The New Evolutionary Theology

John B. Shea
June 14, 2002
Catholic Insight
Reproduced with Permission

The Jesuit weekly magazine America has published two highly controversial articles concerning the Catholic faith, "Creationism and the Catechism" by Sr. Joan Acker. (Dec, 16, 2000) and "Evolution, Evil and Original Sin", by Daryl P. Domning (Nov. 12, 2001). Sister Acker is a professor at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Daryl Domning is a professor of Marine Mammal Science at Howard University, Washington, D.C. He is an expert in the evolution of land animals to sea animals.

These authors raise complex issues which require careful analysis and discussion.

The major problematic statements made in these papers are summarized as follows: That the Catholic Church's interpretation of the Bible is that of a biblical fundamentalism, which is based on a simplistic notion of creationism in which evolution is rejected.1 That the teaching that Adam and Eve were created in a state of holiness and justice from which they fell because they disobeyed God is a myth.2 Also the descent of all nations from one human ancestor is denied, as are also both the original sin of that ancestor and its consequences, death, suffering and man's inclination towards evil.3

Even though the idea of Adam as our ancestor (monogenesis) is rejected, it is nevertheless maintained that mankind, together with all other animals, share a common ancestor. This ancestor, they tell us, is not Adam, but must be placed, not at the origin of the human race, but at the origin of life itself, three to four billion years ago. Scientists assume that at the beginning all life forms contained genes. According to later, post-Darwinian, evolutionary theory, the only organisms which eventually survived were those in which their genes had randomly changed (mutated) in such a way as to favor their survival and reproduction. This theory is held despite the fact that mutations almost always are harmful or neutral in effect. As Daryl Domning puts it, these genes enforced "selfish behaviour" on the organism, and this ensured survival of the fittest by a process of "natural selection". All animal behaviour is attributed to Darwin's natural selection. Animals are said to demonstrate not only aggression, but deceit, theft, exploitation, infanticide, cannibalism, and even pride. There is, they say, no human behaviour that we call "sin" that is not found in animals. We, having free will and knowing right from wrong, would sin if we did these things. The implication is that our tendency to sin is simply inherited genetically and is not related to original sin.4

Daryl Domning tells us that the idea that we inherited our tendency to behave badly came from animals was, as it were, an Aesop's fable until the last 30 years when researchers documented quantitative knowledge about how animals really act in the wild and among themselves.5 Richard Dawkins popularized the idea that selfish behaviour is entirely the result of heredity in his book 'The Selfish Gene' (1989). This idea is not really new. It is as old as Darwin himself, who wrote in 1872, after comparing the behaviour of various animals with infants and tribal peoples all over the world, that human affection, sympathy, parental love, morality and even religious feelings, as well as rage and violence, guilt, pride and contempt have been inherited from "Grandfather Baboon".6

The God of these authors in the America magazine is not the transcendent and omnipotent God of Judeo-Christian revelation and tradition, but is reduced, in accordance with their evolutionary theology, to the status of one who is powerless against Darwin's "iron law" of natural selection. (Origin of Species, 1859). This evolutionary God is one who "trusts creation to operate with genuine autonomy".7 Since autonomy means self-directing freedom and moral independence, its presence implies an intelligence which can distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, and a free will. Hence these authors seem to ascribe an intelligence and a free will to the physical cosmos. Their theology also appears to be pantheistic and to contradict Church teaching which states that a free will was given only to angels and men, who are spiritual beings.

John Haught, a prominent advocate of evolution theology, receives approval, as does "the trail blazed by" Teilhard de Chardin.8,9 Of the latter, it is stated that he "saw long ago that 'the problem of evil, insoluble in the case of a static universe', is no more than a pseudo problem, which does not even arise. (italics mine) in the case of an evolving universe".10

There is no recognition in these articles of the true nature of sin and no recognition of the reality of Redemption, the divinity of Christ, the nature of and need for sanctifying grace, of heaven or hell, or of the divinely established authority of the Catholic Church. Finally, the modern breakthrough in information theory made by William A. Dembski is summarily dismissed.11

Fundamentalism and Evolution

For fundamentalists, the Bible is the sole rule of faith. For Catholics, the true rule of faith is scripture plus Tradition as manifested in the living teaching authority of the Catholic Church to which were entrusted the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and also the authority to truly interpret the scripture. The fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible is incompatible with evolution. It holds that all species were created essentially as we see them now at one time or during a short period of time. It commonly stipulates that the earth is "young", on the order of six thousand to ten thousand years old.

