Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Creation and evolution seem like contradictory ideas, but, if we adjust our perspective, I think these two ideas can strengthen each other.
For Christians, creation is a doctrine that God created everything other than himself from nothing (ex-nihilo), not from pre-existing stuff. The first two chapters of Genesis, other references in the Bible, and philosophical arguments support this doctrine.
Evolution is a scientific theory that current species have developed from simpler organisms through a process of environmental adaptation, genetic mutation, and natural selection. The fossil record and genetic evidences support this theory.
In the 20th century, Neo-Darwinism (New Darwinism) referred to the combination of Darwin's theories of natural selection with newer scientific theories like genetics. More recently, academics like Richard Dawkins, have used the term Neo-Darwinism a more specific form of evolutionary theory that includes atheistic philosophy (1). Scientists have sharply criticized Dawkin's approach (2).
For our considerations, I want to emphasize that there is no essential link between evolution and atheism. Darwin was not an atheist. His faith did wax and wane throughout his life, but Darwin never denied the existence of God. He stated:
"It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist." Darwin's letter to John Fordyce, 1879 (3)
Young and Old Earth Creationism
Young and Old Earth Creationism are two sets of beliefs based on literal interpretations of the Genesis creation stories. Young Earth Creationism generally holds that the creation events recorded in the first chapter of Genesis happened in seven twenty four hour days and that the rest of the Bible accurately communicates the exact age of the universe.
Old Earth Creationism also takes a literal approach to Genesis but interprets the Hebrew word translated "day" (yôm) as an unspecified length of time. Thus, they may accept the scientifically calculated age of the universe, but reject the idea of evolution.
We should consider that the literal interpretation may not be the best way to approach the creation narratives in Genesis. The two creation stories in the book of Genesis have a direct contradiction. On the sixth day of the first story, God creates the animals, then man and woman at the same time. The second creation story leads off with the creation of man, then the animals, and, finally, the creation of woman. This contradiction leaves us with only two possibilities; either one or both of these two stories contain an error or should not meant to be taken literally. I do not believe this means these stories are not true, but I think the way they communicate truth is not in the style of modern history. The stories are communicating profound theological truth about God and the world, but not reductive scientific data. These truths are also within the cultural context of the authors. Some of these truths are: God created, the creation process was peaceful, and there is an order to creation.
There is a third way that combines creation and evolution, commonly called Theistic Evolution. The core idea of Theistic Evolution is that God orchestrates the evolutionary process.
There is a spectrum of theories under the umbrella of Theistic Evolution. On one end, God creates a world that evolves but then steps out of the picture after time starts. The other extreme is a God who orchestrates evolution like a puppet master. The creatures only appear to be independent, but they are not.
To get a clearer picture of exactly how God carries out evolution, we need to take a look at different ways of asking the question, "why?"—answering the question "why?" is classically called "causality." How exactly is God a cause in creation, and how are creatures causes independent from God?
God is uniquely involved in the world. Everything that happens has a cause. Meaning, something is responsible for doing what has happened. For example, if an author writes a book, the author caused the book. If a book has two authors, then they split the project. Maybe they divide the composition of chapters, or one author writes most of the work, and the other contributes a small portion along with their reputation. Even if the authors edit each other's work, agree with each other, and own all the ideas expressed, they are only partly responsible for the book.
God can cause things in the world with a creature also being 100% the author. God is entirely beyond the universe (transcendent) yet intimately involved in it (immanent). God does not compete for space with things in the world. He can be completely present without displacing anything.
A day to day example of this is any action done with God's grace. The person would not have been capable of what they have done without God's help, and, on the other hand, it would have never happened if they hadn't done it. God and the person are both authors of what happened. If either withheld involvement, the action would not have happened.
Another example is the dual authorship of the Bible. The Church holds that God is the author of Sacred Scripture. Held in tension with this, the Church claims that the humans who wrote the words are also real authors.
"God inspired the human authors of the sacred books. 'To compose the sacred books, God chose certain men who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written, and no more.'"Catechism of the Catholic Church, 106
There was an elegant interplay of divine and human action in writing the Bible. The book did not descend to earth on a cloud; God did not possess the writers, nor did he dictate the words to them. The authors used their vocabulary and grammatical preferences, but God inspired them to write the truth he wanted to communicate.
