Friday, September 21, 2012

Three questions from the Rabbi -- part 1

Dear Rev. Know-it-all

In early December, 1995, I and some friends forwarded three questions to Pope John Paul II. We received a reply from the Vatican dated 19 December 1995, the Pope's Assessor, Monsignor L. Sandri, responded in the Pope's name. Monsignor Sandri declined to answer our questions, but informed us that the members of the French Dominican Fathers' Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem would probably provide satisfactory explanations.  They referred us to Rev. Dr. Raymond Brown who in turn referred us to his writings. Here we will summarize the answers we found there.

It is crucial to remember (a) that these words appear in an essay carrying the Church's approbation; (b) that they were written by a scholar whose works were endorsed by the Ecole Biblique; and (c) that Ecole Biblique is the institution that we were referred to by Vatican authorities.  We have three questions: 1) The resurrection accounts seem contradictory. Did Jesus appear in Galilee or Jerusalem? 2) How is it that the genealogies of Jesus don’t agree? and 3)How is Jesus a descendent of David if Joseph is not his biological father? Even were Mary descended from David, Royal Davidic descent should pass through the male line.

Your Friend,
Rabbi Yehuda ben Yiddshkeit

Dear Rabbi,

Let me deal first with the problem of authority. You say that you sent your inquiries to Pope John Paul II. He passed you off to Msgr. Sandri who fobbed you off on the Ecole Biblique who fobbed you off on Ray Brown who told you “Buy my book.”  My apologies for the run around. I can understand the Pope. Worrying about 1,200,000,000 people can be time consuming. He might have been busy that day, but by the time you got to the Ecole, perhaps someone should have invited you for tea and had a real sit down. But not to worry! Your questions have come to the attention of the Rev. Know-it-all.

First allow me to explain what you call the Church’s approbation. You doubtless are referring to the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur.   Nihil Obstat is Latin for “Nothing stands in the way.  After a reviewer called a “censor librorum” appointed by the local bishop has read the book and determines that it contains nothing damaging to faith or morals he give it his Nihil Obstat. Then the bishop of the author’s diocese or of the place of publication gives the book his Imprimatur, which means “let it be printed.” The Nihil Obstat doesn’t mean the censor or the bishop agree with the contents of the book, just that it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals. Nowadays you might see the following declaration printed along with an imprimatur:

 “The 'Nihil Obstat' and 'Imprimatur' are official declarations that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. No implication is contained therein that those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed.”

An Imprimatur doesn’t mean that a book is an official text of the Church. It doesn't make the book part of the doctrinal content of the faith. This probably alarms you as it would alarm most Catholics. Think about it. A local bishop delegates someone to read a book that he hasn’t time to read and the reviewer says “Eh, it’s okay. Nothing awful.” And then the world thinks THE CATHOLIC CHURCH gives its approval and that the volume in question is THE TEACHING OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH. 

All it means is that the book isn’t going to hurt the faithful if it is read as intended. Especially with academic books, an author may be dealing with speculations and possible explanations of difficulties. The problem comes in when someone says, “This is what happened and this is what everyone should think!!!”  You’ve heard the old saw that “Two Jews; Three opinions.” There should be another old saw “1000 Catholic scholars; One opinion. Mine!”  Most people who masquerade as scholars consider themselves far more infallible than the pope ever has. People somehow want to believe that the CATHOLIC CHURCH is a monolithic authoritarian structure there is a Jesuit lurking around every corner, looking for heretics to burn, or perhaps an albino monk from the Opus Dei. (The Opus has no monks, albino or otherwise.) In fact, local bishops have a great deal of autonomy. Bishops don’t derive their authority from the pope. We believe they derive their authority from the Messiah, or Christ as we call Him. The Messiah ordained His disciples and they in turn ordained their successors, just like rabbinical s’micha and shlichim (ordination and apostles). 

Most Christians believe that the successor of the leader of the disciples has a general authority for the doctrine and practice of the Church, but this authority derives from the authority the Messiah gave one of His disciples Simon Bar Jona, to whom he gave the Aramaic title of Cepha, “Peter”, in Greek and Latin. So the current spiritual descendant of Peter has an oversight of the descendants of all the disciples, but their authority doesn’t derive from him. Thus there is a certain autonomy among these successors, the bishops. There are about 5,200 Catholic bishops in the world. And if one is bishop of a diocese where an author lives or publishes, that author may asked for an Imprimatur.  My point is this: the Catholic Church is anything but monolithic. It might alarm you to hear that an Imprimatur  does not mean those who have granted the Nihil Obstat and the Imprimatur agree with the content, opinions or statements expressed.” How can a bishop give permission to print a text with which he does not agree? The Catholic Church is actually a lot more tolerant than most people have been led to believe. Let us look at the Galileo unpleasantness.

