Monday, May 21, 2012

Cardinal Pell, Richard Dawkins, Adam & Eve

I have been reflecting on the now infamous debate between Cardinal Pell and Richard Dawkins that took place on April 9th, trying to find some positive spin to put on it, thinking that perhaps the reports were skewering the truth or that there was some fundamental misunderstanding of the Cardinal's words. But there wasn't, and there isn't any positive spin. It was a debacle. To put it frankly, Cardinal Pell has made Catholics look like idiots.

In case you may not know what I am referring to, Cardinal George Pell of Australia recently agreed to an online debate with famous atheist Richard Dawkins. Basically, Dawkins dominated the terms of the debate and kept Pell on the defensive. Pell, perhaps trying to sound sophisticated or philosophical, hemmed and hawed on several important points of Catholic doctrine; he stated that atheists could go to heaven (not atheists who convert, mind you, but atheists qua atheists), stated his adherence to Balthasar's doctrine that hell exists but is "probably" empty, and then, in the most discussed aspect of the evening's discussion, went on to explain that Adam and Eve were entirely mythological and affirmed his belief that mankind was the product of evolution.

Pell admitted that human beings "probably" evolved, which earned him a round of applause from the audience. At this point, Tony Jones, the moderator, asked a very reasonable question: "But you accept that humans evolved from non-humans, so at what point did the soul come about?”

Cardinal Pell responded: “The Soul is the principle of life. Whenever the soul was able to communicate then we had the first human. But if there are humans, there must be a first one.” By the way, this is essentially the position that Benedict XVI took when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote that "matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit...spirit is created and is not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development" in a 1973 essay on Creation (see here).

Jones: “Are you suggesting a sort of Garden of Eden scenario with an actual Adam and Eve?”

“Well Adam and Eve are terms that mean ‘life’ and ‘earth’. Like an Everyman. It’s a beautiful, sophisticated, mythological account. It’s not science. But it’s there to tell us two or three things. First of all that God created the world and universe. Secondly that the key to the whole universe is humans. And thirdly it’s a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world….It’s a religious story told for religious purposes.”

Now Richard Dawkins, who proved himself more astute than Pell in seeing the implications of Pell's denial of a historic Adam and Eve, retorted with this question: “Ah, well, I’m curious to know, if Adam and Eve never existed where did Original Sin come from?” It's painful to watch the Cardinal's sullen, silent expression after this question. He is unable to come up with any answer.

Dawkins is spot on here: No original parents, no original sin. No original sin, no explanation for sin in the world. No explanation for sin, no need for a savior. Christianity, apart from the reality of original sin, does not make any sense. It's a shame that Dawkins understands this better than the Cardinal. That is very troubling.

What is equally troubling is that the Cardinal does not seem aware of Pius XII's teaching in Humani Generis. In that encyclical, Pius XII specifically condemns the opinion known as polygenism, which is the belief that Adam "represents a number of first parents." The pope states:

"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 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" (HG, 37).

Notice that the very reason why Pius XII condemns this opinion is because of the objection that Dawkins brings up - original sin. Belief in original sin necessitates belief in first parents, and "a sin actually committed by an individual Adam," as Pius XII teaches. As much appalling as it is that an atheist understands the coherence of Catholic truths better than a Cardinal, I think it is even more appalling that the Cardinal either deviates from the clear teaching of Pius XII or else appears ignorant of it. I do not presume to judge the reason for the Cardinal's statements other than to say that they were unacceptable.

Some have come forward and tried to save original sin in spite of a denial of a historic Adam. For example, Michael Potemra of the National Review made the following argument:

"The fact of the existence of Original Sin does not depend on the historical existence of Adam and Eve. To say that it does seems to me the equivalent of declaring that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow was not, in fact, responsible for the Great Chicago Fire, then the Great Chicago Fire must not have happened at all. Original Sin is a fundamental choice in which man declares his prideful rebellion against God, and we see that choice in our own hearts" (source).

The problem with this thinking is that Potemra is stating that original sin is basically the existence of sinful tendencies within every man in the present without any account for its origin. Let's follow Mr. Potemra's line of thinking here - so, we need not have an historic Adam because the sinful desires we have in our own hearts prove original sin. Okay, so, where do these sinful desires come from then? Potemra has already ruled out a historic Adam who introduced sin into humanity. What is the genesis of sin, then?

