The Devil Is in the Details: Dishonest Interpretation of Humani Generis

Read the article which preceded this one here: “The Devil is in the Details: Language Is Key to Understanding Genesis.”

When the average Catholic searches the Internet to see what the Church teaches about the Theory of Evolution, without a doubt they will be pointed towards so-called conservative Catholic outlets. Chris Ferrara has dealt firmly with these misguided apologetics outlets by illuminating the serious problems with evolutionary theory and the magisterial defenses that guard against adopting such a theory. In addition to his poignant critique, much can be said about the disastrous disservice that has taken place when the 36th paragraph of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis is irresponsibly taken out of context, and used as a means to cajole unwitting Catholics into accepting ‘Theistic Evolutionism.’

In the misinterpretation of this passage, there is often a linguistic misunderstanding that stems from a lack of familiarity with the precise theological terminology being employed, as well as the historical context of this question within the circles of Catholic theologians discussing the matter. Like any good papal document, Humani Generis contains precise and distinct theological language. It is not necessary to hold a Ph.D. in Sacred Theology in order to understand such documents, but the intellectual framework and bias we hold will greatly affect our understanding.

Humani Generis was perhaps the most important theological work of Pope Pius XII’s pontificate. Some have even said that it functions as a type of syllabus of errors or summary of pressing heresies, not unlike Pascendi Dominici Gregis by Pope Saint Pius X. Throughout 44 paragraphs, Pius XII illuminates the common philosophical and theological problems of his time. Many of these errors have unfortunately become widely accepted truths in our day. An honest reading of the document clearly shows a scathing condemnation of the essential framework and philosophical underpinnings of the Theory of Evolution. Furthermore, the theory is itself ridiculed more than once by the Holy Father.

For example, in paragraph five of the document we find the following: “Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution, which has not been fully proved even in the domain of natural sciences, explains the origin of all things, and audaciously support the monistic and pantheistic opinion that the world is in continual evolution. Communists gladly subscribe to this opinion so that, when the souls of men have been deprived of every idea of a personal God, they may the more efficaciously defend and propagate their dialectical materialism.”

In this short paragraph alone, the pontiff questions the validity of the theory, calls its acceptance imprudent, links it together with the heretical ideas of monism and pantheism,[1] and demonstrates its diabolical link with atheistic Communism. If this strong declaration against evolution is not enough, he further criticizes the scientifically and theologically bankrupt notion in the next paragraph: “Such fictitious tenets of evolution which repudiate all that is absolute, firm and immutable, have paved the way for the new erroneous philosophy which, rivaling idealism, immanentism and pragmatism, has assumed the name of existentialism, since it concerns itself only with existence of individual things and neglects all consideration of their immutable essences.”

The pope labels the tenets of evolution as “fictitious,” meaning not in accord with reality, and explains how these fictions contribute to the degradation of good philosophy. Finally, he identifies the unholy alliance between immanentism and evolutionary theory. For those unfamiliar, Pope Saint Pius X demonstrated in his landmark encyclical, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, that immanentism is one of the pillars of the damnable heresy of modernism; something that so greatly plagues the Church today.[2]

Now, it would seem to a reasonable person that the tone of Humani Generis, when the entire document is taken in context and not proof-texted,[3] is one of antagonism towards evolutionary theory. Nonetheless, as previously mentioned, a cursory glance of Catholic apologetics will show that the same document is used to reconcile the heretical notion with the Faith. How can this be?


At the start of paragraph 36, Pius XII states:

“…the Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, 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…” 

Whatever freedom these words may give to hypothetical research, it is scant to say the least, and highly restrictive at that. The only permission given extends to an inquiry into the material nature of the pre-existing matter used in the formation of the human body. In various translations of the Holy Bible you may find words such as “slime,” or “dust” to describe the matter God used in forming Adam’s body (see Genesis 2:7 and 3:19). What exactly is the material nature of this ‘slime’ from which Adam’s body came? Traditional Catholic teaching sees it as “dust” or the inanimate material of the earth. Might this ‘slime’ have been animate in some way? That is the only issue relevant to this paragraph.

In other words, atheistic evolution, the most common theory of evolution promoted today, is clearly condemned by the magisterium. Within the realm of theistic evolution (evolution guided by God), the two most common variations discussed by Catholic theologians in Pius XII’s day were natural theistic evolution and special theistic evolution.[4]

In the theory of natural theistic evolution, God only acted at the beginning and then ‘evolution’ proceeded for millions of years without His direct intervention. This would mean man’s body came from beasts. Yet Pius XII’s specific choice of words “pre-existent and living matter” precludes this possibility. No one refers to beasts, such as apes, by such a term. Had Pius XII wanted to allow for that possibility, then he would naturally have used the clear term ‘animals’ (or beasts) and not the curious phrase “pre-existent and living matter.”

