We Didn’t Really Mean It

The Holy Office later published an interpretation of its 1897 ruling on the letter of John:

At this response there arose on June 2, 1927, the following declaration, at first given privately by the same Sacred Congregation and afterwards repeated many times, which was made a part of public law in EB n. 121 by authority of the Holy Office itself:
“This decree was passed to check the audacity of private teachers who attributed to themselves the right either of rejecting entirely the authenticity of the Johannine comma, or at least of calling it into question by their own final judgment. But it was not meant at all to prevent Catholic writers from investigating the subject more fully and, after weighing the arguments accurately on both sides, with that and temperance which the gravity of the subject requires, from inclining toward an opinion in opposition to its authenticity, provided they professed that they were ready to abide by the judgment of the Church, to which the duty was delegated by Jesus Christ not only of interpreting Holy Scripture but also of guarding it faithfully.”

It seems reasonable to take this more or less at face value. However, it is not really an interpretation of the meaning of the earlier ruling, but rather of its motive, and one that basically undercuts the original ruling.

Why was it necessary for this interpretation to be given privately “many times” before it was published? The original ruling essentially said that one could not even call the authenticity of the text into question. This would leave people who desired to be obedient to the ruling with no alternative but to firmly assert the authenticity of the text. Since many Catholic scholars could see that this went against the facts in manifest ways, there were consequently many who appealed in private for an interpretation which would permit them to question the authenticity of the text.

Even if we accept the basic honesty of the explanation, however, the original ruling exists in a broader context, of which the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement on Genesis is one example, which suggests a more general idea: the “audacity of private teachers” is doing damage to the Church, and therefore such audacity must be repressed. Regardless of whether repression was the correct response, the first part was true: damage was indeed being done. Audacity however was no necessary part of this process, since seeking the truth would do just as well.

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Truth and Culture

Just as progress in technology causes a declining culture, so also progress in truth.

This might seem a surprising assertion, but some thought will reveal that it must be so. Just as cultural practices are intertwined with the existing conditions of technology, so also such practices are bound up with explicit and implicit claims about the world, about morality, about human society, and so on. Progress in truth will sometimes confirm these claims even more strongly, but this will merely leave the culture approximately as it stands. But there will also be times when progress in truth will weaken these claims, or even show them to be false. This will necessarily strike a blow against the existing culture, damaging it much as changes in technology do.

Consider our discussion of the Maccabees. As I said there, Mattathias seems to suggest that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is bad for anyone, not only for the Jews. This is quite credible in the case in the particular scenario there considered, where people are being compelled by force to give up their customs and their religion. But consider the situation where the simple progress of truth causes one to revise or abandon various religious claims, as in the case we discussed concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If any of these claims are bound up with one’s culture and religious practices, this progress will necessarily damage the currently existing culture. In the case of the Maccabees, they have the fairly realistic choice to refuse to obey the orders of the king. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have any corresponding realistic choice to insist that the world really did end in 1914. So the Jews could avoid the threatened damage, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot.

Someone might respond, “That’s too bad for people who believe in false religions. Okay, so the progress of truth will inevitably damage or destroy their religious and cultural practices. But my religion is true, and so it is immune to such effects.”

It is evident that your religion might true in the sense defined in the linked post without being immune to such effects. More remarkably, however, your religion might be true in a much more robust sense, and yet still not possess such an immunity.

Consider the case in the last post regarding the Comma. We might suppose that this is merely a technical academic question that has no relevance for real life. But this is not true: the text from John was read, including the Trinitarian reference, in the traditional liturgy, as for example on Low Sunday. Liturgical rites are a part of culture and a part of people’s real life. So the question is definitely relevant to real life.

We might respond that the technical academic question does not have to affect the liturgy. We can just keep doing what we were doing before. And therefore the progress of truth will not do any damage to the existing liturgical rite.

