59 In order to gather together scattered humanity God calls Abram from his country, his kindred and his father's house,16 and makes him Abraham, that is, "the father of a multitude of nations". "In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed."17
The appearance of Abraham in the Catechism introduces a wide range of topics related to the Bible itself, for the initial appearance of Abram in Genesis 11:27 marks the end of what scholars generally call the “prehistory” of mankind, that rich array of mythic, anthropologic, and philosophical narrative. Early Genesis sets the table, so to speak, for what we moderns would call narrative history. The story of Abram-become-Abraham is one of the critical turning points in the Hebrew Scripture, serving a variety of purposes related to Israel’s identity and legitimacy.
Genesis 11:27 marks the beginning of what we modern westerners might call narrative history. I was tempted to write “hard history” but this would not take into account the variances in the ways that different ages and cultures record history. Actually, the focus on precise times and dates became a staple of recorded history only in the nineteenth century with the German master Leopold von Ranke. The Greek historians before Christ, such as Thucydides and Herodotus, wrote full accounts of lengthy speeches of kings and generals, something that would be obviously impossible without modern recording devices. What these early chroniclers attempted to do was capture the meaning, spirit, or intent of the speaker, and this tradition of the historical method has endured pretty much until the electronic age. Both testaments of the Bible were written in this style except for books with specific style—the philosophy of Job, the satire of Jonah, the psalms, etc.
But succumbing to our contemporary desire to know the precise data, when did “hard Biblical history” begin? I just asked Cortana (the poor man’s Siri) “when was Abraham born?” She crisply replied—in a nanosecond—1813 BC. Actually, she is not too far off, just a bit too confident. The truth is, we don’t know precisely when the primitive Israelite tribe came to self-understanding as a unified people chosen by a single divinity in a world of polytheists. But 1800 BC has been the benchmark or shorthand for biblical scholars, give or take a century or two. As one might expect, it is easier to date more recent events in Israel’s history—where there is reasonably good sourcing and documentation—and work backwards employing information from the text and secular sources. The dating of Moses and the Exodus, for example, has some measure of accuracy because the Egyptians kept records of their pharaohs.
The Catechism, of course, situates para. 59 in its “stages of revelation” segment, so the ultimate question is: what was communicated or revealed by God in 1813 BC, or thereabouts? Here is where the early Genesis chapters are helpful in penetrating this new revelation. In treating of Genesis over the past several weeks, I have come to a better understanding of two themes. The first is God’s tendency to deal with individuals—Adam, Cain, Noah. The second is man’s tendency to scatter. There are three scatterings: the first occurs with Adam’s descendants; the second with the descendants of Noah after the flood; and the third with the confusion of tongues after the debacle at the Tower of Babel.
Para. 59 introduces a reversal of these tendencies. God will now reveal his truth to a people, a chosen people, rather than through individuals. Abraham, and subsequently Isaac and Jacob, will be the fathers of a people who will receive God’s Word again and again, most notably in a covenant of saving Law. Future revelation will take the form of prophets calling his people back to the pure desert experience of the original covenant. It is worth noting that Jesus himself declared that he had coming to bring the Law and the Prophets to their completion, not their displacement or destruction.
The Law which will come to the descendants of Abraham, who are described as numerous as the sands on the seashore, will gather the scattered and provide identity. The Ten Commandments, a solemn summary and introduction to the entire Law, is social in nature, a reversal from the solitary nature of man prior to Genesis 11:27. Commandments four through ten are instructions for survival, forbidding the killing of free Israelite males, the disruption of fertility, and the thefts and dishonesties that undermine a family, a tribe, and even a great nation.
