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Religion in the Encyclopedia Britannica

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The anti-Catholic bias of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has been noticeably decreasing in the last twenty years. As late as the eleventh edition, Conybeare's article on the Eucharist was an attempted refutation of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. “To the modern mind,” he concluded, “it is absurd that an image or symbol should be taken for that which is imaged or symbolized.” [1]   By 1946, however, not a syllable of the original polemic is retained. In fact, the new contributor is almost Catholic in his reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, taking sides against the Calvinian symbolist theory of the Eucharist and declaring, correctly, that before Luther's break with the Church, “the doctrine of transubstantiation was all but universally accepted” in the Christian world. [2]   Again in 1936, when a new edition of the Encyclopaedia was presented by the publishers to Cardinal Pacelli, on his visit to the United States, volume 13 of the set contained the notorious article on the Society of Jesus. Shortly afterwards another volume 13 was sent to the Cardinal, but this time containing a revised article on the Jesuits, written by Francis Talbot, the editor of America.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that these editors did not go far enough in clearing their publication of all prejudice against the Church, especially when so many Catholic institutions use the Britannica as a standard reference work but always have to warn their people against the articles on religion, which are frequently tainted with heresy and sometimes are openly hostile to Catholic thought.

A real contribution to the cause of Christ in England and America would be a critical analysis, from the Catholic viewpoint, of all the articles on religion and Church History which appear in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Only a sample of what should be done, can be given here. Two examples of offensive articles were chosen, quite at random, from the same volume 14 of the 1946 edition of the Britannica.

The first is an over-lengthy biography of Martin Luther, which begins by calling him a "great religious reformer," and after eleven thousand words of unstinted praise, ends by comparing him to Jeremiah, who was chosen by God "to tear up and break down, to plant and to build," on the ruins of the Roman Church which he helped to destroy. James MacKinnon, professor of Ecclesiastical History in the University of Edinburgh and author of several volumes on the Reformation, wrote the present article. [3]

Luther's "conversion" is explained by MacKinnon as a marvelous discovery, based on experience, that tranquility of mind is not to be found in fidelity to the practices of Roman Catholicism. As a monk at Wittenberg, "Despite the most punctilious performance of the minutiae of the rule of his order, the most rigorous asceticism, he [Luther] failed to find peace of conscience, or the assurance of acceptance in the sight of God." [4]   The plain fact is that Luther was anything but as punctilious and ascetical as the Britannica suggests. Long before his defection from the Church, he wrote in a confidential letter that he was so busy that, “It is seldom I have time for the recitation of the Divine Office or to celebrate Mass.” [5]   Grisar justly remarks on this confession that it was his duty to arrange his affairs so as to be able to comply with these obligations. The canonical hours were strictly prescribed. Saying Mass is a central obligation of every priest. “If Luther did not know how to observe due moderation in his labors; if he was derelict in the principal duties of the spiritual life, it was to be feared that he would gradually drift away from the religious state.” [6]   There was no question, therefore, of a "long spiritual struggle in the quest for a gracious God," but a long-standing neglect of prayer and the ordinary sources of grace which slowly weakened Luther's resistance to passion and temptation and finally ended in his apostasy from the Faith.

MacKinnon quotes Melancthon with favor in the latter's estimate of Luther, who, “in his role as a prophet sent by God rediscovered and vindicated the Gospel and delivered the Church from the corruption and tyranny of Rome. He belonged to the long line of God-inspired teachers and leaders who from the days of the patriarchs onwards had successfully preserved and renewed the Church. In this succession he was worthy to stand beside Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, Augustine.” [7]   But if Luther was inspired by the good Spirit, as he claimed, how explain the manifest violations of God's law, which this reputedly good Spirit led him to commit? Was it under Divine inspiration that he penned those terrible lines, “God does not save those who merely fancy themselves sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe more boldly still”? [8]   Was it also under Divine inspiration that he countermanded the injunction of Christ, by telling his followers, “Every individual ought to be free with regard to the reception of the Sacraments. If anyone does not wish to be baptized, let him please himself about it. If anyone does not wish to receive Holy Communion that is his precious right”? [9]   Moreover, the Spirit of God is chaste and undefiled, and inspires purity in those whom it fills. To say, as Luther did, of his sacrilegious union with Catherine Bora, that, "God willed it. The Lord plunged me suddenly into matrimony, while I still clung to quite other views,” is nothing short of blasphemy. [10]

In the entire scope of German letters, says a modern historian, there is nothing that may be compared with the excrescences of Luther's eloquence. His Table Talks, in six volumes, have been not unjustly called "a collection of obscenities." The students around his table frequently indicated Luther's remarks in their manuscripts by signs, such as "I" or "X," where their pen hesitated to express the lewd words of the master. Schatzger, one of the mildest of Luther's critics, in rebuking his coarseness and obscenity, says that, “He befouls the face and garments of his foes-notably Rome and the Pope with such a mass of vituperative filth (conviciorum stercora), that they are forced to save themselves by flight from the intolerable stench and dirt.” [11]   Yet, if the Britannica is to be believed, “All who knew him testify to his amiability and kindliness. His utterance was friendly. Undeniable, too, his deep piety, his striving to exercise himself in the Christian virtues, his continence and his readiness to conciliate.” [12]   This is pure fiction, which is contradicted not only by Catholics or the enemies of Protestantism, but by anyone who takes the trouble to read a few pages from Luther's own writings.

