an instant or progressively through different stages of development.
Mentioning the above is important because it clarifies what may still be unknown to some, that the theory of evolution is an ancient one in Catholic theological circles. Charles Darwin (1809-82) undoubtedly sparked a new era in anthropology and allied sciences, but Darwinism as such has only a minimal impact on Catholic thought, whereas it struck many believers in evangelical Protestantism like a tornado. The issue raised by latter-day evolutionists directly affected the interpretation of the Bible, notably the first three chapters of Genesis. Christians who had only the biblical texts as their guide, and no extrabiblical tradition or less an authoritative Church, were left with only the literal words of Scripture. It was not enough to cope with the rising tide of criticism from scientific quarters, which made the simple narrative of Genesis look like another cosmological myth.
The First Vatican Council made sure that total evolutionism, which included an evolving go, was condemned as only a more subtle form of pantheism. When it came to define man’s origin, it merely repeated what had been declared six centuries earlier against the resurgent Manichaeism of the Albigensians, namely that, after having made the angelic and material world, God “formed the creature man, who in a way belongs to both orders, as he is composed of spirit and body. 
There the subject still stands, doctrinally, except for two interventions by Pius XII generated by the controversy among Catholic theologians about the evolution of man’s body. The first declaration was made in 1941, when the Pope identified three “elements [that] must be retained as certainly attested by the sacred author [of Genesis], without any possibility of allegorical interpretation.” These are:
1. The essential superiority of man in relation to other animals, by reason of his spiritual soul.
2. The derivation in some way of the first woman from the first man.
3. The impossibility that the immediate father or progenitor of man could have been the son of an animal, generated by the latter in the proper sense of the term. In context, the statement reads, “Only from a man can another man descend, whom he can call father and progenitor.” On other questions concerning the origin of man, the Pontiff said, we must wait for more light from science, illumined and guided by revelation. The “other questions” still open for development include the degree in which a lower species may have co-operated in the formation of the first man, the way in which Eve was formed from Adam, and the age of the human race.
Ten years later, faced with rise of scientism and historicism, the Holy See expressed itself at length on the controversial subject of evolution. This was the first time in the Church’s history that papal authority entered at such length into the issue. It highlighted the growing tension between the findings and speculations of the natural sciences and the presuppositions of faith.
“The magisterium of the Church does not forbid that the theory of evolution concerning the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that human souls are immediately created by God—be investigated and discussed by experts as far as the present state of human science and sacred theology allow.
“However, this must be done in such a way that the arguments on both sides, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary gravity, moderation and discretion. And let all be prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of safeguarding the dogmas of faith.
“On the other hand, those go too far and transgress this liberty of discussion who act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already fully demonstrated by the facts discovered up to now and by the reasoning on them, and as if there nothing in the sources of revelation which demands the greatest reserve and caution in this controversy.”
What is the position of Genesis on evolution? In the first narrative of human creation, the sacred author clearly excludes materialistic evolution, as though the soul of man derived naturally from the body. But nothing is directly affirmed as to how the body of Adam was formed. The second creation text about Adam, although very anthropomorphic, is too detailed and contrasts too strongly with the origin of other creatures (below man) not to imply that God acted in a special way when he brought the body of the first man into being.
Before modern evolutionary theories were in vogue, the ancient Fathers and later Doctors of the Church, along with theologians, held that some special action of God was operative in the formation of the first man’s body; this was distinct from the ordinary co-operation of the First Cause with the physical causes built into nature. Only two main questions were raised prior to modern evolutionism: whether and to what extent God used above natural agencies, like angelic, in the formation of Adam’s body; and whether the “dust from the soil” of Genesis implied a body divinely prepared beforehand to receive a rational soul before actual infusion, or whether the body was predisposed for receiving a spirit in the very act when God “breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being" (Gn. 2:7).
But since the theories of evolution have been popularized, theologians have come to agree that transformism, or the evolution of the first man’s body from a lower species, is compatible with the faith. Two provisos are added, however: that the soul was immediately created by God out of nothing, and that somehow God exercised a special providence over whatever process preceded the origin of man’s body, so that the first man was not literally generated by a brute beast.
Evolutionary Theories. In view of the widespread evolutionary attitude in modern thought, and its impact on the Christian faith, something should be said to clarify this posture and place it into theological perspective. Deriving as it does from experiment and reflection, evolution is one of the main sources of apparent conflict between faith and reason about which the First Vatican Council made a memorable declaration:
“Although faith is above reason, yet there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, because it is the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith, and has put the light of reason into the human soul. Now God cannot deny himself any more than the truth can ever contradict the truth.
