The Kolbe Center responds to the
New Oxford Review !
The April issue of New Oxford Review (NOR) featured an article entitled, “How Old is the Earth?” by Dr. Dermott Mullan. The article is critical of biological evolution but is very conciliatory towards cosmic evolution, the big bang theory and a great age of the universe. The article mentions recent activities of the Kolbe Center and the growth of young earth creationism within the Catholic Church. The article rightly takes a dim view of fundamentalism, defined as a literal interpretation of the Bible without regard to historical or literary context, Sacred Tradition, or the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. However, it strongly implies that anyone who believes in a literal historical interpretation of Genesis and a (relatively) young earth is ipso facto a “fundamentalist.”
Cover letter requesting publication in the New Oxford Review
Dear editors of NOR:
Pax Christi vobiscum!
Enclosed is a reply to the article by Dermott Mullan in the April New Oxford Review (NOR) titled “How Old is the Earth?”. This article referred to some of our recent work, without identifying the Kolbe Center as the target of the discussion.
We note that your advertising promotions include the encouraging and uplifting statement that dissenters take their cue from the fallen world, having faith in the tide of history rather than in Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium. You disavow a style which plays it safe by tranquilizing Catholics and claim to be on the front lines of the authentic Catholic faith as you vie against the shock troops of history. In this we are with you 100%.
Yet you present the cosmic theistic evolution position which attempts to baptize evolution in the water of scientific modernism without even balancing this revisionist approach with the traditional and orthodox view of Holy Scripture, which you profess to uphold.
Your respect for the integrity of dogmatic documents is highly suspect, in view of the cavalier treatment the NOR editors gave to deletions and insertions of papal decrees by the author.
Fortunately, we have provided the means for you to remedy these oversights by publishing the enclosed letter in the next issue of NOR.
Yours in the love of the Most Holy Trinity,
For the Kolbe Center,
Hugh Owen, Director
Dr. Robert Bennett, Advisor
Are Catholic Defenders of Special Creation “Fundamentalists”?
by Hugh Owen and Robert Bennett
The purpose of this letter is to set the record straight concerning the Kolbe Center and the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 in response to Dr. Dermott Mullan’s article “How Old Is the Earth?” The Kolbe Center was founded in 2000 to provide a forum for Roman Catholic theologians, philosophers, and natural scientists who believe in special creation—the idea that God created the different kinds of living things by divine fiat less than 10,000 years ago. We also hold that the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 offers a much better explanation of the facts of Scripture, Tradition, and natural science than the non-literal, non-historical interpretation of Genesis that is now in fashion in most Catholic centers of education.
The article rightly takes a dim view of fundamentalism, defined as a literal interpretation of the Bible without regard to historical or literary context, Sacred Tradition, or the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. However, it strongly implies that anyone who believes in a literal historical interpretation of Genesis and a (relatively) young earth is ipso facto a “fundamentalist.” The argument rests upon the hermeneutic principle laid down in Providentissimus Deus that the literal and obvious sense of Scripture must be adhered to unless reason dictates or necessity requires that it be abandoned in favor of a purely figurative interpretation. From this principle, it is argued that all literal historical interpretations of Genesis are “fundamentalist” since natural science has provided “irrefutable proof” that the earth and the universe are billions of years old.
It is ironic that Providentissimus Deus should be used as the basis for criticizing Catholics who adhere to a literal historical interpretation of Genesis and six days of creation, since Leo XIII himself championed the literal historical interpretation of Genesis against those who challenged it on “scientific” grounds in his encyclical on the Sacrament of Holy Marriage, Arcanum 5: Line 4-12. Leo wrote:
Though revilers of the Christian faith refuse to acknowledge the never-interrupted doctrine of the Church on this subject, and have long striven to destroy the testimony of all nations and of all times, they have nevertheless failed not only to quench the powerful light of truth, but even to lessen it. We record what is to all known, and cannot be doubted by any, that God, on the sixth day of creation, having made man from the slime of the earth, and having breathed into his face the breath of life, gave him a companion, whom He miraculously took from the side of Adam when he was locked in sleep.
To proffer our literal interpretation as insensitive to common sense, historical context and literary genre is to grossly miscast us as one-dimensional Fundamentalists in defiance of the Church’s teaching. The Kolbe Center is nothing if not Leonine in its Biblical literalism and obedience to the Magisterium.
The article quotes Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, Paragraph 38, to the effect that the way in which Genesis contains history is to be determined by exegetes. However, the Pope’s words have been heavily and poorly edited, transposed and misquoted. Here is the actual passage of Humani Generis from the Vatican site:
Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies. This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.
The words quoted in the article, “It has clearly laid down……” do not appear in Humani Generis. If intended as a paraphrase of “This letter, in fact, clearly points out…” it misleads by omitting the fact that the Pope is citing the PCBS letter, implying that these are his own words. The quotation continues as follows:
that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, [ although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time,] do [ nevertheless] pertain to history in [a] the true sense
Why no ellipsis to indicate that the Pope’s exception clauses were omitted? Why replace the Pope’s use of the indefinite article with the definite article? The HG section continues:
However, it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition…
This quotation is certainly not in Humani Generis—the words “right, standards, composition” don’t appear anywhere therein. But the phrase does appear in a fundamentalist commentary on HG by David Holloway, a contemporary English vicar.
