Creation, the Catechism, Evolution and Angels
Philip Trower examines an important aspect of the Creation
My purpose in writing this article is twofold; in the first place to look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has to say on the subject, and secondly too see whether it is possible to throw any light on why there has been suffering and disorder in nature not only since the fall of Adam and Eve, as was once thought, but seemingly since the creation of the first living beings.
As St Paul puts it in his Epistle to the Romans: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves.” As for the reason he only makes the mysterious statement: “for the creation was subjected to futility not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope.” Meanwhile “it waits with eager longing for the adoption of the sons of God,” when “it will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 19-23) In other words at the end of time and the Second Coming.
The apostle does not, here or anywhere else, tell us when he thought nature began to groan, but as a man of his time, he would presumably have believed in a creation lasting six 24 hour days and attributed any suffering in nature outside the Garden of Eden, like everything else that had gone wrong, to our first parent’s sin. They were expelled from the garden into a world that had only just begun to groan. Before that, like the rest of his Christian and Jewish contemporaries he would presumably have believed that it had been, if not in a paradisal state (it needed in some way “subduing” or tilling) at least in a state that excluded “groaning” and suffering.
However, all this, as we know, has had to be reconsidered by Christians, Mother Church included, once the geological and palaeontological sciences began to reveal the apparently immense age of the earth and the evidence that the biological species did not all come into existence at once exactly as they are today but by some kind of transformism.
Not only had there been suffering and imperfection for aeons before the Fall. Some degree of suffering and imperfection seems to have accompanied the very process by which all the marvels and beauties of the natural order came successively into existence.
As we all know, the Church’s task has not been made any easier by most of the evolutionary or transformative theories put forward to explain all these new facts, with Darwin’s in the forefront. To use the words of the Anglo-German theologian, Dom Anscar Vonier, only too often these theories “are designed to exclude divine
oversight and direction.”(1) However, he continues, provided they do not do that “the Catholic is free to speculate and think as he likes on the question of the immediate causes of the world’s variety,” or, as he could have put it, “the origin of species.”
Prior to the CCC, the most significant magisterial statement on the subject of evolution or the origin of man was Pius XII’s encyclical Humanae Generis.
Here is the relevant passage. “The Magisterium of the Church, does not forbid that in the present state of the human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussion, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to
the doctrine of ‘evolutionism’ in so far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter --- for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.” (HG36) In other words, for Adam’s body God could have used some kind of already existing anthropoid. At the same time the Pope pleads for moderation all round.
What the existence of suffering and death before the fall does throw light on is why the creation and fall of our first parents took place in a special enclave, the Garden of Eden. Outside it, death and disorder already tarnished the marvels of biological nature.
What is difficult to see is how, if they hadn’t sinned, they could they have fulfilled the command to “fill the earth and subdue it” without at the same time meeting death and disorder in the process? This was no problem for our forbears for whom the world outside the Garden would presumably have been seen as not all that different to the world inside it.
In relation to all this the CCC adopts what we could call a mild form of theistic evolutionism.
Here are the most significant passages.
“Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) towards an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which
God has destined it. We call ‘divine providence’ the dispositions by which God guides his creation towards this perfection.” To this, quoting Vatican I and the books of Wisdom and Hebrews, the same text adds, “For all things are open and laid bare to his eyes, even those which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.” (302)
Then on the problem of evil it says: “But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create
something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world ‘in a state of journeying’ towards ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature….. With physical good there also exists physical evil as long as creation has not reached perfection.” (310)
This last clause introduces an idea still unknown to the great majority of Catholics, although forshadowed in the Vatican II documents: namely that in carrying out his command to “till the earth and subdue it”, which includes the arts and sciences, we are helping God complete his creation. “God enables men” says the relevant text “to be intelligent free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbours.” (307) It is like a mother letting her child help her decorate the Christmas cake after she has mixed and baked it. Creation is not something that came to an end or its climax with Adam and Eve. It is still going on.
On the subject of the fall, the authors of the catechism tend to be more traditional, or less innovative and developmental. “Harmony with creation is broken: visible creation has become alien and hostile to man. Because of man, creation is now subject ‘to its bondage to decay’….. Death makes its entrance into human history.” (sic) (400)
With all respect I would suggest that this sentence needs clarifying. Death enters human history because of man, Yes. But one can hardly say that about nature as a whole. Nature has been “groaning” since the first appearance of biological species unless we suppose it was allowed for some reason in anticipation of the fall.
