Peter F. Ryan (Emeritus)
Rev. Peter F. Ryan, S.J, S.T.D.
Professor of Moral Theology and Spiritual Director
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Thoughts on Human Origins
Far from regarding the scientific study of human origins as a threat to her teaching about God’s creative activity and ultimate plans for the universe, the Catholic Church supports such study. God, after all, is the author of both nature and revelation, and these sources of truth do not contradict but rather complement each other.
To see that faith is compatible with evolution, we must bear in mind certain fixed points. First, there is an absolute distinction between God and the universe, which exists only because God freely brought it into being out of nothing. The Big Bang theory, first proposed by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest, is no substitute for the doctrine of creation but an explanation of how it first developed.
Second, to affirm that our bodies evolved from lower animals is not to deny that we are endowed with rational souls created directly by God. Human beings are self-conscious, intelligent, and creative. Subhuman animals lack the capacity to evolve into creatures capable of such human activities as writing literature, composing complex and beautiful music, and reflecting on the meaning of the universe. A distinct creative act of God is necessary for human beings to come into existence.
Third, evolution does not account for all human development, for as rational beings we have the ability to make radically free and morally significant choices. If this were not so, there would be no point in appealing to people to act responsibly by, for example, urging them to reduce their carbon footprint.
Those three points are naturally knowable, but a fourth, though entirely reasonable, is knowable only through faith: The ultimate destiny of humanity itself and of each human being is not determined by evolution and human activity alone. That destiny will be evident only when Jesus Christ, the Son of God—for whom and through whom the world was created, who became flesh and lived among us—returns again to transform this universe into the new heavens and new earth, and to remain forever with those who have lived good lives.
Reflections on The Age of Humans (the Anthropocene)
The way we evaluate the significance of human alteration of the environment inevitably depends on how we view the relative meaning and value of personal and sub-personal realities. Some contemplate the natural world with quasi-religious reverence and awe, and even claim that animals and the planet itself have rights. They object to development in principle, or consider it a necessary evil that should be kept to a bare minimum even when the only alternative is significant human hardship. Others consider man to be the sole source of meaning and value in the universe. They deny the inherent goodness of nature and regard it as mere material for exploitation, often at the expense not only of the planet but also of those who lack the basic necessities of life.
Christian believers, by contrast, regard the natural world as a magnificent gift of God that should be reverenced as such. While they have at times been criticized for focusing on an allegedly unreal afterlife and being inadequately concerned for this world, that criticism applies only to a distorted version of Christianity that regards the life to come as purely supernatural and forgets Jesus’ promise to transform this universe into the new heavens and new earth. Preparing ourselves properly for his transformative return includes the crucial task of caring for God’s gift of creation.
Since the goodness of nature, especially in its pristine beauty, reflects the goodness of the Creator and helps us lift our hearts and minds to him, it is sometimes best to leave nature untouched. But, of course, we rightly rely on nature to enable us to pursue other human goods, and that generally involves disturbing it. We need to learn to do so appropriately. As Pope Francis explained in his encyclical on the environment, in promoting human development we must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system,” and our efforts to transform reality “must proceed in line with God’s original gift of all that is.”
Some argue that proper care for creation requires population control, but if I may quote the ingenuous words of a saint, “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta was well acquainted with the problem of scarce resources; her Sisters leave a negligible carbon footprint. But she valued above all the human ecology, which may be threatened by a looming population implosion since half the world has below-replacement fertility, and some countries are paying citizens to have children. The solution is not to devalue the human ecology, but to make the precious goods of the earth available in a sustainable way to all God’s children.