Sunday, January 10, 2010

Modernism -- Part 2

The drawing above, from 1922, suggests the tone of the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Admit that dogma is mutable, subject to scientific and historical circumstance, says the pope, and you are on the slippery slope -- or descending stairway -- to atheism.

The encyclical perceptively gets at the gist of Modernism: "Science and history are confined within two boundaries, the one external, namely, the visible world, the other internal, which is consciousness. When one or other of these limits has been reached, there can be no further progress, for beyond is the unknowable." It is in confrontation with the unknowable that the Modernists look for the origin of the religious instinct, says the pope -- "the need of the divine in a soul which is prone to religion," in his disapproving words. Since both the external and internal boundaries of knowing evolve -- with science and history -- then (according to the Modernists) the dogmas of religion must evolve too.

Traditional dogmas, such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, must be understood symbolically, asserted the Modernists, as symbols that at once reveal and conceal the unknowable divine. In this sense, science and faith exist in separate, waterproof compartments -- what Stephen Jay Gould would later call non-overlapping magisteria.

Flannery O'Connor famously said, "If the Real Presence in the Eucharist is only symbolic, then the hell with it" or words to that effect. In this she echoed Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Admit that the traditional miracles of faith are to be understood only symbolically and you lay an ax to the very root of faith, says the pope. Either Christ was God and he rose from the dead, or your faith is in vain. There is no such thing as "non-overlapping magisteria." There is only one magisteria, and that is the Church of Rome -- as embodied temporarily in the pontiff himself -- with responsibility to maintain the immutable (and literal) deposit of faith.

Now, a century later, the standoff within the Church is pretty much where it was a century ago when the encyclical was written. Most of the Catholics among my academic acquaintances will not admit to taking literally such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Assumption of Mary, or even the Resurrection of Christ. Yet they do not abandon the doctrines either, reciting the Creed at Mass as if the words were literally true. They are what I call agnostic Catholics, living in a curious world of doctrines they neither fully affirm or reject -- a world of non-overlapping magisteria.

I believe Pius X's encyclical against the Modernists was correct in suggesting that the notion of non-overlapping magisteria is bogus. You can't have your scientific cake and eat it too. Jesus was born of a virgin or he was not -- the event took place within the world of phenomena and therefore is or is not a historical fact. If the Virgin Birth is only a symbol, then it is an archaic symbol that points to a falsehood, and Flannery O'Connor is right to say "To hell with it."

So where does that leave us? Shall we take that last step from the descending staircase into a robust Dawkinsesque atheism? Do we take a sidewise step and join up with the UUs? Or is it possible that the Church can redefine itself in some meaningful way within the scientific and historical context of the 21st century -- a sacramental Eucharist, say, without "transubstantiation"? On this fraught topic, more tomorrow.