The bible tells us that God used to speak to Moses “face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exodus 33, 11). Exactly 50 years ago this month, I had the privilege of speaking face to face with the bishop of Rome, Pope John XXIII.
It happened this way. I had just finished my first 7-year term as a missionary in the Philippines, and left in early May on home leave. I spent a week in Northern Burma visiting some missionary friends there. Then I spent a week in the Holy Land, visiting the Holy Places in Jordan and Israel. Finally I went to Rome where I had studied for 3 years in the 1950’s.
In Rome I happened to meet up with Cardinal Rufino Santos, the Archbishop of Manila. I knew the Cardinal well, as I had been attached to his Archdiocese during my time in the Philippines. But I was totally unprepared for the offer he was about to make to me.
He said to me, “I have an appointment with the Holy Father tomorrow morning. Would you like to come along with me as my secretary, just the two of us, to meet the Holy Father in his office at the Vatican?” Needless to say, my answer was in the affirmative.
So at 10 o’clock the next morning we met at the Papal apartments and were escorted to the Papal office, where Pope John XXIII welcomed us with a beaming smile. I could not have imagined the Holy Father would be so friendly and unassuming as he engaged us in conversation. We spoke in Italian.
The Cardinal and the Holy Father were already acquainted, but I had to be introduced. Pope John asked me if I had been to Rome before, and I explained that I had spent 3 years in Rome doing graduate studies at the Gregorian University.
Then came an unexpected question. He asked me what language was used in the University when I studied there. I explained to him that we spoke Italian with the secretariat, but in the classroom and in the examinations, both written and oral, the language was Latin.
That gave him the opportunity to speak about a letter, Veterum Sapientiae (Wisdom of the Ancients), which had issued from the Vatican 3 months previously, under his signature. He said, “They persuaded me to write this letter to encourage the study of Latin in schools and to promote the use of Latin in the seminaries. I don’t know if it will work, but at least I did what they asked me to do”.
The Pope seemed to be totally unaware of the near panic this document had created in seminaries, at least in the English-speaking world, because it required that major subjects like Theology and Sacred Scripture should be taught through the medium of Latin. Because I had seen the struggle of English-speaking professors trying to conduct their classes in Latin, I had my own view that this letter would not have any lasting effect. Pope John did not seem to be fully convinced either. He said, “They tell me that Latin is the language of the Church, and if it is, I suppose we should be speaking in Latin now”. But he still continued speaking with us in Italian.
Pope John XXIII need not have worried about the document he had signed. It was quickly forgotten, and in later years it was being described as the most ignored important document, or the most important ignored document of the twentieth century.
Pope John had the saintly personality which enabled him to establish a new relationship between the Church and the world, a relationship of mutual appreciation and respect. He summed it up best in his opening address to the participants at the Second Vatican Council when he declared: “The Church prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnation”. (October 11, 1962)
As I recall my face to face meeting with Pope John, I think what impressed me most was the sense of being warmly accepted by him, and being drawn into a genuine conversation with him. Many people will remember Pope John XXIII as the Pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council for the renewal of the Church. I will remember him just as the kindly bishop of Rome who simply tried to be what every Pope professes to be, “the servant of the servants of God”.
Brian Friel’s play “Translations” was first staged in 1980. It was widely acclaimed, and went on to enjoy two major New York productions, off Broadway in 1981, and on Broadway in 1995.
The play is set in the Gaelic-speaking village of Ballybeg in the Ireland of 1833. The drama unfolds in the interaction between the local people and a team of British soldiers, army engineers, who are tasked with drawing up a detailed map of the Irish countryside, replacing the Gaelic place-names with their English equivalents. To succeed in this they need the help of some local people who are fluent in both languages.
The writer and the audience know that this apparent exercise in translating place-names is something far more serious. It is the beginning of a systematic process of dismantling a language and a culture.
The local people are suspicious, but some of them cooperate. The interaction between the soldiers and the locals leads to tension and humorous situations, especially when one of the officers and one of the local girls fall in love. He knows no Gaelic but would like to learn it; she knows no English but yearns to speak it. Their meetings without a translator but with misunderstandings lead to humorous situations in both languages.
I was reminded of this play and its tragic-comic interplay two days ago when I was present at the Saturday afternoon Mass. It was the Mass of the 6th Sunday of Easter, and the celebrant informed the congregation at the beginning of his homily that he did not understand the prayer he had just read for them from the Roman missal as the opening prayer of the Mass. He admitted that he was confused about what it actually meant.
Later on, after Mass, I was able to check the Mass text and the prayer. It left me undecided when I saw that we prayed “that what we relive in remembrance we may always hold to in what we do”.
I also checked the Latin text, and found it somewhat vague and convoluted. I then got the Spanish translation, and found it clear and simple. I wondered why the official Spanish translation could be so clear, while the official English translation was so vague. On closer examination I noticed that the English translator had translated the Latin text word for word into English, while the Spanish translator took the sense of the Latin, and translated that into Spanish.