Why it’s here, masquerading as a direct quotation from the encyclical, is answerable only by the author and the NOR editors. Indeed, a complete rewrite of the Pope’s thoughts appears in this section, presented as if they were direct quotations. What is the point of referencing a butchered and bowdlerized version of an encyclical in support of a theological position? What can be said positively of a theological approach that quotes a comment on the Papal encyclicals as if they were the Pope’s words verbatim? It’s painful to point out such cavalier treatment of a papal encyclical in a reviewed article published by a periodical self-styled as traditional and orthodox Catholic; one would hope to focus on content and not on correcting citation errors. The question is bound to arise: Does the science research advancing old earth beliefs mirror the integrity of this theological approach?
This section isn’t anomalous, but characteristic of most of the support references. The article says that obviously, the Pope’s approach to Genesis in Humani Generis is quite different from young-earth-believers. “Obviously?” Really? In the authentic version of HG, the Pope “deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament.” But this sentence was not cited in the article. The specific purpose of the HG:38 reference to the PCBS letter is to point this out (although this is not mentioned in the article). Even the PCBS letter, which is not part of the deposit of faith, supports the Bible as true history, subject to refinement by ongoing research (such as is now under way at the Kolbe Center). So we ask: Is reading “a day” and thinking “a day” an excessively free interpretation of Genesis?
In another citation of HG:20 below, the Magisterial revision continues with three negatives omitted from the encyclical’s text, teaching authority is changed from ‘supreme’ to ‘ordinary’, etc…. ?? More text is inserted and deleted than left untouched!
[20. Nor must it be thought that w] What is expounded in Encyclical Letters [does not] of itself demands consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes [do not] exercise the [supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the] ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to [say] apply Christ’s words: “He who heareth you, heareth me”.
20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me”; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.
The article declaims that Lateran IV and Vatican I don’t mention a creation date or the days until Adam’s creation. But why should the councils take action, if there was no need of a creation date for salvific definition or heretical suppression? Genesis plainly says Adam was created on the sixth day. Is it the role of councils to sanction every word of the Bible by repetition or infer what common sense can approximately compute from the succession of the patriarchs? If so, all the globe’s libraries couldn’t hold the volume of verbiage produced—just look at Canon Law!
The Pontifical Biblical Commission has already opened this issue to discussion between theologians and scientists. So, let’s continue to discuss it.
The article claims that Providentissimus Deus says certain truths about the material world can be established by scientists with “irrefutable evidence.” As we have come to expect by now, Providentissimus Deus does not use the phrase “irrefutable evidence” or either word separately. Mark this as “source unknown.” Besides the phantom quotation, it is interesting to note which words of Pope Leo XIII from Providentissimus Deus:18 were not included in the article (for good reason):
It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality….
There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.”
These detestable errors, whereby they think they destroy the truth of the divine Books, are obtruded on the world as the peremptory pronouncements of a certain newly-invented “free science;” a science, however, which is so far from final that they are perpetually modifying and supplementing it.
Unfortunately, the warning contained in this passage does not appear to have been heeded. Instead, as much mistaken confidence is placed in the ability of the natural sciences to arrive at “irrefutable” conclusions about unrepeatable events, such as creation, as is placed in the ability of empirical science to form “irrefutable” conclusions about repeatable events. This is a serious philosophical error.
In reality, it is quite impossible for natural science to produce irrefutable proof of the nature of creation and the age of the universe, first, because, as God reminded Job, we were not there when He created the universe, second, because we cannot be at all sure that the uniformitarian principle—which states that all presently observed natural processes have always been in operation exactly as they are today—is true; and, finally, because even the so-called “laws” that govern the present day universe are subject to change in light of new evidence. For example, the article claims that “Newton’s laws are examples of irrefutable evidence.” Actually, Newton’s laws are sufficient for the study of simple “every day” systems dealing with low speeds, weak gravity and macroscopic objects. For moderate systems they are incomplete approximations and virtually worthless for extremal systems.
We read, “The universe is 10 to 20 giga years old according to General Relativity.” In reality, the universe is 10 to 20 giga years old, not according to General Relativity specifically, but according to one theoretical cosmic model – the standard Big Bang – based on General Relativity which assumes an unbounded isotropic space and abundant adjustable parameters to support the metaphysical materialism of the cosmological principle. Several simpler finite models based on General Relativity are consistent with a Biblical age and have fewer assumptions, such as those of Dr. Russell Humphreys and Dr. Robert Gentry. According to Leo XIII, as long as natural scientists with impeccable qualifications can explain the facts in front of them in harmony with the literal and obvious sense of Genesis, the burden of proof is on those who would challenge the literal interpretation.
As mentioned above, the indemonstrable uniformitarian principle underlies most if not all of the alleged “irrefutable proofs” for long ages of time since the beginning of creation. However, the article itself states that the physical processes that Adam and Eve experienced prior to the Fall were different from the physical processes that we now experience in the post Fall world. Since this is so, might not physical processes in the earth and in the stars also have varied since the beginning of creation? In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul (another exegete with a penchant for the literal historical interpretation of Genesis) teaches that not only human beings but all creation is made subject to decay by the Original Sin and groans in expectation of the revelation of the children of God.
Although St. Paul’s words do not mean that the Second law of Thermodynamics did not come into force until after the Fall—a false view that some evolutionists like to attribute to defenders of special creation—they do indicate that God allowed decay to accelerate throughout the universe in some way as a result of the Fall. Indeed, there are many phenomena, such as polonium radiohalos, decay of the earth’s magnetic field, and helium retention in zircons from deep earth cores, that are impossible to explain within a giga year framework using the uniformitarian principle. Moreover, the experimental work of sedimentologist Guy Berthault has demonstrated that the earth’s fossil bearing rocks could have been laid down in a relatively short period of time, a mere fraction of the hundreds of millions of years generally assigned to the formation of the fossil record. His work alone would be sufficient to demolish any claims to “irrefutable proof” of an age for the earth of hundreds of millions of years.
