A Brief History of Catholic Evolutionism

Above:  Photograph of a larval tick from the early Cretaceous period (over 100 million years ago) embedded in amber. []


About six years ago a Polish Dominican priest published an English translation of his history of Catholic thought about evolution.1 Unfortunately, it gets many things wrong.  It is historically inaccurate, sometimes in ways that merely put historical events out of focus, but at other times in ways that are much more serious.  It makes logical errors as well, claiming as conclusions of evolutionary biology things that unarguably do not follow from that theory. And its interpretations of central documents are generally tendentious.  (For details, see the appendix to this article.)

When that book appeared, I had already been working for some years on my own history of the topic (or at least of the evolution-friendly side of Catholic thought on the question), a book which is at long last nearing completion.  I want to present here a brief outline of the history of Catholic evolutionism as I see it.  I will begin with some thoughts about the intellectual and social background of the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology, some of which make it different from the history of the Protestant reception and then will suggest a kind of periodization of that history.

The substantive questions which Catholic evolutionists needed to address were three.  The first was the general question of evolution — whether biological species owe their origin to the transformation of other species.  The second was the extent to which that idea was applicable to man.  Although all Catholic evolutionists agreed that the origin of man,  properly so called, came only with the creation of the first  human souls, there was a long controversy over whether evolutionary processes could fully account for the origin of the first human bodies.  The third was the question of whether the human race began with (and whether all human beings are descended from) a single original human couple (monogenism) or many (polygenism).

1. Background

There are two reasons why the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology is different from that of the various Protestant churches.

First, Catholicism is distinctly conservative in its theology, but not literalistic in its hermeneutics.2  For one thing, it has always acknowledged the place of allegorical interpretation in reading the Bible, though the allegorical sense of a passage was supplementary to, not alternative to, the literal sense.  Moreover, it has always been more open to metaphorical interpretation than are some of today’s Protestant literalists.  It is important to note that in the Catholic tradition, metaphorical interpretations are considered to be part of the “literal sense” as the Church has traditionally used that term.  Finally, in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the Church came gradually to accept the use of historico-critical and other scientific methods of the study of Scripture.  Unlike some branches of conservative Protestantism, it has never been committed to the kind of plain-meaning hermeneutics that made literacy (and piety, of course) a sufficient preparation for Scriptural interpretation.

Some Protestants worry that to interpret the Hexaëmeron (i.e. the “Six Days” of creation) as anything but an account of six literal days is to step onto a slippery slope.  Tennessee Judge John T. Raulston, who presided over the Scopes Trial, later said, “If I listen to evolution and lose my faith in Genesis, I am afraid I’ll lose my faith in the rest of the Bible; and if I want to commit larceny I’ll say I don’t believe in the part of the Bible that says ‘Thou shalt not steal.’” 3 Catholics, of course, rely on the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church, to distinguish between passages that are not to be interpreted metaphorically (“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” — John 6:53) and those that may (“on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done” — Genesis 2:2).4

Second, the Catholic debate over evolution differed from the debate within Protestantism as a result of Catholicism’s nineteenth-century revival of Thomistic philosophy.  The commitment of Pope Leo XIII to make that philosophy a prominent feature of Catholic intellectual and educational life affected the reception of evolutionary accounts of the origin of species in several ways.5 Most importantly, it offered a philosophical defense of the human exceptionalism that was central to Catholic theological anthropology and that had been explicitly rejected by Darwin in The Descent of Man, a rejection which was the grounds for (not, it is important to note, a consequence of) his evolutionary account of anthropogenesis.  In addition, Thomistic anthropology embedded its account of human nature in a larger philosophy of nature, a “hylomorphism” that was both essentialist and teleological.6 Thus, in addition to the question (important to all Christians) of whether Darwinism, or other theories of biological evolution, denied the existence of souls or just ignored them, Catholic intellectuals faced two further questions.  The first was how the Darwinian concept of species related to the concept of biological species used in Thomistic (essentialist) philosophy.  The second was whether natural selection (in the judgment of some, a non-teleological process) is compatible with a generally teleological philosophy of nature.

In addition, it is helpful to keep in mind that the Catholic response to evolutionary biology had to be worked out at the same time as the Church fended off the attacks of an aggressively anti-clerical, when not explicitly anti-religious, liberalism (the Kulturkampf in Germany, the Risorgimento in Italy, and counterparts in France, Spain, and Latin America).  To take just one example, historian Harry W. Paul wrote that: 7

“In France, there was a clear attempt to base anti-clerical republican politics on a scientistic ideology. Darwinism was most susceptible to exploitation by anti-clericals. The intellectual problem of reconciling religious beliefs with new scientific developments was thus connected with republican anti-clericalism. This meant that republicans were encouraged to accept Darwinism and that Catholics had a good political reason to be suspicious of it as an ideological weapon against Catholicism. Only the finest minds were capable of separating the purely scientific aspects of Darwinism from the wider social and political implications.”

