“Does the new Pope believe in evolution?” Thus begins an article published soon after the College of Cardinals elected Pope Francis. The answer, intended to surprise, is “yes.” Still, the author assures us, “Catholics have largely missed the point.”
Why? Because while the Church acknowledges the existence of an evolutionary process — in fact Saint Augustine suggested as much in the 5th century A.D. — the Church also insists that “God’s involvement” in that process must be “acknowledged.” But Darwinism holds that evolution takes place through the survival of random genetic variations without guiding purpose or design. Thus, popular commentators conclude, the Catholic Church only pays lips service to modern biology: evolution and creation cannot be compatible, really.
The atheist and the fundamentalist both agree: the Christian must choose belief over biology. This is what Nietzsche called the “truly Christian judgment of science,” viz., that it is “of secondary rank, nothing ultimate.” For the atheist, here is reason to repudiate Christianity; for the fundamentalist, reason to repudiate modern biology.
But here’s where popular commentators, not Catholics, have largely missed the point: Catholic theology never shared this “Christian judgment.” Intelligent Design arguments, especially popular in Protestant circles, assume that theological arguments can succeed only where biological ones fail. The appearance of design in nature, the reasoning goes, can only be explained by invoking a divine creator — not a scientific mechanism.
But from the Catholic perspective, this is a false dichotomy. The problem is not that Darwin got rid of design, but that people began believing that design stands or falls with natural science.
The supposition that biological evolution has no purpose or design does not conflict with theology because it is an answer to a scientific, rather than a theological question. As Saint Thomas Aquinas emphasized long before the Scientific Revolution, natural science and theology are not competing bodies of knowledge; rather they are distinct and complementary forms of inquiry.
“Why is there a chair?” According to Aristotle, such a question can be interpreted in four different ways: “who made it?”; “for what purpose?”; “what is its nature?”; or “what is it made out of?”
Each way of asking the question corresponds to a different “cause.” The ancient Greek word for cause, aitia, also means “reason” — the reason why. Confusing these produces nonsense: “Who made the chair?” “To sit in.” Each kind of question looks for its own kind of answer. A complete explanation, Aristotle thought, involves all four.
Whether the original four causes can be maintained within the framework of modern science is controversial. What Aristotle called the “formal cause,” which corresponds to a thing’s metaphysical nature, came under attack in the early modern period in the writings of philosophers such as Locke and Hume. Their idea was that modern science could explain what a thing is made of and its governing laws without saying much about metaphysical natures.
Whether or not formal causes were ever truly banished from science, what Aristotle called “final causes” — the “for what purpose?” questions — held out much longer, at least in biology.
Galileo, Newton, and others had dispensed with “for what purpose?” questions in physics. Modern science seemed able to explain the physical world in purely “mechanistic” terms, without recourse to non-scientific notions such as “design” or “purpose.” But many resisted modern science’s intrusion into biological territory.