A subject that comes up from time to time is how old the world is–either the earth or the cosmos as a whole.
The responses to this question are typically divided into the well-known "old" and "young" camps, the former holding that the earth and the cosmos are billions of years old and the second holding that they are a few thousand or perhaps tens of thousands of years old. So, depending on just how many thousands or billions of years you posit, there are four to six orders of magnitude separating the two schools of thought.
In a short series of posts, I'd like to look at some magisterial texts that have a bearing on this question and offer a few thoughts on them.
The first thought, before I even get to the magisterial texts, is that both positions are compatible with the Catholic faith. You can be a good Catholic and hold that the universe is thousands or millions or billions or trillions or quadrillions or other numbers of years old. The Church does not teach any particular age or age-range for the earth or the cosmos. You can follow the evidence where you think it leads.
This is because the Magisterium has determined that the question of the ages of the earth and the cosmos are principally scientific questions that are not (or at least that do not appear to be) settled by the sources of faith.
This may not always have been so. I would not be at all surprised if there are past papal, curial, or conciliar texts that do indicate an age-range for the earth or the cosmos as part of ordinary magisterial teaching, perhaps in the thousands or tens of thousands of years range.
In fact, if a reader knows of such passages, I'd love to see them.
Such a prior position, at least of itself, would not pose a problem for the Church's current determination since ordinary magisterial teaching is nondefinitive and thus can be revised, as with the case of the Church removing the theological speculation of limbo from its ordinary teaching while still allowing the theory of limbo to be held (a rather striking parallel for what might be the case on the age of the world question).
However that may be, recent magisterial statements have made it clear that the age of the world is an open question and we are not limited to the thousands or tens of thousands of years age-range.
We will look at some of these texts in this series.
A second thing I'd like to point out before going to the first text is that the Magisterium's current judgment that this is primarily a scientific question puts the Magisterium in an interesting position in terms of how to articulate the position.
Of course, they could always say, "This is a scientific question; the sources of faith don't determine it," and leave it at that, but they usually aren't that concise in how they answer such questions. They want to say a little more about it, and so what they often do is express openness to the modern scientific view but without making a formal endorsement of this view as correct (i.e., "The universe is billions of years old, as modern science tells us").
It's good that they don't take that extra step because science can get things wrong and, after getting their fingers burned with Ptolemaic astronomy, they don't want to lock believers into having to accept a particular scientific account that might one day be proven wrong.
So that's all to the good.
Here is how the Catechism handles the question:
283 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man.These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: "It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me."
Here the Catechism takes an appreciative stance toward recent scientific studies on the question but without mentioning any particular numbers. It doesn't say anything about billions of years.
Yet surely that is what it has in mind. It could not be credibly claimed that the "many scientific studies" it refers to are ones being done at the Institution for Creation Research in El Cajon, California–or by similar young earth/young universe groups.
Surely it has in mind mainstream scientific studies which point to an old earth, and older universe, and some kind of evolutionary process working through the development of life forms and the appearance of man.
But note: None of those things are points of faith.
The results of particular scientific studies or the claims of particular scientific theories (e.g., evolution) are scientific matters, not things taught in the sources of faith.
As a result, these studies and claims cannot be binding on believers are matters of faith. And so one can be a good Catholic (good in his faith) even if he rejects all of them. If you accept the modern scientific account then you might ju
dge such a person a bad scientist (or at least badly informed on scientific matters) but not a bad Catholic.
This means that what we have in the first sentence of paragraph 283 of the Catechism is not per se a doctrine of the Church. Instead, it is a pastoral expression that seeks to appreciate and respect the findings of modern science without imposing them on the faithful as matters of faith.
That's not unusual. There are quite a number of places in the Catechism that are best classified as pastoral expressions rather than per se doctrinal or dogmatic ones.
There are also, of course, loads of doctrinal and dogmatic ones. (This is, after all, a catechism!)
It is important, when dealing with questions like this, to have an awareness of the fact that the Catechism uses different modes of expression. What particular mode is being used in a particular passage must be determined by the text itself as well as an awareness of the dynamics of the question theologically, as the above illustrates.
Next . . . another text.