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Magisterial Teaching on Creation
Both the Council of Trent and Vatican Council I taught that no one is permitted to interpret Sacred Scripture “contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers.” In the words of Fr. Victor Warkulwiz:
The Fathers and Doctors of the Church unanimously agreed that Genesis 1-11 is an inerrant literal historical account of the beginning of the world and the human species as related by the prophet Moses under divine inspiration. This does not mean that they agreed on every point in its interpretation, but their differences were accidental and not essential. Pope Leo XIII, following St. Augustine, affirmed the Catholic rule for interpreting Sacred Scripture, “not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires.”
For the first five centuries of the Church, all of the Fathers believed and proclaimed:
that God created the different kinds of living things instantly and immediately
That Adam was created from the dust of the earth and Eve from his side
that God ceased to create new kinds of creatures after the creation of Adam
that the Original Sin of Adam shattered the perfect harmony of the first-created world and brought human death, deformity, and disease into the world.
This patristic teaching on creation was implicit in the words of the Nicene Creed, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” Not until the Middle Ages when the Albigensian heresy denied the divine creation of the material universe did an Ecumenical Council elaborate on the first article of the creed in the following words:
God…creator of all visible and invisible things of the spiritual and of the corporal who by his own omnipotent power at once from the beginning of time created each creature from nothing, spiritual and corporal namely angelic and mundane and finally the human, constituted as it were, alike of the spirit and the body.
For 600 years, according to the foremost Catholic Doctors and commentators on this dogmatic decree, the words “at once from the beginning” signified that God created all of the different kinds of corporeal creatures and angels “simul” (“at once”). This could be reconciled with the six days of creation (the view of the overwhelming majority of the Fathers) or with the instantaneous creation envisioned by St. Augustine–but it could not be reconciled with a longer creation period. Among the commentators who taught that Lateran IV had defined the relative simultaneity of the creation of all things, perhaps the most authoritative was St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619), Doctor of the Church. In his commentary on Genesis, St. Lawrence wrote:
the Holy Roman Church determined in the Fourth Lateran Council that the angels along with the creatures of the world were at once created ex nihilo from the beginning of time.
This precise meaning of the words of Lateran IV was also explained by the most authoritative catechism in the history of the Catholic Church-the Roman Catechism-which taught that God created ALL things by his Fiat instantaneously “in the beginning” without any natural process:
[T]he Divinity created all things in the beginning. He spoke and they were made: He commanded and they were created.
According to the Roman Catechism, “Creator of heaven and earth” in the Creed also referred to the creation of all of the different kinds of living things. It states:
The earth also God commanded to stand in the midst of the world, rooted in its own foundation, and made the mountains ascend, and the plains descend into the place which he had founded for them. That the waters should not inundate the earth, He set a bound which they shall not pass over; neither shall they return to cover the earth. He next not only clothed and adorned it with trees and every variety of plant and flower, but filled it, as He had already filled the air and water, with innumerable kinds of living creatures (emphasis added) (Catechism of Trent).
Note that God created all of these creatures by his word, instantly and immediately. During the creation period, He made, specifically, trees, “every variety of plant and flower,” air creatures and water creatures and land animals. There was no evolution. There was no long interval of time.
The Council Fathers reiterated the constant teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, and Popes, that God created the first man, Adam, by an act of special creation. They wrote:
Lastly, He formed man from the slime of the earth, so created and constituted in body as to be immortal and impassible, not, however, by the strength of nature, but by the bounty of God. Man’s soul He created to His own image and likeness; gifted him with free will, and tempered all his motions and appetites so as to subject them, at all times, to the dictates of reason. He then added the admirable gift of original righteousness, and next gave him dominion over all other animals. By referring to the sacred history of Genesis the pastor will easily make himself familiar with these things for the instruction of the faithful (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
Notice that the plain sense of the “sacred history of Genesis” is so sure a guide to the truth of the creation and early history of the world and of man that the council fathers direct the pastor to read the sacred history so that he can “easily” make himself familiar with the facts. “Lastly” means God created man last. There has been no further creation since the creation of Adam and Eve. Only variation within limits established during the six days.
