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Modernism in the Catholic Church

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In a Catholic context, Modernism is neither a system, school, or doctrine, but refers to a number of individual attempts to reconcile Roman Catholicism with modern culture;[1] specifically an understanding of scripture in light of modern mainstream conceptions of archeology, philology, the historical-critical method and other new developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and implicitly all that this might entail.

Writing in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Arthur Vermeersch describes modernism thus: "In general we may say that modernism aims at that radical transformation of human thought in relation to God, man, the world, and life, here and hereafter, which was prepared by Humanism and eighteenth-century philosophy, and solemnly promulgated at the French Revolution."[2] The term came to prominence in Pope Pius X's 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis, which synthesizes and condemns modernism as embracing every heresy.[3] The movement was influenced by Protestant theologians and clergy, starting with the Tübingen School in the mid-19th century. Pius charged that it was prominent in French and British intellectual circles and, to a lesser extent, in Italy.[4] The term is generally used by critics of rather than adherents to positions associated with it.

Background: Liberal Catholicism

Liberal Catholicism was a current of thought within the Catholic Church that was influential in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, especially in France, as liberal democracy and the industrial economy sprouted throughout the developing European nation states and empires in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

It is largely identified with French political theorists such as Felicité Robert de Lamennais, Henri Lacordaire, and Charles Forbes René de Montalembert influenced, in part, by a similar contemporaneous movement in Belgium.[5] Engelbert Sterckx, Archbishop of Mechelen, Belgium, a skilled negotiator with a natural inclination to conciliatory pragmatism,[6] had managed to take advantage of the new freedoms to completely reorganize his archdiocese, establishing schools, colleges, monasteries, charities and minor seminaries in Hoogstraten and Waver.[7] Lamennais and his associates saw no conflict between Catholicism and Classical Liberalism. They advocated for an enlarged suffrage, separation of church and state, and universal freedom of conscience, instruction, assembly, and the press.

In August 1832, Pope Gregory XVI issued the encyclical Mirari vos (On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism). He attacked religious indifferentism, which was defined as the opinion that one religion is as good as another, which he saw as the basis for the argument for liberty of conscience. He also denounced the secret societies like the Carbonari that sought to overthrow the Governments of the Italian Kingdoms, and the freedom to publish or distribute any writings indiscriminately.[8]

Lamennais, under attack from French conservatives, issued in 1834 the book, Paroles d'un croyant (Words of a Believer), in which he denounced all authority, civil as well as ecclesiastical. Paroles marked Lamennais' turn to a Christian socialism that inspired a whole generation. His radical ideas reflected an overlap of Catholic and Marxist ideas that can be traced back to the 1820s.[9] The experience of the popes during the recent revolutions, being expelled from Rome, widespread unrest in the Papal States, the increasing temporal power of anti-Catholic forces, and the erosion of even spiritual allegiance, predisposed the Papacy to a reactionary stance.[10] As expected, Gregory XV issued a second encyclical, Singulari Nos of June 1834, in which he condemned Lamennais' ideas.

In August 1863, Montalembert gave speeches in Mechelen, Belgium, in which he developed his views concerning the future of modern society and the Church. His first speech aimed to show the necessity of Christianizing the new democracies by accepting the Enlightenment. His second speech dealt with liberty of conscience, concluding that the Church could be in perfect harmony with religious liberty and with the modern state.[11] Being largely political, Liberal Catholicism was distinct from, but parallel to the theological movement of modernism.[12]


Ernest Renan
Ernest Renan

Catholic studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries avoided the use of critical methodology because of its rationalist tendencies. Frequent political revolutions, bitter opposition of “liberalism” to the church, and the expulsion of religious orders from France and Germany, made the church understandably suspicious of the new intellectual currents.[13]

In 1863, Ernest Renan published Vie de Jésus (Life of Jesus). Renan had trained for the priesthood before choosing a secular career as a philologist and historian. His book described Jesus as "un homme incomparable", a man, no doubt extraordinary, but only a man. The book was very popular, but cost him his chair of Hebrew at the College de France. Among Renan's most controversial ideas was that "a miracle does not count as a historical event; people believing in a miracle does. Renan’s Jesus is a man of simple piety and almost unimaginable charisma whose main historical significance was his legion of followers.[14]

