Theology & History II: the nature of theology, and its relationship to history and other disciplines

This is the second response to the historian Roberto de Mattei’s call for Catholics to unite around the Church’s tradition:

It is not possible for us to ‘unite around tradition’ without accepting the Church’s received, traditional doctrine in its integrity. In the previous article, we considered the relationship between liturgical tradition and antiquarianism. We showed that Pius XII based his rejection of antiquarianism – and his defence of the received rites – on the even more obvious obligation to accept the received theology of the Church.

“Clearly no sincere Catholic can refuse to accept the formulation of Christian doctrine more recently elaborated and proclaimed as dogmas by the Church, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit with abundant fruit for souls, because it pleases him to hark back to the old formulas.[1]

Pius XII

This is an ongoing study.

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology & History I addresses the relationship between the liturgy and history.
Theology & History II addresses the relationship between theology and history.

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses de Mattei’s historical narrative.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Part IV considers the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

From this, we lamented the way that some allow this received doctrine to fall prey to the antiquarianism that they rightly abhor in the liturgy. This occurs by allowing historical narratives (or current events, which are a kind of “history in the making”) to determine the truth of theology, even when it contradicts what we have received from the Church. It bears many similarities to the “historical theology” of the excommunicated Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890).

Ignaz von Döllinger, the enemy of papal infallibility and excommunicated purveyor of ‘historical theology.’ (Source) Featured image also of Döllinger (Source)

In brief, Döllinger fought against the dogma of papal infallibility by presenting historical accounts which he believed excluded this idea. His accounts were variously inaccurate or irrelevant, which was in part caused by his inadequate adherence to the Church’s doctrine. This is the danger of allowing history or current events to determine which doctrines we are to believe – and it is this to which several traditionalist writers fall prey today, as we shall show.

Some liturgical traditionalists rightly accept that the traditional rites have developed over centuries under the influence of the Holy Ghost – and yet they are hesitant to admit that same purifying, providential influence over traditional theology. Some are willing to accept the idea that approved theology can become exaggerated, such that it needs historians – or a great crisis like ours – to clarify it.

Others appear to hold that we can dismiss the received scholastic theology of the Church and turn to notable theologians from history. It is of course edifying and useful to turn to such writers, but this must be done with an awareness of the current state of our received theology. As Pius XII wrote in Humani Generis:

“It is true that Popes generally leave theologians free in those matters which are disputed in various ways by men of very high authority in this field; but history teaches that many matters that formerly were open to discussion, no longer now admit of discussion.”[2]

Pope Pius XII

Consider how similar this is to various liturgical questions: practices which were formerly permitted are not necessarily legitimate objects of restoration.

Some liturgical traditionalists rightly hold themselves bound to revere and adhere to the liturgical traditions received from the Church – and yet do not always feel the same duty towards certain teachings received from the Church, unless they come marked as exercises of the extraordinary magisterium. 

They rightly reject efforts to change the received rites based on historical scholarship – and yet insist that we re-interpret elements of the received, traditional theology on the basis of historical narratives, sometimes from openly anti-Catholic sources. These reinterpretations are then used to justify particular positions on the Church crisis which are incompatible with that received theology.

They rightly adhere only to the rites received before the radical changes, and admit that one cannot appeal to “the practice of the Roman Church” to justify these changes: Yet they happily appeal to the supposed “practices of the Roman Church” – such as the canonization of unworthy men – to rule out of certain tenets of theology.

When confronted with the devastation which we see before us, we should turn to theology rather than history: and further, we should turn to the received, traditional theology, rather than abandoned or irrelevant opinions of bygone ages. As mentioned, we are defining “received doctrine” as

“All that has been believed and practiced in the faith, morals, liturgy, teaching of the catechism, formation of the priest and institution of the Church, by the Church of all time; to all these things as codified in those books which saw day before the Modernist influence of the Council.”[3]

Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre

Just as it is not arbitrary to turn to the mature state of the traditional liturgies, as they stood before the Council, just so do we turn to theology as it was received before the Council. In our day, turning to that common body of theology (and excluding what has come since) is a “fact-finding exercise” to help us know what the Church was teaching immediately before this time of confusion.