2. The First Generation (1830–1885)

I want to begin by identifying three scientists who might be called the pioneers of Catholic evolutionism.

The first was Belgian geologist Jean-Baptiste d’Omalius d’Halloy, who studied natural history at the Sorbonne under both the early evolutionist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and the anti-evolutionist Georges Cuvier.  One of the geological problems of the day was to explain the newly recognized fact of faunal succession in the history of life on earth.  Cuvier’s solution (successive catastrophes and new creations) d’Halloy rejected, in his Éléments de géologie (1831), as “a purely gratuitous hypothesis not based on any analogy with phenomena which take place in historical times.” 8 The idea of partial extinction followed by immigration of geographically new species from an unaffected region would leave as “singular coincidences” such facts as the similarity between living and extinct animals in the same region, similarities among organisms geographically adjacent to one another, and the generally progressive succession found in the geological column.  “However great the stability of species is,” he concluded, “it is not absolute” and in that idea he anticipated the transformism that was central to Darwin’s later, more comprehensive theory, an anticipation that Darwin himself later recognized.9

The second of those pioneers was Filippo De Filippi, professor of zoölogy at the University of Turin and one of the leading Italian naturalists of his day. In his 1864 lecture “L’Uomo e le scimie,” 10 which did much to launch the debate over Darwinism in Italy, he combined an expression of support with Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species (including man) with a defense of the idea that the difference between man and animal was a difference in kind not just in degree.  It is perhaps too easy to read his statement that “to say that man is descended from an ape is to do no more than to express an anatomical fact” 11 as though the emphasis were on the word “fact.”  It would express his larger view equally well (perhaps better) if the emphasis were put on the word “anatomical.”  De Filippo’s second point, and in his view one even more important than the first, was that there is more to man than anatomy.

The third of the pioneers was St. George Jackson Mivart,12 the English anatomist and systematic zoölogist who, at age seventeen, gave up his dreams of an Oxford education in order to enter the Catholic Church. His On the Genesis of Species (1871), the first book-length Catholic comment on Darwin’s work was, like d’Halloy’s Éléments de géologie, fundamentally a work of science.  He accepted Darwin’s transformism but expressed reservations about the reach of natural selection, as did many other scientists in the decades following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859.  Two points in Mivart’s book are particularly worth noting.

The first is his distinction between absolute and derivative creation, between the “origination of any thing by God without pre-existing means or material” and “the formation of any thing by God derivatively; that is, that the preceding matter has been created with the potentiality to evolve from it, under suitable conditions, all the various forms it subsequently assumes.” 13 Creation does not necessarily mean absolute creation and evolution is not a negation of providence.14

Mivart’s second contribution was to offer a more detailed account of the origin of the first human being, something not explicitly elaborated by either of his two predecessors.  He proposed to combine the ideas of the evolution of human bodies with the creation of human souls: 15

“Scripture … says that ‘God made man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.’ This is a plain and direct statement that man’s body was not created in the primary and absolute sense of the word, but was evolved from pre-existing material (symbolized by the term “dust of the earth”), and was therefore only derivatively created, i. e., by the operation of secondary laws.

The soul of every individual man is absolutely created in the strict and primary sense of the word, that it is produced by a direct or supernatural act, and, of course, that by such an act the soul of the first man was similarly created.”

The official Church was largely silent on the question during this period.  A provincial council of the Archdiocese of Cologne, held in 1860, condemned the idea of a “spontaneous” and “continuous” evolution of the human body.  Although Catholic anti-evolutionists have long argued that this condemnation would rule out Mivart’s view, in fact Mivart did not propose a spontaneous process of evolution.  Indeed, if spontaneous means non-providentialist, then no Catholic evolutionist has ever done so.  The First Vatican Council was prorogued before it got to the question, but drafts written by one of its preparatory commissions suggest that the concerns of the Council extended to polygenism, but not to the origin of the human body.

3. The Second Generation (1885–1910)

We can distinguish a second generation of Catholic evolutionists beginning in the 1890’s with three sets of authors.

