Monthly Archives: February 2013

Did Mary Crush the Serpent’s Head?

If you go to any Catholic Church or bookstore, you’re likely to see a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a snake. A statue of the Virgin makes sense, but why does she always have a serpent underfoot? Well, it’s a long story.

The story begins with Gen 3:15, some of the words that God speaks to the serpent after deceiving Adam and Eve, inducing their Fall, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (RSV). So, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t see the connection. It says ‘he shall bruise’ not ‘she’.” And you’re right, for the RSV. But if you look at the Douay-Rheims version, it says, “she shall crush thy head.” What’s going on?

Well, what we have here really is a text-critical problem.

Hebrew Masoretic Text: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ  (hu’ yeshuphka rosh, “he will crush your head”)

Greek Septuagint: αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν (“he will watch your head”)

Latin Vulgate: ipsa conteret caput tuum (“she will crush your head”)

Nova Vulgata (1979): ipsum conteret caput tuum (“it will crush your head”)

In the Hebrew, the masculine pronoun hu’ is referring back to the noun zera‘, which is a masculine noun. The other thing to mention is that the verb form, yeshuphka, is third person masculine singular with a second person singular pronominal suffix.  And the vowel pointing could not change it to feminine—the feminine form would include one different letter, not just vowel points. It would be תָּשׁוּפְךָ* (tashuphka). The masculine is not just in the pronoun, but is embedded in the verb.

In Greek, the masculine pronoun autos is used even though the antecedent (spermatos, seed) is neuter. It seems that the masculine is preferred here by the translator because the seed/offspring of Eve would presumably be a person, not a thing.

The Nova Vulgata uses ipsum, a neuter pronoun referring to a neuter noun (seed, semen). But St. Jerome’s Vulgate is the outlier here, reading ipsa, which here is the feminine nominative singular (not the nom/acc neuter plural) and the Douay-Rheims version is based on the Vulgate. I should also add that the Nova Vulgata is the current official version of the Bible promulgated by the Vatican.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia defends the Vulgate text of this passage thusly:

The reading “she” (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original. The strength of the Christian tradition as to Mary’s share in this victory may be inferred from the retention of “she” in St. Jerome’s version in spite of his acquaintance with the original text and with the reading “he” (ipse) in the old Latin version. (emphasis added)

This explanation is rather generous, but it’s more helpful than saying that we just don’t know why Jerome translated this way.

Interestingly, Jerome’s translation made it into a very important papal statement, the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus:

Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.

I like the idea of the Virgin Mary having an “immaculate foot,” but I still think this statement is based on a flaw in Jerome’s translation. Interestingly, when John Paul II took up the Protoevangelium in his audience on Dec 17, 1986 he regards Christ as the agent of “crushing” not Mary.

Now, of course, from a theological perspective, every Christian shares in Christ’s victory over sin and the devil. The New Testament substantiates this: But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13 RSV) “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4 RSV) Mary, as the most Christian Christian, is as JPII teaches in the above-cited text, “the one who first shares in that victory over sin won by Christ.” So all Christians get to “crush the serpent’s head” through Christ’s victory on the cross and the Virgin Mary is the first to share in that victory. Are the statues based on a faulty translation? Yes. But are they still theologically correct? Yes.


Papal Election Rules for the Conclave

The rules for electing a pope are, shall we say, a bit complex. Here’s just a few links to help you navigate the legal intricacies:

Universi Dominici Gregis, John Paul II, February 22, 1996
(This document lays out the official rules for the conclave completely.)

De aliquibus mutationibus in normis de electione Romani Pontificis, Benedict XVI, June 11, 2007 (Latin only, sorry! This document re-establishes the requirement for a 2/3 majority vote in all cases. In the 1996 document linked above, the requirement was for a simple majority only after a certain number of inconclusive votes.)

Motu Proprio Normas Nonullas, Benedict XVI, February 22, 2013 (I linked the English text at NCReporter, but you can get the Italian and Latin on the Vatican website. The main thrust of this short document is to allow the conclave to convene earlier than Universi Dominici Gregis requires.)

Code of Canon Law on the Cardinals might also be helpful.


John Paul II’s Words to the Man Elected Pope

“I also ask the one who is elected not to refuse, for fear of its weight, the office to which he has been called, but to submit humbly to the design of the divine will. God who imposes the burden will sustain him with his hand, so that he will be able to bear it. In conferring the heavy task upon him, God will also help him to accomplish it and, in giving him the dignity, he will grant him the strength not to be overwhelmed by the weight of his office.”

