Thanksgiving

What do we have to give thanks for? As St. Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The question is of course rhetorical. You have nothing that you did not receive; only the first cause could have something without receiving it from another.

This is related to the virtue of humility, which consists largely in the recognition that one is neither the first cause nor the ultimate end, together with the implications that follow from the fact that one is not these things. I might write something on this in detail at a later time.

Ratzinger’s Response

Ratzinger  begins to respond to the difficulties he has raised:

So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time. Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step. Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect—as a way—the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end—from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is.

After a discussion of the history of Israel and its understanding of creation in relation to that of Babylon, he says:

I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

Here he is referring to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as distinct creation accounts.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.  Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly re-adapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless. We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind—with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images. Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten—this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward—that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source. As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

There were two difficulties that Ratzinger originally raised. The first was, “Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial.” The second was. “If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?”

His response to the first is that it was in fact said earlier, in a way. It is implied in the Old Testament itself insofar as it describes creation in various ways, such as in the seven days of Genesis 1, but also as a single day, as in Genesis 2:4 and elsewhere. And it was implied by Christians insofar as they read Scripture in reference to Christ rather than simply as it is in itself.

This is a good response insofar as it goes, but something more is needed, because this does not explain why Galileo was put on trial, as he puts it. His explanation for this seems to be that people forgot the correct way to read Scripture: “Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten… As a result… there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology…”

There seems to be something true about this, but also something missing. St. Augustine would almost certainly have disagreed with those who condemned Galileo. On the other hand, it was not people of the sixteenth or seventeenth century who came up with the idea that the texts of Scripture should be mostly read in a literal historical fashion, and assumed to be true in that way. For example, I quoted in a previous post a passage where Lactantius says that we know pretty much exactly how old the earth is, because Scripture tells us. And his was not an unusual opinion. So while it may be true that the condemnation of Galileo happened in part because of a lack of theological awareness, it is also true that to some extent “it must have been taught differently at one time.” Even Ratzinger’s reponse, then, can only be understood in the framework of the development of doctrine. Yes, Scripture itself has implications for how Scripture should be read; but it took time for people to develop a fuller understanding of these implications, and this development took place not only during the time of the Old Testament, but also during the time of the New.

This leads right to Ratzinger’s second difficulty, because it is precisely the fact that we modify our way of interpreting Scripture that gives rise to the “disquieting consideration” that theologians might end up modifying our understanding “also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord.”

Ratzinger does not seem to have returned explicitly to this particular difficulty, but he has given a response in an implicit way. In essence, this seems to be that “we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ.” Everything is to be interpreted in light of Christ. Consequently we cannot reinterpret what happened to Christ himself, because there is no light in virtue of which we would be able to do that, but we can reinterpret other things. This gives us a way to say that the cross and resurrection are “absolutely central” and cannot be reinterpreted, but to allow such reinterpretation in other matters.

The problem with this response is that in the end it seems to say little more than, “If we ended up doing such a reinterpretation, we would no longer be Christians.” This may be the case, but it does not necessarily imply that it will not happen. In fact, this is precisely the reason that the consideration is disquieting in the first place.

There is a second part of Ratzinger’s response that implicitly bears on this difficulty, and this is his suggestion that if we read Scripture properly, and in the light of Christ, then there will not be any tension between science and theology:

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

Ratzinger has said that the basic point of Genesis 1 is that God created the world. Here he is saying that if you read the Bible in this way, and without making all sorts of other concrete claims that turn out not to be true, this is a reasonable understanding of reality and does not conflict with science.

The statement here is simply about creation, but if we take this with reference to the second difficulty, the implication is that once we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, all the tension between science and theology will be resolved fairly easily. But something is missing here. “God created the world,” is in fact a metaphysical statement and surely does not conflict with science, as he says, and it is quite reasonable. But reading the whole of Scripture in light of Christ requires, as he also says, maintaining more or less the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection. And saying that Christ rose from the dead is not merely a metaphysical statement. It is also a historical claim, and there is no reason in principle why such a claim could not conflict with scientific knowledge applied to history.

Of course none of these considerations could possibly show that the difficulty is right, and that one necessarily has to end up reinterpreting the idea of the resurrection. But on the other hand, there seems something lacking in Ratzinger’s response. Something more needs to be said.

Image and Reality

A number of the issues we have discussed can be considered in parallel. There are significant differences between them, but we have given three situations where there was one understanding, at least in the early Church and sometimes later, and after time there was a different understanding. The three issues are the genre of Genesis, the time of the end of the world, and the number of the saved.

The cases differ significantly. In regard to Genesis, it is fairly certain that it was interpreted mainly literally throughout most of Christian history, but there were also some exceptions, at least for some passages. There are literary reasons for supposing that it should not be interpreted in this way, and I presented some of them in the linked post, but in practice the change in understanding came about because the facts were inconsistent with supposing that it was a literal historical account. Fr. Harrison objects exactly for this reason: according to him, it is completely unreasonable to change your understanding of the text to conform to the facts. Nor is the change universal; many ordinary Christians and Catholics would still understand the text in a historically literal way. But this is surely not the current understanding of the Magisterium, nor is it objectively reasonable.

