Adam and Eve (c. 1520), by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
(11-28-13; revised on 1-6-22)
I’m not a fundamentalist or literalist when it comes to the Bible. I never was, not even as a Protestant evangelical. I understand different literary genres in the Bible; have written about that many times.
The issue here is not whether all of Genesis is absolutely literal. I agree that some portions of it are presented in a poetic or non-literal genre or style. The issue is whether the Adam and Eve described in Genesis were real persons and the primal human pair. I (and I believe the Church) say yes. And to me, this is a very serious issue, which goes hand-in-hand with original sin. Denying one has consequences with regard to the other.
If popes and major Catholic (orthodox) theologians have denied that the Adam and Eve of Genesis were literal human beings and the primal pair of human beings: the parents of the human race, I’d like to see that. As far as I know, they don’t. This is a product of theological liberalism or modernism: again, as far as I know (I’m always open to — eagerly welcome — correction and expansion of knowledge of Things Catholic).
Neither Pope Benedict XVI nor Pope St. John Paul II nor Ven. Pope Pius XII denied a literal Adam (i.e., the one described in Genesis), as I have documented in my past papers on this topic. They accept some allegory and non-literal material in Genesis: especially the early chapters (as I do), yet don’t include Adam and Eve in that category.
Given the papal quotes, it’s impossible to argue that a literal Adam is merely the primitive speculation of the “old guys” before modern science, that we can now dismiss with a smile (as liberals habitually do regarding anything before the date of their birth).
No! The recent popes are asserting exactly the same thing. This isn’t a matter of only wooden literalist fundamentalists saying it. They may be right for the wrong reasons about a literal Adam and Eve, but at least they are right about that and don’t deny rather plain teachings of Scripture (not just Genesis but later NT references).
It takes two seconds in a Bible search to see that the NT casually assumes that Adam is 1) literal, 2) a man, and 3) the first man, who fell, and from whom we are all descended. See, e.g., the genealogy of Luke 3:23-38. The text doesn’t descend from literal history to mere myth: it’s all of a piece. See also (RSV):
Romans 5:14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, . . .
1 Corinthians 15:45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.
Jude 1:14 It was of these also that Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam prophesied, saying, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads,
The Hebrew for “day” [yom] has been understood early on (esp. Augustine) as allowing a wide latitude of meaning, so that’s not a big deal. There is no necessity to adopt a literal six-day creation or a young earth (6,000 years old, etc.)
The NT regards Adam as literal and the first human being. The Church follows suit. But I don’t think the Church was strictly necessary to nail down this point. Scripture is quite sufficient, which is why historic Protestantism agrees with it, without the magisterial assistance.
Some professed Catholic disconnect the fall from the Adam and Eve of Genesis and put it back to some “primordial” human beings who were other than the Adam and Eve we know from biblical revelation.
I’ve cited both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II as popes referring to Adam in literal terms. I have not seen anything otherwise from magisterial sources. I’m always happy to be shown something I was unaware of. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, so I teach what I know.
Modernism is very pervasive . . . it has its tentacles into so many things, and people otherwise orthodox are affected by it even if they may not be aware that it is heterodoxy.
Once again, this is not a scenario where on one side you have fundamentalists who interpret everything in the Bible literally, believe in a 6,000-year-old earth that doesn’t rotate, along with theologians before 1800 who don’t know a whit about modern biology and evolution. Recent popes are on the side of a literal Adam and Eve as the first human pair, who fell — and we with and in them (original sin).
Moreover, not one word I’ve written nor that the Church has expressed in official documents casts into doubt the possibility of theistic evolution. There could easily be a scenario of primitive human beings evolving; however, they didn’t yet have a soul. It was ensoulment that made the first human beings: in God’s image. Adam and Eve were our first human parents, and we’re all descended from them.
Some claim that Ven. Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis (1950) separated Adam from the first human being (as if that were permissible in Catholic dogmatic theology). This is untrue. In section 37 he mentions Adam (footnoting Romans 5:12-19, which reads quite historically at face value):
37. 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 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.
[footnote: Cfr. Rom., V, 12-19, Conc. Trid., sess, V, can. 1-4.]
In section 38, he grounds this Adam in the context of the book of Genesis. Clearly he is referring to that Adam. Here it is (blue highlighting and bolding my own):
38. Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.  This Letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.
[footnote 13: January 16, 1948: A.A.S., vol. XL, pp. 45-48]
That ain’t myth and mere “literary” non-literal stuff. He’s talking about Adam; he makes clear that he means by that the Adam of Genesis, who is a real person, just like we are, and that this has to do with the origin of the human race.
It’s like the genealogy of Luke from Adam to Jesus: one can’t start out with a mythical figure like Zeus or Hercules in the beginning, and then all of a sudden the list becomes historical as it goes through time. The very fact that descendants are being talked about proves that Adam is literal also. And that list proves that it’s the Adam of Genesis, since it gives his immediate descendants, as there described.