Quanta cura

Gregory XVI was succeeded by Pope Pius IX, who in December 1864 issued the encyclical Quanta cura, decrying what he considered significant errors afflicting the modern age. It condemned certain propositions such as: "the people’s will, manifested by what is called public opinion..., constitutes a supreme law, free from all divine and human control"; on civil law alone depend all rights of parents over their children, and especially that of providing for education; and that religious orders have no legitimate reason for being permitted.[15] Some of these condemnations were aimed at anticlerical governments in various European countries, which were in the process of secularizing education and taking over Catholic schools, as well as suppressing religious orders and confiscating their property.[16] Attached to the encyclical was a "Syllabus of Errors" which had been condemned in previous papal documents, requiring recourse to the original statements to be understood. The government of France briefly tried to suppress the circulation of the encyclical and the Syllabus within its borders; it forbade priests to explain the Syllabus from the pulpit, though newspapers were allowed to discuss it from a secular point of view. Among the propositions condemned in the Syllabus were:

  • "7. The prophecies and miracles set forth and recorded in the Sacred Scriptures are the fiction of poets, and the mysteries of the Christian faith the result of philosophical investigations. In the books of the Old and the New Testament there are contained mythical inventions, and Jesus Christ is Himself a myth."
  • "13. The method and principles by which the old scholastic doctors cultivated theology are no longer suitable to the demands of our times and to the progress of the sciences."—"Letters to the Archbishop of Munich", "Tuas libenter," Dec. 21, 1863.

First Vatican Council

The First Vatican Council was held from December 1869 to October 1870. It was convoked to deal with the issue of the rising influence of rationalism, liberalism, and materialism. The objects of the council were to be the correction of modern errors and a revision of the Church legislation. The council provoked a degree of controversy even before it met. In anticipation that the subject of papal infallibility would be discussed, a number of bishops expressed the opinion that the time was "inopportune". Ignaz von Döllinger, provost of St. Cajetan and professor of church history at Munich, led a movement in Germany hostile to the council. Six years before, he had invited 100 theologians to meet at Mechelen and discuss the question which the liberals Lamennais and Lacordaire had raised in France, namely, the attitude that should be assumed by the Roman Catholic Church towards modern ideas. In his address, “On the Past and Future of Catholic Theology”, Döllinger advocated for greater academic freedom.[17]

The dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Dei Filius, defended the fundamental principles of Christianity against the errors of modern Rationalism, Materialism, and atheism. The other dogmatic Constitution addressed the primacy of the pope and rejected the idea that decrees issued by the pope for the guidance of the Church are not valid unless confirmed by the secular power. It also declared the infallibility of the pope when speaking "ex cathedra" on matters of faith. Other matters were deferred when the Piedmontese infantry entered Rome and the council was prorogued.[18]

Pope Leo XIII

In 1878, Pope Leo XIII had encouraged the study of history and archaeology. In 1887 he encouraged the study of the natural sciences, and in 1891 opened the Vatican Observatory.[19] Leo's response to the modernist trend to undermine the authority of sacred scripture, was for the Church to have its own trained experts. In 1893, with Providentissimus Deus, Pope Leo gave the first formal authorization for the use of critical methods in biblical scholarship.[20] "Hence it is most proper that Professors of Sacred Scripture and theologians should master those tongues in which the sacred Books were originally written,[21] and have a knowledge of natural science.[22]. He recommended that the student of scripture be first given a sound grounding in the interpretations of the Fathers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Augustine and Jerome,[23] and understand what they interpreted literally, and what allegorically; and note what they lay down as belonging to faith and what is opinion.[24]

At the turn of the 20th century the official Catholic attitude to the study of Sacred Scripture was one of cautious advance, and at the same time of a growing appreciation of what had promise for the future.[25] In 1902, Pope Leo XIII instituted the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which was to adapt Roman Catholic Biblical studies to modern scholarship and to protect Scripture against attacks.[26]

Marie-Joseph Lagrange

In 1890 the École Biblique, the first Catholic school specifically dedicated to the critical study of the bible, was established in Jerusalem by Dominican Marie-Joseph Lagrange. In 1892 Pope Leo XIII gave his official approval. While many of Lagrange's contemporaries criticized the new scientific and critical approach to the Bible, he made use of it. Lagrange founded the Revue Biblique, and his first articles drew sharp criticism, but Pope Leo was not inclined to discourage new ideas.[27] As long as Pope Leo lived, Lagrange's work quietly progressed, but after Leo's death, an ultra-conservative reaction set in.[27] The Historical-Critical Method was considered suspect by the Vatican. Père Lagrange, like other scholars involved in the 19th-century renaissance of biblical studies, was suspected of being a Modernist.[28] In 1912 Lagrange was given an order for the Revue Biblique to cease publication and to return to France. The École itself was closed for a year, and then Lagrange was sent back to Jerusalem to continue his work.