Catholic Teaching and Evolution

The Church has always looked on the world realistically. "Truth cannot contradict truth" as Pope Leo X111 stated in the Encyclical Providentissimus Deus. St. Augustine warns : "... it is a disgraceful and a dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics."12 Pope John Paul 11 (Fides et Ratio 25) acknowledges the truth of Aristotle's statement that "All human being desire to know", and adds that the "truth is the proper object of this desire".

The Church is concerned with preserving intact and faithfully transmitting the religious truths already revealed and entrusted to her by God. In the scriptures the ancient sacred writers used the symbolic language in general use in ancient times. The Church interprets this language to reveal for example, the truth about the creation of man in paradise, the fall, original sin and its consequences, which are misery, an inclination towards evil, and death. The Church also teaches that God made all nations from one ancestor. (Acts: 17:26). Pope Pius X11 condemned polygenism - the polygenism championed by Teilhard, Rahner, and other theologians, which holds that we are descended from multiple ancestors rather than the historic person named Adam.13

Scientists today vigorously debate almost every aspect of evolutionary theory. The debate is not about evolution per se but over the way in which it happened. Either it was due to blind chance or it was not. The debate between the Church and many evolutionists is not about evolution itself, but rather about the philosophical materialism that grounds so much evolutionary theory.

In 1950, Pope Pius X11 stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, and that the doctrine of "evolutionism" is a serious hypothesis, worthy of investigation and in-depth study14 Pope John Paul 11 has quoted the teaching of Pope Pius X11, that "... if the origin of the human body is sought in living matter which existed before it, the spiritual soul is directly created by God." 15,16 He went on to say "...theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. Nor are they able to ground the dignity of man".17

Darwin's theory of evolution is that organisms produce some offspring that, by chance, vary slightly from their parents. Some of these variations e.g. sharper claws, make them better adapted to their environment. These organisms, therefore survive. This survival he called "natural selection." Since Darwin attributed such selection to natural forces alone, without any purpose or design, the theory was rapidly accepted by atheists, like Thomas Huxley who claimed that it made his atheism intellectually respectable. Huxley (1825-95) was a zoologist who so vigorously promoted Darwin's theory of evolution that he named himself "Darwin's bulldog".

A theory is a logical system of ideas that correlate many observations in the real world in a coherent and understandable pattern, which can be interpreted in a unified explanation. One theory which is generally accepted by physicists today is that the universe originated in a giant cosmic explosion 12-15 billion years ago, of an object, the 'singularity', concentrated at a single point. Nothing else existed, not even space. This event is commonly referred to as the "big bang". From this explosion, the whole universe has developed. It should be noted however, that the primordial cause, meaning and purpose of the universe, cannot be known by science. Their discussion properly belongs in the domains of philosophy and theology.

The development of the physical universe from the moment of the big bang is called 'cosmological' evolution. The development of life-forms from the moment when life first appeared, is called 'biological' evolution. It is also accepted by scientists that about four and a half billion years ago, life appeared on earth for the first time. To this day, just how life began is a mystery, because there are so many conditions which would have to be satisfied for it to start. "A single plant or animal cell, the very basis of life, is staggeringly complex. It is divided into many discrete compartments: supplies, including enzymes and proteins, have to be shipped between these two compartments, some packaged on molecular trucks, each with a key that will fit a lock, only on its particular cellular destination. Other proteins act as loading docks, opening the truck and letting the contents into its particular compartment."18 Even the tiniest know living organism is existence today contains 480 genes, 100 of which are of unknown function.

These genes contain 6 billion DNA letters (base-pairs). As James Shapiro, a biologist at the University of Chicago wrote, "There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations." When one considers just how complex the cell really is, one realizes why the origin of life is still a mystery.

How life-forms developed genes also remains an unsolved problem. The development of increasingly complex life-forms since that time is what is commonly meant by the word 'evolution', and that word is limited in its meaning to that development. Eventually, approximately one hundred thousand years ago, man came into being.

