As much as we may be shocked by the brazen anathemisation of historical studies by Cardinal Manning and his strident affirmation of the present voice of the Church as alone authoritative for determining tradition, however, I would argue that this progressive attempt to control, not only divine revelation, but all natural facts and revelation, has earlier precedents, and I will allude to two incidents with the Jansenist controversy before ending with Humanae Vitae (although one can argue that the rot began with Unam Sanctam, but I shall not press that point for now).

How Far Semantic Infallibility?

The Jansenists were this post-Reformation semi-Calvinistic Roman Catholic group who were, at one point of time, quite widespread throughout France, Belgium and Holland. It was based on the writings of a Roman Catholic Dutch bishop Cornelius Jansenius who left behind a set of writings named “Augustinus” expounding a system of grace and salvation supposedly based on St Augustine’s teachings.

However the teachings seemed to have a distinctly Calvinistic bent and the Roman authorities thought so. Five propositions were extracted out of the work and condemned in the bull Cum Occasione by Pope Innocent X.

Now one would think that the matter would be settled there and then. After all, Rome has spoken, the matter is settled right? Not so. The wily and clever Jansenists adopted the following device to maintain their Jansenism. They argued that the five propositions condemned by the Pope cannot in fact be found in the work “Augustinus” and is fact an erroneous interpretation of that work! Thus, while they accepted the condemnation of the five propositions, as a matter of church doctrinal teaching, they refused to give up or renounce the book which they claim does not teach those five propositions. They justified this move by arguing that the Church was indeed authoritative when it taught on matters of doctrine and when the church pronounces its judgement on such matters, the Roman faithful has no choice but to accept it. But, whether or not a doctrine can in fact be found in a certain work or book is a matter of human fact, not a matter of doctrine. Thus, while they would respectfully keep an external silence, out of reverence for the Pope, but they refused an interior assent to give up the “Augustinus”.

This would be a recurring problem later on after Vatican I defined papal infallibility as that which extends over matters of faith and morals only. The Church can and do make factual errors. They can be mistaken about the revolution of the sun around the earth. Infallibility does not make the Church an expert of Shakespeare or Greek linguistics. They aren’t infallible interpreters of the works of Dante or Milton. These are “human” or what I would call “natural” facts. They don’t fall under the supposed definition of infallibility.

The Jansenist exploited precisely this ambiguity to maintain their resistance. Is the pope also an infallible interpreter, not only of doctrine and morals, but also of all other human texts? Is he now an infallible expert in hermeneutics, semantics and linguistics? What this episode proves of course is that the line between “faith” and “morals” and all other natural and human fact is artificial, or at least, much blurrier than we think. If they truly restricted themselves to mere doctrine and morals, their teaching authority would be considerably eviscerated. They would have no practical effect whatsoever. Everyone can affirm the doctrine and dogmas as promulgated in the abstract while denying any real application outside of the Vatican. If on the other hand they expanded their reach and claim to be divinely anointed experts on semantics and other “human facts” as well, a vulgar totalitarianism is threatened and a manifest absurdity would become inevitable. The Church has made many, many, errors on human and natural facts. Furthermore, does the Roman Church truly want to claim a monopoly over all of nature itself?

To date this tension has never really been resolved. The modern equivalent would be between the papal maximalists and the papal minimalists. The former claims that papal infallibility has only been exercised a handful of times (e.g. papal infallibility itself, the Marian dogmas), while the latter claims that every teaching by the Magisterium is prima facie assumed to be infallible unless otherwise manifest. Depending on what the Roman wants to prove he can switch from one to another. When he wants to prove that papal infallibility is not burdensome and reconcilable with its past errors, he will be a minimalist. When he on the other hand wants to prove that the Roman Church is a stable foundation for a substantive form of life, he would be a maximalist. (See this blog for a more in depth exposition on this issue.)

What is clear however is that inevitably, for the Roman Church to be effectively authoritative, it would have to have authority, not only over matters of doctrine and morals, it would need to have authority over natural facts and revelation itself. It would need to take over all of nature.

Can God Perform Miracles without Papal Approval?

Another incident with the Jansenist would further exacerbate the problem. François de Paris was a French Jansenist deacon who was known for his zeal and great piety. He worked among the poor of Paris and sacrificed much for them.

The problem was that after he died, he became a “folk saint” among the Paris urban poor. There were numerous reports of miracles and healings around his cemetery. There were also “ecstatic” experiences and convulsions very similar to contemporary charismatic or Pentecostal experiences. Masses of people flocked to visit his cemetery, etc.

The king and the official church were perplexed. What are they going to do? How can miracles happen around heretics? Ironically the clerics of that time began to employ the language of the Enlightenment in dismissing these convulsions as irrational. Eventually the king had the cemetery shuttered. The opponents of the Church sniggered about how the church and crown were now telling God what to do. A satirical quip appeared on the gates which read, “By order of the King, God is not permitted to perform miracles here”.

The effects of this incident upon the Catholic consciousness were profound. Miracles now do not “intrinsically” possess their meaning. They could be from the devil, meant to deceive the faithful, they could be from God. The meaning of the miracles would now be subject to a Vatican bureaucratic process. They alone now will determine the meaning of the miracles and know what it means.

