A GROWING PHENOMENON
Dermott J. Mullan,
Since 1988, the book “Catholicism and Fundamentalism” by Karl Keating has helped prevent Catholics from being lured out of the Church by evangelical Fundamentalists. As long as the Fundamentalists exist as a force that attacks the Church from outside, the book provides important and useful service.
But what if there are Fundamentalists actually inside the Church, rather than outside? How is the Church to respond to such a situation?
I submit that Fundamentalism is now beginning to infect the thinking of certain Catholics who are loyal members of the Church. The clearest symptom of infection is the belief that the Earth is young, no more than a few thousand years old. This calls for a change of plan from what has worked so far if Catholics are to be defended against Fundamentalism.
1. IS FUNDAMENTALISM CREEPING INTO THE LIVES OF AMERICAN CATHOLICS?
Fundamentalists trace their roots to a series of books called The Fundamentals, published by certain Protestants between 1909 and 1915. These books contained (among other topics) accounts of “heresies” (including Catholicism) and “critiques of scientific theories”. To be sure, no-one should object to criticisms of scientific work as long as the criticisms are based on sound reasoning. But the critiques that are associated with Fundamentalism at times involve what is in essence a rejection of rational thinking.
Three events indicate to me that American Catholics are now being exposed to Fundamentalist ideas from within the Church.
First, in the process of
home-schooling some of our children about five years ago, my wife and I
encountered a serious dilemma in connection with certain science textbooks. We
did not want our children to be swept along by the erroneous ideas about
Darwinian evolution that permeate much of American culture. We therefore
selected biology text-books which reject
Second, in 1999, one of the leading American publishers of orthodox Catholic books released a book entitled “Creation Rediscovered” by G. J. Keane. This book contains not only a well-written criticism of Darwinian evolution, but also an extended attack (60 pages long) on the results of modern astrophysics concerning the age of the Universe. The book suggests that astrophysicists have misinterpreted the evidence because of their belief in evolution. The book states that the evidence actually point to an Earth and a Universe which are no more than a few thousand years old. Although the book does not have an Imprimatur, it does contain a preface, in which a Catholic theologian writes that the book is “free of errors in faith and morals”. This choice of words may suggest to the casual reader that “Creation Rediscovered” expounds formal Church teaching.
Third, in 2001, a
meeting which advertised itself as the “First International Catholic Family
Conference on Creation” was held in
These three lines of
evidence strike me as symptoms of a troubling development in contemporary
American Catholicism. I used to believe that modern claims about a young Earth
were confined to Protestants. For example, when I was growing up in
Now, however, the “young Earth” aspect of Fundamentalism is being touted by some as part of Catholic teaching. In fact, selected quotations from Church documents are being used to say, in essence, that if you want to be a loyal Catholic, you should believe in a young Earth.
2. AN ASTRONOMER’S VIEWPOINT
Why do I find the young-Earth development troubling? Because it flies in the face of reason.
In my profession as an astronomer, I am familiar with abundant evidence from the physical world indicating that the Earth and the Sun and the Universe have ages that are measured in billions of years.
The evidence for these ages comes from at least five distinct and independent areas of research in astrophysics: expansion of the universe, stellar structure, isotope dating, white dwarf cooling, and properties of the cosmic microwave radiation. The excellent concordance between the first three methods is summarized in a Scientific American article: www.sciam.com/specialissues/0398cosmos/0398peebles.html. The fourth and fifth methods have strengthened the concordance. The concordance is especially impressive because the five methods rely on completely distinct types of observations, and different laws of physics, to arrive at their conclusions.
The scientific evidence in favor of an “old Earth” (in the sense of having multi-billion year ages) appears to me, and to my professional colleagues of all religious persuasions, as entirely reasonable and completely convincing.
It is beyond the bounds of reason to suppose that, if the Universe is actually no older than a few thousand years (as the young-Earth proponents claim), many hundreds of researchers from diverse countries and all religious backgrounds would discover five completely different methods which all yield multi-billion year ages.
3. DILEMMA FOR A CATHOLIC
The Irish Christian Brothers taught me the maxim: “The Church has nothing to fear from the truth”. It should not matter by what means the truth about the world is discovered: Catholics should be willing to look it squarely in the face. But the message of the Fundamentalists is very different. They claim that when science establishes certain truths about the age of the world, Church members should reject those truths.
