My brother asked me a question about this, so I’m endeavoring to answer. This may take a while 🙂 The gist of the question: were Adam and Eve real, historical figures?
My short answer: no.
My longer answer starts with the way Catholics view Biblical Inspiration. We are not literalists who believe that every word and punctuation mark was dictated by God to a responsive person who wrote it down like a dutiful secretary. God would never destroy our free will by making us automatons who only wrote what he told us to write.
We also do not view Scripture as a purely man-made endeavor. We see Scripture being inspired by God, but the human authors working with God – using their God given free will – to craft sections of the Bible according to their intelligence, culture, and time. Hence any Catholic approach to Scripture will take into account different questions: who wrote it? why? for whom was it written? when? where? what references (cultural, religious, etc.) could the author take for granted and believe that his audience would also take for granted? We strive to put each book of Scripture into it’s historical context so as not to read our own limited view of history into the Biblical account.
Coupled with this is the fact that our Bible is not written by one person but by many human authors writing in different ways. Just like a newspaper has different sections, our Bible (which is not one book, but a collection of books, poetry, and letters) has different literary genres. We can see history (many portions of the Old Testament, the Acts of the Apostles), poetry (Psalms, the Song of Songs), fiction (short stories like Job and Jonah), Gospel (a distinct literary style found in, of course, the gospels!), apocalyptic writing (Revelation, portions of the Old Testament), and many others.
One of the distinct literary styles is that of religious myth. Myth, in this Scriptural / theological context is not the same as fairy tale or lie. It is a fictional / ahistorical (or prehistorical) story that is the vehicle for religious truth. The first 11 chapter of Genesis fall into this primordial genre of myth – they are stories that cannot be traced historically, and that in fact are not intended to be read as historical documents.
Myths then are stories that pre-scientific peoples created to try and understand things that may now be better described by different branches of science. However, we view our Scripture as divinely inspired, so we believe that – fictional as it is – the creation stories in Genesis are there to teach us.
And what do they teach? They teach us that God is the ultimate force that sets the universe in motion. They teach us that God created everything out of nothing, and that if not for God’s abiding presence everything would collapse back into nothingness. They teach us that God has ordered the universe in specific ways, and that we can discern these laws in the order of the universe. They teach us that we are lovingly handcrafted by God, and that God’s own spirit/breath animates us and gives us life. They teach us that God loves us as individuals and as a human race. They teach us that at some point we as humans learned how to sin, and that this knowledge created a rift between us and God. They teach us that even as that rift began God already had a plan for sealing the rift in the future.
Just because the stories are not historically accurate does not mean that they are not religiously true. And that is why Adam and Eve do not have to be historical creatures for us to appreciate the revelation God has given us through them and the stories of creation.
Blessings & Peace,