I am quite sympathetic to this point of view, but it is not really true that no damage is done even when we adopt this mode of proceeding. The text is read after the announcement, “A reading from a letter of the blessed John the Apostle,” and thus there is at least an implicit assertion that the text comes from St. John, or at any rate the liturgical rite is related to this implicit assertion. Now we might say that it is not the business of liturgical rites to make technical academic assertions. And this may be so, but the point is related to what I said at the beginning of this post: cultural practices, and liturgical rites as one example of them, are bound up with implicit or explicit claims about the world, and we are here discussing one example of such an intertwining.

And this damage inflicted on the liturgical rite by the discovery of the truth of the matter cannot be avoided, whether or not we change the rite. The Catholic Church did in fact change the rite (and the official version of the Vulgate), and no longer includes the Trinitarian reference. And so the liturgical rite was in fact damaged. But even if we leave the practice the same, as suggested above, it may be that less damage will be done, but damage will still be done. As I conceded here, a celebration or a liturgical rite will become less meaningful if one believes in it less. In the current discussion about the text of John, we are not talking about a wholesale disbelief, but simply about the admission that the Trinitarian reference is not an actual part of John’s text. This will necessarily make the rite less meaningful, although in a very minor way.

This is why I stated above that the principle under discussion is general, and would apply even in the case of a religion which is true in a fairly robust sense: even minor inaccuracies in the implicit assumptions of one’s religious practices will mean that the discovery of the truth of the matter in those cases will be damaging to one’s religious culture, if only in minor ways.

All of this generalizes in obvious ways to all sorts of cultural practices, not only to religious practices. It might seem odd to talk about a “discovery” that slavery is wrong, but insofar as there was such a discovery, it was damaging to the culture of the Confederacy before the Civil War.

Someone will object. Slavery is actually bad, so banning it only makes things better, and in no way makes them worse. But this is not true: taking away something bad can certainly makes things worse in various ways. For example, if a slaver owner is suddenly forced to release his slaves, he might be forced to close his business, which means that his customers will no longer receive service.

Not relevant, our objector will respond. Sure, there might be some inconveniences that result from releasing the slaves. But slavery is really bad, and once we’ve freed the slaves we can build a better world without it. The slave owner can start a new business that doesn’t depend on slavery, and things will end up better.

It is easy to see that insofar as there is any truth in the objections, all of it can be applied in other cases, as in the case of liturgical rites we have discussed above, and not only to moral matters. Falsity is also a bad thing, and if we remove it, there “might be some inconveniences,” but just as we have cleared the way for the slave owner to do something better, so we have cleared the way for the formation of liturgical rites which are more fully rooted in the truth. We can build a better world that is not associated with the false idea about the text of John, and things will end up better.

I have my reservations. But the objector is not entirely wrong, and one who wishes to think through this line of argument might also begin to respond to these questions raised earlier.

Modernism Responds to Pius X

Earlier I quoted Pope Pius X against the Modernists:

4. But since the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another, so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out the connexion between them, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil.

Pius X proceeds to begin to lay out the doctrines of the modernists as “firm and steadfast,” and as a systematic whole:

5. To proceed in an orderly manner in this recondite subject, it must first of all be noted that every Modernist sustains and comprises within himself many personalities; he is a philosopher, a believer, a theologian, an historian, a critic, an apologist, a reformer. These roles must be clearly distinguished from one another by all who would accurately know their system and thoroughly comprehend the principles and the consequences of their doctrines.

Agnosticism its Philosophical Foundation

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them. Yet the Vatican Council has defined, “If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema” (De Revel., can. I); and also: “If anyone says that it is not possible or not expedient that man be taught, through the medium of divine revelation, about God and the worship to be paid Him, let him be anathema” (Ibid., can. 2); and finally, “If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men should be drawn to the faith only by their personal internal experience or by private inspiration, let him be anathema” (De Fide, can. 3). But how the Modernists make the transition from Agnosticism, which is a state of pure nescience, to scientific and historic Atheism, which is a doctrine of positive denial; and consequently, by what legitimate process of reasoning, starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, they proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether, as if He really had not intervened, let him answer who can. Yet it is a fixed and established principle among them that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded. We shall soon see clearly what, according to this most absurd teaching, must be held touching the most sacred Person of Christ, what concerning the mysteries of His life and death, and of His Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