What is a Catholic home-schooler to think about statements in otherwise acceptable textbooks that the Earth is young? What is an orthodox Catholic to think when his favorite publishing company says that the Earth is young? What is a Catholic parent to think when a Catholic Family Conference teaches that modern physicists are misleading the public in a multitude of ways?
In particular, has the Church taught doctrinally on this issue?
In order to answer these questions, it is worthwhile first to be clear about how the claim for a young age for the Earth arises.
4. CLAIMS FOR A YOUNG EARTH
The origin of the young Earth theory is easy to identify. It emerges from a strict calculation when one adds up the ages of all the patriarchs who are named in the book of Genesis, and then adds 6 days to the result. Archbishop Ussher was by no means the first to arrive at the conclusion that the Earth is “young”. In fact, in the writings of the Fathers of the early Church, one can find indications that many of them also believed that the Earth was created in six literal days. (A talk at the Manassas Creation Conference discussed this topic also.) But Ussher’s estimate is noteworthy for being among the most precise of its kind.
The young Earth theory results from one particular interpretation of the text of Genesis. However, this interpretation overlooks the fact that the Church has some significant teaching about the way in which Catholics are to approach the reading of Scripture.
5. HOW DOES THE MAGISTERIUM APPROACH THE EARLY CHAPTERS OF GENESIS?
Young Earth proponents approach the precise numerical values of ages that appear in Genesis as if the contents of Scripture were exactly equivalent to a modern history book, or a modern science textbook. This is certainly one way to approach the Bible.
But it is not the way that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches us to approach the question of historical matters in Scripture. Pope Pius XII addressed this key point in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950. He wrote: “It has been clearly laid down…that the first eleven chapters of Genesis do pertain to history in the true sense. However, it is not right to judge them by modern standards of historical composition…In what exact sense Genesis 1-11 comes under the heading of history is for the further labors of exegetes to determine” (para. 38).
Obviously, Pope Pius’s approach to Genesis is quite different from that of young-Earth believers. The question is: do Catholics have to believe the Pope’s teaching on how to read Genesis 1-11? Or can they adopt a “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude to this teaching?
Clear answers to these questions can be found in Humani Generis itself. In para. 20 we read: “What is expounded in encyclical letters of itself demands consent, since in writing such Letters, the Popes exercise the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to apply Christ’s words ‘He who hears you, hears Me’ (Luke 10, 16)”. The fact that Catholics should follow the “mind and will” of the Pope has been repeated by Vatican II in no uncertain terms (see Lumen Gentium No. 25).
As a result of the encyclical Humani Generis and of Vatican II, Catholics who wish to follow the “mind and will” of the Pope have an obligation not to regard Chapters 1-11 of Genesis as subject to the same rules of interpretation as a modern history book.
6. CHURCH FATHERS AND CHURCH TEACHING: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?
But what about those saintly and wise Fathers of the Church who wrote about the “young Earth”? What are we to make of their claims?
To answer this, we note that the Fathers wrote many centuries before Pope Pius XII set forth the above teaching about how Catholics should approach Genesis 1-11.
Now, it is true that Catholics rightfully pay respect to the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. However, those writings are not in themselves infallible. Earning the title of Father or Doctor merely indicates that nothing in their writings contradicted the Church’s formal teaching AS IT EXISTED AT THAT TIME. For example, St Bernard denied the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, but he is still a Doctor of the Church because the doctrine was not made formal until 1854, many centuries after Bernard had died.
Therefore, just because a certain Father or Doctor calculated the age of the Earth by adding up the ages in Genesis, this does NOT mean that the Church teaches that age as part of its doctrine. In fact, Pope Leo XIII addressed this explicitly in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus: “The unshrinking defense of the Holy Scripture does not require that we should equally uphold all the opinions which each of the Fathers have put forth in explaining it. For it may be that, in commenting on matters where physical matters occur, they have sometimes expressed their ideas of their own times, and have thus made statements which in these days have been abandoned as incorrect” (Denzinger 1948).
7. MAGISTERIAL TEACHING ON CREATION
When it comes to a question of formal Church teaching about the age of the Earth, one point is clear. No official magisterial document from either Pope or Council has ever taught that the Earth is a certain number of years old.
This is not to say that the Church has taught nothing about creation. Far from it. The magisterium taught formally about creation at the fourth Lateran Council in the year 1215. Lateran IV made it official Church teaching that the world (and all of creation) had a beginning in time. In other words, the world has not been in existence forever. This was a huge break from ideas that dated back to Aristotle.
