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Between Americanism and Modernism: John Zahm and Theistic Evolution

  • R. Scott Appleby (a1)


“Romanism and Evolution. Remarkable Advance. No Special Creation.” “Father Zahm on the Six Days of Creation.” “Father Zahm on Inspiration.” “Father Zahm Honored with a Private Audience by His Holiness.”1 During the final decade of the nineteenth century religious periodicals and secular newspapers alike chronicled the growing fascination of the American Catholic community with the public debate over the latest theories regarding the evolution of species. One figure in particular, John Augustine Zahm, a Holy Cross priest and professor of chemistry and physics in the University of Notre Dame, captured many of the headlines and captivated Catholic audiences with his sophisticated, clear expositions of the various theories in the post-Darwinian controversies and with his repeated assurances that the idea of evolution, properly understood, posed no obstacle to the faith of the individual Catholic.



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1. Reynolds Newspaper, London, 29 08 1897;Catholic Review, 07 1894, p. 19;Catholic Times, 5 05 1894, pp. 1516;Catholic Citizen, 05 1894, p. 22. Citations in this article are taken from copies made from the collection in the Congregation of Holy Cross archives, Notre Dame, Indiana (hereafter cited as HCA).

2. Morrison, John L., “A History of American Catholic Opinion on the Theory of Evolution, 1859–1950” (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri, 1951), pp. 79110, chronicles the debates in America up to the time of Zahm's involvement.

3. Zahm was preceded by Paulist George M. Searle and Rev. John Gmeiner, among others, in supporting evolution. But neither of these priests received the acclaim awarded Zahm. “The wide advertisement you receive in the secular and religious press has added wonderfully to your drawing power and you are now one of the cards of the lecture platform,” a reporter from Cincinnati's Catholic Telegraph cabled Zahm; Thomas F. Hart to John Zahm, HCA.

4. Bowler, Peter J., Evolution: The History of an Idea (Los Angeles, 1984), p. 219.

5. See Zahm, John A., “The Catholic Church and Modern Science: A Lecture” (Notre Dame, 1886); also, Zahm, , Bible, Science and Faith (Baltimore, 1894), which consolidates the developments of the early period.

6. Zahm to Edward Sorin, 6 September 1893, HCA.

7. Weber, Ralph, Notre Dame's John Zahm: American Catholic Apologist and Educator (Notre Dame, 1961), pp. 7076.

8. Zahm, John A., Evolution and Dogma (reprint ed., New York, 1978), pp. 435438.

9. Quoted in Moore, James R., The Post-Darwinian Controversies (Cambridge, 1979), p. 194.

10. Quoted in ibid., p. 196.

11. Zahm, , Evolution and Dogma, p. vii.

12. Ibid., p. v.

13. Ibid., pp. xvii, 69–70.

14. Ibid., p. 433.

15. Ibid., pp. 50–53.

16. Ibid., p. 75.

17. Ibid., p. 83. On this point, note the similarity of approach in Gmeiner, John, Modern Scientific Views and Christian Doctrines Compared (Milwaukee, 1884), pp. 34.

18. Zahm, stated this point unequivocally in Scientific Theory and Catholic Doctrine (Chicago, 1896), p. 9.

19. Zahm, , Evolution and Dogma, pp. 162163.

20. Ibid., p. 83.

21. Ibid., p. 370.

22. Ibid., pp. 200–201.

23. Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies, elaborates the categories I have drawn upon in this section.

24. Ibid., p. 142. See also Bowler, , Evolution, pp. 186189.

25. Gillespie, Neal C., Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago, 1979), pp. 118, 85108.

26. See Root, John D., “The Final Apostasy of St. George Jackson Mivart,” Catholic Historical Review 71 (1985): 125. for a statement of Mivart's development, and especially for his reaction to Leo XIII's encyclical on biblical interpretation which, Root argues, “provided a sharp impetus” to Mivart's final break from the church (pp. 7–8).

27. Zahm was in correspondence with Mivart, who thanked him for “carrying on my work in the United States”; Mivart to Zahm, 18 May 1896, HCA.