In regard to the time of the end, it is likely that the understanding that it would be soon was nearly universal in the early Church, but this cannot be demonstrated with certainty, since this understanding had to change very quickly in order to remain in conformity with experience. The changed understanding itself would thus be universal, although some take this farther than others; thus James Chastek in the linked post argued that the Second Coming is something that happens after human history has already been concluded, but not everyone would say this.

In regard to the number of the saved, the issue was surely much less important. Christ himself at least on one occasion seems to have refused to answer the question: one should not be concerned about how many are saved, but to strive for salvation. And the idea that most people are lost was surely not universal. Origen for example argued that all will be saved. And likewise, I have given only the example of Pope Benedict XVI currently arguing that most people are saved, while it is not clear how common this opinion is. Nonetheless, I have included this because of significant similarities. The Catholic doctrine of the Last Judgement implies that there is a deep truth behind the human tendency to divide people into good people and bad people. According to the doctrine, people will in fact be divided in this way, and the division will last for all eternity. But the human tendency is a bit different. As I suggested in the linked post, people frequently tend to make such a division on the basis of religion and politics and similar matters. Democrats might say that Republicans are heartless evil people; Christians might say that atheists are sinful and immoral people who have rebelled against God. Such a division is sometimes even taken so far that it is incorporated into a person’s idea of religious doctrine: thus for example some people hold a rigid understanding of the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church, and some Muslims say that all non-Muslims go to hell.

In this sense, the natural human tendency is surely deeply flawed. Just because people do not agree with you, or just because they do not belong to your communities, does not mean that they are evil people. If anything, it is obvious that most people are not deeply evil. On the one hand, this provides ammunition for people who would engage in Bulverism against the Christian doctrine; they can say that the doctrine may simply be a result of this flawed tendency. On the other hand, it provides an argument in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s position, and in fact it is more or less the argument that he makes. This is why I have included it: Christ said certain things, which understood in a fairly simple way seem to imply certain things about the time of the end and the number of the saved. Likewise, Genesis says things which similarly can be taken to imply certain facts about the history of the world. Over time, everyone realized that what seemed implied about the time of the end, simply could not be the case. Many people realized that what seemed implied about the history of the world could not be the case, and at least some people realized that what seemed implied about the number of the saved is unlikely to be the case.

These surely differ in their doctrinal weight. The number of the saved is probably unimportant in a doctrinal sense, even if it might be important to us personally. The other two seem somewhat more important, but it not difficult to argue that such changes do not involve the substance of any doctrine. As I have said previously, one would not describe a contradiction as such as a development. So “the world will not end soon” cannot be a development of “the world will end soon,” but it would not be unreasonable to say that Christians went from one to the other through an improved understanding of the meaning and history of the Church, even if it was one that was forced upon them by the facts. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to understand all of these things in conformity with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine.

But something seems missing here. All of the facts may be consistent with Newman’s idea, but that does not mean that they are not consistent with anything else. And if anything, they seem more suggestive of the hypothesis that Newman rejects, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons,” and which seems to imply that Christianity is not supernatural. To a non-Christian, these facts look like the early Christians were just ignorant, and their ignorance was overcome through the normal progress in the knowledge of truth. And to the extent that they received their religion from Christ, and even to some extent apparently these specific ideas, it looks like Christ was ignorant as well.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a similar situation in his homilies on Genesis, published as the book In the Beginning:

These words, with which Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity. For many of us, moreover, these words recall the memory of our first encounter with Gods holy book, the Bible, which was opened for us at this spot. It at once brought us out of our small child’s world, captivated us with its poetry, and gave us a feeling for the immeasurability of creation and its Creator.

Yet these words give rise to a certain conflict. They are beautiful and familiar, but are they also true? Everything seems to speak against it, for science has long since disposed of the concepts that we have just now heard of – the idea of a world that is completely comprehensible in terms of space and time, and the idea that creation was built up piece by piece over the course of seven days. Instead of this we now face measurements that transcend all comprehension. Today we hear of the Big Bang, which happened billions of years ago and with which the universe began its expansion – an expansion that continues to occur without interruption. And it was not in neat succession that the stars were hung and the green of the fields created; it was rather in complex ways and over vast periods of time that the earth and the universe were constructed as we now know them.

Do these words, then, count for anything? In fact a theologian said not long ago that creation has become an unreal concept. If one is to be intellectually honest one ought to speak no longer of creation but rather of mutation and selection. Are these words true? Or have they perhaps, along with the entire Word of God and the whole biblical tradition, come out of the reveries of the infant age of human history, for which we occasionally experience homesickness but to which we can nevertheless not return, inasmuch as we cannot live on nostalgia? Is there an answer to this that we can claim for ourselves in this day and age?

He is discussing the specific issue of the truth of Genesis, and thus his response is tailored to this:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time – from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became – in the Word – the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith. Thus, insofar as human beings realized that the world came from the Word, they ceased to care about the gods and demons. In addition, the world was freed so that reason might lift itself up to God and so that human beings might approach this God fearlessly. In this Word they experienced the true enlightenment that does away with the gods and the mysterious powers and that reveals to them that there is only one power everywhere and that we are in his hands. This is the living God, and this same power (which created the earth and the stars and which bears the whole universe) is the very one whom we meet in the Word of Holy Scripture. In this Word we come into contact with the real primordial force of the world and with the power that is above all powers.

