Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
"There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God." --Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
E-Mail Catholic Analysis: email@example.com
Academic Book Series: Point to Covers to See Titles
Links below do not necessarily imply blanket endorsement of their contents or sponsors.CrispAds Blog Ads
Google Custom Search
Google Custom SearchBook Reviews
Saturday, January 11, 2003
From Scandal to Hope: Marching Orders from Fr. Benedict Groeschel
By Oswald Sobrino
Fr. Groeschel’s latest book From Scandal to Hope has been published to provide troubled Catholics with a framework to understand the Great American Purification the Church is now undergoing. As he did in the wake of September 11th, Fr. Groeschel offers his experience and spirituality for our benefit. He even includes suggested prayers from the points of view of victims, laity, and clergy. In my opinion, there are few more convincing voices on the American Catholic scene than this friar. I believe that stems from the fact that he is truly a free man who long ago jettisoned the inhibitions of religious correctness in founding a new religious order, the Franciscans of the Renewal, for the precise purpose of reforming and renewing the Church.
A great and unmistakable sign of hope is that the preface is written by the Rev. Timothy M. Dolan, auxiliary bishop of St. Louis, who is ready to respond to the book’s call to reform. The Rev. Dolan is now the Archbishop of Milwaukee. The suffering of the faithful Catholics of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee under Rembert Weakland has been duly rewarded.
Apart from the gems of insight that appear throughout the book, it is refreshing to see the author “name names.” Groeschel does not hesitate to point to some of those responsible for the moral and doctrinal confusion and foolishness that has spawned our current troubles. Two of the individuals he names are former priests: psychologist Eugene Kennedy and psychotherapist Richard Sipe. Both have engaged in commentary on the homosexual scandal. Yet, Groeschel points to their theories as helping to spawn the crisis. Kennedy’s theory called “the third way” proposed that “those vowed to chastity could have warm, close, emotionally expressive relationships with members of the opposite sex and nothing would happen.”1 Groeschel points to the role this foolishly naive theory had in leading many priests to leave the priesthood for marriage. This same weakening of common sense on sexual matters led to the emergence of a permissive gay subculture in society and in the Church. While warning us of the current media analysis of Kennedy and Sipe, Groeschel does point to an expert worth listening to: Prof. Philip Jenkins, a Penn State scholar who, ironically, is non-Catholic. This irony points to the continuing depreciation of the label “Catholic” to the point that sometimes we are better off listening to the common sense of non-Catholic experts than to the absurdities of self-styled “Catholic” experts. Nowadays, once a commentator identifies himself as Catholic, it is time to start asking questions about what he or she exactly espouses. It is certainly not the time to assume anything about their beliefs.
Prof. Jenkins, the non-Catholic, has some interesting points about our current purification. One of which needs to be shouted again and again from the rooftops: the scandal is not about pedophilia, rather it is about “active homosexuality with minors.” 2 Jenkins has also opined that media coverage has been unfair to the Church—a notion affirmed recently by two prominent Latin American cardinals.3 Jenkins also questions the media’s failure to be sufficiently critical of the trial lawyers chasing the Church’s assets.4
In beginning his analysis, Groeschel traces the decline of the Church in America. He catalogues what we all have seen: “an alarming decline in spirituality” and the “disgraceful” state of Catholic religious education and general education in the United States.5 All of which go back to widespread relativism in moral theology.6 His marching orders for us are worth quoting in full:
Now is a time for reform. It must begin on all sides, and people have to clamor for it. Bishops will have to clamor among bishops, priests among priests, religious brothers and sisters among the members of their own communities, and devout Catholic laity in their own parishes. In fact, every person who wishes to see the United States return to being a moral nation should join in this clamor. Otherwise, we are in irreversible decline [emphasis added].7
The rest of the book is an explanation of what is involved in this clamor for reform.
