Solemn Enthronement of Evolution


While it is an established point of our faith that the Church cannot change teachings that have been definitively proposed to the faithful for belief, the about-face the Catholic Church has done on the question of evolution since the mid-19th century is nothing short of revolutionary - revolutionary in the most literal sense of the word, "to turn around", for the Church has done just that, turned around on its approach to evolution and questions surrounding the origin of human life. In this article, we will trace the origins of the Church's interaction with evolutionary theology and witness how, while the papacy of the 19th century condemned evolution as incompatible with Christian theology, the late 20th century Magisterium has essentially enthroned the theory as a permanent fixture of Catholic thought. The two most influential theologians behind this enthronement were none other than Teilhard de Chardin and Joseph Ratzinger.


Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, ushered in the beginning of what would be a long struggle between reductive scientism and Catholic theology. In the decades immediately following the release of the book, evolution was a fringe belief professed by very few members of the clergy and was a characteristic belief of a small cadre of intellectuals divorced from the popular religion of the masses. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church saw very early on the threat that this theory could become to the faithful and began to warn Catholics about evolutionary theory very early on. In these years, we see the Church, with the support of the popes, drawing a firm line against evolutionary theory by insisting not only on the special creation of man's soul, but of his body as well. 

From Cologne to Vatican I (1860-1870)

The first time we see an official Catholic response to the theory of evolution came in 1860 at the provincial Council of Cologne, only one year after Darwin's Origin of Species. This gathering of German bishops issued a condemnation of the theory, stating:

"Our first parents were formed immediately by God. Therefore we declare that the opinion of those who do not fear to assert that this human being, man as regards to his body, emerged finally from the spontaneous continuous change of imperfect nature to the more perfect, is clearly opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the Faith." [1] 

This is obviously a very strong and clear denunciation of evolution in totu, leaving no room for many of the nuanced compromises later proposed by Pius XII, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In the Cologne declaration, the bishops declare the fact of evolution as contrary to Scripture and Faith; contrast this to the statements of the aforementioned pontiffs, who seem to see no difficulty with the fact of evolution, choosing instead to focus on the cause of evolutionary change (i.e., whether evolutionary theory is atheistic or theistic). If the fact of incremental change is condemned, none of the distinctions introduced by the later pontiffs matter.

Of course, this Council possesses no infallibility and is non-binding; it was a provincial Council, akin to the famous Councils of Baltimore in the United States. Still, the Holy See's response to Cologne is telling. Rome's silence on this point undoubtedly signals consent. That the pontificate of Bl. Pius IX, always vigilant against heresy, said nothing in response to Cologne's declaration can be taken as a sign that the pope agreed with or at least did not oppose the affirmation of the direct, immediate creation of the human body in the person of our first parents. That Rome consented to the declarations by Cologne is further affirmed by the testimonies of Fr. Domenichelli and Fr. Tripepi, two consultors of the Holy Office who dealt with questions surrounding evolution during the pontificate of Leo XIII.

The First Vatican Council made no dogmatic definitions on evolution, although it was on the conciliar agenda and would probably have been formally condemned had not the Franco-Prussian War interrupted the Council. However, that is not to say that there are no teachings out of Vatican I relevant to the question of evolution. In the canons following the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, we see the following condemnation:

"If anyone does not confess that the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, were produced, according to their whole substance, out of nothing by God; or holds that God did not create by his will free from all necessity, but as necessarily as he necessarily loves himself; or denies that the world was created for the glory of God: let him be anathema" [2].

This statement obviously holds more authority than Cologne, as it comes from an ecumenical council and anathematizes anyone who would deny it. Its impact on theistic evolution comes with the clause "as regards to their whole substance." What implication does this have on the theory of evolution?

In classic Catholic theology, following the lines laid down by Aquinas, all created things possess a certain nature which delineates what they are. This is rooted in the creative activity of God; as all things are ultimately the product of an ex nihilo act of creation, the natures given to them represent God's creative power manifested in created beings. This "nature" is rooted in the substance of each created thing, substance denoting the fundamental reality that constitutes what a thing is. Substance is the fundamentum, the created reality that is the immediate object of God's sustaining act of creation. Thus, the teaching of substance presumes that there is an underlying reality "behind" all others, that of Being. Substances may undergo change in an accidental - an animal may be hot or cold, standing up or laying down - but these do not change its fundamental substance. "Becoming" is an attribute of Being and can be predicated of Being, but Being is prior to it and is the more basic reality.

This is problematic for the theory of evolution. If evolution is true, even theistic evolution, then there really is no underlying Being that undergoes accidental change but is not itself changed. Being is becoming. Everything is in a state of flux. In short, there can be no concept of substance with an evolutionary model. This is the center of the matter, the center that the Council of Cologne and Vatican I perceived with striking clarity. The fact of evolution is problematic because it makes the reality of substance impossible, and hence denies the fundamental nature of reality as an ex nihilo creation of God. Both atheistic evolutionists and so-called "theistic" evolutionists deny is that creatures, and mankind specifically, were created at once by God "as regards their whole substance."

In the case of man, what is implied by this phrase, "their whole substance?" As mentioned above, substance is reflected in the particular nature of a given creature. So, the substance of man is human nature. Therefore, Vatican I teaching means that everything that pertains to human nature was created directly from God out of nothing. This implies two things: that the first man had everything pertaining to human nature and was in all ways a whole man, "with regards to [his] whole substance"; second, that this whole substance was created directly by God out of nothing, which precludes the possibility that the body could have evolved from earlier life forms, since that would not be "produced from God out of nothing." Remember, the "human nature" includes not just man's rational soul, but even his body, inasmuch as our materiality is part of what it means to be a human being. Man is a unity of body and spirit. This will be important to remember later.

