Teilhard de Chardin's theory of the evolution of the cosmos towards the Omega Point. To what degree does this cosmology, which the Holy Office said 'offends Catholic doctrine', influence our current pontiff's thought on the question of evolution?
In the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, "On Human Origins," Pope Pius XII allows us, by way of concession, to believe in the possibility that the human body could have evolved from preexisting biological material, so long as we adhere to the immediate creation of the soul by God in our first parents.
I have never ben entirely comfortable with this concession and have always opted for a more traditional, creationist view of things (though that doesn't mean I am necessarily a "Young Earther"). As I was explaining Pius' concession to a Sacred Scripture class I teach for high schooler's this week, I noted, too, that many of them were uncomfortable with it because they felt it introduced too much duality into man's nature.
I recalled that Cardinal Ratzinger had once expressed a similar reserve in a book he wrote back in 1973 entitled Dogma und Verkundigung. If you are wondering how I came across this essay, it is because Ignatius Press somewhat disingenuously reproduced it, along with a series of other essays, in a book called Credo for Today: What Christians Believe. I say it is disingenuous because the book, which is a collection of Ratzinger's essays dating from the 70's and 80's, is marketed as if it were the writings of Pope Benedict. The cover shows a picture of Benedict as pope (not as a professor at Regensburg) and says "Pope Benedict XVI" on the cover. Those who didn't know better would think the book's contents were the pope's current thought and writings; one has to go all the way to the appendix before you find out that these are actually essays written over twenty years ago, for the most part. Furthermore, despite the subtitle of the book saying "What Christians Believe," the book contains some of Ratzinger's most speculative theology, stuff that can hardly be said to be what most Christians believe.
Anyhow, back to evolution. I cite this book because both Ratzinger and I have difficulties with Pius XII's concession in Humani Generis, but whereas I go one way to get around the difficulty, Ratzinger goes another.
Ratzinger begins his essay on creation with the very important point that theologians cannot simply ignore the question of the origins of life and issues surrounding evolution - they have to be dealt with. As an example of how modern theology can ignore the question of the origin of man, he cites those who say that how man was created is superfluous anyway; those who, when confronted with alleged contradictions between Genesis and Darwin, will shrug and paraphrase Augustine: "The Bible is meant to tell us who made the heavens, not how the heavens were made." It is certainly true that the Scriptures are meant to lead us to salvation, but that does not in any way mean that everything else it says is superfluous, or that things like the creation narrative are not also ordered to our salvation in various ways.
Ratzinger says this position of "it doesn't really matter how we take Genesis 1" is especially disingenuous since only a little more than a century ago there were a good many theologians, and even regional synods, insisting that the fixity of species and a literal reading of Genesis 1 were de fide. Ratzinger condemns those who "make a dishonest compromise and for tactical reasons declare the terrain that has become untenable as superfluous anyway, after having so short a time before insisted loudly on situating it as an indispensable part of the faith" (pg. 34). Therefore, the issue of creation and evolution must be dealt with somehow.
Where I diverge from Ratzinger is in his automatic assumption that the traditional view is "untenable." I wish he would not have brushed it aside so easily. But in any case, he goes on to the compromise permitted by Pius XII in Humani Generis, that the body could be the product of evolution but the soul could not. I personally have always been uncomfortable with Pius's compromise; I know the pope allows Catholics to maintain this position, but it is only by way of concession, as if saying that accommodating evolution to creation is an exception, not the norm. I also thought that this idea introduced too much duality into the human person - to say that the physical part of man was the process of evolution but the soul infused by God at a later time, whenever the human anatomy had reached a sufficient stage of evolutionary growth. In this view, God basically took one of the advanced primates already in existence and ennobled it by the infusion of a soul, not unlike what God did when He granted Balaam's ass the powers of speech and reason momentarily.
Ratzinger, too, finds a problem with the Humani Generis compromise. He says;
"Now some have tried to get around the problem by saying that the human body may be a product of evolution, but the soul is not by any means: God himself created it, since spirit cannot emerge from matter. This answer seems to have in its favor the fact that spirit cannot be examined by the same scientific method with which one studies the history of organisms, but only at first glance is this a satisfactory answer. We have to continue the line of questioning: Can we divide man up in this way between theologians and scientists--the soul for the former, the body for the latter? Is that not intolerable for both? The natural scientist believes that he can see man as a whole gradually taking shape; he also finds an area of psychological transition in which human behavior slowly arises out of animal activity, without being able to draw a clear boundary...Conversely, the theologian is convinced that the soul gives form to the body as well, characterizing it through and through as a human body, so that a human being is spirit only as body and is body only as and in the spirit, then this division of man loses all meaning for him, too" (p. 38).
