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The Historical Roots of the Modern Crisis in the Catholic Church


Drawing on his years of experience as a Catholic writer, Philip Trower offers a long view of how the Catholic Church arrived in its present modern crisis. Whereas many analyses take the Second Vatican Council as their starting point, Trower turns his gaze back towards the previous centuries, searching out the roots of modern conflicts over authority within the Church, the nature of Scripture, the relationship with the secular world, and more.

His central thesis is that the positive movement for reform, and the negative movements of rebellion against the Church’s authority, grew up intertwined in the years preceding Vatican II, and that it was only in the period following the Council that the division between the two became clearer. His analysis introduces a host of persons and movements whose legacies endure.

Philip Trower’s accessible style of writing and his attention to detail offer the reader a clear understanding of where the Church has come from in its recent past. Turmoil and Truth is essential reading for all who wish to understand the present and future direction of the Catholic Church.

“The most comprehensive and penetrating account we have of the post-conciliar crisis.” — James Hitchcock, St. Louis University

Chapter Seventeen: Enter Modernism

The Bible, the Word of God in human speech, is not like a manual of instructions - though it has often been treated like that. While most of it is straightforward enough, there are also many passages whose meaning is far from immediately self-evident. This is why Bible study has a history going back to Old Testament times.

The obscurities are basically of three kinds.

The first are due to mistakes by copyists. In the transmission of the manuscripts down the ages, the attention of the copyists sometimes wandered, or they added comments in the margin which later became incorporated in the text. As a result, the surviving manuscripts contain numbers of variant readings. The kind of scholarship that tries to determine which of these different readings comes nearest to the original is called textual criticism. It is largely a matter of comparing manuscripts to determine which seems most reliable. [1]

It is not difficult, I think, to see why God, in his providence, allowed the texts to become corrupted in this way. Had he prevented it, had he ensured that the thousands of copyists working over two to three millennia had never made a mistake, the Bible would so obviously be a work of divine origin that faith would no longer be a free act. The variant readings are never sufficient to make the main substance of the biblical books uncertain. They only affect particular sentences or phrases.

Obscurities of the second kind flow from the human limitations and character traits of the inspired human authors. While ensuring that they wrote what he wanted, God did so through the medium of their particular personalities and styles of writing and the kinds of literary composition characteristic of their age. Since they were writing a long time ago, they, not surprisingly, used modes of expression or referred to events and things some-times beyond the comprehension of later readers.

Difficulties arising from this second class of causes are resolved, in so far as they can be, by the study of ancient languages, history, archaeology, and literary forms or genres (not to be confused with "form criticism"). Are some words to be taken literally or metaphorically? Is a certain book or passage intended to be history in the strict sense, or an allegory or parable, or is it some combination of the two? The search is for what the human author intended to say and how. This is called "the literal sense".
These first two forms of Bible study simply prepare the ground for what in the Church's eyes has always been the most important branch; the study of the religious significance or theological meaning of the texts.

Obscurities in this field are due to the mysterious nature of the subject matter, or, according to St. Augustine, are deliberately put there by the divine author himself. "The Sacred Books inspired by God were purposely interspersed by him with difficulties both to stimulate us to study and examine them with close attention, and also to give us a salutary experience of the limitations of our minds and thus exercise us in proper humility". [2] God does not disclose the full meaning of what he is saying to mere cleverness or sharp wits.

Most of the problems connected with these three branches of Bible study were familiar to the scholars of the ancient world, with the school of Antioch concentrating on the literal meaning and those of Alexandria on possible symbolic or "spiritual" meanings. The critical approach was not unknown either Origen and St. Jerome, for instance, on the basis of internal evidence, doubted whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was really by St. Paul. [3] But whatever the problems, down to 200 years ago the end in view was always the same: to strengthen belief, deepen understanding and increase love of God.

Since around 1800, on the other hand, "advanced" biblical scholarship has followed a markedly different course with the precisely opposite results. The critical method has been given pride of place over every other approach; attention has focused on technical rather than spiritual questions (when and in what circumstances were the books written), with a high percentage of those trying to answer the questions losing most of their beliefs in the process. This is a plain historical fact which receives surprisingly little attention. Does it mean that the Bible cannot stand up to close examination? No. We have to distinguish between the method and the spirit in which it is used, or between the critical method and the critical movement.

That the critical method, once formulated, would be applied to the Bible was more or less bound to happen, but it was clearly a much more sensitive business than applying it to other historical documents, seeing that implicit in its use was the assumption that the origin of at least some of the books would turn out not to be what had hitherto been thought.

The method also carries with it a number of temptations. Experts like to exercise their skills. But if a text is the work of a single author, without additions or interpolations and written when it was thought to have been, there is nothing for the critic to do. The method, of its nature, therefore carries within it a kind of bias against single authorship. There will be a tendency to see any ancient text as necessarily a patchwork of literary fragments put together by groups of editors at some considerable time after the events described which is different from recognizing, as has always been done, that the biblical authors, like other writers about past events, when not writing about events they had themselves taken part in, depended on external sources. We can see the tendency at work in 19th-century Homeric studies, where it came to be more or less taken for granted that any work before the fifth or sixth century A.D. must be of composite authorship. Homer's very existence was doubted, and the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey assigned to a mob of Greek poets spanning several centuries. Since then Homeric studies have changed course. A real Homer is credited with the bulk of the epics. [4] But there has been no such change of course in advanced biblical scholarship.

Another temptation will be to try to ape the exact sciences by assigning a certainty to conclusions, which, because of the nature of the subject matter, can only be conjectural. [5] Nevertheless, as we have already said, there is nothing objectionable about the method itself. The Church has approved it, and its use by biblical scholars with faith and a sense of proportion has thrown light on numbers of incidental scriptural obscurities.

The critical movement is another matter. Although forerunners like the 17th-century French Oratorian priest Richard Simon and the 18th-century French physician Jean Astruc were Catholics, we can take as the movement's starting point the publication of The Wo!ffenbuttel Fragments (1774-1778) by the German Lutheran dramatist and writer Lessing. The "fragments" were actually extracts from an unpublished manuscript by the rationalist scholar Reimarus, which Lessing pretended he had found in the royal Hanoverian library at Wolffenbuttel. A few years later, Gottfried Eichorn, the Lutheran professor of oriental languages at Jena (and subsequently Gottingen) published his Introductions to the Old and New Testaments (1780-1783 and 1804-1812), and from then on the movement was dominated by scholars whose conclusions about the time and the way the biblical books were written were influenced as much by philosophical assumptions and cultural prejudices as by concrete evidence.

Their principal assumption was that supernatural phenomena like miracles and prophecy are impossible, and therefore a large part of the Bible must be folklore. They also tended to see people in the past as necessarily inferior, uninterested in objective truth and incapable of transmitting facts accurately, while regarding priests as by nature deceitful and only interested in the maintenance of their collective authority. Evidence that the art of writing was practised by the Hebrews at least by the time of the Exodus, and of the capacity of non-literate peoples to orally transmit religious traditions faithfully over long periods of time was either downplayed or ignored. [6] These assumptions had in most cases already been made before they set to work.

The Pentateuch and Gospels were the main objects of attention. The crucial question about the composition of the Pentateuch is not "When were the books written or put together in the form we now have them?" but "Was the information they contain, whether recorded by Moses or others, transmitted accurately down the centuries?"

The crucial question about the composition of the Gospels is "Were they, or were they not, written by eye-witnesses, or by men with more or less direct access to eye-witnesses?"



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