Vatican I highlights the unity of man's rational and material aspects in its chapter "On God the Creator of All Things". The Council taught:

"This one true God, by his goodness and almighty power, not with the intention of increasing his happiness, nor indeed of obtaining happiness, but in order to manifest his perfection by the good things which he bestows on what he creates, by an absolutely free plan, together from the beginning of time brought into being from nothing the twofold created order, that is the spiritual and the bodily, the angelic and the earthly, and thereafter the human which is, in a way, common to both since it is composed of spirit and body [3]

The Council teaches that in creating the one universe, God did so in a twofold order - material and spiritual, both of which coexist together within the one creation. This creation is perfected in the creation of mankind, who is unique because in his very nature he unites the material and the spiritual in a single being. Man is thus the crown of God's creative work. Notice that the meaning of the above passage presupposes the single creation of human nature, material and spiritual, together. Again, the implications do not fit easily with evolutionary theory, even a theistic evolution which would posit the creation of man's spiritual-rational nature separate and at a much later date than his material body.

Thus, while Vatican I does not condemn the theory of evolution by name, we see a strong affirmation of the single creation of a fully formed human nature and a condemnation of anyone who denies that creatures were created "as regards to their whole substance." Add to this the explicit condemnation of evolution by the Council of Cologne, which the Church never contradicted or qualified, and we can say that the Church of the late 19th century taught that the theory of evolution implied serious theological problems, mainly surrounding the reality of substance and creation ex nihilo. If evolution is not formally condemned by name, the principles implied by evolution certainly are - and note, they are condemned not primarily because they conflict with a literal reading of Genesis 1, but because they call into question concepts which are central to the Catholic faith.

Literary Controversies (1878-1899)

The last decades of the 19th century saw the hostility of the Holy See towards evolutionary theory confirmed in the formal censure of three controversial books which all purported to reconcile evolution with Christian dogma. The first censure came from the Congregation for the Index in 1878 and was targeted at a work of the Italian priest Fr. Caverni entitled 
De’ nuovi studi della Filosofia, Discorsi ("New Studies in Philosophy, Discourses to a Young Student"). Caverni had proposed that perhaps God formed the body of man by evolutionary processes and informed it with a soul when the necessary evolutionary stage had been reached. This is essentially the same teaching Pius XII made allowance for in Humani Generis seventy-two years later.

In 1899, the Holy Office imposes censures on J.A. Zahm, an American layman and professor at Notre Dame, who had argued along the same lines as Fr. Caverni. Zahm's book, Evolution and Dogma, was ordered withdrawn from print, and Zahm complied, as did Fr. Caverni when his work was censured.

The most noteworthy and telling insight into the mind of the Holy See during the latter years of the 19th century is afforded by the records of a controversy surrounding the book of a French Dominican, Fr. Léroy, The Evolution of Organic Species, published in 1887 between the Caverni and Zahm cases. The central thesis of Léroy's book was that evolution and creation were not fundamentally opposed to one another and could be harmonized. The book came before the Holy Office in the form of several dubitum submitted by a layman. The Holy See employed the services of a consultor, a Fr. Domenichelli, who stated that, while such theories pushes the limits of what was palatable to Catholic theology, they did not cross the line into heresy.

The response of the Holy Office is interesting. Though Fr. Domenichelli stated that the contents of Léroy's book came perilously close to heresy, the Holy Office was apparently concerned that Domenichelli's report was not sufficiently condemnatory and asked for three more consultors to examine the work, all of which condemned it in no uncertain terms. One of the consultors, Fr. Buonpensiere, OP, opined that a reconciliation between evolution and sacred dogma was not possible, and that the very attempt to harmonize the two was an unfitting pursuit for Fr. Léroy:

"Fr. Léroy...instead of combating the absurd opinion of evolutionist anthropologists with the dictates of Revelation, seeks to harmonize evolution with Sacred Scripture and Divine Tradition...Evolution, as all Catholic philosophers teach, stands resolutely condemned by the science of ontology as well as by empirical science" [4]

The Holy Office found problems with Fr. Léroy's book for a multitude of reasons, including that the acceptance of evolution would mean that essences would be changeable, which was fundamentally contrary to a Catholic understanding of reality. If there were no unchangeable substances that possessed certain natures but merely realities all in a state of flux, how could we speak of, say, human nature that is the object of God's grace, or of the substance of Bread and Wine which changes into the Body of Christ? If there is only becoming, there is serious implications for these doctrines. In 1895, Fr. Léroy was summoned to Rome, ordered to recant and withdraw his book from publication, which he submitted to in humility. His book and several others seeking to harmonize evolution and creation were placed on the Index.

These literary controversies reveal a few important points:

First, the Holy Office took a definitive stand against any attempt to harmonize evolution with Genesis. Three major works, one Italian, one American and one French, were all condemned and placed on the Index for attempting such a harmonization.

Second, the distinction these authors attempted to introduce that Genesis was concerned with the fact of creation but not the method utilized by God was not accepted by the Holy Office. The opinions condemning Fr. Léroy's work took the position that the special creation of Adam's soul and body directly by God was de fide divina. The great German theologian Fr. Matthias Scheeben, in his work Dogmatica, (the 19th century equivalent of Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals), said the teaching of the evolution of the material body of man from preexisting organic material was heretical [5]. Cardinal Mazzella's dogmatic theology textbook, which went through four editions before the end of the century and was used in the papal seminary in Rome, taught the immediate formation of Adam’s body by God to be a "most certain truth" derived from Revelation [6]. This demonstrates that the Holy See during the pontificates of Pius IX and Leo XIII took a firm stand against evolutionary theory, believing it was problematic to the faith for a variety of reasons. It would thus be mistaken for anyone to assert that the Church "has never had a problem" with evolution.

Third, the theological problems the Holy Office had with evolution were not restricted to objections based on a hyper-literal reading of Genesis 1; the historical nature of Genesis 1 was certainly affirmed, but their concerns had to do with questions on original sin, man in the image of God, the sense of Scripture, the unity of human nature, and most importantly, the existence of immutable substances and primacy of being over becoming.

