Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Can the Church forget doctrine?

Drinking the mythical waters of forgetfulness in the underworld: Lethe.
Reposted from October 2015

At certain periods of history, one doctrine has been pushed to the fore either because it was needed to combat an issue of the day, because of its connection with a popular devotion, or because it was denied by heretics. Others have been pushed into the background. Being human, we can't focus on everything at once.

But there is something else, which is a doctrine disappearing from view because, although attacked by heretics, too many otherwise orthodox people are reluctant to defend and expound it. When these doctrines, and opinions which don't perhaps pertain to the Deposit of Faith but which are very authoritative, are mentioned, it can be a bit of a shock.

In researching the Position Paper on the Vulgate, I found a reference in a somewhat obscure official document published in 1994 to the ancient Greek translation of the Bible, the Septuagint, being made 'under divine inspiration'. I nearly fell off my chair. This is not, strictly, a teaching of the Church, but it is a pious opinion with considerable authority, taught particularly by the Greek Fathers of the Church. If it is taken seriously, then the policy of the Church since the 1940s to replace the ancient Latin translation of the Psalms, based on the Greek version, with new Latin and vernacular translations taken from the Hebrew, is fundamentally misguided.

Come back, 'valley of tears', valle lacrimarum: all is forgiven! You won't find that phrase in the reformed Office, the Novus Ordo Missal, or even the Knox translation of the Bible, when you look at Psalm 83.7 [84.6]. It is there in the Vulgate, and in the Greek, and in the ancient Gregorian chants: and, the Church is telling us, God wanted it there.

The policy of the Church, implemented through official organs of the Church like reforming commissions set up by Popes, Popes who then promulgated the results, runs counter to the belief of the Church. Looking more closely, this belief was even supported by Vatican II, but no matter: the policy trundled on, undisturbed.

This is an example which doesn't generate the heat of current debates about the indissolubility of marriage, and for this reason it can more easily help us, calmly, to consider what is and is not possible in the Church. There has been no official denial of the value of the Septuagint, though you'd be forgiven for thinking that such a denial was implied by the repeated efforts to strip its glosses on the Psalms out of the Church's spiritual life. One might call it a denial 'in practice', but clearly that isn't enough: we should not take our cue from policies, which go back a mere 70 years, especially when, every now and then, the contrary belief is reiterated in an official document. Looking at the tradition, over a much longer period, we see a very different policy, and it is that policy, the historic, traditional, policy, which represents the real practical outworking of the belief of the Church. It is this we can call the 'wisdom of the Church'.

Here's another example, with different characteristics. The Church has always taught that usury is wrong. The condemnation has been repeated in authoritative documents over many, many centuries, and the teaching derives from Scripture. We haven't, however, heard anything about this matter for a century or two, except from the odd popular writer. It could form the basis of an effective critique of capitalism, but the effort has never been made. The words 'usury' and 'usurious' occur once each in Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891), and with no explanation. Things are so bad with this that the technical distinctions between different kinds of money-lending / investment upon which the doctrine is based are understood by almost no one. (There is an excellent explanation of it here.) Stray references to usury in magisterial documents never say that it is permissible after all; they just don't make use of the teaching. It has been forgotten, and of course that means it doesn't influence any practical initiatives involving finance the Church undertakes.

There are other examples. The doctrine of no salvation outside the Church would be one. Never mind the importance of understanding it correctly blah blah blah - all doctrines have to be understood correctly. But there is no understanding of this teaching, correct or not correct, which visibly makes any practical impact on the preaching or practice of the Church today, and it is many, many decades since it was even discussed in official documents. Many practical policies, arguably, actually run counter to this teaching. The same can be said of the teaching that husbands are the head of their households. Aside from Bishop Olmstead's recent Pastoral Letter, down the memory hole it goes. Again, while Original Sin still has vocal defenders, for much of the Church, and for the policies of official organs of the Church, it has vanished from sight. Practical life, notably in education, carries on as if it were not true.

