Catholic and Protestant reactions to Darwin’s ideas

When reading and writing about the Copernican revolution and the religious opposition to it (see here, here, here, here, here, and here for that story in sequence), what immediately struck me were the similarities that that episode in scientific history had to the more recent religious opposition to Darwin’s ideas.

Edward Larson in his book Summer for the Gods from which he has published an extended excerpt points out that (in America at least) there was little formal opposition to Darwin’s ideas from the time of publication of Origin of Species in 1859 until about 1920 or so. (Opposition in England started much earlier and I will explore that question in a later posting.)

So as in the case of Copernicus, there was no religious opposition to a seminal work of science until about sixty years after its publication, and the initial religious opposition once again came from the Protestant camp. Initially, the fundamentalist Protestant movement was focused only on fighting “modernism” in the form of the so-called “higher criticism” which consists of “the study of the sources and literary methods employed by the biblical authors.” Such critical methods are not favored by the religious fundamentalists, who see the Bible as divinely inspired and infallible and thereby beyond any criticism. It was only later that Darwinism came to be included under the modernism umbrella.

Larson argues that William Jennings Bryan (who later argued against the teaching of evolution in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial in 1925) switched from a somewhat uneasy equivocation towards Darwinist ideas to implacable opposition. This was caused by his reading of two scholarly books that argued that World War I (which we sometimes forget was an incredibly brutal war that took the lives of over nine million soldiers) was caused by misguided Darwinian thinking.

Bryan, who was a devout man of peace, was convinced by the arguments in these books and was outraged by what he saw as the evil consequences of evolution. He then joined forces with other fundamentalists in his campaign to destroy Darwin and all the social evils that he believed flowed from it. Larson says: “Fundamentalists came to view modernism, together with its twin supports of biblical higher criticism and an evolutionary world view, as the source of much that troubled Western culture.” This has an interesting parallel now in that the wedge document of ID advocates says pretty much the same thing, that Darwin’s ideas are the cause of a precipitous decline in morals.

Bryan also said: “Please note that the objection is not to teaching the evolutionary hypothesis as a hypothesis, but to the teaching of it as true or as a proven fact”, a profound misunderstanding of the way scientists view theories that persists even now in the ID literature. Almost identical wording is used by ID advocates now in their efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution.

But, as in the case of the Copernican revolution, the religious opposition to the teaching of evolution was gathering steam just about the time when the scientific case was closing. By the 1920s, the fossil evidence in favor of evolution was accumulating rapidly, and together with other evidence coming from biology, physics, and geology, was causing the scientific community to coalesce around evolutionary theory as the framework for understanding the origin and diversity of all species, including humans.

This time, though, the Catholic Church has not got drawn into the controversy, as as had happened with Copernicus and Galileo. It has kept the evolution issue at arms length, taking a much more nuanced view towards the relationship of science to church teachings. Greg Easterbook writes:

For Catholics, the first important statement on church views of Darwin came with the papal encyclical Humani Generis (“The Origin of Humanity”), published by Pius XII in 1950. In this document, the Pope acknowledged that God might have used evolution as the mechanism of creation, and therefore Darwin’s theories did not necessarily contradict faith. But, Pius XII said evolutionary theory is insidious because it can be used to argue against the existence of God…Humani Generis concluded with the dictum that Catholics could teach and learn Darwin’s ideas about how existing living things change, but that the view that humanity is entirely natural in origin must “not be advanced in schools, in conferences or in writings of any kind, and that they be not taught in any manner whatsoever to the clergy or the faithful.â€?

Papal views of Darwin came closer to biology department views with Pope John Paul II’s 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. This teaching, called Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, argued that faith should never fear any scientific finding, even one that upsets cherished views. Scientific truths, the Pope said, must be taken as they are because they add to the world’s store of truths.

At the 1996 session the Pope allowed that “new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis,” noting that the idea of natural selection “has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.â€? John Paul II all but endorsed natural selection as a description of how animals evolve, but found the theory wanting as an explanation of the soul, rejecting “theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter.â€? The soul, the Pope said, must arise divinely, in ways that science does not see. With this teaching, John Paul II staked out what might be called the modified limited religious endorsement of evolution: that it exists but only explains the biological part of us, not the spiritual mystery. Interestingly, in this teaching the Pope said nothing about Adam, the Garden, or the Genesis account of creation. Since what is significant about papal pronouncements is often what is not said, the Pope’s 1996 reasoning seemed to back the church away from its previous insistence on a sudden, from-nothing creation of humankind.

Thus, unlike the case with Copernicus, the opposition to Darwin’s ideas today can be seen (at least so far) as a mainly evangelical Protestant phenomenon, not even supported by the mainstream Protestant churches. The key argument by ID advocates that at least some biological changes cannot be explained by natural selection is not supported by the Catholic Church. Catholics are allowed to accept every single aspect of evolutionary theory and natural selection as long as they accept that the soul is divinely created.

Will the Catholic Church change its position and eventually be drawn into the conflict on the anti-Darwin side, like it did with Copernicus? It is possible but seems unlikely. The episode of Copernicus and Galileo casts a very long shadow.


I realized today that although all the Case readers of this blog know about the tragic death of Professor Ignacio Ocasio (“Doc Oc”), former students of the university may not be aware of it.

Ignacio died suddenly last Saturday, May 14th of what appears to have been a heart attack. He was only 53 years old. You can read an appreciation of him here. Those of you who wish to say something about him and make suggestions for how to memorialize him can go to the special site created for this purpose. His funeral is taking place in Puerto Rico but there will be a memorial service for him in the fall once students return to campus. The university is also organizing an event in his honor to be held in the Hovorka atrium at 3:00pm on Tuesday, May 24, 2005.

There is little that I can add to the heartfelt words that have been pouring in from some of the thousands of people whom he touched with his kindness and concern for others and just sheer friendliness. It is truly very sad.

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