The first set includes two authors who rearticulated Mivart’s account of anthropogenesis — French Dominican Dalmace Leroy, who published L’Évolution des espèces organiques (1887), revised as L’Évolution restreinte aux espèces organiques (1891), and American Holy Cross priest John Augustine Zahm, whose Evolution and Dogma (1896) was quickly followed by translations into French, Italian, and, eventually, Spanish.  Both books were delated to the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books, the Vatican office responsible for maintaining a list of books which Catholics were prohibited from reading.  The judgment at the Congregation was that the books were “rash,” a technical term in theological epistemology meaning “one which opposes a proposition generally held by the Fathers or theologians without sufficient reason.” 16 Although some of the Congregation’s consultors and cardinals would have put the books on the Index, Pope Leo XIII only allowed them to go so far as to require the authors to make a public retraction of their views and to withdraw the books from sale.  Leroy complied; Zahm did so only in part.  Although the adverse decision by the Congregation was made known through the public retractions, the books were never formally or explicitly prohibited.17

A second possible Catholic account of evolutionary anthropogenesis was articulated hypothetically by the eminent Dominican, Thomist, and former Primate of Spain, Zeferino Cardinal González in his two-volume La Biblia y la Ciencia (1891).  He proposed consideration of an alternative: 18

“juxtaposition of Mivart’s hypothesis with a possibility noted by St. Thomas, regarding the possibility that causes or agents other than God intervened in the formation of Adam’s body, that is to say, in its preliminary preparation up to an imperfect stage of development, reserving the final stages of its preparation to receive a rational soul to divine action. In this way, the essence of Mivart’s hypothesis is preserved, with due regard to the direct and immediate action of God in the formation of the body of the first man, action which traditional Biblical exegesis seems to require.”

Although González never endorsed the alternative which he had articulated, it did find a defense a few years later in the work of another Spanish Dominican, Juan Arintero, in La Evolución y la Filosofía Cristiana (1898).

The Holy Office (the Church office responsible for matters of doctrinal orthodoxy) was aware of Arintero’s book, and reviewed it in response to a more comprehensive complaint about Arintero’s alleged modernism in 1908, but did not deem any action against Arintero to be necessary, a decision approved by Pope Pius X.

The third of the major second-generation Catholic evolutionists was the German Jesuit entomologist Erich Wasmann, the only scientist among the authors of this generation whom I discuss here.  His Moderne Biologie und die Entwicklungstheorie first appeared serially in the Jesuits’ journal Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, and then in two editions (1904 and 1906) from Herder. It was subsequently translated into Italian, English,19 and Polish. We should notice two points about the book.

First, he argued that his work on ants provided good support for evolution (i.e., transformism) itself.  He was not, however convinced that all living things were descended from a single first kind of organism and thus, in contrast to Ernst Haeckel, defended a polyphyletic origin of life.

Second, there is the question of the relevance of evolutionary theory to the origin of the first human body.  In his articles in Stimmen aus Maria-Laach, he had suggested that this was a theologically open question, but the judgment that this was rash was not limited to the officials at the Congregation of the Index.  His Jesuit superiors shared that concern and subsequent editions weakened his claim, although never fully to their satisfaction.20 His work was never delated to the Congregation of the Index and achieved a widespread popularity among Catholics.  He was, for example, invited to write an article on evolution for the American Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1907–12.21

What did the official Church say about evolutionary theories during this period?

The Congregation of the Index had no authority to make decisions about Catholic doctrine.  The most it could do was to prohibit the reading of certain books.  The list it published included no explanations.  Decisions about doctrine were the responsibility of the Holy Office, which did not address the orthodoxy of the new evolutionary ideas, even when it was given the opportunity to do so.

The question of the origin of our first parents was addressed in a public and official way by the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909, as part of its answer to eight questions on the historical character of the first three chapters of Genesis.22 It said that the literal historical sense of “the distinctive [peculiaris] creation of man” may not be called in doubt.23 Catholic evolutionists argued that the creation of the human soul, made the origin of man distinctive.

Catholic encyclopedias by the beginning of this period were already stating that the evolutionary origin of plants and animals was not a matter of theological concern.  Pierre-Julien Hamard wrote in the Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique (1889),24

“The Bible grants equal freedom to transformists and to the defenders of successive creations. … Whenever it is not absolutely explicit, … anyone who invokes its authority puts at risk both the Bible itself and the religious cause of which it is the support.

It would be superfluous and irrelevant to say any more about a question which concerns religion only indirectly. … The teaching of evolution is in no way incompatible with Christian dogma. … What aggravates the debate is the making what is, in itself, a purely scientific question into a question of orthodoxy, as if the evolutionist principle were absolutely irreconcilable and incompatible with religious faith.”

Of course, the denial that the evolutionary origin of plants and animals was not a theological question was not the same thing as acceptance of the theory as true, but Hamard’s remarks are important for what they show about the Catholic reception of evolutionary biology.

4. The Third Generation (1910–1950)

Salient among what I want to call the third generation of Catholic evolutionists were two other authors.

