Sense and Nonsense: Did Schall Evolve?

Chesterton remarked that, logically, the “survival of the fittest” the survival of those who survived. Thus, all that exist, are, by definition, “fit,” no matter how decrepit. Sometimes while shaving in the morning there is a certain consolation in this observation.

Two days before receiving a copy of the Holy Father’s remarks on evolution, I read the following respectful, but unsettling, letter to the editor in the Washington Times:

The Roman Catholic Church cannot have it both ways. It can defend the sacred faith as established by God and conveyed to mankind through Scriptures. Or it can create an utterly arbitrary system enslaving its adherents to the whims of a pontiff ensconced in Rome. The pontiff’s edict [on evolution, an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences] may force this institution to choose the ultimate path that it will take.

I thought, “The pope has done it now! What are these ‘whims’ he has suddenly concocted to enslave us all?”

I confess to having found little evidence that evolution—in the sense of mineral becoming vegetable, vegetable becoming animal, and animal becoming human—ever happened. There is data indicating a wide variety of change within these levels of being, but that is about all. E. F. Schumacher’s statement, in A Guide for the Perplexed, remains the best:

“Darwin,” we are told, “did two things: he showed that evolution was … contradicting scriptural legends of creation and that its cause, natural selection, was automatic with no room for divine guidance or design.” It should be obvious to anyone capable of philosophical thought that scientific observation . .. cannot do these “two things.” “Creation,” “divine guidance,” and “divine design” are completely outside the possibility of scientific observation.

After reading the Holy Father’s statement, I thought that Schumacher’s remarks indicate about where the pope is. Basically, John Paul II reaffirms what Pius XII said on evolution in Humani Generis.

First, just what is it that the pope is concerned with? He is not concerned with science and what it proves, though he is concerned with scientific methodology and what it cannot prove. Basically, evolution should be seen as a theory, an explanation. The pope notes that several independent studies converge to give evolution credibility.

Next, he points out that facts are just facts; they are not theories. “A theory is a metascientific elaboration, distinct from the results of observation but consistent with them.” A theory’s validity depends on whether it can be tested against the facts. Moreover, there is not just one theory of evolution, but several—that is, several elaborations of the same facts. There are “materialist, reductionist, and spiritualist” theories of evolution.

The Church is involved in this discussion because of man. Essentially, whatever the “facts” say about man’s body, it is man’s soul that makes him man, and makes him unique. And that is directly created by God. Thus, “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the mind as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.” Man is a “discontinuity, an `ontological leap.” The radicalness of this sudden leap, itself a fact, runs counter to scientific facts as interpreted by many evolutionary theories.

Moreover, as the pope points out, “the moment of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation, which nevertheless can discover at the eicperimental level a series of very valuable signs indicating what is specific to the human being.” That is, certain artifacts and other data can only come from a rational animal.

Basically, the pope says reason and science cannot contradict each other. Neither, in our present knowledge of evolution, do they contradict each other. We are obliged to the data, including the revelational data. We can hold that some form of evolution did happen. We can also hold that some form did not happen, if this is what the data suggests. The pope reaffirmed Genesis, the special creation of man.

About evolution, the “whims” of the pontiff seem, as usual, to be just about the best that can be said on the topic. Did Schall evolve? John Paul II cites, with approval, Pius XII: “The spiritual soul is immediately created by God.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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