Para. 59 is footnoted by Genesis 12:1 (note 16), and the specificity of nationhood is not as clear as it will become to future generations. Abraham is described in the early going as the “father of many nations.” The continuity of the Genesis text, though, indicates that Israel would be God’s nation. This is one reason why Abraham hesitated to kill his son Isaac, believing that the killing of his only true son would mark the end of his blood line and thus the future of God’s newly called nation. [It may help to recall that prior to Isaac’s birth, Abraham had fathered another son, Ishmael, who was expelled, along with his servant-mother. God has mercy on both mother and son, innocent victims in this errant surrogate parent arrangement, and promises to make Ishmael the father of a great nation. In this sense, Abraham is father to at least two nations.]
Did God’s new revelation intend for Israel to conquer the earth? The answer is no; the very last line of para. 59 states that through Abraham and his blood line all the nations of the earth would find blessings. On the Feast of the Epiphany each year (January 6 or thereabouts) St. Matthew’s account of the wise men coming to adore the young Jesus is paired with Isaiah 60: 1-6, an apocalyptic or future oriented account of all the world’s nations streaming to Zion in the final times to find the light of God streaming from the nation of Israel. In other words, Israel’s holiness in worship and observance of the Law—manifesting the presence of God—would draw people of good will from all the corners of the earth.
The act of God’s Revelation outlined in para. 59 has been inherited by Christians, to the degree that Vatican II’s teaching on the Church describes the Catholic union as the light to all the nations in the New Dispensation. The universal holiness of the Church is its primary reason for being, to draw all to the life of God in Christ.
I returned Tuesday evening from a wedding the previous evening in Kansas City. With teaching responsibilities Wednesday and a lengthy chancery meeting today, posting has been temporarily disrupted.
As of tonight, Tuesday's regular post on this weekend's Gospel is posted in the Tuesday stream. Catechism commentary will go up on Friday and then I think we are back on the beam.
I appreciate your patience and will do my best to meet the regular commitments you have come to expect.
58 The covenant with Noah remains in force during the times of the Gentiles, until the universal proclamation of the Gospel.13 The Bible venerates several great figures among the Gentiles: Abel the just, the king-priest Melchisedek - a figure of Christ - and the upright "Noah, Daniel, and Job".14 Scripture thus expresses the heights of sanctity that can be reached by those who live according to the covenant of Noah, waiting for Christ to "gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad".15
Paragraph 58 brings together a description of the primitive grasp of God's revelation and saving work in the pre-history phase of mankind and then proceeds to explain how this material from early Genesis impacted the New Testament authors and ultimately the Church's understanding of salvation for those who, through no fault of their own, never heard the saving message of Christ. The Catechism text returns to the famous figure of Noah as seen in Paragraph 56, for the full saga of Noah is so laden with meaning that one can hardly do justice to its content.
The paragraph opens with reference to God's covenant with Noah after the flood, and how this covenant was in force for the Gentiles for the entire period down through the proclamation. It may be helpful here to provide a link to Genesis 9 to look at the terms of God’s early covenant with Noah and his family. This link, by the way, connects to the USCCB’s Bible resources, and offers both excellent translation and brief but helpful commentary.
This Chapter 9 is the famous “rainbow text” in which God seals his covenant with a rainbow, the promise he will never destroy life upon the earth again through the agency of a flood. The language of the covenant is strikingly similar to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2; one gets the feeling that God indeed is starting over with the “humanity project.” God calls upon the children of Noah to people the earth once again, but this covenant is more detailed in terms of the ethics God invokes, most notably a concern for life of animals and of humans. For our purposes, the most striking verse is 9:9, where God states that he is establishing this covenant with Noah and his descendants after him. Again in 9:17 God reiterates that the covenant of life extends to “all mortal creatures that are on the earth.”
Para. 58 goes out of its way to extend this universality of God’s covenant “during the time of the Gentiles.” The Catechism text goes on to cite a variety of Biblical personages who were themselves Gentiles or at least were not easily recognized as Israelites. This is an eclectic roll: Abel, Melchisedek, and of course Noah himself are characters who lived prior to Abraham and the beginnings of Israel’s religious identity. Daniel and Job are figures from much later, but their literary identification with Abraham’s covenant is not pronounced, and the Catechism editors have no problem with lumping them into the litany of “good Gentiles.”