There is much debate about just how the increase in complexity of life-forms developed. Darwin held the view that survival of the fittest was the cause. Survival was said to depend on a random mutation of genes which also favoured the development of new-life forms. The available scientific evidence however, confines Darwinian evolution merely to small scale evolutionary changes like insects developing insecticide resistance and bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. This evidence hardly warrants the grand extrapolation to large scale evolutionary changes that Darwinists want. i.e. from natural selection and random variation to the very emergence of insects in the first place by that same mechanism. In short, the Church has no problem with theories of evolution, provided they are not based on atheism; and also, there are several theories of evolution, all of which remain only theories to this day.

The work of the geneticist F. Ayala on mitochondrial DNA is cited by Daryl Domning as demonstrating that mankind could not have had a single human ancestor and that therefore the doctrine of monogenesis is false.19,20 However, the relevance of this work to the doctrine of monogenesis is highly questionable and its use at this point would appear to be premature. Others hold that genetic evidence and the doctrine of monogenesis can both be accounted for.21

Sin and Redemption

The articles in America regard original sin, and indeed all sin, as being mythical. The real source of what we are taught by the Church is sin is said to be the result of natural selection which has dominated all life forms from the beginning. We humans are said to have inherited "selfish genes" from the beasts. God, far from being understood to be omnipotent or transcendent, is seen to be "in process", "developing" and dependent to some extent on His creation, which He "trusts... to operate with a genuine autonomy".

This notion of God is praised and is the basis of the new "evolutionary theology" pioneered by John Haught, a theologian at Howard University, Washington D.C.22

For Haught, God, or ultimate reality, is conceived of as neither mindless or impersonal matter, nor simply as an intelligent designer, but as self emptying love. The whole universe is seen as unfolding in response to divine allurement. Domning has it that God, through His "persuasive love", obtains the cooperation of the universe in its own unfolding.23 That God is not mindless matter, and also not simply an "intelligent designer" is certainly true. But how can it be reasonably held that the cosmos, which is merely mindless matter, can be said to merit trust and to cooperate with God? Since only persons can be worthy of trust and can cooperate, this kind of thinking personifies the universe. It is also true that Christ witnessed in His incarnation, death and resurrection to God's selfless love of humanity. He does indeed trust mankind to respond to His love. However, Christ's life was not merely a sort of template of good example so that we may, by our own volition, simply copy Him in order to reach salvation, relying only on our own resources. He is our Saviour. He has paid the price of our redemption and has sent the Holy Spirit to guide us.

This "new" evolutionary (process) theology is strongly influenced by pantheism and pantheistic ideas are not new. They are to be found in the works of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus. (535-475 B.C.), Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831).24 Teilhard de Chardin25 and Bernard Lonergan.26 Because evolutionary theologians have reduced sin to an activity which is compelled by our genes, in their view, Christ's redemption of man has lost its true meaning. Sin is no longer a spiritual catastrophe, a separation from God that might result in eternal damnation. In this theology, stress is laid on progress on earth, and Christ is seen as the product of a world, programmed by God, to "witness to a Christogenesis, even if a mythical first couple never sinned".27 Christ is not seen as redeeming us from sin. Instead He is understood to give us "an incarnate example of perfect divine altruism" to demonstrate to us how we may through human effort alone, and simply by copying Him, "transcend our original selfishness, and even the limited, self interested sort of altruism that evolution can create".28 Through this effort we are said to obtain the "Supra-natural gifts in the end-time paradise towards which we 'original sinners' are straining with eager longing".29


These articles from America contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church in regard to many things including the creation of man, the fall from grace of Adam and Eve and the natural consequences of Adam's original sin, the role and significance of Christ as redeemer, and the necessity of divine grace for salvation. The God of Scripture and Tradition is replaced by a God who is not only not omnipotent, but is subject to an "iron law" formulated by one of His human creatures, Charles Darwin. This God did not design the universe to develop according to His plan, but had to "trust" it to evolve appropriately. He had no choice. This God was forced to let evil happen and this was the only possible world that God could make.30 John Haught tells us that much contemporary evolutionary theology, again following Teilhard, argues that the reality of evil is the dark side of this creative process.31

Even though we were told that the original paradise was not real but "mythical", we are assured that if we will just do the right thing and display active love for others, particularly the abandoned and destitute, we will make it to a paradise which is real.32 Could Pelagius have said it better?

William Dembski's pioneering work on philosophy and information theory is dismissed out of hand as "basically the old God-of-the-gaps argument dressed up in the new raiment of molecular biology.33 However, design theory's usefulness is not limited to the question of evolution. Other areas in which intelligent design is evident include forensic science, artificial intelligence, intellectual property law as well as in nature itself. Perhaps it is because this theory is so powerful and argument in the debate between naturalism and belief in God as the Creator of the universe that it has so many foes today.

