This or Nothing

In his homily on June 9th, Pope Francis spoke against excessively rigid views:

This (is the) healthy realism of the Catholic Church: the Church never teaches us ‘or this or that.’ That is not Catholic. The Church says to us: ‘this and that.’ ‘Strive for perfectionism: reconcile with your brother. Do not insult him. Love him. And if there is a problem, at the very least settle your differences so that war doesn’t break out.’ This (is) the healthy realism of Catholicism. It is not Catholic (to say) ‘or this or nothing:’ This is not Catholic, this is heretical. Jesus always knows how to accompany us, he gives us the ideal, he accompanies us towards the ideal, He frees us from the chains of the laws’ rigidity and tells us: ‘But do that up to the point that you are capable.’ And he understands us very well. He is our Lord and this is what he teaches us.

“Or this or that” and “Or this or nothing” are probably excessively literal translations of the Italian, which would actually mean “either this or that,” and “either this or nothing.”

It is a bit odd to speak of such views as “heretical,” since it would be hard to find a determinate doctrine here that might be true or false. Rather, the Pope speaks of an attitude, and is condemning it as a bad attitude, not only morally, but as leading one into error intellectually as well. We have seen various people with views and attitudes that would likely fit under this categorization: thus for example Fr. Brian Harrison maintains that a person cannot accept both Christianity and evolutionJames Larson maintains that disagreement with his theological and philosophical positions amounts to a “war against being,” thus asserting “either this or nothing” in a pretty immediate sense. Alexander Pruss maintains that either there was a particular objective moment when Queen Elizabeth passed from not being old to being old, or logic is false. We have seen a number of other examples.

The attitude is fairly common among Catholic traditionalists (of which Fr. Brian Harrison and James Larson are in fact examples.) Thus it is not surprising that the blog Rorate Caeli, engaging in exactly the “this or nothing” attitude that Pope Francis condemns, condemns Pope Francis’s statements as heretical:

(1) Either John Paul II and all the Popes who came before him are right, by emphasizing the “absoluteness” of the Church’s moral law and by classifying as a “very serious error” that the doctrine of the Church is only an “ideal”…

…or (2) Francis is right, by qualifying as “heretical” a rejection of the “Doctrine of the Ideal” as well as any affirmation of the absoluteness of moral prohibitions (‘or this or nothing’).

Regardless of the accusations of heresy on either side, however, Pope Francis is basically right in rejecting the attitude in question. I have spoken elsewhere about the fact that in discussion, one should try to look for what is true in the other person’s position. The most basic reason for this, of course, is that there is almost always some truth there. The attitude of “this or nothing” is basically a refusal to consider the truth in the other person’s position.

Strangely, as we will see in future posts, this turns out to be relevant to our discussion of elements.

[On another matter, a public service announcement: If you occasionally use a taxi, or might occasionally do so in the future, and you are not signed up with Uber, you should do so. Call a traditional taxi, and they will tell you they will be there in 20 – 30 minutes. They will actually be there in 45 – 60 minutes, and possibly not at all. With Uber, all it takes is a few clicks, and you will have a ride in 5 -10 minutes. While it is on the way, you know the exact location of your ride and can communicate with your driver in advance as needed. And as far as I can tell, the price is about the same.

There is also another reason for this advertisement. If you sign up with Uber using the promo code 6p1nbwapue , you and I will both receive $20 of credit. This only works if you actually use the service at least once, however.]

Sola Me and Claiming Personal Infallibility

At his blog, P. Edmund Waldstein and myself have a discussion about this post about myself and his account of the certainty of faith, an account that I consider to be a variety of the doctrine of sola me.

In that discussion we consider various details of his position, as well as the teaching of the Church and of St. Thomas. Here, let me step out for a moment and consider the matter more generally.

It is evident that everything that he says could be reformulated and believed by the members of any religion whatsoever, in order to justify the claim that they should never change their religion, no matter how much evidence is brought against it. Thus, instead of,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of the Spirit. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Christ, as a witness who is both external and internal.

a Muslim might say,

But nor is such certitude based on an entirely incommunicable interior witness of Allah. Certainly it is impossible without such illumination, but what such illumination enables is an encounter with Mohammed, as a witness who is both external and internal.

P. Edmund could argue against particular claims of the Muslim, and the Muslim could argue against P. Edmund’s particular claims. But neither would be listening seriously to the other, because each would assert, “It would be unserious in me to approach arguments based on natural evidence as though they could ever disprove the overwhelmingly powerful evidence of the [Catholic / Islamic] Faith.”

Regardless of details, each is claiming to be personally infallible in discerning the truth about religion.

It is possible to lock yourself into a box intellectually that you cannot escape from in any reasonable way. Descartes does this for example with his hypothesis of the Evil Demon. Logically, according to this hypothesis, he should suppose that he might be wrong about the fact that it is necessary to exist in order to think or to doubt things. Without accepting any premises, it is of course impossible to arrive at any conclusions. In a similar way, if someone believes himself infallible on some topic, logically there is no way for him to correct his errors in regard to that topic.

In practice in such cases it is possible to escape from the box, since belief is voluntary. The Cartesian may simply choose to stop doubting, and the believer may simply choose to accept the fact that he is not personally infallible. But there is no logical process of reasoning that could validly lead to these choices.

People construct theological bomb shelters for themselves in various ways. Fr. Brian Harrison does this by asserting a form of young earth creationism, and simply ignoring all the evidence opposed to this. Likewise, asserting that you are personally infallible in discerning the true religion is another way to construct such a shelter. But hear the words of St. Augustine:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although “they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”

As Darwin Catholic points out, someone who argues that “either evolution is false or Christianity is false” does not make Christianity more credible, but less. In a similar way, someone who argues that their religion requires that they believe themselves personally infallible, is essentially saying, “Either my religion is false or I am personally infallible.” This does not make their religion more credible, but less, to whatever degree that one thinks they are right about the requirement.

(After some consideration, I will be posting at least on Sundays during February and March.)

Image and Reality

A number of the issues we have discussed can be considered in parallel. There are significant differences between them, but we have given three situations where there was one understanding, at least in the early Church and sometimes later, and after time there was a different understanding. The three issues are the genre of Genesis, the time of the end of the world, and the number of the saved.

The cases differ significantly. In regard to Genesis, it is fairly certain that it was interpreted mainly literally throughout most of Christian history, but there were also some exceptions, at least for some passages. There are literary reasons for supposing that it should not be interpreted in this way, and I presented some of them in the linked post, but in practice the change in understanding came about because the facts were inconsistent with supposing that it was a literal historical account. Fr. Harrison objects exactly for this reason: according to him, it is completely unreasonable to change your understanding of the text to conform to the facts. Nor is the change universal; many ordinary Christians and Catholics would still understand the text in a historically literal way. But this is surely not the current understanding of the Magisterium, nor is it objectively reasonable.

In regard to the time of the end, it is likely that the understanding that it would be soon was nearly universal in the early Church, but this cannot be demonstrated with certainty, since this understanding had to change very quickly in order to remain in conformity with experience. The changed understanding itself would thus be universal, although some take this farther than others; thus James Chastek in the linked post argued that the Second Coming is something that happens after human history has already been concluded, but not everyone would say this.

In regard to the number of the saved, the issue was surely much less important. Christ himself at least on one occasion seems to have refused to answer the question: one should not be concerned about how many are saved, but to strive for salvation. And the idea that most people are lost was surely not universal. Origen for example argued that all will be saved. And likewise, I have given only the example of Pope Benedict XVI currently arguing that most people are saved, while it is not clear how common this opinion is. Nonetheless, I have included this because of significant similarities. The Catholic doctrine of the Last Judgement implies that there is a deep truth behind the human tendency to divide people into good people and bad people. According to the doctrine, people will in fact be divided in this way, and the division will last for all eternity. But the human tendency is a bit different. As I suggested in the linked post, people frequently tend to make such a division on the basis of religion and politics and similar matters. Democrats might say that Republicans are heartless evil people; Christians might say that atheists are sinful and immoral people who have rebelled against God. Such a division is sometimes even taken so far that it is incorporated into a person’s idea of religious doctrine: thus for example some people hold a rigid understanding of the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church, and some Muslims say that all non-Muslims go to hell.

