The Incompatibilities of Catholicism and Critical Thought

The Incompatibilities of Catholicism and Critical Thought April 3, 2016

Pope Francis. Source: WikiMedia Commons


The first post I made on this blog set forth my agenda on Patheos: to encourage taking religion seriously, even as atheists.

Here I don’t mean taking religion seriously as a social phenomenon—the type of thing that motivates people to get up early on Saturday or Sunday; that compels maverick lawmakers to either covertly or overtly push it into legislation; something that’s used to motivate and justify terrorism, etc. I think at this point, we all take religion seriously enough in these ways.

What I mean, instead, is to encourage taking religion intellectually seriously: that even if we think that some religious claim or doctrine is prima facie absurd, truly effective criticism of these must be done at the highest levels. Brilliant humans regularly publish defenses of theism in mainstream secular academic journals; and so in a sense we can truly say that religious doctrines/claims are considered a legitimate form of intellectual discourse at the highest intellectual levels of society—the same level of legitimacy given to academic physics and ornithology and evolutionary biology, etc. (Think the sanctioned publications and institutions of the Oxfords and Cambridges of the world.) 

That being said, just because something is an intellectually legitimized form of discourse doesn’t mean that it’s correct; and of course, for every defense of a theistic position that appears in some academic publication, there’s a rebuttal challenging it.

It’s to this end that here, I want to talk about a particular sort of sub-area of this discourse that has a fairly unique set of problems here: Catholic theology.

I’ve spent the past year or longer away from my normal area of study, instead primarily studying modern Catholic theology. I’ve focused especially on a few different issues: the hermeneutics of Catholic dogma; the relationship between Catholic Biblical interpretation and historical criticism; the historicity of Adam and Eve and the modern and historical interpretation of the book of Genesis; and the Catholic approach¹ to the general science/religion relationship.

There’s a certain binding factor between these, centering around the relationship of Catholicism to other areas of historical and scientific knowledge, and contentions about the ultimate truth of Catholicism itself. Consequently, there are certain generalized conclusions I’ve come to about how Catholic theologians navigate these things, and some of the shortcomings here. 

For the majority of Catholics, the idea of the incompatibility of certain important aspects of Catholic thought vs. critical thought² is an increasingly unpopular one. Yet for Catholic ecclesiastical authorities, the tension here remains all too palpable. For example, the use of contraceptives is an area where, in many nations around the world, the laity is guided by pragmatism over official Church teaching; and in terms of academia, obviously there are few non-orthodox ethicists who argue for the immorality of contraception.

So while on one hand, in certain areas Catholic authorities are all too eager to push back against the secularized materialism of the world, on the other hand the idea of a disharmony of Catholic dogma/doctrine and the hypotheses/theories of other areas of historical and scientific knowledge is sharply resisted.

Yet there’s a crucial thing to bear in mind here: it’s usually Catholic authorities who have dictated the terms here, in regard to the latter. These have been the ones to assume the mantle of ultimate authority³ in dictating where harmony does or doesn’t exist; and when all is said and done, it looks like the idea of this harmony is more of a theologically motivated idea than a natural conclusion that emerges from studying whatever issue it may be. 

The idea of the harmony between the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature—or, more generally stated, between Christianity and the natural world as discovered by science (etc.)—is one deep-seated in history; but this idea, and its formulation and application throughout history, is more ambiguous and contentious than sometimes realized.

Some of the earliest Christian theology demanded that the natural world unambiguously attests to an intelligent design of sorts. Beyond this, however, Saint Augustine in the 5th century is one of the pivotal figures in the history of this. Indeed, in many ways Augustine emerged as the principle theological figure of contention in the Galileo affair in the 17th century, which can be interpreted primarily as a sort of high-point of an increasingly contentious process of ironing out of the relationship between the natural world and the supernatural.⁴ In many ways, however, the essence of the conflict again had precisely to do with the unbalanced relationship in regard to who dictates the terms of harmony or disharmony: Galileo was accused of usurping the authority of the Catholic Church to dictate when and where science and Scripture were in conflict or not.

