According to Catholic doctrine:

  • all men inherit ancestral sin from Adam;
  • God descended upon Earth as the Son in order to free mankind from this sin, was crucified, died etc.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin".

The theory of evolution states that we (as Homo Sapiens) gradually evolved from other creatures. This implies—if we don't misinterpret the theory—that Adam and Eve never existed.

If Adam and Eve never existed, no one fell, and we cannot inherit ancestral sin from no one. Moreover, there wasn't any reason which Jesus had to be born for, anything he had to free us from.

Now, my question is: How can the doctrine of ancestral sin be justified in view of the Darwinian theory of evolution?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Caleb
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 9:43

8 Answers 8


Catholics reconcile the two beliefs by being allowed to believe in evolution, but required to believe in the existence of Adam and Eve.

For the purposes of this discussion, evolution is the scientific hypothesis that the physical bodies of various living beings have developed from those of other living beings of different species. To believe in evolution is to hold evolution as a scientific hypothesis, subject to falsifiability in the event of countering evidence (that is, evidence that can only be explained if the hypothesis is false).

With these definitions in mind, then, the Catholic Church neither requires nor forbids Catholics to believe in evolution—to the extent (and only to the extent) that such a belief is not found to conflict with Church teaching. However, the Church does require that Catholics assert that there were a single original man and woman, who sinned, and who are the ancestors of all subsequent humans.

The encyclical letter Humani Generis, written by Pope Pius XII in 1950, discusses (among other philosophical stances the Church considers to be errors or heresies) evolution as it has sometimes been used to back an existential, relativist view of the world. Pope Pius writes:

The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith.

(paragraph 36)

In other words, the Church has no issue with discussion of evolution as science, and purely as science; it's when the scientific conclusions are used to back philosophical statements at variance with the revealed Truth, or when evolution is held as if it were a matter of Faith, that the Church takes issue.

Pope Pius continues, however:

The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

(paragraph 37)

In other words, if Adam and Eve were not a single pair of people, who sinned, and who were the ancestors of all subsequent humans, it would be possible to deny that all human beings are subject to original sin. Since this is a matter of Faith—something which cannot be denied without committing heresy—there appears to be no way to hold that Adam and Eve were not literal beings.

The Pope concludes by mandating that teachers of the Catholic faith not present such statements (e.g. that Adam was not a real person, but represents a number of early humans) as fact.

Note: To believe that there were two humans who were the ancestors of all subsequent humans is scientifically reasonable, as I understand things. That is, it appears that the statement found above in this question:

The theory of evolution ... implies—if we don't misinterpret the theory—that Adam and Eve never existed

may be false without contradicting what is known scientifically about humans; and the Catholic Church, as appears in this document, officially believes that it is false.

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    Is Humani Generis the only instance you're aware of wherein we're required to believe in the existence of Adam and Eve is the sole origins of the human race?
    – svidgen
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 18:51
  • It's the only formal discussion of the two concepts (Adam and Eve on the one hand, evolution on the other) that I've found. Considering the phrasing of the question, I was looking specifically for documents that dealt with both issues. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 18:55
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    Reason I ask: I was actually unaware that a belief in Adam and Eve as individual persons as opposed to potentially as metaphorical stand-ins for "the dawn of humanity" was required. I.e., I'd thought Adam and Eve were in the category as Noah and the Flood -- a literal interpretation is not required. ... Not that this belief requires a strictly literal interpretation of the events. But, certainly more literal than I'd realized.
    – svidgen
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 19:08
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    It appears to me (and that's as far as I'll go with claims of authority) that Catholics are required to believe that there were a man and a woman who are the ancestors of all subsequent humans, and that they were tempted, and that they fell. Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 19:26
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    I need to read this encyclical more carefully. I get the sense that I'm inserting a comma or a stress somewhere in my head that changes the meaning. The overall nature the letter seems to be a rebuke of over-certainty and following silencing of theological dialogue, provided that the dialogue submits to Church Authority.
    – svidgen
    Commented Sep 3, 2014 at 22:35

