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John Paul II and Evolution

Some readers have inquired as to whether Pope John Paul II’s views on evolution are consistent with the restrictions of Humani Generis which I included in my essay. I am happy to be corrected on this matter and would invite emails from more informed readers, but my understanding is that, however different in tone, John Paul II’s views were essentially consistent with earlier Roman Catholic teachings. For instance, in his “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 22, 1996,” he writes:

As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.

6. With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable. The sciences of observation describe and measure, with ever greater precision, the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way—although we can nevertheless discern, through experimental research, a series of very valuable signs of what is specifically human life. But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.

While certainly more open-minded towards evolutionary theory, the same principles and restrictions are in place. Whatever occurred prior to the special formation of Adam, there must be ontological discontinuity between those prior creatures and Adam and all subsequent humans.

Whether this actually “solves” the scientific problems is another question, and, at least in the case of Rome, it is not one that we must decide. We only point it out to support our earlier claim that the doctrine of a historic Adam is not a merely parochial one, retained only by inwardly-retreating Evangelicals, but is in fact a matter of wider Christian orthodoxy.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.