In this sense, the natural human tendency is surely deeply flawed. Just because people do not agree with you, or just because they do not belong to your communities, does not mean that they are evil people. If anything, it is obvious that most people are not deeply evil. On the one hand, this provides ammunition for people who would engage in Bulverism against the Christian doctrine; they can say that the doctrine may simply be a result of this flawed tendency. On the other hand, it provides an argument in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s position, and in fact it is more or less the argument that he makes. This is why I have included it: Christ said certain things, which understood in a fairly simple way seem to imply certain things about the time of the end and the number of the saved. Likewise, Genesis says things which similarly can be taken to imply certain facts about the history of the world. Over time, everyone realized that what seemed implied about the time of the end, simply could not be the case. Many people realized that what seemed implied about the history of the world could not be the case, and at least some people realized that what seemed implied about the number of the saved is unlikely to be the case.

These surely differ in their doctrinal weight. The number of the saved is probably unimportant in a doctrinal sense, even if it might be important to us personally. The other two seem somewhat more important, but it not difficult to argue that such changes do not involve the substance of any doctrine. As I have said previously, one would not describe a contradiction as such as a development. So “the world will not end soon” cannot be a development of “the world will end soon,” but it would not be unreasonable to say that Christians went from one to the other through an improved understanding of the meaning and history of the Church, even if it was one that was forced upon them by the facts. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to understand all of these things in conformity with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine.

But something seems missing here. All of the facts may be consistent with Newman’s idea, but that does not mean that they are not consistent with anything else. And if anything, they seem more suggestive of the hypothesis that Newman rejects, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons,” and which seems to imply that Christianity is not supernatural. To a non-Christian, these facts look like the early Christians were just ignorant, and their ignorance was overcome through the normal progress in the knowledge of truth. And to the extent that they received their religion from Christ, and even to some extent apparently these specific ideas, it looks like Christ was ignorant as well.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a similar situation in his homilies on Genesis, published as the book In the Beginning:

These words, with which Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity. For many of us, moreover, these words recall the memory of our first encounter with Gods holy book, the Bible, which was opened for us at this spot. It at once brought us out of our small child’s world, captivated us with its poetry, and gave us a feeling for the immeasurability of creation and its Creator.

Yet these words give rise to a certain conflict. They are beautiful and familiar, but are they also true? Everything seems to speak against it, for science has long since disposed of the concepts that we have just now heard of – the idea of a world that is completely comprehensible in terms of space and time, and the idea that creation was built up piece by piece over the course of seven days. Instead of this we now face measurements that transcend all comprehension. Today we hear of the Big Bang, which happened billions of years ago and with which the universe began its expansion – an expansion that continues to occur without interruption. And it was not in neat succession that the stars were hung and the green of the fields created; it was rather in complex ways and over vast periods of time that the earth and the universe were constructed as we now know them.

Do these words, then, count for anything? In fact a theologian said not long ago that creation has become an unreal concept. If one is to be intellectually honest one ought to speak no longer of creation but rather of mutation and selection. Are these words true? Or have they perhaps, along with the entire Word of God and the whole biblical tradition, come out of the reveries of the infant age of human history, for which we occasionally experience homesickness but to which we can nevertheless not return, inasmuch as we cannot live on nostalgia? Is there an answer to this that we can claim for ourselves in this day and age?

He is discussing the specific issue of the truth of Genesis, and thus his response is tailored to this:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time – from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became – in the Word – the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith. Thus, insofar as human beings realized that the world came from the Word, they ceased to care about the gods and demons. In addition, the world was freed so that reason might lift itself up to God and so that human beings might approach this God fearlessly. In this Word they experienced the true enlightenment that does away with the gods and the mysterious powers and that reveals to them that there is only one power everywhere and that we are in his hands. This is the living God, and this same power (which created the earth and the stars and which bears the whole universe) is the very one whom we meet in the Word of Holy Scripture. In this Word we come into contact with the real primordial force of the world and with the power that is above all powers.

After this description of a response to the problem, he says that there is still a problem:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord? This would be an operation whose aim would be, supposedly, to defend the faith, inasmuch as it would say: Behind what is there, which we can no longer defend, there is something more real. Such an operation often ends up by putting the faith itself in doubt, by raising the question of the honesty of those who are interpreting it and of whether anything at all there is enduring. As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand – a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.

This concern is much like that of Ross Douthat in his comments regarding communion for divorced and remarried couples.

I will give Ratzinger’s response to these issues, and offer some comments on it, in the next post, or possibly later.

Religious Freedom

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Libertas, says:

19. To make this more evident, the growth of liberty ascribed to our age must be considered apart in its various details. And, first, let us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty of worship, as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none.

20. But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. Add to which, no true virtue can exist without religion, for moral virtue is concerned with those things which lead to God as man’s supreme and ultimate good; and therefore religion, which (as St. Thomas says) “performs those actions which are directly and immediately ordained for the divine honor”,(7) rules and tempers all virtues. And if it be asked which of the many conflicting religions it is necessary to adopt, reason and the natural law unhesitatingly tell us to practice that one which God enjoins, and which men can easily recognize by certain exterior notes, whereby Divine Providence has willed that it should be distinguished, because, in a matter of such moment, the most terrible loss would be the consequence of error. Wherefore, when a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.

21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man’s capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.

Among other things, the Pope seems to be claiming, “There is one true religion, namely the Catholic religion, and it is easily recognized as such.” It is difficult to see a way in which this statement might be both true and fit well in this context. If the claim implies that the majority of honest, reasonable people would agree that Catholicism is true, then it seems to slander the human race, given the fact that only about one seventh of humanity accepts this, and surely the majority of these people were raised Catholic rather than being converts. If it means that “it should be easy to see that Catholicism is true, but in practice it is not, because of various impediments,” then it does not seem to fit well in this context, because the Pope seems to be making practical statements about how individuals and states should behave, so if it is not easy in practice, it is not easy in the way that is relevant here. In any case it is not necessary to consider this in detail at this time.

Later in the encyclical he discusses the idea of tolerance:

33. Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, “neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good.”(11) This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil.

34. But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting. And although in the extraordinary condition of these times the Church usually acquiesces in certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves, but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind. One thing, however, remains always true – that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.

35. And as to tolerance, it is surprising how far removed from the equity and prudence of the Church are those who profess what is called liberalism. For, in allowing that boundless license of which We have spoken, they exceed all limits, and end at last by making no apparent distinction between truth and error, honesty and dishonesty. And because the Church, the pillar and ground of truth, and the unerring teacher of morals, is forced utterly to reprobate and condemn tolerance of such an abandoned and criminal character, they calumniate her as being wanting in patience and gentleness, and thus fail to see that, in so doing, they impute to her as a fault what is in reality a matter for commendation. But, in spite of all this show of tolerance, it very often happens that, while they profess themselves ready to lavish liberty on all in the greatest profusion, they are utterly intolerant toward the Catholic Church, by refusing to allow her the liberty of being herself free.

All of this looks very different from the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom:

2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

3. Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.(3) The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.

There is a further consideration. The religious acts whereby men, in private and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs. Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.

4. The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.

In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. Finally, the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.

At the very least, there is a vast difference of attitude in the statements, and at the most, they might seem to be saying completely opposite things. Leo XIII says that “the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires,” while Dignitatis Humanae says that “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” Since both statements contain qualifications, they might be consistent in practice. However, the first seems to say, “We might have to allow someone to make this false statement, but it would be better if we could prevent it,” while the second seems to say, “We might have to prevent someone from making this false statement, but it would be better if we could allow it.” Understood in this way, the statements would not be consistent.