For the sake of completeness of views on this issue, I want to provide some quotes from the 2003 New Catholic Encyclopedia. They are from the entry titled "monogenism and polygenism":

Monogenism takes the position that the whole human race is descended from a single couple or a single individual. At least until the mid-nineteenth century, monogenism was also regarded as entailing the immediate creation of the first man or couple by a special divine act. Given the preponderant evidence for biological evolution, monogenism is no longer understood in this way. But if the first biological couple may have arisen through an evolutionary process, it remains Church teaching that the SOUL of each and every human being is created directly by God (Pope John Paul II 1997).

Here it must be said that the Church hasn't pronounced on the issue of the evolution of the body. This is, it is not a heresy for Catholics to entertain the opinion that the human body emerged through evolution. The soul however, is immediately created by God, and does not comes, e.g. from the parents. Here are the word of Pope Pius XII:

"the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter — [but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36)

Now, going back to the encyclopedia:

The position contrary to monogenism is known as polygenism, of which there are two types. According to the first (called monophyletic polygenism), since evolution always proceeds within an interbreeding group, humanity would have first appeared among a number of individuals, whose progeny gradually spread world-wide through emigration. Thus, one would speak of a first community rather than a first couple or man. The second type (called polyphyletic polygenism) hypothesizes that the human species arose through separate evolutionary lines in a number of different places at different times, with the different lines converging to form our present population. Scientists have not reached consensus on which of the two versions of polygenism — the monophyletic or polyphyletic—is more likely to be true (Harpending 1994).

Monogenism was presumed by the Council of TRENT in its teaching on ORIGINAL SIN (DS 1511–1514). The most explicit statement on monogenism came in 1950 in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter Humani Generis. Referring to Rom. 5.12 and the teaching of Trent, Pius maintained that ‘‘Christ’s faithful cannot embrace’’ either form of polygenism, since ‘‘it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled’’ with the scriptural and magisterial teaching on original sin, namely, that this sin was ‘‘actually committed by an individual Adam’’ and ‘‘through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own’’ (DS 3897).

In view of Pope Pius’s statement, many theologians (including K. Rahner in 1954) argued that monogenism is so closely implied by the teaching on original sin that it must be considered a certain, if not infallible, tenet of faith. But the conclusions drawn by science, which flatly contradict monogenism, were found increasingly persuasive by theologians, including Rahner, who reversed his initial support of the position in 1967. The present situation amounts to a quandary for theologians. On the one hand, even though it has not been formally addressed by the magisterium since Humani generis, monogenism continues to be accepted as a basic premise in Church teaching, as is shown by the relevant sections of the The Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 374–379, 390, 399–407). On the other hand, to deny the polygenistic origin of the human species places the theologian in clear opposition with science, and conjures up the image of an obscurantist faith combating the truth of reason. And yet it may very well prove to be that science, in its forthright drive for empirical knowledge, has only forced theology to deeper reflection on its own central claim that Christ lies at the heart of all (Col. 1.16).

It is evident that the magisterium has insisted on monogenism for the sake of defending the teaching on original sin, according to which, as Trent declared, all of humanity belongs to a single order which was intrinsically ‘‘changed for the worse,’’ physically and spiritually, by virtue of a human decision made at this order’s beginning (DS 1511–1513). Hence, the judgment by Pius XII in Humani generis that the faithful are not free to accept polygenism, since it appears quite impossible to speak of any human act having the kind of effect that Trent assigned to the first sin if the human order emerged gradually and in plural fashion from an antecedent nonhuman order. If science is right about the mechanisms that gave rise to the biological species Homo sapiens, and the tradition is right about the nature of the human order, it would seem that theologians must continue to reflect on the data in search of other ways of defending the issue.

