Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 93 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program May 2001


by Brian W. Harrison

In recent years the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the ‘Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office’, has made available for bona fide scholarly research its archives up to the end of the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903. This represents a marked innovation in Vatican policy. Indeed, it is the first time in the centuries-long history of the Holy Office that the traditional norm of strict secrecy has been relaxed with regard to any of these documents. Now, at least in regard to the pre-20th-century material, this vast storehouse of intense theological reflection and disputation, involving some of the Church’s finest minds, is being unveiled, so to speak, and will doubtless prove to be of great value for a deeper understanding of the history of theology, and of the development of Catholic doctrine.

Not long ago I was able to avail myself of this new opportunity, becoming the first ‘outsider’ to inspect the files from the 1890s containing some of the initial evaluations of evolutionary theory by the Church’s teaching authority. It might be supposed, given the relative lack of interest in such matters on the part of recent theologians, that the doctrinal issues raised back then have all been settled peacefully over the period in which these documents were gathering the plentiful dust which greeted my respiratory system when they were finally roused from their century-long slumber and deposited on my table in the CDF reading room. In fact, these issues seem to me just as pertinent now as they were then — if not more so.

Shortly after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared in 1859, the first significant magisterial response on the part of the Successors of the Apostles was that of the German Catholic bishops, who, in their Provincial Council of Cologne (1860), condemned the idea of natural human evolution in no uncertain terms:

Our first parents were formed immediately by God. Therefore we declare that the opinion of those who do not fear to assert that this human being, man as regards his body, emerged finally from the spontaneous continuous change of imperfect nature to the more perfect, is clearly opposed to Sacred Scripture and to the Faith.1

In the next decades, no declarations were made on this subject by the Holy See, although Vatican Council I had on its agenda a reaffirmation of God’s special creation of the bodies of Adam and Eve, and probably would have promulgated this teaching had the Council not been cut short by the Franco-Prussian war. Nevertheless, Rome’s silence in response to Germany’s eloquence obviously signified her consent, since those bishops were simply repeating what the Church had always taught, and what was taught in all approved Catholic theology faculties at the time.

The hypothesis of human evolution attracted renewed attention in the Vatican when a letter dated June 20, 1894, from a French layman, M. Charles Chalmel, arrived at the Holy Office, submitting two questions, the first of which is prefaced by the following remarks, reproduced in the Acta of the Congregation:

A Dominican scholar, Fr. Léroy, a friend of Fr. Monsabré (who shares his opinions), has published a book, L’évolution restreinte aux espèces organiques, par le père Léroy dominicain. Now, in this work upholding the opinion of Darwin, the author affirms that in the Genesis narrative the only truths of orthodoxy are "the creation of the universe by God and the action of His providence; that the ‘how’ of creation is left to human investigation; that Moses’ narrative is ‘an old patriarchal song, . . . a tissue of metaphors’, and that science cannot take any account of the literal sense of Genesis".2

M. Chalmel’s first question is whether the Holy Office approved of this new interpretation of Genesis. His second question, curiously, is whether it is true that the 1632 [sic] Decree of the Holy Office against Galileo has been annulled.3  It was probably inevitable that the spectre of the Galileo case should rise once again in this context, now that the most important challenge to faith from the physical sciences in more than two and a half centuries was forcing itself upon the attention of Church authority.

The record of a Holy Office meeting three months later (September 19, 1894) notes that Fr. M. D. Léroy’s book has been evaluated by a consultor for the Congregation, Fr. Domenichelli.4  Perhaps surprisingly, this theologian concluded that the accused author’s novel views arrived at, but did not transgress, the limit of what Catholic orthodoxy could accommodate. Domenichelli’s appeal for tolerance toward Léroy includes the observation that the book appeared seven years earlier (in 1887): meanwhile, it has been "running round the world unimpeded; and the Church has so far remained silent". Indeed, the Holy Office consultor adds, similar de facto freedom has been accorded to other books still more daring than that of Fr. Léroy.5

But while, as a consequence of Fr. Domenichelli’s positive evaluation, the meeting that day refrained from placing Léroy’s work on the Index of Forbidden Books,6  the matter was by no means considered settled. The details of what transpired in the next few months are not recorded in the Acta of the Holy Office, but the Congregation’s authorities evidently wanted several other opinions before coming to a decision. As matters turned out, all three of these new consultors, whose opinions were recorded at the Congregation’s next meeting on January 21, 1895, expressed their decided opposition to Fr. Léroy’s evolutionist theology of human origins. One of them, Fr. E. Buonpensiere, O.P., was bluntly dismissive of his French Dominican confrère’s approach:

Fr. Léroy, . . . instead of combating the absurd opinion of evolutionist anthropologists with the dictates of Revelation, seeks to harmonize evolution with Sacred Scripture and Divine Tradition. . . Evolution, as all Catholic philosophers teach, stands resolutely condemned by the science of ontology as well as by empirical science.7

