Evolutionary Biology
at Regis, a Jesuit Catholic School

 Michael J. Ghedotti, Associate Professor of Biology


Why I Created this Page

When I began teaching at Regis, I was occasionally shocked when a student would ask me why I was teaching evolution at a Catholic school. We also have received inquiries in the Biology Department from parents of prospective students about the role of evolution in our Regis Biology curriculum. The fact that people were not sure about the position of Roman Catholicism towards biological evolution or that people believed that Catholicism and evolutionary explanations for biological diversity were incompatible was of concern and interest to me. I personally never thought that there was any conflict between evolutionary explanations of change in the natural world and Roman Catholic Christianity. As someone who attended Catholic grade school and high school, I was taught evolution in science classes and never encountered anyone who considered biological evolution to be "un-Catholic" (although I knew that some Protestant Christians thought that evolutionary explanations are not compatible with their versions of Christianity). Because I continue to get these questions I researched the issue further and decided to put together this page as a resource for students at Regis. I am not trying to convince anyone of a particular position. Rather I am attempting to provide general information to better answer these questions. 


"The position" of the Catholic Church towards evolutionary biology*

Since 1950, the Roman Catholic Church has asserted that a belief in the natural evolution of biological diversity (including the human body) through material processes is not inconsistent with Church teaching. The Church explicitly endorses neither an evolutionary nor a special creation view of the origin of biological diversity. The Church recognizes that there is "mounting support for some theory of evolution," and asserts that God is immanent in the world and has "provided" the direction of any material evolution that may have occurred (i.e., what has occurred is not the result of random chance), and that God is involved in the special creation of the human soul.

Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII, 12 August 1950 - This is the papal encyclical that states that Catholics are free to accept evolutionary explanations for biological diversity and the origin of the human body. The letter neither endorses nor condemns an evolutionary perspective. The encyclical does castigate those who try to use evolutionary or materialist arguments in debates concerning a variety theological issues.

Excerpt from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's book, "In the Beginning...." : A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, 1986 - The book is based on a series of  Lenten homilies given in 1981 in Munich by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005). Ratzinger states that the revelation of Genesis does not conflict with evolutionary explanation. He generally castigates those who take Genesis literally and those who take a completely materialistic view of the origin of humans. He asserts that the origin of humans (both as individuals and collectively) must be viewed as a non-random Divine phenomenon.

Message of Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 22 October 1996  - In this message Pope John Paul reaffirmed the encyclical Humani Generis. In addition, the pope recognizes that information from a variety of "fields of knowledge" further supports an evolutionary origin for material biodiversity. This implies a greater "comfort" with an evolutionary explanation. But, as in Humani Generis, the pope does not explicitly support either an evolutionary or creationist origin for material biological diversity and asserts the divine creation of the human soul.  

International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, July 2004 (headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before his election as Pope) -  In this statement the Commission recognizes the evidence for a 15 billion year old universe and "[c]onverging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth...." In addition, this document stated that biological evolution recognizing a mechanism of natural selection "can fall within God's providential plan for creation". This document also asserts that an "unguided process of evolution" could not occur outside of the "providence of God."

Some very conservative Catholic groups agree with most Evangelical Protestant groups and strongly support a creationist explanation for biological diversity. Dennis Marcellino, a Catholic commentator, in his book, "Why Are We Here?", says that evolution is not supported by scientific evidence and thus a more literal biblical interpretation is correct. A summary of the book's stance on evolution and creation was provided by the conservative "Catholic Online" website. Accepting a Genesis-literalist creationist explanation for the origin of biological diversity (like accepting an evolutionary explanation for the origin of biological diversity) is NOT contrary to Church teaching and this belief only requires disputation of the "mounting support for some theory of evolution" that has been acknowledged by the Vatican.

The position of the Catholic Church and the American "Intelligent Design" movement.  -   2005

The official position of the Catholic Church towards evolution has recently been the subject of  further discussion because Pope Benedict XVI in the homily at his installation stated: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." This statement is consistent with past Church teaching as requiring recognition of the Divine in the origin of the human Soul and humanity. However, in 2005, it rekindled discussion of the official church position towards explanations of the material world.