28. Zahm, , Evolution and Dogma, p. 70.

29. Ibid., p. 416.

30. Ibid., pp. 71, 354.

31. Ibid., p. 122.

32. Ibid., p. 71.

33. Zahm, , Bible, Science and Faith, pp. 121122;Evolution and Dogma, pp. 388–390.

34. Zahm, , Evolution and Dogma, p. xiv.

35. Ibid., p. 141.

36. On this point, see Searle, George M., “Dr. Mivart's Last Utterance,” Catholic World 71 (1900): 353365; and Searle, , “Evolution and Darwinism,” Catholic World 66 (1897); 227238. Also compare Weber, , Notre Dame's John Zahm, pp. 109112.

37. On responses to Providentissimus Deus, see Aubert, Roger, ed., The Christian Centuries, vol. 5, The Church in a Secularized Society (New York, 1978), pp. 164203.

38. John Zahm to Albert Zahm, 1883, HCA.

39. John Zahm to Denis O'Connell, 13 February 1893, O'Connell “Roman Correspondence, 1890–1894, Catholic University of America Archives (hereafter cited as CUA).

40. John Zahm to Albert Zahm, 22 July 1896, John Zahm Collection, University of Notre Dame Archives (hereafter cited as UNDA).

41. Catholic Citizen, 17, 24 August 1895.

42. Hewit to Zahm, 7 October 1895, John Zahm Collection, UNDA.

43. New York Herald, 4 August 1895, copy, John Zahm papers, HCA.

44. Bishop Sebastian Messmer to Thomas O'Gorman, 20 January 1896, O'Gorman Papers, CUA.

45. Messmer to Zahm, 20 January 1896, HCA.

46. Zahm to Messmer, 1 February 1896, HCA. See also Zahm, , Bible, Science and Faith, p. 70.

47. “Dr. Zahm,” The Review, 23 04 1896.

48. Ibid., p. 2.

49. New York Journal, 12 November 1896.

50. Weber, , Notre Dame's John Zahm, pp. 9394.

51. Salvatore Brandi S.J., to Archbishop Corrigan, 13 June 1896, John Zahm Collection, UNDA.

52. John Zahm to Albert Zahm, 6 December 1896, John Zahm Collection, UNDA.

53. John Zahm to James Cardinal Gibbons, 9 March 1897, copy, UNDA.

54. John Ireland to Denis O'Connell, 1897, copy, UNDA.

59. For a thorough discussion of the neo-scholastic worldview and the ways in which it was threatened by reliance on secondary causes in the manner described by Zahm and others, see Daly, Gabriel, Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (Oxford, 1980).

60. “Leone XIII E L'Americanismo,” Civiltà Cattolica, ser. 17, vol. 5, 18 03 1899, pp. 641643.

61. “Evoluzione e Domma,” Civiltà Cattolica, ser. 17, vol. 5,7 01 1899, pp. 3449.

62. Ibid., pp. 40–41: “Dopo d'aver ripetuto col Mivart, che, ‘Dio creò l'anima dell'uomo direttamente, e il suo corpo indirettamente, ossia per l'operazione delle cause secondarie,’ il Prof. Zahm, con una disinvoltura veramente americana, scrive, ‘Quest'opinione della origine derivativa del corpo di Adamo è pur essa in pefetta armonia con altri principii emessi dai due grandi luminari della Chiesa, Sant' Agostino e San Tommaso.’ …Evidentemente, quale che siasi questo ‘aspetto,’ Se crediamo al Prof. Zahm, bsiognera dire che l'angelico Dottore fu illogico e incoerente.”

63. Ibid., p. 41. It should be noted that the condemnation of Zahm was intricately connected with Bishop Hedley of England, who supported Zahm and wrote similar opinions on evolution. The “Zahm affair” was meant to make an example of the American.

64. Ibid., pp. 42–48.

65. On the “trajectory of modernism” in American Catholic thought, which began with Zahm and reached a stage of self-awareness with the publication of the New York Review (which featured this phrase in describing its content), see Appleby, R. Scott, “American Catholic Modernism at the Turn of the Century” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1985). On the connection between Americanism and Modernism, see Reher, Margaret Mary, “Americanism and Modernism: Continuity or Discontinuity?U.S. Catholic Historian 1 (1981): 87103.

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