It is here that I would like to offer an idea which might throw some light on this relatively recent problem of a biological world apparently ‘groaning’ from the outset and with suffering and death seemingly built into the process by which it developed. Why did God chose this particular mode of creation for living beings; this “state of journeying” from imperfection to perfection which will only be complete on the Last
Day. What we are really confronting is the “problem of evil” set in a new philosophical and cultural context. Holy Mother Church has never had any doubts about the ultimate origin of evil, so it is here, in this new context that we must look for a possible reason why, as we now know, some degree of “groaning” was built into God’s chosen method of creation from the start.
To quote theologian John Saward: “before the fall of man, there had been another fall,” i.e. the fall of the angels. Can we then, or should we leave them out of our attempts to explain the history of creation as the CCC now presents it; that is in the light of the genuine scientific knowledge available today?
Can we make a case for seeing the angels in God’s initial plan of creation not just as messengers but as in some way active agents with a specific role in the development of the evolutionary process, a role which he did not withdraw from those who rebelled, in the same way that he does not always or instantly remove bad rulers who affect the development of the historical process ?
For this it will be necessary to say something about what the Church actually teaches about the angels rather than the little that most people think it does. In addition to the CCC, I shall rely on the Anglo-German theological writer and thinker Dom Anscar Vonier or rather his chapter on Angels in the 2 volume compendium of Catholic doctrine which I have relied on for many years. (2)
Most practising Christians, I would suggest, think of angels as supernatural beings who from all eternity have existed to sing God’s praises in heaven. This was and still is their main role. Then, since the creation of the universe, they have had the added work of acting as God’s messengers to individual members of the human race from time to time or as their personal guardians. As for the rebel angels, their fall occurred some time long before God thought of creating “a universe”. This indeed is more or less what I myself thought until I looked into the matter more closely.
Here in contrast is what the CCC tells us, quoting Lateran Council 1V. “God, from the beginning of time made at once (simul) out of nothing both orders of creatures, the spiritual and corporeal, that is the angelic and earthly, and then the human creature, who as it were shares in both orders, being composed of body and spirit.” (327).
A single system
The word simul suggests that the angels were made simultaneously with the big bang, if that is indeed the way everything began. Then confirming this we are told that “angels have been present since creation and throughout the history of salvation.” ( 332) And “as intelligent and free creatures,” they “have to journey toward their ultimate destinies by their free choice and preferential love. They can therefore go astray…. Thus has moral evil …..entered the world.” (311) “Christ is the centre of the angelic world. They are his angels… they belong to him because they were created through him and for him.” (331)
In the light of this it seems to me we can say the angels and the universe have from the start been part and parcel of a single system.
I now turn to Dom Anscar.
“Christian thought is not satisfied with the merely ministerial role of the heavenly spirits; the angels are more than ministers and messengers; they are above all, a portion of the universe (created being); they are its noblest portion, and very early in the history of Christian thought we find them occupying a most important cosmic position.”
Furthermore, they are not supernatural beings. They are natural beings “elevated to the supernatural order, the state of grace.” pp.258, 259. “It is a favourite theme with St Thomas Aquinas to represent the whole physical world as being entrusted by God to the keeping of the angels.” p.268
“The angelic guardianship of man by angels is only the last instance of the mighty tutelage of the spirit world over the material world, with this difference… that free will comes into play where man is concerned.” p.269 “This angelic guardianship is something natural, something normal, as normal as the great powers of the physical cosmos.” p.271 When created “the angels did not find themselves in heaven with God (what the theologians call caelum sanctae Trinitatis) ; they found themselves in that other ‘heaven’ which may be called the highest part of the natural cosmos.” p.274
What these passages seem to suggest, above all, is that in God’s original plan of
creation, as the CCC describes it, the angels were to have much more than a supervisory role, and that when some of them fell he did not remove their power to influence the evolutionary or transformative creative process, anymore than when we act badly he removes our power to affect the historical process.
None of this would involve violating the laws of nature. Who today, with global warming and all that, could say that free beings cannot seriously damage or alter nature without altering its laws.
1. Dom Anscar Vonier (1875-1938). In addition to being a gifted writer and thinker he was responsible for rebuilding the abbey of Buckfast in Devon, England, of which he was for many years abbot.
2. The Teaching of the Catholic Church, 2 Vols. London, Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1948.