Thomas Storck discusses the apparent inconsistency:

“Since the Catholic Church has changed her authoritative teaching on more than one point of faith and morals, there is absolutely no reason why she cannot be expected to change it on others. And, this being the case, to silence dissenting theologians is very possibly to prevent the discovery and propagation of new truths, truths which the Church herself will eventually come to accept.” We are all likely familiar with arguments of this sort, arguments made in varying ways by theologians who refuse to accept all the teachings of the Church’s magisterium. When pressed for specifics, moreover, the two points on which they generally allege the Church has changed her doctrine are the licitness of usury and the question of religious liberty. And if the magisterium really has changed on these issues, then it is hard not to concede to them their point. For if the teaching of the ordinary magisterium on usury or religious liberty has changed over the centuries because of changing social conditions, then why not teaching on contraception or divorce? Therefore, it seems to me of the greatest importance for orthodox Catholics to be able to demonstrate that the Church has never changed any point of its magisterial teachings nor can she.

There is a kind of moral reasoning here: We cannot admit that the Church has changed its teaching on religious liberty, since that would provide an argument that the Church might change its teaching on contraception or other matters, and it would be bad to admit that.

Regardless of the prudence of this manner of reasoning, this is a bad way of trying to get at the truth of the matter.

Working out his solution to the apparent conflict, he says:

The apparent conflict here concerns public worship and proselytizing activities, since the papal teaching quoted earlier never contemplated suppressing private religious actions. But how far is the conflict real?

In <Dignitatis Humanae> itself there are two limitations of the right to religious freedom. First, this freedom is restricted “within due limits” and by “the just requirements of public order.” Second, the assertion of man’s right to religious liberty seems to be considerably qualified by a further statement in the declaration. This statement appears in the paragraph immediately preceding the section quoted, and runs thus:

So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.

What do these reservations mean?

In regard to “the just requirements of public order,” at first glance this phrase might seem to mean things such as keeping civil peace, obeying health regulations, respecting morality and the like. But even Professor Wolfe implicitly acknowledges that it could include suppression of polygamy, although polygamy is a practice by no means necessarily contrary to civil peace.14 This also despite the fact that polygamy is or has been permitted by several major religions, and its prohibition would be a limiting of religious freedom. In other words, “the just requirements of public order” apparently mean more than merely keeping order in society, and extend to repressing socially harmful practices.

But I think one can go further than this. I suggest the following: That “the just requirements of public order” vary considerably between a Catholic state and a religiously neutral state. If a neutral state can prohibit polygamy, even though it is a restriction on religious freedom, then a Catholic state can likewise restrict the public activity of non-Catholic groups. “The just requirements of public order” can be understood only in the context of a people’s traditions and modes of living, and in a Catholic society would necessarily include that social unity based upon a recognition of the Catholic Church as the religion of society, and the consequent exclusion of all other religions from public life. Western secular democracies, committed to freedom of religion for all sects, find no contradiction in proscribing polygamy, although some religions permit it, because its practice is contrary to the traditions and mores of these nations. A Catholic country can certainly similarly maintain its own manner of life.

What about the repeated declarations in <Dignitatis Humanae> about religious freedom as a personal human right? The Council proclaims, I think, an abstract human right, but a right that is not necessarily fully applicable in any given circumstance or place. Because of the “dignity of the human person” man does indeed have a right to religious liberty, in fact, by giving us a free will God has necessarily given us a kind of religious liberty, including the liberty to err. But this does not mean that this liberty may be exercised without reference to anything else. There are many rights that are contingent upon circumstances. Man, for example, has a right to marry. But what of those who are impotent or who cannot find anyone to marry? The right is a right in the abstract and not necessarily in any given concrete situation. Furthermore, even in a Catholic confessional state there is a certain religious liberty, that is, a liberty to privately exercise one’s non-Catholic faith, to meet corporately but privately with one’s co-religionists. This is a real liberty, occasioned by the “dignity of the human person,” but also restricted within “the just requirements of public order.”

But what of the second limitation on religious freedom found within <Dignitatis Humanae> itself?

Usually the supposed contradiction in Church teaching on religious liberty is seen as a conflict between earlier papal teaching and <Dignitatis Humanae>. But if the text of <Dignitatis Humanae> is taken seriously this is not so. <Dignitatis Humanae> states, as I quoted above, that it “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of . . . societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” The moral duty of societies toward the true faith and Church, however, is precisely those propositions found in the traditional papal teaching supposedly at variance with <Dignitatis Humanae>. In other words, if an interpretation of the declaration is insisted upon that conflicts with Gregory XVI, Pius IX, <et al,> then <Dignitatis Humanae> conflicts with itself, for, as I just quoted, the earlier teaching, far from being changed, is explicitly left intact. If we keep this in mind when reviewing the declaration, we will see that the common interpretation, although at first glance seemingly obvious, must be based on a misunderstanding. Probably <Dignitatis Humanae> was intended to be irenic, and perhaps some of its framers wanted to change the teaching, but as Fr. Most points out, “we must confine ourselves to what the writer succeeded <in setting down on paper explicitly.>”15 No one will deny that <Dignitatis Humanae> says what it says in a curious way, but I think I have shown that one need not read it in such a way that it conflicts with former teaching.

I have tried to give full weight to the plain meaning of all the texts I have discussed, within the constraints imposed by logic and revealed truth. <Dignitatis Humanae> turns out to be a much more complicated document that usually supposed, but, when carefully examined, not in disagreement with what seems to be the previous teaching of the ordinary magisterium on the question of religious liberty.

In one way, this is mostly reasonable. One can understand the implications of the various statements to be mostly or even entirely consistent. The problem would be that this does not necessarily mean that the doctrine justifying these practices is the same, as I said regarding the statements on toleration and on immunity from coercion.

Storck however is probably putting undue weight on the statement that Dignitatis Humanae “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching.” Simply asserting that I am not contradicting myself, does not necessarily meant that I am not contradicting myself in fact. On the other hand, it is reasonable to read the teachings of the Church with as much truth and consistency as possible, just as one should in conversation with others.

However, Storck is going too far in the claim that it is necessary “to demonstrate that the Church has never changed any point of its magisterial teachings nor can she.” Fr. Brian Harrison and Orestes Brownson both claimed that if the Church changes any teaching, then Catholicism is necessarily false. Storck does not go this far, but he says that we must avoid admitting a change because we cannot admit that any teaching might be changed in the future. But there is a similar problem: both claims require something like a list of unchangeable teachings, and as we suggested a few days ago, no such list exists.

Yesterday we saw the teaching of Pope Leo X that it is moral to burn heretics. And since he calls the whole list of condemned propositions “against Catholic truth,” and says that “according to these errors, or any one or several of them, it clearly follows that the Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit is in error and has always erred,” one could easily understand him to be saying that his teaching is a definitive statement of the kind Harrison and Brownson are concerned with, such that changing that teaching would imply that Catholicism is false.

Of course, it is not necessary to read it in that way, but it is not impossible. In any case, his opinion is clear, and is an area where the Church has in fact changed her opinion. Nor is it reasonable to say that the Church believes that it is now wrong to burn heretics, but that it was not wrong in the past. The current belief is a universal one: thus for example Pope Francis commented a few days ago, “There were terrible times between us. Just think of the persecutions, among we who have the same baptism. Think of all the people who were burned alive.”

As we said earlier, there is necessarily a vague line between a substantial change in doctrine, and a development of doctrine. And while it would never be reasonable to call a contradiction as such a development, it might well be that the development of one doctrine might require contradicting an opinion on another matter. In this sense, a Catholic interpretation of this history would be that the Church has developed its understanding of humanity and freedom, and this development required changing its opinion on various details such as whether or not it is moral to burn heretics.

And indeed, as Storck says, and as I suggested a few days ago, this does mean that one should admit that other doctrines might change in various respects, and that the exact extent of this possibility is unknown.

The Fall and the Order of the World

As I have noted before, some people claim a very strong tension between the claim that the earth is ancient and that life has an evolutionary history, and the claim that the doctrines of Christianity are true. This is done both by Christians, to argue against evolution, and by unbelievers, to argue against Christianity.

Thus for example Joseph Gehringer says:

After nearly a decade of making headlines, the creation-evolution controversy in the United States has quietly faded from public view. Having won two major court victories (Arkansas, 1982; U.S. Supreme Court, 1987), evolutionists are now working quietly to consolidate their hold on the educational system (e.g., the California Science Framework; Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Meanwhile, media interest has shifted to new issues such as AIDS and sexual harassment.