As might be surmised, in many ways the ultimate culprit here is the primacy of Scripture and authoritative interpretation/theology in Catholic thought. And it’s here where, although Galileo appealed to some of Augustine’s progressive tendencies in harmonizing Scripture with the study of the natural world and history, Augustine could equally be employed for the more “fundamentalist” side of the coin.⁵

For example, at several different points throughout his works, Augustine mounted a two-pronged attack against secular historical and scientific knowledge that conflicted with that presented in Scripture. In his City of God, in the context of refuting pagan histories that had posited the great antiquity of the world and humanity (even to hundreds of thousands of years), in contrast to the authoritative Judeo-Christian history presented in Scripture—in which not 6,000 years had passed from the beginning, as Augustine and indeed all patristic writers understood it—Augustine writes of the symbolic anti-Christian city, that

the citizens of the irreligious city . . . read authors of the profoundest erudition, and see no reason for rejecting the authority of any of them; but they find them contradicting one another in their treatment of events most remote from the memory of the present age . . . In contrast, we can place our reliance on the inspired history belonging to our religion and consequently have no hesitation in treating as utterly false [non dubitamus esse falsissimum] anything which fails to conform to it, no matter what may be the position of the other works of secular literature⁶

It’s rarely been recognized that the language here hearkens back to Augustine’s commentary on the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, this time aimed more generally against “natural philosophy”:  

When [natural philosophers] are able, from reliable evidence, to prove some fact of [natural philosophy], we shall show that it is not contrary to our Scripture. But when they produce from any of their books a theory contrary to our Scripture, and therefore contrary to the Catholic faith, either we shall have some ability to demonstrate that [the theory] is absolutely false, or at least we ourselves will hold it so without any shadow of a doubt.

The standard translation by Taylor actually has “some fact of natural science” here; but “natural philosophy” comes closer to the meaning of the underlying Latin. (Further, in light of the “no hesitation” of the first quote and the “without any shadow of a doubt” of the latter in terms of prizing Scriptural knowledge over secular knowledge, we could also look toward City of God 11.7’s “no hesitation in believing the fact” in reference to the the light of Genesis 1, vis-à-vis the problem with the creation of the sun on the fourth day: sine ulla haesitatione credendum est. Elsewhere, Augustine again cautions against “wishing [the Bible’s] teaching to conform to ours [that is, our human knowledge], whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”)

Above all, the formative principle by which Augustine approached the interpretation of the Bible (which he outlines more explicitly elsewhere) was one of inerrancy: the Bible did not err in any way, at any place—not only in matters of faith and morals, but even on historical and scientific matters, too, when it was truly intended to suggest one of these things.⁷

Consequently, whenever there were was an apparent error in Scripture in any of these facets, it was precisely that: only an apparent error, not a true one. For Augustine, whenever one encounters one of these apparent errors in Scripture, one of three things is to be done: 1) if one is reading a Hebrew or Greek manuscript, it must be assumed that the error is particular to that copy of the manuscript, as introduced by the scribe, and wasn’t in the original text; 2) if one is reading a translation of the Hebrew or Greek texts, that the error was introduced by the translator; or 3) simply that one’s interpretation of the text is wrong. (As described in Epistle 82.3.)

Of course, in many ways the first two of these don’t concern us anymore. From centuries of critical work on the Bible and analysis of thousands and thousands of manuscripts, we’ve now been able to produce the most faithful version(s) of the earliest manuscripts that we possibly can; and our best translations are faithful renderings of these. (That being said, this obviously doesn’t alleviate the problem of a Biblical author himself having made an error in copying, when they relied on a previous text. I’ve discussed this in much greater detail here.)

The third principle, however, itself introduces a host of virtually insurmountable problems.

First and foremost, it should be noted that the type of inerrancy that Augustine was committed to in fact represents normative Catholic doctrine on the issue, which has itself been strongly influenced precisely by Augustine here.⁸

Second, it may be recognized that the game here is fundamentally rigged: it starts out from the assumption that the Bible can’t be in error, and then finds a way to interpret the Bible that avoids imputing it with error. (This has commonly been done in Catholic theology by insisting on the radical divine inspiration of the Bible to such the extent that—as it’s argued—since God is the true auctor of the Bible, then if the Bible were ever shown to be in error anywhere, then God himself can be in error; ergo the Bible cannot ever be in error.⁸ᵇ Needless to say, this principle commits one to a full kind of inerrancy.)

This is only the beginning of the problems.