Duchesne and Loisy

Louis Duchesne, 1899
Louis Duchesne, 1899

Louis Duchesne was a French priest, philologist, teacher, and amateur archaeologist. Trained at the École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, he applied modern methods to Church history, drawing together archaeology and topography to supplement literature and setting ecclesiastical events within the contexts of social history. Duchesne held the chair of ecclesiastical history at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and was frequently in contact with like-minded historians among the Bollandists, with their long history of critical editions of hagiographies.[29] Duchesne gained fame as a demythologizing critical historian of the popular, pious lives of saints produced by Second Empire publishers.[30] However, his Histoire ancienne de l'Église, 1906‑11 (translated as Early History of the Christian Church) was considered too modernist by the Church at the time, and was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1912.

Alfred Loisy was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian generally credited as a founder of Biblical Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church.[31] He had studied at the École pratique under Duchesne. Harvey Hill says that the development of Loisy's theories originated not within an early modernist movement, but in the context of France's Church-State conflict, which contributed to Loisy's crisis of faith in the 1880s. In November 1893, Loisy published the last lecture of his course, in which he summed up his position on Biblical criticism in five propositions: the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, the first five chapters of Genesis were not literal history, the New Testament and the Old Testament did not possess equal historical value, there was a development in scriptural doctrine, and Biblical writings were subject to the same limitations as those by other authors of the ancient world.[32] Loisy came to regard the Christian religion more as a system of humanistic ethics than as divine revelation.[33] He was excommunicated in 1908.[34]

Pius X

Pope Pius X, who succeeded Leo in 1903, opposed both the aims and ideas of modernism and various nineteenth-century philosophies, which he viewed as an import of secular errors incompatible with Catholic dogma. In July 1907 the Holy Office published the document Lamentabili sane exitu, a sweeping condemnation which distinguished sixty-five propositions as modernist heresies.[citation needed] In September of the same year Pius X promulgated the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, which formulated a sweeping synthesis of modernism and popularized the term itself. The encylical condemned the movement as embracing every heresy,[3] and effectively expelled it from the Catholic Church.

Pius frequently condemned the movement, and was deeply concerned that its adherents could go on believing themselves strict Catholics while understanding dogma in a markedly untraditional sense (a consequence of the notion of evolution of dogma).[citation needed] In 1910, he introduced an anti-modernist oath to be taken by all Catholic university professors, while he shut down "the only notable American Catholic magazine", the Ecclesiastical Review "precisely when it was needed to challenge the increasing influence of John Dewey’s pragmatism."[35]

To ensure enforcement of these decisions, Monsignor Umberto Benigni organized, through his personal contacts with theologians, an unofficial group of censors who would report to him those thought to be teaching condemned doctrine.[citation needed] This group was called the Sodalitium Pianum, i.e. Fellowship of Pius (X), which in France was known as La Sapinière.[citation needed] Its frequently overzealous and clandestine methods often hindered rather than helped the Church in its combat with modernism.[36][37]

Twentieth century

After the pontificate of Pius X, "there was a gradual abatement of attacks against modernists, beginning in 1914 when Benedict XV urged Catholics to cease condemning fellow believers."[38]

In the period between World War II and the Cold War Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. was the "torchbearer of orthodox Thomism" against modernism.[39] Garrigou-Lagrange, who was a professor of philosophy and theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum, is commonly held to have influenced the decision in 1942 to place the privately circulated book Une école de théologie: le Saulchoir (Étiolles 1937) by Marie-Dominique Chenu O.P. on the Vatican's "Index of Forbidden Books" as the culmination of a polemic within the Dominican Order between the Angelicum supporters of a speculative scholasticism and the French revival Thomists who were more attentive to historical hermeneutics, such as Yves Congar O.P..[citation needed] Congar's Chrétiens désunis was also suspected of modernism because its methodology derived more from religious experience than from syllogistic analysis.[39][40][page needed][41][42][page needed]

The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s is seen as a vindication of much that the modernists maintained "In an environment of suspicion and unrelenting personal attack". The aggiornamento of the council incorporated most of the advances in biblical and church studies that had been put forth by Catholic scholars over the previous century.[38] Reference to modernism continues to survive among traditionalists within the Church.[43][44][45]

Forms of modernism

At the heart of Modernist theory is the assertion that objective truth is received subjectively.[46] Modernism in the Catholic Church was the subject of the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis of Pope Pius X.[3] Modernism may be described under the following broad headings:

