"Creation of Adam" (detail) by Michelangelo

“Creation of Adam” (detail) by Michelangelo

In 1981, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger, developed a catechesis for adults on the creation narratives because, he noted, creation catechesis was nearly absent from teaching, preaching, and theology. His catechesis was in the form of four Lenten homilies given in the cathedral of Munich. Later in 1986, and at the request of many people, he published the homilies in a short book, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall. (Full text here.)

In the third homily, he explored the creation of the human being, taken from the earth and made in the image of God. The homilies are theological, but a discussion of creation cannot be complete without a discussion of scientific progress in the twentieth century. Thus, the last section of this homily turns to evolution. Here he proposes the “inner unity” of creation and evolution and of faith and reason.

The truth of creation and the theory of evolution do not represent two different realities, he wrote, as is often portrayed by the perception that faith and science operate in mutually exclusive spheres. Pope Benedict instead called creation and evolution “complementary realities” in that they are different, but they go together. This seems to be key to understanding science in the light of faith. Science tells a literal story, but faith pulls science up into a richer, fuller, real story.

I think of it like this. Suppose a father wants to write a narrative for his son of the day the son was born. A literal account would amount to a list of medical facts and vital statistics told chronologically and precisely. That type of literal narrative, which would indeed read like a history and science text of the son’s birthday, would not capture the real story or offer the son much symbolism and imagery to accompany him through life.

If the doctors used other facts to propose theories about the son’s biology, the theory would add to the story of his birth, but the facts and the theories would only point beyond the image they represented to a greater reality of belonging, purpose, origin, freedom, rationality, and love—just as the natural sciences point beyond themselves to a creating Intelligence.

In telling the fuller story to his son about his birthday, the father might instead convey in the strongest way possible that the father loved his son, willed his son, and that it is good that the son exists. He might tell him about the first time he held the baby and looked into his eyes, or how he had hopes for the son’s future. The list of facts and theories would “complement” that fuller story and the fuller story would “complement” the literal account. Both stories would describe the same reality, but a reductionist accounting would fail to capture the full truth.

Similarly, the creation story, the “story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God” explains what humans are in a fuller truth than evolution can provide, but neither does the creation story mean we must reject advances in evolutionary science if it is not readily obvious how they complement each other. Creation is a story of our “inmost origin,” wrote Pope Benedict.  The theory of evolution can only search for biological explanations in physical terms.

On the other extreme of biblical literalism is the extreme of atheistic materialism. A materialist who lacks belief in God might say that life on earth and the existence of our species is the result of chemical and biological mechanics. A materialist might propose that chance and randomness are responsible for our origin. Such an outlook is even more dismal than only giving a child a list of facts and numbers about his birthday. It is like giving a boy a literal record of his birth and telling him there was no father who loved and willed him, no father in whom he could ever find faith, hope, and love. The boy might well conclude his existence was merely mechanical, the result of, as Pope Benedict put it, “blind chance that threw us into the ocean of nothingness.”

In his 1980’s book, the pope wrote that a teacher remarked how he tried to inspire gratitude toward parents by telling a child, “You owe it to them that you are alive!” The child replied, “I’m not at all grateful for that.” There are children, unfortunately, growing up with the empty notion that there is nothing fortunate in being human.

Here it is important to note that even for scientists “chance” and “randomness” do not refer to philosophical absolutes. Those two concepts refer to the limits of human ability to measure a process or know a physical law. Scientists generally agree that there are laws and processes governing the properties and behavior of physical matter even in situations that are deemed “chance” or “random.” The expectation of order and predictability are the basis of the scientific method. Even dice obey laws of physics when they are thrown. The research, however, in the physical and biological sciences is often exceedingly specialized. Those sciences do not have the time to explore the philosophical questions about where physical laws came from in the first place, but those questions are nonetheless most reasonable.

The view proposed by Pope Benedict is one of balance, an “inner unity” that considers faith and science, and hence creation and evolution, as “complementary realities.” We do not read Genesis as a science or history book because we do not believe a single chapter or a single narrative was intended to be sundered from the whole Bible nor do we believe that a literal account is all God intends to communicate in Genesis. Likewise, we also “have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not the products of chance.” Joyfully, we say that our existence—that human beings—are a “divine project,” willed and loved by a creating Intelligence.

It is the affair of the physical and biological sciences to explain how life might have originated, propagated, and then diversified on the Earth, to probe and discover the secret code of nature. But those probings should be understood under the firmament of faith. Catholics see all of the natural world as intelligently designed, everything from the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) that codes our genome to the cells that make up dandelions and the dirt beneath our bare feet, to the stars from which the elements may have sprung, to the remotest cosmic bodies we will never observe, to every water molecule that makes up every rain drop and ocean wave and every path each water molecule wanders and every spin, orbit, excitation, and relaxation of every electron in every atom that makes up all that water, to the materials with which we build our homes and computers, to the tears of a widow and the laughter of every child. It is all part of one universe created by God. We are from that universe. We are one race. Evolution is no more and no less theistic than chemistry or physics or cooking or wood-splitting.

Pope Benedict also advised in his work that we read the Bible with Christ, that the Old Testament is the story of God’s struggle with human beings to be understood. We can only understand the Old Testament if we follow to the end of the story, through Christ, reading the Bible as a unified whole. These homilies were presented during Lent, and Pope Benedict ended the homily with a Lenten message. He reminded us of Christ standing before Pilate. Scourged and crowned with thorns, Pilate implored the crowd to look at Our Lord, to “Behold the man.” In Christ, we can learn what it means to be human, that even in our smallest and most humiliating moments just as in the entire human history of sin, hatred, and suffering, we can see that the human is “loved by God to the very dust.” The dust, the love—complementary realities.

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