In conclusion, at present, there is actually no definitive answer to the question you pose, in part because the Church hasn't infallible declared monogenism to be true (and honestly, I don't think it can, as this refers to the realm of science, i.e. to facts, and thus is not within the scope of faith, which is the domain upon which infallibility applies). Theologians are still actively developing ways to reconcile evolution of the body with the original sin. One way forward, for instance, is to re-think the concept of original sin altogether. An example of a summary of new theological literature on this respect can be found in this recently published academic paper.


Mixing science and theology never amounts to much.

Science can tell us about things we observe but never concretely, everything gets smaller. Mysteries of science require observation with an ever smaller microscope. Theology on the other hand, gets broader as you get farther in to it. You can never wrap your head around it.

  • Aristotle had a complete vision of the scientific world which is sufficient even today. The truth, if you want to call it truth, is inside his mainly correct vision.

  • St. Thomas Aquinas wrote voluminously trying to get everything about theology into one big book and wound up with "so much straw", as he put it. Theology is about a world bigger than our own and cannot be examined, let alone subjected to, scientific inquiry.

Evolution is compatible with the Catholic Faith

Some people dispute this, but there are only a few things that a Catholic is required to believe about the first 11 chapters of Genesis to not be a heretic.

  1. It is not supposed to be regarded as history, it is pre-history
  2. The moral (if you do what I told you not to do, you will lose Sanctifying Grace); anagogical (she will crush your head); metaphorical (the serpent will be made to slither "what did he do before?"); and literal (be fruitful and multiply) teachings found in Genesis are objectively true, and there are many other ones that anyone would say are true. But considering only the literal interpretation of the Bible will leave you missing 3/4ths of the truths that are in there.
  3. We inherited our human nature from Adam and Eve, that's why they're our First Parents.

The Pelagian heresy stated that original sin didn't get passed on through generation, they thought it was a little rude to assume that God would punish children for sins they didn't commit, but St. Augustine came back with the reply that "we're all in it together. So it doesn't really matter what you think, Pelagius". And he was right, it's society which gets the blame, but you can't dispute that it comes down to use through generation because how else could it come down to us. It's not spontaneous and it's not our choosing because given the choice, I think we'd avoid it - since it's penalty is death.

Anyway, if you're going to mix up science and religion to ask a question that religion has much more right to answer than science does, you'd better be prepared to deal with the religious answers. Religion is an attempt to reconnect us with God and the Catholic Faith does it by baptism which wipes away the stain of original sin (which allows us to get into Heaven), but leaves its effects (death and passing it on to our children).

The four levels of being

I'll give the short, short version of the conclusion because my lunch break is almost done. There are rocks and trees and animals and people. Science is clearly as dumb as rocks are, it can't really detect life in trees, it surely doesn't know much about the consciousness of an animal and will never grasp one iota of the interior life of a human being. Therefore the human nature which was created in man by God, which is an image of Himself, our souls, which reflect God came to us first to Adam and then to Eve and then to all the God created souls, which God created at his leisure cannot be observed by reason or science because whether or not we like it, there must always be a third (fourth and fifth) Person involved in all of our intimate and procreative entanglements who creates the soul for the new person.

The short short short answer is, Adam sinned and poof, sin is now in the world!

For reference see





read E.F. Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed

  • With the exception of this section Evolution is compatible with the Catholic Faith, great answer!
    – user13992
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 3:40
  • "We inherited our human nature from Adam and Eve, that's why they're our First Parents" Any link on this statement? Commented Nov 28, 2021 at 9:56

From a footnote of Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's Essence & Topicality of Thomism:

Some teach more or less explicitly that the material world would naturally evolve toward the spiritual, or that likewise the spiritual world would evolve naturally or quasi-naturally toward the supernatural order, as if Baius had been right. The world would be thereby in natural evolution toward the fullness of Christ; it would be in continual progress and hence would not have been able to be in the beginning in the perfect state of original justice followed by a fall, namely, original sin; such evolutionism, which recalls that of Hegel, mutates the substance of dogma itself.


