Interesting conversation on polygenism

Interesting conversation on polygenism February 17, 2009

As I mentioned below, I looked in on a conversation at What’s Wrong with the World on Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design. In the course of it, one exchange caught my attention:

John Farrell wrote:

One could also take there to have been a real historical Adam and Eve, while also holding that genetically speaking our species has descended from a small population of humans–not directly from one couple.

Except that this opinion is false and cannot be legitimately held by Catholics. Pope Pius XII, 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 no 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 actual- ly committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

This intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, the correspondent who is rebutting Farrell has a lot more confidence than I do that a literalistic reading of Gen 1-3 is what you will subscribe to “if you’re Catholic“. It raises questions about why on earth, if this is *the* Catholic position on Genesis, the Holy Father seems to have such a very different approach to the sciences routinely (which take for granted a relativistic physics, a universe about 13 billion years old and an earth about 4.5 billion years old, evolutionary theory, plate tectonics, meteorology, cosmology, and various other things that play havoc with a literalistic reading of Scripture with its earth founded on pillars, a firmament separating the waters above the heavens from the waters beneath, an earth that “cannot be moved”, six days of creation, and so forth.

I can see a fundamentalist needing to read Scripture literalistically and come up with convoluted reasons why this all as “scientific”. But I have never understood Catholics feeling obliged to do so. And since Rome does not seem even slightly inclined to do so, I have to question whether the fundamentalist reading of Gen 1-3 is really all it’s cracked up to be by the tiny minority of Catholics who insist upon it.

However, what interests me about the exchange above was a bit different. What intrigued me was the language used by Pius XII to discuss polygenism. One of the mysteries (to me) of Church documents is how to parse the question of the degree of assent we are to accord various utterances. My working assumption about how to approach such matters is summed up in my piece on “Docility“. In short, I think the wise approach to Church teaching is to receive it, not to start by saying, “I don’t see the point of *this* crap, so I will just dismiss it as superstitious nonsense till somebody meets my demands for proof.”

On the other hand, I recognize that not all ecclesial teaching is dogmatic and that many instructions are provisional and subject to refinement and even reversal. Compare, for instance, Lateran IV’s instruction that Jews were to wear distinctive clothing vs. Nostra Aetate’s condemnation of prejudice against Jews. Clearly, the Church exists within the confines of human knowledge and culture and many of her teachings are provisional and subject to changes in knowledge and culture. Bottom line: we don’t have to acknowledge there is some eternal principle at work in Trent’s instruction that clothes be painted on St. Catherine in Michaelangelo’s Last Judgement.

So anyway, having chatted with people in a position to know, I have it on good authority that some in the biological sciences have been suggesting to theologians in Rome that its not a good idea to bet the farm on the notion that all of humanity is descended from two people. Something about genetic diversity or something. I don’t really know or care. What interests me though, is the question of how much weight the Church is obliged to give Pius teaching if the sciences make it pretty clear that genetic diversity point to polygenism. Is this really a matter of dogma or is there still a bunch of room for theological development? Not knowing myself, I wrote to a friend whose theological training is specifically focused on how to understand the degrees of assent required by various church documents. Said I regarding the quote from Humani Generis above:

Okay. So how do we weight something like this? It’s looking more and more like we cannot bet the farm on the notion that we are all descended from two people. The genetic diversity (assuming humans propagate like other animals) just ain’t there. And I’m told that there is some discussion about Rome modifying its views on this to allow for the notion of polygenism. So how would something like this be dealt with? Is it legit to say that Pius forbade “opinion” in the absence of fact but that he does not mean to forbid science from providing facts which substantiate polygenism? I’m talking to a guy who basically believs Catholics are “forbidden” from so much as entertaining the possibility of polygenism by Humanae Generis. But I find it awfully hard to buy that Pius really means to tell science how to do its job.

Any ideas?

He replies:

I know that several scholars consider his phrase “it is in no way apparent” to be the key clause here — in a sense, an escape clause.

The Church can teach on secular and scientific matters _insofar_ _as_ they are connected to revealed truth. So, if it were to be conclusively established that the scientific theory of polygenism and the Catholic dogma of original sin _cannot_ both be true, then the Church could (and indeed, must) teach that polygenism is false.

But Pius XII is very far from asserting conclusively that they are incompatible. Rather, he carefully chooses his words to make clear the degree of certainty involved: “it is in no way apparent” how they “can be reconciled” with each other. That’s pretty close to saying that they appear to be incompatible PRIMA FACIE, and that he has not yet heard a persuasive argument to the contrary.

(As an aside, I suspect that he personally thought they _were_ incompatible. If that’s true, then he must have deliberately chosen to not teach his own opinion as a definite Catholic truth. Which was wise.)

So he has established the conditions for future doctrinal development. (1) If someone can provide a convincing explanation of how original sin and polygenism can be reconciled, then the Church will have no further objection to it. (2) If, on the contrary, a conclusive argument is made that they cannot be reconciled, then the Church will have to oppose this theory. (3) As neither of these has occurred yet in 1950, the pope issues this public warning against the theory of polygenism.

“Warning” isn’t the best word here. This is really a “condemnation”, in the neoscholistic sense, where there are a couple dozen “theolo
gical notes” expressing degrees of approbation or condemnation. The strongest condemnation is of course “heretical”. Here, the pope doesn’t use one of the usual terms from the list of condemnations, but if his statement were to be summarized in those terms, it sounds to me as an instance of the condemnation “this theory cannot be safely taught”.