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Father Zimmerman clearly recognizes the problems caused by the widespread acceptance of evolutionary theory. For, if man evolved gradually from an animal species millions of years ago (as he believes), the Genesis story of Adam and Eve becomes a religious myth of little significance in today’s secular culture. As a consequence, the doctrine of original sin and all those doctrines which depend upon it, lose their meaning for a modern Catholic. Father Zimmerman feels that this situation can be remedied if we “locate Adam on our family tree as we look at the fossil record THROUGH THE EYES OF SCIENTISTS” (page 2, emphasis added) and correct the errors of “theologians based on a wrong reading of Genesis” (page 202). In the Foreword, Paul Hallett hails this approach as “groundbreaking.” But I find nothing new in the Modernist error that “Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine … be re-adjusted” (No. 64, Syllabus of Errors).

Basically Gehringer’s objection is that if the theory of evolution is true, then the account of the fall in Genesis is false or at least meaningless.

Jerry Coyne says similar things, arguing for the opposite side, while discussing an essay by Mike Aus (Coyne’s link to the essay is no longer valid):

Here are the points of incompatibility as Aus sees them.

  • Adam and Eve  This is the big one, and all attempts to see it as a metaphor (since we know that the human population never bottlenecked at two individuals) are ludicrous on their face. If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, what sense does Jesus make. I quote from Aus:

“Which core doctrines of Christianity does evolution challenge? Well, basically all of them. The doctrine of original sin is a prime example. If my rudimentary grasp of the science is accurate, then Darwin’s theory tells us that because new species only emerge extremely gradually, there really is no “first” prototype or model of any species at all—no “first” dog or “first” giraffe and certainly no “first”homo sapiens created instantaneously. The transition from predecessor hominid species was almost imperceptible. So, if there was no “first” human, there was clearly no original couple through whom the contagion of “sin” could be transmitted to the entire human race. The history of our species does not contain a “fall” into sin from a mythical, pristine sinless paradise that never existed.”

. . . The role of Christ as the Second Adam who came to save and perfect our fallen species is at the heart of the New Testament’s argument for Christ’s salvific significance. St. Paul wrote, “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation of all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to salvation and life for all.” (Romans 5:18) Over the centuries this typology of Christ as the Second Adam has been a central theme of Christian homiletics, hymnody and art. More liberal Christians might counter that, of course there was no Adam or Eve; when Paul described Christ as another Adam he was speaking metaphorically. But metaphorically of what? And Jesus died to become a metaphor? If so, how can a metaphor save humanity?”

I don’t see any way around this. BioLogos has had a gazillion posts trying to make metaphorical sense of Adam and Eve, but responses like the “federal headship model,” in which God simply designated two of the many early humans as “Official Original Sinners”, are simply laughable.  And remember that the Catholic Church’s official policy is one of “monogenism”: all human literally descended from Adam and Eve.  Catholic Answers notes:

In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated: “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now, it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the teaching authority of the Church proposed with regard to original sin which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam in which through generation is passed onto all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis 37).

I wonder how Catholic scientists like Kenneth Miller reconcile this dogma with their acceptance of human evolution. Do they simply deny the teachings of their church? If so, they are heretics.

The objection is that given the way evolutionary theory works, there could not have been a “first man” in any usual sense. It apparently follows that the account of the fall in Genesis is false, just as Gehringer argues.

I would note two things concerning this objection:

First, Coyne misunderstands the statement by Pius XII. I have noted previously that Pius XII is leaving the question open, in the sense that he is allowing for the possibility of a future reconciliation, while warning that at the moment there appears to be a conflict. And whether there is a conflict or not, it is clear that the Catholic Church no longer objects to someone holding that there was no first man in any ordinary sense. The document of the International Theological Commission, Communion and Stewardship, states:

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

70. With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called “God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap…the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

The clause, “whether as individuals or in populations,” clearly accepts the possibility that there was not one first man from whom all other men descended. The document is not a document of the magisterium but required the approval of Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in order to be published. This indicates that Catholics holding such a view are certainly not heretics, contrary to Coyne’s supposition. As for the issue of a gradual process, as the ITC notes here, Catholic doctrine implies a radical distinction between human beings who have immortal souls and other animals which do not. But this does not imply any radical outward rupture, just as there is no such rupture in the behavior of a human being, starting from conception, where there is no rational behavior at all, and throughout the remaining history of the child’s life both before and after birth. This process of change is always gradual, and there is nothing in Catholic doctrine on the soul which would imply that the process of human evolution could not have been gradual in a very similar way.

Second, it should be conceded that the apparent continuity of human evolution, and the evidence against a bottleneck (namely against the idea that the human population once consisted of two individuals), is evidence against the account in Genesis. However, it is fairly weak evidence, because the account in Genesis is not a literal account. What is necessary to that account is an elevation of human nature and a fall from that state, not the particular claim that the human race descended from a couple such as Adam and Eve.

However, it follows from this that both sides, here represented by Gehringer and Jerry Coyne, are right to some extent in claiming that there is some tension between Christianity and the theory of evolution.

In fact, there is a philosophical objection to the account of the fall in the first place, which would be a somewhat reasonable objection even apart from the idea of evolution, and the effect of the theory of evolution is simply to exacerbate the effectiveness of the objection.

Discussing the order of the world, I stated that a successful world is one in which the order of time basically corresponds to an order of goodness, that is, in the sense that the world should be improving over time. I argued in the following posts that the world tends to be successful in this way, that is, that things generally tend to get better rather than tending to get worse.

This is evidence against the account of the fall, in which things appear to get much worse. Naturally, this is not conclusive, since things do in fact sometimes get worse, and even sometimes much worse, even if the general tendency is the opposite of this.

The nature of the order of the world also provides some evidence against the preceding elevation of human nature which seems required for the account of the fall. This is true to the degree that the preceding elevation includes things which in principle could be the result of secondary causes, but which according to the account did not actually come about through such causes. The reason for this is that the world is good not only because there are good things in it, but because one thing is a cause of another. Consequently, the world is better and more ordered if something which can be a result of secondary causes is in fact a result of secondary causes, than if the thing is produced directly by the first cause. This is no argument, of course, against those aspects of the preceding elevation which could not be produced by secondary causes in principle, except by association: namely, if part of the account is not true, that argues against the rest of the account.

The theory of evolution exacerbates this argument by pointing out that before the existence of humanity, the world of animals in some way increased in goodness until it touched upon human nature, and that after the existence of humanity, the human race continued to make various improvements over time. That is, one possible response to this objection is that the human race is a specific exception to a general situation regarding the order of the world. The theory of evolution indicates that it is not an exception. In order to maintain the account of the fall, one must hold that it was the specific events of the elevation and fall that are exceptions.

One final point that strengthens this objection still more, is the fact that it is a very common human error to argue, “Things are really bad right now, this surely means that they must have been much better before and just got worse.” This argues that the account of the fall might simply be a mistake of this kind. C. S. Lewis would no doubt object, and especially without a specific argument indicating that it is in fact an error of this kind, but it remains reasonable to point out such facts.

Painful Dilemma

Philip Gosse, speaking of the apparent discrepancy between Scripture and geology, in a text quoted in the previous post, calls this a painful dilemma:

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it.

Earlier we looked at Darwin Catholic’s response to the position of Fr. Brian Harrison. However, in a part of his post that we did not cite at the time, he makes what he considers to be his most important point, at least in a certain way:

My third point of disagreement with Fr. Harrison is in some ways the most urgent, and the reason that I have written such a long commentary on his piece. In his “moonie” parable, Fr. Harrison suggests that there are two honest approaches to dealing with the discoveries of science in relation to Genesis: either insist that science is a fraud and that it is wrong to assert that the world is ancient or that humanity (in the biological sense) evolved from lower life forms, or reject the bible as false and Christianity as a fraud. The “bombshelter” route that his intellectuals and theologians in the parable dream up (with the “invisible water”) he sees as inherently dishonest and dangerous.