If one can’t appeal to manuscript or translation error, then one is always committed to the idea of interpretive error. Augustine outlines what exactly this might mean for how one approaches the text, in one example discussing the Bible’s apparent ethically problematic material:

anything in the [Scriptures] that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative. . . . Jeremiah’s phrase “Behold today I have established you over nations and kingdoms, to uproot and destroy, to lay waste and scatter” is, without doubt, entirely figurative . . . Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether just spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative. (De Doctrina Christiana 3.33, 41-42)

Of course, in particular instances like this—ethically problematic material—there are other strategies of apologetic interpretation that dominate today. One of these is simply to insist that even if one can’t interpret the text in a “figurative” way, and assumes that God truly did command one of these things in history, it still remains the case that God as a morally perfect being cannot do or command things that are immoral, no matter how heinous they might seem to us. (I’ve discussed a particularly problematic of this here, where the author of the book of Ezekiel has God appeal to his sovereignty in order to explain [away] his apparent condoning and indeed even demanding of child sacrifice in the Torah.)

Above all, Catholicism is fundamentally committed to the certainty of the divine inspiration, and thus inerrancy, of the Bible. And while there are indeed instances like the above, where the Biblical text can be taken at face-value in terms of historicity—and yet be explained away by appeal to counterintuitive divine ethics—elsewhere one is committed to some interpretive strategies of the Biblical texts that are even more transparently problematic.

That is to say: whenever there’s an apparent historical or scientific error made in the Bible, then, assuming inerrancy, the principle one is committed to here is simply that the Bible cannot truly be making a historical/scientific claim in these instances.

I emphasize the certainty with which this position is held for a reason; and this also applies to Catholic dogma more generally, beyond the specific issue of Biblical interpretation.

Before proceeding, it should probably be clarified that “dogma” in Catholicism refers to teachings which are irreformable: they have either formally been declared as such, or (without even without this formal proclamation) have attained this status by having always and universally been affirmed (the latter known as teachings of the ordinary [and] universal magisterium). Of course, there are other related categories here too, such as things that must be irreformable/true by virtue of their being entailed by other things which are irreformable (which can be connected to what I said about Biblical inerrancy earlier, in view of God being understood as the primary author of Scripture; though Biblical inerrancy itself is clearly part of the ordinary universal magisterium, or more, too⁹); or things that, although not having formally fulfilled these criteria for irreformability, ecclesiastical authorities have still specified that these doctrine demand assent.

In any case, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve spent the past year or so heavily immersed in studying modern Catholic theology; and I mentioned that I’ve focused especially on the hermeneutics of Catholic dogma; the relationship between Catholicism and historical criticism (and Biblical interpretation in general); the modern and historical interpretation of the book of Genesis and the historicity of Adam and Eve; and the Catholic approach to the general science/religion relationship.

As suggested, several of these are problematized by the certainty with which relevant associated Catholic doctrines have been proclaimed. For example, this is precisely the case when it comes to the historicity of Adam and Eve—where in Catholic dogma these must be historical figures, by virtue of the dogmatic necessity of original sin having been transmitted to all humans via the process of actual (genetic) propagation, not mere “imitation” of this sin.¹⁰

Naturally, this makes it impossible for Catholicism to accept an evolutionary anthropological scheme in which all humans who have ever lived¹¹ are not in fact genetically descended from a single common ancestor; and it’s with considerations like these where we can begin to see how Catholicism is forced into a fundamentally uncritical stance when it comes to certain historical and scientific data/knowledge.

Now, it very well may be the case that it’s true that all humans who have ever lived are genetically descended from a single common ancestor—as with our having pinpointed an appropriately-named “Y-chromosomal Adam,” variously estimated as having lived from 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. Of course, there’s no way to tell whether this particular individual was the Biblical Adam or not; and I think there are insurmountable problems with this, at least one of which I’ll discuss more shortly.

But more important than this, however, is that there’s a sense where, in characterizing Catholicism as fundamentally uncritical in instances like this (especially when we have a big epistemological blind spot, such as we do with the identity and nature of this Y-chromosomal Adam), it’s irrelevant whether we can be sure if it’s actually true or not. That is, in these certain instances in which we lack the data necessary for historical/scientific certainty, it doesn’t even matter whether, say, it’s improbable that there are an untold number of humans who are not descended from the Biblical Adam, or that Y-Chromosomal Adam was in fact not the originator of original sin. It only matters that, being possible—or indeed probable, as some other things are—Catholicism couldn’t accept this possibility anyways!