Groeschel also makes clear what that clamor should not include. He rejects the opportunism of liberal Catholics in calling this a crisis of celibacy and again cites the research of Prof. Jenkins in support.8 He also rejects the clamor of those traditional Catholics who “have been scathing and disrespectful of the bishops and even of the Holy Father.”9 Groeschel does favorably recommend Michael Rose’s book on the homosexual subculture in seminaries as contributing to a better understanding of the roots of the scandal.10 Groeschel corroborates the factual basis of Rose’s book: “I know for a fact that much of what Rose says is true, and that good, orthodox, chaste seminarians were discriminated against in some seminaries.” 11 Groeschel qualifies that endorsement somewhat by pointing out that Rose “gives a somewhat lopsided but fairly accurate account of this scandal.”12 Groeschel sticks by this judgment even though he acknowledges that Rose “may move over the line occasionally into gossip or an overly judgmental attitude toward those who are trying to walk a middle way.” 13 Groeschel also takes note of Rose’s hypothesis “that the corruption of seminaries was purposeful in order to undermine the celibate male priesthood.”14 As to this hypothesis, Groeschel himself is not sure if he “would go that far.” 15 Because of his long experience in dealing with priests and their training, Fr. Groeschel’s appraisal is valuable to a beleaguered laity bombarded with theories about the roots of the scandals from all sides.
More important are Groeschel’s recommendations for lay action. He points out that many “reformers in Church history were laypeople, either when they started or all through their lives,” and he mentions Sts. Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Francis of Assisi, and Ignatius Loyola.16 His specific recommendations for lay action follow.17 First, each of us should follow the Gospel regardless of the mockery and doubts of others, relying on Scripture reading and the sacraments of the Eucharist and penance. As to the liturgy, he urges the laity to dress decently, not in the casual style that has become all too common, and to insist that their churches be places where one can pray before or after the Mass without the distraction of loud talk. He also urges parents to keep a close eye on what is being taught in Catholic schools and religious education programs. He calls on Catholic alumni to donate to orthodox Catholic colleges and universities, and not to reflexively respond to any request for money without first finding out how genuinely Catholic the institution, which they attended in the past, is today.
In describing the current situation, Groeschel gives us clear-eyed judgments that confirm what many of us have long suspected and experienced. He points to the root of the Church’s problem as a culture of dissent fostered by an inadequate theology distant from genuine spirituality and mentions Father Richard McBrien’s work Catholicism as a prominent example.18 He quotes Cardinal Newman at length on the dangers of misguided intellectualism making “our own minds the measure of all things,” including revelation.19 In my view, Newman’s quoted comments go a long way toward explaining the precipitate decline of the Jesuit order in recent years.
Groeschel sums up the laity’s task in fighting this culture of dissent: “Talk, write, suggest, implore” and if necessary withhold your donations.20 The dissenters are busy doing all of the above in pursuit of their special, and sometimes obsessive, agenda. As a sign of that obsession with dissent, witness the farcical attempt to ordain women priests in Austria in 2002. It is time that all loyal Catholics join the battle in responsible fashion. In regard to lay involvement, Groeschel agrees with Russell Shaw’s suggestion that we need “collegial bishops.” 21 But a word of caution is in order for the reader. What Groeschel means by collegiality is very different from the use of the word by dissenting Catholics. Groeschel defines “collegiality” as “loyalty to the practical working out of Church teaching in very specific circumstances.” 22 In this regard, he quotes John Paul II’s plea for “ ‘a deep and convinced unity of the pastors with the successor of Peter . . .. ’ ” 23 The liberal or so-called progressive definition of collegiality is far different. For liberals, “collegiality” is a code word meaning independence to experiment free from papal interference, not working together in communion with the pope. For example, under Groeschel’s definition, former Milwaukee Archbishop Weakland was not a collegial bishop. On the other hand, under the liberal definition, the purpose of collegiality is to create more Weaklands. Like the word “Catholic” itself, the term “collegiality” cannot be taken at face value without further inquiry as to the unstated definition being used.