The former science, Buonpensiere explains, demonstrates that essences are unchangeable, while the latter shows that hybrids are sterile. "This providential law regarding hybrids," he asserts, "breaks through the ranks of all the evolutionist sophistries".8  Léroy’s views, therefore, are roundly condemned as "anti-Christian and anti-Catholic". Buonpensiere draws on St. Thomas’ teaching in ST Ia, Q. 91, a. 2, and Q. 92, a. 4, to the effect that Adam’s body could not have come about through any created power. He concludes that Léroy’s book should thus be either proscribed (placed on the Index) or suppressed.9  Another consultor, Bishop E. Fontana of Cremona, was equally unimpressed by Léroy: "I express the desire that the author be seriously warned and repressed in the intemperance and audacity of his thoughts, which will please evolutionists as well as atheists and materialists, but which cannot be accepted by true Catholics."10

By far the most substantial critique of Léroy, however, came from the Holy Office’s third new consultor, Fr. Luigi Tripepi, whose 54-page booklet, dated December 8, 1894, was also placed on the table at the Holy Office meeting six weeks later.11  Since the commentaries of Domenichelli and Tripepi contain the substantial briefs presented to the Holy Office judges for the ‘defence’ and ‘prosecution’ of Léroy’s thesis, it will be useful to summarize here the principal points of their respective cases.

The Defence: Fr. Domenichelli

Right from the beginning, Fr. Domenichelli’s argument signals the fact that he, as much as Léroy, is very conscious of the huge historic embarrassment for the Church that was occasioned by the Galileo case and its aftermath in subsequent centuries. He notes that the French theologian

hopes that the theory of evolution will have the same destiny as that of the Copernican or Galilean theory: he hopes, that is, that after having aroused the ire of believers, it will, after the dust has settled, be purified of every exaggeration on the one hand, and on the other hand, end in triumph.12

The desire to avoid another monumental conflict (or perceived conflict) between science and theology will, it would seem, be a key element in Domenichelli’s approach to evolution. He continues by noting (with implied approval) several of Léroy’s contentions: that the Church has so far condemned only atheistic evolution; that the Bible tells us nothing of the manner in which plants and animals were made; and that evolution is not contrary to Tradition, insofar as Augustine, with his idea of rationes seminales, comes quite close to evolution.13

In support of the view that the Church has not insisted on a literal interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, Domenichelli goes on to appeal to the authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, who expresses the opinion (in II Sent., dist. XII, 9, a. 11) that "Moses, instructing an unlettered people about the creation of the world, divides into parts those things that were really made simultaneously". Acknowledging that Ambrose and other authorities take the Genesis narrative more literally,14  Domenichelli calls to witness other Fathers whose writings on Genesis he thinks leave room for an evolutionary reading: Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, Book VI); Origen (De princ., Book 3, ch. 5); Athanasius (Opus sex dierum, Book I); Isidore (De Summo Bono, I, 8); Augustine (De Gen. ad litteram, IV, 52); Cassiodorus (Div. Inst., 1); Julius Africanus (Liber super Gen.); Hugh of St. Victor (De sacr. Christ. fid., I, 1); Chrysostom (Hom. X in cap. Gen. II); and many of the later scholastics.15

Domenichelli quotes a Franciscan theologian, P. Chrisman (De mundo, ch. II) who supports the "day-age" theory for the understanding of yom in Genesis 1, but admits that the literal interpretation is more common. He then concludes that, as regards Genesis 1, "One may hold, as a legitimate opinion in the Church, that in the Genesis cosmogony we find a metaphorical language wherein, as far the history of creation is concerned, there is no dogmatic content other than the fact of creation itself, in time and from nothing."16  Domenichelli accepts unquestioningly the long geological time-scale of "thousands of centuries", insisting, "Today, I repeat, any literal explanation of [Genesis 1] has become an absurdity". He sweepingly asserts the "absolute impossibility" of "concordist" exegesis — that is, trying to establish a "concord" or harmony between modern science and a literal reading of the Genesis hexameron.17  According to Domenichelli, a theologian as great as Cardinal Newman "showed himself well-disposed" to the new evolutionary theories,18  while many other respected Catholic authorities such as Msgr. d’Hulst and Msgr. Freppel claim that the immediate creation of the soul by God is the only de fide truth in regard to human origins.19

The weight of Catholic tradition, however, had insisted on a special intervention of God in the creation of Adam’s body, not just his soul. Here an ambiguity appears in Léroy’s position. He seems at first to be professing agreement with that tradition. But is his agreement more nominal than real? Domenichelli first quotes a more traditional-sounding passage from Léroy as follows: "Could we not sunder man in twain, attributing the higher part to the immediate action of God and allowing the lower part to be derived from animality? I reply immediately and without hesitation: No."20  Domenichelli notes that Léroy professes assent to the 1860 declaration by the German bishops at Cologne which we have cited above (and which Domenichelli says was "approved by Rome"): the French scholar finds "the poison" in the condemned proposition precisely in the words spontanea . . . immutatione ("spontaneous change"). A "spontaneous" change would be an exclusively natural process terminating in a human body, and Léroy denies the possibility of this, pointing out that no body is a human body except when informed by a human soul.21

