There are some elements from the book of Genesis that can be interpreted as (non-literal) figures or symbols [i]. However, it is a dogma of the Catholic Church that Adam and Eve were literal persons when She teaches that one man with body and soul (Adam) married one woman who was like him (Eve) [ii] and that we are all their descendants. Adam and Eve are our first parents. All of us humans come from these two real human persons.
“If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.” – (General Council of Trent: Session V – Decree Concerning Original Sin # 1).
Adam was changed in body and soul for the worse immediately when he transgressed the commandment of God. Anyone with body and soul (spiritual, immortal soul) is a real human person [iii]. Symbols do not have bodies and souls. Allegories do not have bodies and souls. Also, the Council is clearly talking about an individual, one man (Adam’s body and soul). The Church does not teach or imply that Adam is a representation of a group of people. Trent does not refer to Adam as “bodies and souls” (plural) changing for the worse.
“If any one asserts, that the prevarication of Adam injured himself alone, and not his posterity; and that the holiness and justice, received of God, which he lost, he lost for himself alone, and not for us also; or that he, being defiled by the sin of disobedience, has only transfused death, and pains of the body, into the whole human race, but not sin also, which is the death of the soul; let him be anathema:–whereas he contradicts the apostle who says; By one man sin entered into the world, and by sin death, and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned.” – (Ibid, # 2).
Trent mentions Adam as an individual. This Council does not even give a hint about Adam being a mere symbol or representation. The above also applies to Eve, of course (See CCC #’s 399-400).
Yet, I hear some Bishops and priests who teach or imply that Adan and Eve were not real persons, that they were non-literal figures, or that they represent a group of people (polygenism). I wonder if this error is even taught in some Seminaries. Individual Bishops and priests do not exercise the Magisterium by themselves separated from the Pope (CCC# 85), they do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility (Lumen Gentium 25, n2). Individual Bishops or a group of Bishops apart from the Pope can go astray and even teach grave errors to the extent of heresy when such teachings are not in communion with the Pope’s teachings.
Ron Conte gives us a good answer to their false teaching on this subject:
“If Adam did not fall, because he did not exist, then from what are we being saved? And if there were no original sin, baptism would not be necessary to take away original sin.
And as concerns the Blessed Virgin Mary, if there was no original sin, then from what was she preserved at her Immaculate Conception? No Adam and Eve implies no original sin, which then makes our baptism and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary meaningless. To reject a literal Adam and Eve, as two real historical persons who actually sinned and fell away from God, is to reject the need for redemption by Christ as well as the dogmas of original sin and the Immaculate Conception. Therefore, faithful Catholics must accept Adam and Eve as two literal historical persons.” – (Adam and Eve versus Evolution, Chapter 2).
Also, if Adam and Eve are only figures that represent a group of early humans, then the concept of Cain as one person, Abel as another person, and the rest of Adam and Eve’s descendants fall away. It would also mean that Cain, Abel, and other of their descendants have not been individual persons but mere “representations of a group of early humans”. Cain or Abel could not have been born from “a group of people” other than one man and one woman. We learn from Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium that such one man was Adam and such one woman was Eve.
Throughout the history of the Church, She has been teaching us that we are all descendants of one man named Adam and one woman named Eve. That one man named Jesus is the New Adam and one woman named Mary is the New Eve.
The following Magisterial teaching destroys the idea of polygenism:
“When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains either that after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own. – 12. Cfr. Rom., V, 12-19, Conc. Trid., sess, V, can. 1-4.” – (Humani Generis # 37; Pope Pius XII – 1950).
The above teaching should suffice to understand that Adam was a real person.
“St. Paul tells us that the human race takes its origin from two men: Adam and Christ. . . the first man, Adam, he says, became a living soul, the last Adam a life-giving spirit.” – (CCC# 359).
The Council of Trent also teaches that all men are “born propagated of the seed of Adam” – (Trent: Session VI; Decree on Justification, Chapter III). That’s why Christ died for us all.
Notice that we all come of the seed of an individual man, not of different “seeds” (plural). If Adam did not exist, such seed also did not exist making this doctrinal teaching a lie.
The Church also teaches that the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is done the way it was decreed by God since the beginning, that is between one man and one woman:
“God thus, in His most far-reaching foresight, decreed that this husband and wife should be the natural beginning of the human race, from whom it might be propagated and preserved by an unfailing fruitfulness throughout all futurity of time. And this union of man and woman, that it might answer more fittingly to the infinite wise counsels of God, even from the beginning manifested chiefly two most excellent properties — deeply sealed, as it were, and signed upon it — namely, unity and perpetuity. From the Gospel we see clearly that this doctrine was declared and openly confirmed by the divine authority of Jesus Christ. He bore witness to the Jews and to His Apostles that marriage, from its institution, should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman” – (Arcanum – On Christian Marriage; Pope Leo XIII – 1880).
“The first parent of the human race, under the influence of the divine Spirit, pronounced the bond of matrimony perpetual and indissoluble, when he said; This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. But, that by this bond two only are united and joined together, our Lord taught more plainly, when rehearsing those last words as having been uttered by God, He said, therefore now they are not two, but one flesh; and straightway confirmed the firmness of that tie, proclaimed so long before by Adam, by these words; What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” – (General Council of Trent: Session XXIV – Doctrine on The Sacrament of Matrimony).
The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony is between one man and one woman because, since the beginning, one man (Adam) married one woman (Eve). Holy Matrimony is not between one group of men and a group of women.
Pope Pius X includes Adam between true historical persons:
“Adam, the father of mankind, looked to Mary crushing the serpent’s head, and he dried the tears that the malediction had brought into his eyes. Noah thought of her when shut up in the ark of safety, and Abraham when prevented from the slaying of his son; Jacob at the sight of the ladder on which angels ascended and descended; Moses amazed at the sight of the bush which burned but was not consumed; David escorting the arc of God with dancing and psalmody; Elias as he looked at the little cloud that rose out of the sea. In fine, after Christ, we find in Mary the end of the law and the fulfillment of the figures and oracles.” – (Ad Diem Illum Laetissimum; Pope Pius X – 1904).
Notice that the above quote is referring to real individual persons in the history of salvation. The “figures” of the O.T. were real persons such as Noah, Abraham, or Moses. They were pre-figures, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they did not exist as true historical persons.
“Adam and Eve, first couple and also first nucleus of human society.” – Pope Saint John Paul II, General Audience, Wednesday, September 3, 1986.
We are the descendants of two persons (a “couple”). We are not descendants of a tale or of a group of people.
By a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead.” – (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
There are other Magisterial documents, teachings of Popes, regarding the historicity and authenticity of the first man (Adam) and the first woman (Eve), but this should be clear enough. Faithful Catholics are not free to interpret Adam and Eve as non-literal persons, as allegorical figures, as fictional characters, as mere symbols, or as mere representations of something else.
[i] “In the first Chapters of the Book of Genesis we find two important images: the garden, with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent (cf. 2:15-17; 3:1-5)…. Then the serpent is a symbol that comes from the Oriental fertility cults that fascinated Israel and were a constant temptation to abandon the mysterious covenant with God.” – (Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience – 6 February 2013).
[ii] CCC# 369, 371, 372.
[iii] CCC # 363, 366.