Ahead of His Time

Author: John Monczunski

A Notre Dame Priest/Scientist Embraced Evolution

Notre Dame’s legendary priest-scientist Father John Zahm, CSC, was the first prominent U.S. Catholic scholar to embrace evolution publicly. He popularized the theory in his writing and on the lecture circuit, which attracted large crowds wherever he spoke.

Unfortunately, Zahm was slightly ahead of his time. His 1896 book_ Evolution and Dogma_, in which he argued that evolution was compatible with Catholic doctrine, didn’t sit well with the Vatican at the time. Among their objections, curial officials worried that Zahm had reduced the story of Adam and Eve to a myth which cast doubt on Scripture. They also were upset by his suggestion that the saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were evolutionists. The Congregation of the Index threatened Zahm with public condemnation of his book unless he recanted and withdrew it from publication. The Holy Cross priest complied out of obedience and never again commented publicly on the theory. However, Zahm was eventually vindicated, as he privately predicted he would be, when Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical Humani generis in 1950.

While Pius didn’t endorse evolution outright, he signaled guarded openness to the theory, proclaiming “the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that . . . research and discussions take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter.”

John Paul II further amplified papal teaching on evolution with his 1996 message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was holding a meeting on the origin of life and evolution. The pope observed, “[F]resh knowledge [since Humani generis has led to the recognition that evolution is more than a hypothesis.” He went on to say, “It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge.” While cautioning against “materialist, reductionist and spiritualist” interpretations of Darwin, the pope concluded that the convergence of independent work “is in itself a significant argument in favor of [evolution].”