Before moving onto several other examples of this, I might note that I’ve spent the past few months looking at several neglected elements in the debate over the historicity of Adam, wherein I think I’ve found persuasive evidence both in the Biblical texts themselves as well as the consensus of early and authoritative interpreters—in tandem with theological considerations that flow from these—that commit one to dating the historical Adam to a much later time: the 6th or 5th millennium BCE, in which Adam absolutely could not have been the genetic ancestor of all humans who’ve ever lived. (For these calculations, see my post here on the Biblical data; and again see this link for the patristic evidence. At the very least, the Septuagint’s chronology of the earliest humans seemed to have been modified to conform to Greco-Egyptian chronologies, placing the time of Adam shortly before the earliest human rulers of Egyptian chronology. Of course, these are only several facets of a much broader argument, which I don’t have space to get into here; though I broach the issue a bit more here.)

Now, orthodox resistance to this suggestion would be perfectly understandable. How could one accept this interpretation of Scripture and Tradition, which places it in such obvious conflict with established historical and scientific data? And to be clear, here’s no doubt at all that the 6th or 5th millennium BCE is entirely too late for a historical Adam to have still been the genetic ancestor of all living humans. [Edit: I’ve now qualified this in my Note 11 at the bottom of the post.]

However irrational and arbitrary this principle appears to be, however—that is, rejecting Biblical interpretations which conflict with discoveries in the natural world—the same principle has a sort of converse which, as some have noted, presents an even more disturbing possibility.

If the meaning of a Biblical text or doctrine is secure—say, to the extent to which it’s become a part of Catholic dogma—then no other evidence relevant to the Biblical doctrine can attain a greater certainty than the certainty it’s attained by virtue its dogmatic status in Catholicism. (And there certainly can’t be conflicting certainties.) What this might entail, then, is not the rejection of Biblical interpretations which conflict with discoveries in the natural world, as before, but the opposite: the rejection of purported facts of science or history that would conflict with dogmatic pronouncements. As suggested, the operative principle that makes this possible is the conflicting levels of certainty between Catholic dogma—again irreformable, or perhaps we might say “frozen”—and (apparent) facts and theories of the natural world. 

The severity of several of these problems has been recognized by a few prominent philosophers of religion, including Ernan McMullin, Richard Blackwell, and most recently Gregory Dawes. 

I’ve already mentioned Catholicism’s dogmatic commitment to a “literal” interpretation of the creation narrative in Genesis 2-3 in at least one major aspect: the existence of a historical Adam and Eve, whose sin was the true original sin (passed down via propagation to all humans). The starting point of the major articles of Ernan McMullin and Richard Blackwell here is in the Galileo crisis; yet all taken together, all roads lead to back to Genesis 1-3, via Augustine.

McMullin, in his essay “Galileo on Science and Scripture,” demarcates a set of Augustinian principles for Biblical interpretation vis-à-vis natural philosophy and science—though in many major senses these principles have become more generally Catholic, in much the same way as with the issue of inerrancy.

I’ve discussed Augustine’s/McMullin’s principles in more detail here; but again, as mentioned earlier in my post, Galileo had appealed to some of the more “progressive” elements of these principles in Augustine to support his harmonization of Copernicanism and Biblical interpretation. McMullin describes that Galileo

cites Augustine in support of the traditional view that in cases of apparent conflict, the literal interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained, unless the opposing scientific claim can be demonstrated. In that case, theologians must look for an alternative reading of the Scriptural passage(s), since it is a . . . principle that faith and natural reason cannot really be in conflict. However, the straightforward interpretation of Scripture is to be preferred in cases where the scientific claim has something less than “necessary demonstration” in its support, because of the inherently greater authority to be attached to the word of God. (Ernan McMullin, “Plantinga’s Defense of Special Creation,” 172)

As McMullin goes on to note, though, the principle as he’s outlined “has one quite disastrous consequence: it sets theologians evaluating the validity of the arguments of the natural philosophers, and natural philosophers defending themselves by composing theological tracts.”