In short, Léroy seems to be employing the theological distinction which has come to be known as that between "natural transformism" (condemned by Cologne) and "special transformism", an arguably orthodox version of evolutionary theory. According to the latter hypothesis, the kind of purely natural evolution postulated by Darwin could have taken place up to the hominid stage, but then a special divine intervention in a hominid body (or genetic material) would have been necessary for the production of a truly human body. Domenichelli and Léroy are agreed that "it is impossible, once we admit the divine origin of the soul, to allow that the human body, precisely as human, derives from animality".22

However the distinction between natural and special transformism seems to be blurred by Léroy, insofar as he theorizes that God did not intervene by acting directly and immediately upon the matter He was using independently of His infusion of a rational soul (as Genesis 2: 7 strongly suggests He did). Rather, according to Léroy, the human body was produced, as such, precisely by the one divine act of infusing a spiritual soul into what was until that moment non-human. Domenichelli quotes him as affirming: "It is by his in-breathing [of the soul] that the Creator has transformed clay into human flesh".23  On this account, the change from a non-human creature to the first human body would have been a purely metaphysical, not a physical, one — analogous to the change which takes place in the reverse direction at the moment of every human death: the body then ceases instantly to be a human body metaphysically speaking, even though all the physical characteristics of the corpse are still human, in the sense that they do not pertain to any other sub-human species.

Domenichelli admits he finds this aspect of Léroy’s theory problematical, insofar as it postulates "a natural evolution preparing clay or dust which is destined to become a human body by the infusion of a soul." He goes on: "The human organism could never have been the terminus of a natural evolution. ... Rightly, therefore did the Council of Cologne — cited by Fr. Léroy — condemn that opinion, which Scheeben (Dogmatica, Bk. III, n. 384) goes so far as to qualify as heretical"24.  Domenichelli also quotes another theologian, Riccardo, who likewise holds that it would be contrary to Gen. 2: 7, and therefore heretical, to postulate any natural cause by which a material body could become "sufficiently disposed to receive an intellective soul".25  In short, Domenichelli seems concerned that Léroy, while professing agreement with the Council of Cologne, is in effect only paying it lip-service, insofar as his theory postulates that natural, sub-human causes alone could produce an organism which would be apt or ready for the infusion of a spiritual, intellectual soul. In that case, this organism would already possess all the physical attributes of a true human being.

Domenichelli also admits, in regard to the statement in Gen. 2: 7 that God "formed man from the dust of the earth", that "an almost unanimous consensus of the Fathers, Doctors and Theologians has understood that phrase literally, and so as to exclude the cooperation of created forces". 26 It is true, he adds, that one also finds a strong contingent of authorities interpreting ch. 1 literally, "but here [i.e., in ch. 2], the consensus is much more complete, and is not broken by energetic and authoritative protests, as occurs in the case of ch. 1; on the contrary, here we have protests in favor of the literal interpretation."27

Nevertheless, Domenichelli notes that Aquinas, while teaching the "immediate" creation of Adam’s body by God, does not understand that concept in such a way as to exclude necessarily all active participation of creatures in the process; for he says (ST Ia, Q. 91, a.2 ad 1) that God could possibly have used angels for "some sort of ministry in the formation of the first human body".28  This prompts Domenichelli to speculate that this kind of "ministry" might also have been carried by an animal: "Once the angelic ministry is admitted, it seems we should not necessarily reject an animal ministry".29

Domenichelli’s 26-page evaluation of Léroy’s work (accompanying the minutes of the meeting) comes to the following conclusion: "It seems to me . . . that [arguing for] the evolution of an organism which God would then render human touches those limits beyond which boldness would turn into rashness, and so merit condemnation".30  He therefore recommends that Léroy’s book not be censured. Nevertheless, one is left wondering whether this benign conclusion is altogether compatible with the reservations Domenichelli has already expressed. As we have seen, he has quoted with approval other theologians who consider it heretical to maintain that natural causes alone could produce a human body, in the sense of a body already disposed or apt to receive a spiritual soul. But this is precisely what Léroy seems to be maintaining. We have seen that his conservative-sounding affirmation that natural, evolutionary causes would be insufficient to produce a "human" body depends on his giving a purely metaphysical understanding to the word "human". From an empirical, biological standpoint, the organic material into which God first infused a spiritual soul would, according to the logic of Léroy’s evolutionary hypothesis, have been already fully human, and so requiring by its very nature the spiritual soul which God then ‘breathed’ into it. Perhaps it was this uncertainty or ambiguity as to whether "human", in this context, is to be understood physically or only metaphysically, that persuaded Domenichelli to give Léroy the benefit of the doubt, instead of recommending the condemnation of his book.

