On Interpreting Documents Without Awareness of Broader Contexts

In a very interesting article on the course of Catholic resistance to “liberalism” from about 1830 to 1870, Roger Aubert spends some time discussing the sophisticated terminological and conceptual background of the papal encyclical Mirari vos (1832) and the Syllabus of Errors (1864). I want to highlight a very important point he makes about the difficult nature of interpreting documents which come out of frameworks that are unfamiliar to those who without proper training undertake to criticize them.

The point is best stated in Aubert’s own words. Speaking particularly of Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, he notes that it was a document composed merely of Propositions drawn from numerous other writings of the same pope. This fact alone should have been a clue to the reader that, if he wished to fully understand the Pope’s concerns, he should refer to the other documents in which fuller treatments could be found. However, Aubert observes,

these documents were obviously not available to everyone who read the propositions in the newspaper with their morning coffee. Moreover, even the interpretation of these documents often called for weighing the meaning of the technical terms employed, or required general propositions to be distinguished from particular statements. And all of this needed no small store of theological subtlety, of which very few laymen, and even few of the clergy, were capable…[Ecclesiastics] frequently fail to bear in mind that documents officially destined for ecclesiastics–supposedly well armed with all the resources of classical logic, scholastic theology, and canon law–will inevitably enter the public domain and will be read by the unsophisticated who are going to understand the terms in their current sense. They do not take into account a certain number of important reservations that are not laid down in black and white but are simply presupposed by the experts.:”(Religious Liberty from “Mirari Vos” to the “Syllabus,” in Concilium Vol. 7: Historical Problems of Church Renewal [Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1965], pg. 102)”:

Furthermore, the general public was simply not aware “of the classical rule that when we are faced with a proposition censured by the Church’s teaching authority, in order to know the positive teaching of the Church in the matter, we must take the contradictory of the proposition and not its contrary, as one is naturally tempted to do.”:”(Ibid., pg. 101)”: Earlier, Aubert analyzed one Proposition from the Syllabus which garnered the hottest and most bombastic criticisms from many quarters whose occupants were simply not equipped to understand the sophisticated nature of the document. This was Proposition 80, which condemns the thesis that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Widely hailed by critics as “literal proof” that the Roman papacy hated “freedom” and wished to continue a policy of “tyranny,” in actuality this Proposition was drawn from a more nuanced discussion by the same pope in which he defined the key word “civilization” as “a system invented on purpose to weaken, and perhaps to overthrow, the Church.” It was this kind of “modern civilization,” and not merely “modern civilization” per se, that the pope exclaimed in the strongest terms that he would never be allied with. A far different reading of the same “literal” words than men not acquainted with the background of the Syllabus (and not possessing the proper analytical skills) but reading an extract in a newspaper over their morning coffee would arrive at.

A second example in Aubert’s analysis comes from Mirari vos, which condemns “liberty of conscience.” Aubert points out that what was being condemned was the radical idea springing from the French Revolution and infecting the whole intellectual tenor of the age that each individual person’s “liberty” is unrestricted and that absolute freedom to disseminate any kind of teaching whatsoever, even one totally contrary to the whole of the Christian Faith, is obviously a mark of “progress.” Interestingly, this hotly disputed clause of Mirari vos was subsequently interpreted by the very pope who wrote it as meaning “Liberty of conscience must not be confused with liberty not to have a conscience.”:”(Ibid., pg. 94)”: Even Christians who loathe “popery” on a fundamentally genetic level should have no problem with this sort of statement by a pope. But apparently very few critics in the 19th century bothered to find out the context before they condemned.

The lesson is clear: texts which do not originate from within our own intellectual and cultural framework cannot be properly interpreted by appealing to some supposed “literal” meaning inherent in them and accessible to any “common man” who is simply using “reason” on them. Authors rarely state all of their assumptions in plain black-and-white, and indeed, have no need to do so given that they are writing to particular audiences who, presumably, already share those assumptions. It is not true that documents are “self-interpreting” in the sense that any “reasonable” person can simply pick them up and take their “face value” meaning for granted.

Egalitarian hermeneutics will almost necessarily result in distortion. It is a phenomenon that is extremely widespread in today’s Catholic-Protestant interactions on the lay level, most especially when those interactions take place within a self-described milieu of “apologetics” as being done on the level of mass culture, appealing to “the ordinary” or “average” man. On the contrary, the “average man” simply is not equipped to properly understand formal or technical matters which he encounters in the form of summary excerpts in the newspaper (or on the Internet), which he is likely reading simply as a time-filler while he is drinking his morning coffee. Few disputed issues of theology and history can be properly analyzed by merely picking up a popular-level work by a trusted author. Or, I might add, little understanding will be reached by a person who is under a self-imposed pressure to quickly “refute” some “sophistry” being put forth by an “apologist” who “obviously” just “doesn’t like Truth and the Bible.”:”(I don’t say this lightly. I have extensive experience with exactly this type of Protestant polemic against “Romanism,” having once been affiliated with several ministries dedicated to prooftexting “refutations” and darkly ominous speculations about the motives of others. Although I generally did not talk that way myself about my opponents, I often encouraged others in it. As well, one time, to my great shame now, I once attempted to “refute” a Catholic convert who made some claims about Augustine’s doctrine of the Real Presence which I, with lots of knowledge of Augustine gained from R.C. Sproul books, considered to be “obviously” untrue. So I spent a weekend–one whole weekend–reading some of Augustine’s treatises, and then came back on Monday and wrote my “refutation.” Not exactly a good way to proceed, but it is the way that many apologetics-based interactions on both sides proceed.)”:

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