Historical Overview of the Rosmini Case

Author: Mons. Richared Malone


Mons. Richard Malone

It is necessary to know something of the historical context for the condemnations of 1848 and the later one in 1887.

Antonio Rosmini Serbati lived in the tumultuous period of 1797-1855. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1821. He founded his congregation, the Fathers of Charity, in 1828 and it received formal approval from Gregory XVI in 1838. The woman's branch, the Sisters of Providence, was founded in 1831-2. At the request of Pius VIII, Gregory XVI and Pius IX, he undertook the renewal of Italian Catholic philosophy, beginning with the systematic study of St Thomas, whose SummaTheologiae he began to translate before his ordination, in 1819.

Committed diplomatically to the objective of conciliating the valid aspirations of the Italian Resurgence (which promoted the unification of Italy, starting out with the idea of the rule of the Pope as a constitutional monarch, and ending with the confiscation of the Papal States) with the positions of Bl. Pius IX, Rosmini outlined a programme of political reform in the Catholic-Liberal sense. Such was Rosmini's national reputation among both laymen and churchmen in Italy that he was even chosen by Piedmont as the most suitable envoy to convince Pius IX to join in the alliance against Austria and so to become, in effect, the unifying force of a united Italy. Rosmini, who had always had misgivings about the Pope as King of a united Italy, abandoned his effort when Piedmont went back on itspromises.

In publishing his Five Wounds in1848, Rosmini felt that the time had come, now that the Church had a reforming Pope in the person of Bl. Pius IX, to express his ideas on the weaknesses of the Church. According to Rosmini the wounds were:

1) The division of the people from the clergy in worship.

2) The defective education of the clergy.

3) The disunion of bishops.

4) The nomination of bishops by the secular power.

5) The enslavement of the Church by riches.

The first cause of division between clergy and people in the liturgy is public ignorance. Catechisms were learned by rote, without real instruction. The use of Latin was outdated and no longer understood by the people. "The people should be actors in the liturgy as well as hearers".

The clergy were insufficiently educated. In seminaries, professors lacked preparation and decent conditions for study, and theory and practice had become separated. Nor were the laity sufficiently instructed about the dignity of the priesthood and their own dignity as members of the Church.

Thirdly, the clergy had become too servile with regard to political powers. Having become temporal lords, the bishops were too removed from loyalty to the Pope, from one another and from the needs of their flocks.

Fourthly, when bishops became important in the State, the princes began to nominate them and so the Church lost its right over the appointment of bishops. In Rosmini's time this situation was beginning to change for countries outside Europe.

Lastly, with regard to the problem of ecclesiastical riches and huge estates, Rosmini offered his proposals for the Church in a modern era and the need for careful stewardship of resources. Rosmini was convinced that a Church detached from riches could preach the Gospel and live the Christian life with greater freedom.

In his book Theplan for a Constitution (1848),Rosmini thought that there could be no stability unless the Statute (the right to vote) were based proportionately on property. He also thought that there could be no justice unless there were a Supreme Court to be a counterbalance to the legislative houses. All citizens could elect the members of the Supreme Court, called by him, the Political Tribunal. Its legislative houses consisted entirely of proprietors; they held power according to the taxes they paid.

Rosmini's goal was to help towards a solution to the problem of the attitude of the Church to the problems of the modern era. On account of the revolutionary movements of 1848,especially in the Papal States, Rosmini fell out of favour with many Churchmen. It was easy toaccuse him of contributing to the problems of 1848in Rome, and his democratic ideas were subject to doctrinal attack and controversy.

Subsequently, around 1848,Rosmini was accused of wanting a democratic episcopate and his plea for a return to the ancient formula of elections per clerum et populum was the subject of serious misunderstandings. It was unfortunate that Rosmini's plea for freedom for the Church from the monarchs of the day, should have been coupled with an insistence on the return to methods used before the Investitures conflict, at a time when nationalities were in turmoil and popular clamour irresponsible.

Regarding his ideas on what democratic elements should be written into a modern state's Constitution, he made enemies among the defenders of absolute monarchies, from Naples to Austria.