After this description of a response to the problem, he says that there is still a problem:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord? This would be an operation whose aim would be, supposedly, to defend the faith, inasmuch as it would say: Behind what is there, which we can no longer defend, there is something more real. Such an operation often ends up by putting the faith itself in doubt, by raising the question of the honesty of those who are interpreting it and of whether anything at all there is enduring. As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand – a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.

This concern is much like that of Ross Douthat in his comments regarding communion for divorced and remarried couples.

I will give Ratzinger’s response to these issues, and offer some comments on it, in the next post, or possibly later.

The Narrow Gate

Jesus says in Matthew 7:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

One might question whether he actually meant to assert that few people are saved and many lost, especially since in Luke 13 he is asked the question directly, and appears to refuse to answer:

Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Nonetheless, the first statement, with the contrast between many and few, looks very much like it says that more are lost than are saved, and even the statement from Luke does not contradict this. Consequently throughout Christian history this has been a common opinion. Thus for example St. Thomas says:

The good that is proportionate to the common state of nature is to be found in the majority; and is wanting in the minority. The good that exceeds the common state of nature is to be found in the minority, and is wanting in the majority. Thus it is clear that the majority of men have a sufficient knowledge for the guidance of life; and those who have not this knowledge are said to be half-witted or foolish; but they who attain to a profound knowledge of things intelligible are a very small minority in respect to the rest. Since their eternal happiness, consisting in the vision of God, exceeds the common state of nature, and especially in so far as this is deprived of grace through the corruption of original sin, those who are saved are in the minority. In this especially, however, appears the mercy of God, that He has chosen some for that salvation, from which very many in accordance with the common course and tendency of nature fall short.

In more recent times some have questioned this idea, or even affirmed the contrary. Thus for example Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe Salvi:

45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Here, Pope Benedict suggests that the great majority of people go to purgatory and are ultimately saved, although he says “we may suppose,” to indicate that this is speculation rather than a dogmatic statement. Nonetheless there is a fairly large gap between his suggestion and the position of St. Thomas, or the position suggested by Scripture.

The Time is Short

Jesus says some things indicating that the time of the judgement was unknown, as for example, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And if it is completely unknown, then it would be reasonable to say that it could not be known whether it is long or short. But he also says things, such as those already mentioned, that suggest a short time. In fact, this was true from the beginning of his ministry. Mark describes this:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Since Daniel 7 says that “his dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed,” it was natural for people to understand from Christ’s preaching that the end of the world was at hand in a literal sense. This does not mean that there cannot be a reasonable understanding of this for Christians living in the present day. But there can be no reasonable doubt that the early Christians in fact held such a belief about the nearness of the end, and that they held this belief on account of this kind of preaching. 

Thus for example when St. John says, “Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour,” his words may be explained in a general sense. But it does not make sense for him to actually say this in this particular way, unless he believes that a very short time remains until the end of the world. In other words, we knew that antichrists would come and then the world would end; and now the antichrists have come; so the world must be about to end.

The second letter of Peter, however, warns against assuming that the end must come quickly:

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Daniel Wallace says, “From one perspective, this short epistle is the most disputed book in the NT canon as to authenticity. From another, the issue of authorship is already settled, at least negatively: the apostle Peter did not write this letter.” By “most disputed book,” he means that the most doubt is put on the question of whether it is actually written by the author to whom it is attributed. He believes himself that St. Peter wrote it, but says that the majority of scholars have already concluded that he did not. Although they have various reasons for their opinion, one of the reasons is the idea that it was written after it was already clear that Christ was not returning soon.

Regardless of how the question of authorship is resolved, this argument is probably unnecessary. Even if the letter was written by St. Peter himself in the 60s, it would have already been 30 years since the time of Christ, and it would already be becoming clear that there was a need to correct people’s idea of the end of the world. The Gospels themselves do something similar. For example, immediately after, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” Matthew continues, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves,” and goes on to give the account of the Transfiguration. By this means he at least suggests, although without saying so explicitly, that the words of Christ were fulfilled in the vision of the apostles at the time.

The Hope Function and the Second Coming

Ruma Falk writes:

Imagine searching for a paragraph that you read some time ago. You have a visual memory of that paragraph on a right-hand page of a book, toward the top. Though you think you remember the particular book, you are not absolutely certain. Systematically, you begin leafing through the book’s 10 chapters. The paragraph does not turn up in the first chapter, or in the second, third… As you proceed without success through the chapters, does your hope of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase or decrease? And what of your hope of finding it in the book at all? Imagining yourself in this familiar situation, you may feel that before you reached the end of the book, despair would set it (“this must be the wrong book”). On the other hand, the longer you search the more reluctant you may be to quit, not only because of the efforts invested up to now, but because of a persistent intuition that the chances of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase after each successive disappointment.