By 1900 we see the Holy See had taken a firm but quiet stand against the theory of evolution and had censured theologians who had attempted to reconcile Genesis with Darwin's new theories. The condemnations span an entire generation, from the 1860 declaration at Cologne to the Vatican I affirmation of creation of beings "according to their whole substance", or "according to their kind", as Genesis says, to the consistent condemnation of theological works attempting to harmonize the Faith with evolution throughout the 1870's, 1880's and 1890's.


By the first decade of the 20th century, it was clear that the Magisterium frowned upon the theory of evolution, which until that time was kind of a fringe theory adopted by some progressive theologians within the Church who sought to reconcile revelation and "science." Their motivation was not malicious; in many cases, as with Fr. Léroy, these authors were trying to save the Church from coming down on what they saw as the "wrong side" of science, as in the Galileo affair. Fr. Léroy, Fr. Caverni and Professor Zahm were faithful Catholics who, when presented with the errors in their works, recanted humbly and accepted the Church's correction.

From 1900 on, however, evolution took on new importance in the Church as it was adopted by the Modernists and became the central tenet of their thought. Indeed, from 1900 on evolution and Modernism would be inextricably bound.

Synthesis of All Heresies 

It is difficult to point to a beginning of the Modernist crisis, but it is no exaggeration  to say that it began in earnest when Catholic theologians began attempting to apply evolutionary concepts to the Church's understanding of herself. The first to do this was Fr. Alfred Loisy (1857-1940) who taught that the substance of the faith had formally changed since the apostolic times and believed that the Christ of Nicaea was substantially different from the historical Christ. Loisy, who described himself as "
more pantheist-positivist-humanitarian than Christian", believed that Christian dogma evolved to suit the "spiritual needs" of the people of any given epoch [7]. If Christianity was to survive, it needed to again evolve to suit the tastes of modern man.

Another Modernist, George Tyrell, S.J., taught that each age had a right to adjust the expression of Christianity to reflect contemporary man's condition. Here, too, evolution of dogma was the central tenet of his thought. Tyrell was excommunicated and died outside the Church in 1909.

One of the most important modernists was Fr. Ernesto 
Buonaiuti (d. 1946), a biblical scholar of the Historical Critical school who was an unabashed Modernist and taught that Christianity needed to shed its medieval encrustations if it wished to survive into the modern age. Like Tyrell, he was excommunicated and died without being reconciled.

We could go on examining the theories of other Modernists such as Maude Petre, Batifol and Hans Küng, but such a project is beyond the scope of this work. Loisy, Tyrell and Buonaiuti are cited as examples of central place occupied by the principle of evolution in the theories of the Modernists.

Modernism, according to the famous definition of St. Pius X, is the "synthesis of all heresies" [8]. But the reason Modernism is the synthesis of all heresies is not because it professes all heresies formally, but because of its incorporation of the principle of evolution as applied to truth. Darwin had presented the world with a model of reality which stressed becoming over being; in fact, there really was no "being" in the Aristotelian-Thomist sense. Every "being" was merely a moment in the history of becoming. That being the case, it was only so long before this concept was applied to revealed truth and even God Himself, and thus the Modernist theological school proposed that dogma can in fact evolve, not just in expression but in substance, which is a logical consequent of affirming the evolution of material substances. This is the sense in which Modernism is a synthesis of all heresies: because truth itself is subject to change, dogma becomes a potent medium for the impression of any teaching. Once the evolution of dogma is admitted, every heresy is present in potency.

Pius X noted that the evolution of dogma proceeds from the principle of vital immanence, the belief that all religious truth is ultimately a reflection of the internal experience of individuals. Because the experiences and spiritual needs of individuals are liable to change, the meaning of the truths of the faith required by people must change as well:

"Hence it is quite impossible to maintain that they absolutely contain the truth: for, in so far as they are symbols, they are the images of truth, and so must be adapted to the religious sense in its relation to man; and as instruments, they are the vehicles of truth, and must therefore in their turn be adapted to man in his relation to the religious sense. But the object of the religious sense, as something contained in the absolute, possesses an infinite variety of aspects, of which now one, now another, may present itself. In like manner he who believes can avail himself of varying conditions. Consequently, the formulas which we call dogma must be subject to these vicissitudes, and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma. Here we have an immense structure of sophisms which ruin and wreck all religion" [9].

Thus over time, we will witness a kind of religious evolution which corresponds to our physical evolution. Even as physical evolution weeds out the unfit and dispenses with unnecessary remnants of earlier epochs, so the evolution of religion will purify faith of elements no longer helpful to the current state of man. Even as biological evolution moves the organism towards a more perfectly adapted physical existence, so the religion of the future will be more perfectly correspondent to the scientific-rational worldview of modern man. Evolution thus becomes the one reality which explains both the material and spiritual trajectory of mankind. We will see this thinking refined later in the teachings of Teilhard de Chardin. It is for this reason that Pius X says that evolution is the "principle doctrine" of Modernism:

"First of all [the Modernists] lay down the general principle that in a living religion everything is subject to change, and must in fact be changed. In this way they pass to what is practically their principal doctrine, namely, evolution. To the laws of evolution everything is subject" [10].

Evolution entered the Church as part of a very particular academic dispute over the reconciliation of science with Genesis; under the hand of the Modernists, it became the central principle of dissent against the Catholic Church, in the name of which every innovation was justified.

Fortunately, the saintly Pope Pius X was not unaware of the canker the Modernists were introducing into the Church. His 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, quoted above, called out and condemned the core principles of the Modernist movement. A further condemnation came with Lamentabili Sane, which condemned sixty-five Modernist propositions, including the belief that "
Dogmas, Sacraments and hierarchy, both their notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence which have increased and perfected by an external series of additions the little germ latent in the Gospel" [11]. The 1910 "Oath Against Modernism" was meant to crush Modernist thought in Catholic academia and root it out of the hierarchy.

