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Bomb-Shelter Theology

The Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. It is that of a faithful witness.

Those who anxiously whittle down and attenuate the traditional Catholic faith to the point where it includes no affirmations whatever about physical, material realities (such as conception, virginity, crucified corpses, or the earth) do a good job of what they set out to do. They cause others to believe that such matters fall within the competence of science, not theology. Their theological bomb-shelter is impregnable against any possible bomb that might be launched by physicists, geologists, or historians.

No such missile could ever damage that kind of “faith,” any more than a cloud can be damaged by firing a shotgun at it. There is nothing solid there with which the shot might possibly collide. Nevertheless, if the Catholic Church ever came to adopt, or even officially permit, this scientifically-ever-so-respectable theology, her rational credibility would suffer death by the “asphyxiation” of self-contradiction. Let us see why this is the case.

The Catholic Church’s basic stance toward religious truth is not that of a plodding investigator. It is that of a faithful witness. Unlike scientists who search for truth in nature, or Protestants who search for it in the Bible, the Church dating back to Christ claims to have possessed the truth already for two thousand years, handing it on faithfully and continuously from generation to generation, like a flaming Olympic torch which is kept alight as it is passed from runner to runner.

This is why her theologians can never simply imitate the methodology of other disciplines, in which the mark of intellectual integrity is open-mindedness and a modest willingness to acknowledge and correct past mistakes. That kind of “modesty” is a luxury which the Catholic Church simply cannot afford; or at least, she can afford it only to a limited and circumscribed extent—that is, in regard to past teachings or theological positions to which she has never committed herself in a thoroughgoing or definitive way.

The credibility of an investigator and of a witness must be judged according to different criteria. An investigator only need avoid self-contradiction in what he says at any given time. Provided he does that, he may—and should—contradict what he said yesterday, if he happens to have found new evidence that his previous view was mistaken. But a witness in a court of law is subject to more exacting requirements. Unlike the investigator, he is asking us to believe certain things on the strength of his word, not on the basis of publicly available data that the rest of us can inspect and evaluate for ourselves. He is asking us to trust him as a reliable source of information that is otherwise inaccessible to us.

This means that in order for him to be credible in the claims he makes, he must avoid contradicting himself while under cross-examination today, and he must also avoid contradicting today what he said yesterday. Once he gives his clear, emphatic, sworn testimony to something, he must stick by it and be able to defend it, on pain of destroying his credibility. Now, things like creeds and dogmas and solemn papal or conciliar definitions are the emphatic “sworn testimony” of the Catholic Church in bearing witness to the truth of God as it is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the natural moral law. So are those doctrines which, even though not defined in such specific documents, have been taught by a consensus of popes and Catholic bishops around the world as being “definitively to be held.”[Lumen Gentium 25. Vatican II teaches that doctrines proposed with that degree of certainty are infallible.]

This analogy should help us to see the folly of those theologians and exegetes who think it admissible to indulge in bomb-shelter theology to the extent of discarding or “re-interpreting” those definitively taught doctrines from our Catholic heritage which they feel are—or even might be in the future—vulnerable to scientific bombardment. Because they are imitating the investigative mentality of the merely human disciplines (“let’s be humbly willing to correct our mistakes”), they can enjoy a superficial aura of intellectual sophistication and respectability, especially if (as usually happens) these scholars work in a university environment.

What they fail to realize is that, precisely from the standpoint of intellectual credibility, this “pick-and-choose Catholicism,” which clings to scientifically “untouchable” doctrines while surrendering the scientifically “vulnerable” ones, is simply laughable. If the Church were an unreliable witness on any one definitive doctrine, a “sworn statement,” then there would be no justification for continuing to believe any of the rest.

If it were true that science could demonstrate the falsity of one or more such doctrines, the intelligent response would not be to “correct,” “reinterpret,” or otherwise patch up those particular doctrines, while continuing to preach and teach the rest as though nothing had happened. The intelligent response would be that which has in fact been chosen by such ex-theologians as Charles Davis and Anthony Kenny (but not, for instance, by Hans Kung): complete abandonment of the faith. Outright apostasy can at times have a certain intellectual integrity and coherence about it; mere heresy is always intellectually bankrupt.