In July 2005 Cardinal Christoph Schonborn  of Vienna (Finding Design in Nature, New York Times, July 7, 2005) suggest that this statement is indicative of Church disapproval of evolution involving natural selection ("neo-Darwinism"). Cardinal Schonborn further suggests that scientific evidence indicates that evolution involving natural selection is "not true" and cites "overwhelming evidence for design in biology." 

In response to Cardinal Schonborn's first statement and the seeming boost it gave to the American, creationist intelligent- design movement, three American Catholic scientists have petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to clarify the Church's position ( Open Letter to Pope Benedict the XVI ). One of the letter's co-authors ( Kenneth Miller ) provides a good discussion of evolution from the perspective of an American Catholic biologist who coherently rejects arguments in favor of Intelligent Design Creationism in his book Finding Darwin's God. His book also provides rebuttals to some of the modern legalistic and not so modern argument-from-design approaches to "refuting" evolutionary explanations of biological diversity. 

In November 2005 Cardinal Paul Poupard, who heads the Vatican Council for Culture, commented at a news conference about the Vatican Science, Theology and Ontological Quest (STOQ) project that "[t]he faithful have the obligation to listen to that which secular modern science has to offer, just as we ask that knowledge of the faith be taken in consideration as an expert voice in humanity." He also warned that religion risks turning into "fundamentalism" if it ignores scientific reason. (For a summary of the press conference see: Vatican: Faithful Should Listen to Science, Nicole Winfield,  Associated Press, Nov. 3, 2005.)  

In the same month (Nov. 9), Pope Benedict the XVI made statements that some interpret as supporting the "Intelligent Design" movement in the United States. The Pope said that behind the natural world there is "the creative reason, the reason that has created everything, that has created this intelligent project." This statement largely has been interpreted as reiterating the position of the Church concerning the non-randomness of creation and the imanence of God in the world. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory said that "[t]he pope was not alluding in any way to intelligent design as it is understood in the United States,.... The pope was talking about God's love for his creation. God is in love with his creation, he nurses it along, he accompanies it. But that doesn't make God a 'designer.' That belittles God, it makes him paltry[.]" (For summaries of the audience see: Vatican text of Pope Benedictís Nov. 9 general audience, Catholic Online, www.catholiconline.org, Nov. 9, 2005   and   Designer God? Vatican Experts Debate Fine Points of Evolution, John Thavis, Catholic News Service, Nov. 11, 2005)  

In December 2005 Cardinal Schonborn clarified his previous position (Creation & Evolution: To the Debate as It Stands, Lecture in Vienna, Dec. 12, 2005) stating that "I see no difficulty in joining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution." However, he does assert that reason requires an acceptance of "design" and goal as inherent in nature and evolution. My interpretation as a biologist is that he is saying that the processes that, at base, result in evolutionary change (e.g., mutation, "unpredictable" historic contingencies) cannot be seen as random, and that reason requires that God be seen as necessarily involved and inherent in any direction the material world has taken.

*DISCLAIMER: I am not a Catholic theologian, merely a biologist and (somewhat liberal) Catholic lay person, and the information provided is my brief interpretation of Church opinion. Links to the text of some relevant papal and other writings are provided so that a reader can make her/his own decision.


Jesuit Catholic Spirituality and Science

The Society of Jesus founded by St. Ignatius Loyola, also called the Jesuits, is a Religious Order within the Roman Catholic Church that has long been involved in scientific exploration. I teach at Regis University, a school within the Jesuit tradition. The Jesuits in particular have sought "to find God in all things" and thus have considered exploration in all academic disciplines to be religiously valuable experiences. The books of Guy Consolmagno a Jesuit Astronomer at the Vatican Observatory (Brother Astronomer and The Way to the Dwelling of the Light) provide some insight into Jesuit spirituality and science.

The Society of Jesus and Science and Technology  - This is a web page on the U.S. Society of Jesus Website explaining the role of the Jesuits in Scientific and Technological exploration.  It also provides some links concerning current and historic linkages between the Jesuits and science.

Jesuits in Science, Association of Jesuit Scientists  - This is a web page of an international group of Jesuit scientists (priests and brothers).

The Roman Catholic Church in the last few centuries has largely left proximate explanations of the material world to individuals who would identify themselves as scientists. (However, this group does include some Roman Catholic clergy who also are scientists.) The frequently cited "Galileo affair" in 1633 was more notable as an atypical event in church-science relationships, rather than the norm. (See W. Rowland's Galileo's Mistake and G. J. Consolmagno's Brother Astronomer for discussion of the "Galileo affair").

Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Pontificia Academia Scientiarvm) - This is a Vatican web page on the Pontifical Academy, founded in 1603 as the first purely scientific academy in the world.  The Academy went in and out of existence, and was reactivated in its modern form in 1936 by Pope Pius the VII. This site outlines the history and operation of this Vatican-overseen Academy. Academy members are approved by the pope and its current membership includes evolutionary biologists.

Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest  (STOQ) - This is a joint project of the Vatican's  Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Lateran University, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and the Pontificio Ateneo Regina Apsotolorum to advance science and reinforce the connections between Science, Philosophy, and Theology. The aims of the project are to further the work begun by Pope John  Paul II.   "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth".   Pope John Paul II Fides et Ratio, 1


Evolution and Religion (Generally)

The Christian faith, which originated in the Middle East around 26 A.D., is diverse in the beliefs and practices of its component denominations.  Christian churches are not in agreement concerning the compatibility of Christian faith with an evolutionary understanding of organismic diversity. As I interpret it, this disagreement largely rests on the views of each Christian denomination towards the literal or allegorical truth of the two Genesis creation accounts.

The leaders or governing bodies of some Christian denominations have explicitly stated that an evolutionary interpretation of biological diversity is incompatible with their interpretations of Christianity. Some of these denominations are the following: Assemblies of God; Church of Christ; Church of Christ, Scientist; Church of the Nazarene; Evangelical Presbyterian Church; Free Methodist Church; Jehovah's Witness Churches; Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod; Pentecostal Churches; Seventh Day Adventist Churches; Southern Baptist Convention Churches; and Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. These churches typically assert that as the revealed Word of God all passages of the Bible are literally true. Thus they support the idea that the world was the result of creation as specifically described in the Genesis accounts. Some of these churches have statements of doctrine specifically endorsing a literalist creationism and rejecting evolutionary explanations.

The leadership of other Christian denominations have indicated that an evolutionary perspective towards the material world is generally compatible with their interpretations of Christianity. Some of these denominations are the following: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon Church); Disciples of Christ Church; Eastern Orthodox Churches; Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.; Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Reformed Church in America (Dutch Reformed Church); Roman Catholic Church; United Church of Christ; United Methodist Church; United Presbyterian Church. These churches do not typically assert that a creationist perspective is preferable to an evolutionary one. Some maintain "neutrality," whereas others, such as the Roman Catholic Church, may acknowledge that there is much scientific evidence in support of evolution but do not endorse an interpretation in non-theological areas (and indicate discomfort or disagreement with specific evolutionary mechanisms emphasizing chance). These churches usually have many members who DO NOT accept evolutionary explanations of organismic diversity and many members who DO accept evolutionary explanations of organismic diversity. These churches usually recognize that Genesis I and Genesis II are not literally consistent with each other (i.e., the order of creation and the explanation of the creation of woman), though consistent in meaning and revelation. Typically, these are the Christian denominations that recognize a role for individual and/or church-mediated interpretation in understanding the Bible as a document that at times may present Truths in allegorical ways, similar to how Jesus taught in parables.

See below for discussion of the Unitarian Universalist Church which some consider to be a Christian denomination and others do not.

Native American faiths which vary quite a bit among each other have not in most cases been considered in their relationship to evolutionary explanations. Tribes have differing stories of creation. Most involve creation by a single Creator God. Some believe(d) that many people were initially created but most were transformed into animals. Some tribes in the the Southwest believe(d) that humans had to climb into the present world through a small hole in the ground - the world's navel.

The Baha'i/Babi  faith, which originated in Iran around 1850 A.D.,  recognizes the Truth of many faith traditions, and also accepts the unity of science and religion. An evolutionary perspective is largely endorsed.

The Buddhist faith, which originated in north India around 500 B.C.,  in Mahayana, Theravada, or Vajrayana forms is considered compatible with evolutionary ideas. The Dalai Lama, the titular head of Vajrayana (i.e., Tibetan) Buddhism, in his 2005 book The Universe in a Single Atom endorses an evolutionary explanation for biological diversity, although he rejects the idea that mutation could be completely random and asserts that there is "divine" direction somewhere in evolution. Different traditionally Buddhist cultures have different narratives about how the world came to be.

