Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.

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