There are many theologians today who speak as though revelation deals only with transcendent mysteries that are beyond the reach of science or reason. In fact the Church’s two-thousand-year witness includes “sworn testimony” not only to intangible mysteries such as the Trinity, the Real Presence, grace, the redemptive value of Christ’s death, and life after death, but also to “solid” truths in a more or less literal sense, those involving physical matter existing on this earth in time and space.

The Church has proclaimed as revealed truth, for instance, that Jesus was conceived in his Mother’s womb while she was yet a virgin, and that his mortal remains were raised to life in his Resurrection. As both Vatican Councils affirm, revelation includes not only the completely transcendent truths, but also others “which in themselves are not beyond the g.asp of human reason” but which for many people would in fact be difficult to ascertain by their own unaided reason. Thanks to their inclusion in revelation, however, such truths “can, in the present condition of the human race, be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty, and without the contamination of error.”[Dei Verbum 6, quoting Vatican Council I (Denzinger-Schonmetzer [DS] 3004-3005).]

In The Science of Historical Theology, [John F. McCarthy, The Science of Historical Theology (Rockford, Illinois: TAN, 1991). ] Msgr. John F. McCarthy has emphasized the importance of these revealed truths which are also accessible to reason–or at least, to some people’s reason—and in particular those such as we have already mentioned, which belong to the field of history. As he says, they can be described as “revealed history,” or “past revealed reality.” The virginal conception of our Lord, for instance, is a historical fact which is accessible to most of us only through revelation. (Indeed, it was accessible to the natural reason of only one person, our Lady herself. Mary knew, without any help from revelation, that she had never had intercourse with any man and yet was pregnant. St. Joseph and all the rest of us needed a revelation from on high to guarantee such an extraordinary fact.)

Today’s fashionable bomb-shelter theology, however, in what might be called an overreaction to the Galileo case, refuses to accept the idea of “revealed history.” One such theologian of my acquaintance scoffed at such a concept as an oxymoron—a contradiction in terms. According to him, if a truth is revealed, then by definition it cannot be historical, and vice versa. And he appealed to Vatican II’s teaching on the “rightful autonomy of science” (which here means “science” in a broad sense, covering history as well as the physical sciences) in order to justify his position. He pointed out that in this passage the Council rebukes those Christians who neglect this autonomy. Such believers, it says, “have occasioned conflict and controversy and have misled many into opposing faith and science.”[Gaudium et Spes 36. ]

This theologian’s thinking went more or less as follows: “We churchmen burnt our fingers badly over the Galileo case. We went right out on a limb by making statements that were open to scrutiny from the human sciences, statements about concrete, empirically observable things and facts in time and space. And what happened? The limb was rudely chopped off! We were shot down in flames! Then we were almost shot down again when some of us tried to argue with what turned out to be the scientific fact of evolution.

“Now at last, with Vatican II, we’ve learned our lesson. From now on, theology cannot afford to present as revealed truth any kinds of propositions which, now or in the future, might come up for scrutiny by the human sciences–history, biology, astronomy, geology, or whatever. All such propositions come under the jurisdiction of these sciences, and belong to their area of ‘rightful autonomy.’ The Church must stick to ethical statements, and truths which are completely supernatural, the kind which no human science could even investigate. That which science cannot in principle even touch, it can certainly never disprove!”

In other words—according to this approach–the task of showing the harmony between faith and reason should now be carried out by sorting through our inherited doctrinal baggage and classifying its contents according to subject-matter. Those which make statements (especially controversial ones) involving historical and physical realities (such as dead bodies or the conception of babies) can now be discarded as excess baggage.

We are to leave them lying above ground, as it were, where they will be exposed to possible bombing-raids on the part of the historical or physical sciences. If they never actually get hit, well and good. But if they do, it doesn’t matter. They are expendable, negotiable. Meanwhile, we will gather up the remaining doctrines–the purely transcendent or supernatural ones we have received from our Catholic heritage—and scurry off with this “survival kit” to an underground bunker with a sign on the door saying “revealed truth.” Here, in our theological bomb-shelter, our faith will be utterly impregnable from all possible scientific explosions.

But this line of defense against the accusation that faith is unreasonable will not work at all. In the first place, it is clear that Vatican II cannot mean by the “rightful autonomy of science” the idea that revelation, by definition, can never include any statements of a “scientific” (physical/historical) nature.

