Questions Answered

Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden. (Painted by Adam West)

Question:  Since I was a child in school many years ago (I am now 67!), I have had a question I could not answer. Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, we learned as children. We also learned about prehistoric man. Were our first parent’s like the prehistoric humans depicted in these lessons?

Answer: The question of the nature of man in the state of Original Justice, that is, before the Original Sin, is very important for Catholic theology. John Paul II describes the nature of man, represented in Chapters One and Two in the Book of Genesis, as a “myth”. What does he mean by this? In the 19th century, the term “myth” indicated something not contained in reality, and was a mere product of human imagination. Such is not true in more recent understandings of myth. In fact, the picture of primitive man you were given in the textbooks on evolution is more conformed to the 19th century picture, as it is an extrapolation of human imagination from a few artifacts. Though early men who actually existed were not technologically advanced, this did not mean they looked any different, or were any less rational than human beings today.

John Paul II quotes a 20th century author, Paul Ricoeur, who says: “The ‘Adamic’ myth is the anthropological myth par excellence; the name Adam means “man”. But not every myth of ‘the primordial man’ is an “Adamic” myth […] Only the Adamic myth is strictly anthropological.” (Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, quoted in John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, note 4). The characteristics are three: evil has its source in our ancestor who is the same nature as we are; the origin of evil is completely separated from the origin of good; and the figure of Adam is primary, and is the origin of all the others; in fact, this person described in Genesis is man himself. The myth is, therefore, a primitive way of expressing metaphysical and philosophical truth. In other words, before the great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, developed a sophisticated vocabulary for expressing deep philosophical concepts like substance, accident, essence, and existence, people used more vivid and ordinary language to do the same.

Pius XII defined that the human race had to take its origin from physical connection to one man and one woman. “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parents 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, proposed with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual, Adam, through which generation is passed onto all, and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis, 37).

Nevertheless, the Church in the Catechism states that the first two chapters in Genesis involve real history, though not a chronological history, but a topical or philosophical one. The Adam described in Genesis, chapters one and two, is the entire human race in history in relation to God, including the individual Adam himself. “The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents” (CCC 390).

As to the question of evolution, the Church makes no judgement. But it is clear that matter cannot generate spirit. So even if there were a process by which the body of man became what we consider more human in appearance, each person must result from a direct creation by God of the human soul. This is as true for us now as it was for the first man.

Just one more comment on the popular representation of the physical appearance of the first man. With the exception of our archeological evidence concerning the skeletons which have been discovered, the portrayals of them as being just above apes is an artist’s imagination. No one knows what early man looked like. In fact, scientists recently discovered a fossil of a human cranium over 400,000 years old. Man has been a long-time resident on this planet, and it is important not to be confused by such artist’s conceptions based on a perhaps prejudicial idea of what man ought to be. The religious picture of man as a noble creature, with a spiritual life setting him apart from the animals, is just as plausible, if not more so, than his being depicted as a brute.



Question: Are there five or seven precepts of the Church?

Answer: Apparently there is some confusion as to the number of the precepts of the Church after the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Older catechisms enumerate six or sometimes seven precepts. Before attempting an answer to this, it is important to clarify the nature of a precept of the Church.

The Catechism states this: “The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws, decreed by the pastoral authorities, is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor.” (2041) Note that these are laws which are positive, that is, they are not part of the natural law or the Ten Commandments, but are determined by human authorities. The authorities in our Church have set a basic minimum which would be the things a Christian, who was interiorly participating in grace and prayer, ought to do.

In the present Catechism, there are five. First, assist at Mass on Sundays and Holy Days and avoid servile work. Second, confess one’s sins once a year. Third, receive the sacrament of the Eucharist once a year during the Easter season. Fourth, observe the laws of the Church on fast and abstinence. Fifth, to contribute financially to the support of the Church.

Each of these obligations are instituted and reflected in Canon Law. Some of them actually are implementations of divine law such as the precept to attend Mass which implements the Third Commandment. Obviously the addition of the holy days of obligation to this obligation is only a matter of human law because they do not take place on the Sabbath.

Traditionally, the obligation to obey Church law concerning marriage was added to these five. For some, there was a seventh precept which was to participate in the Church’s obligation to evangelize.

Many think that the present Catechism does not enumerate the precept to obey the laws of marriage among the precepts of the Church because this is stated clearly in another part of the Catechism. The obligation to evangelize is quite vague and should not be placed under the obligation of precept. When I was young, the Baltimore Catechism in the 1950s stated that there were only the six precepts, and this seems satisfactory.

A word must be added concerning the level of obligation and interpretation of these laws. As was clearly stated in the introduction in the Catechism to the nature and number of these laws, they were instituted to encourage a Christian with the basic practices which any good Christian would do in living a life of grace. The Old Testament had a great number of precepts: 613 positive and negative ones. This is because the people who lived under the Old Law were like children when it came to the spiritual life, since that law was the beginning of a progressive preparation of the people to receive the Messiah. In themselves, neither the works nor the sacraments of the Old Law could communicate grace. The conduct of a member of the People of God had to be specifically spelled out for them in great detail.

The New Law of Christ, on the other hand, is essentially the Holy Spirit living in the heart of the Christian. It does justify because of this. There are works commanded in the New Law which are either dispositive to receiving grace or involve actually living the life of grace. However, since the Holy Spirit is dwelling in the engraced soul, Christians should be spiritually mature, and would not need to be constantly told what to do. Nevertheless, many Christians either do not access, or seek to nurture, the Holy Spirit living in their hearts, but live as though they were under the Old Law. So even in the New Law, some precepts must be specified. Among these are the precepts of the Church. The precepts which implement one of the commandments, like attendance at Mass, bind us under pain of mortal sin. The others may be binding under mortal sin if they involve a serious lack of practice of the faith. For example, if one has a mortal sin, and does not confess it during Eastertide, or goes to communion without confessing the sin, this would be a serious offense against the love of God.


Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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