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Communion and Stewardship. Human Persons Created in the Image of God


Excerpts from nn. 1-5, 62-70

1. The explosion of scientific understanding and technological capability in modern times has brought many advantages to the human race, but it also poses serious challenges. Our knowledge of the immensity and age of the universe has made human beings seem smaller and less secure in their position and significance within it. Technological advances have greatly increased our ability to control and direct the forces of nature, but they have also turned out to have an unexpected and possibly uncontrollable impact on our environment and even on ourselves.

2. The International Theological Commission offers the following theological meditation on the doctrine of the imago Dei to orient our reflection on the meaning of human existence in the face of these challenges. At the same time, we want to present the positive vision of the human person within the universe which is afforded by this newly retrieved doctrinal theme.

3. Especially since Vatican Council II, the doctrine of the imago Dei has begun to enjoy a greater prominence in magisterial teaching and theological research. Previously, various factors had led to the neglect of the theology of the imago Dei among some modern western philosophers and theologians. In philosophy, the very notion of the "image" was subjected to a powerful critique by theories of knowledge which either privileged the role of the "idea" at the expense of the image (rationalism) or made experience the ultimate criterion of truth without reference to the role of the image (empiricism). In addition, cultural factors, such as the influence of secular humanism and, more recently, the very profusion of images by the mass media, have made it difficult to affirm the human orientation to the divine, on the one hand, and, on the other, the ontological reference of the image which are essential to any theology of the imago Dei. Contributing to the neglect of the theme within western theology itself were biblical interpretations that stressed the permanent validity of the injunction against images (cf. Exodus 20:3-4) or posited a Hellenistic influence on the emergence of the theme in the Bible.

4. It was not until the eve of Vatican Council II that theologians began to rediscover the fertility of this theme for understanding and articulating the mysteries of the Christian faith. Indeed, the documents of this council both express and confirm this significant development in twentieth century theology. In continuity with the deepening recovery of the theme of the imago Dei since Vatican Council II, the International Theological Commission seeks in the following pages to reaffirm the truth that human persons are created in the image of God in order to enjoy personal communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with one another in them, and in order to exercise, in God's name, responsible stewardship of the created world. In the light of this truth, the world appears not as something merely vast and possibly meaningless, but as a place created for the sake of personal communion.

5. As we seek to demonstrate in the following chapters, these profound truths have lost neither their relevance nor their power. After a summary review of the scriptural and traditional basis of the imago Dei in Chapter I, we move on to an exploration of the two great themes of the theology of the imago Dei: in Chapter II, the imago Dei as the basis of communion with the triune God and among human persons and then, in Chapter III, the imago Dei as the basis of a share in God's governance of visible creation. These reflections gather together the main elements of Christian anthropology and certain elements of moral theology and ethics as they are illumined by the theology of the imago Dei. We are well aware of the breadth of the issues we have sought to address here, but we offer these reflections to recall for ourselves and for our readers the immense explanatory power of the theology of the imago Dei precisely in order to reaffirm the divine truth about the universe and about the meaning of human life. […]

62. The endeavor to understand the universe has marked human culture in every period and in nearly every society. In the perspective of the Christian faith, this endeavor is precisely an instance of the stewardship which human beings exercise in accordance with God's plan. Without embracing a discredited concordism, Christians have the responsibility to locate the modern scientific understanding of the universe within the context of the theology of creation. The place of human beings in the history of this evolving universe, as it has been charted by modern sciences, can only be seen in its complete reality in the light of faith, as a personal history of the engagement of the triune God with creaturely persons.

63. According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the “Big Bang” and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5-4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of Homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution.

64. Pope John Paul II stated some years ago that “new knowledge leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge” (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Evolution, 1996). In continuity with previous twentieth century papal teaching on evolution (especially Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Humani generis), the Holy Father’s message acknowledges that there are “several theories of evolution” that are “materialist, reductionist and spiritualist” and thus incompatible with the Catholic faith. It follows that the message of Pope John Paul II cannot be read as a blanket approbation of all theories of evolution, including those of a neo-Darwinian provenance which explicitly deny to divine providence any truly causal role in the development of life in the universe. Mainly concerned with evolution as it “involves the question of man,” however, Pope John Paul’s message is specifically critical of materialistic theories of human origins and insists on the relevance of philosophy and theology for an adequate understanding of the “ontological leap” to the human which cannot be explained in purely scientific terms. The Church’s interest in evolution thus focuses particularly on “the conception of man” who, as created in the image of God, “cannot be subordinated as a pure means or instrument either to the species or to society.” As a person created in the image of God, he is capable of forming relationships of communion with other persons and with the triune God, as well as of exercising sovereignty and stewardship in the created universe. The implication of these remarks is that theories of evolution and of the origin of the universe possess particular theological interest when they touch on the doctrines of the creation ex nihilo and the creation of man in the image of God.