That would make the Council contradict itself. Gaudium et Spes cannot be read as contradicting Dei Verbum, which, as we have seen, repeats the teaching of Vatican I that some revealed truths are also truths in principle accessible to unaided reason. (In fact, the Council even gave a specific example of such truth; the textual history of the first sentence in Dei Verbum 19 shows that it was carefully drafted so as to maintain that the historicity of the Gospels is a truth which is both revealed and accessible to unaided reason.)

In rebuking Christians who do not respect the “rightful autonomy” of science, Vatican II did not mean there cannot in principle be any such thing as a revealed physical/historical fact; rather, it meant that we must make very sure by means of a careful exegesis of Scripture and a careful survey of what has been said by the Church Fathers and the magisterium that a given physical/historical proposition really is revealed, before we go asserting it as such to all the world. The Council had in mind here the Galileo case specifically. [Footnote 7 to Gaudium et Spes 36 cites the two-volume work of Pius Pachini, Vitae Opere di Galileo Galilei (Rome: Editrice Vaticana, 1964).]

But assuming that Galileo’s inquisitors were scientifically wrong (and there are now, since the 1970s, some Catholic and Protestant scholars with doctorates in physics and astronomy who maintain that they were scientifically right, that is, that geocentrism is the truth [The Tychonian Society (now the Association for Biblical Astronomy) was founded in 1971 and publishes The Biblical Astronomer. This Protestant group argues for the total immobility of the earth. The French and Belgian group CESHE (Cercle Scientifique et Historique) is composed of Catholics, some of whom support the above position. Others accept the diurnal rotation of the earth but maintain that it is located at the “axis” of the universe, around which the sun and all the stars revolve annually, with the planets of our solar system, including earth, also revolving around the sun.)], their error was not in supposing that if the Bible makes assertions about physical reality, these must be accepted as revealed truth (a supposition which they did indeed make–and very rightly). Rather, their error lay in faulty exegesis. In supposing that the Bible does in fact assert a particular physical proposition (geocentrism) which it does not really assert. We have to say that that was the error which led them to trespass unwittingly into the autonomous domain of science.

This can be explained more clearly with the aid of a diagram. The propositions of revelation and those of the physical/historical disciplines are not, as bomb-shelter theologians try to make out, in two totally separate compartments. Rather, they can be thought of as enclosed by two overlapping circles (“intersecting sets,” to use the standard mathematical term) that produce three compartments.

In compartment 1 belong completely supernatural revealed truths, which no human science could ever discover (for instance, “There are three Persons in one God,” “grace is necessary for salvation,” “purgatory exists”). At the opposite side of the diagram, in compartment 3, we have all the myriad non-revealed propositions, both true and false, of the human sciences (e.g., “Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen” there are six planets in our solar system” “Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941”). In the middle (compartment 2) we have those truths with “dual citizenship,” as it were, belonging both to the set of revealed propositions and to the set of historical/physical propositions (for example, “Jesus was virginally conceived,” “Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt,” “the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb was due to a miracle involving his corpse”).

Now, bomb-shelter theology thinks there cannot in principle be any truths at all in compartment 2, that it must be an “empty set,” as mathematicians say. It sees the whole of circle B as a “danger zone” for theology and as falling unilaterally under the autonomous domain of scientists. Its proposed solution, therefore, is simply to declare that only those doctrines found in compartment 1 can qualify as revealed truth. compartment 1 is in fact the bomb-shelter, safely out of range of any possible weapons, present or future, of the human sciences, by the very nature of its subject-matter.

But this is certainly not what the Catholic magisterium implies when it speaks of the “autonomy” of human disciplines. The Church’s “sworn testimony” (whether by her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium) includes many assertions which belong in compartment 2. The fault which Gaudium et Spes finds with Galileo’s inquisitors, then, cannot be their insistence that there are in fact some truths in compartment 2, but their theological/exegetical incompetence, which led them to think that a certain proposition (geocentrism) was part of the Church’s non-negotiable “sworn testimony” (circle A), when in fact it was not.

