Evolutionary Creation

by Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP

Since the beginning, when the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, the Catholic faith has affirmed that God is Creator and that He freely created the universe.

What does it mean to say that God is creator?

The Catechism of the Council of Trent published in 1566 explains creation this way: “For God formed the world not from materials of any sort, but created it from nothing, and that not by constraint or necessity, but spontaneously, and of His own free will. Nor was He impelled to create by any other cause than a desire to communicate His goodness to creatures.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church published in 1992 echoes this perennial teaching: “We believe that God needs no pre-existent thing or any help in order to create, nor is creation any sort of necessary emanation from the divine substance. God creates freely ‘out of nothing’” (§296).

Properly speaking, therefore, to create means to make from nothing, and only God can create in this way.

Importantly, this act of creation was not simply an act at the beginning of time. It continues today for God has to create at every moment lest the creatures He has created fall back into nothingness.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent: “We are not, however, to understand that God is in such wise the Creator and Maker of all things that His works, when once created and finished, could thereafter continue to exist unsupported by His omnipotence. For as all things derive existence from the Creator’s supreme power, wisdom, and goodness, so unless preserved continually by His Providence, and by the same power which produced them, they would instantly return into their nothingness.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates the same truth this way: “With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence” (§301).

Creation occurred in the past, it continues in the present, and it will last until the end of time.

Why did God create? As we saw above, for the Catechism of the Council of Trent, God created to communicate His goodness to creatures. This communication of goodness is what happens when an artist paints a painting. The painting is good because the artist has shared some of his goodness with the ink on the canvas. He has given the painting something of himself. Creation is good because God shared some of His goodness with everything that He had made (cf. Gen. 1:31).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this teaching by noting that God created because He wanted to invite His creatures to share in His being, wisdom, and goodness: “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. […] We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness” (§295).

In sharing His goodness, God reveals His glory: “The glory of God consists in the realization of this manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created. God made us ‘to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace’.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §294)

These are the foundational truths of the Catholic faith and every authentic Catholic account of creation has to include these truths. But how exactly did God create? This has not been defined by the Catholic Church. That God created is an article of faith. How He created is not.

In this essay, I would like to propose that the best explanation that we have today for how God created and continues to create is that God created through evolution. This is the view we are calling evolutionary creation. I will argue that He chose to do it this way because evolutionary creation better reveals His glory than other rival accounts including an account that focuses on special creation. To make this argument, I will rely heavily on the philosophical and theological wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., the great Doctor of the Church who lived in the thirteenth century, while also bringing it into conversation with modern science.

To grasp the explanatory power of evolutionary creation, we first need to understand how God acts because creation is an act of God. And to understand how God acts, we have to understand the difference between a primary cause and an instrumental cause.

Consider the example of an author writing a thank you note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Clearly the author wrote the note, but in a sense, the pen “wrote” the note too. Both of them wrote the note. Philosophically speaking we can distinguish the author and the pen because they play different roles in the writing of the note. We would say that the author is the primary cause of the thank you note, while the pen is an instrumental cause. Both worked together – both cooperated with each other – in order to realize the writing of the note.

Clearly, God could have created everything in the world Himself. In fact, He could have done everything Himself. And yet, when we look at both the history of creation and the history of salvation, we discover that God has preferred to act through His creatures. He enjoys using instrumental causes! He generates infants through their parents. He heals the sick through their doctors. He forgives sinners through His priests. Indeed the sacramental system established by the Lord Jesus is suffused with instrumental causes. Here God chooses to use water, bread, wine, oil, and ordinary, sinful men, to communicate His power and His grace.

Most profoundly of course, God chose to save His people through a human nature that He had created. The mystery of the incarnation – the mystery of Jesus – is a mystery that reveals God’s preference for instrumental causality over primary causality in the unfolding of salvation history.  God could have saved His people directly, but He chose to save them through a human nature that allowed Him to die and to rise from the dead.

Why does God do this? Why does He prefer to work with and through His creatures rather than without them? St. Thomas explained that God’s use of instrumental causes allows God to give His creatures a share of His causality. And in doing this, He reveals His power (cf. Summa theologiae I.103.6).