In the pope’s words, the children of the Church “do not enjoy liberty” in this matter, and they “cannot embrace this theory”. For what it’s worth, the verb here really is ‘can’, not ‘may’: “Non enim Christifideles eam sententiam amplecti possunt”, “The Christian faithful are not able to embrace/welcome this theory”. So a Catholic teacher who taught polygenism as a fact in 1951 would certainly be in violation of this.

However, he doesn’t leave it at that. Rather, he follows this statement with the escape clause. The writers I have seen all agree that the condemnation of this teaching certainly is not binding if the escape clause is fulfilled. Even those writers who strongly agree in condemning polygenism (Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, published in the 1950s, TAN edition p. 96) make it clear that they are condemning it because they think the escape clause has not been met.

So if the escape clause has been met by theologians today, this condemnation is nullified.

The problem, however, is that to qualify as an “escape”, I would demand that a theory show that polygenism is compatible with a true upholding of the traditional Catholic doctrine of original sin. But this makes it hard to survey modern theologians on this issue, because SO MANY of them have rejected the Church’s teaching on original sin. So when THEY say polygenism is fine, that doesn’t really address the question here! I would be interested in whether there has been a serious study of this question by scholars who do uphold the Catholic teaching on these matters. I have no idea if there has been (I have read fairly little on that specific question).

== What follows is more tentative than what I have written so far ==

There is ANOTHER possible escape clause, which is more controversial. When a pope issues a decree with a low level of certitude (i.e. “this theory cannot be safely taught”, or my favorite, “this theory is offensive to pious ears”), does it have an expiration date? I don’t mean a literal date, of course. What I mean is that “cannot be safely taught” or “offensive to pious ears” contain an element of prudential judgment, and that judgment is made in light of the contemporary setting. (As opposed to a purely doctrinal statement, which does not age, except in its linguistic expression.)

In this case, I would ask: What significance should we attach to the fact that, in the past 58 years, no pope has repeated the condemnation of polygenism? Moreover, although I am not certain on this, I suspect that no Catholic teacher or writer has been condemned (and maybe not even denied an imprimatur) for the past few decades for suggesting polygenism. The paragraph in Humani Generis that you quoted (DS 3897) is footnoted once in the Catechism (section 390, note 295), and yet it seems to be used to support the teaching that original sin is an actual sin committed by “our first parents” — but it doesn’t say there were TWO parents.

(In fact, you might want to check over the whole description of creation and the fall in CCC 355-409; looking over it quickly, it appears to me to carefully avoid claiming there were two. When it does mention “Adam and Eve”, eg. 375 and 399, a qualifier is included: “the symbolism of biblical language”, “Scripture portrays”. This is more clear in 399, I could see arguments either way about 375, but it certainly could be read that “Adam and Eve” are an appositive to “our first parents” and are not thus the _substance_ of the “teaching” and “authentic interpretation” referred to in that paragraph.)

Aside: The word “authentic” is poorly used in English translations of Church documents. The Latin ‘authenticus’ should be translated as “authoritative.” A century ago, the English ‘authentic’ had two meanings: “authoritative” and “genuine”. Today, the first of these meanings has been forgotten, but the translators stick to their old habits — or they are simply fooled by the authenticus/authentic similarity. So when Vatican II calls bishops “authentic teachers”, this should really be “authoritative.” God willing, they will be both! *grin*

Anyway, back to my second escape clause. I cannot demonstrate that the church has ceased to actively condemn polygenism; I don’t have the data one way or another. But I woudln’t be surprised if in fact the magisterium has not repeated this teaching for many decades, either explictly or in its disciplinary actions. If that is correct, then does the teaching decrease in magisterial level? Again, this cannot apply to a purely doctrinal teaching, and therefore Pius’ statement that “IF polygenism is incompatible with original sin THEN it must be false” cannot fade away. But his statement that Christians do not enjoy LIBERTY in this matter seems to be a prudential condemnation, and therefore perhaps subject to withering away if it is dropped.

Anyway, my second escape clause is a tentative idea. It’s not my invention; I have seen it asserted by various authors. But I have not investigated it very much, and so there may be strong arguments against this whole second escape clause thing.

=== end tentative section ==

Hope this helps! Also, my phrase “escape clause” might sound a bit flippant, but at least it’s not as flippant as “weasel words”. I can’t think of a better term for it offhand. “Condition” is not really strong enough. The recent teaching against the death penalty, for example, is not simply conditional. A simple conditional would be “No death penalty, unless X is fulfilled.” But JP2’s teaching is more like “No
death penalty, unless X is fulfilled; moreover, in my prudential judgment X is rarely if ever fulfilled in modern society.” That’s stronger than a neutrally stated condition; it places the burden of proof on those who say the death penalty is okay in _this_ situation.

I think that Pius’s statement is structurally the same as JP2’s: “No polygenism, if it cannot be reconciled with original sin; moreover, it is not apparent that they can be reconciled.”

Many people will find all this as much of a snooze as I find the question “Did Mary have labor pains?” But I put it up because I think the question of how doctrine develops and how the Church navigates the various complexities of holding her unchanging teaching in a world of changing knowledge fascinating. I hold no definite views on any of this. But I think my correspondent is pointing to some interesting things that should be taken seriously by anybody ready to bet the farm on things the Church does not appear to be willing to bet the farm on.

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