Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I was wondering if you had any opinion on the recent findings suggesting that humanity doesn’t descend exclusively from a single pair. Do you agree with John Farrell that science has essentially disproven the Fall? If so, how should Catholics interpret the whole concept of sin and salvation? Is it even possible to have a doctrine of sin without the Fall?
I think Farrell deserves to kudos for attempting to grapple with the question of the increasingly strong evidence for polygenism head-on rather than simply opting for radio silence. I also disagree with Farrell (at least in part) when he suggests that science has somehow refuted (or even could refute) the doctrine of the Fall. Science seems to have disproven the notion that humanity comes from a single solitary pair of humans made literally from a gob of clay and a rib, but that is something Catholic theologians have been mulling for some time now—with, I might add, complete fidelity to the Tradition. Pius XII left room for the possibility of polygenism in his discussions of human origins and Rome has made more room for it since Pius’ day. My money is on Rome making some measured public remarks on the matter sometime during my life, in which it will be made clear that this is a) the growing and converging testimony of the relevant sciences; b) a legit subject for scientific and theological inquiry; and c) not a Shattering Discovery that Shakes Christianity to Its Very Foundations, So Chill. For one very interesting (and deeply Thomistic) attempt to look at the problem, I highly recommend the invaluable Mike Flynn’s noodling of the problem.
There are basically two points at issue here: 1) Where do we come from in terms of biological processes and do the sciences really directly contradict the Christian account of that? and 2) Where does sin come from and do the sciences really directly contradict the Christian account of that?
Farrell cites Dr. Jerry Coyne, who thinks that polygenism spells doom for for the Christian doctrine of human “specialness” (whatever that means) and for the doctrine of the Fall. Re: the first question, Flynn rightly points out:
Dr. Coyne’s primary error seems to be a quantifier shift. He and his fundamentalist bedfellows appear to hold that the statement:
A: “There is one man from whom all humans are descended”
is equivalent to the statement:
B: “All humans are descended from [only] one man.”
But this logical fallacy hinges on an equivocation of “one,” failing to distinguish “one [out of many]” from “[only] one.” Traditional doctrine requires only A, not B: That all humans share a common ancestor, not that they have no other ancestors.
Flynn goes on to demonstrate that it is perfectly biblical and reconcilable with Catholic tradition to suppose A without B.
As to the second question regarding the Fall and original sin, this is something I cannot but wonder how one could imagine science has a word to say about it. Nor can I help but notice that this exact same argument about Science vs. the Fall is not “the latest science” but is, in fact, rather old and bad pseudo-science since exactly the same thing was being bruited a century ago. Here is Chesterton arguing with a Dr. Coyne of his day:
The following words are written over the signature of a man whose intelligence I respect, and I cannot make head or tail of them—
“When modern science declared that the cosmic process knew nothing of a historical event corresponding to a Fall, but told, on the contrary, the story of an incessant rise in the scale of being, it was quite plain that the Pauline scheme—I mean the argumentative processes of Paul’s scheme of salvation—had lost its very foundation; for was not that foundation the total depravity of the human race inherited from their first parents?. ... But now there was no Fall; there was no total depravity, or imminent danger of endless doom; and, the basis gone, the superstructure followed.”
It is written with earnestness and in excellent English; it must mean something. But what can it mean? How could physical science prove that man is not depraved? You do not cut a man open to find his sins. You do not boil him until he gives forth the unmistakable green fumes of depravity. How could physical science find any traces of a moral fall? What traces did the writer expect to find? Did he expect to find a fossil Eve with a fossil apple inside her? Did he suppose that the ages would have spared for him a complete skeleton of Adam attached to a slightly faded fig-leaf.
I have to suppose that Dr. Coyne, when imagining that physical science somehow demonstrates the falsity of the fall of our First Parents simply has no idea what the doctrine means and is arguing, not with Catholic theology, but with some picture books he may remember from Sunday School, full of talking snakes, apples, and Adam naming dinosaurs in the Garden. Such category mistakes and picture thinking often seems to afflict people who imagine that being Christian really does require one to believe that God is an irritable old bearded gentleman who lives on a cloud. In fact, however, one can be a perfectly orthodox Catholic and affirm the doctrine of the Fall without having to believe that Genesis 3 is a newspaper account. As the Catechism itself says:
390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.