When both books had been prohibited by the Congregation of the Index in 1849and Rosmini was invited to submit, he wrote at once: "As a devoted and obedient son of the Holy See, which through the grace of God I have always been at heart and publicly professed to be, I declare that I submit to the prohibition of these books, absolutely, simply and as completely as possible….". He wrote to Bl. Pius IX, "In everything, I want to base myself on the authority of the Church, and I want the whole world to know that I adhere to this authority alone" (A. Rosmini, Lettera alPapa Pio IX).

To complicate matters, in the years 1848-1850two other works against him circulated, one was a booklet called Postille, which contained 327quotations from Rosmini's works, often distorted, to which were attached the whole range of theological condemnations from "blasphemous" to "equivocal". The other was an attack against Rosmini in the form of 50letters, Letters from a Bolognese Priest, said to be the work of two Jesuits, calling him a traitor to the Church. At first the Pope thought it was enough to impose silence on either side of the controversy.

At last Pope Pius IX decided to intervene to end the controversy. Gathering the opinions of eight selected theologians, the Pope himself presided at the General Congregation in July 1854where the Consultors recommended that the works be declared as free from censure. After five hours of discussion, Pius IX reserved the case to himself. Though Rosmini was fully rehabilitated, rather thanpublishing a decree, the Pope ordered the Congregation of the Holy Office to draw up a sentence of "dismissal" and to communicate it in secret to "both sides". The Decree stated: "All the works of Antonio Rosmini Serbati that have recently been examined, are to be dismissed (Dimittantur opera Antonii Rosmini) and this examination in no way detracts from the good name of the author, nor of the religious Society founded by him, nor from his life and singular merits towards the Church".

Rosmini died at 58,in 1855,less than a year after the issuing of the decree that freed his works from the accusations to which they had been subjected.

When the decree's meaning was impugned 20 years later in 1876,Bl. Pius IX, through his Master of the Sacred Palace, answered similar objections in a letter to the Marchese Baviera, editor of L'Osservatore Romano, in which he said: "It follows from the long and conscientious examination that the accusations made against the works of Antonio Rosmini were false.... It is lawful to disagree with the philosophic system of Rosmini, and with the way he tries to explain certain truths; it is not lawful to conclude that he denied such truths, nor may anyone inflict ecclesiastical censures upon the doctrines that he professed in the works examined and dismissed by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and against which the Holy Father intended to prevent new accusations in the future".

To the words of Bl. Pius IX, there could be added the tribute of the Venerable Servant of God John Henry Newman on hearing of his death: "The news reached me unexpectedly and profoundly moved me, for although he belonged in a special way to your Institute, a man like him, as long as he lived, was the property of the whole Church. I fear that the tribulations he suffered have shortened his life. Yesterday morning I celebrated a Requiem for him: I hope he will not forget me as soon as he reaches heaven, in fact we may believe he has already arrived there".

Rosmini was basically accused of fostering ontologism, a philosophical system (condemned by the Inquisition in 1861) that asserts that God Himself is the guarantee of the validity of human ideas; that all human knowledge, itself amode of truth, implies an immediate intuition of uncreated Truth; and that the idea of being, which is the first and simplest idea of all, is an immediate perception of absolute Being. So in 1887, "40 Propositions" taken from posthumous and non-posthumous works of Rosmini were condemned in the decree Post Obitum (14December 1887; published 7 March 1888). Under suspicion as teachings which catholicae veritati haud consonae videbantur (seemedscarcely to be in accord with catholic truth), these propositions were condemned as reprobandae, damnandae, and proscribendae (to be reproved, condemned and proscribed). Some point out that they were not condemned as "heretical", "offensive to pious ears", or damnable in any specific way, and no attempt was made in the document to connect their condemnation with the suspicion that had caused their being reported to the Congregation as erroneous or heretical.

