Moving forward with polygenism?

This past weekend, Jesuit High School in New Orleans hosted the St. Robert Bellarmine Convocation on faith and science for high school teachers of science and theology in the archdiocese of New Orleans.  It was a tremendous success with over 80 science and theology teachers attending.  In the morning there were two main presentations, and then in the afternoon breakout sessions. 

My breakout was on the question of Adam and Eve, human origins, and modern genetics.  Below is my powerpoint from the talk.  Feel free to have a look at it.  Basically, I go through Church documents from the 1909 Pontifical Biblical commision assertion that Genesis 1-11 had to be treated as history to the last mention of polygenism by Paul VI in 1966 that it is still not to be taught since it is “not proved.”  My basic claim was that polygenism is now essentially “proved,” and since the Church has no trouble at all reconciling science with faith, we need to begin teaching, not polygenism yet as a “doctrine,” but the full debate surrounding it, to our students.  They need to know the questions and that there is a good chance that the Church will say something soon about polygenism thanks to the mapping of the human genome. 

I think there are three places in particular where we can see where the Magisterium left itself open to further development in this teaching.  First, Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis notes that a previous PBC letter to Cardinal Suhard in Paris concerning the historicity of Genesis 1-11 (in my powerpoint) was not meant to imply that Genesis does not teach history at all.  Rather, “the first eleven chapters of Genesis…do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes.”  In other words, exegetes are given room to study this question of historicity and whether or not history is after all implied in all parts of Genesis 1-11, particulary in places where there seems to be no history, but only transcendent truths in the form of myth. 

Second, while the teaching of polygenism is prohibited by Pius XII, he notes that “it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled.” This does not mean that polygenism cannot be reconciled, but just that right now it is not apparent how it can be.  I at least believe that we now have arrived theologically at a point of seeing it is now apparent how we can move past historicity.

Finally, Paul VI notes in an address on Original Sin in 1966:  “It is evident that you will not consider as reconcilable with the authentic Catholic doctrine those explanations of original sin, given by some modern authors, which start from the presupposition of polygenism which is not proved.”  The question now is whether polygenism has been proved, and since “truth cannot contradict truth,” it is time to move forward. 

Has the Church itself moved forward?  The nearest indication of this is in the 2004 International Theological Commission document “Communion and Stewardship.”  Three quotes in particular:

“In its original unity – of which Adam is the symbol – the human race is made in the image of the divine Trinity.”
“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 of common genetic lineage.”
“Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called ‘an ontological leap…the moment of transition to the spiritual.’”

Take a look at the powerpoint below and let me know what you think or if I’m missing anything. 

Polygenism Talk

One Response to Moving forward with polygenism?

  1. David Bougie says:

    Nathan, the research here is excellent and provides a great historical background that explains the Church’s stance on polygenism. You have illustrated the manner in which the church, over the past century, has made great efforts to incorporate its beliefs into the modern world and alter teachings in response to changes, rather than ignore elements that may seem to undermine its authority. This article especially shows that the church is willing to take such actions regarding scientific issues that seems to have concrete evidence, rather than just sociological and more theoretical issues of the modern world. You mention that the church will probably come out with a statement “soon.” Soon seems rather vague. Why do you suppose the Vatican has not already issued such a statement regarding polygenism? I have enjoyed reading many of your posts and this particular one is no exception.

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