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Between Two Fundamentalisms

Friday, January 06, 2012 2:00 AM Comments (32)

So on Christmas Day I thought it would be fun to put up the old text of the Proclamation of the Nativity from the Roman Martyrology on my Patheos blog.  Exalted felicitations of the day and all.  Festive, you know?  It reads like so:

The twenty-fifth day of December.
In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world
from the time when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth;
the two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seventh year after the flood;
the two thousand and fifteenth year from the birth of Abraham;
the one thousand five hundred and tenth year from Moses
and the going forth of the people of Israel from Egypt;
the one thousand and thirty-second year from David’s being anointed king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
in the sixth age of the world,
Jesus Christ the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary,
being made flesh.

There is, in fact, a more updated and recent version which, if memory serves, I have also used on some Christmases:

Today, the twenty-fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
and then formed man and woman in his own image.

Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.

Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.

Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.

The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.

Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

I like either one (though I think the latter version more accurate) because both stand as reminders that the Incarnation did not take place in Cloud Cuckoo Land, but at a particular time and a particular address locatable with a fair amount of accuracy on calendars and Google Earth.  God fetched water for evening meals here.  I enjoy that reminder.

Little did I count on the fundamentalism of my more intense readers, who were unable to distinguish between a good faith effort of an ancient liturgist to work with the best data he had, and modern fundamentalism (both secular and religious) which wants to turn the Proclamation into either a flawless scientific analysis with the weight of infallible dogma, or else proof that the Catholic Faith is an ignorant sham and fraud.

The first reader to respond was an unbeliever, with the normal silliness one expects:

In the five thousand one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world

That must have come as something of a shock to the Myans, Aboriginies, Babylonians, Chinese, Africans and Indians!

It was Christmas.  I was on vacation.  I didn’t feel like arguing with yet another nitpicker about what the Proclamation is trying to do and what it’s not trying to do.  So I went on my my merry-making.  Then another person showed up like the Magi, from the East:

To an Orthodox like me, this dating is peculiar. It’s good to anchor the incarnation historically, to be sure, but is this “proclamation” appointed for liturgical use in the West?

I was going to answer, but then somebody pointed out the new version of the Proclamation and explained that this is what the Church now uses in the Liturgy, so I got to party some more.

Meanwhile, others wrote in various degrees of high dudgeon and fear:

I hope that is a joke, Mr. Shea! I just added you to my blogger list; I’d hate to have to take you off so soon. Do you think the pope thinks the world is c. 7000 years old? Sorry if I missed the joke, but the problem is too many Catholics think that the Church actually teaches Biblical literalism, so I don’t think educated Catholics should joke about this…


I gotta say, Mark, I’m curious if you actually believe this. I’m quite a fan of statements like this but do you literally believe it?

When others wrote in to, in effect, tell these readers to dial back on the caffeine because the Proclamation is not infallible, inspired or inerrant but just an ancient effort to remind us that the Incarnation really happened here on earth, the readers wrote back:

Alright, I’ll eat a bit of crow here, seeing how it’s from the tradition. But if it’s meant to edify, I would certainly be more edified by “in the 13 billion, five thousand, one hundred and ninety-ninth year of the creation of the world…” or whatever. Again, too many Catholics are frightened of science for no reason… In some things we should leave the past in the past.


So nobody is concerned that the Church confidently proclaimed this as fact for 2000 years and now we believe it’s patently and absurdly false? Doesn’t this call the Church’s credibility into question just a little bit? FWIW, I don’t know what the answer is here, but I find it troubling. And at least as troubling that other people don’t seem to.

Meanwhile, over at the American Catholic blog, which coincidently ran the older version of the Proclamation as well, a Catholic who has mysteriously embraced fundamentalism in the mistaken belief that he is “defending the Faith” was busy declaring that we all have to believe and profess the original text of the Proclamation on pain of declaring the Church to be in error:

Question: If one believes the cosmos to be 13.7 billion years old, and the earth to be at least 4 billion, then how can one *not* “bowdlerize” the proclamation?