The Prosecution: Fr. Tripepi

It may well have been this ambivalence in Fr. Domenichelli’s evaluation of the book that persuaded the Holy Office officials to seek three further opinions before coming to a decision. As we have noted, all these other submissions decided against Léroy, and the most substantial of them was that of Fr. Luigi Tripepi, who lost no time in coming to grips directly with the crucial question, which he poses as follows:

Could one ever explain [the origin of man’s body] by a transformation through natural processes and forces, . . . that is, by the natural evolution of an animal organism which reaches the point of requiring the infusion of a human soul — an infusion which results in the organism then becoming, truly and perfectly, a human body? Or rather, must it be admitted that the formation of the first man’s body, prior to God’s infusion of the soul, came about through the unique and immediate action of God, and that only thus can it be explained?31

Léroy, as we have seen, has answered affirmatively to the first question. Tripepi responds first of all that from a scientific standpoint, Léroy’s opinion is untenable because there are no facts that support evolution. Anticipating arguments that have surfaced again very forcefully a century later in regard to the total inadequacy of ‘chance mutations’ as the supposed driving mechanism behind evolution, Tripepi asserts that evolutionists "postulate means for [bringing about] such transformations that are totally insufficient and often ridiculous".32  He notes that the non-Catholic Professor Virchow of the University of Berlin has recently abandoned belief in evolution because of the absence of intermediary forms — ‘missing links’ — in the fossil record.33  (Once again, this objection sounds a very ‘modern’ note.) Moreover, Tripepi asks, if Adam’s body evolved, why should that have only happened once? Why should we not have to go further and accept polygenism? Indeed, he points out, the scientific advocates of evolution will see Léroy’s theory as illogical in reserving a space for the supernatural infusion of a rational soul in man: if lower beings derive their whole nature from lower forms, why should man be an exception? They will insist that a consistent evolutionary approach will require the materialistic view that the soul too evolved.34

Tripepi then turns from scientific to theological objections. Can human evolution be reconciled with revelation? He notes that theologians recognize that Adam’s body was not created ‘immediately’, in the sense of directly from nothing, they do teach that it was formed ‘immediately’ by God ‘from the clay of the earth’, and that the woman’s body was formed from his side. Thus, Catholic theologians,

on the basis of the authority of Sacred Scripture, understood according to the unanimous interpretation of the holy Fathers, respond with one voice that man’s body was formed by the direct and immediate action of God, distinct not only from the first creation of matter, but also from the concurrence which God, as first Cause, gives to the operation of secondary causes".35

All of the Fathers, says Fr. Tripepi, distinguish a three-fold action of God in the creation of man: (1) His creation of matter; (2) His formation of the body; and (3) His infusion of the soul. In this, they distinguish the formation of man from that of other creatures.36  As regards the appeal made by evolutionist theologians to Augustine’s well-known rationes seminales, Tripepi responds that the great doctor has in mind — at least as regards human origins — a merely obediential potency in primitive matter, and so insists that an immediate divine action was required in order to actualize that potency.37  That clearly has nothing in common with the modern evolutionary hypothesis regarding human origins. As regards Aquinas’ position on this issue, Tripepi cites his judgement in ST Ia, Q. 91, a. 2 to the effect that "The first formation of the human body could not have been accomplished by any created power, but immediately by God".38  What of that "ministry of angels", admitted as a possibility by Aquinas, to which Fr. Domenichelli appealed, as we have seen, as a basis for admitting the hypothesis of animal "ministers" in the formation of Adam? Fr. Tripepi points out that the Fathers commonly deny that any angelic ministry was used here. St Thomas indeed allows this as a possibility, but "he does not speak of any angelic ministry in the formation of the human organism itself, that is, in the organization and suitable disposition of that human material, but rather, of a local aggregation of the clay from which God formed the man’s body".39  This, Tripepi adds, is how Suarez explains St. Thomas (in De oper. sex dierum 1. 3. c.1, n. 15).

In short, the Holy Office consultor continues, all theologians until recently have taught that God is the unique efficient cause of the bodies of our first parents. Now, indeed, Léroy and several other Catholics such as Fabre, Gmeiner, Mivart40  and Zahm are saying the opposite. However:

. . . these few cannot diminish in any way the concord among theologians which until recently was full, solemn, uninterrupted and universal, in regard to this question. . . . [They] cannot carry weight in comparison with those in Rome who have carried out serious studies of the Fathers and of the great philosophers and theologians of the Church down through the centuries. Much less can they claim any authority in the face of the elevated wisdom of the Most Eminent Judges of the Roman Congregations".41

As regards the theological note to be ascribed to the traditional belief he is defending, Tripepi quotes Cardinal Camillo Mazzella (who had been a professor in Leo XIII’s Roman Seminary) to the effect that a doctrine can be de fide divina although not yet de fide catholica when it is clearly contained in Scripture, but has not so far been authentically proposed as such by the Church, to be believed by all.42  Tripepi clearly thinks that the immediate formation of Adam’s and Eve’s bodies by God falls into this category. He notes that Suarez (loc. cit., nos. 4 and 6) classifies this truth as "Catholic doctrine"; Perrone (De Deo Creatore, part 3, ch. 1, p.1) holds that it "pertains to the faith"; while Riccardo holds that the contrary opinion is heretical, insofar as it is opposed to Genesis. In any case, Tripepi adds, errors less grave than heresy cannot be embraced by the faithful: "Certainly, it is impossible to regard as safe (sicura) a proposition which is opposed to the unanimous consensus of the Fathers and Doctors". 43