The first of these was Belgian priest-geologist Henry de Dorlodot, whose Le Darwinisme au Point de Vue de l’Orthodoxie Catholique (1918)25 is devoted to “the Darwinian theory in general,” i.e., the origin of species “apart from the special question of the origin of man,” 26 which he promised to take up in a second volume.  Particularly noteworthy is his designation as “Christian naturalism” of a theology of nature on which Catholics have long relied and which lays the foundations for Catholic evolutionism.  The book was translated into English and received a generally positive reception in the Anglophone world.

The second was the English priest Ernest Messenger, de Dorlodot’s former student and English translator.  Messenger’s Evolution and Theology (1931) was a comprehensive review of the theological aspects of the question.  On the question of the origin of man, he took the line first articulated by González, a direct divine modification of an animal body into a form suitable for the reception of a rational soul.27

Both books were delated to the Congregation of the Index.  Although the recommendation at the Congregation was to suppress de Dorlodot’s work in the same way that it had done in the cases of Leroy and Zahm, Pope Pius XI would not allow it to do so until it had consulted with the eminent Belgian cardinal Désiré Mercier.  In the end. de Dorlodot agreed not to publish his planned second volume28 and the matter ended there, with de Dorlodot’s book still commercially available.

When the complaint against Messenger’s book came, Pope Pius XI instructed the Congregation of the Index to seek an opinion on the scientific state of the question from Austrian priest-anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt, SVD.  In a brief reply, Schmidt emphasized that the question was scientifically open.  In the words of the summary prepared at the Holy Office, “The science is uncertain and subject to continuous revision.  It would, therefore, be best to continue waiting.” 29

This period also saw the emergence of the question of whether the human race began with a single couple, as the traditional account, reinforced by its connection to the doctrine of original sin, had it.  The idea of a polygenetic (indeed polyphyletic) origin of the human race,30 can be traced back at least as far as the seventeenth century, to Isaac de La Peyrère’s Pre-Adamitae (1655).31 Darwin’s own account of the origin of man (as of any other species) was a monophyletic polygenism, which brought science at least part way back towards orthodoxy from the polygenetic accounts defended by Louis Agassiz and others in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Some broadly Darwinian evolutionists (e.g., Carl Vogt and Ernst Haeckel) differed from Darwin in defending a polyphyletic anthropogenesis which the Church opposed as inconsistent with its doctrine of the unity of the human race.

Catholic evolutionists followed the Church doctrine on unity, but some thought that the scientific evidence required following Darwin in giving up monogenesis.  French priest-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, was particularly outspoken on this point.  This, along with his broader attempt to recast the doctrine of original sin, resulted in his order removing him from his teaching responsibilities in France and sending him off to China to dig up fossils.32

5. The Fourth Generation (1950–date)

The idea of a fourth generation of Catholic evolutionism cannot so easily be focused on a few authors.  It comes in the wake of the Church’s first explicit statement about evolution.

The theologically unproblematic character of an evolutionary origin of plants and animals had won general acceptance long before 1950, as indicated above.  What remained controversial were the two questions of anthropogenesis — first, the origin of the first human body and, second, the question of monogenesis.  In his encyclical Humani generis (1950), which was addressed more generally to “some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine,” Pope Piux XII took up both questions.  The evolutionary origin of the human body, he said, was open to discussion among experts, as long as the theological significance of the question was acknowledged.  About polygenism, he said, in words carefully chosen not to be stronger than they are, that “it is in no way apparent how polygenism can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin.” Catholics were not, therefore, at liberty to embrace that view.

Many Catholic theologians, starting in the 1960’s have tried to recast the doctrine of original sin in a way that would be consistent with polygenism.  This effort was perhaps given added motivation by new genetic evidence that seems to make a monogenetic anthropogenesis practically impossible.33 My judgment about their prospects of success in this effort is not as sanguine as is theirs. In 2011, I proposed an account of the origins of the human race in which an original first fully human (i.e., ensouled) couple interbreeds with their not quite human (i.e., biologically human but not ensouled) relatives in a way that produces fully human offspring and leads, within a few generations, to a biological population every member of which is fully human.34

In 1996, St. John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in a way that re-emphasized human exceptionalism while asserting that “Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of Humani generis, new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” 35 Presumably, if he had not meant the word “evolution” to include the evolutionary origin of the human body, he would have said so.  Indeed, on an earlier occasion, he had explicitly said that “from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith, there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution.” 36 He did not address the question of monogenism.

6. Conclusion

So there we have, in brief, a history of Catholic evolutionism — Christian naturalism, an exceptionalist anthropology, an anthropogenetic synthesis of evolution and creation — a synthesis of faith and reason. One lesson of this history is that at no point has the universal magisterium of the Catholic Church issued any pronouncement against the idea of the evolutionary origin of species, including the evolutionary origin, from the physical standpoint, of man himself.


