There was a question on the Facebook group I help moderate that was phrased in this way:
"I'm curious about something. I want to know the diversity of the belief of the creation among Catholics. If you take the beginning of Genesis literally, please comment "literally", if just as a symbol, please comment "symbolic"."
This was my response:
I don't believe it can be an either/or distinction. I really hate when people try to frame it this way, as if its a game of poker and you have to go all in on one side or the other. You have to look at it from the view point of how it would have been interpreted (as any miraculous story would have been) by the early Hebrews as well as the early Church, and we have to step away from our modern post-Newtonian Enlightenment rationalism to do this.
To antiquity, the universe was a scary place. It was something that seemed arbitrary and harsh because life was that way. Nature in its purest form was chaos. This is not just an early iron age Jewish perspective. Aristotle taught this as well, which is why he believed so strongly in the idea of the polis, or city. For him, only wild beasts and crazy men lived "out in nature" because of this. Or, conversely, there were views if nature was not chaos, then it was governed by spiteful gods whose passions created and governed the chaos of nature.
Now, what is the revelation of the creation story that God is trying to tell His people? It is not a fairy tale story about God suspending the laws of known physics to create something from nothing. God finds the universe to be chaos (that's the word that is literally used) and brings order to that chaos. To quote the old King Jimmy Version, "The world was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." The world may seem like a dark and scary place, but God is above all that and can bring order and meaning even to the very chaos. God is not the one that creates the chaos, nor is God one who is cowed by the chaos. Likewise, neither is God the chaos itself, He is not a sun god nor a moon god nor a nature/animal god. God is above all that. That is a revelation that should be taken literally and symbolically.
This is why I categorically reject this trendy notion in biblical scholarship that says the creation story contradicts itself. I was fed this in seminary ad nauseum, and I never bought it.. I think that is contrary to the Catechism (No. 111) and the Vatican II documents that say, "But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written." To say that Scripture here is contradictory on its face is to say that the same Spirit is contradictory, and that defeats the whole revelation I talked about above. The Spirit is not chaos but brings order to the chaos.
As Catholics, we interpret Scripture in more than one sense. There is the literal, which is where we must start in any reading of Scripture, but there is also other levels of interpretation. There is the moral (how are we to act on this reading of Scripture), allegorical (how is Christ seen in this passage), and anagogical (How can we view this in terms of the eternal, i.e. how is God using this to bring all things back unto Himself in the Ages of Ages) senses.
Thus, to say we can have no literal interpretation of the creation story at all is nonsense because as Thomas Aquinas says, " All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal." You cannot get to a greater spiritual sense of scripture (i.e. the latter three senses above) if you don't start with the literal. To completely discount the literal is to discount every other sense is well. Because, literally, God is bringing order to the chaos. All that I wrote about God bringing order to chaos is literal truth, and it is only there that me move on to the other senses of the moral (not being afraid of nature or thinking God is not in control), the allegorical (the God here is in the singular plural (Let us make man in our own image-already Trinitarian, not to mention that we are LITERALLY made in the likeness and image of God so was can claim to be children of God), and the anagogical (no matter what kind of sin comes into the picture in the next chapter, God is leading us (Greek: anagoge, "leading") back to that created order of being in the image of God and restoring all things to recreate Eden in the final chapters of of the Book of Revelation.)
God starts and ends with that bringing order to the chaos, both natural and man made (sin). That is the literal beginning and ending of the entire narrative of salvation found in the whole bible. It begins with the creation story and ends with the creation story of God recreating Eden in the New Jerusalem at the very end of the Bible.
So, to get back to my original premise, The creation story is not an either/or interpretation of literal or symbolic. It is a both/and. If there is no literal truth to any of it, then the whole of the salvation narrative begins to fall apart.