Describing a similar example from fiction, Falk says,

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Six Napoleons, the great detective Sherlock Holmes deduces that one of six plaster busts of Napoleon conceals a priceless pearl. As the story unfolds, the busts are smashed one by one, until Sherlock finds and dramatically smashes the last one, recovering the pearl. As usual, the detective reveals his reasoning, noting that the numerical chances of finding the pearl in the next bust increased as their number dwindled, until with the last bust it reached certainty. Jones (1966) points out that the scientific viewpoint would doubt Sherlock’s initial certainty, and would start with, say, only a 50% chance that Sherlock’s theory is right: “As successive busts are smashed and no pearl is found, the rising chance of finding it in the next is balanced by the evidence of this growing succession of failures that Sherlock is wrong, and that there isn’t any pearl at all.”

We could think of any number of similar examples from real life. The chance that a single person will get married sometime during the next year will increase as she grows older, at the same time that the total chance that she will get married at all is going down. Of course, at some point there will be a turning point where even the chance of getting married in the next year begins to decrease.

A similar process happens with the idea of the Second Coming. Speaking of the end of the world, James Chastek says,

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

While Chastek does give an argument for his position in principle, one concrete thing that makes his position more likely is the fact that nothing in particular has happened so far. As the scoffers said, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”

The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa remarks, “these signs that are mentioned in the gospels, such as wars, fears, and so forth, have been from the beginning of the human race.” This also in a certain way favors Chastek’s account: these things are indeed signs of the end of the world, in the sense that they are signs that the world is a historical reality, and historical realities begin and end.

The Son of Man in the Gospels

The discussion of the Son of Man in Daniel and in the Book of Enoch sheds light on how Christ uses this title in the Gospels. In Daniel it might not be entirely clear whether the phrase refers to a people as a whole or to an individual. But in the Book of Enoch, it is clear that it refers to an individual who is the Messiah, and who has the role of coming to judge and to reward the good and punish the wicked.

In many places in the Gospels Christ speaks of the “Son of Man” in precisely this way. Thus for example in Matthew 13 he explains the parable of the weeds:

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is probably a mistake to understand “Son of Man” here as simply a roundabout way for Christ to refer to himself. Rather, the Son of Man, namely the one described in Daniel and Enoch, is the one appointed to carry out the judgement, and the parable of the weeds is about this judgement.

There are many other places in the Gospels which speak of the Son of Man in the same way, as for example at the end of Matthew 16, when Christ says, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” The listeners will understand this to refer to the coming of the one appointed for judgement; they may or may not infer that Christ is speaking of himself.

Something related to this can be seen earlier in chapter 16:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Mark and Luke have “say that I am” in place of “say that the Son of Man is.” Presuming that they speak of the same episode, as it appears, Jesus could not have literally used both of these phrases. Either he said “Son of Man”, and the other Evangelists, recognizing that Christ is the Son of Man, choose the shorter phrase, or he said “I”, and Matthew replaces this with “Son of Man.”

I cannot prove this, and nothing in particular rests on it, but I would suggest that Matthew’s text is probably historically accurate here. While Mark 6 does suggest that some people identified Jesus in such a way, “The Son of Man, namely the one coming to judge, is Elijah,” seems a more plausible opinion for people to hold than “Jesus of Nazareth is Elijah.”

Christ seems to speak of the “Son of Man” in general in the third person, but also apparently with the implication that he himself is the Son of Man, and this practice is likely responsible for the fact that the Evangelists in this case take the two to be equivalent.

One problem of course is that in the text at the end of Matthew 16, Jesus seems to say something false about the time of the judgement. Something similar seems implied by Matthew 10:23, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

The Book of Enoch

The Book of Enoch, while not accepted in general as canonical, is accepted as such by Ethiopian Jews, as well as by some Orthodox churches. And whether considered as inspired or not, it was likely respected by the early Christians, as the book of Jude quotes from it, saying,

It was also about these that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his holy ones, to execute judgment on all, and to convict everyone of all the deeds of ungodliness that they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things that ungodly sinners have spoken against him.”

This is a quotation from the end of the first chapter of the book of Enoch.

Chapter 46 describes a vision of Enoch:

46:1   At that place, I saw the One to whom belongs the time before time. And his head was white like wool, and there was with him another individual, whose face was like that of a human being. His countenance was full of splendor like that of one among the kodesh malakim.

46:2   And I asked the one -from among the malakim -who was going with me, and who had revealed to me all the secrets regarding the One who was born of human beings, “Who is this, and from whence is he who is going as the prototype of the Before -Time?”

46:3   And he answered me and said to me, “This is the Son of Man, to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells. And He will open all the hidden storerooms; for YAHWEH of Hosts has chosen Him, and He is destined to be victorious before YAHWEH of Hosts in eternal uprightness.”

46:4   “This Son of Man whom you have seen is the One who would remove the kings and the mighty ones from their comfortable seats and the strong ones from their thrones. He shall loosen the reins of the strong and crush the teeth of the sinners.”

46:5   “He shall depose the kings from their thrones and kingdoms. For they do not extol and magnify HIM, and neither do they obey HIM, the source of their kingship.”

46:6   “The faces of the strong will be slapped and be filled with shame and gloom. Their dwelling places and their beds will be worms. They shall have no hope to rise from their beds, for they do not extol the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.”