To understand this claim of St. Thomas, consider two teachers who are working with a student who is struggling with a calculus exam. One teacher simply completes the questions for the student. He acts directly on the exam. He writes down the answers. He is a primary cause. The other teacher teaches the student enough calculus so that the student can complete the exam himself. Instead of acting directly, this teacher makes his student an instrumental cause. He answers the exam with and through his student.

Who is the better teacher? Clearly, the second teacher. He is better because he was able to share his knowledge of calculus in a way that made the student a knower of calculus himself.

In the end, as this example of teachers illustrates, it is more difficult to act through an instrumental cause than it is to act directly as a primary cause. Someone who can do the first is more powerful than someone who can only do the second. In acting through His creatures, God gives them a share of His causality. And in doing this, He reveals His power.

Similarly, I want to propose that God chose to create through evolution because He wanted to reveal His power and His glory through the use of instrumental causes.

Thus, the history of creation is a tapestry of God’s actions working both as a primary cause and through instrumental causes. Whenever the circumstances require it, He acts as a primary cause, but whenever it is possible and fitting, He acts through His creatures.

What does this tapestry of creation show?

Human reason aided by scientific inquiry has revealed that God created all the energy in the universe at a single moment 13.8 billion years ago (bya). At this moment, which we now call the Big Bang, all the energy of the universe was concentrated in an extremely hot and extremely dense point called a singularity.

Within a fraction of a second, however, God expanded this primitive universe by an incredibly large factor, usually estimated at 1078. Cosmologists call this expansion the cosmic inflation of the universe. About a minute after the Big Bang, God formed the earliest atoms of the lightest chemical elements, which we call hydrogen, helium, and lithium, using a process that astrophysicists call primordial nucleosynthesis. The universe continued to expand and to cool.

Over a long period of time, God used the force of gravity to form gas clouds, stars, and galaxies. The first stars appeared about 100 million years after the Big Bang. Within the core of these early stars, God created the remainder of the chemical elements using a process involving nuclear fusion, neutron capture, and proton capture. These heavier chemical elements were distributed throughout the cosmos once these stars exploded as supernovae. This began the cosmic chemical enrichment that led to the formation of the stars that we see in the Milky Way today, with solar systems of rocky planets orbiting them.

God created our solar system, once again using the force of gravity as an instrumental cause, about 4.5 bya. At that time, the solar system was just a cloud of dust and gas known as a solar nebula. As this cloud began to spin, gravity collapsed the material in on itself forming the Sun at its center.

With the appearance of the Sun, the remaining dust and gas began to aggregate and to clump together. God used the solar wind from the new star to sweep away the lighter elements such as hydrogen and helium from the closer regions surrounding the Sun leaving only heavy, rocky materials to form the terrestrial worlds, including our own planet, Earth. Farther away, the solar wind had less impact on the lighter elements allowing them to form into the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn.

Here on Earth, life began about 3.5 bya. It is still not clear if God created life as a primary cause or with the instrumental causality of His creatures. All our current theories for how life could have appeared from non-life remain highly speculative so it is not clear how God accomplished this critical act of creation.

I should point out that there are Catholic philosophers who believe that abiogenesis – the process of life coming from non-life – requires that God act as a primary cause. It mandates an act of special creation. However, St. Thomas Aquinas would not have agreed with them. Like the Aristotelians who went before him, he thought, not only that spontaneous generation occurred so that maggots could appear from decaying meat, but also that this transformation from non-living matter to living matter could occur naturally without divine intervention.

Regardless of how God created life on the Earth, whether directly as a primary cause or indirectly with instrumental causes, we know that the earliest forms of life have evolved over the many hundreds of millions of years to generate the diversity of living forms that have paraded across the stage of life on our planet.

Biologists estimate that there are around nine million species of living things on our planet today but they only represent a fraction of the total number of species that have ever existed. Clearly, God has created countless different life forms that have revealed His glory over many billions of years.

In the next essay of this series, I will present a summary of the evidence for evolution, especially in the fossil record, and explain how God guided this evolutionary process of creation over the eons to bring it to its fulfillment in Christ.