The point of para. 58 is found in the final sentence, where we read that holy men can (and did) achieve the “heights of sanctity” by living according to the universal covenant of God with Noah, a covenant revealed before the encounter of God and Abraham with the establishment of an Israelite creed and worship. The thrust of para. 58, then, is a return to a segment of the Catechism we examined some months ago—paragraphs 31-35, among others—that God has created man with an innate capacity to know and do good, and even to recognize the reality of a supreme and loving being. In this section of the Catechism the Church is pointing out the possibility of salvation through revelation to all those of good will.
Certainly para. 58 does not envision a religious universe without the Law of Christ and the saving actions of his Church. The final, binding covenant of redemption will always be defined as the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross, with our repeated ratification in eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharistic memorial. The text, in fact, puts something of a sunset law on the binding of Noah’s covenant, noting its run till “the universal proclamation of the Gospel.” Several of the Gospels conclude precisely with Jesus’ command that the good news of salvation be preached to the ends of the earth.
Preaching “to the ends of the earth” is a reality with much food for reflection. Certainly for much of the Church’s history the command was understood with geographic overtones, which is why one of the Café’s featured works at the moment, Reformations, (see home page) goes to great lengths to describe the heroic missionary efforts of European missionaries in both the Americas and the Far East. The implication here would seem to be new opportunities for those in remote lands who had never heard of Christ, and it was easily grasped by Catholics in virtually every age. The horrors of the tortures of St. Isaac Jogues and the “North American Martyrs” in the 1600’s in fact inspired many idealistic Catholic clergy, and eventually religious women, to preach the Gospel at great risk among hostile peoples enraged by European colonial influence and the importation of new diseases such as small pox.
It is safe to say, at any rate, that the command to preach the new Covenant of Christ was an easily grasped mandate for the Church, at least until relatively modern times. After the two world wars and the Holocaust, however, Catholicism in France went into a serious post-war decline for multiple reasons; in France, for example, the blue collar laborers came to believe that the Church was insensitive to working-class needs. Church participation declined as sentiment for the Church itself fell precariously. In 1947 a highly controversial work appeared as France: pays de mission? (France, mission country?) The discussion that followed this book was heated and intense, lasting until Vatican II. One of the by-products was the so-called French Worker Priest movement, where clerics labored alongside longshoremen to reconnect with those who had lost faith in an aristocratic episcopacy.
This was a new concept of mission, a “re-evangelization” of a land once called “The Daughter of the Church.” The argument can certainly be made that in 2016, the Catholic Church faced (and faces) similar alienation in much of the West, including the United States. The term “New Evangelization” was recognized by Pope Benedict XVII in 2013 and implemented by the USCCB at its website. Pope Francis has been, if anything, more arduous in awakening the Church to new vigor, particularly in terms of justice and mercy.
The final sentence of para. 58 describes the ultimate goal of Christ’s coming as the gathering of the scattered children of God who are scattered abroad. It is no longer distance that scatters us; it is loss of hope, confusion of mission, and the ever present reality of sin that scatters us. We are, to be sure, the disoriented sons of Noah, no less in need of God’s final saving covenant.
57 This state of division into many nations is at once cosmic, social and religious. It is intended to limit the pride of fallen humanity10 united only in its perverse ambition to forge its own unity as at Babel.11 But, because of sin, both polytheism and the idolatry of the nation and of its rulers constantly threaten this provisional economy with the perversion of paganism.12
This paragraph continues a section called “the stages of revelation,” and in the immediate previous segments has referenced the fall of Adam in the garden and the epic of Noah and the Flood. The best way to approach this segment is to look at the possible intent of the sacred authors of early Genesis, which seems to be twofold. Mankind, sadly, is disintegrating. In the preceding accounts of both Adam and Noah, the predominance of sin has nearly destroyed God’s efforts at creating a united humanity. Cain kills his brother Abel, and later the sons of Noah would divide over the sin of the youngest brother. The remainder of the “pre-history” Genesis chapters, through Chapter 11, would emphasize disunion. Alongside this development, God is “revealing,” but his revelation is primarily one of displeasure.