As I remarked in the earlier post, Pope Pius X’s condemnation is sweeping and general, and surely many of the people who possessed many of the attitudes that the Pope considered modernist did not in fact embrace a systematic view such as the above. In a Modernist response, anonymous just as those accused by the encyclical are anonymous, one or some of the modernists responded to the encyclical (taken from the opening of this book):

A document so weighty, both in substance and form, as the Encyclical which we have reproduced at the end of this book; an attempt so deliberate to present “Modernist”* views to the public under a false and unfavorable light; a condemnation so authoritative of us Modernists as dangerous foes of Christian piety and unconscious promoters of atheism, make it a duty, which we owe to our own conscience, to the collective conscience, of the faithful, and to an anxious and expectant public, to lay bare our whole mind without reserve or concealment. We cannot possibly remain silent under the violent accusation which the chief authority of the Church, albeit recognizing us as her faithful subjects and as resolved to cling to her till our last breath, heaps upon our head. Hence there is nothing arrogant in our reply, since it is an elementary principle of justice for those who are accused to defend themselves; nor can we believe that this right has been taken from us at a moment so critical for the fortunes of Catholic Christianity.

They remark in the note on the name “Modernist”:

Let us say, once and for all, that we use this term only that we may be understood by those who have learnt it from the Encyclical, and that we do not need a new name to describe an attitude which we consider to be simply that of Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of their day.

The following chapter begins to comment on the “systematic arrangement” laid out by Pius X:

First of all we must lay bare an equivocation by which inexpert readers of the Encyclical might easily be misled. That document starts with the assumption that there lies at the root of Modernism a certain philosophical system from which we deduce our critical methods, whether biblical or historical; in other words, that our zeal to reconcile the doctrines of Catholic tradition with the conclusions of positive science springs really from some theoretical apriorism which we defend through our ignorance of scholasticism and the rebellious pride of our reason. Now the assertion is false, and since it is the basis on which the Encyclical arranges its various arguments we cannot in our reply follow the order of that fallacious arrangement; but we must first of all show the utter emptiness of this allegation, and then discuss the theories which the Encyclical imputes to us.

In truth, the historical development, the methods and programme of so-called Modernism are very different from what they are said to be by the compilers of Pascendi Gregis.

So far from our philosophy dictating our critical method, it is the critical method that has, of its own accord, forced us to a very tentative and uncertain formulation of various philosophical conclusions, or better still, to a clearer exposition of certain ways of thinking to which Catholic apologetic has never been wholly a stranger. This independence of our criticism in respect to our purely tentative philosophy is evident in many ways.

First of all, of their own nature, textual criticism, as well as the so-called Higher Criticism (that is, the internal analysis of biblical documents with a view to establishing their origin and value), prescind entirely from philosophical assumptions. A single luminous example will suffice–that furnished by the question of the Comma Johanneum–now settled for ever. In past days when theologians wanted to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they never omitted to quote from the Vulgate (1 John v. 7): “There are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” Now the italicized words are lacking in all the Greek MSS. of to-day, cursive or uncial, and in all the Greek epistolaries and lectionaries, and in all the ancient translations, except the Vulgate, in the works of the Greek Fathers and of other Greek writers prior to the the twelfth century, in those of all the ancient Syrian and Armenian writers, and in those of a great number of the Latin Fathers. This silence of East and West is all the more remarkable as the passage would have been of priceless value in the Arian controversy. That it was not then appealed to, proves that it did not exist at the beginning of the fourth century. Moreove, a collation of MSS. and their comparison with the works of the heretic Priscillian, discovered a few years ago, makes it clear that the verse in question comes from Spain, and was fabricated by that heretic (A.D. 384) in favour of his trinitarian views, of which Peregrinus made himself the propagandist. Now it is plain that in order to arrive at such a conclusion and to study such a literary problem critically, no sort of philosophical doctrine or presupposition is required. The same can be said of a whole host of biblical and historical problems whose impartial solutions, leading to results so different from those of traditional Catholic criticism, are the true cause of that revolution in religious apologetic which we find forced upon us by sheer necessity. Does one really need any special philosophical preparation to trace a diversity of sources in the Pentateuch, or to convince oneself, by the most superficial comparison of texts, that the Fourth Gospel is a substantially different kind of work from the synoptics, or that the Nicene Creed is essentially a development of the Apostles’ Creed?