Are the comments I made about Chaberek’s book in the opening paragraph of the article above justified? At the suggestion of the editor of the SCS website, I offer here a few examples by way of substantiation.

1. On Science.  Chaberek’s book contains many of the scientific errors and confusions typically found in contemporary anti-evolutionism — the tautology objection (p. 24), the expectation of “innumerable intermediate and transitional links” (p. 194), and the confusion of homology and mere similarity (p. 193–4).

An example of the book’s carelessness in its analysis of evolutionist authors can be seen in his critique (pp. 170–1) of Stanisław Bartynowski’s old Apologetyka podręczna.37 Bartynowski had expressed a very cautious and limited Catholic evolutionism based on the ideas of his fellow-Jesuit Wasmann.  Bartynowski, for example, reassured his readers that “extending the theory of evolution to the origin of the human body does not contradict any clearly defined dogma.” 38 Chaberek’s reply: “[that] claim is too obvious to be relevant, as a direct creation of the human body was … not a separate, clearly defined dogma.  If such a dogma did not exist, hardly any view could oppose it.”  In an earlier edition, Bartynowski had acknowledged that the evolutionary view “would not agree with the opinion based on Church Tradition and generally accepted by the Church.” 39 Perhaps Chaberek thought that Bartynowski should have left that qualification in; if so, he could have said that.

An example of Chaberek’s weak grasp of a scientific question can be found in a paragraph beginning with a mention of Pope Pius XIIs rejection of polygenism, where Chaberek wrote, “If humans, regarding the body, emerged according to natural biological laws, why would it happen only once?  Laws of nature operate consistently over billions of years.  If something occurred once in the past, there is no reason to assume that would not occur many times in the past and be repeated in the future” (p. 183).  It is not clear whether this is Chaberek’s own oddly placed objection to evolution or his summary of what he thinks is the evolutionists’ case for polygenism.  Either way, it makes no sense.  If the first: Evolutionary biology surely does not imply that the origin of a particular species occurred or would occur many times. Quite the opposite.  If the second: The prevailing (Darwinian) defense of polygenism was of a monophyletic version (with many “first” individuals, but all living at the same place at the same time).

Chaberek showed a peculiar understanding of science (and theology) in a contrast which he drew  between Galileo and Darwin: “Galileo tried to explain how the elements of the universe work, while Darwin wanted to explain where they came from.  It is the prerogative of science to settle the first issue, but the second belongs to theology” (p. 243).  So the question of why the earth contains a quarter of a million species of beetles is a theological question?  Of course, where the world (not just beetles) ultimately came from is a theological question, but Chaberek’s failure to acknowledge that distinction can only be called a fallacy of equivocation.

2. On the History of Science.  Although the book is presented as a history, it is unreliable in its account of the history of science and of events connected to the social relations of science and religion.  Not all of the book’s many historical errors (e.g., those concerning the Scopes Trial (pp. 34–35), to which contrast my own account of the trial40) have much bearing on the book’s main concern.  I will focus on errors concerning the history of paleoanthropology, the topic of greatest relevance to the story of Catholicism and evolution.

a. Nebraska Man (p. 192). His account of a paleontological find of 1922 is seriously misleading.  In brief, a severely worn fossil tooth of what turned out to be an extinct peccary was at first misidentified by two leading paleontologists as a primate tooth, possibly human.  (Perhaps surprisingly, human and pig molars are remarkably similar.)  The scientists who made the initial identification continued their research and, within a few years, corrected their error.  (Well, one did; the other merely dropped the subject.)  A comparison of the story as told by Chaberek with the more accurate account of S. J. Gould,41 shows how, even when Chaberek does not commit factual errors, he manages to put his subject quite out of focus.

b. Heidelberg Man (p. 35). On this, Chaberek is simply wrong.  He says that it was “later exposed as a fraud.”  He provides no source.

c. Piltdown Man (pp. 198, 201). Chaberek makes many mistakes about the story of this forgery.

First, on the find itself and its significance, Chaberek wrote that “The discovery fit the theory so well that skeptically-minded anthropologists had no option but to surrender” (p. 198).  It is, of course, not surprising that a forgery would be a reasonably good fit to the theory of the day. After all, the point of a forgery is acceptance, something that a specimen too far removed from expectations would hardly achieve.  Nevertheless, the combination of human skull and ape jaw was odd enough that many skeptics did not surrender.  (“Piltdown never lacked detractors,” says Chaberek’s source42 in a passage that Chaberek omits to mention.)  Scientists are not police detectives and the possibility of forgery did not immediately come to mind.  Acceptance came in significant part from the difficulty of explaining how else the skull and the jaw would have turned up in the same pit.  (A comparison of Chaberek’s account with one of the sources he cited43 will provide more details.)

