"Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death.... Again and again you offered a covenant to man.8"
Paragraph 55 covers a great deal of ground, theologically speaking. The very first sentence embraces a cluster of issues: the nature of Revelation, the creation of man, and the fall of man. It even gives us an excuse to detour through the last great controversial encyclical prior to Vatican II, Humani Generis, written by Pope Pius XII in 1950, a document that probably best explains why a Church Council was a good idea in 1962.
The entire drama of the doctrine of Redemption rests, of course, on the reality that man needs saving. Take away the need and Christianity becomes, to quote St. Paul, “folly to the Greeks” or at best a rather large service organization alongside Rotary and the Clinton Foundation. Christianity has fought vigorously to protect this basic doctrine of man’s need for God’s grace or saving action. A fifth century Christian theologian, Pelagius, discovered the hard way just how central the doctrines of fall and salvation when he dared suggest that man might have a hand on the salvation control knob.
Para. 55 begins by assuming both the fact that God was revealing Himself prior to the unfortunate incident in the Garden and that man indeed did fall. From its earliest days the Church has sourced this belief from Scripture; put simply, the Church has always held that Revelation begins with God’s intention to create, and through the act of creation itself. If you recall many, many weeks ago, the earlier paragraphs of the Catechism describe the human species as naturally capable of coming to realization of an all-powerful being of good intent. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of natural and special Revelation—what man can intuit from observation and what man needs infused into his knowledge from above, respectively.
The figure of Adam has enjoyed a rather special place in both popular catechetics and formal Church teaching, his sinful act notwithstanding. St. Paul actually speaks of Christ as the new Adam [Romans 5], and Augustine, four centuries later, would finish the triangle of Adam-Original Sin-Baptism. For much of its lifetime the Church would hold the Adam and Eve narrative as historical fact with a biological implication: we are, all of us, in the bloodline of Adam and through sexual intercourse and conception inherit Adam’s sin. Thus a newborn infant was considered equally sinful to Adam and Eve on the day of their banishment, and thus in need of immediate baptism after birth. So deeply held was this articulation of first sin that only the direct intervention of God could rescue Mary, the future mother of Jesus, from original sin, thus giving us the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is hard to gauge precisely, but I believe the that the connection between sexuality and original sin probably contributed to unease, at the very least, about human sexuality in Catholic practice.
The difficulties for the Church in maintaining this model of creation, revelation, and sin began to arise after the Renaissance, and to erupt more intensely at the time of the Enlightenment and down into our present age. Beginning in the 1600’s there was a momentous explosion of learning, from philosophy to science. Prior to modern times the “sciences” assisted the Church, providing technical terms for such doctrines as Transubstantiation (“the substance of the bread and wine changes into the Body and Blood of Christ, while the accidents of taste, weight, and appearance remain those of bread and wine.”)
By 1800 the findings of science were beginning to seriously contradict long-held Catholic interpretations (I expressly did not use the word “doctrine,” however.) There are two that serve our purposes here. The first is literary analysis; the same skills applied to examining Shakespeare’s plays turned to all of the classics, including the Bible and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, among others. It did not take long to decipher that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) gave evidence of multiple authors and at least several strains of Hebrew belief. Compare the style of the first creation account (Genesis 1) with that of the second (Genesis 3). The second science to pose serious questions was earth science. Archaeologists were uncovering artifacts far older than the believed Biblical origin of creation in 4000 B.C., and Charles Darwin spent many a lonely day in the field exploring the idea we know today as evolution. Darwin was no scheming heretic; he was an elder in his church—when he was home.
Such findings were considerable influences on theological study, both Catholic and Protestant, and schools of theology developed which reflected a more interdisciplinary or modern approach. By 1900 there was great Catholic Church concern about newer theological trends, generally termed Modernist and centered in France. Pope Pius X in 1907 issued a decree Lamentabili against the modernist drift of theology; the “oath against modernism” was a required seminary step to the priesthood till possibly the late 1960’s.
Obviously, secular scholarship would continue, and by 1943 Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, called by some the Magna Carta for Catholic biblical scholars, who were given permission to use secular tools in their Scriptural analysis. But, as you might imagine, this only intensified the discussion over the Biblical account of the origin of man—a lynch pin of so much Catholic belief—vis-a-vis multiple arguments that the Genesis accounts could not be historical. Thus, concerned about the influences of modern thought in seminaries—though wise enough to avoid the extremes of Pius X—Pius XII issued Humani Generis in 1950. Wikipedia’s entry is a very adequate introduction to the document’s intricacies.
In a sense this document is a carefully crafted work intended to preserve the teaching authority of the Church without retreating into an immaterial remnant in the strange new post-wars world that was becoming progressively harder to decipher. As Wikipedia correctly assesses, Pius had to tread carefully. A polarity was developing between bishops and theologians about who really was best qualified to interpret the Catholic response to new trends and discoveries. Pius expressed his view that the Church—specifically the papacy—was entrusted with this role, and that the task of theologians was to aid the Church in its teaching role, but the scholars were free to use all the tools at their disposal.
But this still left many questions unanswered, notably the issue of the first humans. Pius goes on to write that he is aware of differences on the creation of man, and he acknowledges that Catholics are divided on the subject (in academia, at least.) He seems to hold to the idea that there was one originating couple, though we may be uncertain who and where they originated, and he insists that any understanding of human creation must, at its core, recognize the direct intervention of God in infusing the person with a soul.
But what about biological integrity and the passage of original sin into the full human species? Doing a little hair splitting, Pius condemns the then-popular idea of polygenism, or the emergence of clusters of humans in different parts of the planet. Thus, in his anthropological analysis, the two-parent origin of our species remained safe.
By the 1950’s, though, large numbers of American Catholics were obtaining college degrees at Catholic universities through the Veterans Administration (the famous GI Bill) and beginning to ask more penetrating questions about the Faith. In Western Europe, as the populace beheld the destruction, loss of life, and genocide, it was clear that the questions of faith and conscience would no longer be answered by encyclicals. A new “methodology of faith and understanding” was needed, a point not lost on Pope John XXIII when he announced in 1959 his intention to convoke an ecumenical council.