Subsequently, when the
first Vatican Council met in 1869-1870, the Council fathers were confronting
some of the new ideas of modern science, including
Note the phrases that
are used by both Lateran IV and
Note also that neither
Lateran IV nor
Moreover, Vatican I also teaches (see Denzinger 1805): “If anyone does not admit that the world and everything in it, both spiritual and material, have been produced in their entire substance by God out of nothing, let him be anathema”. Two features of this teaching are noteworthy. First, there is (once again) no mention of a particular time at which God created spiritual and material things. Second, the term “entire substance”, also used by the Church in its teaching on the Eucharist (Denzinger 877), is a technical term that stands in distinction to the “accidents” (i.e. the outward appearances). Vatican I does NOT say that the accidents of everything in the world were produced by God out of nothing. In fact, although the creation of each man’s soul certainly involves a direct creation by God out of nothing (indicating ongoing creation to this very day), this is not true of man’s body. Each of us received a body from our parents. And even the body of Adam himself, as God reveals (Gen. 2, 7), was created using pre-existing material (“dust of the ground”).
8. GOD MADE THE WORLD RATIONALLY—THEREFORE SCIENCE IS POSSIBLE
One of the triumphs of the work of Thomas Aquinas was to point out that God (who [according to the Christian faith] is a rational Being) created the world in such a way that man (a rational creature, made in the image and likeness of God) could understand the world. God did not create the world capriciously, giving different properties to different particles of the same type. Instead, God created an orderly world based on particular quantities of "number, weight, and measure" (Wisdom 11, 20). The ability to use the gift of reason in order to discover the wonders of God’s world is as much a talent as any of His other gifts to us. And we will one day render an account of how we used that talent.
It is precisely because God made a rational world according to "number, weight, and measure" that scientists have a chance of discovering some specific truths about the material world. If truth were inaccessible to human reasoning, then science would make no sense.
As it is, science does
provide access to certain truths about the world. When scientists use their
reason to discover something about the material world, it is as if God allows
them a glimpse of part of the blue-print that He used when He, in His capacity
as divine Architect (
9. THE CHURCH AND HUMAN REASON
The young-Earth theory brings to a sharp focus an important question to which all Catholics should give some thought. Namely, can faith and reason contradict each other?
Surprising as it may seem, there have actually been certain people in the world who believe that the answer to this question is Yes. For example, in the middle ages, the Muslim philosopher Averroes taught that something that is true in religion is not necessarily also true in philosophy. Averroes believed that a religious truth might be a philosophical falsehood. Averroes was apparently not concerned by this violation of the principle of non-contradiction. So troubling did St Thomas Aquinas find this assault on human reasoning that he wrote an entire treatise specifically to demonstrate that Averroes was wrong about this. Thomas established that once an element of truth is discovered, it makes no difference whether it was faith or human reason (including science) that discovered it.
Of course, this conclusion of Thomas’s appears eminently reasonable to a Christian. After all, when Christ entered the world, allowing a divine nature and a human nature to exist without confusion in a single person, a new day dawned for our world. It became clear that there need be no essential contradiction between faith (which has to do with divine things) and scientific reasoning (which has to do with the material world in which humans live).
At the time of
To achieve this, it is
noteworthy that they essentially elevated Thomas’s ideas about faith and reason
to the level of magisterial teaching. This teaching of
The Church paid a great
compliment to human reason at
And shortly after
Clearly, Pope Leo was not referring here to arcane scientific truths such as the theory of atomic structure. The latter theory is certainly based on irrefutable evidence, but it has no overlap with Church teaching, and cannot possibly be relevant to Pope Leo. Instead, the Pope was obviously referring to scientific truths that are pertinent in one way or another to the contents of Genesis 1-11. It has become evident in recent decades that modern astronomy is an area in which Pope Leo’s words are highly relevant. And Pope Leo put his money where his mouth was: he expanded the Vatican Observatory so that the Church would not be left behind by the discoveries of modern astronomy. Pope Leo obviously believed what the Irish Christian Brothers taught me: the Church has nothing to fear from the truth.
Where did Pope Leo obtain
his respect for scientific truths? The answer is clearly stated in Providentissimus Deus: the Pope simply
followed some reasonable guidelines that had been laid down many centuries
previously in the writings of
The possibility of ridicule from unbelievers was of serious concern to Saints Augustine and Thomas, and also to Pope Leo. It should be a matter of concern for American Catholics in our day as well.