Second, in presenting the further scientific reaction to the Piltdown “discoveries,” Chaberek claims that the fossil was the subject of some 500 doctoral dissertations (p. 198), a number too high to be plausible.  His source is Malcolm Muggeridge, hardly the kind of source one expects in what Chaberek’s publisher calls a work of scholarship.

Third, he tries to use the Piltdown fraud to cast doubt on Peking Man.  This he does by emphasizing the connection of two scientists to both finds.

One of those is Davidson Black, who played an important role in the discovery of Peking Man. Chaberek says that he also “assisted in the reconstruction of the skull” of Piltdown Man.  There is no evidence that this is so.  Black did spend a few months of 1914 in Grafton Elliot Smith’s department at the University of Manchester while Elliot Smith was working on the Piltdown reconstruction.  He had gone there to work on comparative neurology, but Elliot Smith’s work led Black to take up an interest in paleoanthropology.  He found a rhinoceros tooth at the Piltdown site, but if he provided any assistance in the reconstruction of the Piltdown skull, it was very minor.  Elliot Smith did not mention it in Black’s obituary44 nor does any history of the case which I have checked.45 Chaberek’s attempt to use a Piltdown connection to cast doubt on the value of Black’s work on Peking Man is completely unjustified.

The other was Teilhard.  Chaberek misrepresents the place of Piltdown Man in Teilhard’s reputation and thought.  He wrongly suggests that Teilhard was one of the researchers involved in Piltdown, even saying that it was “popularized by Teilhard” (p. 38), and implies that the find played some role in the growth of Teilhard’s reputation (p. 198–9).  In fact, in the only article which Teilhard specifically devoted to the find,46 Teilhard said that “we should proceed, until further notice, as if the Piltdown skull and the mandible pertain to two different subjects.” 47 His reputation as a paleontologist came from the many articles (on Peking Man and other topics) which he published in the technical literature.  On his return from China after the war, he became research director of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and was offered the chair in paleontology at the Collège de France, a position which his order did not allow him to accept.  In 1950, he was elected to the Académie des Sciences.48

Finally, in a particularly irresponsible insinuation, Chaberek said that it was when it became increasingly difficult to fit the find into the evolutionary scheme that the British Museum “decided to reveal the truth” (p. 198, emphasis added), as though the museum had concealed the truth until then.  Of course a poor theoretical fit would be one reason to reconsider an earlier view.  Chabarek went on to mention the definitive dating of the bones and the discovery of their artificial coloration, but without any acknowledgement of their significance in the recognition of Piltdown as a forgery.

d. Peking Man he calls “just a very ancient man” (p. 201) and an “obvious deception” (p. 192).

3. Errors about Catholic evolutionists. Chaberek also makes mistakes in presenting the lives and views of Catholic evolutionists.

a. He wrote that “Teilhard’s name appears in the scientific literature mainly on the occasion of the two most unreliable ‘discoveries’ regarding human origins ever” (p. 201) and that “his achievements in the field of paleontology were never highly regarded among professional researchers” (p. 202).  Both statements are simply false.49

b. He accused Messenger of polygenism (p. 183).  Messenger, in fact, wrote that “It is of faith that the whole of the present human race has descended from Adam, and all theologians would agree that when Adam was formed there was no other human being in existence.” 50

4. Tendentious interpretations of central documents. Finally, there is the question of how he interprets relevant documents.  It is harder to be brief about misinterpretation and perhaps sometimes inappropriate to say “erroneous” rather than merely “tendentious.” I do think that he is consistently wrong.  To be fair, he does sometimes acknowledge that the documents have been interpreted differently, but the arguments for the alternative interpretations are good and his objections to them are not.

a. In the case of the Council of Cologne (pp. 72–79), he underestimates the significance of the words “spontaneous” and “continuous.”  No version of Christian evolutionism was non-providentialist enough to be guilty of the former or non-exceptionalist enough to be guilty of the latter.

b. In the case of Vatican I (pp. 81–2), the draft documents that he cites merely quoted Scripture (“from the slime of the earth”).  The Council met a year before the publication of Mivart’s Genesis of Species and did not address the question of whether the “slime” referred to was non-living matter, the point which divided Catholic evolutionists from their anti-evolutionist opponents.

c. In discussing the Pontifical Biblical Commission (pp. 152–62), he neglects Messenger’s comment (pp. 229–30) that Laurent Janssens, its secretary, said that the Commission’s decree was not intended to exclude the evolutionary formation of the human body. Archival evidence, which I will publish in my book, provides more detail on Messenger’s justification for saying this.

