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We arrive at the penultimate excerpt of Tom Lee's very personal and lengthy journey of exploration examining the origins of his own faith and beliefs. Tom researched and wrote this exploration over a period of about 30 years. In today's excerpt he examines that turbulent period of ideas variously called the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment which still casts such a huge shadow over the inability of institutional Catholicism to respond to modern life today. This, perhaps more than any other single extract, provides insight as to why Catholicism has become increasingly less relevant in the lives of the educated, baptised younger generations of Catholics today.
Epilogue—The Results Part 29.4
Science and law break free from religion...
The anticlerical and antireligious attitudes of the Enlightenment had their nativity in the humanitarian revulsion of the horrors of sectarian slaughter. Beginning in the 1600s a scientific revolution happened in Christian Europe, but not in the Muslim world. Christian scientists were able to break free from church constraints to unleash technologies that plugged into emerging capitalism at that moment in history, when the institution of law also achieved autonomy from religion. Catholicism was powerless to stop or censor science by the late 19th century, but the Muslim world has never been entirely disentangled from religion, which has stifled intellectual progress.
Thomas Jefferson opined: "Priests dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight," while Stendahl wrote, "All religions are founded on fear of the many and the cleverness of the few."
The newly-discovered immensity of time and space appeared to swallow up our narrowly human images of God as an old man in the sky. Robespiere, like Voltaire, was a Deist. Deism was not a religious faith; it was not a belief system derived from revelation, sacred scripture, a priestly hierarchy, or a personal encounter with God but, rather, a theist philosophical position derived from reason and nature.
The views of scientists like Isaac Newton disposed men to regard the universe as an orderly system, guided by a purpose in which man can participate and governed by laws which human intelligence can grasp. The new thought was at first cordially disposed toward the Christian faith. Gradually the balance shifted from what God had revealed to what man had discovered. It was not long before the sufficiency of reason was confidently affirmed, and Biblical theology was relegated to comparative insignificance. The Age of Reason dispensed a skepticism which gradually dissolved the intellectual patterns that had governed European thought since St. Augustine.
When the leaders of the French Revolution attempted to de-Christianize France, they made the Church wary and antagonistic to anything called Reason. But if there hadn't been any atheists or agnostics, we may never have experienced the Enlightenment. The thirty-five volume Encyclopedie authored by Diderot and d'Alembert preached rationalism at the expense of church and state. The entry in the Encyclopedie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference "See Eucharist".
Thomas Paine, author of "The Rights of Man", in his other work "The Age of Reason" published in 1794 wrote, "All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit." A former Quaker, Paine did believe in God; he just didn't believe in the Bible or the Koran or the Torah; these he considered hearsay, lies, fables and frauds that served to wreak havoc with humanity while hiding the beauty of God's creation, the evidence for which was everywhere obvious in "the universe we behold".
The increasing dogmatism of Catholicism...
Plausibly considered in his latter years as a megalomaniac by many of his contemporaries, Pope Pius IX in 1854 proclaimed as a dogma the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, thus claiming that she was free of Original Sin, from the moment she was conceived by her mother St. Anne. The Orthodox Church does not accept it, holding that if she was without original sin, she was not redeemed, and so was not a member of the church, but they have not made any formal and definitive pronouncement on the matter, regarding it as unnecessary. The new dogma confirmed for many that Catholic doctrine was increasingly irrational.
The dogma has often been misunderstood by devout Catholics many of whom imagine it refers to Mary's conception of Jesus. One nun informed me that she was instructing a class of boys about the Immaculate Conception, informing them that this was God's especial gift of grace to Mary's soul, the Virgin Birth being an added gift to her body. She then asked: "What is the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth?" A swift answer came from a boy in the front row: "Nine months."
The Popes came to believe that they were infallible and proceeded to proclaim as dogma things that man can never know, with certainty, in this life. The doctrine of Papal infallibility claims that the pope's definitive pronouncements on faith and dogma are protected from any error by the influence of the Holy Spirit.
In 1870, as Italian forces advanced on Rome, intent on incorporating the papal-states into the newly unified kingdom of Italy; Pope Pius IX seized his chance and managed to impose his belief in his own infallibility on the First Vatican Council as a dogma, after many bishops opposed to the declaration of papal infallibility fled on trains rather than casting a ballot. It prompted Catholic historian Lord Acton to opine: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Cardinal John Henry Newman, asked to propose a toast to the pope, said, "To the pope if you please, still, to conscience first".
Infallibility is now a purportedly unalterable dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, although the Second Vatican Council, convened by the lovable Pope John XXIII (who addressed his first encyclical letter "To all Men of Good Will"), hedged it round with a few precautions. Pope John also said, "I have to be pope both of those with their foot on the gas, and those with their foot on the brake".
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©2009 Tom Lee