By including the guidelines of Augustine and Thomas in an encyclical, Pope Leo raised those guidelines to the level of magisterial teaching. As a result, since 1893, Catholics have had an obligation to honor the truths that are established by means of science, provided that the evidence is irrefutable.
In order to provide further assistance to Catholics in the correct approach to Bible reading, Pope Leo established the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Members of this Commission, appointed by the Pope, are required to respond to questions about scriptures sent in by writers from around the world. Catholics are expected to take the decisions of the Commission seriously. Pope St Pius X taught this in 1907: “We do now declare and expressly prescribe that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission which have been given in the past, and which will be given in the future”. We will have occasion below to refer to a document that was issued in 1993, with the authority of Pope John Paul II, by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
10. BUT WHAT ABOUT FAULTY SCIENCE?
It goes without saying
that scientists are not infallible. Scientists can and do make mistakes.
Indeed, large groups of them may at times espouse ideas that are incorrect. For
example, during the 18th century, the
Closer to our own time,
Darwinian evolution is a case in point. There is a widespread belief among
biological scientists in the English-speaking world that Darwinian evolution
(i.e. the theory that numerous slight successive modifications occurring at
random can cause new species to appear from old) embodies the absolute truth
about living things. In fact, it can be plausibly argued that, since the
“monkey trial” in
And yet, there is an
increasing body of scientific evidence to suggest that Darwinian evolution is
incorrect. Processes which are truly random are simply not capable of creating
the high level of information content that is present in living things. Certain
biological systems can simply not be assembled by numerous slight successive
modifications occurring at random. E.g.,
Michael Behe, in his book “
11. DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN PHYSICS AND BIOLOGY
Now that evidence against Darwinian theory is growing, there is a danger that people may begin to regard all science as suspect. This would be unfortunate.
Just because science does not have access to the charism of infallibility does not mean that science is incapable of determining certain pieces of the truth. Pope Leo appreciated this point explicitly. But this raises an obvious question: how are we to decide whether a scientific theory is true or not? The answer is that we need to rely on probability. The probability that the theory is correct can be increased by performing experiments to test certain predictions of the theory. The more specific the prediction, the more valuable the test. And as more and more tests are performed, with a successful outcome for each, the theory is regarded as progressively more likely to be true. At some point, rational people agree that the theory provides a reliable description of certain aspects of the world in which we live. To be sure, this is a far cry from infallibility, but it does provide a credible basis for the criterion enunciated by Pope Leo: “irrefutable evidence”.
As pointed out by Behe
and others, Darwinism fails to satisfy the criterion of “irrefutable evidence”. The difficulty with
On the other hand,
physics deals with material bodies in the simplest possible terms. As a result,
it is much easier for physicists to perform detailed and extensive tests of
This is an astounding
tribute to the genius of Einstein. Surely Einstein glimpsed a true image of a
piece of God’s blueprint for the physical universe. There is simply no
comparison between Einstein’s theory and
In view of the extensive evidence in favor of Einstein’s theory, it is reasonable to conclude that the evidence for Relativity Theory deserves Pope Leo’s adjective “irrefutable”. And according to this theory, the Universe is between 10 and 20 billion years old.
There are other theories in physics which are also based on equally solid evidence. For example, calculations of stellar structure are based on the laws of conservation of momentum and of energy. These have been widely tested over the past few centuries, and have been found to be accurate descriptions of the physical world. As a result, when calculations of stellar structure indicate that the oldest stars have ages between 10 and 20 billion years, these results are reliable. Other theories that have been used by physicists in arriving at similar estimates for the age of the Universe are also based on thoroughly tested evidence.
12. WHAT DOES POPE LEO’S TEACHING MEAN FOR A CATHOLIC?
Does Pope Leo's teaching make any difference for a Catholic when it comes to the young-Earth/old-Earth controversy? I submit that the answer is Yes: it makes a lot of difference.
As was mentioned above, evidence from five distinct fields of physics point to a universe with a multi-billion year age. Since five completely independent methods all point to essentially the same age, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this evidence deserves the label "irrefutable" in Pope Leo’s sense.
Based on this, it no longer seems conceivable that the Church could teach that the Earth is young.
If the Church were to proclaim the young-Earth theory as an item of Church teaching, in the words of St Thomas Aquinas “Holy Scripture would be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and this would block the unbelievers’ way to belief”.