Thus, Humani Generis only allows special theistic evolution to be discussed by faithful and orthodox Catholics. This is the theory that, at some moment in time, God specially intervened in the evolutionary process to create the body of man; that is God moved the evolutionary process forward by a quantum leap so that this new ‘animal’ would be capable of receiving a human soul.[5] Pius XII is basically allowing submissive, obedient and competent theologians, who also have the necessary scientific training, to investigate if there may be scientific evidence which would indicate the ‘slime’ God used might have been organic material as opposed to inorganic material.[6]

How exactly science might ever answer this question, since we have no data and no evidence, is quite baffling. However, this small and very restricted point, amidst all the many previously condemned errors of evolution, is the only matter for which Pius XII allowed cautious and prudent discussion. For in that same 36th paragraph, making matters worse for the evolutionary evangelist, Pope Pius XII states:

“However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.”

We see here that the Holy Father is instructing the faithful to work within these tight confines and also for reasons against evolutionary theory. In essence, we are encouraged to weigh a ludicrous and highly speculative hypothesis, given no wiggle room for imprudent speculation, against twenty centuries of dogma and tradition.


Needless to say, the Theory of Evolution should not have even been given room to breathe within theological circles, especially considering the veritable mountain of dogma that nullifies any sensible person from accepting it.[7] Humani Generis is a strong document to be sure, but is the icing on an already magnanimous theological cake.

I can see no other reason that justifies such dishonest scholarship on behalf of so many apologists, other than the simple fact that they want evolution to be true. There may be many reasons for this desire to reconcile with poor worldly fantasy, but in the end I think it comes down to a simple fact – one which Father Isaac Mary Relya constantly preaches – people are afraid of the Cross.

Holding to the true Catholic creationist viewpoint, supported by Scripture and Tradition, will almost certainly alienate you from most mainline Catholic and secular circles. In the eyes of would-be orthodox Catholics, so-called “fundamentalism” is beyond the pale. Is it any wonder why most Catholics disbelieve in the Real Presence of the Eucharist? If the first few chapters of the Bible can be explained away, then perhaps the rest can be as well.

Let us pray that Our Lady keeps us free from error as we navigate through the muddied waters of conservative Catholic apologetics, and that we stay true to the heart of the Faith. Evolutionary theory is not from God, it is not found in Scripture or Tradition, and nearly every variation of evolutionary theory has already been condemned by the magisterium. No apologist worth his salt should lead Catholics astray.

The Church has spoken on more than one occasion, and the truth is simple: The Bible is history, including Genesis. The truth is that “The Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth” (Gn 2:7) and that He formed Eve out Adam’s rib (cf. Gn 2:22). In the 36th paragraph of Humani Generis, Pius XII was only giving permission for competent and obedient Catholics to discuss the pros and cons of the theory that this ‘slime of the earth’ might have been “pre-existent and living matter.” Nothing less and certainly nothing more.

[1] Monism is the belief that God and His creation are one and the same, and Pantheism is the idea that we are all something like “pieces” of the Divine, not unlike Hinduism. Both ideas are similar, and both are heresies.

[2] Regarding the idea of “immanence” or “immanentism”, Pope Saint Pius X wrote the following in Pascendi, paragraph 20: “…divine action is one with the action of nature, as the action of the first cause is one with the action of the secondary cause, and this would destroy the supernatural order. Others, finally, explain it in a way which savors of pantheism and this, in truth, is the sense which tallies best with the rest of their doctrines.” In layman’s terms ‘immanentism’ blurs the order of grace and the order of nature, as if grace itself were part of the natural world. A logical consequence of this (and terrible error!) is that we don’t need the Sacraments, the Church or Christ to give us grace to get to Heaven, rather nature itself – and any religion for that matter – can provide the ‘grace’ needed to reach Heaven. This merging of grace and nature is a tell-tale sign of the modernist heresy.

[3] “Proof-texting” is the method of just taking one phrase of a document, such as the Scriptures, and using it to support a position, without taking into consideration the entire context in which that particular phrase is located. Many Protestants engage in proof-texting Scripture when attacking Catholic dogma. However, Catholics also often proof-text Scripture and magisterial documents. This method lends itself to misinterpretation and easily induces people unfamiliar with the full document to think the misinterpretation is actually a faithful and correct interpretation.

[4] A good resource to learn more about this matter, and Pius XII’s Humani Generis, is Fr. Brian Harrison’s presentation, available on CD, titled “Man Thou Art Dust.”

[5] It is a truth, de fide, that God specially and directly intervenes to create each and every human soul. Yet all the evolutionary theories most common today reject this infallible teaching. Most evolutionists even deny that man has a soul!

[6] The context of the entire document, and the tradition behind it, clearly indicate that Pius XII does not think the slime was organic material. However, he is simply allowing for this restricted issue to be further examined. The clear implication is that all other discussion on theories of evolution are no longer open to faithful Catholics, because the magisterium has already judged them to be false and contrary to the Faith. On that point alone, indicates Pius XII, has the magisterium not yet rendered a judgment.

[7] The following list, taken from Chris Ferrara’s article “The Problem with Conservative Catholic Mythologizers: Part 1,” is only a sample of the infallible teachings that dismantle any credence in evolutionary theory:

  • the creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time;
  • the special creation of man;
  • the formation of the first woman from the first man; and
  • the oneness of the human race [in language as well before the Babel event].
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