It’s Gregory Dawes, however, who teases out from these principles their most disturbing (potential) implications. Reiterating McMullin’s insights, he writes that  

It is important to note that the two Augustinian principles rest on a further assumption: that divine revelation yields certain knowledge. This is the reason why any natural-philosophical reasoning that falls short of certainty cannot take priority over a literal reading of the biblical text. (“Evolution and the Bible: The Hermeneutical Question,” 45)

Yet he continues that, despite the apparent ironclad evidence for evolution (which Dawes indeed accepts—and, needless to say, I do too), on these Augustinian principles

we cannot claim for [evolution] the kind of certainty that would counterbalance what Augustine and his followers regard as the certainty of divine revelation. The history of science has taught us to be cautious here. If Newtonian physics needed to be radically revised in the early twentieth century, then we should not assume that even our best theories are established beyond any possibility of doubt. It follows that a Christian who (a) holds to a strict interpretation of the Augustinian principles and (b) considers Darwin’s theory to be inconsistent with a literal reading of Genesis 1-3 should reject Darwin’s theory and be a creationist. (48)

Dawes devotes a few pages to the ambiguity of how “literal” interpretation has been conceived throughout history; however, again, as has been noted, we’re justified in saying that the Catholic interpretation of the Adam and Eve narrative does indeed have a literal core (in the most common modern sense of the word): being the primary account of the historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of humanity—even if “properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time.”¹³

While I’ll return to this shortly, I contend that this principle—or something much like it—is actually much more broadly operative in Catholic thought and dogma, and as such presents Catholic theologians and exegetes with several intractable (or indeed truly insoluble) problems. 

For example, there’s much the same indication that the same problems plague the Catholic approach to historical criticism in general. Historical criticism, most succinctly stated, is the standard academic methodology for interpreting ancient texts (including the Biblical texts, obviously) in their social and historical contexts. Catholic Biblical scholar and theologian John J. Collins has done the most to recognize the challenge that this methodology poses for Catholic interpretation, along the same lines as have delineated above: that “[h]istorical criticism, unlike traditional faith does not provide for certainty but only for relative degrees of probability” (“Is a Critical Biblical Theology Possible?”, 5, emphasis mine).

It’s difficult to fully explain how historical criticism offers possibilities for Biblical interpretation that are alien (or indeed anathema) to traditional orthodox interpretation. To put it succinctly however, historical criticism is used to analyze texts not as “living” documents that far transcend their time and place—texts imbued with the same supernatural spirit that the Church as a whole is, so that they attain their ultimate authoritative interpretation by/in the Church, and solely by/in the Church—but as more static documents that were the products of much more contextually-bound worldviews, limited by their authors’ knowledge and prejudices, etc.

In short, with historical criticism the Biblical texts are less amenable to traditional (Catholic) conceptions of their divine inspiration/inerrancy, as well as the processes of composition that gave birth to them; and instead, they can be characterized by the presence of legend, error, and perhaps even mendacity within and underlying them.

To be sure, some great progress has been made in recent Catholic receptivity to historical criticism, as compared to earlier attitudes. Even the shift from the early 20th century to the mid-late century here is regularly characterized as almost revolutionary. But there are reasons to be cautious in this assessment, too. However much it might be conceded by ecclesiastical authorities that historical criticism is “the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts,”¹⁴ it simply remains the case that many standard views put forth by critical scholars—indeed consensuses—are dogmatically off-limits to faithful Catholics. 

Now’s not the time for a full discussion of this, though we can surely imagine that this conflict arises when scholars challenge the traditional authorship of Biblical texts (especially, say, when they suggest the presence of deceptive forgery here); or, say, when the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary is challenged as historically inauthentic and secondary. Further, we can certainly extend this to include the very same problem as discussed above, when scholars agree that the Adam and Eve narrative of Genesis 2-3 was not originally intended to suggest the historicity of two actual individuals. 

And again, the same problems can be extended to more philosophical/metaphysical matters, as well as dogmatic hermeneutics itself.

In the most recent few months, I’ve been looking at the metaphysics of transubstantiation—both late medieval / early modern, and in light of modern metaphysics—and particularly whether the (idiosyncratic?) idea of substance that underlies the idea of transubstantiation is sustainable in light of advances in metaphysics subsequent to the original dogmatic formulations of transubstantiation.