d. In discussing Humani generis (pp. 181–3), he relies heavily on his mistaken idea that the immediate formation of the human body from non-living matter is “a truth of faith” in a stronger sense than it is.  Many of its more convinced proponents said only that it was “theologically certain;” many were not willing to say more than that it would be rash to assert the contrary, more evolutionary, alternative.  But rashness is a provisional evaluation, subject to revision if new evidence strengthens the case for an idea that there had until then been insufficient reason to defend.  There is good reason to read the encyclical precisely as saying that the evolutionary view could no longer be considered rash.

e. His chapter on the thought of St. John Paul II (pp. 229–36) makes a desperate, but in the end implausible, attempt to minimize the significance of John Paul’s compatibilism about evolution and Catholic doctrine.  If John Paul really thought this, Chaberek said, he would have expressed a negative opinion of intelligent-design anti-evolutionism and have continued to speak on the issue (p. 241).  Chaberek also makes too much of the “low rank” of the statements in which John Paul expressed that openness (p. 241–42).  If all that Chaberek is arguing for is the liberty to disagree with the Pope on the matter, then he has made his case.  Catholics do not have to be compatibilists.  That low rank is not, however, relevant to the question of what John Paul thought about the matter and his argument from John Paul’s silence is also not convincing.  More likely, the Pope simply did not think that, compared to many other matters that required his attention (abortion, Communism, poverty, to name three), the question of evolution was all that pressing.


1.. Catholicism & Evolution: A History from Darwin to Pope Francis (Angelico, 2015).

2.. See the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” (18 March 1994), I.F.

3.. “Wants our Schools to Bar Evolution,” New York Times, 9 Nov 1925, p. 18.

4.. John 6:53 and Genesis 2:2.

5.. For examples of early implementations of the project of Aeterni patris, see Thomas Harper, Metaphysics of the School (Macmillan, 1879); the multivolume Philosophia Lacensis, begun in 1880 (and in particular Tilmann Pesch’s Institutiones philosophiae naturalis (Herder, 1880)); and P. L. De San’s Institutiones Metaphysicae Specialis (Fonteyn, 1881).

6.. Briefly, hylomorphism is a philosophy of nature according to which each individual thing is a composite of matter (which makes something the individual that it is) and a substantial form (which makes something the kind of thing that it is); essentialism is the idea that every individual thing has a specific essence, or is an individual of a particular kind; teleology is the idea a full understanding of natural processes requires reference to the τέλος (i.e., end, goal, or purpose) of the process.

7.. Paul, The Edge of Contingency (Florida, 1979), 21.

8.. D’Halloy, Éléments (1831), 526–528.

9.. Darwin, The Origin of Species, 4th ed. (Murray, 1866), xvii.

10.. De Filippi , L’Uomo e le scimie (Daelli, 1864).

11.. “L’Uomo,” 42.

12.. It is perhaps appropriate to mention, for the benefit of readers new to the subject, that Mivart is called “St. George” by a decision of his (non-Catholic) parents at his birth, and not by the decision of any ecclesiastical body.

13.. Mivart, Genesis of Species, 269. Citations here are from the American edition (Appleton, 1871).

14.. Mivart, Genesis of Species, 279.

15.. Genesis of Species, 300 and 295.

16.. Sixtus Caterchini, De valore notarum theologicarum et de criteriis ad eas dignoscendas (Gregorian University, 1951), 102.

17.. For more details, see Mariano Artigas, Thomas F Glick, and Rafael A Martínez, Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902 (Johns Hopkins, 2006).

18.. La Biblia y la Ciencia (Izquierdo, 1892), I: 514–515.

19.. Wasmann, Modern Biology and the Theory of Evolution (Kegan Paul, 1910).

20.. Klaus Schatz, SJ, “Pater Erich Wasmann S.J. und die Humanevolution,” Theologie und Philosophie (2010), 85: 81–86, and “‘Modernismo’ tra i Gesuiti: i casi Hummelauer e Wasmann,” in M. Nicoletti und O. Weis, eds., Il Modernismo in Italia e in Germania nel contesto europeo (Mulino, 2010), 341–59.

21.. Wasmann, “Catholics and Evolution,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (Appleton, 1907–1912), 5: 654–655

22..  “Concerning the Historical Nature of the First Three Chapters of Genesis” (30 June 1909), Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1909), 1: 567–569.

23.. Peculiaris is hard to render concisely and precisely into English. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (Oxford, 1879), put “not held in common with others,” so I have put “distinctive” rather than the more common (but, in my view, less accurate) translation, “special.”