Pius X was partially successful in this endeavor, but the seduction of Modernism was strong. From the 1930s until the eve of Vatican II, we will see a rehabilitation of Modernism and the solemn enthronement of the chief tenet of Modernism, evolution, in the thought of the Catholic Church.


Once the Modernists fixed evolution as the central tenet of their thought, the next step was to build a bridge between these condemned Modernist theologians and mainstream, contemporary Catholic thought. The evolutionary approach to theology needed to become mainstream, and the person to do it was the famed Jesuit priest and paleontologist Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

It is way beyond the scope of our essay to examine all of the works of Teilhard or even begin to summarize his teachings; a good critique of Teilhard's theology and its relation to the thought of Joseph Ratzinger can be found in James Larson's excellent article "A Living Host: Liturgy and Cosmic Evolution in the Thought of Benedict XVI and Teilhard de Chardin", available on his website War Against Being

For our present purposes, it is sufficient to note that Teilhard, even from his days in the seminary, took a profound interest in the theory of evolution and devoured the very sorts of Catholic evolutionary works the Holy Office was condemning. He undertook paleontology work in Britain and later China; his scientific inquiries into the origin of mankind led to his being "dazzled" by the insight that evolution was the key to unlocking the mystery of the universe. Teilhard wrote:

“How is it, then, that as I look around me, still dazzled by what I have seen, I find that I am almost the only person of my kind, the only one to have seen? And so I cannot, when asked, quote a single writer, a single work, that gives a clearly expressed description of the wonderful ‘Diaphany’ that has transfigured everything for me?

....Everywhere on Earth, at this moment, in the new spiritual atmosphere created by the appearance of the idea of evolution, there float, in a state of extreme mutual sensitivity, love of God and faith in the world: the two essential components of the Ultra-human. These two components are everywhere ‘in the air’; generally, however, they are not strong enough, both at the same time, to combine with one another in one and the same subject. In me, it happens by pure chance (temperament, upbringing, background) that the proportion of the one to the other is correct, and the fusion of the two has been effected spontaneously - not as yet with sufficient force to spread explosively — but strong enough nevertheless to make it clear that the process is possible — and that sooner or later there will be a chain-reaction [i.e., his ideas will catch on and spread]" [12].

A "new spiritual atmosphere" has been created by "the appearance of the idea of evolution" which has "transfigured everything." From here on out, the idea of evolution is the central pivot upon which every other concept of Teilhard's thought rotates. It is the definitive truth about reality.

This is not an exaggeration. Teilhard taught that the evolution of the cosmos, the biological evolution of creatures, and the intellectual and spiritual development of man are all part of a single evolutionary movement of the cosmos - from inanimate matter towards conscious spirit. Spirit is an emergence from matter even as life is an emergence from non-life. 
Teilhard taught that at all times and everywhere, matter is endeavoring to "complexify" upon itself, as observed in the evolutionary history of the Earth. Matter complexified from inanimate matter, to plant life, to animal life, to human life. Or, to use Teilhard's jargon, from the geosphere, to the biosphere, to the noosphere (of which humans represented, because of their possession of a consciousness which reflects upon themselves). As evolution rises through the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere, matter continues to rise in a continual increase of both complexity and consciousness. The evolutionary arc terminates at a place called the 'Omega Point', the terminus and goal of history, which can best be explained as the total possible integration of human consciousness and material complexity, in such a way that the universe itself attains a collective consciousness. This is identified with Christ, who draws all things to Himself. Thus the Cosmic Christ is the focus of the Omega Point.

This ought to send up red flags to any Catholic with a modicum of catechesis, but Teilhard was eerily prophetic in his statement that his teachings would catch on and begin a "chain reaction." Teilhard was censured harshly for his views - he was removed from his teaching positions and as late as 1962 the Holy Office stated that Teilhard's writings "abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine... For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers" [13]. Nevertheless, Teilhard achieved a sort of rogue celebrity status during his life and was honored by several secular scientific institutions despite being censured by the Church and the Jesuit order continually from 1932 until his death. His works were read clandestinely in the seminaries throughout the 40's and 50's by the generation that would go on to preside over the Second Vatican Council.

In Teilhard all the teachings of the Modernists are summed up in the theory of the evolution of the cosmos towards the Omega Point. Pius XI and Pius XII, faithful to the direction set by Pius IX and Leo XIII on the question of evolution, wanted nothing to do with Teilhard's theories. Teilhard would die in 1955, still persona non grata in the pontificate of Pius XII. But beginning in the 1960's, the evolutionary theology of Teilhard began to undergo a sort of rehabilitation. Notable theologians took up spirited defenses of his work, insisting it not only orthodox, but essential to the future of modern Catholicism. Teilhard's work gained a kind of respectability among intellectuals, even those of otherwise orthodox disposition. None other than the great Fulton Sheen once said that the writings of Teilhard de Chardin “will appear like John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as the spiritual genius of the twentieth century"[14].

Teilhard's rehabilitation was advanced vigorously during the 1960's by two eminent theologians. The first was Cardinal Henri de Lubac, a fellow Jesuit and student of Teilhard who wrote The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (1968) defending the teachings of Teilhard as completely orthodox and accusing those who condemned him of doing so out of ignorance. The second of Teilhard's great defenders was Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, whose 1968 book Introduction to Christianity, heaped praise upon the bizarre Christology of Teilhard.

After offering some very nominal qualifications that Teilhard had a
"not entirely unobjectionable tendency toward the biological approach" to the modern world, Ratzinger launches into a glowing praise of Teilhard's thought:

“It must be regarded as an important service of Teilhard de Chardin’s that he rethought these ideas from the angle of the modern view of the world and, in spite of a not entirely unobjectionable tendency toward the biological approach, nevertheless on the whole grasped them correctly and in any case made them accessible once again. Let us listen to his own words: The human monad “can only be absolutely itself by ceasing to be alone”. In the background is the idea that in the cosmos, alongside the two orders or classes of the infinitely small and the infinitely big, there is a third order, which determines the real drift of evolution, namely, the order of the infinitely complex. It is the real goal of the ascending process of growth or becoming; it reaches a first peak in the genesis of living things and then continues to advance to those highly complex creations that give the cosmos a new center: “Imperceptible and accidental as the position they hold may be in the history of the heavenly bodies, in the last analysis the planets are nothing less than the vital points of the universe. It is through them that the axis now runs, on them is henceforth concentrated the main effort of an evolution aiming principally at the production of large molecules.” The examination of the world by the dynamic criterion of complexity thus signifies “a complete inversion of values. A reversal of the perspective...