Chapter 11 is something of the climax of disunion caused by sin. This is an intriguing text, and its unknown author does a remarkable job in illustrating something of man’s existential fears about himself and his self-consciousness of his destiny. The sin in this chapter is an ill-fated attempt by the human race to leave its mark on creation by its own designs, isolated from the greater design that God had in mind at the time of creation. The major players in Chapter 11, the text cited in para. 57, are the descendants of the sons of Noah, a genealogy laid out in Chapter 10.
Chapter 11 begins with the observation that despite the shaky beginning of the human race, at least they shared a common language. “The whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.” (Genesis 11:1) Curiously, there is a fear that what unity they enjoyed might be easily lost, and having settled in a valley, the inhabitants agree upon a common purpose. They decide to build a city and “a tower with its top in the sky,” (Genesis 11:4), the purpose being to “make a name for ourselves, otherwise we shall be scattered all over the earth.” (11:4)
The curious point here is that at this juncture in Genesis there are no foreign enemies to intimidate or impress; the purposes for the construction of a tower appear to be related to the inner needs of the residents, fearful of being scattered all over the earth. Whether this tower was intended as a gateway to heaven, as we learned in Catholic school, is hard to say. However, there is a reference in Genesis 11:7 in which God says, “Let us go down…” suggesting that some kind of arrogant gesture is represented by the tower construction. God’s reaction to the entire Tower of Babel venture is a mixture of dismay and love. His first reaction, when he comes to visit the town, is dismay, primarily over what else these fool humans might try, particularly given their common speech. In Genesis 11:7 he decides to scramble their speech, and the sacred author observes that “from that place he scattered them all over the earth.” (Genesis 11:9) The remainder of Chapter 11 describes the divisions of people from that place. The “love” element is reflected in God’s concern that humans might do even more damage to themselves if they continue to enjoy a standard language.
The story of the tower of Babel is mythic in origin, with the term “myth” meaning a story of philosophical or theological searching. It is likely that the story meant different things to different ages of Israel, its most basic purpose being speculation over the polyglot nature of the Near East. By the time it appears in Sacred Scripture here, the story has come to represent God’s revelation and intervention in saving man from his worst self. Our overarching question is how the editors of the Catechism decided to incorporate this Genesis text into its overall teaching in this paragraph.
Para. 57 begins with reference to the “state of division into many nations” as having cosmic, social, and religious implications. The editors see this division as a bad thing, something that limits the pride of fallen humanity. The Babel story is inserted into the paragraph as a primary example of what a sinfully divided world is capable of doing. There is an interesting transition of “polyglot” into polytheism and idolatry; the editors seeming to equate the differences of peoples and lands into paganism. This may be understood in a Biblical sense: when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles at the Pentecost event, St. Luke records that every man understood Peter’s preaching despite the wide diversity of tongues assembled in Jerusalem for the feast.
In looking at this section of the Catechism from a distance, the editors appear to recount these early accounts of pre-historical times to set up a contrast between God’s general revelation to all of humanity and the specific covenant/promise of his revelation to the one special nation, historical Israel, which we generally date back to Abraham in Genesis 12, as early as 1800 B.C. The Catechism’s thrust, then, is to narrate God’s repeated interventions (revelations) with Israel until they are fulfilled in Christ, whose gift of the Holy Spirit will unite creation to its original cosmic unity.