Q. How can the doctrine of ancestral(sic) sin be justified in view of the Darwinian theory of evolution?

The following appear to be two formulations - not comprehensive - on the Church's position1:

  1. The Church does not take a position for or against evolution and the the Church can step in at anytime and pronounce a judgment that must be assented to by all the faithful.
  2. Pope St. John Paul II [the Great]: "Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points" + Conciliar Constitution Gaudium et Spes must be taken into account.

And since the dogmas of the Church are irreformable and one of those is Original Sin, once the conclusions of science are in, if they were to contradict divine revelation, they cannot be reconciled with the faith. If there was no contradiction, I suppose it is up to expert scientists and expert theologians to work together and if they can, come up with an explanation that delves deeper into the mysteries of the faith whilst preserving the integrity of true science as science and again explanations cannot contradict divine revelation which is unchanging past, present and future.

1. Please see this answer to What is the Catholic Church's position on the scientific theory of evolution? for a more complete treatment.

Various comments

A believer would really be in a crisis if the theory of evolution was established science and proven beyond doubt.

  1. This theory (note emphasis), to me, is not even grounded and there are unsupported hypotheses and controversies surrounding the theory2, for example the Cambrian Explosion. Darwin himself aware of it said in the The Origin of Species that:

    "several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks." He called this a "serious" problem which "at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained" (Chapter X).

  2. From this answer, we learned that the, '[t]ruth in science, however, is never final, and what is accepted as a fact today may be modified or even discarded tomorrow.'
  3. Pope Pius XII Encyclical Humani Generis (1950), 36: *"Some however, rashly transgress this liberty of discussion3, when they act as if the origin of the human body from pre-existing and living matter were already completely certain and proved by the facts

    which have been discovered up to now and by reasoning on those facts, and as if there were nothing in the sources of divine revelation which demands the greatest moderation and caution in this question."*

2. cf. A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism: Links.
3. THIS is the allowance that the Pope gave.

I believe from the Church's perspective, it would fulfill its mission better if it followed the late Italian Cardinal Caesar Baronius' saying:

"The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

It is not these theories that pose a danger to the believer, but Church's dance with the [modern] world.

Please see this answer to What is the Catholic Church's position on the scientific theory of evolution? In part,

[The] the Church does not take a position for or against evolution; opposing opinions are to be given due consideration; allows for scientific research to continue, and allows for discussions between expert scientists and experts in sacred theology; limits the inquiry to the origin of the human body only - the Catholic Faith puts the soul off-limits; what is not certain should not be taken as such and what has not been proven should not be taken as a fact; conclusions cannot contradict divine revelation; because of her divine-given mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith, the Church can step in at anytime and pronounce a judgment that must be assented to by all the faithful.

One other limit that the Church imposes on her children is that they do not have the liberty to embrace the conjectural opinion of polygenism.

The other Magisterium that Pope St. John Paul II [the Great] says must be taken into account is the Conciliar Constitution Gaudium et Spes which magnificently explained this doctrine: 'Revelation teaches us that he [man] was created in the image and likeness of God.'

Interesting reading:

"The Credo of Paul VI: Theology of Original Sin and the Scientific Theory of Evolution" by Roberto Masi (L'Osservatore Romano, 17 April 1969) | EWTN. To be read keeping in mind: "The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

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    Not to start an internet flame war, but this is a very hard line for a Christian scientist to take in the year 2014. Perhaps if you could explain the vestigial GULO gene in human DNA, or the merged chimpanzee chromosomes, or even the plethora of endogenous retro viruses. I don't know if fellow Christians are aware of just how strong an evidence base they are dismissing.
    – tom
    Commented Sep 7, 2014 at 0:05
  • @tom Darwin himself gives me cause for pause ...
    – user13992
    Commented Sep 7, 2014 at 8:09
  • Worth noting that all scientific findings are phrased as theories. To scientists saying Evolution is a theory is the same as saying that Newton's laws are theories. Are they subject to evaluation and interpretation, sure! (see: relativity). Are they something that scientists have any doubt about at all? not so much. The use of the word "Theory" is science for "something we understand well enough to say we're sure"
    – wax eagle
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 4:11
  • @waxeagle What gives a theory legs is its verifiability. E.g. Einstein's general relativity correctly accounts for the "anomalous" precession of the perihelion of Mercury which Newton's equations could not explain.
    – user13992
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 4:21
  • @waxeagle PS Worth noting that all scientific findings are phrased as theories. - Incorrect.
    – user13992
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 5:48