So they insisted on locating it in compartment 2, when in reality this proposition belonged in compartment 3, along with all those other merely human hypotheses about physical/historical reality, which, enjoying no necessary guarantee of being true by virtue of being revealed, are under the exclusive jurisdiction of scientific investigation by scientific methods. And it was by those methods that (if we are to believe the great majority of scientists) geocentrism was proved false. In short, the inquisitors’ defective awareness of the autonomy of science was the result of a prior defect in their understanding of the Bible.

Propositions which really do belong in compartment 2 are also within the jurisdiction, but not the exclusive jurisdiction, of scientific and historical method. Since they are revealed, the Catholic can know a priori that a correct use of scientific and historical method will never refute such truths. They are on open, exposed, ground rather than down in the bomb-shelter; but faith assures us that any bombs directed at them by skeptical scientists will always in fact miss the target, falling safely to the right or the left.

That is, such attacks will always turn out to be bad science, just as Galileo’s inquisitors were guilty of bad theology. For between good science and good theology there can never be any real contradiction. [DS 3017-3019, 3042.] (It is bad science to say, “It is impossible for any virgin ever to have a baby.” Good science can only say, “In the normal course of natural events, virgins cannot have babies,” a truth which does not conflict with the supernatural exception to the rule which took place in the case of Mary.)

The bomb-shelter attempt to guard the rationality of faith, then, far from being taught by the Church’s magisterium in Vatican II, is excluded by the Council, as it is by the pre-conciliar tradition as well. But this approach not only contradicts the magisterium; it also contradicts reason itself by flouting the first law of logic, “Thou shalt not contradict thyself.” Instead of helping the intelligent unbeliever to accept the faith, it will only make the faith appear more ridiculous than ever to him. This is the point we now wish to explain more fully.

As we have already remarked, the Catholic Church’s fundamental posture towards the truth she proclaims is not that of an investigator reporting on the latest state of his research, but that of a witness bearing personal testimony. The Church is a 2000-year-old “person,” who remembers what Jesus and the apostles taught and is committed to handing on this message intact.

Can a witness under cross-examination in a court case change his testimony from one day to the next without losing his credibility? It depends on what we mean by “change.” He can add further details which might be drawn out of his memory by further questioning; he can clarify the meaning of what he said before, if it looks as if his interlocutor has misinterpreted him; he can change his emphasis, if it looks as if too much or too little attention has been given to something he previously said; and he can even get away with contradicting himself on a few details that are not central to his testimony and that were mentioned more or less in passing, rather than clearly, repeatedly, and emphatically affirmed. In spite of the inevitable rhetoric of the interrogating lawyer in regard to such lapses, the jury may well decide, prudently, that they are due to normal and honest imperfections in human memory which do not seriously undermine the witness’s credibility in what really matters.

These kinds of acceptable “change” in the witness’s testimony find their parallel, of course, in what we call the development of Catholic doctrine, which continually presents new facets in keeping with the new circumstances and new questions that arise in every age. But just as an individual witness will destroy his credibility by contradicting previous sworn testimony which was asserted firmly, emphatically, and perhaps repeatedly, so the Church would destroy her credibility by attempting to “correct” a supposed “error” which had at any stage in the past formed part of her firm, emphatic, and perhaps repeated, “sworn testimony,” her solemn ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. [Cf. Lumen Gentium 25.]

If it is a question, then, of deciding whether a given doctrine under fire could possibly be an error, standing in need of correction, the first and most basic question to ask is not “Does this issue fall within the competence of some human science?”, but quite simply, “How emphatically have we asserted this in the past?” We must look first not at its subject-matter, but at Denzinger. And if we should find there (or, of course, in other records of past magisterial teaching) that our “sworn testimony” on this particular doctrine is absolutely firm and emphatic, then it is already much too late in the day for us to consider the possibility of “correcting” it. We must stand by our testimony, and “stick to our guns” in the face of all possible “scientific” arguments against the doctrine. Even if we do not always have a ready answer to such arguments, we can know on the basis of our faith that they are invalid and that true science will in due course find an answer to them, since any real contradiction between faith and science is impossible.

This is the approach insisted upon by Pope Leo XIII in the great encyclical on biblical studies, Providentissimus Deus (1893). Recognizing and therefore repeating the massive, emphatic and virtually unanimous consensus of Tradition regarding the absolute inerrancy of Scripture, the Pope explicitly rejected the facile and faithless “solution” of trying to “back down” and surrender to the “autonomy of science” some part of the field which had previously been claimed by the Church and her magisterium.