Three things stand out concerning this condemnation. First, the reporting of the propositions as catholicae veritati haud consonae indicates that the difficulties raised by the teaching underlying the propositions were felt to be theological. No other meaning can be given to the phrase "catholic truth". Second, the first 24 propositions are nevertheless concerned with philosophical matters, and in particular with the question of the intellectual relationship between the creature and the Creator. It was obviously felt as essential that Rosmini's view of such a relationship should be criticized from the beginning. Third, the immense difficulties under which the compilers laboured to produce the propositions is clear from the way in which several of the propositions are stitchedtogether. The most obvious example is found in n. 12: Finita realitasnon est, sed Deus facit eam addendo infinitae realitati limitationem. Esse initiale fit essentia omnis entis realis. Esse quod actuat naturas finitas ipsis coniunctum, est recisum a Deo (Finitereality is not, but God makes itbe by adding limitation to infinite reality. Initial being becomes the essence of every real being. Being, which actuates finite natures, having been joined to them, is cut off from God).This proposition, although taken from La Teosofia, a single, posthumous work, and made to run as a single assertion, is composed of sentences scattered across many pages and taken from more than one volume of the book, as the following translation of Rosmini's own words, and references to their sources, makes clear:

"Finite reality is not, but he [God] makes it be by adding limitation to infinite reality" (La Teosofia, vol 1, n. 681).

"Initial being ... becomes the essence of every real being" (ibid., n. 458).

"Being, which actuates finite natures, joined with these by being cut off from God.... " (vol. 3, n. 1425).

Scholars noted the difficulty of giving meaning to the words without reference to their context. Proposition 12 is used as evidence of pantheism in Rosmini. His genuine views are expressed in hisCommentary on the Introduction to the Gospel according to John.

"When there is question of the modes in which divine subsistence is limited, we do not mean that the divine substance receives, or can receive limitations. However, the divine substance is being, and consequently being which, as its concept shows, is able to be in two modes, unlimited and limited. Unlimited and unchangeable being is proper to the divine substance; limitedbeing is proper to the creature. The divine substance contains therefore the possibility of creatures because in it isto be found being which can be limited. But the creature is not present in the divine substance. What is present—because being is present, and being contains in its concept the possibility of limitation—is the reason underlying the creature's possibility of existence.

"The possibility proper to creatures is, however, twofold: logical and physical. The logical possibility is the idea, or the reason underlying creaturehood; the physical possibility is the power, or efficient cause of the creature, that is, the creative power. Absolute being, therefore, contains in its concept both the idea of limited being, that is, of the creature, and the power to produce the creature, that is, to render real and subsisting the limited being manifest in the idea. In a word, the absolute being possesses all that is needed to make itself creator, creator of limited being, of the creature, by making the creature real and subsistent" (Commentary on the Introduction to the Gospel according to John p. 27-28).

On 1 July, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a Note on the (binding) force of the doctrinal decrees concerning the thought and works of Rev. Antonio Rosmini Serbati. It explained that the reasons for "concern and doctrinal difficulties" with the work of the 19th century philosopher Antonio Rosmini have been superseded. In fact, the first decree of 1849 that put two of his works on the Index of Forbidden Books, the Costituzione secondo la giustizia sociale and the Cinque piaghe della Chiesa, was rescinded in Rosmini's lifetime and in 1854, a year before his death, the Congregation of the Index removed his opera omnia from a doctrinal examination without censure, dimittantur.

In 1887, after his death and the posthumous publication of his five volume synthesis, La Teosofia, accusations continued and a second examination of his works resulted in a decree of the Holy Office Post obitum which condemned "40 Propositions" taken prevalently from his posthumous works and from some works edited during his lifetime. The publication of the posthumous works did not help the understanding of his thought because the works lacked a glossary of terms and aids to understanding that would have explained the precise meaning of the expressions and concepts. This allowed a heterodox understanding of Rosminian thought. Rosmini's philosophical and theological writing was very daring especially when he reflects on Catholic doctrine and the challenge of modern philosophy. The Congregation notes that misunderstanding can only arise if the "40 Propositions" are taken out of the context of his entire thought and work and given an interpretation foreign to the mind and spiritual world of the author. In n. 6 of the note, the Congregation states that a "widespread ... scientific literature on the thought of Rosmini has shown that these interpretations contrary to Catholic doctrine and faith do not correspond in reality to the authentic position of Rosmini". At present his cause for beatification is being examined by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 July 2001, page 9

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