The modernists have the better of the argument here. One might say that this kind of argument regarding the Comma involves philosophical presuppositions only by making arguments like, “This presupposes that our memory is valid,” “This presupposes that these manuscripts really come from those times,” “This presupposes that the others who have studied this question were being basically honest,” and so on. But these things are really just common sense, not some special philosophy. Nor are they even premises, in general, in the sense that my memory of drinking coffee this morning is not a premise in an argument that I drank coffee this morning; I simply assert that I did, and my memory is an efficient cause of my statement, not an argument for it.

The modernists bring up this example not as an irrelevant detail, but because it was precisely the kind of thing they were criticized for. Thus we have this from the Acta Sanctae Sedis in 1897 [this document, page 637]:

« Utrum tuto negari, aut saltem in dubium revocari possit
« esse authenticum textum S. Ioannis, in epistola prima, capo V,
« vers. 7, quod sic se habet: Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium
« dant in coelo: Pater, Verbum et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres
« unum sunt? »
Omnibus diligentissimo examine perpensis, praehabito que
DD. Consultorum voto, iidem Emi Cardinales respondendum
mandarunt: « Negative ».

The decree asserts that the authenticity of the text cannot be safely denied or even called into doubt. Now I have previously discussed such decrees. These should never be understood as attempting to settle the truth of the matter definitively. Rather they are making a rule: you are not allowed to deny this or even to call it into question.

Pope Pius X complains in Pascendi:

Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.

For Pope Pius X, calling into question the authenticity of the Comma would be “the result of pride and obstinacy,” because one questioning it would be in disobedience to the above decree. But given the kinds of arguments that are involved, it is easy enough to see why the people questioning it would ascribe this rather to a love of truth.

All of this might call to mind earlier debates. Here is Philip Gosse, quoted at length in the linked post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

A parallel passage could easily be written on the opposition between Pope Pius X and the modernists. While I don’t have a source at hand at the moment, it seems that Alfred Loisy did state after his excommunication that he had secretly been an atheist for many years. There is no way of knowing, however, whether this is true in a literal sense or was simply his own retrospective analysis of his past state of mind. In any case, it is quite sure that many of the modernists were not secret atheists, but simply men like the geologists in Gosse’s passage. Conflict came to light between the actual facts of geology and the current understanding based on the text of Genesis, and something had to be said about that conflict. In a similar way, in the modernist controversy, conflict came to light between the actual facts of history and the current understanding based on the Church’s traditions, and something had to be said about that conflict.

Gosse complains that the geologists are classed with “the infidel and the atheist,” in effect for their recognition of geological facts; Pius X accuses the modernists of secret agnosticism or atheism, in effect for their recognition of historical facts.

In both cases, the accusation is that an atheistic metaphysics, and likely an atheistic epistemology, comes first, and is responsible for the conclusions that are drawn. And in both cases the accusation is false. Epistemology cannot come first in principle, and it does not come first in practice in these cases. You might be able to argue that these people have ended up with a mistaken epistemology, and you might be able to argue that it does not follow from the facts from which they have drawn it. But they have drawn it from facts, mistakenly or not, and not the facts from the epistemology.

This is ultimately why, despite the lack of firm definition of the term “Modernism,” the controversy has remained until this day. This is why accusations of modernism continue to be thrown around, as a few years ago when Bishop Fellay accused Pope Francis of modernism:

What Gospel does he have? Which Bible does he have to say such things. It’s horrible. What has this to do with the Gospel? With the Catholic Faith? That’s pure Modernism, my dear brethren. We have in front of us a genuine Modernist…

If one wishes to criticize the views which are characterized as “modernist,” whether in the early 20th century or now in the 21st, one will make no progress without the acknowledgement that it was first the consideration of certain facts that led to those views, rightly or wrongly. Attributing them to some general system is simplistic and wrong.