-John Paul II, Universi Dominici Gregis, sec. 86


Why Benedict XVI Will Serve One Year Later Into Life than John Paul II

My post on the “math” behind Pope Benedict’s resignation has garnered some attention, so I wanted to speculate as to why Benedict might have set it up this way. If you haven’t read my previous post, the basic gist is that Benedict will serve the Church exactly 365 days longer than John Paul II–not that Benedict’s pontificate will be longer (JPII reigned for almost 27 years, but B16 will reign for almost 8), but that he will be exactly one year older when he abdicates than John Paul was when he died.

My speculations are as follows:

1. Benedict wants to honor the legacy of John Paul II. Many people were calling for John Paul’s resignation in the last few years of his pontificate, arguing that his ill health and frailty made him incapable of serving as pope. But John Paul stuck it out to the end and really became an example for eldercare and the morality of late-in-life health choices, namely that the dignity of the human person must be preserved and no steps should be taken to hasten death. Benedict, while having a different perspective than John Paul (see #3 below), wants to honor John Paul’s witness and serve the Church late into his life. By serving exactly 365 days longer, he nods to John Paul’s legacy and the example he gave to us.

2. John Paul II’s former personal secretary, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, has made comments criticizing Benedict XVI’s abdication as “coming down from the cross.” (Newsmax story here) I think this is exactly the kind of criticism that Benedict was hoping to circumvent (at least in the history books) by the timing of his resignation. The counter could always be: I served the Church even later into my life than John Paul–by a year!

3. Benedict wants to honor John Paul, while at the same time disagreeing with him. In 2002, he reportedly made comments that it would be “very wise” for a pope to resign if he was incapacitated by ill health.

4. Cardinal Ratzinger submitted his original resignation to John Paul II in Spring 2002 on his 75th birthday. Now, just before his 86th birthday, he’ll have served the Church 11 years past the mandatory retirement age for bishops of 75. (Just another interesting note–Benedict will not be participating in the conclave to elect the new pope, but even if he did he would be unable to vote, being past his 80th birthday.)

5. Perhaps Benedict wanted to abdicate before the canonization of John Paul II, so as not to give the impression that he was granting sainthood for the sake of an old friend. The miracle needed for John Paul II’s canonization is in the hands of the Congregation for the causes of saints (Vatican Insider).

6. Lastly, I think that Benedict wants to set a precedent for future popes. He believes the Church needs energetic leadership and that ill health late in life can preclude a man from bringing this kind of leadership to the task of governing the Church. Benedict, perhaps, is suggesting to future popes that if their old age or ill health prevents them from doing the pope’s job well that they too should abdicate and allow a younger man to fulfill the role.



Papal Resignation Math – Why February 28, 2013?

After the Pope’s shocking announcement of his resignation yesterday, I kept wondering about the timing. Why not resign right away? Why not resign at the beginning or end of a liturgical season? Why not resign on a major feast day? And why 8:00PM?

Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will abdicate the Papal throne at 8:00PM local time on February 28. I believe that most everything he does is symbolic and rich in meaning, as we saw with his gesture of laying his pallium on the tomb of Celestine V. So, if the timing of his resignation is symbolic and meaningful, how so?

First, the date: I believe the date of Pope Benedict’s resignation is tied to the death of John Paul II. Before you call me crazy, let me explain: If you calculate the time from John Paul II’s birth to death, it is 31,000 days (counting his birth-day 05/18/1920, but not his “death-day” 04/02/2005). He died 46 days short of his 85th birthday at the age of 84 years, 10 months and 15 days. Now Benedict XVI is going to resign exactly 31,365 days (counting his birthday 4/16/1927, but not his resignation day 02/28/2013) after his own birth, at the age of 85 years, 10 months and 14 days. Benedict XVI will have served as Pope exactly one year, or 365 days, later into his life than John Paul II.

Now, how about the time? Most official things in the Church–like bishop appointments–happen at noon, Rome time (CEST). The Church calendar officially changes dates at midnight–hence midnight Masses (despite the liturgy of the hours of a feast beginning the evening before). So noon or midnight would have been logical, normal, explainable times for the Pope to step down. So, why 8:00pm? Well, John Paul II was born at 5:30PM UTC+1 and died at 9:37PM UTC+1. Benedict was born at 8:30AM UTC+1 and will resign at 8:00PM UTC+1. So to be extremely precise, from John Paul II’s birth to death was 31,000 days,  4 hours, 7 minutes. From Benedict XVI’s birth to resignation will be 31,365 days, 11 hours, 30 minutes. So the exact difference between JPII’s birth-to-death and Benedict’s birth-to-resignation will be 365 days, 7 hours and 23 minutes. Ok, I have to confess at this point that the time does not seem particularly significant, only the date. If 8:00PM is meaningful, I can’t figure out why. However, I do think it is remarkable that Benedict will serve exactly one year later into life than John Paul II.