Besides citing “irrefutable proof” in the form of widely accepted interpretations of data among physicists, it is argued that God would not have deceived mankind by creating a world with an appearance of age that it did not really possess. In this connection, there is mention that Adam and Eve would not have “aged” as we experience aging, prior to the Fall. While a true statement, this begs the question of whether Adam and Eve were created with the appearance of age. No evidence is offered that our first parents were not created fully mature and with an appearance of age that they did not actually possess. Furthermore, the argument is drawn that the irreducible complexity of living things refutes Darwinian evolution through natural selection, but what is not drawn is the logical conclusion that the prototypes of the various kinds of living things must have been created irreducibly complex, fully functioning, with an appearance of age that they did not actually possess.
It is a crowning irony that defenders of special creation are accused of misrepresenting God as a deceiver who gives things a false appearance of age when God Himself has told us in his own words that He created the heavens and earth and all they contain in six days. The 1994 Catechism teaches that:
The word “Decalogue” means literally “ten words.” God revealed these “ten words” to his people on the holy mountain. They were written “with the finger of God,” (Exodus 31:18) unlike the other commandments written by Moses. They are pre-eminently the words of God (emphasis added) (CCC 2056).
In these words written “with the finger of God,” God tells Moses and the Hebrews that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested.” Thus, no one can accuse God of deceiving us if the world is full of a number of things that look much older than they really are!
There are claims that Deriving the earth’s age from the patriarchal genealogies is not taught by the Magisterium. This is right, of course, but neither is it forbidden—it’s an open question, a detail related to the general open discussion now being debated by scientists and theologians with regard to the Church’s position on evolution. Moreover, by the criteria laid down by Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus and upheld by Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council, the literal and obvious sense of the genealogies as intended by their authors must be accepted unless there is irrefutable proof that they cannot possibly be true. Indeed, Pope Pius XII strongly condemned the now alarmingly-popular view that the Bible contains errors in natural science and history. In Divino Afflante Spiritu, Pius wrote:
When, subsequently, some Catholic writers, in spite of this solemn definition of Catholic doctrine, by which such divine authority is claimed for the “entire books with all their parts” as to secure freedom from any error whatsoever, ventured to restrict the truth of Sacred Scripture solely to matters of faith and morals, and to regard other matters, whether in the domain of physical science or history, as “obiter dicta” and, as they contended, in no wise connected with faith, Our Predecessor of immortal memory, Leo XIII in the encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus…justly and rightly condemned these errors and safe-guarded the studies of the divine books by most wise precepts and rules (Para 1, ).
The 1994 Catechism reminds us that the literal sense is the basis for all other interpretations of Scripture and that this sense can only be interpreted correctly if the reader is “attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm” (CCC, 109). To the chagrin of critics of the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11, modern scholarship has merely underscored the intentions of the author(s) of Genesis to give an historical account of the early history of the earth and of mankind. According to James Barr, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University, there is no longer any doubt among scholars that the author(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey historical facts to their readers:
So far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world class university who does not believe that the author(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that,
Creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience.
The figures contained in the Genesis chronologies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story.
Noah’s flood was understood to be world wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the Ark.
Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.
The article reports with alarm that the first International Catholic Family Conference on Creation had a speaker promoting earth as the center of universe; but no physics experiment has ever detected whether the Earth is stationary (at the center) or in motion, without making metaphysical presumptions about the structure and dynamics of the rest of the universe. According to astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle :“We know that the difference between a heliocentric theory and a geocentric theory is one of relative motion only, and that such a difference has no physical significance.” The current relativistic view of the science majority is not heliocentricity but that there is no center because any point may be taken as central: acentricity. The sense of Revelation is that the Earth is the focus of physical creation, this sense being eloquently upheld by St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine during the Galileo ‘affair’ and continuing within the teaching of the common Magisterium to this very day.
In regard to a presentation on evidences for a young earth and a young universe at Kolbe’s First International Catholic Conference on Creation, claims are made that it contains 15 points based on cosmic data, but that “none forces a young earth conclusion.” All of us at the Kolbe Center would agree that no creation event is provable from natural sources, but all the evidence cited in the abovementioned talk either favors a young earth or excludes the possibility of cosmic gigayears.
In conclusion, like Dr. Mullan, the Kolbe Center would also teach children that scientists have access to truths about the world that God created. In fact, they have a unique access to natural truths by virtue of their God-given talent and profession. But that access implies a responsibility to teach innocent children (and adults) that can be abused and misused, by ignoring the primary source of truth —the precious words of Truth taught by Holy Mother Church. By blindly following the interpretation of facts offered by secular modernists, Catholic natural scientists may unwittingly advance their anti-Christian agenda.
How Old is the Earth?
by Dermott J. Mullan1
Fundamentalists Inside the Catholic Church:
A Growing Phenomena
Since 1988, the book “Catholicism and Fundamentalism” by Karl Keating has helped prevent Catholics from being lured out of the Church by Fundamentalists. Where Fundamentalists attack the Church from outside, that book provides important and useful service.
But what if there are Fundamentalists inside the Church? How is the Church to respond to such a situation?
I submit that Fundamentalism is now beginning to infect the thinking of certain Catholics who are loyal members of the Church. The clearest symptom of infection is the belief that the Earth is young, no more than a few thousand years old. This calls for a change of plan from what has worked so far if Catholics are to be defended against Fundamentalism.