This has taken me far afield of my comfort zone, and I’ve been struggling to make sense of a lot of the research I’ve been looking at; though I’m comfortable with my impression that the theory of substance that either implicitly or explicitly underlies transubstantiation is in great dispute, with many prominent metaphysicians either implicitly or explicitly challenging its foundations and classic formulations. (See especially those nominalists who prefer what are known as “bundle” and “trope” theories—though I think there’s a fairly wide range of perspectives which challenge it.)

I’ve found that the few Catholics I’ve discussed this issue with have been remarkably hostile to this idea, though. This is surprising, because this hostility comes from intellectuals who I otherwise greatly respect; but perhaps it’s more understandable when it’s realized that in many ways, the Eucharist rests at the center of practiced Catholic faith, and thus criticism of this is in fact a challenge to the idea of their very encounter with God in the flesh.

Nevertheless, though, even if there are academic (neo-Aristotelian/Thomist) defenders of the theory of substance that the doctrine of transubstantiation depends on, the important thing to note here is that I think there’s no dispute that it is in fact an open question in academic metaphysics. This being the case, then, this means that criticism of this theory of substance—and indeed full-blown rejection of it—is a perfectly valid position in academic discourse; and, even more than this, may eventually become the universally-held view! Therefore, we can say that it’s a real (indeed entirely likely) possibility that the reality presupposed in Catholic dogma—the one in which transubstantiation occurs—and actual reality are indeed irreconcilable. 

Yet as has been mentioned throughout this post, it’s precisely a tenet of Catholic thought that reality and dogma cannot ultimately be in conflict! Consequently, then, Catholic intellectuals who work in metaphysics would have grounds for dismissing what may eventually be the consensus. The game is indeed rigged. 

Finally, much the same “rigged” interpretive principle can be found in dogmatic hermeneutics itself, where if a later (dogmatic or otherwise) formulation appears to contradict an earlier dogmatic ones, either the interpretation of the earlier or later ones—whichever one is responsible for the contradiction—is to be held as erroneous; thus from the very outset the possibility of legitimate contradiction has been dismissed, regardless of what the actual evidence suggests. (This explains the cold reception of—indeed the hostility to—the work of Charles Curran, John Noonan, Hans Küng, et al.) 

Where do we go from here?

In my experience, I’ve found that many of the most theologically-engaged Catholics I interact with aren’t actually open to considering many of these issues in a truly honest way. The suggestion that the Biblical texts, taken in their most natural sense (and indeed as inerrant), might commit one to belief in a young (<8,000 years old) humanity is dismissed as fundamentalism—even though there are virtually unimpeachable reasons to believe that this is the unambiguous implication of at least several Biblical texts which present a gapless genealogy of only some 5,000 years from the original human progenitor, as well as the fact that this was the universal consensus of every recorded Church father or writer up until about the late 17th century (and controversial up until the late 19th and into the 20th).

Similarly, those who suggest that there has been true dogmatic contradiction in Catholic history are often simply dismissed as being poor decretal/conciliar exegetes. Finally, just a few days ago, a Ph.D. student in theology on Reddit characterized rejection of the particular theory of substance underlying transubstantiation as being “as absurd as saying Jesus did not exist” (the latter of which isn’t disputed in actual critical study of early Christianity).

To be sure, though, I think that in some instances here one has to strike a delicate balance. I think a world in which Catholicism adapts, however imperfectly, to tenets of modern knowledge and polite discourse/ethics is certainly preferable to one in which it doesn’t. But above all, in many major ways Catholicism distinguishes itself by its rejection of any sort of inchoate or unprincipled utilitarianism—which, ironically, several of these tenets of Catholic accommodationism seem to come dangerously close to. But by the same token, in other cases there seems to be a stubborn refusal to adapt to critical norms. 

At the end of the day, it’s not only the possibility of an overt subversion or rejection of intellectual discourse that’s the only disturbing thing here, but also the (seemingly) subtler ways in which truly honest discourse can be rejected or avoided.

