Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Footnotes can be important

June 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Mike

Back in the late 1960s as I was beginning my career as a chemist at Eastman Kodak my supervisor – let’s call him “Tom” – handed me a technical paper and asked me to repeat one of the experiments described by the author.  The paper, written in German, dealt with the synthesis of a class of chemical compounds known as diazo sulphonates.  We were interested in exploring the photographic properties of these chemicals and needed some samples with which to work.

I scanned through the German text as Tom had done before me and decided it was a piece of cake.  The procedure involved dissolving one chemical in alcohol and a second in water, slowly adding the second solution to the first while gently stirring, waiting 20 to 30 minutes for crystals to separate out of solution, filtering off those crystals and, finally, letting them dry in the air.  Synthetic organic chemistry just doesn’t get any simpler than that.

When I repeated the preparation of the compound we wanted everything went exactly according to this script, with one exception:  The crystals I expected didn’t take several minutes to separate but appeared within seconds of mixing the two solutions.  Neither Tom nor I gave any thought to this anomaly and I filtered them off and set them out on a sheet of paper to dry.

A few minutes later, as Tom bent over to examine the long, needle-like crystals with a small magnifying glass, the entire mass – about 1/3 of an ounce – flared up in his face like so much black gunpowder lit with a match.  Fortunately, he was wearing safety glasses and only suffered some singed eyebrows and the equivalent of a bad sunburn on his forehead.

After the company fire department had left and Tom had returned from being checked out by the medical staff we sat down to try to figure out what had gone wrong.  It turned out the neither of us was particularly fluent in German and had translated only what we had felt to be important, totally ignoring a reference to a footnote in the text.  When we finally did translate that footnote we saw that it said, should crystals appear immediately, they would be the wrong compound and that one should continue stirring, as those crystals would soon re-dissolve and crystals of the desired compound would appear in 20 to 30 minutes.  That footnote went on to add that one of the author’s coworkers had mistakenly filtered off crystals that had appeared immediately and that material had turned out to be highly explosive.

That footnote, as it turned out, was important.

So why did I bore you with this long and somewhat technical trip down memory lane?  Because it serves as an analogy for one of the ways in which people Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ can get their theology so far off track.

Dr. Johnson was one of the speakers at Boston College’s April, 2004 Envisioning the Church Women Want Conference. (Bishop Matthew Clark was also a participant; see here.)  Dr. Johnson’s talk (available here) was entitled Coming in from the Cold; Women in the Past, Present and Future Church.

At one point in her talk she claimed that various scriptural passages seemed to argue for the full equality of men and women while others seemed to indicate that women should be subordinate to men.  She then went on to say (my transcription, beginning at the 18:13 mark),

How are we to sort this out?  We can quote texts back and forth … but how to discern the essence of the Good News?  The Second Vatican Council provided a very helpful criterion in the Decree on Revelation  … the council taught that what we need to believe in Scripture is, and I quote, “that truth which God wanted written down for the sake of our salvation.” … Salvation is the norm for what binds our consciences.

Dr. Johnson’s argument, then, is that we are now free to accept those biblical passages supporting the full equality of men and women and reject those that seem to argue for something less because the latter couldn’t possibly have been put there for the sake of our salvation.

But is that what Dei Verbum really says?

Here is the full text of section 11, direct from the Vatican web site, with the critical portion underlined:

Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4)

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).

Now I can see how, should one squint real hard and indulge in more than a bit of wishful thinking, one can get Dr. Johnson’s interpretation out of that passage, but I really do think that the true meaning is clear for any faithful Catholic.  The Council Fathers must also have sensed this potential for ambiguity because, just to remove any possible lingering traces of doubt as to precisely what they were asserting, they inserted a very interesting footnote in a very critical place.

Footnote #5 appears right in the middle of the sentence containing the “for the sake of our salvation” clause.  It reads as follows:

cf. St. Augustine, “Gen. ad Litt.” 2, 9, 20:PL 34, 270-271; Epistle 82, 3: PL 33, 277: CSEL 34, 2, p. 354. St. Thomas, “On Truth,” Q. 12, A. 2, C.Council of Trent, session IV, Scriptural Canons: Denzinger 783 (1501). Leo XIII, encyclical “Providentissimus Deus:” EB 121, 124, 126-127. Pius XII, encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu:” EB 539.