These things are still the teaching of the Church; denial of them is still a serious matter which cuts us off from the Church. To repeat, forgetfulness, and official policies running counter to the teachings, do not imply that they aren't teachings any more. The teaching of the Church cannot contradict itself. What has been taught in Scripture and the Fathers and General Councils and the Ordinary Magisterium cannot be unsaid.

This doctrinal amnesia is not, I would say, a typical situation in the history of the Church. Emphasis and de-emphasis on teachings is typical; controversy is typical; sin is typical; but this is something else. It illustrates a dogmatic crisis which has been getting up steam over recent centuries, and of which we are the heirs. I would go so far as to say that it fulfils the implied prophecy in Our Lord's words.

For he that shall be ashamed of me, and of my words, in this adulterous and sinful generation: the Son of man also will be ashamed of him, when he shall come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
Qui enim me confusus fuerit, et verba mea in generatione ista adultera et peccatrice, et Filius hominis confundetur eum, cum venerit in gloria Patris sui cum angelis sanctis.
(Mark 8:38)

Could this forgetfulness encompass the Church's unchangeable teaching on the indissolubility of marriage?

Of course it could.

Support the work of the LMS by becoming an 'Anniversary Supporter'.


  1. While I greatly favour the liturgical use of the old Vulgate psalms, I'm not sure that one can characterise the policy of translating the psalms from the Hebrew as contrary to the belief of the Church. It is possible for both the Septuagint and the Massoretic text to be inspired, even when they vary, provided they are not expressing incompatible thoughts.

    1. It is not the translating of the Psalms from the Hebrew which is the problem, it is the exclusion of the versions translated from the Greek. The motivation for this policy, which has involved a major rupture of liturgical and exegetical continuity which surely requires something big to justify it, can only be that there is something deficient about the Greek version.

      Cf. 2001 Instruction Liturgiam authenticam 41:
      "The effort should be made to ensure that the translations be conformed to that understanding of biblical passages which has been handed down by liturgical use and by the tradition of the Fathers of the Church, especially as regards very important texts such as the Psalms and the readings used for the principal celebrations of the liturgical year; in these cases the greatest care is to be taken so that the translation express the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense, and manifest the unity and the inter-relatedness of the two Testaments. "

  2. The original Jerome Biblical Commentary's article by Richard F. Smith on biblical inspiration and inerrancy is good on the inspiration of the Septuagint as on other things; the New Jerome Commentary article is helpful as a comparison to get the modernist line. (I will insert a self-advertisement - I discussed this question of the inspiration of the LXX in my book Divine Faith (Aashgate, 2004), p. 166. The main argument for its inspiration is that the New Testament quotes as authoritative and divinely revealed texts that are in the LXX but not in the Hebrew. The trouble with this argument is that it seems unlikely that the texts in the LXX that are not in the Hebrew versions we know exist because of mistakes or additions by the Alexandrian Jews who produced the Greek text; postulating the existence and persistence of such mistakes in the devout and scholarly milieu of Alexandrian Jews is implausible - it is more likely that the translator used different Hebrew texts.

  3. Thank you for this post; it was really helpful for maintaining perspective. I did have one question, though: the other examples of "forgetting" doctrine seem to be more omissions than 'positive' errors-- omitting the validity of the Septuagint, omitting teaching about usury and original sin, and so on. While these are all serious omissions, wouldn't it be a different case to not merely omit, but to actually compel priests to distribute Communion to those who objectively shouldn't receive? Not only are they denying in practice, then, but positively forcing others to deny.

    1. Yes that does make the problem a lot more serious. But ignorance of the other doctrines also has implications for real life. Catholics are genuinly ignorant and actually misled about what is and is not unjust in relation to usury, and this leads to objective injustice. Married couples are ignorant and even more misled about the right ordering of relations between the sexes, and this leads to marital breakdown.

  4. The 'approved theses of Thomistic philosophy' from the Sacred Congregation of Studies, 1914, cited in Denzinger, and 'to be held religiously' also come to mind.