This is all very well for Fr. Harrison, who apparently is satisfied in his own mind that the findings of modern astronomy, geology and paleontology are indeed a fraud. However, he binds up a heavy and dangerous burden for others to carry. Either they must assert that much of modern science is a fraud (Fr. Harrison even holds out hope that the bible is right that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe while the sun and all the stars orbit it once each day, though he does not fully commit himself to that view) or one must abandon Christianity as false.

This is the biggest reason I find myself drawn back into the evolution debate again and again. It’s not so much that I have a fanatical devotion to evolution or to the aspects of modern astronomy and geology that suggest and ancient universe (though I do consider these explanations provided by science to be the best theories to explain the evidence we have at this time) but rather that many who have an antipathy towards these areas of science (as Fr. Harrison clearly does) feel it necessary to build up the threat to Christianity and make the argument: Either evolution is false or Christianity is false. Now you believe that Christianity is true, so surely you must reject evolution, right?

Given that the Church has said repeatedly that there is no inherent contradiction between the findings of modern science and our beliefs, it seems wrong to me (indeed, wicked) to risk destroying the faith of others by insisting that one must reject either evolution or the Church. I do not say that given the choice Fr. Harrison proposes I would reject Christianity — because I do not accept that this is a legitimate set of alternatives to propose. But I do consider the choice set up to be dangerous and unhelpful.

Darwin Catholic speaks of the same dilemma discussed by Philip Gosse. Gosse attempts to resolve it with his distinction between “prochronic” and “diachronic” events, but as we have seen, his attempt fails. Fr. Harrison attempts to resolve it by saying that science is simply wrong, but this is quite unreasonable. Darwin Catholic’s own response is to say that Scripture does not mean what it was thought to mean, and this is a reasonable position, for reasons given when we considered that response.

Gosse, speaking of the interpretation of the text, makes this statement, already quoted in the previous post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

This is also one of Fr. Harrison’s main concerns, and the reason that he says that if Genesis is not given a literal and historical interpretation, we are giving it an “invisible genre.”

It is true that most Christians believed that Genesis was such a literal account. Philip Gosse and Fr. Harrison are right about this. Despite this, however, there was already evidence that Genesis was not such an account, evidence noted in my post on the genre of Genesis 2-3. In a similar way, there was evidence for the theory of evolution long before it was proposed.

People often make mistakes, and people often fail to notice evidence for things which they do not currently believe. There is nothing particularly strange about this. But there is a particular reason why Fr. Harrison is concerned about this, a reason why he is determined to say, “Those Christians were right all along.” The reason is that if your theory predicts something, and the prediction fails to come to pass, this is evidence against your theory. And in precisely this way, Christians “predicted” that the earth would turn out to be young, and their prediction did not come to pass, since the earth turned out to be ancient. This is evidence against Christianity.

Christians surely did make such a prediction, as is evident for example in this text from Lactantius:

Plato and many others of the philosophers, since they were ignorant of the origin of all things, and of that primal period at which the world was made, said that many thousands of ages had passed since this beautiful arrangement of the world was completed; and in this they perhaps followed the Chaldeans, who, as Cicero has related in his first book respecting divination, foolishly say that they possess comprised in their memorials four hundred and seventy thousand years; in which matter, because they thought that they could not be convicted, they believed that they were at liberty to speak falsely. But we, whom the Holy Scriptures instruct to the knowledge of the truth, know the beginning and the end of the world, respecting which we will now speak in the end of our work, since we have explained respecting the beginning in the second book. Therefore let the philosophers, who enumerate thousands of ages from the beginning of the world, know that the six thousandth year is not yet completed, and that when this number is completed the consummation must take place, and the condition of human affairs be remodelled for the better, the proof of which must first be related, that the matter itself may be plain. God completed the world and this admirable work of nature in the space of six days, as is contained in the secrets of Holy Scripture, and consecrated the seventh day, on which He had rested from His works. But this is the Sabbath-day, which in the language of the Hebrews received its name from the number, whence the seventh is the legitimate and complete number. For there are seven days, by the revolutions of which in order the circles of years are made up; and there are seven stars which do not set, and seven luminaries which are called planets, whose differing and unequal movements are believed to cause the varieties of circumstances and times.

Fr. Harrison does not wish to accept the fact that there is evidence against Christianity, and he supposes that he can avoid this consequence by saying that the prediction did come to pass, because the earth is in fact young (according to him). In reality, of course, even if he were right, this would not exclude the existence of evidence against Christianity. The fact that scientists came to the conclusion that the earth was ancient would remain evidence for that, even if ultimately the scientists turned out to be wrong. But Fr. Harrison would feel much better about that situation.

In reality, the earth is ancient, and this is indeed evidence that Christianity is false. But it is also evidence that for the claim that Christianity is true, but Genesis is not a historical account. And the latter claim, namely that Genesis is not a historical account, is also supported by independent evidence, as we have already seen.

The 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission Statement on Genesis

Some days ago I quoted, without discussion, this 1909 statement from the Pontifical Biblical Commission:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

This supports a literal historical interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis, and is opposed to the interpretation I supported in that post. I consider the decision to publish this statement to have been a foolish decision on the part of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, even in 1909. However, the Catholic Church has a long history and tends to be fairly careful even in its apparently foolish behavior. We can notice some signs of care in this statement:

The first response says that “the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis” are not “sustained by a solid foundation.” Notice that in principle this could be true even if the first chapters of Genesis are not actually intended in a literal historical sense. It could also be true about the systems of the time, even if it is possible to build a solid foundation for an interpretation excluding such a literal historical sense.

The second response denies that the non-historical interpretations “can be taught.” It is strictly speaking a disciplinary decision, and is thus logically consistent with the opinion that such a non-historical interpretation is true, even if the decision only makes sense in view of the Commission’s opinion that such interpretations are reasonably likely to be false.

The third response denies that “the literal and historical sense can be called into question.” It too is a disciplinary decision, and does not exclude the possibility the text is not actually intended in a literal and historical way.

To someone unfamiliar with magisterial statements, these interpretations might seem to be nitpicking, but in fact this is simply the correct and careful way to read these statements. We can see a similar sort of care in the statement of Pope Pius XII on polygenism in Humani Generis:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion 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, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

Pius XII is careful not to say that polygenism is false. Instead he says that “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion,” and explains that “it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled” with the teaching of the Church. This deliberately leaves open the possibility that it may become apparent later, and that likewise Catholics may be allowed to accept the opinion. Similarly, he adds “on this earth” to “true men” because if “true man” means a rational animal, then any rational aliens will be true men who are not descended from Adam. Since he does not wish to make any statement about aliens, he adds this qualifier to his statement.

In 1948 the Pontifical Biblical Commission sent a letter containing this paragraph to the Archbishop of Paris:

The question of the literary forms of the eleven first chapters of Genesis is more obscure and more complicated. These literary forms do not correspond exactly with any classical category, and are not to be judged according to Greco-Latin or modern literary forms. Hence the historicity of these chapters can neither be denied nor affirmed simply, without undue application to them of the norms of a literary form under which they cannot be classed. If, then, it is admitted that in these chapters history in the classic and modern sense is not found, it must also be confessed that modern science does not yet offer a positive solution to all the problems of these chapters. . . . If anyone should contend a priori that their narratives contain no history in the modern sense of the word, he would easily insinuate that these are in no sense of the word historical, although in fact they relate in simple and figurative words, which correspond to the capacity of men who are less erudite, fundamental truths with reference to the economy of health [salvation], and also describe in popular manner the origin of humankind and of an elect people.

One might say that the Pontifical Biblical Commission here is asserting that the first chapters of Genesis have an “invisible genre” which does not correspond to any other that is known. Consequently, Fr. Brian Harrison, rejecting this invisible genre, is rejecting this claim of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In any case, although they imply that these chapters are in some “sense of the word historical,” this seems only to mean that the text should be taken to assert “fundamental truths with reference to the economy of salvation.” This is actually consistent with the genre I suggested, although I would not personally describe it as a historical genre. A story of this kind is generally intended to say or imply something about the world. In particular, as we saw, Genesis seems to say that the world once existed in some kind of perfect state, and that we fell from that state due to a human fault.