Presumably, the only answer is that Original Sin is "part of human nature", something inherent in every human being and that we all experience intimately in our own hearts. I think this is what Potemra is getting at. Unfortunately, it is not theologically viable explanation. Despite the common parlance that sin and evil are "part of human nature", Christianity tells us that, no, they are not part of our nature. Our nature was created in a state of harmony with God, in a state of natural perfection. Sin was not part of man's nature. To say otherwise is to say that God created sin, and to say that man's current state is the one God envisions for him. This is untenable for a Christian.

One could say that the Chicago Fire can be accounted for without Mrs. O'Leary's cow, but one must admit that the Chicago Fire had some cause. To apply Potemra's logic to the Chicago Fire, we would have to say that we don't need to hypothesize a historical cause for the fire in the past because it is in the nature of cities to burn, and just because the present city is on fire does not mean that that fire had a historical origin. Utter nonsense. The presence of an effect in the present implies a cause in the past, and that cause if either God or man. And to say it is God would be the heresy of stating that God created evil and sin. We are left, therefore, with a first sin committed by man.

If our leaders are going to take the approach of trying to look sophisticated to impress atheists and secularists, they'd better just knock it off. The true tragedy of this was summed up in a great article in the Remnant:

"A few million viewers of the Pell-Dawkins debate walked away wondering since when have Catholics become so eager to debunk their own Scriptures and discard their own theology. Outright enemies of the Catholic Faith couldn’t invent more expedient ways to baffle (and thus alienate) non-believers than those the Modernist leaders of the Catholic Church have come up with all on their own."

This dialogue probably should not have happened; Cardinal Pell could have done more for the world and the Church had he spent that hour in Adoration praying for the conversion of poor sinners. It reminds me of a story I have referenced elsewhere in the life St. Louis IX. Apparently, a discussion panel had been set up by a local abbot between some rabbis and some monks to debate the Christian faith. After the rabbis said something amiss against Christ and the Virgin Mary, an knight watching the debate struck the rabbi. The abbot rebuked the knight, but the knight had an interesting retort:

"The abbot went up to the knight and told him he had acted most unwisely. The knight retorted that the abbot had been guilty of even greater folly in calling people together for such a conference, because there were many good Christians there who, before the discussion ended, would have gone away with doubts about their own religion through not fully understanding the Jews."

It is good to have dialogue for the purpose of defending our faith and giving an answer to the heathen. But if the result of the debate is going to be that Christians go away more confused than before, then it becomes folly. Trying to present sophisticated, modern interpretations of the Faith that explain away or mythologize the Scriptures do not help Catholics strengthen their faith; it simply confuses them and makes us look like idiots.

Knock it off, Cardinal Pell!


Alan Aversa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

Lay evangelists and apologists like Mark Shea and Dave Armstrong also believe in this nonsense as well. One the reasons they believe in this foolishness is due to people like Cdl. Pell who try to be 'modern' or 'sophisticated'. In Armstrong's case, it was Fr. John Hardon, who apparently believed in theistic evolution, so DA believed in it. Armstrong calls anyone who believes in special creation a 'fundamentalist', implying that any Catholic who believe in special creation is a conservative Protestant. Well, as far as I know, nearly everyone of the Church Fathers believed in a six day creation period that left no room for evolution, so they must have been 'fundamentalists'.

BONIFACE said...


Are you trying to goad DA into showing up here and debating about it, LOL? I have noticed that mentioning DA's name in any combox inevitably conjures him up - we call it "getting Armstronged."

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

Actually Boni, you have to say, Dave Armstrong three times in a row to get him to appear! ROTFL!

BONIFACE said...

In front of a mirror in a dark room?

BONIFACE said...

Dave Armstrong
Dave Armstrong
Dave Armstrong

J. said...

While I certainly think that anyone insisting on a young-earth interpretation of the creation account will be fighting an uphill battle against many strong scientific findings, it can't be denied that Original Sin and the descent of all men from one man are tightly linked. I expect His Eminence has been influenced by Teilhard de Chardin's postulations about how far one must bend over in order to fold doctrine into scientific findings, either directly from Teilhard or through the prevailing theological atmosphere.

Pius XII was right that it is in no way apparent how polygenism can be reconciled with the dogma of Original Sin, and all the attempts to do so over the last sixty-two years have led to nothing but dead ends. There's a strange attitude among today's churchmen that "of course" all of modern science is correct, with the further implication that we'll sort out how it all fits together somewhere down the line. I think it should be clear that the line has led to nowhere, and the only way to reconcile science with religion on this point is to force science into a posture of humility.

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

I forgot about being in front of a mirror in a dark room! Double ROTFL!

Affe said...