Fr. Groeschel’s little book is packed with more insights, especially concerning the religious orders he knows so well and their current “catastrophic decline.”24 His straightforward, unflinching appraisal of the American Church paints an accurate picture of complacency and mediocrity. Yet, he ends on a Christian note of hope hearkening back to his mentor in the religious life: “But when I see the totally unexpected and unprecedented spirit of reform in very young Catholics and other Christians of our time, I am forced to conclude that St. Francis has something very special to say to our troubled times. He can be for all of us a model of Gospel reform.” 25 Groeschel views the orthodoxy of these young Catholics as “miraculous” given their deficient religious education.26 The Holy Spirit is still at work in His Church.
1. Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., From Scandal to Hope, pp. 22-23 (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing 2002),
2. Groeschel, p. 26.
3. Groeschel, p. 32.
5. Groeschel, pp. 35-36.
6. Groeschel, p. 37.
7. Groeschel, p. 38.
8. Groeschel, p. 46.
10. Groeschel, p. 59.
13. Groeschel, p. 102.
14. Groeschel, p. 104.
16. Groeschel, p. 72.
17. The recommendations described in the following paragraphs are found in pp. 72-129.
18. Groeschel, p. 98.
19. Groeschel, pp. 98-100.
20. Groeschel, p. 142.
21. Groeschel, p. 143.
23. Groeschel, p. 144.
24. Groeschel, p. 106.
25. Groeschel, p. 182.
26. Groeschel, p. 81.
Friday, January 10, 2003
Note: Today's post is a review of a little book that Fr. Groeschel published in the aftermath of the September 11th attack to provide a Christian response to our current situation. It is still relevant more than a year after Sept. 11th as the war on terrorism continues, and will most likely expand, in 2003.
Benedict Groeschel’s The Cross at Ground Zero
Reviewed by Oswald Sobrino
Father Benedict Groeschel, who is familiar to many from his work on EWTN and from his many books on spirituality, has written a small but highly significant book, The Cross at Ground Zero (Our Sunday Visitor 2001), on the meaning of the September 11th tragedy and atrocity that befell our country. He combines great empathy and sorrow for the tragic loss of innocent human life with a sharp prophetic message urging America to change her ways before more devastation comes our way. It is a message that only a figure uninhibited by political or institutional constraints can deliver. In other words, a prophetic message from a figure who is unafraid to point out some harsh truths about contemporary America.
The book is divided into four chapters originating in four talks the author delivered on the Eternal Word Television Network. The first talk focuses on individuals' asking why God permitted this awful taking of innocent human life with its consequent emotional devastation of surviving family and friends. Fr. Groeschel brings to our attention a statement by St. Augustine: “God does not do evil, but does cause that evil should not become the worst” (Soliloquies, 2). On Sept. 11th, a lot of people were able to escape death in a situation that could have easily been even much more catastrophic. The cause of this great evil was not God, but rather what Groeschel calls the “wicked, insane evil” willed by the attackers. The distinctive Christian response to this great, man-made evil is “the suffering Jesus Christ” on the cross. After gazing on the suffering Christ, the Christian begins to ask what must be done now. Fr. Groeschel’s answer is “prayer, vigilance, attention to spiritual duties, readiness in the life of the spirit, acts of charity and forgiveness” so no one need be in fear of sudden death from whatever cause.
The second chapter focuses on what this tragedy means for our religious leaders and clergy in America. Fr. Groeschel is quite refreshingly blunt: too many of our religious leaders have failed to raise their voices to speak truth to the American people. They have failed to remind Americans “of the fragility of human life, of the illusion of security in this world, of the folly of putting our trust and hope in material goods and human promises, as if we were not destined for something much better than this world.” Even more distressing, religious leaders have failed to powerfully raise their voices against the scandals of pornography and abortion.
The strongest prophetic voice in the entire book is found when Fr. Groeschel points out that “much of the world is scandalized by” America’s behavior. He states bluntly, “We are a scandal as a nation.” He is emphatically not saying that America deserves to be attacked, but he is saying that we have made ourselves vulnerable to attack and hatred by becoming a moral scandal in the eyes of much of the world. This scandal encourages our enemies to view us as weak and vulnerable. Fanatics use this scandal to justify their hatred and envy of American prosperity and power. In short, this moral scandal is both a national security risk and a spiritual risk.