The Catechism of Trent underscored the teaching of all of the Fathers and Doctors that creation was complete with the creation of Adam and Eve-and that God ceased creating new kinds of creatures after creating the first human beings.
We now come to the meaning of the word sabbath. Sabbath is a Hebrew word which signifies cessation. To keep the Sabbath, therefore, means to cease from labor and to rest. In this sense the seventh day was called the Sabbath, because God, having finished the creation of the world, rested on that day from all the work which He had done. Thus it is called by the Lord in Exodus (emphasis added) (Catechism of the Council of Trent).
Note that God finished the creation of the world and all of the different kinds of creatures specifically on the sixth day of a seven day week. Soon after the Fourth Lateran Council, St. Thomas Aquinas had summed up the teaching of all the Church Fathers on the two perfections of the universe:
[T]he final perfection, which is the end of the whole universe, is the perfect beatitude of the saints at the consummation of the world; and the first perfection is the completeness of the universe at its first founding, and this is what is ascribed to the seventh day. ST, I, q. 73, a. 1.
The teaching of St. Thomas makes clear that the reason why God created the entire universe and everything in it was so that men made in the image of His Son could become saints-and not for any other reason! He also reaffirms the teaching of all of the Church Fathers who held that the original creation was perfect, complete and harmonious in all of its parts. In contrast, theistic evolution holds that all kinds of creatures evolved and became extinct long before man evolved, that there never was a perfectly complete and harmonious creation in the beginning, and that God ordained that hundreds of millions of years of death, deformity, negative mutations, and disease should exist on earth before the first human beings evolved from sub-human primates.
The teaching of the Catechism of Trent was upheld by the Magisterium well in to the twentieth century. The First Vatican Council affirmed the teaching on creation of Lateran IV word for word. The Popes who reigned during the decades after Vatican I all mandated that the Catechism of Trent be used to teach priests and faithful the true doctrine of creation. Moreover, every magisterial teaching that touched on the interpretation of Genesis 1-11 upheld the literal historical truth of Genesis 1-11.
In 1880, in an encyclical on Holy Marriage, Pope Leo XIII wrote to the Bishops as follows:
What is the true origin of marriage? That, Venerable Brethren, is a matter of common knowledge. For although the revilers of the Christian faith shrink from acknowledging the Church’s permanent doctrine on this matter, and persist in their long-standing efforts to erase the history of all nations and all ages, they have nonetheless been unable to extinguish, or even to weaken, the strength and light of the truth. We call to mind facts well-known to all and doubtful to no-one: after He formed man from the slime of the earth on the sixth day of creation, and breathed into his face the breath of life, God willed to give him a female companion, whom He drew forth wondrously from the man’s side as he slept. In bringing this about, God, in His supreme Providence, willed that this spousal couple should be the natural origin of all men: in other words, that from this pair the human race should be propagated and preserved in every age by a succession of procreative acts which would never be interrupted. And so that this union of man and woman might correspond more aptly to the most wise counsels of God, it has manifested from that time onward, deeply impressed or engraved, as it were, within itself, two preeminent and most noble properties: unity and perpetuity (emphasis added).
Pope Leo XIII also defended the traditional Catholic approach to Scriptural exegesis with his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, in which he re-affirmed the rule that Scripture scholars must “uphold the literal and obvious sense of Scripture, except where reason dictates or necessity requires.” In the light of this rule, the “sacred history” of Genesis 1-11 had to be interpreted literally unless exegetes could offer proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the literal interpretation of that history could not be true. Pope Leo’s successor, St. Pius X, was equally aware of the tendency of contemporary intellectuals to see evolution at work in theology and morality as well as in nature-and he deplored this tendency. In Lamentabili St. Pius X condemned with the full weight of his office the proposition that “the progress of the sciences demands that the concept of Christian doctrine about . . . creation . . . be recast.” He also established the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) to uphold the traditional Catholic approach to the study of the Bible and to combat modernism in Scripture study. The PBC’s rulings on the interpretation of the book of Genesis are-together with Humani Generis, but even more so-some of the last authoritative magisterial statements on the subject. In the Motu proprio, “Praestantia Scripturae,” on November 18, 1907, Pope St. Pius X declared that no one could contest the rulings of the PBC without “grave sin.”