IS FUNDAMENTALISM CREEPING INTO THE LIVES OF AMERICAN CATHOLICS?
Fundamentalists trace their roots to a series of books called The Fundamentals, published by certain Protestants between 1909 and 1915. These books contained (among other topics) accounts of “heresies” (including Catholicism) and “critiques of scientific theories”. To be sure, no-one should object to criticisms of scientific work as long as the criticisms are based on sound reasoning. But the critiques that are associated with Fundamentalism at times involve what is in essence a rejection of rational thinking.
Three events indicate to me that American Catholics are now being exposed to Fundamentalist ideas from within the Church.
First, in the process of home-schooling some of our children about five years ago, my wife and I encountered a serious dilemma in connection with certain science textbooks. We did not want our children to be swept along by the erroneous ideas about Darwinian evolution that permeate much of American culture. We therefore selected biology text-books that reject Darwin’s ideas about evolution. In this regard, the text-books met our needs admirably. However, we were startled to find that the text-books also contained the following claim: the Earth is only a few thousand years old. One textbook was Protestant, the other Catholic.
Second, in 1999, one of the leading American publishers of orthodox Catholic books released a book entitled “Creation Rediscovered” by G. J. Keane. This book contains not only a well-written criticism of Darwinian evolution, but also an extended attack (60 pages long) on the results of modern astrophysics concerning the age of the Universe. The book suggests that astrophysicists have misinterpreted the evidence because of their belief in evolution. The book states that the evidence actually point to an Earth and a Universe no more than a few thousand years old.
Third, in 2001, a meeting that advertised itself as the “First International Catholic Family Conference on Creation” was held in Manassas, Virginia. In the first talk at the meeting (entitled “The Catholic Doctrine on Creation”), the speaker argued for a literal interpretation of the six days of creation, implying that the Earth is young. The written version of this talk includes the claim that “contrary to modern theory, the Earth is the center point of the Universe”. In another talk at the meeting, a speaker discussed 15 points of evidence from physical science which (he concluded) prove that the Earth is only a few thousand years old. (These talks are available on tape.) However, a critical examination of the 15 points shows that in each case the physical processes at work by no means force one to the young-Earth conclusion.
AN ASTRONOMER’S VIEWPOINT
Why do I find the young-Earth development troubling? Because it flies in the face of reason.
In my profession as an astronomer, I am familiar with abundant evidence from the physical world indicating that the Earth and the Sun and the Universe have ages that are measured in billions of years.
The evidence for these ages comes from at least five distinct and independent areas of research in astrophysics: expansion of the universe, stellar structure, isotope dating, white dwarf cooling, and properties of the cosmic microwave radiation. The concordance of these five methods is impressive because they rely on completely distinct types of observations, and different laws of physics, to arrive at their conclusions.
It is beyond the bounds of reason to suppose that, if the Universe is actually no older than a few thousand years (as the young-Earth proponents claim), many hundreds of researchers from diverse countries and all religious backgrounds would discover five completely different methods which all yield multi-billion-year ages.
DILEMMA FOR A CATHOLIC
In school the Christian Brothers taught me the maxim: “The Church has nothing to fear from the truth”. It should not matter by what means the truth about the world is discovered: Catholics should be willing to look it squarely in the face. But the message of the Fundamentalists is very different. They claim that when science establishes certain truths about the age of the world, Christians should reject those truths.
What is a Catholic home-schooler to think about statements in otherwise acceptable textbooks that the Earth is young? What is an orthodox Catholic to think when his favorite publishing company says that the Earth is young? What is a Catholic parent to think when a Catholic Family Conference teaches that modern physicists are misleading the public in a multitude of ways?
In particular, has the Church taught doctrinally on this issue?
In order to answer these questions, it is worthwhile first to be clear about how the claim for a young age for the Earth arises.
CLAIMS FOR A YOUNG EARTH
The origin of the young Earth theory is easy to identify. It emerges from a strict calculation when one adds up the ages of all the patriarchs who are named in the book of Genesis, and then adds six days to the result. (In the writings of the Fathers of the early Church, one can find indications that many of them also believed that the Earth was created in six literal days.) The young Earth theory results from one particular interpretation of the text of Genesis. However, this interpretation overlooks the fact that the Church has some significant teaching about the way in which Catholics are to approach the reading of Scripture.
HOW DOES THE MAGISTERIUM APPROACH THE EARLY CHAPTERS OF GENESIS?
Young Earth proponents approach the precise numerical values of ages that appear in Genesis as if the contents of Scripture were exactly equivalent to a modern history book, or a modern science textbook. This is one way to approach the Bible.
But it is not the way that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches us to approach the question of historical matters in Scripture. Pope Pius XII addressed this key point in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950. He wrote: “It has been clearly laid down…that the first eleven chapters of Genesis do pertain to history in the true sense. However, it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition…In what exact sense Genesis 1-11 comes under the heading of history is for the further labors of exegetes to determine”.
Obviously, Pope Pius’s approach to Genesis is quite different from that of young-Earth believers. The question is: do Catholics have to believe the Pope’s teaching on how to read Genesis 1-11? Or can they adopt a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude to this teaching?
Clear answers to these questions can be found in Humani Generis itself: “What is expounded in encyclical letters of itself demands consent, since in writing such Letters, the Popes exercise the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to apply Christ’s words ‘He who hears you, hears Me’ (Luke 10, 16)”. The fact that Catholics should follow the “mind and will” of the Pope has been repeated by Vatican II in no uncertain terms (see Lumen Gentium No. 25).