The Hindu faith, which originated at least in part  in India some time before 2500 B.C.,  is, like Christianity and Islam (and most other faiths with many adherents), diverse in its beliefs and practices. However, most Hindu spiritual leaders see no conflict between Hindu spirituality and an evolutionary explanation for generation of the diversity of organisms. However, many Hindus object to the suggestion that human consciousness has evolved from the material world. Hinduism has long accepted extremely long cycles of time that accompany the unfolding of the material world. Hindu creationists, those I was able to find online were typically - but not exclusively - western converts to Hinduism, espouse a creation explanation that differs in very significant details from the creationist explanations of Christians (based on Genesis). There are multiple Hindu creation narratives, the most commonly discussed involves repeated (cyclical) creation and destruction of the universe based on the cyclically repeating actions, origins, and/or deaths of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva [representations of the Divine Supreme Force (i.e., God) that transcends cyclical creation and destruction].

The Jain faith, which originated in north India about the same time as Buddhism,  is mostly considered compatible with evolutionary ideas. The world is viewed as entirely immaterial and its origin, whatever it may be, largely irrelevant to spiritual matters.

The Jewish faith, which originated in the Middle East some time before 1200 B.C.,  in America is divided into three branches, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. The two Genesis accounts used as the basis for Christian creationism also are part of Jewish scripture. However, none of the three branches of American Judaism strongly support a creationist perspective. Prominent Reform and Conservative Rabbis have spoken out against a strict creationist perspective and various Councils of Reform Judaism passed resolutions opposing the teaching of creationism in public schools. Orthodox Judaism has not presented a public objection to creationist teaching. However, some prominent Orthodox Rabbi's have indicated that an evolutionary perspective is consistent with a general Judaic interpretation of Genesis. 

The Muslim faith, which originated in the Arabian peninsula around 612 A.D.,   has been diverse in its response to evolutionary ideas. It is more difficult to generalize concerning perspectives in Islam than about religions with more formal and extensive  hierarchies or governance structures. Many Islamic communities vigorously reject evolutionary explanations as dangerous or antithetical to their religion. The Quran also reiterates the creation of humans that is outlined in the Genesis stories of the Judeo-Christian Bible. However, other Islamic communities accept the evolution of all biological diversity via natural processes except for humans, because unique human creation is described in the Quran (2:34, 15:28-29, 20:55). Other Islamic communities see no inconsistency between evolutionary explanations of human origins and Islam. The rise in prominence of fundamentalist Islam and a growing distrust of ideas associated with western culture and its associated materialism likely has resulted in somewhat more frequent rejection of evolutionary ideas by some in the Muslim world.

The Shinto faith, which originated in Japan in ancient times, has largely been interpreted as compatible with evolutionary ideas. Shinto creation involves the birthing of the Japanese islands by two of the Kami (deities). All human life is considered to be directly descended from the Kami.

The Sikh faith, which originated in the north Indian state of Punjab around 1496 A.D., has some spiritual leaders that see no conflict between Sikh spirituality and an evolutionary explanation for generation of the diversity of organisms. Some Sikhs assert that the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy scripture) clearly provides an overview of the universe that fits modern scientific understanding. A few Sikh spiritual leaders are creationists and espouse a creation explanation that differs in significant details from the creationist explanations of Christians (based on Genesis). Sikh creation involves direct emanation of the world from the monotheistic creator who also maintains transcendence from the creation which encompasses cyclic reincarnation based on Karma.

The Taoist faith, which originated in China some time around 550 B.C., has largely been interpreted as compatible with evolutionary ideas. Taoist creation as described in religious texts involves the splitting of the primeval chaos into heaven and earth, in between which humans were born.

The Unitarian Universalist Faith is historically derived from the Unitarian (originating in Europe in the sixteenth century) and Universalist (originating in the U.S. in the late eighteenth century) Protestant Christian denominations. By the middle to late nineteenth century, congregations in the two denominations were accepting non-Christian and atheist texts in services and at this point would be considered by some to no longer be Christian.  This faith is generally considered to be linked to the Judeo-Christian tradition and retains elements of organization (such as the ordination of ministers) and religious services (including singing and a sermon delivered by a minister) that clearly indicate its history as a Protestant Christian denomination. Unitarian Universalism unambiguously endorses evolution as an explanation for organismic diversity in the material world based on this faith's emphasis on "[h]umanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and science".