Daryl Domning appears not to appreciate the fact that the theory of Intelligent Design does not repudiate the Darwinian mechanism. It merely assigns it a lower status than Darwinism does.34 It provides a systematic, quantitative means for evaluating the evidence that can identify events due to intelligent causes, and distinguish them from events due to undirected natural causes. Robert Koons, professor of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin, has called this theory "one of the most significant events in recent intellectual history which no serious student of the foundation and methodology of science can afford to ignore.

'America' has offered to the debate about evolution a misleading montage of heresy and highly speculative scientific hypotheses, and a manifest unawareness of an important new development in probability and complexity theory.


1 Joan Acker, H.M. Creation and Catholicism, America, Dec. 16, 2000 p. 6. [Back]

2 Ibid. p. 7,8. [Back]

3 Daryl P. Domning. Evolution, Evil and Original Sin. America. Nov. 12, 2001, p. 18, 19, 20. [Back]

4 Ibid. p. 18, 19. [Back]

5 Ibid. p. 17. [Back]

6 Charles Darwin. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. D. Appleton & Co. New York, 1872, cf. First Evolutionary Psychologists. Richard Milner, Scientific American, Jan. 2002, pp. 94-95. [Back]

7 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin. p. 17. [Back]

8 Ibid. p. 15 [Back]

9 Teilhard de Chardin. Christianity and Evolution. (New York. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979). [Back]

10 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin. p. 21. [Back]

11 William A. Dembski. The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities. Cambridge University Press. 1998. [Back]

12 St. Augustine. "The Literal Meaning of Genesis". Bk. 1. Ch. 19, John Hammond Taylor translator (Newman 1980). [Back]

13 Pope Pius X11, Encyclical - Humani Generis, 1950, No. 37. George Sim Johnston. Lay Witness, published for Catholics United for the Faith. [Back]

14 Pope Pius X11. Encyclical - Humani Generis, 1950 cf. AAS 42 (1950) pp. 575-576. [Back]

15 Humani Generis, p.36. [Back]

16 Pope John Paul 11. Address to The Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Oct. 22, 1996. [Back]

17 Ibid. [Back]

18 Michael J. Behe, "Darwin Under the Microscope", New York Times. Oct. 29, 1996. [Back]

19 Francisco J. Ayala. Scientific American. 1995. [Back]

20 Francisco J. Ayala. "Evolution and the Uniqueness of Humankind". Origins. CNS. Documentary Service. 27.34 (12 Feb. 1998), pp. 565-74 here p. 567. Presentation to the American Bishops. [Back]

21 A. Alexander. "Human Origins and Genetics". Clergy Review 49 (1964) pp.344 - 53 here pp. 350-1. [Back]

22 John Haught. "God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution". Westview Press. Feb. 2001. [Back]

23 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin. p.15 [Back]

24 Frederick Copleston S.J. A History of Philosophy. Vol. 7 (New York: Image Books. Doubleday and Co. 1965) p. 207. [Back]

25 Teihard de Chardin. The Phenomenon of Man. (New York. Harper and Row. 1965) p. 301-2. The Heart of the Matter. (New York. Harcourt Brace Govanovich 1979) pp. 33, 51. Christianity and Evolution (New York. Harcourt Brace Govanovich 1979) p. 196. [Back]

26 Bernard Lonergan S. J. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. London: Longman Green and Co. l958. Reprinted in Series "Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan". Frederick E. Crowe and Robert Doran. Published by University of Toronto Press for Lonergan Research Institute of Regis College. Toronto, in sequence Vol. 3, 4, 5, 10, pp. 463 and 519. [Back]

27 Creationism and the Catechism p.8. [Back]

28 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin. p.21 [Back]

29 Creationism and the Catechism p.9. [Back]

30 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin p.21 [Back]

31 John Haught. Evolution's Impact on Theology. Origins CNS documentary service. Feb. 12, 1998. Vol 27: No. 34. p. 576. [Back]

32 Creationism and the Catechism p.21 [Back]

33 Evolution, Evil and Original Sin p.15 [Back]

34 William A. Dembski. Is Intelligent Design Testable? A response to Eugenie Scott. Metaviews, Jan. 24, 2001. [Back]