Response by D. J. Mullan to letter of G. Keane in NOR (Sept. 2003)
Keane’s letter to NOR illustrates quite graphically an admission which appears in his book: he is not a scientist. He claims that “Progressive Creationists do not inform us on their belief about what happened on Earth during the supposed 4.99999 billion years (b.y.) before mankind came into existence, let alone an earlier 10-15 b.y. while the Universe was supposedly forming”. This is a ludicrous claim: there is plenty of information about what was happening on Earth prior to man’s appearance. There are fossil records of the earliest single-cell organisms, then more complicated eukaryotes, then multi-cell organisms, and then human beings. And as for the previous 10-15 b.y., astrophysics has a lot to say about what was happening in the expanding universe: galaxies, stars, and planets were all forming on time-scales which are well-defined in terms of local conditions. Since Keane admits in his book that he is not a scientist, it is quite possible that no-one ever informed Keane about these matters, but the information does exist.
Keane is simply wrong when he states that “modern scientists regard the idea of eons of time AS A GIVEN” (my emphasis added). The idea that the universe has an age measured in billions of years is far from a given: it did not even exist in the minds of scientists until the 20th century. And even then it emerged piece by piece only as a result of painstaking scientific inquiry by hundreds of the best minds in several distinct fields of astrophysics. And the most amazing thing is that researchers in five independent areas of research each come up with an age for the universe which is consistent with what the others have discovered. The concordance between these five estimates of the age of the universe is, in my opinion, a remarkable and unique tribute to the power of human reason. There is nothing “given” about the age: it just comes out as 13.7 b.y. when impartial people evaluate the evidence in the light of physical laws.
Turning now to Biblical matters, Keane claims that the “onus of proof” is on me when I contend that a non-literal sense of scripture is “superior to the literal, obvious sense”. To satisfy this requirement, Keane says that I must respond to five bulleted items. I am happy to give such responses here.
(1) Keane says that the onus of proof is on me to overturn “the long-held belief that the Creation days were 24 hours each”. He claims there are “powerful arguments in exegesis”. My response is that I do not put much stock in exegesis until such times as the Magisterium raises a particular item of exegesis to the level of doctrine. In my mind, the key question that needs to be addressed is: did the Magisterium ever formally teach that each creation day consisted of 24 literal hours, i.e. 1440 literal minutes, or 86400 literal seconds? I can find no evidence that the Magisterium ever did so.
In view of this, why should I have to overturn a teaching that the Church never promulgated? The onus is on Keane to prove that the Magisterium (as opposed to certain Fathers of the Church) ever required as a matter of faith that Catholics believe in six creation days of 1440 literal minutes each.
(2) Keane wants me to “Show where is the clue given by the sacred Writer that the Genesis Creation account was intended to be understood completely differently from its literal and obvious meaning”.
Here is how I show this. I refer to Genesis Chap. 2, v. 4-7. There, the sacred Writer says “IN THE DAY that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground….and man became a living being” (my emphasis added). Notice the use of the words “the day” (singular) in this sentence. These words in Genesis 2 imply that if the word “day” is taken literally, then three separate entities (the Earth, the heavens, and man) were all created ON THE SAME “DAY”.
But this is very different from what is in Genesis Chap. 1. There is simply no way in which the literal meaning of the words in Chapter 2 can be consistent with the literal meaning of Genesis Chap 1. In the latter, the heavens, Earth, and man were formed ON THREE SEPARATE DAYS: the heavens on Day Two, the Earth on Day Three, and man on Day Six.
God is the writer of both Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 in the Book of Genesis, and
God cannot lie. Therefore, there must be some way in which the two chapters do
not contradict each other. Since the literal meanings do contradict each other,
I take this to be the clue given by God that we should seek a non-literal
interpretation for one or other chapter (or both). In this regard, I stand with
(3) Keane is misleading when he claims that “Leo XIII insisted that we must believe what the fathers unanimously believed”. Certainly Pope Leo respected the teachings of the Fathers on scriptural matters. But he added an important caveat which Keane chooses not to cite. Here is what the Pope actually wrote in PD (Denz. 1948). “The unshrinking defense of Holy Scripture however does not require that we should equally uphold ALL OF THE OPINIONS which each of the Fathers or the more recent interpreters have put forth in explaining it. For it may be that, in commenting on passages WHERE PHYSICAL MATTERS OCCUR, they have sometimes expressed the ideas of their own times, and thus made statement which IN THESE DAYS HAVE BEEN ABANDONED AS INCORRECT” (my emphasis added). Following Pope Leo, I do not have to believe everything the Fathers wrote about things in the physical world.
Keane is being disingenuous when he groups Augustine among those who thought that “the days of creation were not longer than 24 hours each”. The implication is that Augustine believed that God required six intervals of time (each about 24 hours long) to create the world. Actually, Augustine believed no such thing. Instead, he believed in instantaneous creation (Summa Theol., Blackfriars edition, Vol. 10, p. 209). In Augustine’s view, “God created everything…without any interval of time between the creations of different things. The various days of creation do not indicate a temporal priority but merely a relationship in a pattern of meaning or of logical development” (ibid. p. 210).
But what about the mention of evening and morning in the days of Genesis? Augustine has an explanation that Thomas Aquinas “often repeats…the days signify series of illuminations by which God successively acquainted the angels with works He had accomplished IN ONE INSTANT: the evening signifies the direct knowledge of things by angels, and the morning, the more perfect knowledge acquired when the angels contemplate them in the Word” (ibid., p. 209).
(4) Those who believe that God required 24 literal hours, i.e. 1440 literal minutes, i.e. 86400 literal seconds, to create various items of creation need to explain why such finite intervals are necessary at all. God’s power is such that He does not require 24 hours (as we reckon time) or even 24 nanoseconds to create. He has the power to create instantaneously (if He chooses to do so) or He has the power to perform continuous creation at all instants of time, from the very beginning of time up to the present moment.
Is there any proof that God indeed does perform continuous creation? Yes: there is Magisterial teaching to that effect. Each human soul is created by a direct act of God’s creative power (Humani Generis). I offer this as proof (as Keane requests me to show) that the Fathers “were wrong in holding that the work of Creation formally ceased at the end of the Creation events”. Every human soul demands that God’s work of creation be ongoing.
(5) Contrary to Keane’s statement, the Church did not get the “package of origins beliefs wrong for 1850 years”. The Magisterium certainly taught that the world had a beginning in time (at Lateran IV), but the Magisterium never taught when that instant in time was ACCORDING TO THE RECKONING OF OUR CALENDARS. Moreover, the Magisterium has never taught in any statement that is to be believed de fide that God used six intervals of precisely 1440 minutes each to perform the task of creation. Contrary to Keane’s claim, I do not need to disprove anything here.
Dermott J Mullan, Elkton MD