This leads to a further passage in Teilhard de Chardin that is worth quoting in order to give at least some indication here, by means of a few fragmentary excerpts, of his general outlook. “The Universal Energy must be a Thinking Energy if it is not to be less highly evolved than the ends animated by its action. And consequently ... the attributes of cosmic value with which it is surrounded in our modern eyes do not affect in the slightest the necessity obliging us to recognize in it a transcendent form of Personality” [15].

Again, the orthodox Catholic must pause here and ask what similarity this language has with the teaching of the Gospel? We are clearly lost in the gibberish of Modernism, which by the 1960's had seduced some of the leading theologians in the Church, including the future Supreme Pontiff, who has never recanted his early support for Teilhard and in his 2000 book Spirit of the Liturgy cited Teilhard in support of understanding "Christ as the energy that strives toward the Noosphere and finally incorporates everything in its “fullness’" [16].

Though not strictly related to Teilhardism, we should not pass over an important comment from Pope Pius XI, who in 1937 - at the height of Teilhard's celebrity - connected the evolutionary theory with the errors of Communism, who like Teilhard, had posited evolution as the fundamental fact of human development. Evolution tended towards a purely materialist conception of reality, which was obviously suited to Marxist ideology, as well as provided a historical matrix to understand the progress of the Communist revolution towards the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", the "Omega Point" of Communism. Pius XI wrote:

"The doctrine of modern Communism, which is often concealed under the most seductive trappings, is in substance based on the principles of dialectical and historical materialism previously advocated by Marx, of which the theoricians of bolshevism claim to possess the only genuine interpretation. According to this doctrine there is in the world only one reality, matter, the blind forces of which evolve into plant, animal and man. Even human society is nothing but a phenomenon and form of matter, evolving in the same way. ... In a word, the Communists claim to inaugurate a new era and a new civilization which is the result of blind evolutionary forces culminating in a humanity without God" [16].


Up until now we have seen how the Modernist emphasis on evolution was enshrined in the thought of Teilhard de Chardin and from there spread about Catholic academia where it attained a sort of avant-garde status during the 60's thanks to the works of Fr. Ratzinger and Cardinal de Lubac. But evolution was still not accepted by most Catholics let alone endorsed by the Church's Magisterium. To see how this happened, we need to backtrack to 1950, the year when Pius XII first opened the door to an official recognition of evolution.

The Crack in the Wall

The first crack occurred with Pope Pius XII's encyclical Humani Generis, which offered Catholics who wished to simultaneously affirm evolution and the Genesis, with certain conditions:

(1) The reality of our first parents as historical individuals was affirmed (i.e., polygenism is denied)
(2) The reality of Original Sin is likewise affirmed
(3) The theory of evolution is applied only to the development of man's material body, the soul being affirmed as directly and immediately created by God. 

It is the third condition that is of most interest to our current discussion. This condition is set forth by Pius XII in paragraph 36, which reads:

"[T]he 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 -- for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God" [17].

Note that this is very similar to the ideas in the works of Caverni, Zahm and Fr. Fr. Léroy, all of which were condemned during the pontificate of Leo XIII. Some have noted very minor differences between the theories of the condemned theologians and the allowance of Pius XII [18], but the similarities cannot be denied. Furthermore, note that Pius XII makes this exception by way of allowance, and in the same paragraph cautiously states that this allowance is to be given equal weight with the traditional understanding of Genesis 1. Even more importantly, he states that this question of whether Catholics can affirm evolution is ultimately a theological - not scientific - question and that "all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faithful" [19].

Ratzinger the Evolutionist

As we have seen with other concessions granted in the modern Church, the concession is eagerly latched on to while the conditions are thrown to the wind. The Conciliar and post-Conciliar period witnessed the broad acceptance of evolution by the Church's theological establishment, and the discarding of Pius XII's conditions. Foremost among the proponents of a Christian evolution was none other than Joseph Ratzinger, who, like Teilhard, makes evolution a central tenet of his theology. We see in the thought of Ratzinger a justification of the concerns of the Holy Office of Leo XIII - that acceptance of evolution, even a Christianized version, must result in the destruction of the concept of "substance." This is evident in Ratzinger's thought, which emphasizes becoming over being and places the fundamental realities of things not in substance or nature, but in their "relationships" to other things. In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger writes:

"The physicist is becoming increasingly aware today that we cannot embrace given realities – the structure of light, for example, or of matter in general – in one form of experiment and in one form of statement; that, on the contrary, from different sides we glimpse different aspects, which cannot be traced back to each other. We have to take the two together – say, the structure of particle and wave – without being able to find a comprehensive explanation – as a provisional assessment of the whole, which is not accessible to us as a unified whole because of the restrictions implicit in our point of view. What is true here in the physical realm as a result of the limitations in our ability to observe is true to an incomparably greater degree of the spiritual realities of God. Here, too, we can always look from one side and so grasp only one particular aspect, which seems to contradict the other, yet only when combined with it is a pointer to the whole, which we are incapable of stating or grasping. Only by circling round, by looking and describing from different, apparently contrary angles can we succeed in alluding to the truth, which is never visible to us in its totality” [20].