46:7   “And they have become the judges of the stars of heaven; they raise their hands to reach YAHWEH the Most High while walking upon the earth and dwelling in her. They manifest all their deeds in oppression; all their deeds are oppression. Their power depends upon their wealth. And their devotion is to the gods which they have fashioned with their own hands. But they deny the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.”

46:8   “Yet they like to congregate in HIS houses and with the faithful ones who cling to YAHWEH of Hosts.

The Son of Man is the one “to whom belongs righteousness, and with whom righteousness dwells,” and the following verses indicate the he is the one who was chosen by God to execute justice.

The reason why the kings are deposed is that “they do not extol and magnify him, neither do they obey him, the source of their kingship.” The translator in this case seems to interpret this to refer to God, and thus capitalizes “him,” but the most obvious understanding of the pronoun would be that it refers to the Son of Man. Nonetheless, the fact that he is the source of their kingship might suggest that he is also God in fact, and this is also suggested by the fact that the text goes on to say, “They shall have no hope to rise from their beds, for they do not extol the name of Yahweh of hosts.” This at least suggests that not praising the Son of Man is the same as not praising God.

Chapter 47 describes why a judgment is necessary in the first place:

47:1   “In those days, the prayers of the righteous ascended into heaven, and the blood of the righteous from the earth before YAHWEH of Hosts.”

47:2   “There shall be days when all the kodesh ones who dwell in the heavens above shall dwell together. And with one voice, they shall supplicate and pray -magnifying, praising, and blessing the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts -on behalf of the blood of the righteous ones which has been shed. Their prayers shall not stop from exhaustion before YAHWEH of Hosts -neither will they relax forever -until judgment is executed for them.”

47:3   In those days, I saw Him -the Antecedent of Time, while He was sitting upon the throne of his splendor, and the books of the living ones were open before Him. And all His power in heaven above and His escorts stood before Him.

47:4   The hearts of the kodesh ones are filled with joy, because the number of the righteous has been offered, the prayers of the righteous ones have been heard, and the blood of the righteous has been admitted before YAHWEH of Hosts.

Thus judgment is needed to correct the injustice done to the just by the wicked. Chapter 48 seems to describe the Son of Man as preexisting and as having a predestined role of carrying out the needed judgment:

48:1   Furthermore, in that place I saw the fountain of righteousness, which does not become depleted and is surrounded completely by numerous fountains of wisdom.

48:2   All the thirsty ones drink of the water and become filled with wisdom. Then their dwelling places become with the kodesh, righteous, and elect ones.

48:3   At that hour, that Son of Man was given a name, in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts, the Before Time; even before the creation of the sun and the moon, before the creation of the stars, He was given a name in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts.

48:4   He will become a staff for the righteous ones in order that they may lean on Him and not fall. He is the Light of the gentiles and He will become the hope of those who are sick in their hearts.

48:5   All those who dwell upon the earth shall fall and worship before Him; they shall magnify, bless, and sing the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts.

48:6   For this purpose He became the Chosen One; He was concealed in the presence of YAHWEH of Hosts prior to the creation of the world, and for eternity.

48:7   And He has revealed the wisdom of YAHWEH of Hosts to the righteous and the kodesh ones, for He has preserved the portion of the righteous because they have hated and despised this world of oppression together with all its ways of life and its habits in the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts; and because they will be saved in His Name and it is His good pleasure that they have life.

48:8   In those days, the kings of the earth and the mighty landowners shall be humiliated on account of the deeds of their hands. Therefore, on the day of their misery and weariness, they will not be able to save themselves.

48:9   I shall deliver them into the hands of MY elect ones like grass in the fire and like lead in the water, so they shall burn before the face of the kodesh ones and sink before their sight, and no place will be found for them.

48:10   On the day of their weariness, there shall be an obstacle on the earth and they shall fall on their faces; and they shall not rise up again, nor anyone be found who will take them with his hands and raise them up. For they have denied YAHWEH of Hosts and HIS Messiah. Blessed be the NAME of YAHWEH of Hosts!

While one might think that being concealed in the presence of God before the creation of the world might imply only the divine predestination, it would not be unreasonable to read this as implying an eternal preexistence of the Son of Man, even if not in the condition of a man. And it seems that “they will be saved in His Name,” and “it is His good pleasure that they have life,” also refer to the Son of Man. In fact, overall it seems that considered in itself, God would have the role of saving and giving life, and judging the wicked, but in practice God chooses to give these roles to the Son of Man.

Finally, at the end of the text, the Son of Man is identified as the Messiah.

 

Son of Man

Daniel 7 gives an account of a vision:

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
    and an Ancient of Days took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
    and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
    and its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
    and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
    and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
    and the books were opened.

I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. As I watched in the night visions,

I saw one like a son of man,
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient of Days
    and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.

As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter: “As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn, which came up and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others. As I looked, this horn made war with the holy ones and was prevailing over them, until the Ancient of Days came; then judgment was given for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time arrived when the holy ones gained possession of the kingdom.