Game, set, match. End of story. Period.
Playing games with these things is sheer liberalism and heterodoxy, and the sooner those who do it can figure that out, the better, because when you go down this road of modernist garbage, you may end up like Charles Curran or Hans Kung or multiple thousands of goddess-worshiping former nuns.
But we are what we eat. We all know there is a great deal of falsehood and heterodoxy taught in many seminaries. A generation of rotten seminary teaching and lousy Catholic schools has produced its bad fruit.
The first human beings are what they are because of direct ensoulment from God. That was the first time He did what He now does with all of us at conception: special creation of the soul, which doesn’t descend from biology; has nothing to do with biology at all, being spirit.
This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church state about the historical Adam and Eve:
375 The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original “state of holiness and justice”. This grace of original holiness was “to share in. . .divine life”.
399 Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image – that of a God jealous of his prerogatives.
404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam “as one body of one man”. By this “unity of the human race” all men are implicated in Adam’s sin, as all are implicated in Christ’s justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called “sin” only in an analogical sense: it is a sin “contracted” and not “committed” – a state and not an act.
416 By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.
417 Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called “original sin”.
Some Catholics think Adam and Eve were real: they’re just not the ones in Genesis. It’s classic liberal changing of terminology and commonly accepted concepts. “yeah, I believe in Adam and Eve”: but it’s redefined, contrary to tradition and existing dogma. This is what liberalism does: all the time. It is practically of the essence of liberal theology and modernism to engage in this sort of bait-and-switch dishonesty. People hear Adam and Eve being discussed and it sounds great and orthodox till we delve deeper and discover that it means something (in the mind that has accepted some liberal heterodox nonsense) quite different.
Theological liberalism is destructive of logical consistency because it deals in falsehood, and truth is harmonious with itself. So if one accepts a liberal tenet, that will be contrary to orthodox opinions that he may generally hold. It doesn’t fit in.
See also the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission on Genesis. Here is an excerpt:
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.
Man-like creatures who existed before Adam and Eve didn’t have souls. Adam and Eve could have evolved from them. No problem. It doesn’t contradict anything in Catholic theology because the key to being human rather than merely an animal is having a rational soul. God could have created them instantly or they could have come from earlier creatures that God still made, but who were not yet human. The soul by its nature has to be a supernatural creation by God. People are very confused about this issue and the Church has made it clear. It’s all there for us.
I simply make my arguments and document what the Church teaches: from Scripture, from magisterial statements and papal general audiences, the Catechism; analysis of the context of Humani Generis, showing that Pius XII could only have been referring to historical Adam and Eve discussed in Genesis . . . I also have links to two papers where an orthodox Catholic philosopher tackles the polygenism thing from a serious scholarly perspective.
The first thing the liberal outlook on life does is start attacking the Bible: especially the historicity of many things in the Old Testament. So people buy into some of that, even though they are not “liberals” themselves and believe most of what the Church teaches.
The problem with picking and choosing like that is that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Newman: to deny one dogma of the Catholic Church is to lose the supernatural gift of faith. That’s scary. We should desire to wholeheartedly accept all that the Church teaches. What we don’t understand, we accept in faith and seek apologetic answers so our mind can be content with it: on rational ground, not irrational or fideistic ground.
I have Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1986 book, “In the Beginning…”: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall (Our Sunday Visitor, 1990, translated by Boniface Ramsey, OP) in my own library. And what does the future pope say about Adam? He said the same as he said when he was pope (some of which I cited in my papers linked above):
In the Genesis story that we are considering, still a further characteristic of sin is described. Sin is not spoken of in general as an abstract possibility but as a deed, as the sin of a particular person, Adam, who stands at the origin of humankind and with whom the history of sin begins. The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked. (p. 89)
From this it is seen:
1) Adam was a person.
2) “Adam” in a Christian context refers to the person spoken of in Genesis.
3) Adam “stands at the origin of humankind.” He was the first human being.
4) Sin and original sin begin with this real person Adam, described in Genesis.
Why would there be any argument about these things at all, from Catholics? Is Pope Benedict XVI a raving fundamentalist who takes everything in the Bible literally? Is he anti-science? Is he anti-philosophy or anti-intellect? Why is this even controversial? Why are so many errors bandied about in this regard? Everything one can find from magisterial documents, catechisms, popes, future popes, pontifical biblical commissions all points in the same direction.
My mentor was Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J., who is being considered for sainthood: a person perhaps regarded as the most orthodox theologian in America in the second half of the 20th century. He was a close advisor to Pope St. Paul VI and was the catechist to St. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He was my mentor, received me into the Church, said (in the early 90s) that my writing was “very Catholic,” and wrote the Foreword to my first book.
That is my orthodox Catholic background. I was also largely persuaded to become a Catholic by Cardinal Newman. He will soon be a saint and probably a Doctor of the Church (Pope Benedict alluded to that). His thinking was praised by Pope St. Pius X: considered the most “orthodox” of popes, and the hero of “traditionalists.” That’s rock-solid orthodox sources. I never was trained in theological liberalism even as a Protestant. I always detested it. And so it has had no influence on me. I’ve been blessed in having great teachers.