56 After the unity of the human race was shattered by sin God at once sought to save humanity part by part. The covenant with Noah after the flood gives expression to the principle of the divine economy toward the "nations", in other words, towards men grouped "in their lands, each with [its] own language, by their families, in their nations".9
Having established the consequences of Adam’s fall and God’s earliest works of saving redemption, the Catechism progresses its exposition of God’s saving work, and here the emphasis is upon the long and multi-faceted nature of Redemption, as God works to save “part by part.” The Jerome Biblical Commentary 1990 points out an important truth about the early Genesis texts, which the Adam and Eve and the Noah narratives partly comprise. Genesis Chapters 1-11 focus upon the nations of the earth; Chapter 12 begins the story of God’s relationship with one special nation, Israel; Chapter 12 introduces Abraham and the patriarchs.
Since the advent of modern biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century, the historicity of Genesis 1-11 has been severely questioned for multiple reasons. The theory of my training emphasized the philosophical nature of these texts. The creators and authors of these popular stories were attempting to answer very basic questions about human life (as the nature of sin and suffering in the Adam and Eve account) or about the pervasiveness of sin (Noah) or the disunity of the human species (the Tower of Babel). Noah is of particular interest to us today, cited as it is in para. 56.
The Noah Story is lengthy, beginning long before the deluge and concluding long after it. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, the couple begins to populate the earth. Some of their offspring were decent enough, while many others were violent and ruthless, most famously Cain. This post-Adam period, in the Genesis narrative, lasted hundreds of years, long enough for God to regret that he had ever created the human species. (Genesis 6: 5-6) It is here that God decides to rid the world of sinful man, “all life on earth.” (6:13) Noah is cited as a “good man and blameless in that age, for he walked with God….” (6:9-10) Noah and his kin will be spared, and thus proceeds the building of the Ark.
In my lifetime a number of famous persons have sought to find the Ark, notably the Apollo astronaut and moon-explorer James Irwin. (Irwin suffered a heart attack during his moon mission in 1971.) Irwin, like many Christians, believed in a literal reading of the Bible on matters of creation. However, there are a number of similar stories to the Ark found in other surviving early religious texts. Back in the 1970’s we studied the exploits of Akk Utnapishtim, a famous parallel figure to Noah in Babylonian tales, though in looking at the material available today I see that other ancient flood stories and rescues are more numerous and available today than in the 1970’s.
This should not disturb faith in the Bible, since the intent of the editors of Genesis appears to be theological, not meteorological. The Noah narrative demonstrates the great disappointment of God with the general wickedness of the human race, moving the Lord to the drastic step of killing off the species and then rebuilding from the seed of another good man, Noah, the “second Adam” if you will. When the flood subsides, God gives him and his family a covenant or contract that is remarkably similar to the one put forward by God at the very opening of Genesis.
Many catechists end their treatments of the Noah narrative at this juncture, but in fact the story continues as Noah establishes a vineyard and proceeds to get severely drunk from the first fermentation of the grapes. He passes out naked in his tent. His son Ham, identified in the text as the future father of the Canaanites, laughs at his father’s nakedness and gathers his brothers to enjoy the spectacle. The older brothers are aghast at this sin against their father’s dignity and rush to cover him. Noah, having eventually recovered himself, curses his young son and the race he would father. What we have, then, is lasting proof that as long as there are humans there will be sin, and the revelation of salvation, renewal of the covenant, will need to occur over and over, as in fact it does throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Para. 56, by invoking the Noah narrative, illustrates that God’s will to save extends backward to the beginning of humanity, and the use of the word “humanity” in the first sentence is deliberate. So too is the intriguing phrase “part by part.” Genesis’ description of the multiplication of peoples and tongues after the flood sets the table for the beginning of true history as we know it, Genesis 12 and the designation of Israel as God’s chosen people from among all of the tribes and nations that dotted the known world. God will, of course, reveal his love and his law to Israel for two millennia.
God’s plan for salvation, known technically as the “economy of salvation,” was the development of Israel as the holy nation, the famous “city on a hill” to which all the nations of the world would stream. Para. 56 underscores the unity of God’s saving intent for all of humanity through the holiness of Israel. Next week’s entry will continue to explore the pre-Abraham state of man, notably in the episode of the Tower of Babel.