The interpretation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is consistent with the same reading:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

This assertion is also consistent with a much more historical reading of Genesis 3. However, it is clear enough that such a more historical reading is not what the authors of the Catechism have in mind, as for example from this text:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”

This text is not speaking of discoveries made by people from Answers in Genesis. As is evident from “development of life-forms and the appearance of man,” it is speaking of biological evolution, both of animals and of human beings. While this is not a specific statement about the events of Genesis 3, this acceptance of the theory of evolution implies a fairly generic reading of the chapter. This seems to imply a reading of Genesis very close to the one we have suggested.

Note that none of this prevents the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement from being evidence for a literal historical reading. The evidence does not change sides. But it seems evident overall that it is more reasonable to accept a more generic, “mythical” reading as being the true sense of Genesis 2-3, whether or not you give any weight to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Nor is this deduced by the syllogism discussed by Fr. Brian Harrison. This is the most reasonable reading even if you think that Scripture is false.

Fr. Harrison also adduces the evidence that most Christians throughout history have preferred a literal reading of the text. But this is another story for another time.

Victory or Defeat

Earlier we commented briefly on this passage in Fr. Harrison’s essay on bomb shelter theology:

We can imagine a scenario in which, with the further advance of technology, space-ships can not only photograph, but also visit, the craters. But as the first landing-craft approaches the crater-floor, disaster strikes! As it descends past the rim of the crater, still 400 feet above ground-level, the craft is rocked by a resounding SPLASH! The crew feel first their boots, then their trousers and other clothes, soaked by a rising inundation of … water no human eye can see! With the whole of planet earth watching in horror on television, the craft takes its passengers to an invisible watery grave; but the last words transmitted to earth by the doomed radio-man before his equipment sputters out remain forever engraved on the memory of the human race: “The water! It’s (gulp) – it’s (glug) – SALTY!!” For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat: the naked Emperor turns out to be clothed in splendor and majesty after all. The only moon-water believers who seem slightly embarrassed in the midst of this spectacular triumph are the more radically progressive bomb-shelter theologians, who have for years been teaching the new generation of clergy not to be so naive as to anticipate this kind of outcome from the long-awaited crater-landing. It had become axiomatic in such sophisticated circles that moon-water is to be understood as not only invisible, but also intangible.

Fr. Harrison says that in this scenario, “For the faithful, victory has indeed been snatched from the jaws of defeat,” and characterizes the incident as a “spectacular triumph.”

Let’s compare this again with the quotation from Plato’s Gorgias which I mentioned at the time:

And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another.

These are two very different ways of framing similar situations. For Fr. Harrison, why does he talk of triumph, or victory and defeat? Who is conquering and who is being conquered, and how does this happen? Basically this corresponds to talk of people “winning” and “losing” a debate. The faithful triumph over the unfaithful in the situation under discussion because the believers are proved to have been right about the moon water, and the unbelievers wrong, much as someone who wins a debate triumphs over his partner either by proving him wrong, or at least by making stronger and more convincing arguments.

For Socrates, on the other hand, at least in this passage, a discussion is not a debate where one person is trying to conquer another person. The purpose is to gain the truth. Socrates continues, “For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking.” The discussion is a collaborative effort to gain the truth, and not a question of one or the other person “winning.” Success means reaching the truth, no matter which partner ends up changing their mind, or even if both must change their minds.

In a debate, on the contrary, the purpose is not to establish the truth. I can win a debate without the truth, if my arguments are so convincing that my opponent concedes that he cannot reply to them, while I can give apparently good responses to all of his points. A debate is more like an athletic contest, and winning and losing exist in both in similar ways. By winning the debate or the athletic contest, I establish myself as the better man and my opponent as the inferior one. The real purpose here is status. Thus, proving that a religion is false would be a defeat for believers by lowering their status relative to unbelievers, and proving it true would be a victory for believers by raising their status relative to unbelievers.

For Socrates, in contrast, whoever passes from error to truth has attained a great victory, and a much better one than the supposed victory of the person who showed him that he was in error.

Concerns about status are not necessarily concerns about one’s own personal status. Thus for example we might consider this passage from 1st Maccabees:

The king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king’s officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: “You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.”

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

I think it would be an excessively modern understanding to suppose that Mattathias is saying here, “The teachings of our religion are true, and therefore we cannot abandon them.” The contrast with the behavior of the Gentiles and the other nations under the rule of the king is instructive. Even if they “have chosen to obey his commandments, every one of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors.” Why does Mattathias mention the fact that the nations are “abandoning the religion of their ancestors,” in contrast to his own behavior?

If Mattathias simply believes that the teachings of his own religion are true, and the teachings of the religions of other nations false, then it would be appropriate for him to maintain his own religion, but it would be equally appropriate for the nations to abandon theirs. Instead, he appears to imply that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is a bad thing no matter what, that it is a bad thing on the part of the other nations, and that it would be a bad thing if he did it himself.

The concern seems to be that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is dishonoring one’s ancestors. The other nations are giving in to the king and dishonoring their ancestors, but we will not do that, instead choosing to maintain the honor which is due to our ancestors. This is not necessarily a bad motive on the part of Mattathias. As we saw elsewhere, asking whether one should practice a religion is not the same as asking whether certain teachings are true. It might be perfectly reasonable to say that I should practice the religion of my ancestors in order to give them due honor, even if they might have believed some things that were not true.

A similar concern is probably frequently involved in the idea that true religious doctrines should be things that are passed down from the distant past. If we accept the doctrine of the astronauts that no water can be seen on the moon, this will dishonor our traditions and our ancestors. The problem is that while the desire to honor one’s ancestors may be morally praiseworthy, it does not make it any more likely that their beliefs were actually true. And due to the nature of progress in truth, it is often the case that newer doctrines are truer than older ones.

Old and New

In a text quoted in an earlier post, Fr. Brian Harrison complains about new mysteries:

And that is precisely the point. What makes the “invisible water” laughable in the syllogism is the fact that it comes at the end, and not at the beginning. One expects religions to have mysteries, but normally they are traditional mysteries, handed down from what are (or at least, what believers understand to be) the authoritative, foundational sources of the religion itself. (This of course is the case with Catholic belief in the Eucharistic Presence.) But in our parable of the moon-water, its invisibility is a brand-new “mystery,” which no believer (or unbeliever) has ever heard of before! It pops up out of nowhere at the end of a syllogism. And it springs, moreover, not from some kind of organic or logical development based on the religion’s own doctrinal and spiritual patrimony; rather, it is forced abruptly upon the believers by a minor premise coming from an outside source which is coldly indifferent – even irreverent – toward these sacred sources: the merciless glare of empirical observation. The real incongruity in the situation, of course, is that the learned theologians are engaging in sophistry in accepting this new “development,” while the “stupid” fundamentalists (like the faithless bulk of their ordinary fellow-citizens) have enough common-sense to see that the whole thing is completely “phoney,” even if they might not be able to explain in an abstract way where the fallacy lies. As in the old fable, it takes the simplicity of a child to see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes.

The charitable interpretation of Fr. Harrison’s complaint is that religious mysteries should derive directly from the founder of the religion. Understood in this way, his complaint would have problems, such as the fact that logical implication remains valid even when applied to religious mysteries, as we pointed out in that post.

But someone more familiar with Fr. Harrison’s writing would be inclined to think that a less charitable reading is probably more accurate. The real issue for him is not whether or not the founder taught something. Otherwise he should complain that Christ did not teach that Mary would be assumed into heaven. The real issue for him is that religious mysteries should be traditional, handed down from the distant past. Of course, it is unlikely that he would actually make such a claim explicitly. He might not even notice that it is what matters to him. But it is in fact what matters to him. This is why he proceeds to say that “it is not in fact as easy as one might think to give an abstract exposition of this common-sense insight,” and then proceeds to formulate a false “principle” to exclude such a claim.