Lex orandi, lex credendi.

May I ask if every one of the posters, and the author of this piece, have come to the conclusion that the Church’s apostolic Faith is true, and all of modern science wrong?

What do all these complaints have in common?  The conviction that the Proclamation is a) science (the only disagreement being whether it is good or bad science); b) people are morally bound to have some definite view of the age of the universe on pain of such punishments as being declared Out of Step with Science or else on pain of Being a Heretic (note how similar those two punishments are)  and c) everybody knows science and the faith “contradict” each other.

Permit me to say that none of these people know what they are talking about.

First things first: The Faith has no problem with the Sciences.  God is the author of all truth, so whatever the sciences discover to be true is compatible with the data of revelation, properly understood.  The Church reflects exactly this attitude by the fact that the Proclamation has been updated to incorporate the findings of the sciences.  Some fundamentalists (such as the last correspondent) will call this “bowdlerization” and complain that it is accomodating “pagan knowledge”.  But of course, the whole point of the Proclamation in the first place was that it was an attempt to situate the Incarnation in pagan as well as Hebrew history.  Hence all that stuff about the Olympiad and the Founding of Rome.  That’s what the Proclamation is: a good faith attempt by an early liturgist to locate the events of the Incarnation in human history using the data available to him at the time.  Now that we have somewhat better data, we revise the Proclamation accordingly.

Can the Church do that?  Of course she can.  There’s nothing infallible about the Proclamation.  It’s not a dogmatic decree.  What matters is that God created, not when.

What’s ironic about the people who were ready to strike me from their blogroll for the sin of possibly taking seriously the dating of the creation at 7000 years (I don’t, by the way) is that the guy who wrote the ancient version of the Proclamation was doing science as best he could.  That is, he was using the best data he had available at the time and trying to synthesize it into a coherent picture of the world.  That’s all any science can ever do.  The problem is that science, which studies this passing world, is constantly changing because our knowledge of this world is constantly changing.  That’s why the Faith, while it respects the sciences, does not treat “the latest scienctific breakthrough” as though it is the final and permanent platform from which to view the Faith.  A thousand years ago, the most up-to-date science would have told you that the body had four humors. 150 years ago, all educated people knew that the universe was pervaded with aether.  When is the Church going to get with it and acknowledge that “scientific fact”?  Answer: never.  It’s not the Church’s business to adapt the good news of Jesus Christ to the latest theory.  Our history is littered with discarded “scientific facts” that the Church has never made a matter of faith.  The (current) age of the universe is 13.7 billion years.  Who knows what it will be in ten years, once the physicists are done tinkering with the speed limit of the universe? 

Does this mean the Faith should ignore the sciences?  Of course not.  The revised version of the Proclamation of the Nativity attests to that.  But (as the revision attests) it does mean Catholics should be sure to distinguish what matters from what doesn’t in terms of the faith.  The fact is, the age of the universe is largely irrelevant to our faith.  What matters is not when it was made, but by Whom.  Revelation exists to say that the Creator created it, not when or how.  When and how a matter for the sciences.  Some worshippers of the intellect (who tend not to use the intellect) think that science is somehow going to disprove that God created the universe.  Rubbish.  That’s a metaphysical question which science is no more capable of addressing than a screwdriver is capable of addressing a nail.  Others think that by showing the Bible is not a science book they have shown it false.  Again, rubbish.  Genesis is not written to address scientific questions.  It is written to answer theological and spiritual ones.

The purpose of the Proclamation, both old and new versions, is exactly the same: to use the best data we have to remind us that God entered human history as a baby in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus.  It was this fact that impressed itself on the Church.  Working from that fact, an ancient Church liturgist then attempted to locate that event within the best data given him by the Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions.  Now we have somewhat better data to work with in locating that event in time and space (meaning, we now have a better idea of how big and old the universe is).  None of that threatens the central message of the Proclamation: that God became man.  It only threatens people who cannot appreciate that long ago, a liturgist made a good faith effort to make use of the best of current knowledge, just as the Church still does today.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.