The purpose of this series is to defend Catholic tradition, in all its forms, against antiquarianism. This article builds on the previous, and we claim that the liturgical principles established there also apply in part to theology. With this article, we hope to move from the liturgical consensus, shared by most traditionalists, to a greater doctrinal consensus, at least in principles. Critique of more specific problems will follow in later papers.

For as we have already said: it does us no good to cleave to received rites if we then do not cleave to the received doctrine. We cannot turn to arbitrarily-chosen authorities to interfere with the received liturgy, and we cannot make the received doctrine subject to historians, or rejects its theses as untenable in light of what they tell us.

And so, a key principle which we wish to establish is this: if certain theological conclusions appear to contradict our interpretations of fact or history, then it is the latter which must be brought into conformity with the former.

But before we can consider this in terms of theology, we must take a significant detour to explain the true relationship between theology and history. To establish this, we must first consider the question: what is theology?

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What is theology?

In its etymology, theology means “talking about God.” In popular terms, even the most casual and imprecise discussion of religious matters is treated as theology: and even the least of Twitter or YouTube personalities call themselves and are called “theologians.” Because of the great confusion of our age, it is necessary to establish exactly what is theology.

Theology is called a science, and not because we are claiming that it is more certain than physics. Rather, in classical terms, a science is an ordered and connected structure of certain knowledge, known from its causes, principles, and principles derived from other sciences. It is, in fact, even more certain than physics because its principles are derived from the authority of God revealing, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. For this reason, theology enjoys a certainty beyond that of all other disciplines.

Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton (Source)

The great Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton defines theology as “that science which works towards the clear and unequivocal expression of the divine message.”[4] Specifically, all of theology’s methods, tools and conclusions are ordered towards:

“The work of explaining the content of that teaching which God has given to the world through Jesus Christ our Lord, and which is proposed for the belief of men in the infallible magisterium of the Catholic Church.”[5]

Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton

Theology is not, therefore, a discipline which is speculating on uncertain conclusions – it is the clear, systematic and scientific expression of Christ’s teaching. Understanding this allows us to see the danger of movements to “get away from the scientific complexity of scholastic literature” and to return to what is claimed to be “the limpid simplicity of Christ’s own doctrine.”[6] On the contrary, the whole work of theology has been “concentrated on the work of expressing our Lord’s teaching exactly as He gave it”; to get away from that is to get away from our Lord’s teaching itself.[7]

The complexity, syllogisms and structure of theology are not ends in themselves, or intended to distract us from our Lord: they are ordered towards the definite purpose of expressing clearly the Christian revelation. Seen in this light, “theological problems” are questions about particular parts of God’s revelation through our Lord Jesus Christ: and the resolutions of such problems (or “theological conclusions”) are not mere speculations, but rather “a statement of what our Lord meant and what the Catholic Church understood Him to mean from the very beginning of her existence.”[8] The task is not just in drawing implications out of the doctrine, but rather setting forth their correct and objective meaning.[9] This is the intention and function that dominates the whole of theology.

The intrinsic link between theology and the teaching of the Church is one of dependence. Fenton says of this:

“Because the revealed teaching is proposed to men in the authentic magisterium of the Catholic Church, and is not to be acquired independently of that magisterium, sacred theology must also be the Catholic theology.”[10]

Fenton

Because of the centrality of the doctrine of the faith to this science, the theologian Nicolau teaches that the theologian’s first task is to know this doctrine, as proposed by the correct proximate rule of faith:

“The proximate, immediate and supreme norm or rule of faith for a Catholic is the teaching of the living Magisterium of the Church, which is authentic and traditional. For, this magisterium gives the whole revealed teaching, its genuine meaning and true interpretation, and it takes care that at all times and everywhere it proposes the infallible, authentic and revealed doctrine.”[11]

Fr Michaele Nicolau SJ

But, he says, “This is only the beginning of theology, not what uniquely constitutes it.”[12] Now, theologians certainly sometimes speculate about less certain aspects of doctrine: and individual theologians can indeed err. But point is this: theology is based on divine revelation and the Church’s teaching – not historical narratives. We will now consider the true place of history in theological method.