  • A rationalistic approach to the Bible sought to interpret the Bible by focusing on the text itself as a prelude to considering what the Church Fathers had traditionally taught about it.[citation needed]
  • Secularism and other Enlightenment ideals. The ideal of secularism can be briefly stated as follows: the best course of action in politics and other civic fields is that which flows from a common understanding of the Good by various groups and religions.[citation needed]
  • Modern philosophical systems. Philosophers such as Kant and Bergson inspired the mainstream of modernist thought. One of the latter's main currents attempted to synthesize the vocabularies, epistemologies, metaphysics and other features of certain modern systems of philosophy with Catholicism in much the same way as the Scholastic order had earlier attempted to synthesize Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy with the Church's teaching.[citation needed]
  • Theological rebellion in contradistinction or opposition to the Church's official policies.

As more naturalistic and scientific studies of history appeared, a way of thinking called historicism arose which suggested that ideas are conditioned by the age in which they are expressed; thus modernists generally believed that most dogma or teachings of the Church were novelties which arose because of specific circumstances obtaining at given points in its history.[citation needed] At the same time rationalism and literary criticism reduced the possible role of the miraculous, so that the philosophical systems in vogue at the time taught among other things that the existence of God could never be known (see Agnosticism).[citation needed] Theology, formerly “queen of the sciences”, was dethroned.[47][full citation needed]

Evolution of dogma

The final overall teaching of modernism is that dogmata (the teachings of the Church, which its members are required to believe) can evolve over time – not only in their expression but also in their substance – rather than remaining the same in substance for all time.[citation needed] Using the new idea that doctrines evolve, it was possible for the modernist to believe that both the old teachings of the Church and her new, seemingly contradictory teachings were correct — each group had its time and place.[48] This system allows almost any type of new belief which the modernist in question might wish to introduce, and for this reason modernism was labelled by Pope Pius X as "the synthesis of all heresies".[48]

The "evolution of dogma" theory (see Development of doctrine), much in the manner of Luther's theory of salvation sola fide ('by faith alone') allows for a constant updating of standards of morality.[citation needed] The phrase sola fide derives from Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, a Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas: et si sensus deficit, | ad firmandum cor sincerum | sola fides sufficit.[citation needed] Since majority moral standards shifted heavily during the 20th century, Catholics not accepting the theory were placed in the position of having to abstain from receiving Communion if they wished to engage in some of the actions of some of their fellow-religionists.[citation needed]

