Expert Answer Forum

Science QUESTION from Dave March 12, 2000 Question 1:
Beyond the belief that God created everything, does the Church have any scientific, infallible knowledge regarding the physical universe and its history?
For example: the Bible doesn't seem to support the notion that the earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. The Bible doesn't seem to support Darwinian evolution. Heck, the Bible doesn't even seem to support heliocentricism or a round earth! Saints back in the old days asserted that all disease is caused by evil, rather than germs and genetics. (Are bacteria evil?)
Question 2:
My friend, a former Protestant and current Catholic, insists that the Bible is 100% ture, but incomplete. When reading the Bible, should I insert miracles as needed to make things remotely plausible?
For example: How did approximately 15,000 species fit on a wooden ark? How did they all get to the ark? How did they all survive in the same area? What did the carnivores eat? How did Noah and company manage to exercise all the animals? How did they shovel out so many tons of dung per day? Etc, etc...
Question 3:
Recently, the Pope acknowledged that the theory of evolution may well be largely true. To many people, this would mean a reinterpretation of Genesis. Can the Church tell me infallibly that the flood and ark story in the bible is literally true?
Thanks, Dave
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on March 16, 2000 Dear Dave
I will take your questions one by one.
Beyond the belief that God created everything, does the Church have any scientific, infallible knowledge regarding the physical universe and its history?
The Church does not attempt to teach about science per se. Rather, the Church presents teachings on philosophy and Revelation which have implications on our knowledge of the natural world.
For instance, the Church teaches that the human soul was directly created by God, and that the human race descends from one man and one woman. These doctrines were not created in an effort to describe the natural world, but to shed light on the Truth of our supernatural origin. What does this imply for the natural science? It means it is untenable for a Catholic to believe that the soul of a human being could have evolved from a lower life form. It's impossible. It is also untenable to believe that there may be more than one pair of humans from whom all humans today derive their genetic traits.
It would be far beyond the scope of this forum to list every single doctrine which affects our knowledge of the material world. I simply recommend perusing the Catholic Catechism for related topics. There are quite a number of them. And this not only goes for natural sciences, but also for social sciences. The way in which we view human behaviour cannot be separated from what we know about the divinely established social order.
The Bible is not intended to be a textbook on science. Whatever interpretations one derives from it should concord to all knowledge, both natural and supernatural. The author's perspective on what is being written must be taken into account. The people who penned the Bible obviously did not possess the knowledge of science that we do. Passages which seem to contradict science must be evaluated in the light of doctrine, Sacred Tradition, and philosophy. If an interpretation can be derived which does not contradict Catholic beliefs, it can be entertained as a possibility, always with the proviso that the Magisterium, i.e., the teaching office of the Church, has the final word. Please be aware that Catholics do not approach the Bible as if it were a book of doctrines, and that an interpretation of a passage constituted a doctrine in itself. The Church doesn't teach Matthew 16:16-19 means that Peter was the first pope. Rather, the Church pronounces herself on a subject, e.g. Peter was the first pope and uses the Bible as support e.g. see Mt. 16:16-19. This may seem insignificant to a non-Christian, but it is a vital difference. Catholics do not view the Bible as a manual on Christianity. Rather it is a compilation of many kinds of literature which has God as its ultimate Author, and which provides insight rather than literal, step-by-step directions on what to believe and how to be a Christian. Though there are direct statements from God on how to do this (e.g. Love your enemies) there are also verses which are not necessarily intended as literally true as such, e.g. The first man's name was Adam. The genre of the book in question determines the way in which the passage is to be interpreted. And even then, the Jews did not write history or literature the way we do, and this must be taken into consideration.
My friend, a former Protestant and current Catholic, insists that the Bible is 100% ture, but incomplete. When reading the Bible, should I insert miracles as needed to make things remotely plausible?
That's a difficult question to answer because the simple answer is: it depends. It depends on the passage. It depends on the author's intentions. It depends on the genre. It depends on what is trying to be conveyed.
The story of Noah's flood is what is known as a myth-- in the sense of being a fictionalized account the purpose of which is to convey a Truth of Revelation. The myths of the Bible-- the Creation story, the Flood, the story of The tower of Babel-- are intended to communicate events which are essentially historical, that is, they truly happened. But the question remains: in what sense are they historical? Once again, it is a matter of discovering what the writer is trying to convey.
So how can you tell what's historical and what's just a fictionalized detail? That is up to Scripture scholars to determine. They are acquainted with the literary conventions of ancient Jewish literature. We of the 21st century tend to think of literary conventions of being all the same. But in fact, that's just not the case. Jews did not write stories like we do; they did not write literal, well-reserached accounts of history like we do; their language is not used the same way. When you read the Bible, you must be aware of these facts. When Protestant churches were founded five hundred years ago, these ideas were not taken into account. The result of their rejection is Bible Fundamentalism which asserts that the world was created in six 24-hour days, that the patriarchs of old really lived to be hundreds of years old, etc etc etc. Not all Fundamentalists believe everything in the Bible is literal, but they are out there. Beyond that, if you want to know more about the details of the flood story which are literal or non-literal, I recommend that you ask the Scripture Forum host.
Recently, the Pope acknowledged that the theory of evolution may well be largely true. To many people, this would mean a reinterpretation of Genesis. Can the Church tell me infallibly that the flood and ark story in the bible is literally true?
As far as I know the Pope did not declare that evolution was to be accepted by all Catholics. He merely stated that the scientific evidence for evolution seemed convincing. Catholics are still free to accept any theory of creation which does not contradict the teachings of the Magisterium.
The account of the flood is intended to be historical, although Catholics are not bound to believe that it covered the whole world. As for which parts are literally true, and which aren't, I think you should ask the Scripture Forum Expert for that information.
Thanks for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne.
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