13. DOES THE OLD EARTH THEORY FAVOR THE THEORY OF EVOLUTION?
Almost everyone who
discusses evolution and the age of the Earth can be classified into one of only
two categories. (1) Evolution occurs, and the Earth is old. (2) Evolution does
not occur, and the Earth is young. I have never met an evolutionist who believes
in the young Earth. Nor have I met a young-Earther who believes in evolution.
The question is: are these the only two groups that people can be classified
in? NO: I suggest that there is a third possibility. (3) The earth is old, but
evolution did NOT occur (at least not the way that
In other words, I make
the following claim: just because the Earth is old, this does not mean that
My reasons for making this claim are based on the fact that evidence for an old Earth comes from the laws of physics, pure and simple. These claims have nothing whatsoever to do with biology. In particular, they have nothing to do with the theory of Darwinian evolution.
Unfortunately, some Fundamentalists suspect that physicists are in collusion with evolutionists. Thus, when physicists announce ages of 10-20 billion years for the Universe, the Fundamentalists claim that the physicists are actually misinterpreting data so as (secretly) to provide support for the theory of evolution. (This approach is evident in G. J. Keane’s book “Creation Rediscovered”.)
To counteract this suspicion, opponents of evolution sometimes choose to fight against evolution by opting for the young-Earth theory. The argument goes roughly as follows: if we limit the Earth’s age to no more than a few thousand years for the Earth, then evolution will not have had enough time to do its work.
However, in making this argument, the opponents of evolution are surrendering unnecessarily to the Darwinians. In fact, the claim of the Darwinians is erroneous. Even if 10 billion years have elapsed since the Earth began, this is not enough time for even the first living cell to appear as a result of chance. Nowhere near enough time.
The phrase “billions and billions of years” (that was made famous by the late Carl Sagan R. I. P.) sounds like a long time to us because it is much longer than a human life. But “long” is a relative term. The relevant scientific question as far as evolution is concerned is: how “long” would it require for random encounters between amino acid molecules in the primordial Earth to create even a single living protein? Even if we choose the smallest known protein, consisting of a chain of 50 amino acids arranged in a specific pattern, then it is easy to show from probability theory that 5 or 10 billion years is not nearly long enough time to create this protein by chance.
If not even a single protein can be created by randomness, the possibility of creating by chance even one cell (which requires many different proteins to function) are astronomically small even if the Earth is 5 or 10 billion years old. The first cell could not have come into existence by chance: it requires the intervention of an Intelligent Designer. Even if the Earth were a billion times a billion years old, the first cell could not have occurred by chance. Scientists who claim that mere access to “billions and billions of years” guarantees the success of random evolution are misleading the uninitiated public.
Thus, admitting that the Earth is 5 billion years old does NOT mean that the evolutionists have “won”. There is still a strict and unavoidable need for God to create life in an old Earth.
Despite this, our culture continues to give a lot of credence to the power of random events. An oft-cited example of the success of random changes is contained in the phrase: “ if you put a billion monkeys in front of a billion type-writers for a few billion years, they would type out the entire works of Shakespeare”. This claim has been made so persistently and so confidently over the years that it has taken on the nature of dogma in some peoples’ minds. And yet this claim is demonstrably false. To see this, note that, if each monkey pecks once a second randomly at a 27-letter keyboard (including a ‘space’ as a letter), it will take on average a year for a meaningful string of a dozen letters to appear on even one of the typewriters. After a year, one of the monkeys will have by chance typed the sequence “Mary had a ”. And it will take 10 billion years, the entire lifetime of the Universe, before one of the monkeys will type out the full line: “Mary had a little lamb”. This is a far cry from the works of Shakespeare.
14. DOES GOD “TEST OUR FAITH” WITH SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE?
When Fundamentalists are presented with scientific evidence which suggests that the Earth is old, they sometimes respond with the following argument. God can do anything. Therefore, He can (if He chooses) make fossils look much older than they actually are. Or He can place the stars at a million light years distance, but start their light traveling towards us at an initial distance of only a thousand light years, so that the light can reach us today even though the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
In other words, the world has the appearance of certain properties, although in actuality (they say), God created the world with very different properties. In this way (the Fundamentalists claim), God is testing our faith in His ability to do anything.