Reflecting pessimistically on Vatican authorities’ interference in the publication of Pio Paschini’s Vita e Opere di Galileo Galilei—originally commissioned by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death, but subsequently heavily revised by later redactors to further exonerate the Church from criticism—Richard Blackwell concludes his essay “Could There Be Another Galileo Case?” by suggesting that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that intellectual honesty and freedom of thought may still not be strong enough in the Church to prevent the recurrence of another clash between science and religion” (366).

Of course, the Vatican interference in this particular instance was primarily over an issue of (science/religion) historiography. Yet historiography is precisely the main issue of contention in a few of the things that I’ve suggested in this post! It’s certainly no small matter.

Avoidance or silence, and/or a sort of tentative accommodationism—on issues of metaphysics; on unsustainable ancient dogma; on the fatal problems of the Biblical/historical Adam, etc.—might work for now. But will it work forever? Or is this just postponing the inevitable: the straw that breaks the camel’s back, where the Spirit of Vatican II is discovered to be the actual Spirit guiding the Church, pushing it toward truly radical change (or, on a less supernatural note, is otherwise discovered to be the unavoidable Zeitgeist)?

Or is it possible that things will go another direction, and there will indeed be another Galileo case? If, for example, academic metaphysics goes conclusively in the direction of rejecting the theory of substance upon which transubstantiation depends, will there be some sort of schism, or new Inquisition,¹⁵ for those in the Church who choose to accept the secular academic consensus over stubborn ecclesiastical metaphysics? (And yet what after this?)
In the end, it may be that the intellectual honesty to truly embrace (all) critical thought here, no matter where it might lead, is indeed there—and I think there are good reasons to think this is so—but that there’s simply no channels to truly integrate these insights into the official magisterial/ecclesiastical super-structure for now. And perhaps there will never be, without rebuilding it first.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] I speak of “the Catholic approach” not to suggest that there’s any one generalized approach here, but more just out of convenience. 

[2] I know the use of the phrase “critical thought,” in the title of this post, is kind of vague; but really, I simply mean the kind of conclusions that are readily accepted (or even just contemplated) in the world of academia. Most importantly, I chose the title I did (containing the plural) not to suggest the incompatibility of all Catholic thought and all critical thought, but rather just particular incompatibilities—though, again, I think there can be some more generally-applicable principles here, which I discuss throughout the post.

[3] Richard Blackwell writes of the “logic of centralized authority,”

which is essentially required by the scripturally based revelation that serves as the source of religion, at least as this has been understood in the Catholic tradition. Furthermore, this “logic of centralized authority” is in certain respects antithetical to the scientific method, which is based on an authority, indeed, but on an authority of a quite different type. If so, then no matter how much agreement there may be between science and religion at the level of their respective world-views, there still remains a potential locus of conflict between the two at the level of competing authorities. (“Could There Be Another Galileo Case?”, 350-51)

[4] For how the effects of this were felt long after the affair itself, see Maurice Finocchiaro’s Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. Often overlooked, the Isaac La Peyrère affair just decades after represents another high-point of the conflict. 

[5] I’m aware that many people are disturbed by the association of Augustine and “fundamentalism” (the latter of which is usually construed as a particular late modern phenomenon). I use “fundamentalism” here in its slightly broader sense than that of early 20th century Protestant Fundamentalism, obviously. Those like James Barr actually characterize “fundamentalism” (or at least fundamentalist Biblical interpretation) as, above all, primarily involving a commitment to inerrancy:

What fundamentalists insist is not that the Bible must be taken literally but that it must be so interpreted as to avoid any admission that it contains any kind of error. In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretation. (Fundamentalism, 40)

McIver similarly follows Barr, that “inerrancy is the dominant principle in fundamentalist Bible interpretation” (“Creationism: Intellectual Origins, Cultural Context, and Theoretical Diversity,” page unknown).

For the record, Augustine explicitly condones the approach to “twist and turn back and forward between literal and non-literal interpretation,” in order (primarily) to avoid imputing the Bible with error (cf. De Doctrina Christiana 3.33, 41-42, quoted later in my post).

[6City of God 18.40, translation Evans. See also City of God 12.10 here.

Note that in 18.41 we also find “It is to be noted that our authors do not disagree with one another in any way.”

[7] See my post here for some of the ambiguities of this.