Similarly, evolution is a collaborative process. Yes, God is the creator and ultimate cause of everything that exists, but God created things that evolve (4). From this perspective, we could also claim that God uses evolution to continue creation. Creation is not just a historical event, but God continues to hold creation in existence. The world is not self-sustaining but relies on God continually. The same God who makes something from nothing, continues to keep those things from becoming nothing again. Evolution does not push God out of the picture.
Fittingness of Creation through Evolution
Fr. Nicanor Autriaco, O.P. argues in the book "Thomistic Evolution" that it is more fitting that God would create through a process of evolution. Something is "fitting" when it is more appropriate or superior but not necessary. Meaning, God did not have to create with a process of evolution, but the process better reflects God's perfection than instantaneous creation. Fr. Nicanor states:
"I propose that it was fitting for God to have created via evolution rather than via special creation because in doing so, he was able to give his creation-the material universe and the individual creatures within it-a share in his causality to create. In this way, he more fully communicates his perfection to his creation, thus, more clearly manifesting his glory." Thomistic Evolution, p. 144
Fr. Nicanor proposes the image of a book. He asks which book would be more like its creator, a book written by the author's hand, or a book that is made by the author that can write itself? While limited, this analogy lays bare that a creation that evolves more completely reflects God's perfection that one created instantaneously.
Creation expresses the glory of the creator. Each species reflects God in some limited way. Fr. Nicanor strengthens his fittingness argument by pointing out the limited capacity of the planet to support species. The ecosystem changing through evolution over time can support greater diversity because not all species will coexist simultaneously. Thus, an evolving creation provides a greater refection of God's glory.
The argument from fittingness does not provide indubitable proof, but it does demonstrate the possibility and even the likelihood of evolution. The argument from fittingness offers a reason to believe in evolution from a theological perspective.
Catholics are not required to believe in evolution, but there was openness to the theory in the Church even in Darwin's time. (5) The Church did not make an official statement about the theory evolution until 90 years after the publication of The Origin of Species. Pope Pious XII published an encyclical letter "On Human Origins" (Humani Generis) in 1950 that was open yet doctrinally neutral to evolution:
"the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter" Humani Generis, 36
A faithful Catholic may believe that the human body evolved from previous species. The Church does teach that the human soul was a special creation by God. Meaning, it did not emerge as a result of greater biological complexity, nor is it subject to a process of evolution itself.
Regardless of whether or not we believe in evolution, it provides an enlightening perspective on how to flourish in the world. If the body developed through a process of adaptation to the environment, then it expects specific inputs. For example, we could consider that the human body adapted to the food our ancestors ate. To the extent that we eat a diet compatible with this evolutionary formation, we will be healthier. If we eat foods that the body is not able to handle, we can expect to be less healthy.
Taken alongside the Scripture; the evolutionary perspective provides a helpful translation of the book of nature. With these two sources of wisdom, we can live God's design more radically. Theistic evolution offers harmony between faith and reason. It may also provide wisdom that will help us experience this harmony in our day to day lives.
Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. The One and the Many. Notre Dame, 2001
Fr. Mariusz Tabaczek, O.P. "What Do God and Creatures Really Do in an Evolutionary Change? Causal Analysis of Biological Transformism from the Thomistic Perspective." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. 93. 2019.
(4) For a detailed analysis of the causality in evolution see Fr. Mariusz Tabaczek, O.P. "What Do God and Creatures Really Do in an Evolutionary Change? Causal Analysis of Biological Transformism from the Thomistic Perspective." American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. 93. 2019.
(5) In 1868 John Henry Newman wrote the following passage to J. Walker "It does not seem to me to follow that creation is denied because the Creator, millions of years ago, gave laws to matter. He first created matter and then he created laws for it — laws which should construct it into its present wonderful beauty, and accurate adjustment and harmony of parts gradually. We do not deny or circumscribe the Creator, because we hold he has created the self acting originating human mind, which has almost a creative gift; much less then do we deny or circumscribe His power, if we hold that He gave matter such laws as by their blind instrumentality moulded and constructed through innumerable ages the world as we see it." See http://inters.org/Newman-Scarborough-Darwin-Evolution