Human Origins and Catholic Doctrine

There are four topics that I would like to propose for discussion here:
  1. The creation of the universe. Can the traditional Catholic doctrine of the creation of the universe freely by God out of nothing be reconciled with the theories of contemporary physicists on the origin of the universe? (For more on this, see the discussion area "Can There be a Quantum Philosophy and Theology?")
  2. Evolution and the appearance of the first humans. The theory of evolution appears to be scientifically well-founded in its broad strokes. Can it be reconciled with Catholic doctrine that calls for the special creation of the human soul by God?
  3. Original justice. Catholic doctrine teaches us that our first parents were created in a state of grace, or original justice. Can this be reconciled with the findings of paleontologists? Does it imply that they lived in a world that is different from the one we live in now? Does it make sense to distinguish nature from the supernatural?

     4.  Original sin. Is the doctrine of original sin a viable one today?

Comments on what these questions mean.

The Creation of the Universe

Even though some physicists try to make an end run around the question of the universe - it popped out of nothing, or has no boundary condition, (See the discussion area  Quantum Theology?) - the basic Catholic position remains that the universe was created by God, freely and from nothing.

What does that mean? God is not part of the universe or even to be identified with the whole of it. On the one hand, the universe is a deep and intimate reflection of God's own being, but on the other hand, God did not have to create the universe. It is not some necessary emanation from God's being. God freely willed to create it, and not from some pre-existing matter, and not from some nothing that would be an empty space or some sort of energy field, but from nothing in the metaphysical sense of the word.

Is this view of God as the creator of the universe sustainable in the light of modern scientific developments?

Evolution and Human Origins

Evolution in its broad strokes is a well-established scientific theory. The universe began in a certain moment in time and expanded and evolved to the universe we know now. From a Catholic perspective the basic insight of Teilhard de Chardin, his law of complexity-consciousness in which the universe has grown in complexity and in consciousness, also appears well-founded. Therefore, it is reasonable to see the human race as the outcome of a long process of evolution, as science does, and to see the emergence of intelligent life as a natural and normal outcome of this evolutionary process.

But is such a perspective at odds with a Catholic view of the creation of the soul?See the attached reading.

Nature and the Supernatural

The modern distaste for the whole idea of the supernatural is due to a long history of controversy in the 20th century rather than any lack of importance of the subject itself. The critical problem, I think, is one of terminology and perspective. The word nature, for example, is susceptible to a variety of meanings. It can mean what a thing is, but it can also mean what a thing is in the concrete circumstances that I now find it. Catholic doctrine tells us that we are called to enjoy an intimate union with God in the life to come, a share in God's own life. Therefore, the ability to enjoy that destiny must somehow be in us. We could call that capacity in us our nature, but it would probably be better to call it something like supernature.

There are two perspectives here. In the first, we look at something according to its intrinsic principles. This approach we could call essentialistic. In the other, we look at something according to how it actually exists here and now, and this we could call an existential view of it. From a concrete or existential point of view we can say that we share in God's nature, or it is our nature to have a supernature. God gave us from the beginning a nature that can only be satisfied by reaching the goal of union with God.

But nature, as we saw, can also mean something quite different. By nature in the essentialistic sense, or according to our own intrinsic principles, we don't have and can't have a divine nature. We are not God; God must grant us a share in God's own life. We don't have it by nature.

Original Sin

Does the doctrine of original sin make any sense, or is it a relic of past times best quietly forgotten? There are certainly challenging questions we could ask about original sin and how it is currently formulated. What, for example, are its scriptural foundations? Or in what way can it be said to be a sin? But I still think that the doctrine of original sin deserves our careful attention as an integral part of the Catholic faith. Two reasons argue powerfully for that conviction:

1. The world as we experience it is filled with pain and suffering, and confusion and injustice, most of which must be attributed to our own disordered and destructive behavior. Why do we act like this?

2. The crucifixion of Jesus only makes sense if there was something terribly wrong that needed to be remedied.

A Response

The Christian doctrine of 'original sin' is a relic of the past which must be exercised from the faith! If this is not done then, it seems to me, any thinking Christian of the present, or future, will totally reject Christianity as being out of touch with reality. The doctrine of 'original sin' failed to take evolution into consideration. Of course, it was conceived long before Darwin's discovery, but to continue to believe, and teach, such a doctrine in today's society is ridiculous.

We are still evolving! We are still under construction! And, it would appear that we are evolving into a more spiritual creation, thank God! I totally agree with Karl Rahner who wrote, more than once, that "the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he [or she] will not exist."

I am a retired Anglican priest who has been deeply involved in mysticism for the last ten years. God Bless!

The Editors

Your opinion about original sin is shared, I think, by any number of people, but I have my problems with it because it seems to minimize the fact of evil in the world and reduce it to a kind of imperfection of evolution will be overcome in the course of time. We need only to pick up the newspaper or more powerfully, contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus to see what a powerful reality evil is. The doctrine of original sin is an attempt to understand where this evil came from, so I think an alternative to it would have to provide a better explanation.


A Response from Larry Hunsaker

I think the doctrine of Original Sin (OS) is quite valid and simply needs to be put into more modern language.  I certainly do not claim to have such language, but I can feebly attempt to express my view here for what it is worth.

 I see OS from 2 points of view:

1) It is in one way not so much a "sin" in the sense we view sin as being something each of us must commit in a personal way, because only Adam/Eve committed the sin that caused OS to enter into the human race, but can be seen as a loss of Original Justice, that perfection and grace we were given as a race in the beginning to enjoy union with God.  So in this sense, OS is a consequence that has has been passed on to us from Adam because of his "original sin" since Adam could not pass onto us what he no longer possessed, so we ended up losing out on Original Justice and this loss is one way of seeing OS.  Thus that grace of Original Justice which would have allowed us to keep all our passions and desires under control of our Reason and allow us to choose always what is most reasonable under the light of the grace of God in Original Justice was removed and we became slaves of our passions and desires and lost the light to see.

2) OS can also be seen in view of our whole race being one or unified. 

We can see humanity as a single entity like our body is one entity even though it contains and is made up of many living cells.  If even one member of this entity is faulty, the entire entity becomes corrupted in the sense that it is no longer perfect and so we suffer the loss of Original Justice because we as a race are not sinless.  So God is showing us that the perfection He wants from us as a race will not occur unless every sin in our race is removed.  This will happen mainly in Purgatory with those members who refuse to be "cured" being cut out of the body and lost forever in hell.  So the Communion of the Saints comes in as showing that even in heaven the human race remains united in some mystical way with the human race on earth.  So even though the human race in heaven is perfected from sin those on earth are not fully cleansed, but once all become either clean by the Blood of Christ and enter heaven or cut off from the body and enter hell, we cannot experience the final end God desires for us not just individually, but as a race as a unified whole.  So those in heaven right now are not experiencing the fullness of what they will experience when all of humanity that is predestined for the Body of Christ is finally in heaven, clean and pure.  They experience the Beatific Vision, but this is not necessarily perfected in them at this time, it is possible that the Beatific Vision they have now will increase and become the highest possible experience for them as God wills it for them only when all are in heaven who are predestined to go there.  The Beatific Vision is the highest experience for us, but different people will have higher experiences of it even though we will each have our own personal experience of it based on our merits.  I think we will enjoy two experiences, one a result of our participation with God's grace and another, a sort of accidental glory, which we receive from our being a member of the Body, so until all the members are in heaven, this accidental glory will be incomplete. Larry Hunsaker,

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

Reading: Jacques Maritain and a Thomist View of Evolution
How to contribute to this discussion