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One of the many unattractive things about the Internet for a Catholic is the presence of those who insist on a hermeneutic of rupture. At its most extreme are those who claim the Seat of St Peter has been empty since some date in the past. These people not only claim to be Catholics, but they claim to be the only Catholics and to offer, to them, infallibel ‘proofs’ that they are right.. Does the Magisterium of the Church say otherwise? Do those set in authority above them say otherwise? Does the global Catholic Church say otherwise? Well, no matter, as with all conspiracy theorists, these people will claim it all ‘proves’ they are right. With this there is no argument, and frankly, best not to have any engagement. If they have invented a virtual Catholic Church which excludes the actual Catholic Church, and they are happy with that, all that is to be done is to pray for them and to marvel at the mindset which allows anyone to imagine they have a unique access to a ‘truth’ which only their fellow-conspiracy theorists buy.

Not quite so far along the spectrum on that hermeneutic are those who claim that the Church has been captured by ‘modernism’. The Papal encyclical Lamentabile Sane provides 65 propositions which, one might take to be characteristic of ‘modernism’. This is not, I fear, as clear as it might be, but before moving on to an encyclical which is, let’s see why that is. If we take proposition number 2:

The Church’s interpretation of the Sacred Books is by no means to be rejected; nevertheless, it is subject to the more accurate judgment and correction of the exegetes

What is meant by the first clause? Where is one to find ‘the Church’s interpretation of the Sacred Books’? Does it mean that, wherever that is to be found, nothing anyone had written since 1907 should be considered? That would put all Catholic theological teaching on the subject out of business – assuming, of course, that one could locate this elusive place where the interpretation of the Church is stored. It seems clear that what is going on here is that in the early twentieth century some Catholics were worried that Bible study was leading people away from the Church and wanted to close the stable door lest the horse bolt. In practice, the Church and its theologians and Bible scholars have continued to apply the eye of faith to study of the Sacred Texts, and all have benefitted from this. There is never any need for the Truth to fear the intellect – as, indeed, condemnation 32 suggests is the case.

Or let us take number 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

Again, it is quite hard to know what such a loose formulation of words mean, or even what the first sentence and the second have to do with each other. They are, at best, uneasily juxtaposed: why do the dogmas of the Church have to be one or the other. If they just ‘fell from heaven’ one might expect to see the Apostolic Fathers enunciating the Creed as the Fathers at Nicaea did, and indeed, for the Fathers at Constantinople to have simply reiterated it. Instead, we see a developing understanding of what, for example, St John meant when he said that the Word was in the beginning with God and the Word was God. Now, that process was not in any way analogous to what the second sentence says. There was a divine mystery given us in Sacred Scripture, and the moving of the Spirit in the Church led it to a greater appreciation of the Truth which came to be embodied in the Creed. So, yes, one might well say that in this way ‘the fell from Heaven’, but that would be a crude way of describing an inspiring – and inspired – process.

Read through the list as you might, I cannot find where any of the post-1958 Popes have signed up to any of the proportions. Of course, one sees very clearly that many of those errors are there in our society as a whole, and perhaps there are individuals in the Church guilty of them – but I should be interested in a demonstration as to which of the 65 errors listed have been espoused by a modern Pope, or, indeed, in an authoritative document from the Magisterium. But perhaps I am missing the point?

Is ‘modernism’ simply a ‘boo word’ for those whose preferred style of Catholicism is that they think prevailed at some point at which they think the world was better ordered? Nostalgia is a powerful thing – but I am not sure it should be allowed to detract from the real hermeneutic of continuity in the Church. Sometimes, if you find yourself asking how x can be reconciled with y, the answer might not be ‘it can’t the Pope is a heretic’, but ‘better and more Catholic minds than mine see no opposition, perhaps I am missing something? What was that word, docility, wonder what it meant?’

This, however, is but a prelude to a much better Papal document on the dangers of Modernism, Pascendi Domenici Gregis, which unlike this one, sets out a clear target and some excellent arguments in favour of its case. Not all Papal documents are equally lucid.

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