The article on Martin Luther, however, for all its misrepresentation, might be excused as a piece of emotionalism, where the author's historical judgment is obscured by his devotion to "the great German reformer." It is not so easy to excuse another article, our second example, which occurs in the same volume 14, under the title of Mary, and which deals with the Blessed Mother of God. The article is unsigned, but whoever composed it was a rationalist with a mind to discredit all the principal doctrines of Marian theology.

“In early life,” he says of Mary, “she became the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus Christ. That she afterward had other children is inferred by some-including the author, from Matthew 1:25.” [13]   Oblivious of the Gospel text which he contradicts, he tells his readers that the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity "was, to say the least, of no importance in the eyes of the evangelists." But maybe there is a basis for this doctrine in early ecclesiastical history? Not much. "So far as extant writings go, there is no evidence of its having been taught anywhere within the pale of the Catholic Church of the first three centuries." Consequently, the virginity of the Blessed Virgin is, "in reality a doctrine of non-Catholic origin and first occurs in the so-called Protoevangelium Jacobi, which is a “very early romance.” [14]

The virginity of Christ's Mother is supposed to have been of no importance to the evangelists. Why, then, do they make an issue of it and stress it so clearly? At the Annunciation, in the Gospel of St. Luke, the first recorded words of the Blessed Virgin are a question addressed to the angel when he tells her that she is to become the Mother of God. “How shall this be,” she asks him, “for I do not know man?” [15]   Christian tradition has always taken this passage as indicating not only Mary's virginity but also her perpetual vow of chastity. St. Augustine, in commenting on the text, explains that, “She would not have asked this question of the angel unless she had already vowed her virginity to God.” [16]

Again in St. Matthew, the evangelist describes with poignant detail the dramatic incident where Joseph is torn between his confidence in Mary's virginity and the injunction of the law to put away his wife because she was obviously, though mysteriously, with-child. The angel bids Joseph not to fear to take unto himself Mary his wife, for that which is conceived in her is not of man but of the Holy Ghost. Then in explanation of this unique miracle of the virgin conception and birth of Christ, the evangelist refers to a famous Old Testament prophecy: “Now all this was done that the word of the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, ‘Behold a virgin shall be with-child and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.’” [17]

Years later, St. Luke returns to the same idea, at the beginuing of Our Lord's public life. Before he gives the genealogy of Christ, from Joseph through David to Adam, he is careful to point out that Jesus was, "as it was supposed, the son of Joseph."

Is it also true, as the Britannica asserts, that there is no evidence of the doctrine of Mary's virginity having been taught anywhere in the Catholic Church during the first three centuries? The evidence is all to the contrary, namely, that it was taught everywhere, and very clearly taught, from Apostolic times, during the first three centuries, and ever since. There are two solitary exceptions among the early ecclesiastical writers, Tertullian and Origen, who barely suggested that Mary lost her virginity, not indeed through carnal intercourse before or after Christ was born, but only in giving Him birth. But Tertullian died as a heretic and Origen's teaching was condemned by the Church. Yet these are the very two "authorities" and the only ones who are quoted as representing the mind of the Church before the year 300. Whereas the unanimous teaching of the Church and the Fathers, explicitly proclaiming the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, is passed over in silence.

Christian historians assign the year 100 as approximately the date when the Apostles' Creed was formulated and in general use among the faithful. Which means that already in Apostolic times, the expression, “I believe in Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary,” was an article of faith to be accepted as a revelation from God.

About A.D. 153, St. Justin told his pagan readers that the virgin birth of Christ should not seem incredible to them when so many of their own pagan writers spoke of the sons of Zeus who were “miraculously” born. [18]

Also before the year 200, St. Ireneus rebuked the heresiarch Cerinthus for calling into question Mary's virginity which, he said, is "a rule of faith to be held by every believer" under penalty of separation from Christ. [19]   And just before the turn of the century, the Platonic philosopher, Celsus, ridiculed the virgin birth of Christ, comparing it with the Greek myths of Danae, Melanippe and Antiope. Origen the same whom the Britannica quotes against Mary's virginity-answered that Celsus wrote more like a buffoon than a philosopher. [20]

In the third century, St. Hippolytus defended Mary's integrity against Noetus, declaring that “this is the tradition of the Apostles.” [21]