In 1909, the PBC’s answers to several questions about Genesis 1-3 established certain truths unequivocally.
Its reply to Question I established that the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis cannot be called into question.
Its reply to Question II established that Genesis contains “stories of events which really happened, which correspond with historical reality and objective truth,” not “legends, historical in part and fictitious in part.” In short, the PBC definitively excluded the possibility that even a part of the Genesis 1-3 narrative could be fictitious and non-historical.
The PBC’s answer to Question III established that the literal and historical truth of the following facts cannot be called into question:
1) “The creation of all things wrought by God in the beginning of time”
This passage upholds the Lateran IV doctrine that all things were created by God “in the beginning of time.”
2) “The special creation of man”
Comment: This excludes any process in the formation of man and requires that the creation of man was immediate and instantaneous.
3) “The formation of the first woman from the first man”
Comment: This, too, excludes any process in the formation of the first woman and requires that the creation of Eve was immediate and instantaneous.
In 1950, in the encyclical Humani generis, Pope Pius XII gave permission to Catholic scholars to evaluate the pros and cons of human evolution. But this permission in no way abrogated the authoritative teachings cited above. Permission to investigate an alternative view is not tantamount to approval! On the contrary, it is often a means to expose an error root and branch. Pope Pius XII also called the German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand a “twentieth century Doctor of the Church.” Commenting on a Catholic catechism that spoke favorably of theistic evolution, Von Hildebrand wrote the following:
A grave error lies in the notion of “an evolutionary age” – as if it were something positive to which the Church must conform. Does the author consider it progress, an awakening to true reality, that Teilhard de Chardin’s unfortunate ideas about evolution fill the air? Does he not see that the prevailing tendency to submit everything, even truth–even divine truth!–to evolution amounts to a diabolical undermining of revealed truth? Truth is not truth if it is ever changing. The “courageous response” called for is precisely the opposite of yielding to evolutionary mythologies.
Nowadays many Catholics reject the “traditional” Catholic doctrine with respect to the special creation of man, the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, and other doctrines derived from the literal historical interpretation of Genesis 1-11 on the grounds that the authoritative teaching of the Magisterium in recent decades has “moved beyond” and “corrected” certain errors in its earlier pronouncements on these subjects in the light of scientific advances. However, in the passage quoted above Dr. Von Hildebrand has given the simple reason why the special creation of Adam and the creation of Eve from Adam’s side, among other doctrines derived from Genesis 1-11, are authoritative and unchangeable Catholic doctrine. He reminds his readers that “Truth is not truth if it is ever changing.” Therefore, it is impossible for the Magisterium to have taught these doctrines as authoritatively as it has in the past and then to contradict that authoritative teaching. This would not be a “development of doctrine,” like the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception or Papal Infallibility, but a deformation of doctrine.
Nowadays it is widely asserted that defenders of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation only accept Magisterial teachings that agree with their own views and reject more recent pronouncements that contradict earlier teachings. Since this accusation goes to the heart of the creation-evolution debate within the Catholic community, it is worth taking the time to examine it closely. What is really at issue here is whether an ambiguous or non-authoritative teaching of a Pope or Council on a matter of faith or morals trumps a more authoritative prior Magisterial teaching on the same matter. Theologian Fr. Chad Ripperger, FSSP, has written a penetrating reflection on this very question entitled “Conservative vs. Traditional Catholicism.” In his essay Fr. Ripperger observes that:
some ecclesial documents today do not have any connection to the positions held by the Magisterium prior to the Second Vatican Council. For example, in the document of Vatican II on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, there is not a single mention of the two previous documents that deal with the ecumenical movement and other religions: Leo XIII’s Satis Cognitum and Pius XI’s Mortalium Animos. The approach to ecumenism and other religions in these documents is fundamentally different from the approach of the Vatican II document or Ut Unum Sint by Pope John Paul II. While the current Magisterium can change a teaching that falls under non-infallible ordinary magisterial teaching, nevertheless, when the Magisterium makes a judgment in these cases, it has an obligation due to the requirements of the moral virtue of prudence to show how the previous teaching was wrong or is now to be understood differently by discussing the two different teachings. However, this is not what has happened. The Magisterium since Vatican II often ignores previous documents which may appear to be in opposition to the current teaching, leaving the faithful to figure out how the two are compatible, such as in the cases of Mortalium Animos and Ut Unum Sint. This leads to confusion and infighting within the Church as well as the appearance of contradicting previous Church teaching without explanation or reasoned justification.