“However, the chief source of this apparent contradiction lies in the fact that dogmas of faith have not been understood and explained according to the mind of the Church, or that deceptive assertions of opinions are accepted as axioms of reason. Therefore, “We define that every assertion opposed to the enlightened truth of faith is entirely false.”
Anyone familiar with the trends of current thought recognizes the need for transparency in this matter of evolution, at the risk of either professing an unenlightened faith or of making unfounded assertions of reason in opposition to the faith.
We may summarily divide evolutionary theories into three categories: those dealing with the origin of the inanimate universe, those referring to the origin of organic life apart from man, and those concerned with the origin of man.
1. For the cosmogonist, there are numerous tentative explanations of how the elements of the material universe came into being. All of them postulate the pre-existence of some kind of material substance out of which, on evolutionary grounds, ever more complex substances evolved. The two most commonly held are the “big bang” and the stellar formation theories. According to the first hypothesis, the elements were formed when some of the neutrons (infinitesimally small uncharged particles), which then captured the remaining neutrons to form the heavier elements. This was to have taken place in the first half hour of the universe. According to the second hypothesis, the formation of the elements came about by a synthesis caused by nuclear reactions in the stars that had already been formed.
If one postulates an evolution of the elements, it generally implies the evolution of the stars and galaxies. Galaxies are composed of numerous stars, and stars change in their energy content by radiation. Some lose mass, some burn out, some undergo fission into two or three stars, some capture meteors, but they all lose mass and available energy by what is now called the universal law of entropy. Thus the cosmic energy from the stellar regions (including our sun) is “burning out” in the sense that there is an increase of unavailable energy in the universe.
Some scientists have speculated, on admittedly slight evidence, that this “burning out” of the universe is partly balanced by the formation of new stars out of a gas and dust and the explosive transformation of unstable stellar bodies. In either case, “evolution” means the only the continuous natural history of stellar bodies.
The origin of planets, including the earth, also has a variety of hypothetical explanations, but with one factor in common: The planets are derivatives from the stars. It is fairly agreed that the earth and the other planets are about four and a half billion years old, the age of samples of moon rock brought back to the earth. The oldest rocks on earth are estimated at a billions years below that figure.
2. About the origin of life there have been as many theories as about the beginnings of the universe. One is superseded by another. The case for spontaneous generation came to a dramatic close with the experiments of Louis Pasteur (1822-95). The cosmozoic theory claims that life existed from the beginning as minute spores, which were transported throughout the cosmos by way of meteorites. But the intense heat and cold in outer space make it virtually impossible that such spores could survive. The virus theory is based on the paradoxical nature of viruses, which have a simple chemical composition and no not respire; but they can reproduce and metabolize when joined with the host organism upon which they act as parasites. Some therefore argued that the virus must be at an advanced stage in the development of life because it depends on a living organism for its “life” as a parasite and cannot be at the beginning of the process of life’s origins. But most scholars, while agreeing that the virus is a unique combination of life and nonlife, concede that this is more of a description of what now strangely exists than of how life originally came into being.
The most commonly held theory among evolutionists is some form of biopoesis (from the Greek bios [life] and poiein [to make]). It was given prominence by the discovery that certain nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) appear to be the key materials in all terrestrial forms of life. Yet this too is recognized by research scientists to be most hypothetical, as reported to the Darwin Centennial Celebration, by comparison with the mounting evidence in favor of organic evolution below the human species.
3. The origin of man in the evolutionary scheme must be immediately distinguished between two very different theories. One theory among scientists holds that the accumulating evidence for the evolutionary process of plant and animal life has also played its role in the origin of man from the physical or bodily side of his nature. But this theory insists there is equally strong evidence that man’s psychological; side, his mind and free will, is something new, unique, and of a different order than the products of the evolutionary process.
Another theory believes that the whole of man evolved by a process totally within nature, from the lower-animal organisms. Swept along by the converging arguments which suggest that man’s physical being is part of the ongoing development of life, those who favor this hypothesis rest their case with Darwin on some variant of his own confession of a difficulty and assertion of an unprovable claim.
“The high standard of our intellectual powers, and moral disposition is the greatest difficulty which presents itself, after we have been driven to this conclusion on the origin of man.
“But everyone who admits the principle of evolution must see that the mental powers of the higher animals, which are the same in kind with those of man, though so different in degree, are capable of advancement.”
Certainly if we apply, as an axiom of philosophy, the theory of evolution to everything, then it is only a logical deduction that man’s body and soul evolved (in Darwin’s words) “from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arborial in its habits.” But even scientific data from cultural anthropology do not support the theory. They rather indicate that man was man, and not a mere animal, from the earliest known archaeological remains that we have. He was capable of thought and had volitional powers completely unlike the pure animal instincts of the irrational species. The bridge between man and animal cannot be crossed by factual evidence. It can only be spanned by evolutionism, which denies that spirit is essentially distinct from matter and must be uniquely created by God.