We all know about Galileo Galilei (1564 to 1642). He is considered the father of modern physics and astronomy and was cruelly imprisoned by the pope in attempt to keep the world in intellectual thralldom to the forces of medieval religion and evil clergy. That’s history, right? Well, not exactly. Galileo insisted that the sun stood still and that the earth moved. Biblical references like Psalm 93, 96 and 1 Chronicles 16:30 have it that “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” Psalm 104 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Ecclesiastes 1:5 says that “the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” So we have a problem.  At a time when the north of Europe had erupted in religious war and the first Protestants were saying that the church was opposed to the Bible, the Church authorities had to tread lightly lest Italy and Spain break out in the same fratricidal nonsense that was tearing Germany, France and England apart. Galileo jumped into the fray insisting the Bile was wrong and he was right. The Sun stood still and the earth and the planets moved around it in an orderly circular motion. Galileo defended his observations by taking St. Augustine's position on Scripture that not every passage is to be taken literally. In the Bible there is poetry, law and history. Don’t confuse one with the other. That is in fact, the Catholic position.

Galileo was encouraged by his friend Cardinal Maffeo Barberini to publish his ideas. The same Cardinal Barberini was elected Pope Urban VIII in 1623. Galileo’s book, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” was published in 1632, with formal authorization from the Inquisition and papal permission. So what happened? Galileo assumed that he could say and publish what he wanted since Urban was his good friend. Urban, however was responsible for a lot more than Galileo’s theories. Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) had personally asked Galileo to give the  arguments for and against his theories, but not to insist on one or the other. In short he asked that Galileo present all the theories. Galileo portrayed those who disagreed with him as idiots. Scholarly infallibility strikes again. Thus, Galileo was condemned by the Inquisition. 

Perhaps you’ve seen the Monty Python comedy sketch “No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!”  At one point a rabid Cardinal shouts, “Show her the comfy chair!” That’s exactly what happened to Galileo. He was sent off to live in 1632 with the scholarly archbishop of Sienna in the bishop's palace where he was tortured with pleasant dinners and scholarly conversations.  In 1634 he was allowed to return to his villa near Florence under house arrest. He was ordered to read the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years. His daughter Maria Celeste asked permission to perform the penance herself and so he didn’t even have to do his own penance. During the house arrest he wrote his finest works.  He went blind in 1638 as well as having a hernia. He was allowed to go to Florence for treatment. And so he passed his life, working at home with family and visiting Florence. What unspeakable torture! He was sent home to keep him out of the fray in order not to tear up Spain and Italy with factionalism. Heck of a punishment.   

The irony of it is that Galileo was wrong after all. His theory did not answer the data. It turns out that the sun doesn’t stand still. The earth and the sun both move in relation to other bodies and which is moving around which is entirely a matter of where you are standing at that time. The planets don’t travel around the sun in circles they travel in ellipses. His theories did not match the data and the Church didn’t think that upsetting the apple cart for a possible theory was worth it, no matter how infallible Galileo claimed to be and no matter how he could drop the name of his old friend and admirer Pope Urban. 

If Galileo could have said, “Well, this is my theory, ” things would have been just fine. But he insisted that he was right and the religious opinion and the Bible wrong when there wasn’t enough data to support him. This is the way the Church works. Thinking and speculating are allowed. But when you turn speculation into private dogma, the Church and you part company. There are some cases more clear than others, but the Church isn’t the oppressor that people like to think. I often wish that the pope had the power that people claim. It would be a simpler world, but sometimes simple worlds aren’t the best. So where do you go to know what the Church teaches and believes? Easy. It’s all in a book called the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Next week: Dr. Brown


  1. I can't find my copy right now, so I can't cite chapter and verse, but I recommend Giorgio de Santillana's The Crime of Galileo for a careful history of that affair. de Santillana's overall thesis is that Galileo was an abrasive personality who did not like abiding by stated rules of discourse and who, besides, wandered into what should have been an unrelated fight between Dominicans and Jesuits in Rome. The poor sap thumbed his nose at diplomatic niceties and just got ground up in the world's first modern bureaucracy: The Vatican. It had nothing whatever to do with science and reason.

  2. Father, why do you believe that all that the Church teaches and believes is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church?? I can think of at least six points of doctrine/morality which are not covered therein:

    1) That men are not to cover their heads at prayer and prophesy because Christ is their head, and they disgrace their head if they cover it.

    2) That women are to cover their heads at prayer and prophesy because their head is the man, and they disgrace their head if it be uncovered.

    3) The definition of usury, and the fact that it applies to more than only money.

    4) The definition of anathema, and how it applies.

    5) An objective rule of modesty.

    6) The requirements listed in the Second Vatican Council and Mystici Corporis (encyclical of Pope Pius XII) for membership in the Mystical Body of Christ.

    -- Nicole