Monday, September 27, 2010

More Belloc

Read though the section of the book on the reformation heresy. It is quite interesting. He flies through about 400 years of history in about 100 pages. He traces the effects of the reformation. He makes a lot of good points. I wanted to focus on just one here. That is the period of the late 19th and early 20th century. At that point protestant countries (principally England, Germany, and the US) were more intellectually advanced than Catholic countries (France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Poland). What was happening in really all areas of academics is that the protestant countries would lead the way and the Catholic countries would try and catch up.

This was the time when the historical critical analysis of the scriptures become quite popular in theology. The protestants were taking the lead and they were just following their own principles. Every individual had to satisfy himself about the reasonableness of every doctrine. There was no authority that could vouch for all the doctrines together. They had to be dealt with one by one. So when approaching the scriptures they did the same thing. Every book of scripture had to be analyzed based on the historical evidence. No authority could vouch for the whole canon or even the Old Testament canon. It is interesting that the Jews accepted the book of Proverbs as the word of God but should we not do our own analysis?

Then there was the influence of the age of reason where any account of a miracle was assumed to be pious fiction. If you cannot verify the 10 plagues outside of scripture then the "rational" thing to do is to assume nothing supernatural happened. When you ask questions like, "Why did Pharaoh let the Israelites go if there were no plagues?"  then you respond with more skepticism. Maybe Moses never existed. Maybe the Israelites were never in Egypt. You never stop to notice that your theory is creating more questions than it is providing answers. The important thing is to provide a purely rational and entirely faithless approach to the scriptures.Needless to say, reading the scriptures this way leaves them in ruins.

Anyway, the kind of theological thinking was popular in England, Prussia/Germany, and the Northeastern US from about 1870-1930. I say NE US because the south has been destroyed by the US Civil War. We are talking principally about Ivy league scholars from mainline protestant denominations.

I remember being surprised by a comment Scott Hahn made when discussing the historical critical method. He said one of the main pushers of the scholarship was Otto Von Bismark. He thought Christianity could not stand up to this kind of scrutiny so he financed it very generously.

So what about Catholic scholarship? You need to understand that anticlerical movements had done a number on Catholic intellectuals. The Jesuits had been suppressed. Many priests had been killed. A lot of Catholic scholars were afraid to sound too Catholic. The protestant scholars always set the direction and defined what was considered advanced thinking. Catholic scholarship was very much in "me too" mode. So that is mostly what you got. Catholic theologians swallowing all the protestant assumptions whole.

The papacy responded with some anti-intellectual decisions. Catholicism is not, in principle, anti-intellectual but at this time it seemed the prudent course. It may have been a bit of an over-reaction. Certainly some of the theologians that were disciplined were later embraced as experts for Vatican II.

God gave the church what she needed just before she needed it. The doctrine of infallibility and the historical analysis of Blessed John Henry Newman were the exact antidote to this spiritual poison. Running away from scholarship is not the answer. That is what fundamentalists have done and Catholics did it too for a season. But ultimately scholarship must be redeemed but not discarded.


  1. Re: "God gave the church what she needed just before she needed it"-- I agree. Cardinal Newman really disliked the declaration of papal infallibility that came out in his own day. He agreed with the doctrine but he thought it was a needless agitation of the Church-- that doctrines should be defined when they're disputed, not before. He said that the whole Church was at peace and no one was attacking the dogma, so Rome should have left well enough alone. But it would have looked so self-serving if a pope defined the dogma of papal infallibility just when everyone was starting to question it. The Holy Spirit knew we needed it sooner, at a time when it would be happily acclaimed by all the Church.

  2. Thanks for all the comments. Glad you stopped by.

    I think people have always questioned papal infallibility. It was more a question of making it precise enough to stand up to more sophisticated scrutiny. Newman's thinking allowed the church to be more precise. His opposition might have been due to humility. But the church knew the insights God gave him were for the whole church.