I understand the temptation of believing something like this, for people like Dave Armstrong or Mark Shea, while ignoring the theological difficulties it creates. For some reason it is easier to do that than to ignore apparent contradictions with modern scientific findings. Refusing to do the latter and not having a strong enough faith to be fully able to do the former has left me in a sort of floating state of insecurity and confusion, not being able to set my feet down anywhere.

Steve "scotju" Dalton said...

Boniface, DA hasn't shown up yet. He must be denoncing a critic on someother blog. LOL!

Alan Aversa said...

Ludwig Ott summarizes the Decisions of the Bible Commission (30/6/1909) in his Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (my emphasis):

a) The first three Chapters of Genesis contain narratives of real events (rerum vere gestarum narrationes quae scilicet obiectivae realitati et historicae veritati respondeant), no myths, no mere allegories or symbols of religious truths, no legends. D 2122.

b) In regard to those facts, which touch the foundations of the Christian religion (quae christianae religionis fundamenta attingunt), the literal historical sense is to be adhered to. Such facts are, inter alia, the creation of all things by God in the beginning of time, and the special creation of humanity. D 2123.

c) It is not necessary to understand all individual words and sentences in the literal sense (sensu proprio). Passages which are variously interpreted by the Fathers and by theologians, may be interpreted according to one’s own judgment with the reservation, however, that one submits one’s judgment to the decision of the Church, and to the dictates of the Faith. D 2124 et seq.

d) As the Sacred Writer had not the intention of representing with scientific accuracy the intrinsic constitution of things, and the sequence of the works of creation but of communicating knowledge in a popular way suitable to the idiom and to the pre-scientific development of his time, the account is not to be regarded or measured as if it were couched in language which is strictly scientific (proprietas scientifici sermonis). D 2127.

e) The word “day” need not be taken in the literal sense of a natural day of 24 hours, but can also be understood in the improper sense of a longer space of time. D 2128. Cf. the whole letter of the Secretary of the Bible Commission to Cardinal Suhard, dated 16th January, 1948 (D 3002).

It appears Fr. Barron and Card. Pell try to emphasize point (d) to the detriment of (a) and (b).

Alan Aversa said...

"Tony Jones, the moderator, asked a very reasonable question: 'But you accept that humans evolved from non-humans, so at what point did the soul come about?'"

Card. Pell should've distinguished that question by saying that the human body could've evolved from non-humans. There's no such thing as a human without a soul or a non-human with a human soul because humans are, by definition, body-soul composites.

"Cardinal Pell responded: 'The Soul is the principle of life. Whenever the soul was able to communicate then we had the first human.'

I think he means that whenever the body was sufficiently developed for God to unite a human soul to it, "then we had the first human."

"'But if there are humans, there must be a first one.'"

This is a weak argument because it's held solely on faith that there was a first human.

"[T]his is essentially the position that Benedict XVI took when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he wrote that 'matter signifies a moment in the history of spirit...spirit is created and is not the mere product of development, even though it comes to light by way of development' in a 1973 essay on Creation"

Although God does not unite a human soul to improperly disposed matter (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 90 n. 1,4-5), does that mean the spirit depends upon or proceeds from matter?

BONIFACE said...


Regarding the soul being able to "communicate", Ratzinger says in the cited essay that the soul can be said to exist as soon as man is capable of understanding the concept of God. He does not say it evolves, but he says it emerges, as he takes the position of Pius XII (the soul being immediately created in a evolved body) as being too dualistic.

Dave Armstrong said...

I show up when I am lied about (something that Dalton seems particularly prone to, in cases of anything remotely involving me). He can't tell the truth about what I believe to save his life, even though he's been corrected time and again.

Lay evangelists and apologists like Mark Shea and Dave Armstrong also believe in this nonsense as well. One the reasons they believe in this foolishness is due to people like Cdl. Pell who try to be 'modern' or 'sophisticated'.

Is that so? The nonsense here is this statement, which is the exact opposite of the truth. Of course I believe in a literal Adam and Eve and original sin, etc., and have defended both for 21 years as a Catholic, and before that, as a Protestant. Fr. Hardon believed the same, and I have cited his words to that effect.