Catholic author and apologist Bob Sungenis has unpacked this footnote in a very helpful way:

To help show the continuity with previous papal and conciliar statements, Vatican II’s Fathers made six major citations in the footnote (#5) which comes at the end of Dei Verbum 11’s sentence affirming Scripture’s freedom from error. Two of the citations are from Augustine, whom, as we have seen earlier in his disputes with Faustus, was one of the staunchest defenders of a totally inerrant Scripture. Interestingly enough, the first citation is from The Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Here Augustine teaches about the harmony between science and Scripture, showing, in turn, that Vatican II’s respect of Scripture’s inerrancy extended to its affirmations about the physical creation, even though the Bible is not considered a scientific textbook. This clearly shot down König’s objection that the original drafts of Dei Verbum 11 did not allow “scientific freedom.” The second citation from Augustine (Epistle 82, 3) is the quote from the letter to Jerome we cited earlier, which affirmed total biblical inerrancy and attributed contradictions to manuscript variations and human frailties when engaging in biblical interpretation.

Another of Vatican II’s citations is from Trent’s The Canon of Scripture, which, interestingly enough, speaks of the salvific purpose of Scripture. Referring to both Scripture and Tradition, Trent states that they are “the source of all saving truth” (Denz 1501), which is very similar to Vatican II’s statement “for the sake of our salvation,” yet, as everyone knows, Trent never entertained the notion that Scripture contained errors in matters outside of salvation.

The most important addition to footnote #5 was the teaching of Pope Leo XIII in Providentissimus Deus stating that, since the sacred writers wrote only what the Holy Spirit wanted them to write, everything which they assert has Him for its author, and is therefore necessarily true. This coincides with the commission’s previous conclusion that the word “salvific” in Dei Verbum 11 did not imply a “material limitation” of the truth of Scripture. Since the quote from Providentissimus Deus includes Leo’s words concerning the Fathers and Doctors who “labored with no less ingenuity than devotion to harmonize and reconcile those many passage which might seem to involve some contradiction or discrepancy,” with little doubt this indicates that Vatican II agreed that steadfastness to preserve the inerrancy of Scripture should be constantly maintained in the Church.

Thus, should anyone be tempted to join Dr. Johnson in her novel reading of Dei Verbum, footnote #5 – with its multiple references to Papal encyclicals, Church Fathers and Doctors and the Council of Trent, all asserting the complete inerrancy of the Bible – makes it clear that Vatican II was not in any way endorsing the concept of limited inerrancy which she is espousing.

Dr. Johnson, just like Tom and myself, should have read the footnote.

Footnotes can be important.

[By the way, the Sungenis reference cited above is part of a much longer article dealing with the inerrancy of Scripture and the attempts of progressives at the Council to water down that – and other – Church teachings.  The entire article (which begins here) is well worth a read.]

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4 Responses to “Footnotes can be important”

  1. Anonymous says:

    But all you have to do is read the Courrier and in particular Sister Scholes and Father McBrien. For years they have been taking sentences and paragraphs out of context to support their heresy. And the bishop, by supporting these people, also believes in this stuff. Their arguments are so flawed, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But then, the people in power will use the Bully pulpit, absent discussion and rigid and authortarian means to spread their heretetical views. Thank God, God will win in the end!

  2. praedicator says:

    If I may chime in with a few thoughts…

    1. The Latin can be rendered a different way:

    LATIN: …veritatem, quam Deus nostrae salutis causa, Litteris Sacris consignari voluit…
    ENGLISH: …truth — which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to consign to sacred writings… (trans. John Bergsma)

    This clears things up tremendously. “Salutis causa” is a kind of purpose clause in Latin, telling us why God wanted the whole truth (and nothing but the truth) recorded in Sacred Scripture, or what the document calls, “firmiter, fideliter et sine errore… [the Sacred Books teach truth] firmly, faithfully, and without error.”

    2. The first part of the sentence settles it: “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” The sentence wouldn’t even make any sense if the latter half means what Dr. Johnson thinks it means!

    Great post, Mike!

  3. Mike says:


    Now that you mention it, I recall Scott Hahn making that same “nostrae salutis causa” argument on one of his early audio tapes for St. Joseph Communications. The construction is classic Latin II and there is no doubt as to its meaning. He also mentioned that the English translation had twisted the official Latin text’s word order, thus creating a bit of ambiguity.

    You are absolutely correct about the first part of the sentence. That’s why I said one would have to squint very hard and indulge in some major wishful thinking in order to distort its true meaning.

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. benanderson says:

    great post, Mike.

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