Having thus appealed to the authority of Tradition, Tripepi goes on to add some exegetical comments of his own. The natural sense of Scripture, he insists, must be respected. Gen. 1: 26-27 does not mention any intermediary between God and the first man and woman; "indeed, such mediation is excluded; for He alone created the man whom he created in His own image and likeness".44  In Gen. 2: 7, Fr. Tripepi continues, there are clearly two actions of God specified:


. . . that is, He disposed the already-created clay of the earth in a form which was apt, or required, to be informed by the soul; then He "breathed in his face the breath of life". Moreover, it is said that only after the infusion of the soul did the body moulded from clay possess life: ". . . and man became a living soul". Thus, prior to that it had no life at all. Therefore, it could not have come about through evolution from any animal.45

Tripepi also notes other Old Testament texts which speak of man’s formation by God from the earth without a hint of any intermediary: Job 10: 8-9; 33: 4, 6; Sirach 17: 1, and Wisdom 7: 1.46  Significantly, he appeals to the "undisputed" immediate creation of Eve, which even Léroy admits cannot be given an evolutionary reading: this fact, he comments, "necessarily sheds new light on the formation of Adam as well".47  (Tripepi’s implication seems to be that it would be improbable that only the woman, and not the man as well, should be formed by the direct action of God.)

In response to the warning that the Church must learn from its sorry experience in the Galileo case, and so not risk being proved wrong by modern science, Tripepi replies that there is no significant parallel between that case and the question of evolution, because Galileo’s opinion had some support from earlier Fathers, Doctors, Popes and theologians, while this is not true in regard to Léroy’s evolutionist hypothesis of human origins.48  Tripepi also points out that the Congregation for the Index already prohibited back in 1878 another book sustaining precisely the same thesis as Léroy: this book, De’ nuovi studi della Filosofia, Discorsi by the Italian priest Caverni, was censured on the basis of an opinion written by Cardinal Zigliara.49  Indeed, Tripepi is clearly anxious for a public declaration against human evolution on the part of the Apostolic See. He refers to several other contemporary theologians who are sharply critical of Catholic evolutionists such as Léroy and Mivart, but who are waiting, he says, for the Church to pass judgment against such innovators. According to Tripepi, as long as the Roman Magisterium itself appears to be patient or benign towards these evolutionist novelties, the traditional theologians feel that they too should stop short of roundly condemning them. Nevertheless, he notes that not even the innovators are daring to suggest that Eve’s body, as well as Adam’s, was a product of evolution.50

Having dealt with the principal bone of contention in Léroy’s book — the alleged evolution of Adam — Tripepi spends a long section of his pamphlet (pp. 31-44) criticizing the French Dominican for accepting and teaching the evolution of lower species as well. He offers exegetical, patristic, and scientific argumentation in favor of the special creation of all ‘kinds’ by God, and concludes that evolutionary biology as such is not "in harmony with Genesis, taken in its most natural sense, nor with the morally unanimous judgment regarding Genesis itself which has been given to us by the Fathers and Doctors. Moreover, it is not supported by scientific evidence."51  Fr. Tripepi’s only concession to conventional scientific wisdom is his admission that yom — "day", in Genesis 1 — might possibly mean "an epoch, or indeterminate period of time, since that is an opinion sustained by some Fathers, some Doctors, and some theologians".52

In his peroration Tripepi appeals also to the sensus fidelium (which Cardinal John Henry Newman famously emphasised in his landmark essay, "On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine"): ordinary devout Catholics, Tripepi points out, are scandalized and incredulous at the notion that the human race is descended from ape-like ancestors; and this datum, he says, needs to be taken into account as one witness among others to the faith that has been handed down over the ages.53  He denounces the cowardice of too many contemporary Catholic scholars, who, by their excessive fear of what "science" has to say, manifest nothing but the weakness of their own faith.54  Nevertheless, Fr. Tripepi’s final recommendation is that Fr. Léroy should be treated with personal gentleness by the Holy Office, taking into his account his known piety, reputation, respectful attitude and good intentions.55

This recommendation was in fact followed by the Holy Office, whose Cardinals obviously found Tripepi’s ‘case for the prosecution’ more persuasive that Domenichelli’s somewhat hesitant defence of Fr. Léroy. The latter was called to Rome shortly after the January 1895 meeting of the Congregation, was advised that the doctrine expressed in his book was unacceptable, and was instructed to retract it and withdraw his book from circulation. It was then placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.56  Léroy obeyed with admirable docility and the Acta includes a cutting from the leading French newspaper Le Monde of March 4, 1895, publishing the Dominican priest’s own retraction, dated February 26. The relevant passage reads as follows: "I have learned today that my thesis, which has been examined here in Rome by the competent authority, has been judged unacceptable, above all in what concerns the human body, since it is incompatible with both the texts of Sacred Scripture and the principles of sound philosophy".

It can be noted as a ‘postscript’ that, several years later, a similar censure was imposed by the Holy Office against the book Evolution and Dogma, by J. A. Zahm, who argued along the same lines as Léroy. Zahm, an American professor at Notre Dame University, wrote a letter to the translator of the book dated May 31, 1899 (later published in Fortnightly Review, January 1900, p. 37), stating: "I have learned from unquestionable authority that the Holy See is adverse to the further distribution of Evolution and Dogma, and I therefore beg you to use all your influence to have the work withdrawn from sale".57

What specific conclusions can now be drawn from this study of some important Holy Office archives concerning the relation of evolutionary hypotheses to the Catholic faith?