How are we a scandal to the world? “We export pornography by the ton—literature, electronic pornography, disks, movies, everything.” In addition, we have, especially under the former Clinton administration, pushed the abortion agenda at the United Nations. Ironically, as Fr. Groeschel points out, many of the countries that ally themselves with the Vatican to stand against the international agenda of abortion are Muslim countries. Rather than speaking out against these evils, many political leaders and authorities in our country instead go out of their way to persecute those who engage in peaceful protest against abortion. Fortunately, the Bush administration has departed from the shameful policies of the Clinton administration and adopted a pro-life posture at the United Nations.
These are tough words, and, in my opinion, fully justified. Yet, let there be no doubt that these are the words of a patriot who wants his country to rouse itself in order to save itself: “ I love my country with all its ills. I am delighted to see the signs around that say ‘God Bless America.’ We said it often in the past. Now I think we need to say ‘God help America’ so that she can rise from the moral quicksand into which she has fallen.” He also takes care to note that most in our country try to live moral lives, “but because of the media our public image as a nation is besmirched.”
In the final and fourth talk, the issue of the response of the world to September 11th is considered. Fr. Groeschel urges us to restore the original idealism of the United Nations—an idealism with strong Judeo-Christian roots. The call for peace and human rights in the Charter of the United Nations is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Let the United Nations return to its original moral mandate, and stop exporting western immorality to other countries.
September 11th forces us to focus again on the crucified and suffering Christ and to speak out loudly and clearly against the culture of death, both in our own country and abroad. Few are better messengers for this prophetic stand than Benedict Groeschel. He was there with untold others working and praying at Ground Zero. He has seen the faces and tears of the stricken survivors. He is raising his voice because he does not want us to go through this catastrophe again.
Thursday, January 09, 2003
Below is a reprint of a review of Garry Wills' Why I Am A Catholic by freelance writer Brigid Elson. The review appeared originally in the Canadian journal Catholic Insight (click the journal name to view its website).
Garry Wills, Why I Am A Catholic,
Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2002,
341 pages, $26.00 (U.S.)
Reviewed by Brigid Elson, Ph.D.
Garry Wills claims that after Papal Sin appeared readers asked how he
could remain in a Church he thought so flawed. His reply to the inquiries,
Why I Am A Catholic, may satisfy the curiosity of some but others will find
this latest work not so much an answer as further polemic.
The book consists largely of a tendentious history of the papacy,
preceded by some rather unrevealing autobiographical material, and rounded
out by Wills' own exegesis of the Apostles' Creed and the Our Father. There
are many signs of hasty composition and the lack of a good editor.
Indeed the very project of writing an accurate overview
of the papacy requires more than a little hubris if we may believe W.H.C.
Frend, whose work on early Christianity Wills cites often. Frend cautions of
his own field "...the evidence is too vast and complex for any single
scholar to control and systematize." Did Wills even read this warning? Vast
generalizations, glib simplifications, misstatements of fact and a litany of
accusations would suggest he didn't, and undermine any claim he has to
objectivity or credibility.
Wills, misuse of his sources is particularly egregious. Consider his
references to Klaus Schatz' Papal Primacy (1996), a far better work than
his. Trying to shore up his argument that Rome was not the leading community
in the early church, he refers to Schatz thus:
Joint authority is the essential note, as the Jesuit authority Karl
Now compare the above with what Schatz actually says:
Is a negative answer not inevitable if we approach the first centuries
Note that Schatz is replicating a type of argument, not giving his own
opinion. In fact throughout this passage Schatz repudiates the very type of
approach Wills uses, viz. imposing modern categories on times to which they
do not apply.
Or consider Wills' use of Frend to show that Rome had no primacy early
on: "In the second century, as .W.H.C. Frend says, orthodoxy was held together
not by a Roman primate but by `like-minded Greek-speaking bishops' in the
major churches of the East" (Wills, p. 63). In fact, what Frend says is:
The measure of unity achieved in the church by c. 180 depended on its
In another case, Wills baldly states that "The Church of Rome did not
formulate the canon" of Scripture. One of the principal lists which helped
establish the final version of the New Testament was the Muratorian Canon.