The compromise that Pius XII allowed by way of concession holds little value for Ratzinger, even though many eminent modern theologians hold precisely this opinion. But Ratzinger is an honest theologian and will not admit of a concept so dualistic and problematic as the theory of the evolutionary creation of the body from preexisting matter. At this point, however, instead of reverting to a more (in my opinion) traditional understanding of the immediate and special creation of man, Ratzinger instead opts to go in a direction even further in the line of evolutionary thought than the concession allowed in Humani Generis.
To Ratzinger it seems that it must be one or the other - spirit must evolve along with matter, or spirit and matter both must be created apart from evolution. Since Ratzinger has already found the non-evolutionary arguments to be "untenable," he now turns to none other than the condemned Jesuit modernist Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, he whose works the Holy Office declared "abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine" (source). From Teilhard Ratzinger takes the idea that the universe represents the "self-actuation" of the Logos in time and space - that "the world as a whole, as the Bible says, comes from the Logos, that is, from the creative mind and represents the temporal form of its self-actuation...the world of becoming as the self-actuation of creative thought" (p. 44). From this Teilhardian idea, Ratzinger will build up his conclusion that spirit can, in a sense, involve from matter, since the developments we witness in the unfolding of the cosmos should not be seen as unguided evolution but as the self-actuation in time of a timeless Logos.
Don't think I'm connecting dots between Ratzinger and Teilhard that aren't there; Ratzinger cites Teilhard by name a little further on in this passage, saying that Teilhard's idea of spirit as the "goal" of an evolutionary "process" is "ingenious" and "quite accurate" (pp. 44-45). He is very clearly, unapologetically and enthusiastically in debt to Teilhard for some of these ideas. I know that just because Teilhard's writings have been condemned does not mean he may not have some valuable things to say; we still quote Origen and Tertullian despite some of their issues. But, really, could not the man who would become the Prefect of the CDF find a more weighty authority to cite other than Teilhard de Chardin? Ratzinger borrows more from Teilhard later in the book, adopting Teilhard's terminology of the end of history as an "omega point" in his essay on the Second Coming (p. 113)
Anyhow, back to matter and spirit. So, if the world is in a process of "self-actualization" in relation to the Logos, then the emergence of spirit into the world of matter can be seen as an inevitable part of this development. This leads Ratzinger to posit "matter as the prehistory of the spirit" and he formulates his idea of spirit emerging out of matter in Hegelian terms of matter as a "moment" in the development of spirit:
"It is clear that spirit is not a random product of material developments, but rather that matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit. This, however, is just another way of saying that spirit is created and is not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development" (p. 45).
So the spirit is not simply infused into the ready biological material, as Pius XII allowed for, but neither is the human body created uniquely and infused with a soul. Rather, as the whole cosmos is tending towards a universal development towards spirit, the emergence of spirit into matter is something that is latent within the cosmos from the beginning, even if initially we see no traces of spirit. Spirit does not evolve out of matter, but is truly, in a sense, in potency with relation to matter, so that when matter has reached the proper developmental stage in its self-actuation, spirit is enabled to "emerge." Just as an acorn does not evolve into a tree, but rather, the tree is latent within the acorn; the emergence of the tree is the self-actualization of the acorn, not its evolution. He says:
"The appearance of spirit, according to the previous discussion, means rather that an advancing movement arrives at the goal that has been set for it" (p. 46).
It is this advancement that Ratzinger calls the "rise of the spirit." Thus, through this Teilhardian logic, we are able to at once affirm that spirit is not the product of evolution while maintaining that spirit can indeed emerge out of matter "by way of development" , as Ratzinger says. This is, says Ratzinger, how "the special creation of man can coexist with an evolutionary world view, or what form it must assume within an evolutionary world view" (p. 45).