1.Regarding human evolution. In the first place, we are in a position to correct a widespread popular perception about the history of the Church’s relations with science. It is commonly held that while the Vatican notoriously blundered in the seventeenth century by condemning Galileo and proscribing all works propagating the Copernican worldview, Rome ‘learned her lesson’ from having ‘burnt her fingers’ during that first great outburst of tension between traditional faith and modern scientific theories, and therefore ‘prudently’ abstained from intervening with similar condemnations the next time around, when evolution became the new bone of contention, even though many theologians were shrilly calling for Darwin’s head on a plate. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear statements to the effect that the Catholic Church "has never had a problem with evolution".

In fact, the record shows great similarities between the initial Vatican responses in both historic controversies. As Galileo was called in and rebuked by the Holy Office, so were Fr. Caverni and Fr. Léroy. As, in the seventeenth century, works defending the Copernican system were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, so, in the nineteenth, were works defending human evolution — by Caverni, Mivart, Léroy (and possibly others). The main difference seems to have been that, for whatever reason, these anti-Darwinian censures emanating from Rome never received nearly as much publicity as the Galileo case.

There was in fact a consistent, if relatively quiet, rejection of human evolution on the part of the See of Peter throughout the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Apart from the censures just mentioned, the Holy Office consultors Domenichelli and Tripepi both affirm that the anti-Darwinian decision of the German bishops at Cologne in 1860 was "approved" by Rome, and presumably this was the case (although this approval was apparently given little publicity and its documentation may well be still awaiting rediscovery in other archives of the Congregation). By the 1870s, Father (later Cardinal) Mazzella was teaching at the papal seminary in Rome: hence, the fact that his dogmatic theology text, which went through four editions before the end of the century, declares the immediate formation of Adam’s body by God to be a "most certain truth" derived from Revelation58  leaves no doubt as to what the Vatican-approved doctrine was at that time. Rome, it is true, did not exactly embark on a vigorous anti-evolution crusade, as did some Protestant denominations. No papal bulls or encyclicals thundered against the novel ideas; but neither did any such ‘heavyweight’ documents ever condemn Galileo or Copernicus. It is also true (as we saw Fr. Tripepi complain obliquely) that Rome remained silent about some Catholic authors who were propagating the same evolutionary hypotheses as Léroy. However, when specific works such as his landed on Holy Office desks, confronting the Congregation with the need to speak out for or against, the decision was invariably and unambiguously negative.

2. Regarding Sub-Human Evolution. In contrast to this firm initial opposition to human evolution, it is not clear that Rome was at any stage anxious to intervene in order to censure the hypothesis of biological evolution as such, that is, in reference to the lower, sub-human species. Certainly, there were not lacking theologians, such as Tripepi, who argued from Scripture and Tradition against every form of evolution, that is, in favor of the special creation of all organic species; but as early as 1860, the German bishops, in the Church’s initial magisterial intervention in the controversy provoked the previous year by the publication of The Origin of Species, limited themselves to condemning the hypothesis of a "spontaneous" (i.e., purely natural) evolution of the human body. And it seems that the Vatican felt it prudent to follow that lead. Certainly, no public magisterial statement emanating from Rome — whether from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Holy Office/CDF, or from a Successor of Peter — has ever up to the present time affirmed that the natural evolution of lower species is incompatible with divine revelation. Of course, if the ‘six days’ of Creation week are understood literally and historically, this obviously does rule out evolution in any shape or form. But the ‘long-ages’ geology of Lyell and other scientists predated Darwin’s book by several decades, and, by the last thirty to forty years of the nineteenth century, had become so established as a canon of scientific respectability that most Catholic theologians (including the conservative Fr. Tripepi), along with the Biblical Commission itself in 1909, felt constrained to admit a certain openness to the ‘day-age’ reading of the word yom ("day") in Genesis 1. (Late 20th- and 21st-century scientific arguments for a young earth were, of course, generally unknown a century ago.)

3.Regarding the reasons for opposing human evolution. With regard to the origin of the human body, the principal doctrinal point the Holy Office was insisting on against Léroy (and, it seems, against Caverni in 1878) was the reality of an immediate divine intervention by which the matter used by God became apt or disposed for the reception of a rational soul. In other words, Léroy’s view that the only divine intervention was God’s very act of infusing the soul was deemed unorthodox. Such a view was judged contrary to Genesis 2: 7, the historical character of which was clearly being upheld by the Holy Office. As Tripepi, its most influential consultor, insisted, not only does the natural sense of the text indicate two distinct (even if possibly simultaneous) divine actions — the formation from ‘clay’ of Adam’s body and the ‘breathing in’ of the life-giving soul — but an unbroken consensus of the Fathers, Doctors and approved theologians interpreted the text in that sense. Léroy’s thesis was also open to a philosophical objection: it implied that a purely material, biological process could produce matter that was apt for a spiritual soul; and this would not only be an effect out of all proportion to its causes, but would also seem to call in question the radical distinction between spirit and matter.

