Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Rejecting profane novelties"

"It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, and the honor of kings to search it out," said the great Russian chemist Mendeleev. It was his own honor to have discerned a hidden rhythm within the elements of which the world is made. To understand just how deeply concealed is the Periodic Table of the Elements take a look about you. What a glittering triumph of the human imagination to have discerned in the diversity of the sensate world the harmonic music of atomic matter.

In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, certain Catholic theologians and philosophers, the so-called modernists, sought to turn Mendeleevean curiosity upon the origin and evolution of religion. Their goal was to bring Church teaching into consonance with the world-shifting discoveries of science.

The modernists were roundly condemned by the papal encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, promulgated just one hundred years ago. It is an extraordinary document, the general drift of which can be stated: It is the glory of God to have revealed through Holy Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition everything that is necessary to know about God and his relationship to humankind, and it is the honor of men and women (kings included) to humbly accept the immutable truths of faith and shut up. "Curiosity by itself, if not prudently regulated, suffices to account for all errors," says the document flatly.

And so with a blunt iron fist, the Church sought to crush the very thing that makes us most majestically human: our questing intelligence. A century later, the pernicious influence of the condemnation of the modernists is still very much with us.

Fortunately, there is also within Catholic tradition something called the sensus fidelium, literally the "sense of the faithful." Just as the Spirit supposedly guides the infallible magisterium so that it doesn't propose teachings that would lead the whole Church into error, so do the faithful, as a whole, have an instinct or "sense" about when a teaching is -- or is not -- in harmony with faith. With time, let us hope, the sensus fidelium will shift Pascendi Dominici Gregis into well-deserved irrelevance.