Margaret and I spent today at the beach, as the waters have calmed to normal waves after Storm Hermine last week. Thus, I never got to the keyboard today for Catechism Analysis. That post might appear late tomorrow. I have a breakfast meeting Friday with two of the greatest religious minds of our time (all of us from the same parish at that) to thrash out a new outline for our diocese's 101 introductory course for catechist certification.
Today is the 54th anniversary of my entering the seminary. On September 8, 1962, at the age of 14, I packed all my worldly belongings in a trunk and boarded an Erie-Lackawanna passenger train in Buffalo for a brave new world. Late that day I arrived at St. Joseph's Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, NY, on the Delaware River to begin a six year stay on the mountain--high school and junior college. I made some great friends and had some laughs, but it was not a joyous time in my life and I have never advocated for boarding school minor seminaries.
I received word today that the country health clinic near my home has cleared all my paperwork and has booked me a full schedule of patients for next Monday, which will be my regular work day for the foreseeable future. The doctors and dentists work pro bono, as the clinic is under the auspices of Catholic Charities. Starting Monday, there will now be mental heart services as well. It is possible that I may have to rearrange my blogging schedule a bit, but changes will be minor. I am looking forward to returning to the pitching mound, so to speak. Let's just hope I still have my curveball.
Hopefully, I'll be with you tomorrow.
55 This revelation was not broken off by our first parents' sin. "After the fall, [God] buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption; and he has never ceased to show his solicitude for the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing."7
"Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death.... Again and again you offered a covenant to man.8"
Paragraph 55 covers a great deal of ground, theologically speaking. The very first sentence embraces a cluster of issues: the nature of Revelation, the creation of man, and the fall of man. It even gives us an excuse to detour through the last great controversial encyclical prior to Vatican II, Humani Generis, written by Pope Pius XII in 1950, a document that probably best explains why a Church Council was a good idea in 1962.
The entire drama of the doctrine of Redemption rests, of course, on the reality that man needs saving. Take away the need and Christianity becomes, to quote St. Paul, “folly to the Greeks” or at best a rather large service organization alongside Rotary and the Clinton Foundation. Christianity has fought vigorously to protect this basic doctrine of man’s need for God’s grace or saving action. A fifth century Christian theologian, Pelagius, discovered the hard way just how central the doctrines of fall and salvation when he dared suggest that man might have a hand on the salvation control knob.
Para. 55 begins by assuming both the fact that God was revealing Himself prior to the unfortunate incident in the Garden and that man indeed did fall. From its earliest days the Church has sourced this belief from Scripture; put simply, the Church has always held that Revelation begins with God’s intention to create, and through the act of creation itself. If you recall many, many weeks ago, the earlier paragraphs of the Catechism describe the human species as naturally capable of coming to realization of an all-powerful being of good intent. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of natural and special Revelation—what man can intuit from observation and what man needs infused into his knowledge from above, respectively.
The figure of Adam has enjoyed a rather special place in both popular catechetics and formal Church teaching, his sinful act notwithstanding. St. Paul actually speaks of Christ as the new Adam [Romans 5], and Augustine, four centuries later, would finish the triangle of Adam-Original Sin-Baptism. For much of its lifetime the Church would hold the Adam and Eve narrative as historical fact with a biological implication: we are, all of us, in the bloodline of Adam and through sexual intercourse and conception inherit Adam’s sin. Thus a newborn infant was considered equally sinful to Adam and Eve on the day of their banishment, and thus in need of immediate baptism after birth. So deeply held was this articulation of first sin that only the direct intervention of God could rescue Mary, the future mother of Jesus, from original sin, thus giving us the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It is hard to gauge precisely, but I believe the that the connection between sexuality and original sin probably contributed to unease, at the very least, about human sexuality in Catholic practice.
