Of things to blog about, the world never ceases to supply a sufficiency¯and more than a sufficiency, which means that the folder of possible blog topics often overflows before one can get to it all. In fact, every once in a while, you simply to have to grab a bucket and start baling, before the water rises to the gunwales. For instance:
• You know it’s a slow news day in Rome when news services are reduced to the headline "Benedict XVI Urges Prudence on Highways," and the lede: "VATICAN CITY, NOV. 19, 2006¯Benedict XVI appealed for respect of road-safety norms on the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims."
• At the Boston Globe , the always reliable James Carroll is, reliably, outraged by the Catholic Church. This time , it’s rumors of a universal indult for the Mass to be said in Latin that have got him worked up. Carroll’s tirade includes lines such as: "Once Catholics entered into the mystery of the Mass as literate participants instead of as dumb spectators, an unprecedented renewal took hold"¯a concatenation of insults to his parents’ generations and boasts for his own generation that would be hard to match in so few words.
Among the many old bromides he trots out¯ trippety, trippety, trip , like a one-trick pony¯is this: "The prophet of English translation was a priest named William Tyndale, whose version of the New Testament appeared in 1526. A decade later, precisely for this translation, he was burned as a heretic, but the English people hungrily consumed his outlawed verses, both as readers and as hearers, transforming not only the faith, but the language."
This was too much for our friend Ronald Rychlak, who emails to point out, "Translating the Bible into English was not illegal; numerous partial and complete English translations had been made from the seventh century onward. Tyndale’s was only the first to take advantage of the new medium of print, which allowed for its wide distribution."
In fact, Rychlak notes, the real story starts with John Wycliff. He produced a corrupt translation of the Bible so full of heresy that both the Church and the secular authorities condemned it. Because of the scandal Wycliff caused, the Synod of Oxford passed a law in 1408 that prevented any unauthorized translation of the Bible into English and also forbade the reading of such unauthorized translations. Reading authorized translations was not only legal but encouraged.
Tyndale was an English priest who wanted to make his own English translation of the Bible. The Church denied him for several reasons:
(1) It saw no need for a new English translation of Scripture at that time. (In fact, booksellers were having such a hard time selling the print editions of the Bible that they already had that laws had to be enacted to force people to buy them.)
(2) The Reformation had led to strife and confusion in Europe. England had managed to remain relatively unscathed, and the Church wanted to keep it that way. Adding a new English translation would only add to the confusion.
(3) If the Church had wanted a new English translation of Scripture, Tyndale would not have been the man to do it. He was a mediocre scholar and had gained a reputation for unorthodox opinions and a violent temper. He was known for insulting the clergy, from the pope down to the friars and monks, and he had a genuine contempt for Church authority. In fact, he was first tried for heresy in 1522, three years before his translation was printed. His own bishop did not support his cause.
The secular authorities condemned his translation, as did the Church. Even King Henry VIII, founder of the Anglican Church, declared in 1531 that "the translation of the Scripture corrupted by William Tyndale should be utterly expelled, rejected, and put away out of the hands of the people." In 1543, after his break with Rome, Henry VIII again decreed that "all manner of books of the Old and New Testament in English, being of the crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale . . . shall be clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished, and forbidden to be kept or used in this realm."
Ultimately, it was the secular authorities who proved to be the end for Tyndale. He was arrested and tried (and sentenced to die) in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1536. His translation was heretical because it contained heretical ideas, not because of the act of making a translation. In fact, the Catholic Church produced a translation of the Bible into English a few years later: the Douay-Rheims version, whose New Testament was released in 1582 and whose Old Testament was released in 1609.
By the way, Rychlak concludes, as an act of charity (so to speak), Tyndale was not burned alive. He was strangled, and his dead body was burnt, on 6 October 1536.
• Our assistant editor here at First Things insists we note the story in the New York Times on a meeting of scientists in La Jolla, California. An odd, disturbing story , indeed, if it weren’t quite so silly. At the meeting, participant Carolyn Porco "called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church [of science], with Dr. Tyson, whose powerful celebration of scientific discovery had the force and cadence of a good sermon, as its first minister." On a panel of little ideological diversity, a representative of the Templeton Foundation was on hand, and, having had enough, "lashed back, denouncing what he called ‘pop conflict books’ like Dr. Dawkins’ God Delusion , as ‘commercialized ideological scientism’¯promoting for profit the philosophy that science has a monopoly on truth."
Steven Weinberg, in attendance, chimed in: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization." The Catholic-priest-turned-evolutionary-biologist Francisco J. Ayala agreed¯but added, more in sorrow than in anger, "People need to find meaning and purpose in life. I don’t think we want to take that away from them."
And here’s the parting exchange between Weinberg and Dawkins at the finish of the Times article:
Before he left to fly back home to Austin, Dr. Weinberg seemed to soften for a moment, describing religion a bit fondly as a crazy old aunt.
"She tells lies, and she stirs up all sorts of mischief and she’s getting on, and she may not have that much life left in her, but she was beautiful once," he lamented. "When she’s gone, we may miss her."
Dr. Dawkins wasn’t buying it. "I won’t miss her at all," he said. "Not a scrap. Not a smidgen."
How Weinberg and Dawkins can say goodbye to something they’ve never met is a problem, but it’s good to know that the old Secularism Thesis¯the notion that religion is doomed as a relic of the pre-scientific past¯still has its true believers left. I’m going to miss them when they’re gone.