Evolution and Original Sin: Where Are the Parameters Today?

As I prepare to kick off a series of reflections on the impact of evolutionary theory on the doctrine of Original Sin and our first parents, I must start with a brief analysis of the state of the question of “first parents.”  Can we hold that there were more than two original human beings?  After all, the Catechism states in paragraph 375: 

The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”. This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”.

And the two famous paragraphs from Humani Generis, written by Pius XII in 1950:

36. For these reasons 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 – for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided 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 faith.[11] Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question.

37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.[12]

Do these two sources close off a discussion of “first populations” rather than first parents?  For if evolution is to be taken seriously, it seems no longer plausible to point to one set of first parents.  Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam not only lived at least a century apart, but they also most likely did not belong to the same population of humans.  The more DNA studies progress, the less plausible it will seem to hold firmly as a theological principle to the idea that all human beings must come from an original set of parents made up of one man and one woman.  

But what about the texts above?  The most serious one is Humani Generis.  Yet we must place the encyclical in its proper context.  It was written, of course, during a very tense time in theology.  The so-called “New Theology” was at its height, and with it the charges of historicism leveled against it.  It was in response to this that the encyclical was primarily written.  It was following the lead of Leo XIII that scholars began to realize the plurality of opinions in the Scholastics. Along with this realization came the need to interpret.  The context of authors within their religious orders, the worldview within which they wrote, all of these now became important. It was into this fight in which de Lubac had been silenced as well as de Chardin that evolution got pulled.  

Of course, those like Chenu and de Lubac were not engaged in historicism, but such was the fearful accusation of the times.  And this fear was extended to evolution. But we should notice that with this fear in the air, Humani Generis still gives evolution a fairly positive assessment.  Though paragraph 5 says that it has still “not been fully proved,” the paragraphs above show that Pius XII had no trouble with the idea that human beings come from monkeys, as long as it is held that God creates the soul immediately.  Theologians have freedom to discuss this topic, and indeed had been doing so since Fr. John Zahm, CSC at the turn of the century and earlier.  This was an accepted position. 

But Pius XII makes it clear that several first parents, or “polygenism” is out of the question. As faithful thinkers with the Church who see scientific problems with this position, what can be said?  

First, it is important to note that since 1950, the prohibition on polygenism has never been repeated by the Magisterium.  This not to say that popes have not had things to say about evolution.  John Paul II went beyond Pius XII, in his 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences.  He noted that though Pius XII called evolution a “serious hypothesis,” we must now admit that it is “more than a hypothesis.”  

John Paul then notes that Pius XII spelled out the “condition on which this opinion [evolution] would be compatible with the Christian faith.”  But the only condition that John Paul II goes on to mention is that it must be held that the human soul is created immediately and directly by God.  He passes over polygenism in silence.  

It seems that this must be understood as intentional.  There has been no mention of the condemnation on polygenism since 1950, and almost 60 years later, with a much better undestanding of the scientific foundations of evolution, the Church remains silent on this point. 

So is all we have is this silence on this point?  I don’t think so.  In 2004, the Internation Theological Commission, formed by Paul VI in 1969, came out with a document called “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.”  At the time when this document came out, the ITC was under the authority of Ratzinger, then head of the CDF.  The commission notes in paragraph 63:

While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population [my emphasis] of common genetic lineage.  However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens.

In other words, as long as theologians hold to the immediate creation of the soul and the ontological leap that this implies, we are free to discuss original populations rather than original parents.  Or so the silence from the Vatican and the direction that the ITC tentatively takes seem to imply.  

The first thing this means of course is that we no longer have to think that Cain’s wife is one of his own sisters.  But apparent problems arise also.  Just because the Vatican is silent on this matter and possibly sees no contradiction, is the Bible silent?  Does the creation myth of Adam and Eve really point to monogenism as a theological truth asserted by the human author?  I don’t think so at all.  

Thus, in the next post I will look at the meaning of the first evolved population in light of evolution, and what the doctrine of Original Sin could possibly mean in this context.  

8 Responses to Evolution and Original Sin: Where Are the Parameters Today?

  1. Nice intro, Nathan. Looking forward to the next piece.

    I’m interested in thinking through a polygenist original sin…or a polygenist original sins?

    Though, might we posit such a ontological leap in one set of that African humanoid community who began to propagate the species from that point?

    Factual question (I’m not sure what the data shows): If Africa was the first center, are there simultaneous centers springing up everywhere at that time or does the data point to a steady outgrowth from Africa or is the data inconclusive?

  2. Thank you for this interesting post.

    I do not find the argument from the appararent silence of the Magisterium since 1950 very convincing. The repetition of a teaching can certainly intensify its weight (cf. Lumen Gentium 25) but I am not at all sure that the principle works in reverse.