Moreover, the problem is not just with respect to the Magisterium prior to Vatican II but even with the Magisterium since the Council. For instance, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1975 (“Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics,” as found in the official English translation of the Vatican by The Wanderer Press, 128 E. 10th St., St. Paul, MN 55101) asserts the following regarding masturbation: “The main reason is that, whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” This indicates that regardless of one’s intention or motive, the act is in itself gravely immoral. Then, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church,8 a definition is given that seems to allow for different intentions to modify whether such an act is evil or not: “Masturbationis nomine intelligere oportet voluntarium organorum genitalium excitationem, ad obtinendam ex ea veneream voluptatem” (“by the name masturbation must be understood the voluntary excitement of the genital organs to obtain venereal pleasure”). The last part of the definition therefore includes in the act of masturbation a finality – “to obtain venereal pleasure.” This appears to contradict the prior teaching of the Church as well as the teaching of the CDF. If one does not do it for the sake of pleasure, does that mean that it is not masturbation? For example, if one commits this act for the sake of determining one’s fertility, does this justify it? One can rectify the situation by arguing that when it is done for the sake of pleasure it is an instance of masturbation, but that the actual definition is what the Church has always held. Clearly, however, this example is testimony to how careless the Magisterium has become in its theological expression.
I think that it would be helpful for the reader to pause for a moment and reflect on the question, “Does the later definition of the evil of Onanism contained in the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church supersede the traditional definition reflected in the 1975 declaration by the CDF?” How one answers this question is crucial for any constructive discussion of the Church’s authoritative teaching on creation and evolution. On the one hand, the Catechism is an authoritative guide for bishops’ conferences to use in developing their own contemporary catechisms. On the other hand, the definition contained in the new Catechism leaves out an essential element of the definition that has been used since the time of the Apostles and that is contained in the 1975 declaration. When faced with a contradiction of this kind, should the faithful follow the more recent teaching because it necessarily reflects the guidance of the Holy Spirit? If so, does this mean that Onanism performed for the sake of obtaining a child through in vitro fertilization is now an acceptable moral action for Catholics? Or does the informed Catholic have an obligation to evaluate the more recent teaching in the light of the constant teaching–the “traditional doctrine”–of the Church?