CHURCH FATHERS AND CHURCH TEACHING: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?
But what about those saintly and wise Fathers of the Church who wrote about the “young Earth”? What are we to make of their claims? To answer this, we note that the Fathers wrote many centuries before Pope Pius XII set forth the above teaching about how Catholics should approach Genesis 1-11. Now, it is true that Catholics rightfully pay respect to the writings of the Fathers of the Church. However, those writings are not in themselves infallible. Just because a certain Father calculated the age of the Earth by adding up the ages in Genesis, does not mean that the Church teaches that age as part of her doctrine. In fact, Pope Leo XIII addressed this explicitly in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus: “The unshrinking defense of the Holy Scripture does not require that we should equally uphold all the opinions which each of the Fathers have put forth in explaining it. For it may be that, in commenting on matters where physical matters occur, they have sometimes expressed their ideas of their own times, and have thus made statements which in these days have been abandoned as incorrect” (Denzinger 1948).
MAGISTERIAL TEACHING ON CREATION
When it comes to a question of formal Church teaching about the age of the Earth, one point is clear. No official magisterial document from either Pope or Council has ever taught that the Earth is a certain number of years old.
This is not to say that the Church has taught nothing about creation. Far from it. The Magisterium taught formally about creation at the fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215. Lateran IV made it official Church teaching that the world (and all of creation) had a beginning in time. In other words, the world has not been in existence forever. This was a huge break from ideas that dated back to Aristotle.
Subsequently, when the first Vatican Council met in 1869-1870, the Council fathers were confronting some of the new ideas of modern science, including Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the topic of the creation of the world, Vatican I repeated word for word the teaching of Lateran IV (see Denzinger 1783): “From the very beginning of time [Latin: ab initio temporis], God has created both orders of creatures (the spiritual or angelic world, and the corporeal or visible universe) in the same way out of nothing. And afterwards [Latin: deinde], He formed the creature man, who in a way belongs to both orders, as he is composed of spirit and body”.
Note the phrases that are used by both Lateran IV and Vatican I: “FROM (Latin: ab) the very beginning of time”. The formal teaching does not include the phrase “AT (Latin: in) the beginning of time”. A Catholic is not required to believe that everything was created in the same instant, at the very beginning. This non-trivial distinction allows a Catholic to believe in good conscience that God’s creative work has been in process ever since time began.
Note also that neither Lateran IV nor Vatican I makes any mention here of a specific time at which creation occurred. Nor is there a mention of how much time elapsed between the beginning of time and the creation of man: the Councils merely use the generic term “afterwards” (Latin: deinde). There is no mention of a certain number of days.
Moreover, Vatican I also teaches (see Denzinger 1805): “If anyone does not admit that the world and everything in it, both spiritual and material, have been produced in their entire substance by God out of nothing, let him be anathema”. Two features of this teaching are noteworthy. First, there is (once again) no mention of a particular time at which God created spiritual and material things. Second, the term “entire substance”, also used by the Church in her teaching on the Eucharist (Denzinger 877), is a technical term that stands in distinction to the “accidents” (i.e. the outward appearances). Vatican I does not say that the accidents of everything in the world were produced by God out of nothing. In fact, although the creation of each man’s soul certainly involves a direct creation by God out of nothing (indicating ongoing creation to this very day), this is not true of man’s body. Each of us received a body from our parents. And even the body of Adam himself, as God reveals (Gen. 2:7), was created using pre-existing material (“dust of the ground”).
GOD MADE THE WORLD RATIONALLY-THEREFORE SCIENCE IS POSSIBLE
One of the triumphs of the work of Thomas Aquinas was to point out that God (who is a rational Being) created the world in such a way that man (a rational creature, made in the image and likeness of God) could understand the world. God did not create the world capriciously, giving different properties to different particles of the same type. Instead, God created an orderly world based on particular quantities of “number, weight, and measure” (Wisd. 11:20). The ability to use the gift of reason in order to discover the wonders of God’s world is as much a talent as any of His other gifts to us. And we will one day render an account of how we used that talent.
It is precisely because God made a rational world according to “number, weight, and measure” that scientists have a chance of discovering some specific truths about the material world. If truth were inaccessible to human reasoning, then science would make no sense.
As it is, science does provide access to certain truths about the world. When scientists use their reason to discover something about the material world, it is as if God allows them a glimpse of part of the blue-print that He used when He, in His capacity as divine Architect (St. Augustine’s phrase: De Civitate Dei ii, 3), created the world.
THE CHURCH AND HUMAN REASON
The young-Earth theory brings to a sharp focus an important question to which all Catholics should give some thought. Namely, can faith and reason contradict each other?
Surprising as it may seem, there have actually been certain people in the world who believe that the answer to this question is yes. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Muslim philosopher Averroes taught that something that is true in religion is not necessarily also true in philosophy. Averroes believed that a religious truth might be a philosophical falsehood. Averroes was apparently not concerned by this violation of the principle of non-contradiction. So troubling did St Thomas Aquinas find this assault on human reasoning that he wrote an entire treatise specifically to demonstrate that Averroes was wrong about this. Thomas established that once an element of truth is discovered, it makes no difference whether it was faith or human reason (including science) that discovered it.
At the time of Vatican I, materialism was firmly entrenched as the order of the day in scientific circles. Moreover, Darwin’s theory of evolution had burst on the world only a few years prior to the Council. So the fathers of Vatican I perceived a need to give a clear teaching on the relationship between faith and science.