24.. Hamard, “Transformisme,” in J.-B. Jaugey, ed., Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique (Delhomme et Briguet, 1889), 3087–3104, at 3093. See also Georg von Hertling, “Entwicklungslehre,” Wetzer und Welte’s Kirchenlexikon (Herder, 1886), 4: 642–662, at 646.

25.. Translated as Darwinism and Catholic Thought (Burns, Oates, 1922).

26.. He makes this exclusion four times in the first few pages—Darwinism, 3 and 5.

27.. Messenger, Evolution and Theology, 226–227.

28.. Much of what he would have said appeared in Messenger’s Evolution and Theology. De Dorlodot’s own manuscript was discovered by Marie Claire Groessens-Van Dyck and Dominique Lambert in 2006 and published by them as Henry de Dorlodot, L’Origine de l’homme (Mardaga, 2009).

29.. Memorandum “Circo uno studio su l’evoluzionismo,” undated, but (on internal evidence) the week following Schmidt’s submission of his report, so in mid-1938, ACDF CL, 1933/246, Varie (without document numbers), fol. 99.

30.. Catholic theologians eventually developed a practice of characterizing as “polygenist” any theory that claimed more than one first human couple and as “polyphyletic” any theory that these first couples were members of distinct (usually geographically separated) groups. That careful terminology is not universally used, even by Catholic theologians.

31.. See also, La Peyrère, Systema Theologicum (1655) (trans. as Men before Adam and Theological Systeme). For a history, see David N. Livingstone, Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins (Johns Hopkins, 2011).

32.. For more details on the Teilhard case, see my “Teilhard de Chardin, the ‘Six Propositions,’ & the Holy Office,” Zygon (2019), 54: 4: 932-953.

33.. Francisco Ayala, “Molecular Genetics of Speciation and Human Origins,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA) (1994), 91: 6787–6794; and “Evolution and the Uniqueness of Humankind,” Origins: CNS Documentary Service (1998), 27: 565–74.

34..  “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (2011), 85: 2: 217–236.

35.. John Paul II, “Ad Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum sodales,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1997), 89: 186–190, at 188.

36.. St. John Paul II, “Humans Are Spiritual and Corporeal Beings,” General Audience of 16 April 1986.

37.. Stanisław Bartynowski, Apologetyka podręczna, 2d ed. (Wydawnictwo Tow. Jez., 1916); 8th ed., (Wydawnictwo Księży Jezuitów, 1948), a reprint of which was used by Chaberek.

38.. Bartynowski, Apologetyka, 8th ed., 141.

39.. Bartynowski, Apologetyka, 2d ed., 141.

40.. The War That Never Was (Cascade, 2020), 96–110.

41.. S. J. Gould, “An Essay on a Pig Roast,” in Bully for Brontosaurus (Norton, 1991), 432–47

42.. S. J. Gould, “Piltdown Revisited” in his The Panda’s Thumb (Norton, 1980), 108–124, at 115.

43.. Cited by Chaberek as “Smith Woodward’s Folly,” but reprinted, and more conveniently available, as “Piltdown Revisited,” cited above.

44.. G. Elliot Smith, “Obituary Notice: Davidson Black 1884-1934,” Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society (1934), 1: 3: 361–5.

45.. See, for example, Frank Spencer, Piltdown: A Scientific Forgery (Oxford, 1990).

46.. “Le Cas de l’Homme de Piltdown,” Revue des questions scientifiques (1920), 77: 149–155.

47.. Teilhard, “Piltdown,” 155.

48.. René de Malleman, “Notice sur la vie et les travaux de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin,” in Publications de l’Institut de France (1962), 4: 684–88.

49.. Teilhard’s technical scientific work has been collected in Nicole and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, eds., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: L’Œuvre scientifique, 10 vols. (Walter, 1971).

See Jean Piveteau, Le Père Teilhard de Chardin, savant (Fayard, 1964), or, Marc Godinot, “De la Géologie à l’évolution dans les travaux scientifiques de Teilhard,” in Jean Duchesne, ed., Pierre Teilhard de Chardin face à ses contradicteurs (Parole et Science, 2016), 61–82.

Thomas F. Glick’s article on Teilhard in the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (Scribner’s, 2008), 13: 274-277.

50.. Messenger, Evolution and Theology, 276.

Connect With Catholic Scientists

The Society of Catholic Scientists is an international organization that fosters fellowship among Catholic scientists and witnesses to the harmony of faith and reason.

Support Our Mission

Join the hundreds of people whose financial contributions are allowing Catholic scientists to engage with each other and the world as never before.

About Us

The Society of Catholic Scientists is an international organization founded in June of 2016 to foster fellowship among Catholic scientists and to witness to the harmony of faith and reason.