Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the responses of different thinkers to the development of historical criticism in the Church. The first thinker, Adolf von Harnack, a Protestant theologian, argued that the church had changed over time, that the Catholic hierarchy had perverted the faith away from its true historical core. The second thinker, Alfred Loisy, was a Catholic, and he argued that the church had changed, but in ways that maintained the integrity of the faith. Rather than a perversion, Loisy saw change as a natural growth or evolution, like a child becoming an adult. The third strand of thought, which we’re dealing with this week, belongs to the Vatican hierarchy. They argued that Harnack and Loisy were both wrong: according to the Vatican, the church has never changed at all. The institution that existed in the twentieth century was exactly the same as the church of the apostles. The Vatican was actually quite hostile to the idea that the church had changed, printing a bunch of very stupid documents, and excommunicating the Catholic Loisy. I mean – I try really hard to be as neutral as possible, so that you guys can rely on this information even if you have different values or beliefs, but the Vatican response to this debate was just unambiguously wrong. If your options are a) the church changes over time and that’s bad, b) the church changes over time and that’s good, and c) the church never changes at all and if you say it does we’ll cast you out of communion – these guys were assholes. There’s no other way to put it.
I should say that over time the Vatican’s views did soften, and the Catholic church today is just as much a leader in historical criticism as anyone. They’ve got some amazing Biblical scholars, all of whom are now allowed to follow the historical and textual evidence wherever it leads. They’re allowed to defend pretty concrete, widely accepted scholarly opinions about the history of the Bible – for example, that Moses probably didn’t write the Pentateuch (at least not the final form that we have today). From that perspective, history has proved Loisy right. His view has become dominant, and the Vatican looks like a pack of assholes. Anyway, let’s go through some of what they printed.
There are three key texts here – Lamentabili Sane, published in July 1907, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, from September of the same year, and the Oath Against Modernism, published 1910. We can mostly skip over the Oath – it’s something that all clergy and seminary professors had to swear, where they basically promised to uphold the statements of Lamentabili and Pascendi. It does have a couple funny bits – for instance, they promise never to believe that doctrine evolves over time, and never to come to historical conclusions that the church doesn’t already support – but on the whole it doesn’t offer a full enough context to be our starting point. Pascendi, on the other hand, is probably a little too much. It’s a full-blown encyclical attacking the so-called doctrines of the modernists, which is the name the Vatican made up for the thinkers doing historical analysis of the Bible. As with Pope Benedict’s attack on yoga, there’s not a lot of citation, and it can come across as making up an enemy without being accountable for your reading of their ideas. In fact, Pascendi shows the Vatican making up fake opinions and attributing them to the modernists, and even openly acknowledging that they’re just making shit up. In paragraph 25, the Vatican claims that modernists want the church to be subject to the state, and then say “This, indeed, Modernists may not yet say openly, but they are forced by the logic of their position to admit it.” It’s not totally unreasonable to extrapolate or infer positions from someone’s work, but when you’re not naming specific people – when you’re not giving readers the ability to go and check the integrity of your claims for themselves – it’s really fucking shady. Loisy actually replied to Pascendi and Lamentabili in his Simples Reflexions, which – unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into English, but according to the Wikipedia entry, in this book, “each proposition of the decree [Lamentabili] is carefully tracked to its probable source, and is often found to modify the latter’s meaning.” It’s up to you how much you credit Loisy’s analysis – obviously I haven’t read it myself – but at the very least, it should give us pause for thought. If the Vatican is making weak arguments, they would clearly benefit from obscuring their sources. Loisy’s analysis might be right or it might be wrong, but he did the work of making himself accountable in a way that the Vatican did not.
So I don’t want to go too far into Pascendi, either. It feels a bit soupy, and I’m not entirely convinced that they’re accurately describing a real historical movement. No – our Goldilocks text is Lamentabili Sane. Subtitled as a “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists”, Lamentabili is a list of 65 things that Catholics are banned from believing. I’ll include some of the highlights below – see what you make of them.
“11. Divine inspiration does not extend to all of Sacred Scriptures so that it renders its parts, each and every one, free from every error.”
Remember, these are things that Catholics are banned from believing. This one’s a bit of a double negative – Catholics are banned from believing that the Sacred Scriptures are not free from every error, which is to say, they must believe that the Scriptures are free of every error. We’ve talked about this issue before – surely we can say, for instance, that the Bible was using an erroneous cosmological model when Joshua told the sun to stop moving around the earth. Surely that’s a mistake – not one that threatens the core of the faith, but it’s still an error, right? The sun doesn’t move round the earth – so in this instance, the text must be mistaken in how it conceptualises the movement of celestial bodies. Well, according to Lamentibili, that’s a modernist heresy – each and every part of the Bible is in fact “free from every error.”
Let’s get some more in. Catholics are banned from believing that church dogmas are interpretations of facts…
“22. The dogmas the Church holds out as revealed are not truths which have fallen from heaven. They are an interpretation of religious facts which the human mind has acquired by laborious effort.”
…and that church dogmas can be wrong or inconsistent with Scripture…
“23. Opposition may, and actually does, exist between the facts narrated in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s dogmas which rest on them. Thus the critic may reject as false facts the Church holds as most certain.”
…and that the church changes over time:
“53. The organic constitution of the Church is not immutable. Like human society, Christian society is subject to a perpetual evolution.”
They’re also banned from believing that the Catholic church came to power through political conditions, which is obviously funny –
“56. The Roman Church became the head of all the churches, not through the ordinance of Divine Providence, but merely through political conditions”
– especially given the fact that this whole document is an instance of a massive institution leveraging their political power to quash undesirable viewpoints. Catholics are also, finally, banned from believing that the church is hostile to the progress of natural and theological sciences –
“57. The Church has shown that she is hostile to the progress of the natural and theological sciences.”
– which, again, is ironic, given that they’re out here banning a whole bunch of viewpoints for political reasons. I don’t think you can get much closer to political repression than what we’ve seen with this syllabus. According to Lamentibili, Catholics are not allowed to believe that the church can be wrong, and they’re not allowed to believe that the church’s blatant political power grab is in any way detrimental to the progress of study and research. That’s pretty terrifying.
Further to that point, the end of Pascendi actually outlines some of the tools that bishops and priests are encouraged to use against so-called modernist thought. Paragraph 51 states “We order that you do everything in your power to drive out of your dioceses, even by solemn interdict, any pernicious books that may be in circulation there … in all cases it will be obligatory on Catholic booksellers not to put on sale books condemned by the Bishop.” Paragraph 52 outlines the introduction of a series of church censors (“It is not enough to hinder the reading and the sale of bad books – it is also necessary to prevent them from being published”). Paragraph 53 instructs that disobedient priests are to be barred from writing or publishing, and paragraph 54 bans congresses of priests “except on very rare occasions,” for fear that they might express anti-hierarchical views. “When [bishops] do permit them, it shall only be on condition that … absolutely nothing be said in them which savours of Modernism, presbyterianism, or laicism.” It’s clearly not just about faith for these people. It’s also about power. Excommunication is a political tool. It’s a way to get rid of inconvenient opposition – you force it to submit, or you banish it for disobedience. Imagine that level of hostility – that level of institutional aggression – targeted towards any of the moral horrors that the Catholics have perpetrated over the past century. Imagine if the Catholics had gone after pedophiles the way they went after these historians. When people criticize the Vatican for abusing spiritual authority in pursuit of political power, it’s because their most aggressive weapons are brought to bear not on child predators, but on people who threatened their political power. You can measure people by what they treat as a problem, and what they don’t – and I try to be as neutral as possible, but guys, this shit’s fucked.