Unity of the Human Race. Evolutionary thinking has also influenced the attitude toward unitary origin of the present human race from a single man. There had been scattered speculation in past centuries, like the theory that people had existed before Adam. Present-day human beings are the offspring of these pre-Adamites. But concerted challenges did not arise until Darwinism had taken root in Western thought. Polygenists, as they are called, believe that an evolutionary hypothesis of man’s origin requires the parallel belief that transition from the animal to the human body was accomplished not in one man and one woman, but in many.
As must seem immediately clear, there is more at stake than a mere question of historical fact, whether the human race actually descended from one man by natural generation. Nor is the Church concerned to prove anything from paleontology or other scientific data. It is to safeguard certain principles of revealed doctrine.
Thus if we are commonly descended from our first parents, we are brothers and sisters in the flesh, with consequences that affect human relations on every level of society. And in spite of numerous differences, we not only share the same human nature but are literally bound together by ties of blood, which our native instinct, elevated by grace, makes the basis of social justice and charity.
This in turn lays the ground for the supernatural kinship of spirit, which finds expression in the Mystical Body, where grace sublimates the natural bond of the human family by raising it to communion with God under the headship of Jesus Christ.
From still another point of view, our common descent from Adam affects and explains our inheritance of original sin. It is just because we are naturally the offspring of the first man who sinned that, what he contracted, we receive by paternal generation. Conversely, even as we inherit sin from the father of mankind in the flesh, we are redeemed by the passion and death of Christ because he, too, was a descendant of Adam. The human nature that Christ assumed was not by carnal intercourse, but through Mary it was truly human and therefore like to Adam’s and ours in all things but sin. Christ could therefore redeem what Adam had lost, because as man he was grafted into the same human tree, which had become infected by sin.
“Sin entered the world through one man, and through sin death. . . . Adam prefigured the One to come, but the gift itself outweighed the fall. If it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift. . . . Again as one man’s fall brought condemnation on everyone, so the good act of one man brings everyone life and makes them justified. As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rm. 5:12, 15, 18-19).
When speculation about man’s evolutionary origins reached a peak in the midtwentieth century, Pius XII reminded scholars that theorizing about the descent of man’s body from primates was one thing, but questioning whether the first parent of mankind was a single person is something else:
“As regards another theory, however, namely so-called Polygenism, sons of the Church by no means enjoy the same liberty. No Catholic can hold that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from the first parent of all, or that Adam was merely a symbol for a number of first parents. For it is unintelligible how such an opinion can be squared with what the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the magisterium of the Church teach on original sin, which proceeds from sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, passed on to all by way of generation, is in everyone as his own”
As a matter of historical record, the possibility of evolution of man’s body was put forth already in the patristic age; so that evolution properly understood is not a modern innovation. According to Gregory of Nyssa, commenting on Genesis, when “Scripture says that man arose last of all the animated beings,” it “is simply giving us a philosophical lesson about souls, seeing the most complete perfection realized in the beings formed last of all, because of a certain necessary succession of order.” We are thus being taught that “nature is elevated by degrees as it were, that is through the varieties of life from the lower stages up to the perfect.” There are similar passages in Augustine to the effect that “Adam was made from the earth, but in such a way that in the making, and the growth through the ages, the same periods of time would have been occupied which we now see required by the nature of the human species.” Augustine personally favored the idea that Adam came into the world at once in full maturity, but Augustine left quite open the theory that Adam’s body could have been the end effect of a long process similar (on a large scale to the development of an embryo in the womb.
Yet Augustine recognized the datum of revelation about the reality and not the mere symbolism, and the oneness, and not plurality, of the first ancestor of the human family. This suggests that the real irritant regarding the origin of man is not so much Monogenism or Polygenism. It is the mystery of original sin.
32. Fourth Lateran Council, On the Catholic Faith: Denzinger 428 (800); First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, 1: Denzinger 1783 (3002).
33. Pius XII, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Nov. 30, 1941): Pius XII, encyclical Humani Generis: Denzinger 2327 (3896).
34. Pius XII, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Nov. 30, 1941).
35. Pius XII, encyclical Humani Generis: Denzinger 2327 (3896).
36. First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, 4: Denzinger 1797 (3017)
37. Evolution After Darwin, ed. Sol Tax (University of Chicago Press, 1960, Vol. I, 45.
38. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, III, 2.
40. Pius XII, encyclical Humani Generis: Denzinger 2328 (3897).
41. St. Gregory of Nyssa, De Opificio Hominis, 8.
42. St. Augustine, De Genesi ad Litteram, VI, 8.
43. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II, passim.
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