This is what he said: “As for the fourth beast,

there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth
    that shall be different from all the other kingdoms;
it shall devour the whole earth,
    and trample it down, and break it to pieces.
As for the ten horns,
out of this kingdom ten kings shall arise,
    and another shall arise after them.
This one shall be different from the former ones,
    and shall put down three kings.
He shall speak words against the Most High,
    shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High,
    and shall attempt to change the sacred seasons and the law;
and they shall be given into his power
    for a time, two times, and half a time.
Then the court shall sit in judgment,
    and his dominion shall be taken away,
    to be consumed and totally destroyed.
The kingship and dominion
    and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven
    shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom,
    and all dominions shall serve and obey them.”

Here the account ends. As for me, Daniel, my thoughts greatly terrified me, and my face turned pale; but I kept the matter in my mind.

The New Revised Standard Version uses “Ancient One” in place of “Ancient of Days”, and “one like a human being” in place of “one like a son of man”, while acknowledging in the footnotes that these are deliberate changes to the text, not translations. I have reverted these changes here.

It is sometimes said that the “one like a son of man” in Daniel’s vision is the Jewish people as a whole, since the explanation of the vision refers only to “holy ones of the Most High,” or “people of the holy ones of the Most High,” rather than to an individual. But in reality this is not entirely clear. The interpretation says that the four beasts are four kings, but then the fourth is interpreted as a kingdom out of which ten kings, represented by the ten horns, will arise. So the interpretation seems to pass rather freely between kings and kingdoms. In this sense, it is possible that the one like a son of man can represent either the people of the Most High, or their king, much like the beasts seem to represent both kings and kingdoms.

 

Religious Freedom

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Libertas, says:

19. To make this more evident, the growth of liberty ascribed to our age must be considered apart in its various details. And, first, let us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty of worship, as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none.

20. But, assuredly, of all the duties which man has to fulfill, that, without doubt, is the chiefest and holiest which commands him to worship God with devotion and piety. This follows of necessity from the truth that we are ever in the power of God, are ever guided by His will and providence, and, having come forth from Him, must return to Him. Add to which, no true virtue can exist without religion, for moral virtue is concerned with those things which lead to God as man’s supreme and ultimate good; and therefore religion, which (as St. Thomas says) “performs those actions which are directly and immediately ordained for the divine honor”,(7) rules and tempers all virtues. And if it be asked which of the many conflicting religions it is necessary to adopt, reason and the natural law unhesitatingly tell us to practice that one which God enjoins, and which men can easily recognize by certain exterior notes, whereby Divine Providence has willed that it should be distinguished, because, in a matter of such moment, the most terrible loss would be the consequence of error. Wherefore, when a liberty such as We have described is offered to man, the power is given him to pervert or abandon with impunity the most sacred of duties, and to exchange the unchangeable good for evil; which, as We have said, is no liberty, but its degradation, and the abject submission of the soul to sin.

21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man’s capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.

Among other things, the Pope seems to be claiming, “There is one true religion, namely the Catholic religion, and it is easily recognized as such.” It is difficult to see a way in which this statement might be both true and fit well in this context. If the claim implies that the majority of honest, reasonable people would agree that Catholicism is true, then it seems to slander the human race, given the fact that only about one seventh of humanity accepts this, and surely the majority of these people were raised Catholic rather than being converts. If it means that “it should be easy to see that Catholicism is true, but in practice it is not, because of various impediments,” then it does not seem to fit well in this context, because the Pope seems to be making practical statements about how individuals and states should behave, so if it is not easy in practice, it is not easy in the way that is relevant here. In any case it is not necessary to consider this in detail at this time.

Later in the encyclical he discusses the idea of tolerance:

33. Yet, with the discernment of a true mother, the Church weighs the great burden of human weakness, and well knows the course down which the minds and actions of men are in this our age being borne. For this reason, while not conceding any right to anything save what is true and honest, she does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil, or of obtaining or preserving some greater good. God Himself in His providence, though infinitely good and powerful, permits evil to exist in the world, partly that greater good may not be impeded, and partly that greater evil may not ensue. In the government of States it is not forbidden to imitate the Ruler of the world; and, as the authority of man is powerless to prevent every evil, it has (as St. Augustine says) to overlook and leave unpunished many things which are punished, and rightly, by Divine Providence.(10) But if, in such circumstances, for the sake of the common good (and this is the only legitimate reason), human law may or even should tolerate evil, it may not and should not approve or desire evil for its own sake; for evil of itself, being a privation of good, is opposed to the common welfare which every legislator is bound to desire and defend to the best of his ability. In this, human law must endeavor to imitate God, who, as St. Thomas teaches, in allowing evil to exist in the world, “neither wills evil to be done, nor wills it not to be done, but wills only to permit it to be done; and this is good.”(11) This saying of the Angelic Doctor contains briefly the whole doctrine of the permission of evil.

