Much has been made about a conflict between the perspective of the natural sciences and the Church’s teachings on original sin. There are no doubt challenges to contend with, but these are by no means overwhelming.
The most pronounced challenges are as follows:
- Who are our first parents?
- Monogenism versus polygenism.
- Was there suffering and death before the fall?
We will consider each in turn.
Who Are Our First Parents? In Contemporary Science and the Doctrine of Original Sin
Who were the first humans? Catholics can believe that the first man and woman evolved from previous species—from Homo erectus/Homo ergaster and then Homo heidelbergensis and then Homo neanderthalensis to the first species of Homo sapiens, and then to the second species of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens sapiens).
It would be reasonable to assume that our first parents are connected with the initial emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens 200,000 years ago, but the only definitive criterion for their emergence is that they are the first to receive a unique transphysical soul from God, making them in His image and likeness, and giving them the twelve human capacities.
Must our first parents be associated with the second generation of Homo sapiens (Homo sapiens sapiens), or could they have been in the first generation of Homo sapiens—from which a subspecies (Homo sapiens Neanderthalensis—who interbred with Neanderthals) also emerged?
This is certainly possible because the only defining criterion for the first man and woman is that they are the first to have received a unique transphysical soul from God—and that they had progeny giving rise to the rest of humanity whose defining characteristic is the presence of that transphysical soul from God.
There is also established evidence that the whole of humanity today has one common female ancestor, named “Mitochondrial Eve,” whose mitochondrial DNA is integral to the genome of every human being around the world (without exception). Mitochondrial DNA is transmitted through mothers, but all human beings possess it. We also have a common male ancestor named “Y-chromosomal Adam,” who is the origin of the male “Y” chromosome.
Mitochondrial Eve and Y chromosome Adam probably lived around the same time. They came from a similar region (southwestern coastal Africa around the border between Angola and Namibia near the Atlantic Ocean).
Were these our first parents? Though it may be tempting to think so, we should not jump to this conclusion. Mitochondrial Eve may never have known Y chromosome Adam, and they may have come from different areas of the southwest African coastal region.
Again, the only criterion we have for the emergence of our first parents is God's infusion of a unique transphysical soul.
So What Might We Conclude about Our First Parents?
In addition to the fact that both of them had a unique transphysical soul from God, it seems likely that our first parents lived about 200,000 years ago in the southwest African coastal region near the Atlantic Ocean, and they are the first ancestors of the entire human race throughout the world.
Their progeny migrated out of Africa about 140,000 years later (60,000 years ago) to India, the Middle East, and southeastern Asia, and then to Central and Northern Asia, and then to Central and Northern Europe.
Approximately 20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum (when there was a land bridge connecting northern Siberia to Alaska due to precipitous drops in ocean levels), our ancestors made it over to the Americas—and within 1,000 years, made it to the southernmost tip of South America.
After that time, the agricultural revolution led to an explosion in population which has continued ever since.
Monogenism vs. Polygenism in Challenges to the Doctrine of Original Sin
The next common challenge of contemporary science and original sin is that of monogenism vs. polygenism.
“Monogenism” refers to the view that the first generation of human beings was one couple—a first man and a first woman. “Polygenism” refers to the view that the first generation of humans had more than one couple—which might be as many as thousands.
In the same encyclical in which Pope Pius XII allowed Catholics to believe in evolution, he seems to have proscribed belief in polygenism with these words:
“When there is a question of another conjectural opinion, namely, of polygenism so-called, then the sons of the Church in no way enjoy such freedom. For the faithful in Christ cannot accept this view, which holds that either after Adam there existed men on this earth, who did not receive their origin by natural generation from him, the first parent of all; or that Adam signifies some kind of multitude of first parents; for it is by no means apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with what the sources of revealed truth and the acts of the magisterium of the Church teaches about original sin, which proceeds from a sin truly committed by one Adam, and which is transmitted to all by generation, and exists in each one as his own.” —Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII seems to have hedged the definitiveness of his declaration against polygenism. However, you may wonder if polygenism could be reconciled with the sources of revealed truth about original sin, would polygenism then be doctrinally acceptable?
