There is a wide-spread belief among even faithful Catholics that the first chapter of the Bible should be taken with a very large dose of salt. Sometimes it seems to be a badge of pride among Catholics to do this, as if they thereby distinguish themselves more successfully from Protestants. ‘6 literal days? Oh no, we’re not fundamentalists you know! Catholics have always practised a sophisticated reading of the bible.’ Sometimes they will go on to say that all the human author really meant in the first chapter of holy writ is that God made everything and it is all good, especially human beings (the late Stanley Jaki was a leading exponent of this minimalist exegesis.) Or again, moving further into Genesis, they might say that the genealogies stretching from Adam to Noah and then from Noah to Abraham simply mean that ‘God is in charge of human history’.

There are at least two great problems with this. First of all, who doesn’t see that it is special pleading? People didn’t begin to practise this minimalist exegesis until they thought they had to, for reasons quite unconnected with Scripture or Tradition. It didn’t arise from a deeper knowledge of Hebrew, or of the Fathers. People supposed that some rock or fossil had shown that the face-value sense of Scripture couldn’t be true, and so they changed their understanding of it. Why was it that no one before the 19th Century supposed that all Genesis 1 was really saying was that God made everything?

Secondly, it contradicts the witness of the Fathers which, when unanimous, is a rule of faith for Catholics. I well remember one of my teachers, a fine patristic scholar, saying in the course of a lecture: ‘all the Fathers were fundamentalists’. St Augustine is often supposed to be the exception. In fact, his suggestion – and it was nothing more – that the 6 days were 1 day was motivated precisely by his zeal for the letter of Scripture, since his translation of Ecclesiasticus 18:1 said that God created all things simultaneously. His ‘fundamentalism’ is sufficiently shown from his remark in De Civitate Dei, XII:11, that it is evident from Scripture that less than 6,000 years have passed from man’s creation, as opposed to the ‘fairy-tales about reputed antiquity that our opponents may decide to produce in attempts to controvert the authority of our sacred books’. All the Fathers were what we today call ‘young-earth creationists’.

As Cornelius a Lapide put it, ‘Philosophy and physical science must be interpreted so as to fit [adaptanda sunt] Sacred Scripture and the word of God; Sacred Scripture must not on the contrary be twisted [torquenda] to fit the judgements of the scientists.’