According to Frend, this very important text was "probably Roman" (Frend,
This review would run on too long if all Wills' errors were laid out,
but a final one should be noted. In an attempt to undercut the idea that
there was an increasing appeal in the third and fourth centuries to the
image of Peter as the first bishop of Rome, Wills cites many references to
the fact that Paul and Peter were usually linked together: "The men are
treated as equals, as Bernhard Schimmelpfennig says" (Wills, p. 75). But
what Schimmelpfennig actually says is: "The position of the Roman bishops
received further support in the latter part of the fourth century, when an
increased emphasis was placed on Paul in both worship and teaching"
(Schimmelpfennig, The Papacy, p. 26). In other words, the German scholar is
saying that Paul was brought in to the picture in order to gain more
authority for Rome, not to lessen it.
Wills' conclusions are as dubious as his methods. He makes nine points
about the papacy, the most important being that its claim to infallibility
is illegitimate, false and useless, and that it is a deeply flawed
institution, as is the church. The only role for the Pope is to be the
"sacrament of unity" of the church. Surely this concept of the church as
sets of groups and individuals who openly contradict each other and ignore
their self-proclaimed leader's teachings is a caricature of true unity.
How different is Fr. Schatz's view; he concludes his study by arguing
that, given the complexity of historical causes "the definitions of primacy
at Vatican I were a historically justifiable response." (Schatz, p. 177).
As for church unity, it must be real: "It must also be a unity that especially in questions
of faith and in face of the challenges of new spiritual and intellectual movements is able to
give clear answers that are universally recognized" (Schatz, p. 177). When
push comes to shove, says Fr. Schatz, unity must prevail over diversity.
It's a measure of our times that Wills will get the publicity and the money,
and true scholars like Fr. Schatz will labour in obscurity.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Catholic Insight magazine. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
The Ratzinger Memoirs: A Distinguished Co-worker of the Truth
Reviewed by Oswald Sobrino
Although Milestones, the memoirs of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger published by Ignatius Press and covering the years 1927-1977, first appeared in English translation in 1998, it is still worth reviewing because, in addition to containing highly relevant details about this pivotal figure, the book has a wealth of theological insight into the crises that have arisen since Vatican II.1 When Joseph Ratzinger became archbishop of Munich in 1977, he chose as his episcopal motto a phrase from the 3rd Epistle of John: “Co-worker of the Truth” (Ratzinger, p. 153). He comments that this particular motto seemed appropriate “because in today’s world the theme of truth has all but disappeared, because truth appears to be too great for man and yet everything falls apart if there is no truth . . . .” (Id.). It is refreshing to read the memoirs of a fighter for the truth, especially when so many nominally Catholic theologians and institutions have raised the evasion of truth to an art form. It is especially refreshing for American Catholics who have seen so much fall apart because of the abandonment of truth.
I will leave the biographical events and chronology of the Cardinal’s short memoirs for the direct enjoyment of the reader and instead focus on his insights into the battle for truth that is going on in the Church today and, of course, has been going on throughout the history of the Church. Early in the book, in recounting his memories of his theology professors, the Cardinal refers to the change in outlook that he could detect between those professors formed prior to the catastrophe of the First World War and those professors deeply affected by the devastation of that war. With “the collapse of the liberal dogma of progress” in the ruins of the war, “people now turned again to what previously had been looked upon as superseded: namely, the Church, the liturgy, the sacraments, and this not only in the Catholic sphere but especially in the Protestant world” (Ratzinger, p. 54).
We can see in the United States today an analogous generational shift back to the fundamentals of the Church among those who have suffered the disillusioning consequences of the liberal dogma that the abandonment of traditional moral teachings would lead to self-fulfillment. As in the aftermath of the First World War, so now in the aftermath of the ruin created by the moral anarchy of the sixties and seventies, a significant number of people are turning back to the truths of the Christian tradition as recently documented in Colleen Carroll’s The New Faithful (Loyola Press 2002).
