Catholic priests invented the concordance & search engine


-by Br Ephrem Maria Reese, OP

“Dominicans invented the Bible concordance. It was Hugh of St. Cher, one of the great academics of the early friars preachers, who first accomplished the feat, and his students developed the concordance over subsequent generations. A concordance is an index of words found in the Bible, and indicates where they are located by chapter and verse. This tool has become an indispensable part of the study of Sacred Scripture, and Dominicans are happy to claim it.

But Dominicans didn’t invent the search engine. Father Roberto Busa, a Jesuit, deserves the credit for that innovation. And I admit that I use search engines much more than I use concordances in my studies.

Histories of the search engine may begin at a more advanced stage of computing, but it seems right to me, and downright charming, to begin with Fr. Busa. In 1946, the Italian Jesuit submitted his dissertation on Saint Thomas Aquinas’ use of the word “in” when describing the presence of God. To aid his work, he created a concordance of Aquinas (not the Bible), which consisted of handwritten note cards. But he needed more power, so he went to the Americans.

In a 1949 meeting with IBM in New York, the priest requisitioned an inspirational poster off the wall and cited its hyperbolic claim to innovation in order to convince the company’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, to help devise a machine-assisted concordance of Aquinas’s works. This concordance eventually became the Index Thomisticus. Today many scholars refer to an online resource, the Corpus Thomisticum, which provides a searchable version of Busa’s Index, among other tools.

This application of business technology to sacred study is almost a parable. The technical world is capturing the strongholds of the human spirit. Dorothy Day, among those suspicious of this infestation, said that “he who lives by the sword will fall by the sword and he who lives by the machine will fall by the machine.” Christians live instead by the light of Christ. But by a divine instinct, it is sometimes possible to seize the divine purpose of the machine. God’s design quietly supervenes in the devisings of man. Roberto Busa listened to the Spirit, crossed the world, and made it possible for Thomists to mine every “in” found within the sparkling caves of one of the Spirit’s most eloquent spokesmen.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

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