By the year 400, Catholic witnesses to the traditional doctrine had exhausted their invectives against the enemies of Christ's Mother. St. Jerome devoted a special treatise to the perpetual integrity of Our Lady, in answer to the apostate Helvedius. The contrary doctrine is called "impiety." To Gennadius it was "blasphemy," to Origen "madness," to St. Ambrose “sacrilege,” to Epiphanius "a rashness exceeding all bounds," to Philostorgius "atheism," to Augustine "heresy," to Pope Siricius "the perfidy of the Jews." Wrote St. Basil, “Those who love Christ will not brook the assertion that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin.” [22]   Even Martin Luther, who warned against attributing too much to Mary's intercession because "she is no helping goddess," did not question her virginity ante et post partum. It was left to the disciples of Strauss and Renan to deny, besides the Divinity of Christ, the virginity of His Blessed Mother.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is also an essential part of Christian revelation. But for the Britannica it is only a later development of medieval piety. For “while much of the apocryphal literature of the early sects in which she is spoken of as 'undefiled before God' would seem to encourage some such doctrine as this, many passages from the acknowledged Fathers of the Church could be cited to show that it was originally unknown to Catholicism." [23]   In support of this statement, half a sentence is quoted from St. Anselm, the same Doctor who said, “It was meet that the Blessed Virgin should shine in a splendor of purity than which none greater can be conceived under God.” [24]

Previously Mary's chastity was impugned on the grounds that references to it are found in the early legends of her life. Now her Immaculate Conception is denied for the same reason, because "in the apocryphal literature she is repeatedly spoken of as undefiled." It would be just as reasonable to argue that slavery never existed in America because a novelist wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the subject, or that the Crimean War is a fable because Tennyson mentions it in one of his poems.

For an honest historian of dogma, the question is not whether the apocrypha spoke of Mary as having been conceived without sin, but whether the orthodox writers in early Christianity regarded her as "undefiled before God." To which the answer is: they did, even where, as St. Augustine, they were unable to explain how the Mother of Christ could be redeemed before the Redeemer Himself was born. “The Fathers of the Church,” declares Pius IX in his solemn definition “have testified that the flesh of the Virgin, taken from Adam, did not admit the stains of Adam, but came into the world brilliant as the dawn in her Immaculate Conception.” [25]   True, in the early stages of its development, the doctrine was not explicitly understood to mean that at the first moment of her existence, the Blessed Virgin was exempt from original sin. But equivalently and implicitly, the Fathers said as much. According to the author in the Britannica, the only witnesses in the early Church to Mary's perfect innocence were the legends in the apocrypha. This is not defensible. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin the Martyr, Ireneus, Ephrem, Modestus, Sopronius, Epiphanius, Hippolytus, Dionysius and Augustine-all before A.D. 400 are some of the ancient Fathers who testify to the absolute purity of the Mother of God, and therefore imply that she was conceived without sin. They praise her as "all holy, a virginal paradise, a virgin without the slightest taint of sin, a miracle of grace, preserved from the curse of God." No matter how highly we esteem the holiness of a converted sinner, it would be untrue to say, as the Fathers do of Mary, that he is absolutely sinless. To compare her sanctity to the untrammeled purity of the angels and even to exalt her above them is only another way of saying that she was immaculately conceived. "Most holy Lady, Mother of God," St. Ephrem prays, “alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity, alone made in every respect the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body; my Lady most holy, all pure, all immaculate, all stainless, all undefiled, all incorrupt, all inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate.” [26]

Looking back on its contents, the editors of the Britannica observe in the last volume that, "More than 3800 scholars, experts and men of affairs from all countries of the world, each an authority in his field, have written the articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica." Except in the field of religion and religious history, a Catholic is willing to admit that "no other single work has ever appeared with a list of equal weight and distinction." But morals and man's relations with God are at least as important as “arteries” and “artesian wells.”


Provincial Residence
Oak Park
, Ill.

[1]   IX, 876.

[2]   VIII, 797.

[3]   XIV, 491-498.

[4]   Ibid., 492.

[5]   Letter to John Lang, in Grisar, Luther, I, 275.

[6]   Grisar, Luther, one volume edition, p. 62.

[7]   XIV, 497.

[8]   Dr. M. Luthers Briefwechsel, III, 208.

[9]   Grisar, III, 9.

[10]   Ibid., II, 175.

[11]   Ibid., III, 237.

[12]   XIV, 497.

[13]   Ibid., 999.

[14]   Ibid.

[15]   Luke 1:34.

[16]   De Sancta Virg., 4.

[17]   Matt. 1:20-23.

[18]   Apologia, I, 21.

[19]   Adv. Haereses, lib. 3, c. 19.

[20]   Contra Celsum, I, 37.

[21]   Quoted in R. de Journal, n. 394.

[22]   Homil. In Christ Generationem, 25.

[23]   XIV, 999.

[24]   De Concepione Virginis, c. 18.

[25]   Bulla, Ineffabilis Deus, Dec. 8, 1854.

[26]   Precationes ad Deiparam, in “Opp. Gr.-Lat.,” III, p. 534-37.

American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. 123, November 1950, pp. 338-345

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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