To achieve this, they essentially elevated Thomas’s ideas about faith and reason to the level of magisterial teaching. This teaching of Vatican I is quoted verbatim in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 159): “…there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny Himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth”.
The Church paid a great compliment to human reason at Vatican I, when it taught that unaided human reason could arrive at an item of information that has also been revealed by faith — i.e. the fact that God exists (Denzinger 1806).
Shortly after Vatican I, in the year 1893, Pope Leo XIII extended Vatican I’s compliment concerning human reason to scientists in particular. In his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo acknowledged that certain truths about the material world can be established by scientists with “irrefutable evidence” (Latin: veracibus documentis) (Denzinger 1947). So much respect did Pope Leo have for scientific truth that he insisted that the Church must be careful in her teachings not to contradict any truths that are based on “irrefutable evidence”.
Clearly, Pope Leo was not referring here to arcane scientific truths such as the theory of atomic structure. The latter theory is certainly based on irrefutable evidence, but it has no overlap with Church teaching, and cannot possibly be relevant to Pope Leo. Instead, the Pope was obviously referring to scientific truths that are pertinent in one way or another to the contents of Genesis 1-11. It has become evident in recent decades that modern astronomy is an area in which Pope Leo’s words are highly relevant. And Pope Leo put his money where his mouth was: He expanded the Vatican Observatory so that the Church would not be left behind by the discoveries of modern astronomy. Where did Pope Leo obtain his respect for scientific truths? The answer is clearly stated in Providentissimus Deus: The Pope simply followed some reasonable guidelines that had been laid down many centuries previously in the writings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. For example, in the Summa Theologiae, Thomas addressed the question of the Genesis account of creation as follows (Question 68, Reply 1): “In discussing questions of this kind, two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches. First, to hold the truth of scripture without wavering. Second, since Holy Scripture can be explained in a number of ways, no specific explanation should be held so rigidly that one would presume to maintain this explanation if it can be proved with certainty to be false. Otherwise, Holy Scripture would be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and this would block the unbelievers’ way to belief”.
The possibility of ridicule from unbelievers was of serious concern to Augustine and Thomas, and also to Pope Leo. It is undoubtedly a matter of concern for American Catholics in our day as well.
By including the guidelines of Augustine and Thomas in an encyclical, Pope Leo raised those guidelines to the level of magisterial teaching. As a result, since 1893, Catholics have had an obligation to honor the truths that are established by means of science, provided that the evidence is irrefutable.
BUT WHAT ABOUT FAULTY SCIENCE?
It goes without saying that scientists are not infallible. Scientists can and do make mistakes. Indeed, large groups of them may at times espouse ideas that are incorrect. For example, during the 18th century, the French Academy of Sciences denied the evidence that meteorites are objects that fall from the sky.
Closer to our own time, Darwinian evolution is a case in point. There is a widespread belief among biological scientists in the English-speaking world that Darwinian evolution (i.e. the theory that numerous slight successive modifications occurring at random can cause new species to appear from an older one) embodies the absolute truth about living things. In fact, it can be plausibly argued that, since the “monkey trial” in Tennessee in the 1920’s, Darwinian evolution has become the best known scientific theory in America. Interestingly, in other parts of the world (such as China and France), Darwin’s ideas are not treated with the sort of quasi-dogmatic reverence that is found in our Anglo-Saxon culture.
And yet, there is an increasing body of scientific evidence to suggest that Darwinian evolution is incorrect. Processes which are truly random are simply not capable of creating the high level of information content that is present in living things. Certain biological systems cannot simply be assembled by numerous slight successive modifications occurring at random. For example, Michael Behe, in his book “Darwin’s Black Box”, describes details of the blood-clotting system and of the “propeller” in certain bacteria that could not have been assembled in the way Darwin proposed.
DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN PHYSICS AND BIOLOGY
Now that evidence against Darwinian theory is growing, there is a danger that people may begin to regard all science as suspect. This would be unfortunate.
Just because science does not have access to the charism of infallibility does not mean that science is incapable of determining certain pieces of the truth. Pope Leo appreciated this point explicitly. But this raises an obvious question: how are we to decide whether a scientific theory is true or not? The answer is that we need to rely on probability. The probability that the theory is correct can be increased by performing experiments to test certain predictions of the theory. The more specific the prediction, the more valuable the test. And as more and more tests are performed, with a successful outcome for each, the theory is regarded as progressively more likely to be true. At some point, rational people agree that the theory provides a reliable description of certain aspects of the world. To be sure, this is not infallibility, but it does provide a credible basis for the criterion enunciated by Pope Leo: “irrefutable evidence”.
Newton’s laws of motion, for example, which were proposed in the 1600’s, have been subjected to a great number of tests. So reliable are these laws that NASA has put them to superb use in its exploration of our solar system. For example, when one of the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977, it required 12 years to reach Neptune. At the end of that 12-year journey, Voyager arrived at Neptune within a minute of the time that had been predicted by Newton’s laws. As a result, even though Newton was not infallible, Newton’s laws qualify as a theory that is based on “irrefutable evidence”.
As pointed out by Behe and others, Darwinism fails to satisfy the criterion of “irrefutable evidence”. The difficulty with Darwin’s ideas is that biological systems are extremely complex in their organization, and nothing whatsoever was known about the molecular structure of cells in Darwin’s time. As a result, it is not surprising that, in devising a theory concerning living organisms, some of Darwin’s ideas turned out later to be incorrect.
