No Forgiveness for Darwin

(Homily for Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B)

Bottom line: Darwin's "Descent of Man" (not "Origin of Species") eliminates blame, but also removes accountability: thus, no sin and no forgiveness.

This year - 2009 - you will hear a lot about Charles Darwin and his book "The Origin of Species." He published it 150 years ago - on November 24, 1859. How should we as Christians (and specifically as Catholics) participate in this commemoration? For what it is worth, I will give my opinion. A few years ago, I sat down and read "The Origin of Species." I enjoyed Darwin's elegant use of the English language and I could understand why it received a broad and enthusiastic reception - including from leading Christians. Catholics in particular had no great problem with the book. After all, St. Thomas Aquinas had observed that God did not necessarily create all species simultaneously. As the Angelic Doctor explains, God could have created species over a period of time, using natural processes.* Because of the writings of St. Thomas and other great thinkers, Catholics in general did not react hostilely to "The Origin of Species."

The real problem came twelve years later when Darwin published "The Descent of Man." In that book he applied the concept of natural selection way beyond biology; he used it to explain abstract things such as conscience and morality.** Critics considered that he exaggerated the capabilities of higher primates and unfairly placed some races into inferior subgroups - in order to justify his view that humans gradually evolved from lower animals. While Darwin himself avoided controversies, many of his followers were only too willing to spell out the implications of his theories: That there is no essential difference between humans and other animals; that - like them - instinct alone drives us and that we have no real control over our behavior.

There is much more one could say about this theory. My purpose this Sunday is not to resolve the controversy surrounding evolution. I will say this: If Darwin's "Descent of Man" is correct, Jesus' words to the paralytic have no meaning. Remember that he said, "Child, your sins are forgiven." If we are simply a bit more complex animal, there is no such thing as sin. And rather than speaking about forgiveness, the best we can say is, "Don't blame yourself."*** One of the attractions of Darwin's theory is that it offers humans with the same "acceptance" we give to animals. For example, I don't blame my dog. I re-program him - or at least I try.

But there is the rub. If my dog runs loose and scares or - God forbid - harms someone, no one blames Sam. But they do blame me. And rightly so. I have a responsibility, an accountability that my dog or any other animal could never have. None of the people who talk about animal rights suggest corresponding responsibilities. They might want an ape to have access to legal defense, but so far no one has proposed bringing gorillas to trial for their misbehavior. Our economic stimulus plan has money for just about everything, but it contains no funds to build little jails for cats who wantonly attack smaller creatures.

As G.K. Chesterton said, there is a "division and disproportion" between us and other animals. For one thing, we have an accountability - a Stewardship - that we can never place on them. While Darwin's theory seems attractive because it apparently frees us from blame and guilt, it has a terrible downside.**** The person who takes his theory about man to its logical consequences, has closed his ears to the beautiful words, "Child, your sins are forgiven."


*See: Commentary on Sentences, Discussion of Days of Creation, article 2: Are all things created simultaneously, distinct in their species? (Answer: "Nature imitates the activity of the creator, but in natural activity there is a process from the imperfect to the perfect...scripture must be explained in such a way that infidels cannot mock, and this opinion is more pleasing to me.") It takes no great leap of faith to move from "I believe God creator of all things visible and invisible" to a recognition that He is responsible for the fundamental forces (electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force and gravitation) that led to formation of galaxies, the solar system, our planet and the emergence of life on it. Of course, creation involves more than getting the ball rolling - God is active every step along the way.

**That Darwin ventured beyond biology or any hard science can be seen in sentences such as this:

"Ultimately our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit."

Then he immediately admits that conscience and morality often go against the instincts for survival and reproduction: "It must not be forgotten that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another." (Descent of Man, Chapter V) As that sentence indicates, the potency of the theory comes from its elasticity. You can fit anything into the theory of evolution - even evidence to the contrary.

***Of course, there are times when we do have to say, "Don't blame yourself." St. Paul tells us that "godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (II Cor 7:10) It is wonderful to free someone from false guilt (worldly grief) but not by Darwin's way that brushes aside true guilt (godly grief). Darwin's way leads to hardening of heart, self-destruction and the destruction of others.

****In light of twentieth century history, some passages are chilling: "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked,16 will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla." (Descent of Man, Chapter 6)

I am not writing this to trash Darwin. Like many people he was better than his philosophy. As Benjamin Wiker observed, Darwin opposed slavery among human even though he wrote about the slave making instinct among lower animals such as ants. Wiker asks the logical question: If slave making is a natural instinct, on what basis did Darwin condemn slave making among humans?

General Intercessions for Seventh Ordinary Sunday (from Priests for Life)

Final Version (Darwin - Man of Contradictions)

Spanish Version

From the Archives:

Seventh Sunday, Year B, 2012: An Agressive Attempt to Deny Sin
2009: No Forgiveness for Darwin
2006: Forgiveness of Sins and Communion
2003: Who But God?
2000: Your Sins are Forgiven - Go Home

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C


(Best Practices in Parish Stewardship, Praying at West Seattle Planned Parenthood, Explanation regarding Married Man Ordained to Priesthood in Seattle)

Bulletin (Analysis of President Obama's statement: There's no god who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. - National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2009)


Two-Bit Collections

Preaching Schedule (revised)

SMV Bulletin

A Child Who Needs Your Help

(Mary Bloom Center in Peru, February 2012)

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