Pope Benedict XVI Resigns – What does Dante have to do with it?

Pope St. Celestine V

Pope St. Celestine V

Everyone is still shocked by the announcement made by the Pope today that he will resign, effective February 28, just 17 days from now. There are many commentators opining on the why’s and wherefores, but perhaps the most interesting strain in the commentary has to do with the last pope who resigned, St. Celestine V. Scott Hahn made an interesting post in which he mentions Pope Benedict’s two trips to pray by the tomb and relics (respectively) of Celestine V–notably the Pope left his pallium on Celestine’s tomb on April 29, 2009. (Interestingly, as Rocco Palmo notes, this pallium was the one with which Benedict was originally vested. The pope “retired” it from use and went to a smaller size of pallium. More here: Fr. Z, NLM)

St. Celestine resigned the papacy in 1294 after reigning for a mere six months. (Technically, the last Pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415, but his situation was complicated by the Avignon papacy dispute.) St. Celestine was a Benedictine monk and hermit, who actually founded an order. He was famous for his ascetical practices. He was not a cardinal at the time of his election, but did send a letter to the conclave, which upon reading it, promptly elected him, even though he was 80 years old. It reminds me of Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral of John Paul II in which he spoke against the dictatorship of relativism and described what the new Pope should be like. Apparently, anyone who tries to tell the cardinals how to go about the business of the Conclave becomes an immediate candidate!

Now, on to Dante! In his Inferno, Canto III, lines 58-63 (in Dorothy Sayers’ translation) we read:

And when I’d noted here and there a shade
Whose face I knew, I saw and recognized
The coward spirit of the man who made

The great refusal; and that proof sufficed;
Here was that rabble, here without a doubt,
Whom God and whom His enemies despised.

Now, Celestine is found in Hell’s “vestibule” here with the futile, who run around after meaningless banners, goaded by hornets. They are at the very “top” so to speak, of Dante’s Hell. Dante’s condemnation of Celestine V was rooted in the problematic reign of his successor, Boniface VIII, who imprisoned his predecessor. Apparently, Dante felt that Celestine should have embraced the office and out of cowardice or a faint heart, he abdicated, which led to very bad things in the reign of the next pope. Celestine died in a fetid jail cell. Interestingly, later on, Pope Clement V undid Dante’s literary condemnation and officially canonized Celestine V.

Later on, in the Inferno, Canto XXVII, lines 103-105, the character Guido is recounting Pope Boniface VIII’s words thusly:

Thou knowest I have the power to open or shut
The gates of Heaven, for those High Keys are twain,
    The Keys my predecessor cherished not.

Again here, Dante is condemning Pope Celestine V for his resignation of the papacy.

So, why would Benedict XVI identify with Celestine V?

  1. Both Celestine and Benedict practice Benedictine spirituality–Celestine as a hermit/monk and Benedict as an oblate (although I have had a hard time confirming that Ratzinger/Benedict is an oblate). Also, Benedict took on the name of St. Benedict and Benedict XV.
  2. Both hoped to retire from public life–Celestine as a hermit, Benedict to a quiet retirement with his brother in Germany.
  3. Both were elected very late in life–Celestine at 80 and Benedict at 78.
  4. Both saw themselves perhaps as short-term popes–Celestine for 6 months, Benedict now for 8 years.
  5. Both resigned–Celestine in 1294, Benedict in 2013.

I am glad, though, that Benedict XVI is able to trust in the Church’s wisdom in canonizing Celestine V rather than in the literary “wisdom” of Dante. In many things, Catholic thinkers and writers have deferred to Dante, but his judgment of Celestine V proved incorrect and may be shaped more by the travails of his era than by the actual facts of Celestine’s life. At this moment, it is best for all of us to pray for the conclave and the Holy Father’s sucessor. May the Holy Spirit guide the cardinals’ votes. St. Celestine V, pray for us!

Links on this topic:
Robert Moynihan, article
Robert Moynihan, lecture
Taylor Marshall