This represents a retreat into a sort of Kantian worldview - substance is unknowable, all that is knowable is our perception of things; the truth "is never visible to us in its totality." Obviously, this is problematic to the traditional view of the world, that creatures have substances reflected in their natures which are fixed and knowable to the intellect through the senses. This explains Ratzinger's discomfort with the traditional doctrine of creation, which he describes as a "difficulty" and a "problem." Ratzinger explains in his 1969 book Faith and the Future:

"The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be, is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe....And the problem continues, almost page by the very next chapter new problems emerge with the story of the Fall. How can one bring this into harmony with the knowledge that - on the evidence of natural science - man starts not from above, but from below, does not fall, but slowly rises, even now having only just accomplished the metamorphosis from animal to human being? And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world. Thistles and thorns grew long before any man had set eyes on them. And another thing: the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken in pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well" [21].

Ratzinger is ironically spot on in his assertion that evolution is problematic to the concept of original sin; how could man have fallen from "above" if evolution teaches that he emerged from "below"? Unfortunately, Ratzinger does not draw the logical conclusion that ergo, evolution is a contrary to the Catholic faith. Instead, he adopts radically new concepts of substance, original sin, and the special creation of man in order to retain his commitment to evolution. For example, further on in Faith and the Future we see that Ratzinger denies the traditional understanding of Transubstantiation, that "medieval dogma", because his evolutionary thought has caused him to deny the reality of "substance":

"Jumping over all the other affirmations of the Patristic age, that present obstacles to us today, let us take but a single example from medieval dogma, one that recently has aroused much interest: the doctrine of transubstantiation, of the essential change of the eucharistic offerings. As it is, the subtle meaning of this definition can be represented by the ordinary intellect only in a rough and ready manner, so that what is indicated is bound to seem for ever unattainable, especially as there is the additional difficulty, that the medieval concept of substance has long since become inaccessible to us. In so far as we use the concept of substance at all today we understand thereby the ultimate particles of matter, and the chemically complex mixture that is bread certainly does not fall into that category" [22]. 

Ratzinger is also very uncomfortable with the compromise allowed by Humani Generis. His critique is essentially similar to that leveled by many traditional Catholics: Pius XII's allowance that the soul was created immediately by God but the human body evolved introduces too much duality into man's nature. In addition to this, Catholic tradition had always asserted that man's body was the result of a special creation by God as well; this was taken for granted in the 1895 condemnation of Fr. Léroy's book, for example. To say that the material element alone evolved suggests that the body is not an essential part of man, that it is accidental to his nature, which begins to resemble the disembodied res extensa of Descartes. The Church has never taken a Cartesian view of man, however, and Vatican I says man, as pertains to his whole substance, was created by God ex nihilo. Free will, intellect, and the soul are some of the most excellent things about man and pertain to his higher calling, but they are not the totality of human nature, for part of human nature is to have a body, since man is a composite being. The human body itself is part of the substance of man, which Vatican I says was created in its "whole substance" directly by God ex nihilo. Therefore we cannot hold that one part of man's substance evolved while another was created immediately.

The problems with Pius XII's allowance are affirmed by Catholics who deny evolutionary theory, but also by Ratzinger, who embraces it. Ratzinger says this position that the literal meaning of Genesis 1 doesn't matter is disingenuous, especially since, as we have seen, notable theologians and even synods were insisting that the immediate creation of man's body and soul were de sententia certa, if not de fide. In his 1978 essays on creation, republished as Credo for Today by Ignatius Press (2009), Ratzinger condemns those who "make a dishonest compromise and for tactical reasons declare the terrain that has become untenable as superfluous anyway, after having so short a time before insisted loudly on situating it as an indispensable part of the faith" [23].

Therefore, the issue of creation and evolution must be dealt with somehow, although as mentioned above, Ratzinger strongly objects to the solution tentatively proposed by Pius XII. Ratzinger begins by noting that Pius XII allows an unacceptable dualism to enter into man's nature:

"Now some have tried to get around the problem by saying that the human body may be a product of evolution, but the soul is not by any means: God himself created it, since spirit cannot emerge from matter. This answer seems to have in its favor the fact that spirit cannot be examined by the same scientific method with which one studies the history of organisms, but only at first glance is this a satisfactory answer. We have to continue the line of questioning: Can we divide man up in this way between theologians and scientists--the soul for the former, the body for the latter? Is that not intolerable for both? The natural scientist believes that he can see man as a whole gradually taking shape; he also finds an area of psychological transition in which human behavior slowly arises out of animal activity, without being able to draw a clear boundary...Conversely, the theologian is convinced that the soul gives form to the body as well, characterizing it through and through as a human body, so that a human being is spirit only as body and is body only as and in the spirit, then this division of man loses all meaning for him, too" [24]. 

At this point, however, instead of reverting to a more traditional understanding of the immediate and special creation of man, Ratzinger instead opts to go in a direction even further in the line of evolutionary thought than the concession allowed in Humani Generis by means of Teilhardian cosmology and the relationship between matter and spirit. To Ratzinger it seems that it must be one or the other - spirit must evolve along with matter, or spirit and matter both must be created apart from evolution. Since Ratzinger has already found the non-evolutionary arguments to be "untenable," he now turns to none other than the condemned Jesuit modernist Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, he whose works the Holy Office declared "abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine". From Teilhard Ratzinger takes the idea that the universe represents the "self-actuation" of the Logos in time and space - that "the world as a whole, as the Bible says, comes from the Logos, that is, from the creative mind and represents the temporal form of its self-actuation...the world of becoming as the self-actuation of creative thought" [p. 44]. From this Teilhardian idea, Ratzinger will build up his conclusion that spirit can, in a sense, evolve from matter, since the developments we witness in the unfolding of the cosmos should not be seen as unguided evolution but as the self-actuation in time of a timeless Logos.

If the world is in a process of "self-actualization" in relation to the Logos, then the emergence of spirit into the world of matter can be seen as an inevitable part of this development. This leads Ratzinger to posit "matter as the prehistory of the spirit" and he formulates his idea of spirit emerging out of matter in Hegelian terms of matter as a "moment" in the development of spirit:

"It is clear that spirit is not a random product of material developments, but rather that matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit. This, however, is just another way of saying that spirit is created and is not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development" [25].