On the other hand, physics deals with material bodies in the simplest possible terms. As a result, it is much easier for physicists to perform detailed and extensive tests of their theories. Newton’s laws of motion are an example. As a second example, we note that after Einstein developed his Special and General Theories of Relativity, there were at least a dozen specific experiments that suggested themselves as ways to test the theories. The predictions that were made for each experiment were quite specific. Many decades were to go by before the technical difficulties of testing the various predictions could be overcome. But overcome they were, one by one, and by the mid-1980’s, 11 tests had been performed by various groups of scientists around the world. (The 12th is to be tested by means of a special satellite still in development.) All 11 of Einstein’s predictions that have been tested to date have been confirmed by experiment.
This is an astounding tribute to the genius of Einstein. Surely Einstein glimpsed a true image of a piece of God’s blueprint for the physical universe. There is simply no comparison between Einstein’s theory and Darwin’s theory: the former has been tested in multiple ways, and has passed each test with flying colors, whereas Darwin’s principal prediction (concerning macro-evolution) has still not been observed to happen.
In view of the extensive evidence in favor of Einstein’s theory, it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence for the Theory of Relativity deserves Pope Leo’s adjective “irrefutable”. And according to this theory, the Universe is between 10 and 20 billion years old.
There are other theories in physics that are also based on equally solid evidence. For example, calculations of stellar structure are based on the laws of conservation of momentum and energy. These have been widely tested over the past few centuries, and have been found to be accurate descriptions of the physical world. As a result, when calculations of stellar structure indicate that the oldest stars have ages between 10 and 20 billion years, these results are reliable. Other theories that have been used by physicists in arriving at similar estimates for the age of the Universe are also based on thoroughly tested evidence.
WHAT DOES POPE LEO’S TEACHING MEAN FOR A CATHOLIC?
Does Pope Leo’s teaching make any difference for a Catholic when it comes to the young-Earth/old-Earth controversy? I submit that the answer is yes: It makes a lot of difference.
As was mentioned above, evidence from five distinct fields of physics point to a universe with a multi-billion year age. Because five completely independent methods all point to essentially the same age, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this evidence deserves the label “irrefutable” in Pope Leo’s sense.
Based on this, it is inconceivable that the Church could teach that the Earth is young.
If the Church were to proclaim the young-Earth theory as an item of Church teaching, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas “Holy Scripture would be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and this would block the unbelievers’ way to belief”.
DOES THE OLD EARTH THEORY FAVOR THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION?
Almost everyone who discusses evolution and the age of the Earth can be classified into one of two categories. (1) Evolution occurs, and the Earth is old, or (2) evolution does not occur, and the Earth is young. I have never met an evolutionist who believes in a young Earth. Nor have I met a young-Earther who believes in evolution. The question is: Are these the only two groups that people can be classified in? No. I suggest that there is a third possibility. (3) The Earth is old, but evolution did not occur (at least not the way that Darwin suggested).
In other words, I make the following claim: Just because the Earth is old does not mean that Darwin’s ideas must necessarily be true.
My reasons for making this claim are based on the fact that evidence for an old Earth comes from the laws of physics, pure and simple. These claims have nothing whatsoever to do with biology. In particular, they have nothing to do with the theory of Darwinian evolution.
Unfortunately, some Fundamentalists suspect that physicists are in collusion with evolutionists. Thus, when physicists announce ages of 10 to 20 billion years for the Universe, the Fundamentalists claim that the physicists are actually misinterpreting data so as to (secretly) provide support for the theory of evolution. (This approach is evident in G. J. Keane’s book “Creation Rediscovered”.)
To counteract this suspicion, opponents of evolution sometimes choose to fight against evolution by opting for the young-Earth theory. The argument goes roughly as follows: If we limit the Earth’s age to no more than a few thousand years, then evolution will not have had enough time to do its work.
However, in making this argument, the opponents of evolution are surrendering unnecessarily to the Darwinians. In fact, the claim of the Darwinians is erroneous. Even if 10 billion years have elapsed since the Earth began, this is not enough time for even the first living cell to appear as a result of chance. Nowhere near enough time.
The phrase “billions and billions of years” (that was made famous by the late Carl Sagan ) sounds like a long time to us because it is much longer than a human life. But “long” is a relative term. The relevant scientific question as far as evolution is concerned is: How “long” would it require for random encounters between amino acid molecules in the primordial Earth to create even a single living protein? Even if we choose the smallest known protein, consisting of a chain of 50 amino acids arranged in a specific pattern, then it is easy to show from probability theory that 5 or 10 billion years is not nearly long enough time to create this protein by chance.
If not even a single protein can be created by randomness, the possibility of creating by chance even one cell (which requires many different proteins to function) are astronomically small even if the Earth is 5 or 10 billion years old. The first cell could not have come into existence by chance: It requires the intervention of an Intelligent Designer. Even if the Earth were a billion times a billion years old, the first cell could not have occurred by chance. Scientists who claim that mere access to “billions and billions of years” guarantees the success of random evolution are misleading the uninitiated public.
Thus, admitting that the Earth is 5 billion years old does not mean that the evolutionists have “won”. There is still a strict and unavoidable need for God to create life in an old Earth.
Despite this, our culture continues to give a lot of credence to the power of random events. An oft-cited example of the success of random changes is contained in the phrase: “ if you put a billion monkeys in front of a billion typewriters for a few billion years, they would type out the entire works of Shakespeare”. This claim has been made so persistently and so confidently over the years that it has taken on the nature of dogma in some peoples’ minds. And yet this claim is demonstrably false. To see this, note that, if each monkey pecks once a second randomly at a 27-letter keyboard (including a ‘space’ as a letter), it will take on average a year for a meaningful string of a dozen letters to appear on even one of the typewriters. After a year, one of the monkeys will have by chance typed the sequence “MARY HAD A ”. And it will take 10 billion years, the entire lifetime of the Universe, before one of the monkeys will type out the full line: “MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB”. This is a far cry from the works of Shakespeare.