The difficulties for the Church in maintaining this model of creation, revelation, and sin began to arise after the Renaissance, and to erupt more intensely at the time of the Enlightenment and down into our present age. Beginning in the 1600’s there was a momentous explosion of learning, from philosophy to science. Prior to modern times the “sciences” assisted the Church, providing technical terms for such doctrines as Transubstantiation (“the substance of the bread and wine changes into the Body and Blood of Christ, while the accidents of taste, weight, and appearance remain those of bread and wine.”)
By 1800 the findings of science were beginning to seriously contradict long-held Catholic interpretations (I expressly did not use the word “doctrine,” however.) There are two that serve our purposes here. The first is literary analysis; the same skills applied to examining Shakespeare’s plays turned to all of the classics, including the Bible and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, among others. It did not take long to decipher that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) gave evidence of multiple authors and at least several strains of Hebrew belief. Compare the style of the first creation account (Genesis 1) with that of the second (Genesis 3). The second science to pose serious questions was earth science. Archaeologists were uncovering artifacts far older than the believed Biblical origin of creation in 4000 B.C., and Charles Darwin spent many a lonely day in the field exploring the idea we know today as evolution. Darwin was no scheming heretic; he was an elder in his church—when he was home.
Such findings were considerable influences on theological study, both Catholic and Protestant, and schools of theology developed which reflected a more interdisciplinary or modern approach. By 1900 there was great Catholic Church concern about newer theological trends, generally termed Modernist and centered in France. Pope Pius X in 1907 issued a decree Lamentabili against the modernist drift of theology; the “oath against modernism” was a required seminary step to the priesthood till possibly the late 1960’s.
Obviously, secular scholarship would continue, and by 1943 Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, called by some the Magna Carta for Catholic biblical scholars, who were given permission to use secular tools in their Scriptural analysis. But, as you might imagine, this only intensified the discussion over the Biblical account of the origin of man—a lynch pin of so much Catholic belief—vis-a-vis multiple arguments that the Genesis accounts could not be historical. Thus, concerned about the influences of modern thought in seminaries—though wise enough to avoid the extremes of Pius X—Pius XII issued Humani Generis in 1950. Wikipedia’s entry is a very adequate introduction to the document’s intricacies.
In a sense this document is a carefully crafted work intended to preserve the teaching authority of the Church without retreating into an immaterial remnant in the strange new post-wars world that was becoming progressively harder to decipher. As Wikipedia correctly assesses, Pius had to tread carefully. A polarity was developing between bishops and theologians about who really was best qualified to interpret the Catholic response to new trends and discoveries. Pius expressed his view that the Church—specifically the papacy—was entrusted with this role, and that the task of theologians was to aid the Church in its teaching role, but the scholars were free to use all the tools at their disposal.
But this still left many questions unanswered, notably the issue of the first humans. Pius goes on to write that he is aware of differences on the creation of man, and he acknowledges that Catholics are divided on the subject (in academia, at least.) He seems to hold to the idea that there was one originating couple, though we may be uncertain who and where they originated, and he insists that any understanding of human creation must, at its core, recognize the direct intervention of God in infusing the person with a soul.
But what about biological integrity and the passage of original sin into the full human species? Doing a little hair splitting, Pius condemns the then-popular idea of polygenism, or the emergence of clusters of humans in different parts of the planet. Thus, in his anthropological analysis, the two-parent origin of our species remained safe.
By the 1950’s, though, large numbers of American Catholics were obtaining college degrees at Catholic universities through the Veterans Administration (the famous GI Bill) and beginning to ask more penetrating questions about the Faith. In Western Europe, as the populace beheld the destruction, loss of life, and genocide, it was clear that the questions of faith and conscience would no longer be answered by encyclicals. A new “methodology of faith and understanding” was needed, a point not lost on Pope John XXIII when he announced in 1959 his intention to convoke an ecumenical council.