Needless to say, for a church which life and substance has always been dependent upon such “folksy” local miracles, this could prove alienating. In a bid to protect their institutional teaching authority, they would have to take charge of all miraculous events in the natural world. The people could no longer be in “direct” contact with God working in the natural world nor does the world possess is own intrinsic meaning. Everything, all life, must be subjected to the canonical polity of the Church, alone now apparently not only the infallible interpreter of doctrine and morals, but also an infallible literary critic and discerner of miracles. The people necessary now live through the legal apparatus of the Church. (If a “disenchantment” thesis can be advanced, it is more plausibly advanced against the Roman Church than the Protestants who, by one fell swoop, effectively eviscerated all the world of its miracles and alienated everyone from them by subjecting it to a positivistic legal mechanism.)

But on a lighter note, the Jansenists were like the ultimate trolls of the Roman Catholic Church. They probably did more damage to the Roman Church then the Protestants ever did.

(For the source materials on this incident, I refer you to this blog post.)

Cardinal Edward Manning and History

Despite my sometimes exaggerated presentation of Cardinal Manning, Cardinal Manning would not deny tradition. What he did however deny is historical studies as possessing any intrinsic meaning or ability to discern the past. It would be useful to have some background to Cardinal Manning’s time.

One can get a sense of the panic and desperation which fall upon the Roman Church upon the close of the 19th century with the rise of science, modernism, and all the other isms anathemised by Pope Pius IX. But most vitally, the Roman Church was systematically being undercut by the new historical studies and criticisms conducted by Protestant Church historians as more and more of the writings of the early church came to light. During the Reformation, Romans like Cardinal Bellarmine confidently asserted that all the distinctive Roman doctrines like purgatory, Marian dogmas, etc, have always existed in the church and was the universal consensus of the Church right from the very beginning.

However the rise of historical studies and new knowledge of the actual patristic sources has laid waste to such confident claims, revealing a plurality of opinions and teachings even amongst the most venerated of Fathers and theologians. Desperate before the triumphant herald of the Protestants, who have always insisted that it is the Roman Church who had strayed from tradition in dogmatising mere opinions which have no basis in Scripture nor universality in history, the two Cardinals, Newman and Manning, immediately set out to armed the Roman Church to the teeth with any weapon they could lay their hands on.

Cardinal Newman’s weapon of choice was his romantic “Theory of the Development of Doctrine”, whereby he retrospectively reads back into the past the present Roman teachings and practices, admitting the Protestant contention that these doctrines were never there from the beginning, nevertheless he invented an implicit “seed-form” of distinctive Roman doctrine which “grew” into an explicit doctrine over time. The problem of course which such retroactive reconstructions is that with sufficient creativity, any present doctrine and practices can be retroactively read back into the past, and far from protecting the integrity of the Church, his theory smashed open a hole in the citadel permitting the howling winds of the Zeitgeist entry to justify any novel doctrine and practices as long as one can provide a clever retroactive reading of Church history leading to this new development.

Cardinal Manning’s strategy was the complete opposite. While Newman (over!)confidently asserted that, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, Cardinal Manning believed to be too deep into history was to cease being a Roman Catholic and instead anathemise the enterprise of history and antiquity altogether by thundering, “…the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy”!

It would be useful to cite him in full here:

It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity…

-The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost

Read the last two lines over and over again. “How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church?” “No number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity”. Just as how the Jansenist first appealed to semantics, and then later to miracles, to defy the Church, now the Protestant historians are using history to defy the Church. And the Roman Church’s response is once more quite predictable. They will attempt to monopolise history itself. First, in a strange postmodern twist, Cardinal Manning denies us any ability to know what the past taught. Then he claims that the Roman Church alone can discern the past.

In the light of the Roman Church’s earlier history, such a move becomes intelligible. The progressive monopolisation of the Church of all nature was set in motion a very long time ago, even before the “modernism” of the 19th century. Yet what becomes clear is that in their bid to attempt to control the meaning of everything, they must sound a strange postmodern note. We can’t know what human texts mean without the Pope. We can’t know the meaning of miracles without the Pope. And now we can’t even study history without the Pope. This is simply a recipe for disaster, the inevitable path down to total postmodern nihilism.

Conclusion: Postmodern Nihilism and the Roman Church

The attempt to monopolise the meaning of everything by the Roman Church ironically bears out Derrida’s idea of “Différance” where the meaning of words are infinitely “differed” or deflected away from their originals. The Scriptures do not intrinsically possess their meaning, their meaning is “differed” to the judgements of the Magisterium. The meaning of Augustinius itself is “deflected” to the Church. Miracles itself are not intrinsically meaningful, their meaning is deflected to the Church. And finally, history itself is unintelligible intrinsically; their meaning is deflected to the Church too.

The crowning moment of the Roman Church’s attempt to control all of nature comes with Humanae Vitae. Finally, the Roman Church claims to be the only reliable and infallible interpreter of natural law. The Roman Church is finally the (virtual!) master of all nature itself.

The end result of course is total nihilism. Nothing intrinsically possesses its meaning. Everything is subjected to a positivistic legal mechanism. From the halls of the Vatican alone is all truth continuously sustained and renewed. Outside is nothing but a wasteland of error, ambiguity and confusion. I have seen this “deflection” played out again and again in my debates with Roman Catholics. After citing various texts from their own Church disproving their point, they would argue that my interpretation of those very ecclesiastical texts are wrong. Thus, we now need an interpretation of the interpretation, and on and on, etc. The meaning is infinitely deferred.

If there is anyone who is truly guilty of modernism (if there be such a thing), it would undoubtedly be the Roman Church alone.

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