It is hard for him to explain precisely because his real reason is the feeling that religious mysteries cannot be true, unless they are handed down from the distant past. And if this feeling is taken as a claim about the world, it implies that religious mysteries can never be true. Every religious claim, as for example that Mary was assumed into heaven, must have once been made for the first time. It was once a new mystery, and at least in this case it is very unlikely that it was Christ who first made the claim.

Christ may have made the claim that bread becomes his body in an invisible way, or at least may have implied this by his statements at the Last Supper. But at the time the claim was new nonetheless, and one who really held the principle about new mysteries would have rejected the claim, like those in the Gospel of John who “turned back and no longer went about with him.”

The traditionalists of the time, one might say, would never have accepted Christ. And in fact they did not:

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

Religious teachings, like all other kinds of teaching, have a beginning in time. And if they are true, they are true the very first time they are stated. Thus one who is to judge rightly about reality must be like the “scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” who “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

The Genre of Genesis 2-3

Earlier we saw Fr. Brian Harrison’s complaint about the genre of the first few chapters of Genesis. Theologians think that a literal historical interpretation would say things that are false; consequently they conclude that the account in Genesis is not a literal historical account, in order to avoid saying that the account is false. But they do not have independent evidence for this, according to him.

Darwin Catholic addresses Fr. Brian Harrison’s essay:

This leads to my second major problem with Fr. Harrison’s analysis: His “invisible” literary style doesn’t seem to me to be terribly illusive but rather the product of an overly modern approach to literature. Genesis 1-3 are, I would say, myth. Fr. Harrison rejects this idea because he seems to have in his head a definition of myth something along the lines of “a false and silly belief that people used to have when they didn’t know any better”. Certainly, that is what all too many modern people mean by “myth”. However, I would say that those people are quite wrong in their assessment.

Although he’s talking about a slightly different genre, I would recommend Tolkein’s “On Fairy Stories” as a good discussion of true mythology, but I will attempt to cover some of the same ground with fewer words.

When I say “myth” I do not mean a “just so” story like such as Kipling wrong [wrote?]. Nor do I mean a superstition or false belief. True mythology is un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author. It deals with serious questions about the world and human nature in a form that is not necessarily literally, historically true, because it deals with questions too old and basic for anyone to know the truth of in a historical fashion. In his recent First Things essay, Cardinal Schonborn pointed out the philosophical dangers of accepting the idea that to know a thing’s material/historical origin is to know its essence and meaning. (For example, the idea that if human beings evolved from lower life forms, that this tells us something deeper about human nature and humanity’s place in the divine plan, or lack thereof.) Mythology contains an implicit understanding of this distinction, in that it accepts that it may not accurately describe a thing’s historical or material origins while attempting to explain its essence.

So, for example, the Greek myth of Pandora’s box was not (I would argue) thought to be literally or historically true by the ancient Greeks. Giving the question due thought, one would not imagine that war, pestilence, greed, hate, envy, etc. were physical creatures trapped in a box, that a specific woman named Pandora released upon the world. Rather, the myth of Pandora’s Box attempted to address the origin of evil in the world (and man’s culpability in that origin) at a level more essential than the historical.

I would say that this is right, generally speaking, both about myth in general and about the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, although with some qualifications.

In general in ancient cultures many stories were handed down from the distant past in the way suggested here, “un-authored, going back so far in a culture that it is well known and available in many versions, not the product of any one author.” And as Darwin Catholic says, these stories are not historical accounts. Apart from the content, human memory is simply not transmitted that well. However, the question of whether people believed the accounts is a bit more complicated than he suggests. Basically his argument that if you “give the question due thought,” you would not conclude that the evils of humanity could be something trapped in a physical box, and consequently that the Greeks could not have thought the story of Pandora’s box was literally or historically true.

This is an overly optimistic assessment of the relationship between human thought and the truth. I agree that someone who gave the question due thought, in other words, the kind of thought appropriate to determining the truth of the matter, he would not think that such evils could have been once trapped in a physical box. And I agree that it follows that many Greeks, such as many philosophers and many ordinary thoughtful people, must not have believed that such accounts were literally and historically true. The problem is that there almost certainly were many people who simply never gave the question this kind of thought.

As Darwin Catholic points out, the origin of the story was lost to time. The first author was unknown. But this also means that the first intention of the story was unknown, and people could suppose, at least as one possibility, that it might have been intended in a literal and historical way. And again, people might simply fail to consider what kind of literature it might be. And things that happened in the distant past ordinarily have no concrete effects on my life in the present, and consequently the issue is remote from the senses. Thus people’s reasons for their belief about it may have little to do with knowing the truth. Thus the fact that one would not accept it literally after giving the issue due thought, is not a strong argument that people did not accept it literally. It is perfectly possible that many people would have said, at least in effect, “Of course I believe that Pandora’s box really existed. That is what Greeks believe.”

So many people may have taken such accounts literally, and many people may not have even considered the question. But the question of what the account really means, is either a question about what was meant by the author who composed the concrete version of the story, or a question about the reasonable way to understand such accounts. The author who composed the concrete version knew full well that he was inserting details that he was taking from his own imagination, and consequently unless he intended to deceive, he knew that it was not a literal historical account. And in any case the reasonable way to understand such accounts would be as Darwin Catholic suggests, namely as an attempt to understand the deep essence of things, without attempting to give a literal historical account of them.

Thus, while Darwin Catholic may not be entirely right about what people believed, he is right about the meaning of such accounts.

I would say that opening chapter of Genesis is more a philosophical account, but I agree that Darwin Catholic’s account applies to the account of the creation and fall in the following chapters.

The story in Genesis appears to be related to other stories from the ancient world. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet XI) contains this story:

Then Utnapishtim spoke unto Gilgamesh (and said): “Gilgamesh, thou didst come here weary; thou didst labour and row. What now shall I give thee, that thou mayest return to thy country? I will reveal unto thee, Gilgamesh, a mystery of the gods I will announce unto thee. There is a plant resembling buckthorn; its thorn stings like that of a bramble. When thy hands can reach that plant, then thy hands will hold that which gives life everlasting.”

When Gilgamesh had heard this he opened the sluices that the sweet water might carry him into the deep; he bound heavy stones to his feet, which dragged him down to the sea floor, and thus he found the plant. Then he grasped the prickly plant. He removed from his feet the heavy stones, and the sea carried him and threw him down to on the shore.

And Gilgamesh said unto Urshanabi, the ferryman: “Urshanabi, this plant is a plant of great marvel; and by it a man may attain renewed vigour. I will take it to Uruk the strong-walled, I will give it to the old men to eat. Its name shall be ‘Even an old man will be rejuvenated!’ I will eat of this and return (again) to the vigour of my youth.”

At twenty double-leagues they then took a meal: and at thirty double-leagues they took a rest. And Gilgamesh saw a well wherein was cool water; he stepped into it and bathed in the water. A serpent smelled the sweetness of the plant and darted out; he took the plant away, and as he turned back to the well, he sloughed his skin. And after this Gilgamesh sat down and wept.

In this account a serpent steals the plant that would have given everlasting life. While this is  not exactly what happened in Genesis, it is somewhat similar. Nor can we suppose that it is a mere accidental resemblance, since the story contains other things which are evidently related to the book of Genesis, such as this story from the beginning of the same tablet:

Gilgamesh said to him, to Utnapishtim, the distant: “I gaze upon thee (in amazement), O Utnapishtim! Thy appearance has not changed, like unto me thou art also. And thy nature itself has not changed, like unto me thou art also, though thou hast departed this life. But my heart has still to struggle against all that no longer lies upon thee. Tell me, How didst thou come to dwell (here) and obtain eternal life among the gods?”

Utnapishtim then said unto Gilgamesh: “I will reveal unto thee, O Gilgamesh, the mysterious story, and the mystery of the gods I will tell thee. The city of Shuruppak, a city which, as thou knowest, is situated on the bank of the river Euphrates. That city was very old, as were the gods within it. Even the great gods, as many as there were, decided to bring about a deluge: their father, Anu; their counsellor, the warrior Enlil; their leader, Ninurta; their champion, the god Ennugi.