[8] Again see my post here for quotation of the dogmatic sources, some of which explicitly make reference to Augustine. Further, as I commented in my other post on inerrancy and the issue of (inner-Biblical) scribal error,

Augustine’s commitment to inerrancy extended as far as to deny that the gospel authors could have even gotten Biblical names mixed up—for example, coming up with far-fetched apologetic explanations to explain away verses like Matthew 27:9 (“Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah…”), where the prophet Jeremiah may have been mistakenly cited instead of Zechariah.

(Similarly, during the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Franz König put forth this example, as well as a related one involving Mark 2:26, during discussions about the issue of Biblical inspiration/inerrancy, attempting to demonstrate clear Biblical errors to the Council. However, this was generally not found persuasive in the end.)

[8b] I draw especially on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Providentissimus Deus here (see §20).

[9] Perhaps the strongest statement here is found, again, in Providentissimus Deus (§20): “This is the ancient and unchanging faith of the Church, solemnly defined in the Councils of Florence and Trent, and finally and more expressly formulated by the Council of the Vatican.”

[10] See my post here.

[11] I make a point here of specifying all humans who have ever lived, in consideration of some recent models that have suggested that our most recent common ancestor (MRCA)—the definition of which I now understand to specify the common ancestor of living humans—could have lived in the much more recent past (cf. Rohde et al. 2004; Lachance 2009). As is clarified in Rohde et al., when we instead specify a given population even with no currently living descendants, then when it comes to humans—that is, when our population here is humans as a whole—we would have a much more distant common ancestry, considering isolated populations (of the past) who could have only shared a common ancestry with the “rest” of humanity some tens of thousands of years ago.

For instance, taking Tasmania as an example, “which may have been completely isolated from mainland Australia between the flooding of the Bass Strait, 9,000-12,000 years ago, and the European colonization of the island, starting in 1803 . . . the [identical ancestors] date for all living humans must fall before the start of isolation. However, the MRCA date would be unaffected, because today there are no remaining native Tasmanians without some European or mainland Australian ancestry.” (Quoting here from Rohde et al., “Modelling the Recent Common Ancestry of All Living Humans,” 565.)

The importance of this distinction comes from the fact that it’s highly possible (if not irrefutable) that there have been individuals and populations over the past 2,000 years—say, those who lived before a wider colonial intrusion into their population—whose shared common ancestry with the rest of humanity can only be found some tens of thousands of years ago. Thus they couldn’t have been descended from the Biblical Adam, on my suggestion of Biblical chronology placing him only some thousands of years ago. It’s even possible that through missionary efforts, some in these populations accepted Christ! So this is obviously theologically intolerable, for several reasons.

But even if it’s the case, for example, that “there are no remaining native Tasmanians without some European or mainland Australian ancestry,” there are still current populations far more isolated than that of Tasmania, and thus presumed exceptions to this more recent type of genetic admixture. See, for instance, a recent article that appeared in the American Journal of Human Genetics on the Kalash, a culturally and genetically isolated people estimated to have diverged from larger populations some 10,000 years ago. We can also look toward the various uncontacted peoples here.

While it’s quite likely that the true (genetic) isolation of at least some of these now-uncontacted peoples occurred comparatively recently (say, in the past 200-300 years)—that is, that before their isolation they were genetically joined to the larger surrounding population of their geographical area—the most salient point for my purposes here is that still remains the case that there has been a certain continental isolation, in several instances, which pushes the true date of common ancestry back much further. Consider that the European colonizers of the 15th and 16th century met with large populations settled throughout North and South America, from northern Manitoba to southern Argentina, whose ancestors’ presence in the Americas could not have come about except by descent from the original early migratory settlers of the Americas some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

[12] From Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis. More fully, this section (§38) reads

Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies. This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

[13] Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”

[14] Academic Biblical Studies remains my primary interest; and as such it’s hard not to look at the Raymond Browns, J. P. Meiers and Joseph Fitzmyers of the world and not think that the revolution has already taken place. (Though again, things like Dawes’ “Why Historicity Still Matters: Raymond Brown and the Infancy Narratives” expose the precarious theological position Brown seems to be in here, and just how shaky and even incoherent of an accommodationism seems to have been forged. Cf. again several essays by John Collins here.)

[15] I’m well-aware of the overblown popular myths about, for example, the violence of the Inquisition. I simply mean in its formality and its extent.

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