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.

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.

St. Augustine on Science vs. Scripture

St. Augustine famously rebuked those who interpret Scripture while ignoring scientific knowledge of the natural world (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, book 1, chapters 19):

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.”

In this passage St. Augustine seems to reject the idea of using Scripture to correct natural science. However, St. Augustine is sometimes used in a manner which in many cases implies the opposite. In particular, St. Augustine is also understood by many to have said that we must always understand the text in a literal sense except when it can be proved that this would imply that Scripture says something false. And “proved” here is often taken in a very strong sense. For example, Gregory Dawes speaks of this understanding of St. Augustine:

There exist two Augustinian principles that relate to apparent conflicts between the Bible and secular knowledge, one indicating when secular knowledge claims should take priority and the other when a literal reading of the biblical text should prevail. Following Ernan McMullin, I shall call the first of these the principle of the priority of demonstration.

“When there is a conflict between a proven truth about nature and a particular reading of Scripture, an alternative reading of Scripture must be sought.”

When in other words, enquiry based on natural principles leads to a conclusion that appears to contradict scripture but cannot be doubted, then scripture must be reinterpreted.

By way of contrast, a second principle, the principle of the priority of scripture, states that when rational enquiry leads to something less than certainty, the authority of the literal sense of scripture is to be preferred.

“When there is an apparent conflict between a Scripture passage and an assertion about the natural world grounded on sense or reason, the literal reading of the Scripture passage should prevail as long as the latter assertion lacks demonstration.”

These principles are at least implicit in Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram, his commentary on the literal sense of Genesis, and are accepted by medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas. They were employed by the church authorities during the trial of Galileo, restated by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century, and invoked by Pope Pius XII in 1950 when condemning polygenism (the view that the human race had more than one origin).

Apart from the claim that these principles are implicit in De Genesi ad litteram, there is no citation of St. Augustine here, neither in this text nor in Dawes’s footnotes. In the footnotes, he cites St. Thomas’s Summa 1a, 68, 1, Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus, and Pius XII in Humani Generis.

Let’s look at these texts. St. Thomas says,

In discussing questions of this kind two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.

St. Thomas certainly does not say here that we should adhere to our particular explanations until they are proved with certainty to be false. He simply says that we should abandon them if that happens. This does not mean that if someone shows that there is a 95% chance that our explanation is false, we should ignore his argument because it does not conclude with certainty.

Here is the text of St. Augustine cited by St. Thomas:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.

St. Augustine does not say that we should hold to our interpretations until they are proven with certainty to be false. Rather he says that “we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.” This simply says that one should hold to it reasonably, and not unreasonably. But it is not reasonable to ignore reasonable arguments simply because they do not conclude with certainty. Thus, if anything, this text rejects the supposedly Augustinian principle presented by Dawes.

Dawes cites two texts from Providentissimus Deus. The first is paragraph 15:

But he must not on that account consider that it is forbidden, when just cause exists, to push inquiry and exposition beyond what the Fathers have done; provided he carefully observes the rule so wisely laid down by St. Augustine-not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires; a rule to which it is the more necessary to adhere strictly in these times, when the thirst for novelty and unrestrained freedom of thought make the danger of error most real and proximate. Neither should those passages be neglected which the Fathers have understood in an allegorical or figurative sense, more especially when such interpretation is justified by the literal, and when it rests on the authority of many. For this method of interpretation has been received by the Church from the Apostles, and has been approved by her own practice, as the holy Liturgy attests; although it is true that the holy Fathers did not thereby pretend directly to demonstrate dogmas of faith, but used it as a means of promoting virtue and piety, such as, by their own experience, they knew to be most valuable. The authority of other Catholic interpreters is not so great; but the study of Scripture has always continued to advance in the Church, and, therefore, these commentaries also have their own honourable place, and are serviceable in many ways for the refutation of assailants and the explanation of difficulties. But it is most unbecoming to pass by, in ignorance or contempt, the excellent work which Catholics have left in abundance, and to have recourse to the works of non-Catholics – and to seek in them, to the detriment of sound doctrine and often to the peril of faith, the explanation of passages on which Catholics long ago have successfully employed their talent and their labour. For although the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student, he should, nevertheless, bear well in mind-as the Fathers also teach in numerous passages – that the sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside of the Church, and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without the true faith, only gnaw the bark of the Sacred Scripture, and never attain its pith.