65. We have seen human persons are created in the image of God in order to become partakers of the divine nature (cf. 2 Pet 1:3-4) and thus to share in the communion of trinitarian life and in the divine dominion over visible creation. At the heart of the divine act of creation is the divine desire to make room for created persons in the communion of the uncreated Persons of the Blessed Trinity through adoptive participation in Christ. What is more, the common ancestry and natural unity of the human race are the basis for a unity in grace of redeemed human persons under the headship of the New Adam in the ecclesial communion of human persons united with one another and with the uncreated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The gift of natural life is the basis for the gift of the life of grace. It follows that, where the central truth concerns a person acting freely, it is impossible to speak of a necessity or an imperative to create, and it is, in the end, inappropriate to speak of the Creator as a force, or energy, or ground. Creation ex nihilo is the action of a transcendent personal agent, acting freely and intentionally, with a view toward the all-encompassing purposes of personal engagement. In Catholic tradition, the doctrine of the origin of human beings articulates the revealed truth of this fundamentally relational or personalist understanding of God and of human nature. The exclusion of pantheism and emanationism in the doctrine of creation can be interpreted at root as a way of protecting this revealed truth. The doctrine of the immediate or special creation of each human soul not only addresses the ontological discontinuity between matter and spirit, but also establishes the basis for a divine intimacy which embraces every single human person from the first moment of his or her existence.

66. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is thus a singular affirmation of the truly personal character of creation and its order toward a personal creature who is fashioned as the imago Dei and who responds not to a ground, force or energy, but to a personal creator. The doctrines of the imago Dei and the creatio ex nihilo teach us that the existing universe is the setting for a radically personal drama, in which the triune Creator calls out of nothingness those to whom He then calls out in love. Here lies the profound meaning of the words of Gaudium et spes: “Man is the only creature on earth that God willed for his own sake” (no. 24). Created in God’s image, human beings assume a place of responsible stewardship in the physical universe. Under the guidance of divine providence and acknowledging the sacred character of visible creation, the human race reshapes the natural order, and becomes an agent in the evolution of the universe itself. In exercising their stewardship of knowledge, theologians have the responsibility to locate modern scientific understandings within a Christian vision of the created universe.

67. With respect to the creatio ex nihilo, theologians can note that the Big Bang theory does not contradict this doctrine insofar as it can be said that the supposition of an absolute beginning is not scientifically inadmissible. Since the Big Bang theory does not in fact exclude the possibility of an antecedent stage of matter, it can be noted that the theory appears to provide merely indirect support for the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo which as such can only be known by faith.

68. With respect to the evolution of conditions favorable to the emergence of life, Catholic tradition affirms that, as universal transcendent cause, God is the cause not only of existence but also the cause of causes. God’s action does not displace or supplant the activity of creaturely causes, but enables them to act according to their natures and, nonetheless, to bring about the ends he intends. In freely willing to create and conserve the universe, God wills to activate and to sustain in act all those secondary causes whose activity contributes to the unfolding of the natural order which he intends to produce. Through the activity of natural causes, God causes to arise those conditions required for the emergence and support of living organisms, and, furthermore, for their reproduction and differentiation. Although there is scientific debate about the degree of purposiveness or design operative and empirically observable in these developments, they have de facto favored the emergence and flourishing of life. Catholic theologians can see in such reasoning support for the affirmation entailed by faith in divine creation and divine providence. In the providential design of creation, the triune God intended not only to make a place for human beings in the universe but also, and ultimately, to make room for them in his own trinitarian life. Furthermore, operating as real, though secondary causes, human beings contribute to the reshaping and transformation of the universe.

69. The current scientific debate about the mechanisms at work in evolution requires theological comment insofar as it sometimes implies a misunderstanding of the nature of divine causality. Many neo-Darwinian scientists, as well as some of their critics, have concluded that, if evolution is a radically contingent materialistic process driven by natural selection and random genetic variation, then there can be no place in it for divine providential causality. A growing body of scientific critics of neo-Darwinism point to evidence of design (e.g., biological structures that exhibit specified complexity) that, in their view, cannot be explained in terms of a purely contingent process and that neo-Darwinians have ignored or misinterpreted. The nub of this currently lively disagreement involves scientific observation and generalization concerning whether the available data support inferences of design or chance, and cannot be settled by theology. But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, q. 22, a. 4 ad 1um). In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence – simply cannot exist because “the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles... It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence” (Summa theologiae I, q. 22, q. 2).

70. With respect to the immediate creation of the human soul, Catholic theology affirms that particular actions of God bring about effects that transcend the capacity of created causes acting according to their natures. The appeal to divine causality to account for genuinely causal as distinct from merely explanatory gaps does not insert divine agency to fill in the “gaps” in human scientific understanding (thus giving rise to the so-called "God of the gaps”). The structures of the world can be seen as open to non-disruptive divine action in directly causing events in the world. Catholic theology affirms that that the emergence of the first members of the human species (whether as individuals or in populations) represents an event that is not susceptible of a purely natural explanation and which can appropriately be attributed to divine intervention. Acting indirectly through causal chains operating from the beginning of cosmic history, God prepared the way for what Pope John Paul II has called “an ontological leap... the moment of transition to the spiritual.” While science can study these causal chains, it falls to theology to locate this account of the special creation of the human soul within the overarching plan of the triune God to share the communion of trinitarian life with human persons who are created out of nothing in the image and likeness of God, and who, in his name and according to his plan, exercise a creative stewardship and sovereignty over the physical universe.

Source of the English digital text: The official web site of the Holy See