Fundamentalists claim that support for God’s ability to create the appearance of age (in fossils, e.g.) comes from the following thought experiment. Suppose someone met Adam and Eve the day after they were created. Presumably, since God created them as adults, they would have the appearance of being (say) 25 or 30 years old. And yet they were actually only a day old. In view of this, the Fundamentalists claim, appearances of age can be deceiving.
On these grounds, they suggest that scientists have been deceived by the appearances of great age in the fossil evidence, and in the astrophysical evidence.
However, such arguments are subject to serious doubt. For example, when Adam and Eve were created, God’s original plan for them did not include death. It was only if they chose to disobey Him that death would enter the picture (“in that day, you shall die”). Before sin was committed, God’s plan was for Adam and Eve to live in the Garden for a time, and then go to be with God in heaven. In such a situation, the absence of death would have meant that the processes of bodily decay associated with aging would not have occurred while they lived in the Garden. Therefore, the questions “What age is this man? What age is this woman?” would have had very different meanings in the Garden from those that we ascribe to them in our day. Before the fall, the aging process (whatever it was) must have been very different from the process with which all of us are familiar in everyday life. Adam and Eve might have lived in the Garden for a hundred years and still not have “aged” (according to our standards). However, once original sin occurred, death entered into the lives of Adam and Eve. From that point on, they were driven from the Garden into the world that we live in now. And in our world, an aging process began in earnest for Adam and Eve in preparation for the final separation of body and soul in death.
Moreover, why would God trick us by setting up an elaborate system of multiple physical clues which point consistently to a Universe that has an age between 10 and 20 billion years? What would God achieve by deceiving us on such a massive scale? Such activity seems entirely out of character for Someone who (according to the standard theological definition) can neither deceive nor be deceived. It also seems entirely out of character for Christ, who proclaimed Himself to be “the Truth”, to engage in world-wide trickery with scientists who are honestly and earnestly seeking the truth about the world.
15. THE CLAIM FOR A YOUNG EARTH: WHAT IS A CATHOLIC TO BELIEVE?
What am I to tell my home-schooled children about the claim the Earth is young? How should they regard such a claim? Should they interpret Genesis in a literal sense?
It seems to me that I have an obligation to teach my children that literalism is not the way the Church approaches the interpretation of Genesis. In this regard, Catholics are guided by the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XII. Catholics certainly need to “hold the truth of scripture without wavering” (as Aquinas said). The difficult part is to determine what exactly is the “truth of scripture”.
This point was already
apparent in the earliest days of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC). In
the early 1900’s, the PBC was asked if it is permissible to interpret the
Hebrew word “yom” (“day”) in the first chapter of Genesis in two distinct ways:
either in its strict sense (as the natural day), or in a less strict sense as
signifying a certain space of time. The PBC answered on
Moreover, in 1993, on the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo’s encyclical, the PBC issued a document entitled "Biblical Interpretation in the Church". This document included a long introduction by Pope John Paul II, who praised the encyclicals of Pope Leo (1893) and of Pope Pius XII (1943) on the Catholic approach to Bible study. The 1993 PBC document pointed out that a fundamentalist approach to the Bible is NOT adequate as far as the Catholic Church is concerned.
Why is a fundamentalist approach inadequate? Pope John Paul spells out the reason in his Introduction. He points out that although God certainly uses human language inerrantly (as Pope Pius XII reiterated in no uncertain terms in his 1943 encyclical), God also uses the language in ways that are flexible. God is not locked in to using human language in one and only one way. Because of this flexibility, the words of scripture are sometimes hard to understand. This is not a new teaching by the current Pope: in fact, the very first Pope made the identical point in one of his inspired writings (2 Pet. 3, 16). In order to find the “truth of scripture”, the words of scripture need to be interpreted properly. In most cases, the interpretation is obvious. But there are certain cases where the interpretation is in dispute. In such cases, it is the task of the Magisterium to provide the correct interpretation. An individual’s interpretation, even if supported by the Fathers of the Church, may be in error.
In particular, the interpretation of genealogies in Genesis in such a way as to arrive at an age of only a few thousand years for the Earth, is NOT part of magisterial teaching at the present time.
Therefore, when I teach my children that the Earth is between 4 and 5 billion years old, I am not contradicting any currently defined doctrine of the Catholic Church. Nor am I giving credence to Darwinian evolution. On the contrary, I am teaching my children to respect what Pope Leo said in 1893: scientists really do have access to truths about the world that God created.