Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Non-overlapping magisteria?

It was one hundred years ago this fall that Pope Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis condemning the heresy known as Modernism.

Towards the end of the 19th century, forward-looking Catholic theologians and philosophers sought to reformulate Catholic belief in ways that were consistent with empirical learning, undoing a long tension between science and faith that stretched back to Galileo -- and beyond. This loose-knit movement was formally aborted with the 1907 encyclical, which rendered serious discussion -- within Catholicism -- of the intrinsic conflict of empirical and faith-based cosmologies mute throughout the 20th century. The general drift of the document can be stated as follows: God has revealed through Holy Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition everything that is necessary to know about God and his relationship to humankind, and men and women must put aside their doubts and humbly accept the immutable truths of faith.

In the section called Faith and Science, the encyclical says:
...in the first place it is to be held that the object of [science] is quite extraneous to and separate from the object of [faith]. For faith occupies itself solely with something which science declares to be unknowable for it...science is entirely concerned with the reality of phenomena, into which faith does not enter at all; faith on the contrary concerns itself with the divine reality which is entirely unknown to science....Hence should it be further asked whether Christ has wrought real miracles, and made real prophecies, whether He rose truly from the dead and ascended into heaven, the answer of agnostic science will be in the negative and the answer of faith in the affirmative -- yet there will not be, on that account, any conflict between them. For it will be denied by the philosopher as philosopher, speaking to philosophers and considering Christ only in His historical reality; and it will be affirmed by the speaker, speaking to believers and considering the life of Christ as lived again by the faith and in the faith.
And there you have it. Miracles occur or they don't. Jesus rose from the dead or he didn't. He was born of a virgin or he wasn't. The human soul is immortal or it isn't. Two realities. No conflict.

"Curiosity by itself, if not prudently regulated, suffices to account for all errors," says the document flatly. And so with a blunt fist, the Church sought to crush the very thing that makes us most majestically human: our questing intelligence, our ongoing search for a single reliable reality, which for want of a better word we can call -- temporarily, hesitantly -- truth.

Today, many Catholics have gone where the Modernists wanted to take us. For some of us, this has meant leaving home. Others remain in communion and work for change from within. All of us retain a deep affection for a sacramental tradition that stripped of an archaic philosophical dualism offers a satisfying avenue for community, spirituality, celebration, and praise.