So the spirit is not simply infused into the ready biological material, as Pius XII allowed for, but neither is the human body created uniquely and infused with a soul. Rather, as the whole cosmos is tending towards a universal development towards spirit, the emergence of spirit into matter is something that is latent within the cosmos from the beginning, even if initially we see no traces of spirit. Spirit does not evolve out of matter, but is truly, in a sense, in potency with relation to matter, so that when matter has reached the proper developmental stage in its self-actuation, spirit is enabled to "emerge." Just as an acorn does not evolve into a tree, but rather, the tree is latent within the acorn; the emergence of the tree is the self-actualization of the acorn, not its evolution. He says:

"The appearance of spirit, according to the previous discussion, means rather that an advancing movement arrives at the goal that has been set for it" [26].

It is this advancement that Ratzinger calls the "rise of the spirit." Thus, through this Teilhardian logic, we are able to at once affirm that spirit is not the product of evolution while maintaining that spirit can indeed emerge out of matter "by way of development" , as Ratzinger says. This is, says Ratzinger, how "the special creation of man can coexist with an evolutionary world view, or what form it must assume within an evolutionary world view" (p. 45). Spirit develops out of matter but does not evolve from matter because spirit was always latent in matter.

So, how does this emergence of the spirit occur with reference to the human person, who would undoubtedly be the locus for the spirit's emergence? Having already discarded out of hand the traditional idea that God formed man immediately from dirt and infused him with life, as well as casting doubt on Pius XII's concession that God allowed man's body to evolve from preexisting matter, Ratzinger goes on to explain the emergence of spirit within man in the following terms:

"The clay became man at that moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought "God." The first "thou" that -- however stammeringly -- was said by human lips to god marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed" [27].

So, man becomes man as soon as man is capable of formulating the idea of God, "however stammeringly." Here we have Ratzinger's theory of the emergence of spirit out of matter and how non-human life forms crossed the ontological Rubicon from non-human into human existence.

Let us return from the twisted corridors of Teilhardian cosmology back to the sound footing of Catholic tradition. The first problem with Ratzinger's thesis is that, if we deny that spirit can develop from matter but admit that it arises out of matter by way of development, the fact is that it still evolves from matter. It is irrelevant whether the cause for the emergence of the spirit is extrinsic (some kind of random modification in biological matter that allows for the emergence of spirit), or intrinsic (an inherent principle of "elasticity" within matter that allows it to give way to spirit at a certain point, just as an acorn becomes a tree), the fact is we still have matter evolving into spirit., which runs contrary to Catholic theological tradition, which asserts the presence of a rational spirit in man as due to the direct special creation of man by God. It doesn't matter (pun intended) whether the we say spirit evolved from matter or whether we say matter is a "moment" in the history of spirit. However you slice it, you still have spirit "emerging' out of matter, whether or not you say the change is blind evolution or a movement towards a goal. This is still quite troubling; Ratzinger admits with tradition that matter cannot evolve while spirit is created directly, but instead of posit the special creation of the body, he advocates for the evolution of the spirit.
Second, and more problematic, is the contrast between Ratzinger's understanding of the first concept of God and Catholic theology on the state of our first parents before the Fall. Ratzinger states that spirit first enters the world at the moment that the first being, "however dimly" and "however stammeringly" uttered the word "God." This would coincide with the moment in the Genesis account when God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam and makes him a "living being."
However, is there not a difficulty here? According to the doctrine of Original Sin, man originally existed in a state of perfect justice and preternatural glory. Humani Generis reminds us that we must believe in the existence of two literal first parents who were created in grace but fell into sin. Thus, our first parents would have been brought forth in a state of natural perfection with their minds enlightened by grace and an infused knowledge of God; not simply of His existence, but of His perfections and of the fact that man is created to be in relation with Him. In short, our first parents had a very clear and unmistakable notion of God - otherwise how could have been guilty of sinning against Him? Created fresh from His hands, enlightened in their intellect by grace and unmarred from sin, their understanding of Him in their perfected natural state was greater and clearer than most of us will ever experience. Can this vision of God which our first parents enjoyed prior to Original Sin be reconciled with Ratzinger's comments that the first conception of God emerged in the human species "dimly" and "stammeringly"? It seems that the first conception mankind ever had of God was a glorious vision, full of clarity and infused knowledge, man fresh from the hand of God, the splendor of creation and awe of the angels. Can this vision be reconciled with Ratzinger's stammering quadruped?

Ratzinger gets around these difficulties by proposing a redefinition of original sin, as he finds the traditional doctrine "misleading and imprecise" [28]. This may be surprising to those Catholics who have accustomed themselves to thinking of Ratzinger-Benedict XVI as a pillar of orthodoxy. I recommend James Larson's article "The Point of Departure" for a very thorough treatment of Ratzinger's beliefs about original sin. Ratzinger is at least logically consistent; it makes no sense to affirm evolution, deny the historicity of Adam and Eve, and yet insist on the traditional doctrine of original sin, as was made painfully clear when Cardinal Pell engaged in a debate with atheist Richard Dawkins on this question and made Catholics look stupid in the process.

As we see, Ratzinger and those of his theological school have adopted the evolutionary thought of Teilhard and the Modernists with all its horrific implications: the abandonment of substance, the special creation of man, original justice, original sin. Teilhard's rehabilitation by Ratzinger ushered in a period of enthusiastic acceptance of evolution by the universal Church, which happily ignored both the conditions laid down by Pius XII in Humani Generis as well as the theological objections from the pontificate of Leo XIII and the statements of Vatican I and Cologne. As a result, any caution regarding evolution, or even the radical application of evolution by Teilhard, have been thrown to the winds. Consider these troubling statements made by members of the hierarchy in praise of Chardin. For example, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli in 1981:

"What our contemporaries will undoubtedly remember, beyond the difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in this audacious attempt to reach a synthesis, is the testimony of the coherent life of a man possessed by Christ in the depths of his soul. He was concerned with honoring both faith and reason, and anticipated the response to John Paul II's appeal: 'Be not afraid, open, open wide to Christ the doors of the immense domains of culture, civilization, and progress" [29].

