instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Magna veritas et praevalet

Judge Noonan concluded his speech at last Sunday's commencement at Notre Dame with these words:
"Great is truth. It will prevail." This scriptural text is inscribed on the Laetare Medal. Believing the Bible, sustained by this message taken from it, we can work together. Yes! We can work together, serenely secure in that trust that the truth will out.
An inspiring sentiment, but... is it true? Does the Catholic faith really provide the basis for a serenely secure trust that the United States will outlaw abortion?

I begin with a quibble: "Great is truth. It will prevail," is not from Catholic Scripture. Rather, it's from a book Catholics regard as apocryphal and the Vulgate calls 3 Esdras. (The canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah are the Vulgate's 1 and 2 Esdras, "Esdras" being the Latin form of "Ezra." There's also a non-canonical 4 Esdras.)

(Just to keep things interesting, 3 Esdras is called Esdras A in the Septuagint, and the Orthodox regard it as canonical. It's also sometimes called 1 Esdras, if the Vulgate's 1 and 2 Esdras are called Ezra and Nehemiah. (And yes, in that case 4 Esdras is called 2 Esdras.)

(Also, when I say Catholics regard it as apocryphal, I mean apocryphal, not deuterocanonical. It's not part of the Catholic canon of Scripture.)

So accepting Judge Noonan's conclusion is not quite as simple as "believing the Bible."

At the same time, rejecting his conclusion is not quite as simple as "it's not in the Bible," since 3 Esdras was widely used by the Church Fathers, and as I say the Orthodox regard it as canonical. (For that matter, literally speaking it often is "in the Bible," as an appendix.)

The old Catholic Encyclopedia points out that 3 Esdras "is made up almost entirely from materials existing in canonical books." The passage in 3 Esdras that contains the saying Judge Noonan alludes to, however, is one part of 3 Esdras that does not parallel anything in the Catholic canon.

A sub-quibble, of the relevance of which I am unsure: The Vulgate (3 Esdras 4:41) has, "magna veritas et praevalet," or, "great [is] truth and it prevails." The Latin epigram as it appears on the Laetare Medal is, "magna est veritas et praevalebit," or, "great is truth and it will prevail."

Whether there's a meaningful difference between "the truth prevails" and "the truth will prevail" remains to be seen. (And I should admit I have no idea whether the Greek can be translated as "it will prevail." If so, then any differences between the verb tenses are irrelevant to the larger question of the truth of Judge Noonan's conclusion.)