The Church has always taught that an authoritative Magisterial teaching must take precedence over a less authoritative teaching on the same topic, especially when the latter teaching is ambiguous or contradicts the prior teaching. There are many examples of this in Church history. In an article on Pope St. Zosimus, the Catholic Encyclopedia teaches:
Not long after the election of Zosimus the Pelagian Coelestius, who had been condemned by the preceding pope, Innocent I, came to Rome to justify himself before the new pope, having been expelled from Constantinople. In the summer of 417 Zosimus held a meeting of the Roman clergy in the Basilica of St. Clement before which Coelestius appeared. The propositions drawn up by the deacon Paulinus of Milan, on account of which Coelestius had been condemned at Carthage in 411, were laid before him. Coelestius refused to condemn these propositions, at the same time declaring in general that he accepted the doctrine expounded in the letters of Pope Innocent and making a confession of faith which was approved. The pope was won over by the shrewdly calculated conduct of Coelestius, and said that it was not certain whether the heretic had really maintained the false doctrine rejected by Innocent, and that therefore he considered the action of the African bishops against Coelestius too hasty. He wrote at once in this sense to the bishops of the African province, and called upon those who had anything to bring against Coelestius to appear at Rome within two months. Soon after this Zosimus received from Pelagius also an artfully expressed confession of faith, together with a new treatise by the heretic on free will. The pope held a new synod of the Roman clergy, before which both these writings were read. The skillfully chosen expressions of Pelagius concealed the heretical contents; the assembly held the statements to be orthodox, and Zosimus again wrote to the African bishops defending Pelagius and reproving his accusers, among whom were the Gallic bishops, Hero and Lazarus. Archbishop Aurelius of Carthage quickly called a synod, which sent a letter to Zosimus in which it was proved that the pope had been deceived by the heretics. In his answer Zosimus declared that he had settled nothing definitely, and wished to settle nothing without consulting the African bishops. After the new synodal letter of the African council of 1 May, 418, to the pope, and after the steps taken by the Emperor Honorius against the Pelagians, Zosimus recognized the true character of the heretics. He now issued his “Tractoria”, in which Pelagianism and its authors were condemned. Thus, finally, the occupant of the Apostolic See at the right moment maintained with all authority the traditional dogma of the Church, and protected the truth of the Church against error (emphasis added) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15764c.htm
Defenders of the traditional Catholic doctrine of creation do not challenge the legitimacy of Vatican II or of the 1994 Catechism. Nor do we deny that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have made non-authoritative statements favorable to theistic evolutionism. We simply maintain that an ambiguous, tentative or non-authoritative teaching of a Pope, Bishop, or Council cannot supersede a clear, unambiguous teaching that has been handed down from the Apostles. Any such tentative or ambiguous teachings on matters of faith and morals must be understood in light of previous clear and authoritative magisterial teachings on those matters, if any have been handed down. In regard to creation and evolution, we have demonstrated that a great number of highly authoritative magisterial teachings have upheld special creation and the literal historical truth of Genesis 1-11.
Advocates for theistic evolution will object that cosmological or biological evolution are hypotheses in natural science and cannot be excluded by the Church’s creation theology. And it is true that Pope John Paul II believed his scientific advisors when they asserted that everything in the universe (except for man’s soul) could have evolved through natural processes after the creation ex nihilo of some material elements and natural laws in the beginning. But the Pope never cited any evidence that their opinion was true beyond a reasonable doubt. Moreover, Pope John Paul II’s endorsement of the evolutionary hypothesis was always tentative and never obliged our assent. For example, in one Wednesday audience he stated:
It can therefore be said that, from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith, there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man, in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution. It must, however, be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty.
Furthermore, in his famous speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996, the Holy Father admitted:
A theory’s validity depends on whether or not it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought.
One of the main reasons why evolution still appears to many Catholics to be a credible hypothesis is that it has not been subjected to rigorous critical examination in the public forum. In his encyclical letter Humani generis in 1950, Pope Pius XII asked that Catholic scholars examine the evidence for and against the hypothesis of human evolution. However, in the last 62 years only a handful of Catholic universities and research centers have given any attention to the serious shortcomings of the evolutionary hypothesis. On the eve of his election to the papacy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger approved the publication, in English, of his work Truth and Tolerance in which he observed:
There is . . . no getting around the dispute about the extent of the claims of the doctrine of evolution as a fundamental philosophy . . . This dispute has therefore to be approached objectively and with a willingness to listen, by both sides-something that has hitherto been undertaken only to a limited extent (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), pp. 179-181).
This statement was all the more remarkable in light of the fact that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has long refused to give any serious consideration to the scientific evidence against the evolutionary hypothesis, while defending a number of positions on other issues that are highly questionable from a Catholic point of view. (Questionable positions advocated by publications of the PAS include limiting family size to two children; using the so-called “brain death” criteria to determine human death; and using GMO food to combat world hunger.) During the Darwin year, the organizers of a PAS conference on evolution refused to allow any scientists to present compelling scientific evidence against the evolutionary hypothesis, even when Ph.D. level Catholic scientists offered to do so at their own expense (Cf. www.sciencevsevolution.org ).