4.Non-condemnation of ‘special transformism’. Given the logic of its tolerant posture toward evolutionary theory as applied to the lower species, the Holy Office could not rule out a priori the possibility that natural evolutionary processes might have gone as far as producing hominid creatures whose bodily features approximated those of homo sapiens. The increasing insistence of contemporary secular science that such creatures were in fact man’s ancestors, confronted by the Church’s insistence that an immediate supernatural intervention for the formation of Adam’s body was divinely-taught truth, soon produced the compromise or ‘concordist’ hypothesis that came to be dubbed by Catholic theologians as ‘special transformism’: the idea that the matter upon which the Creator intervened was not inorganic or inert, but living: that is to say, it consisted of the uniting sperm and ovum of two hominids, which God would have miraculously ‘upgraded’ so as to render the resulting zygote apt for the infusion of a rational soul. This scenario was to be distinguished from the ‘natural transformism" postulated by the Darwinists and those Catholics strongly influenced by them, such as Fr. Léroy. ‘Special transformism’ had the seeming advantage of enabling Catholics to say that they could accept human evolution while still upholding the traditional doctrine of a special creation of man by God in both body and soul. This theory was never censured by the Holy Office, and while it has not been explicitly distinguished from natural transformism in 20th-century magisterial statements on evolution, it appears to be what Pope Pius XII had in mind in expressing a cautious and conditional openness, in Humani Generis, to the hypothesis that the human body was formed from "pre-existing living matter".

5. Regarding the first woman. It is noteworthy that no censure was even necessary, during this period, either of a polygenistic account of human origins or of the thesis that the body of the first woman was also a product of evolution. This is because no Catholic author, it seems, had yet dared advocate these theses, in opposition to truths which were so firmly established in Scripture and Tradition. We saw Fr. Tripepi observe that neither Fr. Léroy nor any other contemporary Catholic evolutionists, to the best of his knowledge, were going so far as to question the historicity of God’s miraculous formation of Eve from Adam’s side as he slept. This truth, after all, in the middle of the historical period under discussion, was reasserted by the Supreme Pontiff himself as an "undoubted" part of "the Church’s permanent doctrine" (Encyclical Arcanum, February 10, 1880, §5).

* * * * * * *

Finally, we might ask how relevant today are the Holy Office deliberations and decisions of over a century that we have considered in this paper. I would argue that the hitherto unknown Holy Office consultor Fr. Luigi Tripepi deserves full credit for his forthright refusal to be swayed by the siren-songs of Darwinism, and for his cogent defense of the rock-solid witness from Scripture and Tradition to the immediate divine origin of both Adam’s and Eve’s bodies. In the light of the much more substantial scientific evidence which is now available against evolution a hundred years later, this Vatican decision based on Tripepi’s recommendations seems more relevant and opportune than ever. Nor, it should be added, has this decision against ‘natural transformism’ as the explanation of human origins ever been reversed by any subsequent decision of the See of Peter. Pope Pius XII’s very qualified openness to human evolution in Humani Generis shows no signs of extending to any hypothesis more radical than that of ‘special transformism’, and Pope John Paul II’s principal statement on this issue, his 1996 allocution to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in its strictly doctrinal statements, manifests his intention simply to confirm what his predecessor had already said in 1950.

But will ‘special transformism’ itself stand up to scrutiny? Even supposing for the sake of argument that this hypothesis could be shown to be not intrinsically contrary to revealed truth, it seems to suffer from the fatal defect of being totally gratuitous: that is, there is no positive evidence whatever from either revelation or reason to suggest that it is true. Rather, it seems like a desperate attempt to mix together two radically different world-views that cannot blend in with each other any better than oil and water. Precisely because the ‘special transformism’ scenario postulates a miracle, in the sense of a physical event that is naturally inexplicable, no evolutionary scientist — whether theistic or atheistic — would ever accept it as having the slightest support from his own discipline. (Indeed, it is very arguable that the whole rationale for believing in evolution in any shape or form is, at bottom, the ‘naturalist’ philosophical premise that any appeal to miraculous divine interventions at any stage of the molecules-to-man process must be rigorously excluded.) But on the other hand, the kind of miracle being postulated in this case finds no more support from revelation than it does from science. Nothing in the Genesis account, or in any other source in Scripture or Tradition, suggests even remotely that God carried out any miracle involving the sperm and ovum of a pair of ape-like, semi-human creatures.

Perhaps, then, the wheel will eventually turn full circle, so that as evolution becomes increasingly discredited, the Catholic theology of the 21st century will return to a belief in the historical truth of that natural and traditional reading of Genesis which Fr. Luigi Tripepi and the Holy Office defended in the 19th century: the direct, immediate formation by God of the first man’s body from non-living, inorganic matter.