“On the fifth day I set in place her exterior; it was an acre in area; its sides were ten gar high; ten gar also was the extent of its deck; I added a front-roof to it and closed it in. I built it in six stories, thus making seven floors in all; the interior of each I divided again into nine partitions. Beaks for water within I cut out. I selected a punting-pole and added all that was necessary. Three šar of pitch I smeared on its outside; three šar of asphalt I used for the inside (so as to make it water-tight). Three šar of oil the men carried, carrying it in vessels. One šar of oil I kept out and used it for sacrifices, while the other twošar the boatman stowed away. I slaughtered oxen; I killed lambs day by day. Jugs of beer, of oil, and of sweet wine, like river water (i.e., freely) I gave the workmen to make a feast like that of the New-Year’s Day. To the god Shamash my hands brought oil. The ship was completed. Launching it was heavy work, and I added tackling above and below, and after all was finished, the ship sank in the water to two thirds of its height.

“With all that I possessed I filled it; with all the silver I had I filled it; with all the gold I had I filled it; with living creatures of every kind I filled it. Then I embarked also all my family and my relatives, cattle of the field, beasts of the field, and the uprighteous people—all them I embarked. A time had Shamash appointed, (namely): ‘When the rulers of darkness send at eventide a destructive rain, then enter into the ship and shut its door.’ This very sign came to pass, and the rulers of darkness sent a destructive rain at eventide. I saw the approach of the storm, and I was afraid to witness the storm; I entered the ship and shut the door.

“I entrusted the guidance of the ship to Puzur-Amurri, the boatman, and also the great house, and the contents thereof. As soon as early dawn appeared, there rose up from the horizon a black cloud, within which the weather god (Adad) thundered, and the heralds Shullat and Hanish went before across mountain and plain. The gods of the abyss arose. Nergal, the great, tore loose the dams of the deep. There went Ninurta and he caused the banks to overflow; the Anunnaki lifted on high (their) torches, and with the brightness thereof they illuminated the universe. The storm brought on by Adad swept even up to the heavens and all light was turned into darkness as Adad shattered the land like a pot.

“It blew with violence one whole day, submerging the mountains. Like an onslaught in battle it rushed in on the people. Nor could brother look after brother. Nor were recognised the people from heaven. The gods even were afraid of the storm; they retreated and took refuge in the heaven of Anu. There the gods crouched down like dogs; on the inclosure of heaven they sat cowering.

“Then Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail and the lady of the gods lamented with a loud voice, (saying): ‘The world of old has been turned back into clay, because I assented to this evil in the assembly of the gods. Alas! that when I assented to this evil in the council of the gods, I was for the destruction of my own people. What I have created, where is it? Like the spawn of fish it fills the sea.’ The gods wailed with her over the Anunnaki. The gods were bowed down, and sat there weeping. Their lips were pressed together (in fear and in terror).

“Six days and nights the wind blew, and storm and tempest overwhelmed the country. When the seventh day drew nigh the tempest, the storm, the battle which they had waged like a great host began to moderate. The sea quieted down; hurricane and storm ceased. I looked out upon the sea and raised loud my voice, but all mankind had turned back into clay. Likewise the surrounding sea became as flat as a roof-top.

“I opened the air-hole and light fell upon my cheek. Dumbfounded I sank backward and sat weeping, while over my cheek flowed the tears. I looked in every direction, and behold, all was sea. I looked in vain for land, but twelve leagues distant there rose (out of the water) a strip of land. To Mount Niṣir the ship drifted. On Mount Niṣir the boat stuck fast and it did not slip away. The first day, the second day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The third day, the fourth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship fast, and did not let it slip away. The fifth day, the sixth day, Mount Niṣir held the ship, fast, and did not let it slip away. When the seventh day drew nigh I sent out a dove, and let her go. The dove flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her, she returned. Then I sent out a swallow, and let her go. The swallow flew hither and thither, but as there was no resting-place for her she also returned. Then I sent out a raven, and let her go. The raven flew away and saw the abatement of the waters. She settled down to feed, went away, and returned no more.

“Then I let everything go out unto the four winds, and I offered a sacrifice. I poured out a libation upon the peak of the mountain. I placed the censers seven and seven, and poured into them calamus, cedar-wood, and sweet incense. The gods smelt the savour; yea, the gods smelt the sweet savour; the gods gathered like flies around the sacrificer. But when now the lady of the gods (Ishtar) drew nigh, she lifted up the necklace with precious jewels which Anu had made according to her wish (and said):

“‘Ye gods here! by my lapis lazuli necklace, not will I forget. These days will I remember, never will I forget (them). Let the gods come to the offering; but Enlil shall not come to the offering, since rashly he caused the flood-storm, and handed over my people unto destruction.’

This story is related to the account of the flood in the book of Genesis. This is not only true in a general sense, but also with respect to various details such as the dove released afterwards to determine whether or not the flood had sufficiently subsided.

This is evidence in favor of the position that Genesis provides an account of this nature, namely a story that is “well known and available in many versions,” as Darwin Catholic puts it. The fact that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge appear to be assumed to be familiar is an indication of the same thing. This is true even though there are other possible explanations which would attempt to maintain the literal truth of the account in Genesis, such as the claim that all other accounts are either derived from the account in Genesis, or from objective facts that Genesis narrates.

Likewise, the story in Genesis is idealized. Adam and Eve are placed in a perfect world where there is no death and work is not laborious. They are vegetarian, and it appears that the animals can talk. This detail in particular more strongly suggests that the account is not a historical one, since although there are many who accept most of these idealizations (such as those at Answers in Genesis) it is unlikely that anyone believes that it is an objective historical truth that animals used to be able to talk. All of this is also evidence that it is a story, even if one with a meaning about reality.

Causal considerations are evidence for the same thing. Given the weakness of human memory, there is simply no way for a person to give a historical account of such things. Without something like divine dictation, the author of the text could not have written a literal historical account because he could not have possessed one. And the text does not read as one would expect a text dictated by God to read, since it contains many things suggestive of the particular human circumstances of the author (e.g. the assumption that various things are familiar to the reader and that others are not, in a way that might reflect the situation of the original readers, but not our situation.)

And despite Fr. Harrison’s rejection of this kind of argument, any evidence that the things narrated in Genesis did not literally happen in that fashion, is evidence that Genesis is not the kind of account that requires this, even if it is also evidence for the theory that Genesis is a literal account, but a false one.

The main arguments for the position that the account is a literal historical one are that most Christians throughout history have believed this, and that the Catholic Church has made various statements supporting this interpretation, such as this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1909:

Question I: Whether the various exegetical systems which have been proposed to exclude the literal historical sense of the three first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and have been defended by the pretense of science, are sustained by a solid foundation? — Reply: In the negative.

Question II: Whether, when the nature and historical form of the Book of Genesis does not oppose, because of the peculiar connections of the three first chapters with each other and with the following chapters, because of the manifold testimony of the Old and New Testaments; because of the almost unanimous opinion of the Holy Fathers, and because of the traditional sense which, transmitted from the Israelite people, the Church always held, it can be taught that the three aforesaid chapters of Genesis do not contain the stories of events which really happened, that is, which correspond with objective reality and historical truth; but are either accounts celebrated in fable drawn from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and adapted by a holy writer to monotheistic doctrine, after expurgating any error of polytheism; or allegories and symbols, devoid of a basis of objective reality, set forth under the guise of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or, finally, legends, historical in part and fictitious in part, composed freely for the instruction and edification of souls? — Reply: In the negative to both parts.

Question III: Whether in particular the literal and historical sense can be called into question, where it is a matter of facts related in the same chapters, which pertain to the foundation of the Christian religion; for example, among others, the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the oneness of the human race; the original happiness of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given to man by God to prove his obedience; the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent; the casting of our first parents out of that first state of innocence; and also the promise of a future restorer? — Reply: In the negative.

I agree that most Christians throughout history have believed that Genesis contained a literal historical account of the creation and fall, even though Fr. Harrison may exaggerate the uniformity on this issue. Likewise, the magisterial statements with which he is concerned, particularly this one from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, do support the position that the account in question is a literal historical one. These things are indeed evidence for the position that Genesis is such an account.