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles in 2004:

"In his own poetic style, the French Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin liked to meditate on the Eucharist as the firstfruits of the new creation. In an essay called The Monstrance he describes how, kneeling in prayer, he had a sensation that the Host was beginning to grow until at last, through its mysterious expansion, 'the whole world had become incandescent, had itself become like a single giant Host.' Although it would probably be incorrect to imagine that the universe will eventually be transubstantiated, Teilhard correctly identified the connection between the Eucharist and the final glorification of the cosmos" [30].

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in 2007: 

"Hardly anyone else has tried to bring together the knowl­edge of Christ and the idea of evolution as the scientist (paleontologist) and theologian Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., has done. ... His fascinating vision ... has represented a great hope, the hope that faith in Christ and a scientific approach to the world can be brought together. ... These brief references to Teilhard cannot do justice to his efforts. The fascination which Teilhard de Chardin exer­cised for an entire generation stemmed from his radical man­ner of looking at science and Christian faith together" [31].

Finally, Benedict XVI, praising the "great vision" of Chardin in 2009:

"It's the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a true cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host … Let us pray to the Lord that he help us be priests in this sense ... to help in the transformation of the world in adoration of God, beginning with ourselves" [32].

Meanwhile the modern Magisterium has continued to promote evolution as a viable cosmology and speaks out against attempts to return to the traditional understanding of creation. John Paul II's words to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he remarked that evolution "is more than a hypothesis", are well known [33]. In 2005, the chief Vatican astronomer Fr. George Coyne said that  "If [Catholics] respect the results of modern science, and indeed the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God" and stated that attempts to discern design in the created order are "not science" [34]. So much for St. Paul's teaching in Romans 1 that the Creator can be discerned from the creation! Cardinal Schönborn also enthusiastically endorses evolution - and not only evolution, but Darwinian evolution: "Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history. I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution" [35]. This should come as no surprise, considering the Cardinal's gushing appraisal of the work of Teilhard.

Essentially, what we have witnessed is nothing other than the solemn enthronement of evolution as a viable explanation for the origins of humanity. Although the last official pronouncement on the matter remains Pius XII's Humani Generis, few Catholic theologians today are willing to admit the existence of a literal Adam and Eve, and most have not worked out how this can work with the Church's doctrine of original sin. Those who have tried to formulate a resolution have, like Ratzinger, tried to inject more evolutionary theory into the Faith to solve the problems posed by evolutionary theory, such as advocating polygenism or novel understandings of original sin. We have also witnessed the theological precision demonstrated by the careful inquiries of the late 1800's lost as the limits of what is acceptable continue to be pushed by evolutionist theologians. Contrast the 1895 opinion of Fr. Buonpensiere that any attempt to harmonize evolution and creation was damaging to the faith to Cardinal Schönborn's opinion that there is "no problem" reconciling Darwinism and the Faith, or Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi's 2009 comment that "By now, no one would dream of saying that [Teilhard] is a heterodox author who shouldn’t be studied" [36].

The Catholic Church cannot change its teaching when that teaching has been definitively proposed for the faithful. However, in the question of evolution and its theological import, we have seen something very close to a revolution in the past generation - a revolution in support of a theory which Pope St. Pius X predicted would be the "wreck of all religion" [37].


[1] Council of Cologne, Tit. IV, c. 14. English found in Patrick O'Connell, Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis (2nd ed. 1968, TAN Books, Rockford, Ill, 1993, p 187).
[2] Vatican I, Session 3, Canon 1:5
[3] Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Session 3, "On God the Creator of All Things", Cap I:3
[4] This information is found in the Holy Office archive Acta Congregationis ab anno 1894 ad annum 1896, recorded by the Secretary, Rev. Fr. Cicognani, IIa; 132; p.118
[5] Dogmatica, Bk. III, n. 384
[6] Brian Harrison, "Early Vatican Responses to Evolutionist Theology", Living Tradition (Roman Theological Forum), No. 93, May, 2001 <>
[8] St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 39
[9] Ibid., 12
[10] Ibid., 10
[11] Pope St. Pius X, Lamentabili Sane, 54
[12] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, The Heart of the Matter, Harcourt, 1978, p. 100-101
[13] "Warning Considering the Writings of Father Teilhard de Chardin", Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, June 30, 1962
[14] Fulton J. Sheen, Footprints in a Darkened Forest, Meredith Press, 1967, p. 73
[15] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction To Christianity, 2nd Edition (Kindle Locations 2840-2865). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition
[16] Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal; Pope Benedict XVI (2009-06-11). The Spirit of the Liturgy (Kindle Locations 260–270). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.
[16] Pope Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris, 9,12
[17] Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, 36
[18] Harrison, "Early Vatican Responses to Evolutionist Theology,
[19] Humani Generis, 36
[20] Joseph Ratzinger,  Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, 1990, pg. 173-174
[21] Ratzinger, "Faith and he Future" (1969) p. 5-7
[22] Ibid., 14 
[23] Joseph Ratzinger, Credo for Today, Ignatius Press 2009 pg. 34
[24] Ibid., 38
[25] Ibid., 45
[26] Ibid., 46
[27] Ibid., 46-47
[28] Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning…A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (William B. Erdmans Publishing Co., 1995), pg. 71-72
[29] Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, L'Osservatore Romano, June 10, 1981
[30] Cardinal Avery Dulles, "A Eucharistic Church: The Vision of John Paul II" – McGinley Lecture, University, November 10, 2004
[31] Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith, Ignatius Press 
[32]  “Benedict XVI Praises the Cosmic Liturgy of Teilhard de Chardin,” L’Osservatore Romano, July 29, 2009
[33] John Paul II, "Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences: On Evolution", Oct 22, 1996
[37] Pope St, Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 12