How can Genesis use figurative language, but still affirm a primeval event? It can do it because mythic language is precisely the best way to affirm such an event, an upheaval that inflicted incalculable spiritual damage to the whole of the human race. It’s exactly what the prophet Nathan does when he confronts another spiritual progenitor whose sin inflicts incalculable damage on his descendant,s too:
And the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man. Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; and I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.” Then Nathan went to his house.
Is Nathan’s story of the rich man and the ewe lamb false? No. It is a perfectly true account, but it is not told using newspaper language. Genesis’ account of the fall does the same sort of thing. It uses figurative language to describe a real event which took place here in the real world, not in cloud cuckoo land: Our First Parents abused their free will, sinned against God and fell. The mythic language is truer language than newspaper language, because it brings us to the heart of what happened, which is far more important than a photographic record of what happened. A video of the first man committing the first sin would show us nothing, for the same reason that video of, say, a young Adolf Hitler sitting in a Vienna cafe and looking at an old Jew sipping his coffee would not reveal the momentous moment he turned from thinking, “Is this a Jew?” to thinking “Is this a German?” Traces of when sin, hate and evil are conceived in the heart cannot be detected in fossilized skulls. In the same way, even our outward actions don’t often tell much to those outside the heart. A modern onlooker would see nothing big happening in the sight of a few teenagers nicking a couple of pears from the neighbor’s tree. But for Augustine, that seemingly tiny act of selfishness was epoch making. Adam’s first sin was likewise probably invisible to the naked eye—the mere thought “No” directed at God or his own conscience would be sufficient. For all we know, it might literally have consisted of something as seemingly trivial as stealing a bit of fruit. But it was enough. It sent out shock waves in the heavens and down through human history. But the sciences can have nothing, yay or nay, to say about it.
Anyway, Flynn’s argument is an impressive tour of Thomistic thinking, and a fine example of a Catholic laboring to think with the Tradition. I urge you to check it out. It persuades me, once again, of the truth of Newman’s remark that ten thousand difficulties do not amount to a single doubt. I don’t think Catholic theology is in mortal danger—or indeed any danger—from the sciences, including the now very strong evidence for polygenism because I think Thomas is simply right that all truth is God’s truth and the Creator is the same God as the Redeemer Christ Jesus. Flynn makes a very strong case for why that is so.
If you are not familiar with the brilliance of Michael Flynn, by the way, you should be: (by day, a mild-mannered statistician/by night, one of the finest hard science fiction writers in the world. I particularly recommend his Eifelheim and The Wreck of the River of Stars). In addition, he is a Catholic and Thomist who has forgotten more medieval philosophy, theology, and (medieval and modern) science than the rest of us will ever know and regularly uses his gifts to inform and amuse people like me, who majored in English and not science for a reason.
Bottom line: There really are resources in the Catholic tradition for digesting this fascinating (but not, I think, anywhere near insuperable) challenge to the popular understanding of human origins and human sinfulness. The Church is in the very early stages of mulling over this matter and I am no prophet, but I suspect that, in a century or two, once the Church has finished puzzling out this matter, she will come down somewhere in the neighborhood of the territory Flynn (and others) are pioneering (though, of course, the science may be very different by then and scientists may, ahem, have come to incorporate or grasp insights to which it is presently blind due to its ignorance of St. Thomas and Catholic theology). Dr. Coyne’s approach is, alas, an example of that problem, but I will draw a discreet veil over that and simply point out that the rumors of the death of Catholic theology are greatly exaggerated. Polygenism is, to be sure, the death of simplistic fundamentalist and sola scriptura approaches to human origins, but that’s about it. And sola scriptura has been dead for anybody familiar with the ancient Christian approach to Scripture ever since Paul told the Thessalonians to hold fast to the traditions they had received, whether by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess 2:15).