Much of this thread , while very worth reading, is missing the simple understanding that we must have a common ancestor because we have all inherited the deficiency of original sin. How we have a common ancestor we will never know. But the Church states that evolution of the body is appropriate to consider. So, if we share genes with Chimps, that makes no difference to the fact of creation "in" (or "to" as Aquinas would offer) God's Image which does not concern a body but concerns a will and an intellect and therefore a person in/to the image of God. If we evolved from monkeys to other homos to Neanderthals to humans, then, there came a moment when God endowed a Neanderthal with an intellect which makes him, therefore, in God's image and a person as opposed to an animal who operates strictly on instinct. So, whatever the answer is, as regards how we came to be, we can say that at some point, whether through de novo creation of a new species of homo or through the evolution of the body, God instilled a rational soul which became the means for being in the image of God AND the means and transmission of original sin.


It really depends if you consider Homo Sapiens as the first "man" or when in the chain of Darwinistic human evolution you would consider the first "man" to have arrived.

I know the Church allows us to accept evolution (despite any shortcomings with abiogenesis) but still requires belief in the creation of man by God and therefore in God's creation in Adam (from which we all descend and subsequently inherit his original sin).

Ponder the possibility that this carnal animal that our souls are trapped in (aka our bodies) may have evolved, whereas Adam, the first man, was created in God's image. Later, after his fall, God clothed him in "skins" (Genesis 3:21). Logically you have to kill an animal in order to cloth yourself in its skin. Might this animal, homo X, have been what God used to cloth Adam in sin? If so, then this animal very well could have had a complex prior evolution but was not technically a man.

This is not official Church doctrine, but is discussed and pondered by several saints and is therefore the reason why the Church herself will not take a definitive stance on such technicalities.


I have directly responded to this question in my peer-reviewed article entitled, "The Rational Credibility of a Literal Adam and Eve." It appears in the Spanish Thomist journal, *Espiritu*64, n. 150 (November, 2015), 303-320. In that article, I show how it is possible to correctly correlate paleoanthropology, genetics, theology, and philosophy so as to give a credible explanation of how belief in a literal Adam and Eve is possible, while not resorting to young earth creationism. The link is: http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=5244649 While the journal is in Spanish, rest assured that the pdf of my article is in English. This article may be seen as a follow up and response to Kenneth Kemp's 2011 article on monogenism in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly.

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    Welcome, and thanks for contributing! It's great to have you. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and learn how this site is different from others. Thanks for linking to this resource. One thing that would further help our readers would be to summarize/quote the key parts related to this particular question (of reconciling evolution with original sin), to both make the answer more easily accessible, and in case this URL someday no longer works. Thanks! Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 2:15
  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. It may be that your article does provide an excellent answer to the question. However, answers here must provide the answer in the text of the answer itself, rather than relying on links to do the work. Please do provide a synopsis of the key relevant points in the answer itself. You can then provide the link for reference and further information. See: What makes a good supported answer? Meanwhile, I do hope you'll stick around and browse the questions and answers here. Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 2:19
  • You essentially claim that the existence of Adam and Eve, from the Catholic doctrine's point of view, is necessary: a "certainty of faith"; therefore, the burden of the proof is upon deniers. I agree. Then you fallaciously use this lemma to disprove the evidence, and sow the seeds of doubt upon the validity of the scientific inquiry. I say fallaciously, because you cannot postulate the Catholic dogmas in a scientific context, which requires solid facts and pondered hypotheses. Your relegation of the burden of proof merely does not logically hold outside the Catholic theological scope.
    – giucal
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 3:57

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