Notable modernists

Major figures

Less public modernists

In America

The New York Review was a journal produced by Saint Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie). While the "Review" itself never published an article that was suspect, but it did print papers by leading Catholic Biblical experts who were part of the newly emerging schools of Biblical criticism, which raised eyebrows in Rome. Around 1908, the "Review" was discontinued, ostensibly for financial reasons, although there is evidence that it was suppressed.[50][51]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Bella, Julius I. “Father Tyrrell's Dogmas.” Church History, vol. 8, no. 4, 1939, pp. 316–341. JSTOR
  2. ^ Vermeersch, Arthur (1911). "Modernism". The Catholic Encyclopedia. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Pope Pius X (8 September 1907). "Pascendi Dominici Gregis". The Holy See (in Latin). Retrieved 8 June 2016.Pascendi dominici gregis English translation:
  4. ^ O'Connell, Marvin Richard (1994). Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 9780813208008. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  5. ^ Bury, J.P.T., "Religion and Relations of Churches and States", The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 10, CUP Archive, 1960 ISBN 9780521045483
  6. ^ Viaene, Vincent. Belgium and the Holy See from Gregory XVI to Pius IX (1831-1859), Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2001, p. 82ISBN 9789058671387
  7. ^ "Englebert Sterckx", Das Portal zur katholischen Geisteswelt
  8. ^ Chadwick, Owen. "Gregory XVI", A History of the Popes, 1830-1914, Oxford University Press, 2003 ISBN 9780199262861
  9. ^ Strube, Julian (2016). Sozialismus, Katholizismus und Okkultismus im Frankreich des 19. Jahrhunderts. De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston ISBN 978-3-11-047810-5.
  10. ^ Schultenover, S.J., David G., A View from Rome: On the Eve of the Modernist Crisis, New York: Fordham University Press, 1993
  11. ^ Goyau, Georges. "Comte de Montalembert." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 9 January 2019 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. ^ a b c d e "Modernism". New Catholic Encyclopedia. The Gale Group Inc. 2003. Retrieved 17 May 2019 – via
  13. ^ Donahue, John R., "Biblical Scholarship 50 years After Divino Afflante Spiritu", America, September 18, 1993
  14. ^ Theiss, Will. "The Pale Galilean: Ernest Renan, Jesus, and Modern History", Marginalia, Los Angeles Review of Books, March 16, 2018
  15. ^ Pope Pius IX. Quanta Cura, §4, December 8, 1864
  16. ^ Hales, E.E.Y. The Catholic Church in the Modern World, (Doubleday, 1958)
  17. ^ Howard, Thomas Albert. "A Question of Conscience", Commonweal, September 29, 2014
  18. ^ Kirch, Joseph. "Vatican Council." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 15 May 2019 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  19. ^ Murphy, Richard T. “The Teachings of the Encyclical ‘Providentissimus Deus’”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1943, pp. 125–140. JSTOR
  20. ^ Prior, Joseph G., The Historical Critical Method in Catholic Exegesis, Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 1999 ISBN 9788876528255
  21. ^ Pope Leo XIII. "Providentissimus Deus", §17, November 18, 1893, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  22. ^ Providentissimus Deus, §18.
  23. ^ Providentissimus Deus, §7.
  24. ^ Providentissimus Deus, §19.
  25. ^ "Regarding history of Biblical interpretation", Catholic Sentinel, Archdiocese of Portland., December 13, 2011
  26. ^ "Biblical Commission." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  27. ^ a b Becker O.P., John Vianney. "Pere LaGrange", Dominicana
  28. ^ "Our Founder", École biblique et archéologique française de Jerusalem
  29. ^ De Smedt, Charles. "The Bollandists." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. March 15, 2013 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  30. ^ Strenski, Ivan. Theology and the First Theory of Sacrifice, BRILL, 2003, p. 220 ISBN 9789047402732
  31. ^ Wolfgang Weiß (1993). "Loisy, Alfred Firmin". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 190–196. ISBN 3-88309-043-3.
  32. ^ Boynton, Richard Wilson. "The Catholic Career of Alfred Loisy", The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1918), pp. 36-73, Cambridge University Press
  33. ^ Schultenover, David G."The Politics of Modernism: Alfred Loisy and the Scientific Study of Religion (review)", The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 89 no. 1, 2003, pp. 114-115
  34. ^ Encyclopedia Americana (Volume 17: 1969), pgs 707-708. Article by Francis J. Hemelt of The Catholic University of America
  35. ^ "Blast From the Past: Pope St. Pius X". National Catholic Reporter. 2010-09-03. Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  36. ^ "Modernism (Roman Catholicism)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 8 December 2006. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  37. ^ Thomas Marschler (2002). "Benigni, Umberto". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). 20. Nordhausen: Bautz. cols. 113–116. ISBN 3-88309-091-3.
  38. ^ a b c d "Viewpoint: Revisiting the modernists". Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  39. ^ a b Losito, Giacomo (2011). "Le eredità/2: i postumi della crisi modernista [1914-1958]" [Inheritances / 2: The Aftermath of the Modernist Crisis [1914-1958]]. Treccani (in Italian). l'Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  40. ^ Congar, Yves (1937). Chrétiens désunis: principes d'un "oecuménisme" catholique [Disunited Christians: Principles of a Catholic "Ecumenism"]. Unam sanctam (in French). 1. Paris: Éditions du Cerf. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  41. ^ McBrien, Richard P., ed. (1995). "Modernism". The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1st ed.). New York: Harper Collins. p. 304. ISBN 9780060653385. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  42. ^ McInerny, Ralph (2006). Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 9780813214580. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  43. ^ "Modernism". Catholic Answers. Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  44. ^ "The Seven Great Threats to the Catholic Church in Modern America". Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  45. ^ "Manifestations of Modernism". Retrieved 2019-12-30.
  46. ^ Porter, William L., Divided Friends, CUA Press, 2013, p. xx ISBN 9780813221649
  47. ^ Wilkinson, 2002
  48. ^ a b Akin, James (November 1994). "Modernism". This Rock.
  49. ^ Roditi, Edouard (1946). "Henri Brémond: Poetics as Mystagogy". The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 4 (4): 229–235. doi:10.2307/426531. ISSN 0021-8529. JSTOR 426531.
  50. ^ DeVito, Michael J., "The New York Review (1905-1908)", (New York: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1977), Chapter 6
  51. ^ Buonaiuti, Ernesto, 1881-1946. (1908). The programme of modernism : a reply to the encyclical of Pius X, Pascendi dominici gregis. T. Fisher Unwin. ISBN 0-7905-7208-7. OCLC 689131918.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)


External links

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