The Vodun (or Vodoun) faith, which originated among the Yoruba in West Africa in ancient times and is the real religion that has been modified by Hollywood as Voodoo, has not in most cases been considered in its relationship to evolutionary explanations. Vodun creation involves the creation of the world  by the God Otabala who was himself created by the chief, remote, and unknowable God Olorun. Vodun also mixed with other beliefs in the Caribbean and Brazil to become the religion now known as Santeria or ab'orisha.

The Zoroastrian/Zaratusi faith, which originated in Iran some time before 1300 B.C. and is now mostly restricted to India, is largely considered to be compatible with evolutionary explanations.  A Zoroastrian creationist explanation would include seven creative events which is on the surface similar to the seven days depicted in the scriptures of Christians and Jews (based on Genesis). However, the Zoroastrian creation scripture differs significantly in most details with Genesis creation. Zoroastrian creation continues with the creation of six guardian immortals and the spiritual embodiment of the creator, Ahura Mazda, who during a great conflict between Ahura Mazda (God) and Ahriman (hostile spirit - "satan") produce the organisms of the world by the sacrifice of the first three previously created primeval organisms (a plant, a bull, and a human).

Flying Spaghetti Monsterism was created by Bobby Henderson in Kansas in 2005 A.D. to make a point about the actions of the Kansas state School Board requiring the teaching of Christian-derived intelligent-design explanations for biological diversity.  According to his new religion the Universe was created by an invisible and undetectable Flying Spaghetti Monster and all evidence pointing towards evolution was intentionally planted by this being. The monster created the world starting with a mountain, trees and a midget, and continues to guide human affairs with his "noodly appendage." The Kansas School Board has been petitioned concerning the inclusion of Flying Spaghetti Monsterism in the science curriculum in Kansas. The website for this "new religion" outlines current activities.


Evolution & Creation in Biology Classes at Regis

Biology classes at Regis teach biological evolution as an integral part of modern biology. The basic principles of evolution are taught in BL 262 (Principles of Biology: Organismic Biology), a course required by the Biology Major, medical schools, and most other health graduate schools. Additionally, a non-required course for biology majors dealing solely with the topic of biological evolution (BL 464 Evolution) is also offered. Evolution is also included in a range of other Biology courses (e.g., BL 402 Principles of Ecology, BL 406 Human & Comparative Anatomy, BL 412 Developmental Biology). When taught in Regis biology courses, evolution is taught as a SCIENTIFIC fact, not as absolute and undeniable Truth. (In fact no scientific facts or ideas can be taught as absolute Truth. All scientific knowledge is probabilistic and tentative. Even laws of Physics are hypotheses that are subject to future revision or rejection.) However, based on the empirical methods of science, a "theory" of biological evolution best explains the relevant biological empirical data just as a "theory" of gravity best explains the relevant physical empirical data concerning why things fall.

Teaching an evolutionary explanation for biological diversity does not conflict with the Jesuit Catholic religious affiliation of Regis and is concordant with our school's mission to help our students become well educated modern biologists who will be leaders in the service of others. Our students will be prepared to understand the serious health threats resulting from the evolution of drug resistance in microorganisms and the evolution of new strains of disease organisms. The greater threat to public health posed by drug resistant and newly emergent infectious diseases threatens and increasingly will threaten public health and the common good. Our students also will be be prepared to understand the health, economic, and societal difficulties associated with the evolution of pesticide resistance in insects that carry disease organism (such as mosquitos that carry malaria and yellow fever) and herbicide resistance in plants. It is important to us to teach a coherent modern biology that will allow our students to better understand and work to improve the human condition and for the common good in the world around them.

Students who take Regis Biology courses and who do not subscribe to a scientific philosophy in their explanations of biological diversity, are not told that they cannot hold different beliefs. Other opinions are respected as long as it is understood that when taking a science course, the scientific material as understood within a modern scientific context need be understood (not necessarily believed). Students with Judeo-Islamo-Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Zaratusi, or other creationist beliefs that explicitly reject evolutionary explanations are respected in our biology courses.


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01/24/2009