In a passage of the encyclical which is quoted in a footnote to Vatican II’s teaching on biblical inerrancy, [Cf. footnote 5 to Dei Verbum 11, the third passage cited in this footnote from Providentissimus Deus.] Leo XIII urged exegetes to confront rationalistic objections to the historical and scientific truth of Scripture in the spirit of “the Fathers and Doctors,” who engaged in what is ridiculed by most of today’s biblical scholars as “concordism,” the time-honored process of “ingeniously and devoutly laboring to harmonize and reconcile with each other those many passages which seemed to imply some contradiction or discrepancy (and they are the same objections which are raised today in the name of a ‘new science’).” [Enchiridion Biblicum 126-127 (20-21 in the English version of Providentissimus Deus).]

In a controversial article which eventually elicited a Vatican correction, [The controversy is accurately reported in “Did Jesus Emerge From the Tomb?” by Michael Gilchrist, 30 Days, September 1989, 20-24. Fr. Coffey was required to “align his teaching with that of the magisterium of the Church, which is that the physical remains of Jesus, placed in the tomb after his death, were raised in his Resurrection.”] the Australian theologian Fr. David M. Coffey attempted to justify his view that our Lord’s Resurrection was purely spiritual (in the sense of not involving his corpse in any way) by what could be described as a classic one-line statement of bomb-shelter theology: “The magisterium has no competence in matters known or knowable from science.” [David M. Coffey, “The Resurrection of Jesus and Catholic Orthodoxy,” Studies in Faith and Culture (Sydney: Catholic Institute of Sydney, 1980), 114.]

In terms of our above diagram, the basic mistake is in trying to withdraw Church authority altogether from compartment 2, so as to leave the whole of Circle B to the unilateral jurisdiction of the human disciplines, whereas in fact they are entitled to that sort of total autonomy only in compartment 3. What a faithful Catholic has to say is that the magisterium has competence wherever it has constantly, emphatically and firmly claimed competence in the past. Such claims form the Church’s non-negotiable “sworn testimony,” which she can never go back on from now until judgment day without destroying her credibility as a reliable witness to divine revelation .

It should be clear by now why this kind of dogged persistence in sticking by what we have said for two millennia is not “triumphalism,” pride, obscurantism, or mere “fear of change.” It does not harm the Church’s rational credibility at the bar of reason, as bomb-shelter theologians imagine, but is essential precisely in order to save it from the manifest irrationality of their own “solution.” A witness, in contrast to an investigator, cannot afford to “correct” serious mistakes, because he cannot afford to admit ever having made them!

Imagine a witness in a court of law who finds himself embarrassed by the contrary evidence of a certain Miss A, or by that of several other witnesses in regard to his activities on a certain date at Village X. And imagine the response if the witness tries to get out of his difficulty by asking the court to continue believing only certain areas or sections of what he had previously sworn emphatically under oath: “Yes, well, what I said about Miss A wasn’t really too accurate, I guess. But I assure you that what I said about Mr. B and Mrs. C is God’s truth! And as regards what I said about what happened at Village X on April 15, you’d best forget that. But you can take my word for it—scout’s honor!—that on April 16 I spent the whole day at Village Y, just as I said before!”

Nobody in the courtroom, of course, will henceforth take this witness’s word for anything. He has destroyed himself. Neither will any intelligent agnostic (precisely the type of “modern man” for whom an attenuated, “demythologized,” bomb-shelter theology hopes to make the faith more credible) take the Church’s word for anything, if she retracts her previous emphatic “sworn testimony” on even one important point.

If the Church could be wrong in proclaiming for two thousand years (in the teeth of rationalistic opposition, ancient and modern) that Jesus’ dead body was raised to life on the third day, why should anyone in his right senses regard her as trustworthy when she keeps on proclaiming that there are three Persons in one God, or that we are destined for heavenly glory after death?

Here, then, we see the basic error of bomb-shelter theology. It is so intent on guarding the faith from all possible attacks from the “bombs” of the secular scholarly disciplines that it unwittingly prods the Church toward a suicidal self-contradiction. In its excessive preoccupation with appearing “respectable” in the sight of the physical and historical sciences, it unconsciously flouts the first principle of the even more fundamental science of logic.


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