34. But, to judge aright, we must acknowledge that, the more a State is driven to tolerate evil, the further is it from perfection; and that the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires. Wherefore, if such tolerance would be injurious to the public welfare, and entail greater evils on the State, it would not be lawful; for in such case the motive of good is wanting. And although in the extraordinary condition of these times the Church usually acquiesces in certain modern liberties, not because she prefers them in themselves, but because she judges it expedient to permit them, she would in happier times exercise her own liberty; and, by persuasion, exhortation, and entreaty would endeavor, as she is bound, to fulfill the duty assigned to her by God of providing for the eternal salvation of mankind. One thing, however, remains always true – that the liberty which is claimed for all to do all things is not, as We have often said, of itself desirable, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason that error and truth should have equal rights.

35. And as to tolerance, it is surprising how far removed from the equity and prudence of the Church are those who profess what is called liberalism. For, in allowing that boundless license of which We have spoken, they exceed all limits, and end at last by making no apparent distinction between truth and error, honesty and dishonesty. And because the Church, the pillar and ground of truth, and the unerring teacher of morals, is forced utterly to reprobate and condemn tolerance of such an abandoned and criminal character, they calumniate her as being wanting in patience and gentleness, and thus fail to see that, in so doing, they impute to her as a fault what is in reality a matter for commendation. But, in spite of all this show of tolerance, it very often happens that, while they profess themselves ready to lavish liberty on all in the greatest profusion, they are utterly intolerant toward the Catholic Church, by refusing to allow her the liberty of being herself free.

All of this looks very different from the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom:

2. This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.(2) This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.

3. Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.(3) The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.

There is a further consideration. The religious acts whereby men, in private and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs. Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.

4. The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself.

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government, in the selection, training, appointment, and transferral of their own ministers, in communicating with religious authorities and communities abroad, in erecting buildings for religious purposes, and in the acquisition and use of suitable funds or properties.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word. However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.

In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. Finally, the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.

At the very least, there is a vast difference of attitude in the statements, and at the most, they might seem to be saying completely opposite things. Leo XIII says that “the tolerance of evil which is dictated by political prudence should be strictly confined to the limits which its justifying cause, the public welfare, requires,” while Dignitatis Humanae says that “all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” Since both statements contain qualifications, they might be consistent in practice. However, the first seems to say, “We might have to allow someone to make this false statement, but it would be better if we could prevent it,” while the second seems to say, “We might have to prevent someone from making this false statement, but it would be better if we could allow it.” Understood in this way, the statements would not be consistent.

Thomas Storck discusses the apparent inconsistency:

“Since the Catholic Church has changed her authoritative teaching on more than one point of faith and morals, there is absolutely no reason why she cannot be expected to change it on others. And, this being the case, to silence dissenting theologians is very possibly to prevent the discovery and propagation of new truths, truths which the Church herself will eventually come to accept.” We are all likely familiar with arguments of this sort, arguments made in varying ways by theologians who refuse to accept all the teachings of the Church’s magisterium. When pressed for specifics, moreover, the two points on which they generally allege the Church has changed her doctrine are the licitness of usury and the question of religious liberty. And if the magisterium really has changed on these issues, then it is hard not to concede to them their point. For if the teaching of the ordinary magisterium on usury or religious liberty has changed over the centuries because of changing social conditions, then why not teaching on contraception or divorce? Therefore, it seems to me of the greatest importance for orthodox Catholics to be able to demonstrate that the Church has never changed any point of its magisterial teachings nor can she.

There is a kind of moral reasoning here: We cannot admit that the Church has changed its teaching on religious liberty, since that would provide an argument that the Church might change its teaching on contraception or other matters, and it would be bad to admit that.

Regardless of the prudence of this manner of reasoning, this is a bad way of trying to get at the truth of the matter.

Working out his solution to the apparent conflict, he says:

The apparent conflict here concerns public worship and proselytizing activities, since the papal teaching quoted earlier never contemplated suppressing private religious actions. But how far is the conflict real?

In <Dignitatis Humanae> itself there are two limitations of the right to religious freedom. First, this freedom is restricted “within due limits” and by “the just requirements of public order.” Second, the assertion of man’s right to religious liberty seems to be considerably qualified by a further statement in the declaration. This statement appears in the paragraph immediately preceding the section quoted, and runs thus:

So while the religious freedom which men demand in fulfilling their obligation to worship God has to do with freedom from coercion in civil society, it leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.

What do these reservations mean?

In regard to “the just requirements of public order,” at first glance this phrase might seem to mean things such as keeping civil peace, obeying health regulations, respecting morality and the like. But even Professor Wolfe implicitly acknowledges that it could include suppression of polygamy, although polygamy is a practice by no means necessarily contrary to civil peace.14 This also despite the fact that polygamy is or has been permitted by several major religions, and its prohibition would be a limiting of religious freedom. In other words, “the just requirements of public order” apparently mean more than merely keeping order in society, and extend to repressing socially harmful practices.

But I think one can go further than this. I suggest the following: That “the just requirements of public order” vary considerably between a Catholic state and a religiously neutral state. If a neutral state can prohibit polygamy, even though it is a restriction on religious freedom, then a Catholic state can likewise restrict the public activity of non-Catholic groups. “The just requirements of public order” can be understood only in the context of a people’s traditions and modes of living, and in a Catholic society would necessarily include that social unity based upon a recognition of the Catholic Church as the religion of society, and the consequent exclusion of all other religions from public life. Western secular democracies, committed to freedom of religion for all sects, find no contradiction in proscribing polygamy, although some religions permit it, because its practice is contrary to the traditions and mores of these nations. A Catholic country can certainly similarly maintain its own manner of life.