I remember many years ago in Chile I was asked to act as translator for a visiting bishop who was addressing the people in English. At the time I simply translated what I heard him say as he preached his homily at Mass. Afterwards I realized that I had not translated him word for word, but I had taken the sense of what he was saying and translated it into Spanish.
I think that part of the dissatisfaction with the new English Mass text is that some of the translators simply translated word for word from the Latin text, without realizing that this does not always make sense in the other language. A good translator must have a thorough grasp of both languages, and particularly of the language into which the translation is being made.
Brian Friel’s “Translations” was not just about changing language. It was about changing people and changing history. In a similar way, the new Mass text in English is more than simply changing words. It is part of a process of changing attitudes towards developing greater conformity and unity in the faithful of today and in the generations of tomorrow.
In the course of an interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (published in 1985 as The Ratzinger Report) Vittorio Messori quotes the Cardinal as saying that when he has time he would like to devote himself to the theme of Original Sin, because the inability to understand Original Sin, and to make it understandable, is one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology.
A century earlier another Cardinal expressed concern about the doctrine of Original Sin. Cardinal John Henry Newman was commenting on problems some people had with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He wrote, “Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. Mary just has not this difficulty. It is no difficulty to believe that a soul is united to the flesh without original sin; the great mystery is that many, that millions on millions are born with it”. (Meditations and Devotions 1893 p.84)
The traditional Catholic teaching on Original Sin is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) numbers 374-421. In summary it says that for one act of disobedience Adam lost all graces and privileges, and that this same penalty is passed on to all his descendants.
Like Cardinal Newman I find this teaching difficult. It is an attempt to explain why we are born with sinful tendencies and are subject to death, but it fails to explain why those who did not incur the guilt of Adam’s sin still have to pay the penalty.
In actual fact the Genesis story does not say that Adam was created with the gifts of self-mastery and immunity from death, as the Catechism suggests. These privileges seem to arise from Saint Paul’s interpretation of the story (Romans 5, 12-21), as developed by Saint Augustine and other theologians who coined the term “original sin”. They teach that all descendants of Adam and Eve inherit the same penalty as their First Parents.
This interpretation provides an explanation for the universality of sin and death, but it is now being challenged by advances in evolutionary science over the past 30 years. The main challenge comes from the scientific conclusion that the human race as constituted today, with all its mutations and genetic diversity, could not have come from just one pair of humans. Perhaps that is why Cardinal Ratzinger could say that Original Sin is one of the most difficult problems in modern theology.
I consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the hope of finding something about this challenge of modern science, but I found no reference to scientific findings on evolution in the general index or in the section on the Fall and Original Sin. This is surprising considering that Pope John Paul II in his message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (1996) said that Pope Pius XII in his Encyclical Humani Generis (1950) referred to “evolutionism” as “a serious hypothesis worthy of investigation and serious study”. Pope John Paul II added his own comment, saying that new findings have led us to recognize that evolution is “more than a hypothesis”, suggesting he accepted it as scientific fact.
But if the Roman theologians are failing to keep up with modern science, scientists of faith are meeting the challenge. In 2006 Daryl P. Domning, professor of anatomy at Howard University, published a book, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution.
Professor Domning explains that the long-term study of animal behavior reveals that evolution requires selfishness on the part of living things as necessary for their survival and self reproduction. This powerful tendency to act selfishly is shared by pre-humans and humans alike, but with the emergence of human intelligence and free-will it took on a moral character. Domning says that this inborn selfish tendency in all people is what our tradition calls “the stain of original sin”.
So it does not matter if evolutionary science proves conclusively that the human race today has several pairs of “first parents”. We all have inherited the selfish tendency we call “original sin” from a pre-human ancestor we all share.
What does this teaching do to the doctrine of the Incarnation? Enter John Duns Scotus, Franciscan theologian beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was a respected theologian who taught that the Incarnation was central to God’s plan from the beginning, not some sort of emergency plan God needed because Adam and Eve spoiled the original plan. Scotus saw Jesus Christ as the beginning and end of all Creation, the human expression of divine love, an example for mankind, saving us by enabling us to rise above our inborn sinful selfishness.
This human expression of divine love included submitting to death, because breakdown and dissolution is the inevitable fate of complex material beings. In the case of human beings, God’s plan links physical death with future bodily resurrection into eternal life.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s concern about the doctrine of Original Sin is well-founded. The state of the Curial version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church shows there is a lot of catching up to be done if Church doctrine is to meet the challenge of modern scientific developments. Failure to do so could very well lead to another Galileo situation.
That is precisely what Pope John Paul II was warning about when he spoke about evolution: “With man, we find ourselves facing a different ontological order—an ontological leap, we could say. But in posing such a great ontological discontinuity, are we not breaking up the physical continuity which seems to be the main line of research about evolution in the fields of physics and chemistry? An appreciation for the different methods used in different fields of scholarship allows us to bring together two points of view which at first might seem irreconcilable”. (Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences 1996 n.6)
Scientists like Daryl Domning are alert to reconciling scientific findings with the teaching of the Church. It is up to theologians to discern if new scientific discoveries call for new formulations in theology so that true faith and true science may be aligned, like two different mirrors reflecting the one eternal Truth.