1. "Primi parentes a Deo immediate conditi sunt. Itaque Scripturæ sanctæ fideique plane adversantem illorum declaramus sententiam, qui asserere non verentur, spontanea naturæ imperfectioris in perfectiorem continuo ultimoque humanam hanc immutatione hominem, si corpus quidem species, prodidisse" (Tit. IV, c. 14). The original Latin text is cited in E. C. Messenger, Evolution and Theology (New York: Macmillan, 1932, p. 226, n. 1). However the above English translation, which seems to me more accurate than Messenger’s, is that found in Patrick O’Connell, Science of Today and the Problems of Genesis (2nd. edition of 1968, reprinted by TAN Books [Rockford, Illinois, 1993], p. 187). (By the inclusion of the word "spontaneous," this judgment against evolution stops short of condemning the hypothesis of ‘special transformism’.)
2. This information is found in the Holy Office archive Acta Congregationis ab anno 1894 ad annum 1896, recorded by the Secretary, Rev. Fr. Cicognani, IIa; 132; p.71. (The translation from the French original is by the present writer.)
3. Ibid. The Decree in question was actually issued in 1633.
4. Ibid., p. 82.
5. Ibid., pp. 25-26. This and all subsequent citations in this article have been translated by the present writer. The originals are in Italian except where otherwise stated.
6. Ibid., p. 90.
7. Acta, op. cit., p. 118.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Op. cit., p. 123, IVa.
11. Tripepi’s privately printed opusculum, included in the file with the Acta, simply bears the title of Léroy’s book, and takes the form of a letter addressed to the Cardinals of the Congregation: "Most Eminent Fathers, . . . ".
12. Domenichelli, p. 3.
13. Cf. ibid., pp. 5-6.
14. Cf. ibid., p. 8.
15. Cf. ibid., pp. 10-11.
16. Ibid., p. 12.
17. Cf. ibid., p. 13.
18. Cf. ibid., p. 15.
19. Cf. ibid., pp. 15-16.
20. Cited, ibid., p. 19 (Translated from French original, at Léroy’s p. 256, cited by Domenichelli).
21. Cf. ibid., pp. 20-21. Domenichelli goes on to note (p. 23) that the purely natural theory of human evolution condemned at Cologne was also qualified as "heretical" by the great German theologian Matthias Scheeben (in Dogmatica, Book III, n. 384).
22. Ibid., p. 21.
23. "C’est par son insufflation que le Createur a trasformé le limon en chair humaine", cited from Léroy’s p. 261 by Domenichelli, op, cit., p. 21.
24. Ibid., pp. 22-23.
25. Ibid., p. 24.
26. Ibid., p. 23.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., p. 25. St. Thomas’ affirmation of an "immediate" formation of the human body, in order to be compatible with his admission of this possibility of an angelic "ministry", must be understood to mean that such formation was beyond the intrinsic or proper capacity of any created power. Thus, Aquinas would appear to mean that although no angel by its own power could form the first human body, an angel might have been an instrumental "minister" whereby the divine power produced that effect. In the same way, one could say that even when God uses a saint as his "minister" to work a miracle, that is still an "immediate" action of God, in contrast to "mediate" actions in which the intrinsic powers of God’s creatures produce their natural effects, according to His will.
29. Ibid.
30. Domenichelli, p. 25.
31. Tripepi, op. cit., p.2.
32. Ibid., p. 8.
33. Cf. ibid., p. 9.
34. Cf. ibid., p. 10.
35. Ibid., p. 11. Here Tripepi refers to the authority of Cardinal Camillo Mazzella, a noted Roman theologian of the late 19th century.
36. Cf. ibid., pp. 21-22.
37. Cf. ibid., p. 23.
38. Ibid., p. 25.
39. Ibid., p. 12.
40. St. George Mivart, a lay British biology professor, was, it seems, the first Catholic scholar ever to attempt a reconciliation between human evolution and the faith of his Church. His books The Genesis of Species (London, 1871) and Lessons From Nature (London, 1876) were placed by the Vatican on the Index of Forbidden Books (cf. V. Zubizarreta, Theologia Dogmatica Scholastica, Vol. II [Bilbao: Eléxpura, 1926], p. 479, n. 5).
41. Ibid., p. 14.
42. Cf. ibid., p. 15.
43. Cf. ibid., pp. 15-16.
44. Ibid., p. 17.
45. Ibid., p. 18.
46. Cf. ibid., p. 19.
47. Ibid., p. 20.
48. Cf. ibid., p. 26.
49. Cf. ibid., p. 27.
50. Cf. ibid., pp. 29-31.
51. Ibid., p. 44.
52. Ibid.
53. Cf. ibid., pp. 50-51.
54. Cf. ibid., pp. 52-53.
55. Cf. ibid., p. 54.
56. Cf. Zubizarreta, op. cit., (see note 40 above), p. 479, note 6.
57. Cited in G. Van Noort, De Deo Creatore, 2nd edn. (Amsterdam: Van Langenhuysen, 1912), pp. 114-115, note 1).
58. Cf. C. Mazzella, De Deo Creante, 4th edn. (Rome: Forzani, 1896): "Primi parentes, prout ex divina revelatione constat, non modo quoad animam, sed etiam quoad corpus, immediate a Deo conditi sunt. . . . Quam certissimam veritatem frustra evertere aut infirmare nituntur qui nunc audiant Transformistæ" (pp. 353-354, emphasis added).

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