DOES GOD “TEST OUR FAITH” WITH SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE?
When Fundamentalists are presented with scientific evidence which suggests that the Earth is old, they sometimes respond with the following argument. God can do anything; therefore, He can (if He chooses) make fossils look much older than they actually are. Or He can place the stars at a million light years distance, but start their light traveling towards us at an initial distance of only a thousand light years, so that the light can reach us today even though the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
In other words, they say, the world has the appearance of certain properties, although in actuality , God created the world with very different properties. In this way, the Fundamentalists claim, God is testing our faith in His ability to do anything.
Fundamentalists claim that support for God’s ability to create the appearance of age (e.g., in fossils) comes from the following thought experiment. Suppose someone met Adam and Eve the day after they were created. Presumably, since God created them as adults, they would have the appearance of being, say, 25 or 30 years old. And yet they were actually only a day old. In view of this, the Fundamentalists claim, appearances of age can be deceiving.
On these grounds, they suggest that scientists have been deceived by the appearances of great age in the fossil evidence, and in the astrophysical evidence.
However, such arguments are subject to serious doubt. For example, when Adam and Eve were created, God’s original plan for them did not include death. It was only if they chose to disobey Him that death would enter the picture (“in that day, you shall die”). Before sin was committed, God’s plan was for Adam and Eve to live in the Garden for a time, and then go to be with God in heaven. In such a situation, the absence of death would have meant that the processes of bodily decay associated with aging would not have occurred while they lived in the Garden. Therefore, the questions “What age is this man? What age is this woman?” would have had very different meanings in the Garden from those that we ascribe to them in our day. Before the Fall, the aging process (whatever it was) must have been very different from the process with which all of us are familiar in everyday life. Adam and Eve might have lived in the Garden for a hundred years and still not have “aged” (according to our standards). However, once Original Sin occurred, death entered into the lives of Adam and Eve. From that point on, they were driven from the Garden into the world that we live in now. And in our world, an aging process began in earnest for Adam and Eve in preparation for the separation of body and soul in death.
Moreover, why would God trick us by setting up an elaborate system of multiple physical clues that point consistently to a Universe that has an age between 10 and 20 billion years? What would God achieve by deceiving us on such a massive scale? Such activity seems entirely out of character for Someone who (according to the standard theological definition) can neither deceive nor be deceived. It also seems entirely out of character for Christ, who proclaimed Himself to be “the Truth”, to engage in worldwide trickery with scientists who are honestly and earnestly seeking the truth about the world.
THE CLAIM FOR A YOUNG EARTH: WHAT IS A CATHOLIC TO BELIEVE?
What am I to tell my home-schooled children about the claim the Earth is young? How should they regard such a claim? Should they interpret Genesis in a literal sense?
It seems to me that I have an obligation to teach my children that literalism is not the way the Church approaches the interpretation of Genesis. In this regard, Catholics are guided by the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII. Catholics certainly need to “hold the truth of scripture without wavering” (as Aquinas said). The difficult part is to determine what exactly is the “truth of Scripture”.
Pope Leo XIII established the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) in 1902. The PBC was an official organ of the Magisterium until 1971, when it was made an advisory commission of scholars enjoying the confidence of the Church’s teaching office. In the early 1900’s, the PBC was asked if it is permissible to interpret the Hebrew word yom (“day”) in the first chapter of Genesis in two distinct ways: either in its strict sense (as the natural day), or in a less strict sense as signifying a certain space of time. The PBC answered on June 30 1909; “In the affirmative”. In other words, the “truth of Scripture” does not mean that Catholics must regard the “days” of Genesis 1 as identical to intervals of 24 hours, as we experience time. Catholics in good standing may interpret the “days” of Genesis as spanning periods of time other than 24 of our hours.
Moreover, in 1993, on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo’s encyclical, the PBC issued a document entitled Biblical Interpretation in the Church. This document included a long introduction by Pope John Paul II. The 1993 PBC document pointed out that a Fundamentalist approach to the Bible is not adequate as far as the Catholic Church is concerned.
Why is a Fundamentalist approach inadequate? Pope John Paul spells out the reason in his Introduction. He points out that although God certainly uses human language inerrantly (as Pope Pius XII reiterated in no uncertain terms in his 1943 encyclical), God also uses the language in ways that are flexible. God is not locked in to using human language in one and only one way. Because of this flexibility, the words of scripture are sometimes hard to understand. This is not a new teaching by the current Pope: in fact, the very first Pope made the identical point in one of his inspired writings (2 Pet. 3:16). In order to find the “truth of Scripture”, the words of Scripture need to be interpreted properly. In most cases, the interpretation is obvious. But there are certain cases where the interpretation is in dispute. In such cases, it is the task of the Magisterium to provide the correct interpretation. An individual’s interpretation, even if supported by the Fathers of the Church, may be in error.
In short, the interpretation of genealogies in Genesis in such a way as to arrive at an age of only a few thousand years for the Earth is not part of magisterial teaching.
Therefore, when I teach my children that the Earth is between 4 and 5 billion years old, I am not contradicting any currently defined doctrine of the Catholic Church. Nor am I giving credence to Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, I am teaching my children to respect what Pope Leo said in 1893: Scientists really do have access to truths about the world that God created.
1 – Dermott J. Mullan is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Delaware, and the father of 10 children.