Theological method

As is now clear, theology is a more serious discipline than is commonly considered. Like other disciplines, it has a specific method and tools. Most people know that seminarians spend at least one or two years studying philosophy before they embark on theology: but beyond this, there is a sense of mystery about what seminarians are actually doing. To clarify one aspect, let us consider the standard treatments of the sources of theology.

The “sources of theology” – sometimes called the “theological places” or “loci theologici” – are a standard categorization of the “equipment” theology uses “in the prosecution of its end, [namely] the clear and unequivocal statement of the meaning inherent in the divine revelation”.[13] The classical list comes from Melchior Cano OP, and is given by Fenton in basically the following way:

  1. The authority of Holy Scripture
  2. The authority of Holy Tradition
  3. The authority of the Catholic Church
  4. The authority of Councils, especially general Councils
  5. The authority of the Roman Church
  6. The authority of the Fathers
  7. The authority of scholastic theologians (and canonists)
  8. Natural reason
  9. The authority of philosophers following the natural light of reason
  10. The authority of history, from trustworthy authors or serious national tradition.[14]

We have separated the first seven sources because these are called the proper sources of theology, in that they are particular to the science of theology, and are not used as the equipment of any other discipline. The last three sources are called “adjunct” or “improper” sources, because they are also used by other disciplines. Fenton calls them “subsidiary instruments which, however, can and must be utilized in order to attain the purpose which is essential to sacred theology”.[15]

It should be clear that YouTube videos, conversations in the pub, popular books of anti-protestant apologetics and even Sunday sermons are neither sources of theology, nor are they likely to be theological in the scientific sense which we have described. This is not to denigrate such things, but rather to make clear the lay of the land.

But what of history, the focus of this article?

History

As we discussed at the beginning, our concept of “history” includes even the last 60 years, as well as current events. It is what has happened and what is happening now.

History can serve theology by confirming the credibility of the Church’s already-certain teaching about Christ, and herself. In apologetics, it establishes the credibility of the Gospels, for example, as accurate accounts of what happened. This credibility in turn establishes a historical certitude which is useful to theology. Various articles of faith and of fundamental theology can be further confirmed by the authority of history – such as that St Peter was truly the bishop of the city of Rome.[16]

St Thomas More, one of the great English martyrs Source

History certainly also edifies, inspires, and warns us. As well as convincing us of even the natural accuracy of the Gospels, it can furnish us with models of how we should behave under persecution, in times of crisis, and in times of triumph. Our faith is strengthened by hearing of the heroic English Martyrs, or the incredible work of the missionaries. While history’s natural purpose is to tell us what, how and why things happened, it can also be illumined by the supernatural light of the Gospel: and as Fr H.M. Féret OP writes, the Christian “learns to recognise [God’s] hand at work behind important events, just as it is at work in each individual destiny.”[17]

But Féret adds that “the only difficulty that arises is that [the Christian] may err in his interpretation of history from the religious standpoint, and in coming to conclusions as to the divine intention.”[18] History gives us context for understanding theology: but it cannot legitimately cause us to reject of re-interpret clear doctrines of the Church. Vatican I and St Pius X both taught that, no matter how far sciences such as history progress, we must always hold to the doctrine of the Church in “the same sense” in which it was given and received.[19]

It is not possible for true findings of history to force us to reinterpret doctrine in a different sense to how it was received. But without the clear distinctions of our received theology, we are liable to make mistakes when attributing theological significance to certain events.

In standard lists of the “theological places”, the science of history is not only a mere adjunct or improper source, but also appears at or near the bottom. This is so in the explanations given by Pietro Parente,[20] Fenton,[14] Nicolau and Van Noort[21], Tanquerey,[22] and of course Cano himself.

Why is history relegated to the bottom of the list?

