“Ask a Priest: Did the Church Teach That the Earth is 6,000 Years Old?”

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Q: One of my college professors was talking about geologic time. She mentioned James Ussher, the man accredited with the 6,000-year time span for the age of the earth. She said that he was a Catholic bishop and that his writings were decreed by the Catholic Church, and that this presented a problem for scientists in that time because to suggest anything otherwise would be going against the Catholic Church which she said would have led to excommunication or death. Is this true? Every source I’ve looked at online says that James Ussher was an Anglican archbishop. Wouldn’t this mean that he was Protestant and not Catholic? Also, was this teaching or his teaching decreed by the Catholic Church? Thank you so much! – G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: As best I can tell, James Ussher was with the Church of Ireland, so he would have been part of the Anglican Communion, and hence a Protestant in the wide sense, but certainly outside the visible bounds of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has never officially taught that the world is 6,000 years old. That 6,000-year figure comes from a literalist reading of Scripture. This is not a good way to read the Bible. The creation accounts in the Book of Genesis are theological and not meant to be read as a science textbook.

There are no excommunications connected to people who believe the world to be millions or even billions of years old.

Your comment about there being “a problem for scientists in that time” points to the deeper issue involving the relation between faith and reason. It might come as a surprise to some people today, but the Catholic Church sees no contradiction between faith and science (or “faith and reason”). Both were created by God, and truth cannot contradict truth.

There is no reason why a person of strong faith couldn’t be a great scientist, and vice versa. You could find a list of examples HERE. The “problem” between faith and science is when scientists make statements that go beyond the bounds of science or when people of faith make scientific claims that are clearly contradicted by evidence.

The Catechism in No. 2293 says, “Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man’s dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all.”

For more reading on the relation between faith and reason, see Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio. I hope some of this helps.

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