What about the repeated declarations in <Dignitatis Humanae> about religious freedom as a personal human right? The Council proclaims, I think, an abstract human right, but a right that is not necessarily fully applicable in any given circumstance or place. Because of the “dignity of the human person” man does indeed have a right to religious liberty, in fact, by giving us a free will God has necessarily given us a kind of religious liberty, including the liberty to err. But this does not mean that this liberty may be exercised without reference to anything else. There are many rights that are contingent upon circumstances. Man, for example, has a right to marry. But what of those who are impotent or who cannot find anyone to marry? The right is a right in the abstract and not necessarily in any given concrete situation. Furthermore, even in a Catholic confessional state there is a certain religious liberty, that is, a liberty to privately exercise one’s non-Catholic faith, to meet corporately but privately with one’s co-religionists. This is a real liberty, occasioned by the “dignity of the human person,” but also restricted within “the just requirements of public order.”

But what of the second limitation on religious freedom found within <Dignitatis Humanae> itself?

Usually the supposed contradiction in Church teaching on religious liberty is seen as a conflict between earlier papal teaching and <Dignitatis Humanae>. But if the text of <Dignitatis Humanae> is taken seriously this is not so. <Dignitatis Humanae> states, as I quoted above, that it “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of . . . societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” The moral duty of societies toward the true faith and Church, however, is precisely those propositions found in the traditional papal teaching supposedly at variance with <Dignitatis Humanae>. In other words, if an interpretation of the declaration is insisted upon that conflicts with Gregory XVI, Pius IX, <et al,> then <Dignitatis Humanae> conflicts with itself, for, as I just quoted, the earlier teaching, far from being changed, is explicitly left intact. If we keep this in mind when reviewing the declaration, we will see that the common interpretation, although at first glance seemingly obvious, must be based on a misunderstanding. Probably <Dignitatis Humanae> was intended to be irenic, and perhaps some of its framers wanted to change the teaching, but as Fr. Most points out, “we must confine ourselves to what the writer succeeded <in setting down on paper explicitly.>”15 No one will deny that <Dignitatis Humanae> says what it says in a curious way, but I think I have shown that one need not read it in such a way that it conflicts with former teaching.

I have tried to give full weight to the plain meaning of all the texts I have discussed, within the constraints imposed by logic and revealed truth. <Dignitatis Humanae> turns out to be a much more complicated document that usually supposed, but, when carefully examined, not in disagreement with what seems to be the previous teaching of the ordinary magisterium on the question of religious liberty.

In one way, this is mostly reasonable. One can understand the implications of the various statements to be mostly or even entirely consistent. The problem would be that this does not necessarily mean that the doctrine justifying these practices is the same, as I said regarding the statements on toleration and on immunity from coercion.

Storck however is probably putting undue weight on the statement that Dignitatis Humanae “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching.” Simply asserting that I am not contradicting myself, does not necessarily meant that I am not contradicting myself in fact. On the other hand, it is reasonable to read the teachings of the Church with as much truth and consistency as possible, just as one should in conversation with others.

However, Storck is going too far in the claim that it is necessary “to demonstrate that the Church has never changed any point of its magisterial teachings nor can she.” Fr. Brian Harrison and Orestes Brownson both claimed that if the Church changes any teaching, then Catholicism is necessarily false. Storck does not go this far, but he says that we must avoid admitting a change because we cannot admit that any teaching might be changed in the future. But there is a similar problem: both claims require something like a list of unchangeable teachings, and as we suggested a few days ago, no such list exists.

Yesterday we saw the teaching of Pope Leo X that it is moral to burn heretics. And since he calls the whole list of condemned propositions “against Catholic truth,” and says that “according to these errors, or any one or several of them, it clearly follows that the Church which is guided by the Holy Spirit is in error and has always erred,” one could easily understand him to be saying that his teaching is a definitive statement of the kind Harrison and Brownson are concerned with, such that changing that teaching would imply that Catholicism is false.

Of course, it is not necessary to read it in that way, but it is not impossible. In any case, his opinion is clear, and is an area where the Church has in fact changed her opinion. Nor is it reasonable to say that the Church believes that it is now wrong to burn heretics, but that it was not wrong in the past. The current belief is a universal one: thus for example Pope Francis commented a few days ago, “There were terrible times between us. Just think of the persecutions, among we who have the same baptism. Think of all the people who were burned alive.”

As we said earlier, there is necessarily a vague line between a substantial change in doctrine, and a development of doctrine. And while it would never be reasonable to call a contradiction as such a development, it might well be that the development of one doctrine might require contradicting an opinion on another matter. In this sense, a Catholic interpretation of this history would be that the Church has developed its understanding of humanity and freedom, and this development required changing its opinion on various details such as whether or not it is moral to burn heretics.

And indeed, as Storck says, and as I suggested a few days ago, this does mean that one should admit that other doctrines might change in various respects, and that the exact extent of this possibility is unknown.