Several years ago, I was
on a panel in Montreal with Jesuit Fr. Bill Cain, head writer of ABC-TV's
short-lived series "Nothing Sacred." Cain described the negative reaction
the show had received in some Catholic circles, but expressed confidence
that someday its value would be recognized.
"Today they silence you, and in 200 years they beatify you," Cain
joked. "That seems to be the way it goes in the church."
"Cain's Law" is hardly universal, but it is spot-on for the early 19th
century Italian philosopher and theologian Fr. Antonio Rosmini, whose
works were censured during and after his life, but who today stands on the
brink of sainthood.
On Monday, 155 years after Rosmini's death, Benedict XVI signed a
"decree of heroic virtue," clearing the first hurdle towards Rosmini's
beatification. In fact, Benedict approved 19 decrees on Monday, moving
forward the causes of 162 candidates.
In his famous 1848 work The Five Wounds of the Church, Rosmini
identified the most grave challenges facing the church of his day as he
- The division of the people from the clergy in worship (due to
ignorance and the use of Latin),
- The defective education of the clergy,
- The disunion of bishops (due to territorialism, nationalism and
- The nomination of bishops by the secular power (rather than by
- The enslavement of the church by riches (due to the long shadow of
These positions may seem unremarkable today, but at the time they
generated enormous controversy, and left Rosmini under a cloud. In 1887,
22 years after Rosmini's death, the Holy Office issued a decree Post
obitum in which 40 "propositions" lifted from Rosmini's work were
condemned. For example, Rosmini was accused of favoring "ontologism," a
sort of philosophical form of pantheism. While the "propositions" largely
had to do with the mystery of God and creation, the politics of the 19th
century hovered in the background, especially Rosmini's openness to
Italian unification over against defenders of the temporal power of the
For more than a century, Rosmini's supporters, including the Institute
of Charity which he founded, pushed for a reevaluation.
In 1984, John Paul II approved the opening of a beatification cause for
Rosmini, and in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio, John Paul
referred to Rosmini as an example of the "fruitful relationship between
philosophy and the word of God in the courageous research pursued by more
recent thinkers." (Also included on that list was John Henry Newman,
another churchman who stood under a cloud for a period of time.)
All this led to a nota of the Congregation of the Doctrine of
Faith dated July 1, 2001, which declared that the motives that led to the
1887 condemnation "can now be considered superseded," concluding that the
aberrant material in the 40 propositions "does not belong to the authentic
position of Rosmini." In effect, the nota amounted to an official
With Monday's action by Benedict XVI, Rosmini is now an authenticated
miracle away from beatification, and two from officially being declared a
One lesson the Rosmini saga may suggest is caution about hurling
accusations against today's disputed writers and activists, of whatever
stripe. While "Cain's Law" doesn't apply in every case, nevertheless
history indicates that often time has to pass before the church can reach
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