    In any case, Paul VI also disapproved of polygensim in an address to a Symposium on Original Sin (58 AAS [1966] 649-55). The language used in the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ and its ‘Compendium’ is also clearly monogenistic.

    Nonetheless, many writers argue that the disapproval of polygenism is not definitive. Germain Grisez, for instance, writes that “it is not clear that either of these popes proposed monogenism as the position to be held definitively. Hence, if a Catholic can show how polygenism is compatible with the essential elements of the Church’s teaching on original sin, then he or she may admit polygenism on the basis of the evidence in favor of it.”

    The difficulty that Pius XII had with polygenism is that “it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with” the Church’s doctrine of original sin. I have found the polygenistic theories which I have encountered to be beset with the same problem. I look forward to reading how you address it in your next post.

  3. bill bannon says:

    You took the Grisez quote right out of my key board. He made it in “Christian Moral Principles”, volume one of “The Way of the Lord Jesus”. And I’d just add that for those unfamiliar with him, he is on other matters very conservative and actually spends much time in that volume criticizing a veritable host of theologians who are less conservative than he is on moral matters. His being open on polygenism then in that context is a real datum and I would suppose he sees a spiritual fathership in Adam that does not depend on succesion in time or an ultimate physical fathership.

  4. crystal says:

    I don’t understand this very well but I’m looking forward to your continuing posts on the subject, especially how the doctrine of original sin/the fall can survive, given the science.

  5. Cyrstal,
    I’ll do my best. Pius XII does after all say that “it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled.” But I think that has changed. Not only only can it be reconciled, but it must, lest we fail to uphold the unity of truth.

  6. bill bannon says:

    One lead perhaps is that we in the West including Popes see little of importance as to the family line of stepfathers when talking of a child’s heritage. But both genealogies of Christ given in two gospels are through the stepfather, Joseph…not through Mary through whom we in the West would have instinctively done a genealogy.
    So can such a Biblical priority be not simply Jewish but Divinely willed and not simply permitted within scripture and have something to do with the ultimate answer as to how contemporaneous but other sourced humans had Adam as father in the biblical sense if not in our sense of father?
    Luke begins the genealogy with a comment that people thought Joseph was the father:
    Luke 3:23 “When Jesus began his ministry he was about thirty years of age. He was the son, as was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli..” he then proceeds to go through the whole genealogy of him who was thought to be Christ’s father.
    Mary though calls Joseph the father of Christ when at 12, Christ was lost and then found teaching the elders: Luke 2:48… “his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
    Christ immediately in the very next verse even corrects her as to that word “father” not by contradicting her use of it for Joseph (which is stronger than Luke’s comment ” as was thought”) but by noting to her subtly who His real Father is: And he said to them, verse 49 “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
    So the way to accepting a polygenism around the topic of a one father Adam may be related to how Joseph…a stepfather in our culture…is given more weight by Mary and by Scripture in the genealogies even though he made no gene donation at all to Christ.
    Joseph has no dialogue lines in Scripture and even the shepherds and magi do have dialogue lines within Scripture. But Mary outside the Magnificat also has scarce verbal prescence as to dialogue lines.
    In any event, the stepfather, Joseph, is given through the genealogies and through Mary calling him “father” a prominence that the West is not inclined toward and this may be a lead as to how Adam could be “father” of all without having gene donation to all.

  7. Paul Cat says:


    I remember a show on the discovery Channel called “The Real Eve” that tried to find humanity’s genetic Eve. I don’t recall the outcomes of it, but if I remember correctly, it tried to recount the spread of humanity around the globe from Africa. I don’t think it ever solved the questions, but by means of using the mitochondrial DNA they pose an interesting argument for there being one original Eve for humanity. In other words, there appears that even in evolution there must be a first of a species, which then leads to questions as “what makes man man? What separates man from other species? What is different about the pseudo-man before he became man?”

    Please forgive me. Here begins the brain dumping in not logical order.

    Something I have always wondered about is, and this is more theological than scientific, what is the significance of the role of the New Adam if there was no original Adam? I hesitate boiling scripture down to conventional literary device.

    However, if the writer of Genesis meant that Adam and Eve fell and that it wasn’t so much two literal people as it was the population of the world and that within humanity all have the old Adam and Eve within (to some degree). Then the truth can also be said that humanity has within in itself the New Adam, which seems to bring the two Adams full circle.

    Still further the question from scripture arises, “From where did Cain’s wife come?” She appears to come out of nowhere yet from a different land and not from the same local as Adam, Eve, and the soon to follow Seth.

    Ohhh the mysteries!!!

  8. Joe says:

    Frank Sheed’s “Genesis Regained” has the best take. And the CCC. The Fall was historical. We descended from 1st Parents. Beyond that, no one knows. And a Jesuit priest certainly is not the one to explain and defend evolutionary theory OR, for crying out loud, PTC. Ratzinger also has said some harsh things about him as well. Not to mention the very sane Maritain.

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