Hence I have posted on my site articles like the following:

Dr. Dennis Bonnette Debunks the Argument Against Adam and Eve from Molecular Biologists (April 2012)

Adam and Eve: Defense of Their Literal Existence as the Primal Human Couple, by Catholic Philosopher, Dr. Dennis Bonnette (July 2009)

Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah as Actual Historical Figures: the Biblical Evidence and Catholic Agreement With It (Feb. 2008)

I was recently involved in a huge stink on this very issue, when I criticized Fr. Robert Barron for seemingly denying a literal Adam:

Defending the Literal, Historical Adam of the Genesis Account (vs. Catholic Eric S. Giunta) (Sep. 2011)

Fr. Robert Barron Denies That Adam Was a "Literal Figure" (Sep. 2011) [631 Facebook shares]

The Biblical Evidence for Original Sin (Jan. 2006)

Dave Armstrong said...

Is it so difficult for Dalton to do a search on my site for Adam and Eve, or original sin? It takes all of, say four seconds? But that would be too fair and normal. He would rather lie and let loose with his usual vapid fictional and imaginary viewpoints that I supposedly hold.

I do searches to see what claptrap is being written about me precisely because of people like Dalton, who lie and distort things (about myself, and, no doubt, others) unashamedly and who refuse to contact the people they are lying about, so they can present another side of the story.

I happen to believe that truth, honesty, and fairness are highly important. It's important to set the record straight if it is falsely portrayed. I am a Catholic apologist after all, who defends and represents the faith to many thousands. It is my responsibility to get things right, or else I'll stand accountable to God.

In Armstrong's case, it was Fr. John Hardon, who apparently believed in theistic evolution, so DA believed in it.

First part true (I think); second part false. When I studied with Fr. Hardon I was an old-earth creationist, and remained so from 1980 or so up to 5-6 years ago when I became an agnostic on the issue. I remain as fierce of a critic of materialistic evolution as I ever was. I don't believe that scientific laws alone, as we currently understand them, can account for the diversity of biological life.

Armstrong calls anyone who believes in special creation a 'fundamentalist', implying that any Catholic who believe in special creation is a conservative Protestant.

Nope; I say that anyone who believes in a young earth is a fundamentalist, and reasoning in many ways like fundamentalist Protestants do. It's an anti-intellectual and anti-scientific viewpoint.

Well, as far as I know, nearly everyone of the Church Fathers believed in a six day creation period that left no room for evolution, so they must have been 'fundamentalists'.

St. Augustine was the one who said that "yom" ("day") was a word that could encompass much longer spans of time.

Johannes said...

Even though this thread is inactive, I'd like to record the following for the benefit of potential readers who would like to know of at least one specific way whereby Catholic doctrine on the subject can be reconciled with current science.

It is critical to understand clearly the scientific data items which are related to this issue. There are four such items.

Two items clearly support the case of historical Adam and Eve:

1. All living humans descend patrilineally from one most recent common ancestor or MRCA, "Y-chromosomal Adam".

2. All living humans descend matrilineally from one MRCA, "Mitochondrial Eve".

One item clearly plays against the case of historical Adam and Eve:

3. Genetic diversity shows that no human or pre-human population bottleneck ever was smaller than a few thousand individuals.

And the fourth item has been in a state of flux lately:

4. Up to March 2013, the estimated time of Mitochondrial Eve (177 or 205 kya) was earlier than that of Y-chromosomal Adam (142 kya). Then a study (Mendez et al 2013) reversed the situation by estimating 338 kya for Y-chr Adam. However, in April a new study (Sayres 2013) offered a plausible re-interpretation of the results of Mendez et al whereby Y-chr Adam would have lived 209 kya, in agreement with current estimation for mt Eve. The Sayres 2013 study is at:

The issue is: how can we accomodate data item 3 with a historical Adam? By at least two possible "concordant conceptual frameworks" or CCFs. CCF1, involving only natural processes at the biological level, works best in the pre-2013 situation of mt Eve (who in this case was not Biblical Eve) being earlier than Y-chr Adam (who was Biblical Adam). CCF2, involving a high degree of miraculous divine intervention at the biological level to provide genetic diversity to the germinal cells of Biblical Adam and Eve and the first n generations of their descendants, works best in the current situation regarding time estimations (as per Sayres 2013). Both CCFs are explained here:

Alan Aversa said...

Thanks for the interesting info, Johannes

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think this was a big farce and a set-up. In my opinion Cardinal Pell was invited because whom ever put this debate together knew that Dawkins would tear him to shreds. There are many other far better choices of people who would have argued Dawkins under the table. I've listened to Dawkins before and a lot of the arguments he makes are very loose and easily refuted. Just as the argument for evolution is an example of biased and sloppy scientific method. There is more credible concrete evidence that we were created by someone or something of superior intelligence then there is concrete and credible evidence to support that we evolved from a primordial soup. Next time hopefully they get someone of true faith and intelligence to go up against Dawkins.