Faulty Translation Accommodates Long Ages

In the nineteenth century Catholic theologians were being told that the science of geology had proved that the earth was enormously old and that fossils in the rocks proved that humans had existed for a much longer time than was recorded in the biblical genealogies.  These theologians, therefore, looked again at the Church’s teaching on the subject. In particular they examined the key infallible definition of creation from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.  In his 1893 report on Vatican I (Etudes Théologique sur les Constitutions du Vatican), Fr. Vacant, also editor of the prestigious and comprehensive theological dictionary the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, examined the problem of reconciling the Council definition with geology. He wrote:

The same text [Lateran IV] says that God created together (simul), at the beginning of time, the angels and corporeal creatures, and afterwards man.

The meaning of the word simul presents a real difficulty and has been translated in several ways. Some see the word as a simultaneousness of time as with the verse: “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Exod. 20:11). Others give it the meaning of “in common” or “equally,” indicating that God had made all things equally or according to a single overall plan. It is this latter interpretation which is widely held today because it allows for long periods of time between the creation of the heavens and the earth and man (emphasis added).[1]

The bolded words above clearly indicate that two meanings had been attached to the word simul in the Lateran IV text. Fr. Vacant’s report goes on to say:

In the texts of Lateran IV and Vatican I, however, the word simul hardly seems to lend itself to the second meaning. Indeed, it is followed by the words ab initio temporis and deinde which seem clearly to indicate that simul should be understood as simultaneousness of time. On the face of it, this is what Lateran IV would have declared, that is, that the creation of the angels and corporeal creatures took place simultaneously at the beginning, and that the creation of man followed afterwards.[2]

The report continues:

However, some contemporary authors of real authority such as P. Hurter (Compendium of Dogmatic Theology, 6th edit. t. II, n.425/6) and M. Jungmann (De Deo Creatore, 4th edit. n.77) admit that simul could be understood from the text of the two councils, in the sense, not of simultaneity of time for the creation, but a unity of plan and a community of origin for the creatures. They allow the word here to have the second interpretation which is given in the text: Creavit omnia simul of Sirach 18:1 (emphasis added).[3]

The “second interpretation,” which will be shown to be incorrect, was selected because it allowed for long periods of time between the creations attributed to each of the Genesis “days.”  Fr Vacant cites two authoritative theologians who opted for a different meaning of simul, and indicates that because of the introduction of long ages the traditional meaning presented “a real difficulty.” He is referring, of course, to a difficulty for “contemporary” theologians. These subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the theological community in the years immediately following the First Vatican Council. As practicing theologians of the day they would have been conversant with the then-recent dogmatic pronouncements of Vatican I on creation reproducing the Lateran IV definition of creation.  These theologians would have examined the dogmas in detail to find some other way of resolving their “difficulty,” some indication that they could accommodate an old earth and evolution. Having found none, they turned their attention to simul.

If no “second meaning” of simul had been suggested, the theologians would have been bound by the context of the firmiter and by the infallible nature of the Lateran IV dogma to accept the meaning of “simultaneous” “at once” or “all together” which excluded long ages and therefore evolution. As Fr. Vacant admits:

… the word simul hardly seems to lend itself to the second meaning…On the face of it, Lateran IV and Vatican I would have declared, that the creation of the angels and corporeal creatures took place simultaneously at the beginning, and that the creation of man followed afterwards.[4]

However, the belief that simul could have the second meaning of “in common” (koinè in Greek)—without a temporal significance—won the day. Consequently, the evolutionary speculations emanating from the new sciences of stratigraphy, paleontology and evolutionary biology, which conflicted with the biblical genealogies and the traditional teaching of the Fathers, were allowed to be taught in all places of learning within the Church.



[1] A.Vacant, Etudes Théologiques sur le Concile du Vatican, 205.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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