The dependence of history on theology

History is an empirical discipline and is contingent on the evidence available at a given time. Its hypotheses can be and often are falsified as new evidence comes to light – as is the nature of an empirical science. As such, the tenets of history hold a different type of certitude to that of theology, whose principles are received from God himself. Some tenets of theology cannot be falsified, because such would falsify the whole edifice.

This does not apply to every tenet of theology: but it does apply to those tenets that have been revealed by God, and those that necessarily flow from them, or that have been authoritatively taught by the Church.

In his encyclical Humani generis, Pope Pius XII warned that there were historians who, like some biological scientists, “boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church.”[23] The manualist Hunter explains this in more depth:

“[The historian] must have before his eyes the teachings of Theology, as the norm to which his expositions must confirm. This rule results from the certainty which Theology attains, which is higher than the certainty that can be ascribed to any interpretation of a text or historical view.”[24]

Fr Sylvester J. Hunter SJ

Hunter also teaches that “an imperfect acquaintance with the science [of history] may seem to raise difficulties against the truths of faith” – but that this is impossible:

“A fuller acquaintance with its teaching causes these difficulties to disappear. Truth can never contradict truth, and the supernatural teachings of faith will never be found in opposition to natural knowledge, provided this is certain and not mere fancy.”[25]

Unfortunately, this maxim is reversed by some. The historian de Mattei himself expresses succinctly the new way of approaching history:

“The principle according to which the Church judges history is reversed. It is not [now] the Church that judges history but history that judges the Church.”[26]

Professor Roberto de Mattei

While de Mattei correctly rejects this approach, he himself uses it when writing about the crisis in the Church – as we shall examine further in subsequent essays.

But as we have seen, the tenets of history have a different, lower degree of certitude than theology. Aristotle’s axiom holds that “the aim of reasoning is to lead us from the better known to the less known or unknown” (our emphasis).[27] This is especially true for theological reasoning. Certain tenets of theology are “better known” than any other knowledge, in that they are divinely revealed or are true and certain theological conclusions. History’s theses have a lower degree of certitude than those of theology. As such, we must start theological reasoning with theology, rather than history.

The interpretation of history must be through the lens of Catholic doctrine, at least in terms of never contradicting it. No purported fact or finding of history can undermine or contradict Catholic doctrine: if it appeared to do so, then it is our interpretation of facts or history which must give way to doctrine.

This is, in part, what is meant by the phrase that Theology is the Queen of the Sciences. Theology is not a hobby or a game. It is a fearsome privilege to approach her; and if we dare to do so, we must learn her ways with docility, and serve her with humility.

Allegorical statue of Theology, holding the Holy Bible and the work of St Thomas Aquinas, outside the Faculty of Theology, Charles University, Prague. (Source)

Conclusion

In this article, we have explained the true relationship between theology and history. We have made the bold claim that some Catholics accept an antiquarianism in theology which they would never accept in the liturgy. We have claimed that this destroys the legitimate, hierarchical order of theology, and replaces it with a distorted and illegitimate state of things, in order to justify certain interpretations of our current crisis. For this reason, some would rightly call it “revolutionary.”

Pope St Pius X (Source)
Pius XII (Source)

We have only begun to make good on these claims. As mentioned, later papers will give a more detailed example of how historical narratives are wrongly elevated into sources for theology; we will also show how Pope St Pius X and Pius XII describe and condemn this use of history by the Modernists of their time, and we will draw some parallels which may be quite uncomfortable. We will end this article by noting a few examples of the examples which we have in mind.

Liturgical traditionalists rightly refuse to take the recent reforms as evidence of how the liturgy should be, but rather appeal to the received rites of the Church from before the period of crisis: so, too, do we refuse to accept that interpretations of history and current events can refute traditional theological conclusions on matters such as:

The situation can be summarised with the maxim, “He who proves too much, proves nothing.” As noted, Vatican I and St Pius X taught that the Church’s teaching must always be understood in the same sense. If one were to be successful in “getting the Church off the hook” for the crisis in the ways mentioned, one would be disproving more than just the received sense of traditional theology – one would be unintentionally disproving (though impossible) the Church’s claims and the Gospel itself.