And what did Fr. Hardon teach about Adam? From his Modern Catholic Dictionary:
The first man. Created in the image of God. His wife was Eve and his sons Cain, Abel, and Seth. They lived in the garden of Eden but were expelled because Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of a certain tree (Genesis 1,2). In early accounts of Adam’s life he is referred to, not by a specific name, but “the man” (Genesis 3). Not until his descendants were given (Genesis 4:25) was the proper noun “Adam” applied to him. Many doctrines in the New Testament are traced back to the life of the first man, notably original sin and the concept of Jesus as the second Adam bringing redemption to the human race.
Someone wrote: “There are good theologians both Catholic and Protestant who don’t know or care if Adam and Eve really existed.” No, there are not! Someone who thinks that is not a good theologian in either tradition, and is alarmingly heterodox on that score. If they can hold an opinion that ridiculous, then their credibility is entirely in question. And if anyone doesn’t understand that, they need to do some serious study and get up to speed in orthodox Catholic theology.
Virtually no one would assert that Genesis is to be taken completely literally from beginning to end. That’s not at issue. About the only ones who do are young earth geocentrists: that sort of goofy outlook that derives mostly from Protestant anti-intellectual fundamentalism.
I am greatly saddened and disturbed that people are so confused on this issue, but I have tried to make my arguments, from the Bible and Church. If someone wants to ponder them, they will; if not, I’ve done all I can do. It’s clear that we apologists and catechists and DREs and seminary professors and priests and the Church as a whole have our work cut out for us to explain these sorts of teachings, so that folks aren’t so confused about them. The Church has made it clear enough, in my opinion.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:
According to the Catholic Faith we are bound to hold that the first sin of the first man is transmitted to his descendants, by way of origin. For this reason children are taken to be baptized soon after their birth, to show that they have to be washed from some uncleanness. The contrary is part of the Pelagian heresy . . . all men born of Adam may be considered as one man, inasmuch as they have one common nature, which they receive from their first parents . . . (ST 1-2, q. 81, a. 1c)
According to the Catholic Faith we must firmly believe that, Christ alone excepted, all men descended from Adam contract original sin from him; else all would not need redemption which is through Christ; and this is erroneous. (ST 1-2, q. 81, a. 3c)
Adam and Eve are the first human beings because they were the first to be infused with a rational soul. They could quite possibly have derived from earlier man-like creatures, through evolution. If so, the ancestors did not have a soul, so they weren’t human beings made in God’s image.
And there could have been (and I believe were), earlier creatures that weren’t human in the full sense, whether Adam and Eve descended from them or not. But that’s all irrelevant to the whole question because it’s not a biological one; it’s a spiritual / theological matter, having to do with spirit, not matter. The soul is immaterial, and so are rebellion and original sin.
All human beings, who have a soul (special creation by God at each conception) are derived form Adam and Eve (the ones in Genesis: not some imaginative junk from liberal / modernist theological minds, snatched out of thin air). That is Church dogma. All Catholics are bound to believe that. St. Thomas and Cardinal Newman both stress that to deny even one dogma of the Catholic faith is to lose the supernatural virtue of faith.
In other words, if we rebel like that, God won’t give us the grace required to believe all that the Church teaches. That is a terrible bind to be in, because it means we will likely reject more and more orthodox doctrines as time goes on (as we have observed many millions of fallen-away Catholics do).
For a solid philosophical / scientific defense of monogenism (all human descent from one primal pair), see, “Science, Theology, and Monogenesis,” by Kenneth W. Kemp (American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 217-236, 2011). I agree with his analysis (i.e., insofar as I grasp all the technical science entailed).
Abstract: “Francisco Ayala and others have argued that recent genetic evidence shows that the origins of the human race cannot be monogenetic, as the Church has traditionally taught. This paper replies to that objection, developing a distinction between biological and theological species first proposed by Andrew Alexander in 1964.”
Kemp is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He obtained an M.A. in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Notre Dame in 1983, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the same university in 1984. He is fluent in seven languages besides English, and also knows four more languages to some extent. Links: Curriculum Vitae and web page; also faculty page for his university; some online papers.
Another serious, extensive philosophical / scientific explanation that is consistent with traditional Catholic theology and dogma is from Edward Feser: “Modern Biology and Original Sin” [part one / part two]. Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, an M.A. in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. [see his web page and blog]
And a third: Mike Flynn, “Adam and Eve and Ted and Alice” (9-1-11)
See also a great article by my mentor, Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J.: “Adam was an Individual Man, From Whom the Whole Human Race Derives Its Origin.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written two excellent articles on the general topic: Is the Adam and Eve Story a Myth? (2-5-14) and Difficulties with Adam and Eve (5-21-13).