Helping an Eleven-Year Old Understand Evolution and the Catholic Faith

I received a plea for help from my colleague and friend Sr. Julie Vieira, IHM, (be sure to visit her blog, A Nun’s Life) who is seeking an effective response to an inquiry she received from a mom trying to help her 11 year-old son understand the relationship between the theory of evolution and the Catholic faith. The mom writes:

My son is 11 years old attending Catholic School and he has been asking questions about evolution. He has a very science oriented mind and watches the Discovery and Encyclopedia channels. He said he thinks humans came from monkeys and is even questioning if there is a god. This of course upsets our family, we try to explain as best we could. During one of my conversations with him I said if we came from monkeys why are there still monkey. He’s not sure? It is hard to teach a child when I don’t have all the answers. I called our [pastor] and he told me that it is ok to believe in evolution as long as you recognize that some where God intervened and gave us a soul. He could not recommend any books to read. At the school they also had no reading material or recommendations. I can look online and find a few books but before I purchase a book I would like to know what perspective it is written etc. A few years ago I saw two priests on a public access TV station giving a lecture to college students about this very topic. They had combined creationism with evolution. I have not been able to find anything from a catholic perspective on this topic to help my son with his spiritual dilemma. Can you offer any advice?

Here is my initial response to Sr. Julie. If you know of some good resources to recommend (especially for children), please send them along in your comments!

Wow, Julie, that’s a tough one. We can get into lots of technical discussions, none of which will be helpful to a parent trying to talk to an eleven-year old. Here are some basic points from which to continue the discussion:

The Church recognizes the theory of evolution as a valid theory, worthy of exploration. The Church however does not endorse evolution because it is not a complete, scientifically proven theory. JPII basically said, however, that it is clearly more than a hypothesis and that scientific findings make a significant argument in favor of the theory of evolution.

The Church continues to stress that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of faith because the former seeks to explain precisely how things came to be while the latter seeks to come to grips with the meaning of all things. Here’s a good quote:

We cannot say: creation or evolution, inasmuch as these two things respond to two different realities. The story of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, which we just heard, does not in fact explain how human persons come to be but rather what they are. It explains their inmost origin and casts light on the project that they are. And, vice versa, the theory of evolution seeks to understand and describe biological developments. But in so doing it cannot explain where the ‘project’ of human persons comes from, nor their inner origin, nor their particular nature. To that extent we are faced here with two complementary — rather than mutually exclusive — realities.– Cardinal Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall [Eerdmans, 1986, 1995], see especially pages 41-58)

The Church does not endorse intelligent design because ID purports to be a science when it is not. Rather, the Church continues to embrace theistic evolution which is a reconciliation between science and religion (recognizing their complementary relationship). In other words, the Church teaches that the whole discussion cannot be contained to science but inevitably leads to faith.

I’ve not read the Ratzinger book mentioned above but it looks like a good resource for the mom to read for her own enrichment. That still leaves the issue of how to engage the child. Take a look at this link: http://www.love2learn.net/science/creation.htm. The site reviews a book, Creator and Creation (second edition) that seems to address the issue thoughtfully.

Take a look at this link from John Allen in which he synthesizes Benedict XVI’s views on the issue: http://nationalcatholicreporter.org/word/word090106.htm

I think that the bottom line is that the child’s interest in the science of evolution should not be hindered but encouraged along with an encouragement to explore the mystery of our being – the WHY of our being – which can only be explored in the realm of faith. The child should be led to understand that the theory of evolution is not necessarily atheistic, but expands our understanding of the complexity, intricacy, and intimacy of God’s relationship with all of creation…like a loving parent’s relationship with a developing child.

I hope something in here is useful!  Thanks for asking. -joe

About Joe Paprocki 2705 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

11 Comments on Helping an Eleven-Year Old Understand Evolution and the Catholic Faith

  1. There are lots of sources that discuss the inadequecy of the theory of evolution. For starters, Google “problems with evolution” and have at it! For example, this article: http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/147-problems-for-the-theory-of-evolution

    How about Ben Stein’s recent movie that exposes the “untelligencia” for what they are: people who choose disbelieve in God and attempt to make science support their foregone conclusion. We need to question these so-called “scholars” more than we question the Church. http://www.expelledthemovie.com/ If this kid is watching the Discovery and Encylopedia channel, he can watch Expelled.

    For the more scientifically minded, read “A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization”. http://www.amazon.com/Case-Against-Accident-Self-Organization/dp/0742511677 Wowee, what book. Too hard for an 11 year old, though, I would imagine.

    For me, I’m convinced of the existence of God whenever I learn about biological processes like the nucleus of a cell (mind boggling), how conception works (true design) or as I witnessed the birth of my children. Absolute transcendence!

    :Doug

  2. Thanks, Douglas.
    Personally, I have no need to pursue the inadequacy of the theory of evolution because I do not see it as being in conflict with my faith. I don’t think that our strategy should be to respond to disbelievers with more science but rather to invite them to consider the meaning of life and the WHY of creation. I agree with you that the fascinating realities of science can and should serve to deepen our faith in God who is intimately involved in his creation.

  3. I teach high school religion (currently 9th and 10th) and this topic comes up all the time. One thing I like to point out is that the Bible is not a science textbook – rather it is a book of faith. Science may tell us the how of creation, but our Faith tells us why we are created, what is our purpose? I always tell the kids that we have to look for the religious, not literal, truth of the creation accounts – God made us and God said that all of creation is good.

  4. Joe and others, Thank you for your advice. I have looked into ordering the books recommended and also viewed the trailer for Ben Steins movie. I hope this will help my son on his spiritual journey. When faced with this issue I turned to my Priest and the Principal of our school. They could not offer help so I turned to the internet and found Sister Julie. Joe your site may come in handy in the future, I have forwarded it to my Pastor and School. Thank you for your work you definitely helped our family find resources to solve our issue.
    The Mom
    (a mom is more than a meal or a hug and a kiss. She is the first teacher, a advisor and sometimes a compass) we all do the best we can on our own but it is nice to have help.

  5. Dear Mom of the 11 year old,

    I’m so glad we could be of help. Continue checking here for more comments from people with good ideas that may assist you. God bless your vocation as a parent!

  6. I came across this website by chance. I like very much your initial response to the parent:

    Your response was:
    The Church does not endorse intelligent design because ID purports to be a science when it is not. Rather, the Church continues to embrace theistic evolution which is a reconciliation between science and religion (recognizing their complementary relationship). In other words, the Church teaches that the whole discussion cannot be contained to science but inevitably leads to faith.

    • Klara, sorry it took me so long to publish your comment. I was out of town at a conference and did not have access to my blog for a few days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ll not publish your follow-up comments in which you cast some nasty aspersions at me for not publishing your comment immediately. May I suggest you not be too quick to judge others.

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