The Prescient Pope, Ctd

by Zoe Pollock

A reader writes:

I think you misread Farrell's piece. While giving Pius some credit for dealing with the issue of evolution, Farrell's main point was the caveat you mention second: modern biology shows man descends (as do virtually all species) from a population, not a single individual (or couple), and this contradicts Pius's assertion that the doctrine of original sin requires "a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own" (full text of Pius's Humani Generis here). Far from being prescient, Pius, as interpreted by Farrell, was thus wrong about what would be learned subsequently. Farrell is a bit off in not realizing that Pius was mostly concerned with addressing a 19th century idea (polygenism; not held by Darwin) that held that modern Homo sapiens has several independent origins (we didn't), and not with addressing modern evolutionary theory. I'm also not sure that Farrell's theologically correct: it's not self evident to me that common ancestry through populations violates the doctrine of original sin, although it might-- I'll leave that for Catholic theologians to decide.

The late Stephen Jay Gould dealt with these exact issues in an essay he published in 1997. While Farrell notes briefly John Paull II's statement on evolution from 1996, "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth," Gould regards John Paul's statement as a significant revision to Pius's position. Gould's own summary of his essay:

Pius had grudgingly admitted evolution as a legitimate hypothesis that he regarded as only tentatively supported and potentially (as I suspect he hoped) untrue. John Paul, nearly fifty years later, reaffirms the legitimacy of evolution under the NOMA principle [=non-overlapping magisteria-- Gould's term for how religion and science can coexist harmoniously, which he takes to be a quite Catholic point of view] no news herebut then adds that additional data and theory have placed the factuality of evolution beyond reasonable doubt. Sincere Christians must now accept evolution not merely as a plausible possibility but also as an effectively proven fact. In other words, official Catholic opinion on evolution has moved from "say it ain't so, but we can deal with it if we have to" (Pius's grudging view of 1950) to John Paul's entirely welcoming "it has been proven true; we always celebrate nature's factuality, and we look forward to interesting discussions of theological implications."