Though there is debate on this issue, theologians today believe that Pope Pius XII left the door open to this possibility if the condition in his declaration could be met. Whatever the case, Monogenism is compatible with the evolutionary picture of the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens (and Mitochondrial Eve).
Because the emergence of our first parents is not necessarily connected to either Mitochondrial Eve, Y chromosome Adam, or both. They emerged when God infused the first transphysical soul into the first Homo sapiens (not necessarily Homo sapiens sapiens). This first couple committed the original sin, which caused the fall of the rest of humanity. The emergence of the rest of humanity comes from these first parents.
If Mitochondrial Eve is not the first mother, then she is in direct lineage from our first parents—and if Y chromosome Adam is not our first father, then he is in direct lineage from them as well. The progeny of our first parents were also given unique transphysical souls by God, but their nature was weakened by the sin of their first parents.
As a result, they lost their exemption from death. They felt the effects of concupiscence because the presence of God in their souls was weakened, making them more easily tempted and deceived by their sensual passions and the evil spirit. Though these effects are present today, they are mitigated by the redemptive act of Jesus, His Church's presence, and the Holy Spirit's presence.
Was There Suffering and Death Before the Fall of Original Sin?
Our third question to contend with is, “Was there suffering before the fall?” Scientific evidence indicates that there was death and physical pain before the fall (approximately 200,000 years ago).
We have evidence of microbial death dating back 3.5 billion years, and there were certainly vertebrates with a central nervous system (capable of feeling pain) during the Jurassic period 230 million years ago. In “Divino Afflante Spiritu,” Pope Pius XII speaks on the purpose of the bible—to give sacred truths necessary for salvation, but not necessarily to give accurate scientific descriptions and explanations of our physical universe.
How does this affect the idea that death and suffering came into the world because of the sin of Adam? We cannot interpret it in a way that contradicts the clear fossil evidence showing that death and physical pain were present on the earth before 200,000 years ago.
The arrival of our first parents coincides with the infusion of a transphysical soul within them, giving them an exemption from bodily death. Since their transphysical soul was the dominant form of their body, they had this exemption for a little while prior to the fall. However, when they sinned against God by desiring autonomy and separation from Him, they lost that exemption—and their bodies would suffer the same corruption as their progenitors (though their souls would live on after bodily death).
The Two Kinds of Suffering
It is important to note that there are two kinds of suffering:
- The feeling of physical pain and some kinds of emotional pain (which some animals share in common with human beings).
- Reflective Suffering comes from the awareness that “I” am the one who is suffering. Humans alone have this experience because of their self-reflective transphysical soul.
By now, it will be clear that reflective suffering originates in self-consciousness, which in turn, originates in our transphysical soul. When God infused a transphysical soul into our first parents, He gave them the potential to suffer reflectively—to combine their powers of anticipation, self-awareness, and the twelve capacities of man’s transphysical soul with physical and emotional pain.
By separating themselves from God in the first sin, the light and grace of His presence were partially withdrawn—and without it, the reflection process focused on the bodily death they would surely experience, the sense of emptiness, alienation, and loneliness coming from His absence, and the absence of meaning and light to guide and fill their reflection process.
If God had withdrawn completely, they would have collapsed into a total abyss of emptiness, loneliness, alienation, death anxiety, guilt, and intellectual darkness—a reflective emotional, and conceptual nightmare. But God did withdraw—He gave them what they wanted—only insofar as it would not destroy their free will, emotional stability, rational capacity, capacity for love, and capacity for moral reflection.
We might say a new kind of suffering came into the world with original sin—a categorically different, heightened kind of suffering produced by self-reflectivity not fully illumined by God's wisdom, presence, and grace.