In reality, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church–upheld by all of the Fathers and Doctors without exception–has been that the origin of man and the universe is not a question for the natural sciences but for theology. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas summed up the common view of the Fathers and Doctors that:
In the works of nature, creation does not enter, but is presupposed to the work of nature (ST, I q. 45, a. 8.).
In other words, according to St. Thomas and all the Fathers, natural processes and operations are not themselves instances of God’s creative activity; rather, they show His Providence at work in maintaining His prior work of creation, which is presupposed by the way these processes and operations now take place. In light of this traditional Catholic understanding of the distinction between Creation and Providence, the origin of man and the universe does not fall within the realm of the natural sciences.
Now, if the traditional distinction between creation and providence is correct-and the unanimous teaching of all of the Fathers must be correct on a point of this kind-all the efforts of natural scientists to demonstrate or to observe “the origin of species” in nature or in the laboratory are doomed to failure. And, indeed, this has proven to be the case. For example, more than seventy years of experiments on fruit flies to produce mutations that would make the fruit fly evolve into something else have failed miserably. Fruit flies are still fruit flies, and all of the forms produced through induced mutations are inferior to the non-mutant forms. Indeed, more than 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species, all experimental evidence and observations indicate that the evolutionary hypothesis is still, in the words of Nobel-prize winning biochemist Sir Ernst Chain, “an hypothesis without evidence and against the facts.”
For decades Catholic theistic evolutionists have attempted to defend evolution as the “only scientific explanation for origins” on the grounds that “natural science” is restricted to explanations in terms of presently-observed natural processes. “Creation,” they say, is not a “scientific” explanation for the origins of man or of other life-forms, because it does not meet this criterion. But the Church has always held that “theology” is the “queen of the sciences,” so there is nothing “unscientific” about the traditional doctrine of creation. It simply acknowledges that there are limits to how far natural scientists can extrapolate from presently-observed material processes back into the remote past. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption in the light of Divine Revelation about Creation, the Fall, and the Flood, and it is no more “un-provable” than the evolutionists’ assumption that “things have always been the same” since the beginning of creation.
Moreover, by embracing evolution as the “only scientific” explanation for the origin of the different kinds of living things, theistic evolutionists not only jettison the constant teaching of the Fathers, Doctors, Popes and Councils; they also unintentionally impugn the goodness and wisdom of God. This is because, unlike St. Thomas and the Fathers and Doctors who taught that God created all of the different kinds of creatures, perfect according to their natures, for man, in a perfectly harmonious cosmos, theistic evolutionists hold that God deliberately produced-through evolutionary processes-many different kinds of creatures only to destroy them so that something more highly evolved could take their place. Moreover, this evolutionary god used a process of mutation and natural selection that littered the earth with diseased and deformed creatures in the process of producing the alleged “beneficial mutations” that transformed reptiles into birds and chimpanzees into men. Whatever one wants to call this evolutionary god, it is not the God of the Bible, of the Fathers, and of the Doctors of the Church, of whom St. Thomas says again and again that “all His works are perfect.”
In conclusion, it has been demonstrated that there is an impressive body of highly authoritative magisterial teaching that upholds special creation and the literal historical truth of Genesis 1-11.
The burden of proof rests upon the scholar who challenges the traditional interpretation of “the sacred history of Genesis.”
All statements by Church leaders favorable to evolution have been non-authoritative or ambiguous.
One hundred and fifty years after the publication of Origin of Species, the evolutionary hypothesis remains “an hypothesis without evidence and against the facts.”
Therefore, Catholics are obliged to hold fast to the traditional doctrine of creation as it was handed down from the Apostles and to pray that the Magisterium will re-affirm the traditional doctrine of creation as soon as possible, for the good of souls and for the benefit of all the sciences.
May His Kingdom come!
Dietrich Von Hildebrand, “A Word of Caution” http://www.fatima.org/library/cr44pg18.html