So, how does this emergence of the spirit occur with reference to the human person, who would undoubtedly be the locus for the spirit's emergence? Having already discarded out of hand the traditional idea that God formed man immediately from dirt and infused him with life, as well as casting doubt on Pius XII's concession that God allowed man's body to evolve from preexisting matter, Ratzinger goes on to explain the emergence of spirit within man in the following terms:
"The clay became man at that moment in which a being for the first time was capable of forming, however dimly, the thought "God." The first "thou" that -- however stammeringly -- was said by human lips to god marks the moment in which spirit arose in the world. Here the Rubicon of anthropogenesis was crossed" (p. 46-47).
So, man becomes man as soon as man is capable of formulating the idea of God, "however stammeringly." Here we have Ratzinger's theory of the emergence of spirit out of matter and how non-human life forms crossed the ontological Rubicon from non-human into human existence.
On the one hand, Ratzinger is a much more intelligent person than I am, and so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind as well that this essay was written in 1973 and obviously carries no papal authority nor even any magisterial authority. But on the other hand, I know when something smells fishy, espcially when Teilhard is invoked.
My first problem with Ratzinger's thesis is that, if we deny that spirit can develop from matter but admit that it arises out of matter by way of development, the fact is that it still evolves from matter. It is irrelevant whether the cause for the emergence of the spirit is extrinsic (somekind of random modification in biological matter that allows for the emergence of spirit), or intrinsic (an inherent principle of "elasticity" within matter that allows it to give way to spirit at a certain point, just as an acorn becomes a tree), the fact is we still have matter evolving into spirit. It doesn't matter (pun intended) whether the we say spirit evolved from matter or whether we say matter is a "moment" in the history of spirit. However you slice it, you still have spirit "emerging' out of matter, whether or not you say the change is blind evolution or a movement towards a goal. To me, this is still quite troubling.
Second, and more problematic, is the contrast between Ratzinger's conception of the first concept of God and Catholic theology on the state of our first parents before the Fall. Ratzinger states that spirit first enters the world at the moment that the first being, "however dimly" and "however stammeringly" uttered the word "God." This would coincide with the moment in the Genesis account when God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam and makes him a "living being."
However, is there not a problem here? According to the doctrine of Original Sin, man originally existed in a state of perfect justice and preternatural glory. Humani Generis reminds us that we must believe in the existence of two literal first parents who were created in grace but fell into sin. Thus, our first parents would have been brought forth in a state of natural perfection with their minds enlightened by grace and an infused knowledge of God; not simply of His existence, but of His perfections and of the fact that man is created to be in relation with Him. In short, our first parents had a very clear and unmistakable notion of God (otherwise how could have been guilty of sinning against Him?) - created fresh from His hands, enlightened in their intellect by grace and unmarred from sin, their understanding of Him in their perfected natural state was greater and clearer than most of us will ever experience. Can this vision of God which our first parents enjoyed prior to Original Sin be reconciled with Ratzinger's comments that the first conception of God emerged in the human species "dimly" and "stammeringly"? It seems to me that the first conception mankind ever had of God was a glorious vision, full of clarity and infused knowledge, that is unrivaled except by some of the holiest saints.
Well, Ratzinger wrote this stuff back in 73' and I haven't heard much on this by way of him since; for all I know, he may repudiate all this Teilhardian stuff. So don't accuse me of bashing "the Pope" or being a dissenter or anything; I can certainly voice my apprehensions about an essay written by Ratzinger twenty-five years before he ascended to the Chair of Peter. It bothers me that, when faced with dilemmas about reconciling evolution and creation, the tendency seems to be to grant more and more ground to evolutionary biology and relegate the creation story more and more to the realm of allegory, until it is, as Tolkien said, "tucked into a lumber-room of their mind as not very fashionable furniture, a bit ashamed to have it about the house, don't you know, when the bright clever young people called" (see here). If we are finding out, as Ratzinger did, that the concessions allowed by Pius XII in Humani Generis are too dualistic for Catholics to be comfortable with, then why not just go back to something more traditional instead of going further ahead into modernist evolutionary-theological hypotheses about "emergent spirit" "omega points" and the "Rubicon of anthropogenesis"? I don't know...I'm sure some will just say that I'm not a theologian and that I shouldn't try to apply my mind to these things. I don't deny that I am not a theologian. But like I said, I know when something stinks, and if I want to have a conversation about Creation and someone starts talking Teilhard, I definitely start to smell something.