On the contrary, we hold, with the greatest conviction, that the doctrinal situation in the Church was clear before, and has now become obscured by the crisis. Those who follow the approach described at least imply the Church’s teaching was obscured before, and has now been clarified by the crisis. Their approach implies that we must conclude that the Church was wrong about the various points above, or tolerated massive confusion about them for centuries – and, like Döllinger, they present distorted or irrelevant histories to justify these positions.

On the contrary, we choose to hold to all the teachings of the magisterium and theologians as we have received them, and whatever the consequences: and just as we have duties of piety towards the received liturgical rites, just so do we refuse to lay violent hands on the Church’s theology by presuming to rewrite it in whole swathes, based on the accounts of historians, in the confusion of our day. We must hold fast to what we have received. Only in this way can we unite around tradition; only in this way can we formulate an adequate response to the the crisis.

The situation is very grave. Therefore, in the interests of truth, of de Mattei’s calls for unity in tradition, and for this so-called “new more compact front for orthodoxy”, we will look frankly at these distorted narratives in the light of the Church’s teaching. For such noble aims are only possible if we hold to the Church’s traditional theology, and not to historicist attempts to undermine it.

This is an ongoing study.

Introduction considers general principles and the problems of “historical theology.”
Theology & History I addresses the relationship between the liturgy and history.
Theology & History II addresses the relationship between theology and history.

Pope Honorius and Roberto de Mattei is an in-depth analysis of an example of “historical theology” in practice.
Part I: The History addresses de Mattei’s historical narrative.
Part II: Undoubtedly Magisterial Acts? considers the nature and status of Honorius’s letters.
Part IIIa: Magisterial Heresy? The Rule of Faith
Part IIIb: Magisterial Heresy? Trust in the Church
Part IV considers the implications of a so-called “heretical pope.”
Part V will assess this “historical theology” in light of Pascendi Dominici Gregis.

Don’t forget!

Scroll down for footnotes, sometimes full of hidden gems.

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[1] Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei (“MD” Hereafter), 1947, 62. http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html

[2] Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis 1950, 19. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html

[3] Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, Declaration of 1974. Available at https://fsspx.org/en/1974-declaration-of-archbishop-lefebvre

[4] Joseph Clifford Fenton, What is Sacred Theology? Cluny Media, Providence RI, 2018. Originally published as the Concept of Sacred Theology, 1941. 4.

[5] Fenton 4

[6] Fenton 4

[7] Fenton 5

[8] Fenton 7

[9] Fenton 19

[10] Fenton 18

[11] Michaele Nicolau SJ, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IA (Introduction to Theology), Trans. By Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith, USA 2015. 6

[12] Nicolau 6

[13] Fenton 91.

[14] Fenton 92

[15] Fenton 93

[16] Fenton 175

[17] H.M. Féret OP, The Apocalypse of St John: A Christian View of History, trans. E. Corathiel, Blackfriars Publications, London, 1958. 82.

[18] Féret 82

[19] St Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi 1907, 21. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-x/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis.html

[20] Pietro Parente, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee 1951.

[21] Mentioned briefly and in passing. He in fact says that the work of historians are ultimately reducible to that of “the power of natural reason”. Van Noort Dogmatic Theology Vol. III: The Sources of Revelation / Divine Faith, The Newman Press, Westminster Maryland 1961. 9. Nicolau 30.

[22] Adolphe Tanquerey, Manual of Dogmatic Theology, Desclee, New York 1959. 398 (238, 240-242)

[23] Humani Generis 38.

[24] Sylvester Hunter, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology Vol I 3rd edition, Benzinger Bros 1894. 5

[25] Hunter 96

[26] Roberto de Mattei, Is the Corona Virus a Divine Punishment? Video conference originally given 12 March 2020, transcribed and available at https://www.robertodemattei.it/en/2020/03/17/is-the-corona-virus-a-divine-punishment-a-video-conference/

[27] This is a paraphrase by Cardinal Desiré Mercier, A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy Vol. II, trans. Parker & Parker, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1922. 184.

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