Then comes paragraph 18:

In the second place, we have to contend against those who, making an evil use of physical science, minutely scrutinize the Sacred Book in order to detect the writers in a mistake, and to take occasion to vilify its contents. Attacks of this kind, bearing as they do on matters of sensible experience, are peculiarly dangerous to the masses, and also to the young who are beginning their literary studies; for the young, if they lose their reverence for the Holy Scripture on one or more points, are easily led to give up believing in it altogether. It need not be pointed out how the nature of science, just as it is so admirably adapted to show forth the glory of the Great Creator, provided it be taught as it should be, so if it be perversely imparted to the youthful intelligence, it may prove most fatal in destroying the principles of true philosophy and in the corruption of morality. Hence to the Professor of Sacred Scripture a knowledge of natural science will be of very great assistance in detecting such attacks on the Sacred Books, and in refuting them. There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist, as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, “not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.” If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: “Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.” To understand how just is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.

Leo XIII is not holding the principle indicated by Dawes in the first paragraph unless “reason makes it untenable” is understood to mean that reason has disproved something conclusively. But insofar as it can be unreasonable to hold something which has not yet been disproved conclusively, there is no need to understand Pope Leo in such an unreasonable way. In the second paragraph, since Leo XIII understands the truth of Scripture to be a settled principle, he simply quotes St. Augustine as saying that if something is conclusively proved to be true of the world, then we cannot interpret Scripture to contradict that; and if something is conclusively proved to be the meaning of Scripture, then we cannot understand the world to contradict that. This does not mean that you must hold to a literal meaning of Scripture when there are good arguments that the thing stated would be false, just because those arguments are not conclusive.

It is clear enough that neither Leo XIII nor St. Augustine claim such a principle in the second paragraph, and there is at least no need to understand Leo XIII to be claiming the principle in the first paragraph. The same thing is true of St. Augustine, since Leo takes these words directly from a text in De Genesi ad litteram, where he says that we should not interpret the rivers mentioned in Genesis to be only figurative, if no “necessitas cogeret,” and “ratio nulla prohibeat,” that is, if no necessity requires us to take them figuratively only, and no argument prevents us from understanding them literally. Of course, as with Leo, there is no need for us to understand St. Augustine to be denying that we could be prevented from understanding them literally by a probable argument.

Finally, here is the passage from Pius XII cited by Dawes:

It remains for Us now to speak about those questions which, although they pertain to the positive sciences, are nevertheless more or less connected with the truths of the Christian faith. In fact, not a few insistently demand that the Catholic religion take these sciences into account as much as possible. This certainly would be praiseworthy in the case of clearly proved facts; but caution must be used when there is rather question of hypotheses, having some sort of scientific foundation, in which the doctrine contained in Sacred Scripture or in Tradition is involved. If such conjectural opinions are directly or indirectly opposed to the doctrine revealed by God, then the demand that they be recognized can in no way be admitted.

Obviously the supposedly Augustinian principle is contained here in no way.

Dawes begins to discuss whether someone holding to these principles can accept evolution or not, and after some discussion says:

What follows? Ken Miller attributes to Augustine the view that “even the ‘literal’ meaning of Genesis must not stand in contradiction to the kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific.'” But this is not quite correct. “The kind of knowledge that today we would call ‘scientific'” cannot offer, nor does it claim to offer, the level of certainty that would warrant a reinterpretation of the biblical text, at least on a strict interpretation of Augustine’s principles.

In the remainder of the paper Dawes does suggest some possible solutions which do not involve rejecting either Scripture or scientific knowledge. Nonetheless, like Fr. Brian Harrison, Dawes is attempting to cause tension between Scripture and the theory of evolution, although with a different motive. It is not surprising, therefore, that Fr. Harrison uses the supposed principle of St. Augustine in a similar way, except in order to argue that we must believe that the theory of evolution is false.

But this is wrong, both on the part of Fr. Harrison and on the part of Gregory Dawes, and likewise on the part of any others who argue in a similar manner, such as Robert Sungenis. St. Augustine does not hold the supposedly Augustinian principle. The texts of St. Augustine that are actually relevant to the topic are the first one quoted in this post, as well as that cited by St. Thomas, “We should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.”

Natural science also makes progress in the search for truth, and the text of St. Augustine applies just as well to such progress as to any other.