A Tale of Two Encyclopedias

One thing you hear a lot of in the Catholic blogosphere is how the church is an antidote to the moral relativism that is supposedly rampant in our society. Unlike those quisling mainline churches with their female pastors and gay marriages, the Catholic church doesn’t change its doctrines just to be popular; it takes a stance and sticks with it. Or not. The Catholic church has changed its mind on any number of issues from slavery to liberal democracy to usury. You can find apologists who take great pains to show that the church’s position on these issues and other issues hasn’t changed, but one gets the feeling that they’re really trying to convince themselves more than anything. Case in point is the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.

If you’ve been around the Catholic blogosphere for any amount of time, you’re probably aware of the New Advent site, which not only acts as a blog aggregator of sorts, but also hosts many English language translations of the works of the early church fathers, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa, and a digitized version of the 1910 Catholic encyclopedia. It’s not a bad resource for theological topics or certain aspects of religious history, but the articles on women, Jews, and “Negroes” are cringe-worthy. In light of the Holocaust, the one on Jews is particularly awful, which is why the site owners had to put the disclaimer about the need for “prayerfully reading [the Vatican II text] Aeterna Nostrae” once one finishes the article. The entries on women and “Negroes” have similar disclaimers, basically saying that they should be understood in light of their times. So much for the Catholic church not changing its teachings.
For a contrast, compare Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot’s encyclopedia entry on “Jew” with the 1910 Catholic encyclopedia entry on Judaism:
Although the two were written more than 200 years apart, Diderot’s entry is much more enlightened, presumably because he’s not viewing Jews as “the enemies of Christ.” This is why I’m increasingly not buying the claim that people from the past “didn’t know any better.” If Diderot, writing in the 18th century could recognize the evils of slavery and antisemitism, there’s no reason why others couldn’t, other than the fact that they were wedded to the traditional view that condemned “the Jews” for their alleged deicide and considered slavery to be “natural” as long as its happening to someone else.
Although many of Diderot’s religious entries in his Encyclopedia are slightly tongue in cheek (and he knows it), it says a lot that his opinions are have turned out to be more accurate than the ones in the Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent’s section on the writings of the Church Fathers is also pretty good, but I’ve noticed that some of the more controversial ones like John Chyrstosom’s “Against the Jews” aren’t there. It’s not like you can’t find it elsewhere online, but it makes me wonder if some of the ones that are there might have been edited to take out the parts that might make the church look bad.
It’s often said that the ethical thing to do is the thing that is often unpopular, but I think in many cases it also requires you to think “outside of the box.” Diderot’s rather progressive thoughts about Jewish people were only possible because he was willing and able to jettison the Christian antisemitism that was endemic to Catholic French culture. Religious doctrine in general believes that people can be moral by adhering to certain beliefs and traditions and deferring to certain authority figures, but what do you do if the trappings of religious morality are themselves wrong? If the religious organization declares that it made it mistake on one thing, then what else is wrong? This line of thinking probably explains why so many radtrads refuse to give up on antisemitism or the deicide charge; if it was taught for thousands of years before Vatican II, then it must be true.
Religion is a human construction and changes to fit whatever the conditions are at the time. This is how religions manage to retain followers despite the dearth of empirical evidence to support their tenets. If the Catholic church continued to demand that the “throne and altar” setup or some form of corporate fascism was the only system it could support, it would have died a long time ago. It supports liberal democracy now because it’s learned how to work the system like every other special interest group. When the Catholic hierarchy figured out that the once hated concept of “religious freedom” could be used to justify its various misdeeds, it became the biggest proponent of the idea. Change is inevitable, though it’s never clear what form it will take.
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