But during his studies, Ratzinger also observed a theological trend that would bear bitter fruit for the Church closer to our own time. In retrospect, he could see the seeds of a certain intellectual arrogance on the part of some academics in the treatment of theological issues. He remarks that his teachers opposed the dogmatic definition of the bodily Assumption of Mary in 1950 because they could find no evidence for it in texts predating the fifth century (Ratzinger, 58). To this point of view, Ratzinger responds with an analysis that is highly relevant to today’s situation:
This argument is compelling if you understand “tradition” strictly as the handing down of fixed formulas and texts. This was the position that our teachers represented. But if you conceive of “tradition” as the living process whereby the Holy Spirit introduces us to the fullness of truth and teaches us how to understand what previously we could still not grasp (cf. Jn 16:12-13), then subsequent “remembering” (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it had not caught sight of previously and yet was already handed down in the original Word (Ratzinger, 58-59).
This academic fixation on defining tradition narrowly as the marshalling of texts is the basis of much of the dissent currently seen in theological circles. The historical-critical method is viewed as a de facto magisterium that trumps the living tradition developed through the teachings of pope and bishops. Dissenting theologians become self-ordained judges in a closed legal argument in which all objections raised by the living tradition of the Church are ruled as irrelevant based on a predetermined definition of tradition.
Ratzinger touches again on this insight when he describes his struggles in defending his university thesis on Bonaventure. In his research on Bonaventure, Ratzinger concluded that “if Bonaventure is right, then revelation precedes Scripture and becomes deposited in Scripture but is not simply identical with it” and furthermore that this “in turn means that revelation is always something greater than what is merely written down” (Ratzinger, 109).
This debate reappears with a vengeance at the time of the Second Vatican Council in its discussion of the sources of revelation. Ratzinger paints the backdrop for the conciliar debate:
In the meantime, the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation had made itself at home in Catholic theology. By its very nature, this method has no patience with any restrictions imposed by an authoritative Magisterium; it can recognize no authority but that of historical argument. From its perspective, the concept of “tradition” had itself become questionable, since this method [the historical-critical method] will not allow for an oral tradition running alongside Scripture and reaching back to the apostles—hence offering another source of historical knowledge besides the Bible (Ratzinger, 124).
Ratzinger recalls how this theory led to talk of the “ ‘material completeness’ of the Bible in matters of faith” (Ratzinger, 125). The result of this theory would be that “exegesis would become the highest authority in the Church” which would subject the beliefs of the Church to the “indeterminate and continually changing” results of differing opinions “in need of continual revision” (Ratzinger, 125-26). The result was that the Council “had to oppose a theory developed in this manner; but the catchword ‘material completeness’, along with all its consequences, now remained in the Church’s awareness much more firmly than the Council’s actual final document" (Ratzinger, 126) (emphasis mine). The Cardinal unequivocally concludes from all of this that the “drama of the postconciliar era has been largely determined by this catchword and its logical consequences” (Id.).
And the logical consequences are still with us. We are now deluged with the opinions of dissenting theologians and literary activists, busily reconstructing church history and theology at will, all presented with an authoritative and conclusive air. The common thread in this avalanche of opinions is the arrogant disregard of the living tradition of the Church through the ages. The challenge remains, as Ratzinger himself admits, to communicate “what the Council actually said to the Church at large and, beyond that, of developing its implications” (Ratzinger, 129). Ratzinger presents his own view of the Council’s implications, drawing on his earlier work on Bonaventure, when he notes that although Scripture “is the essential witness of revelation . . . revelation is something alive, something greater and more . . . .” (Ratzinger, 127) (emphasis in original).
He compares the approach to revelation of the historical-critical method to the laboratory analysis of rock samples from a fallen meteor because the historical-critical method treats revelation as separable "from the living God" and the Church (Ratzinger, 127). Because the Church is an essential part of revelation, the “ ‘rock analysis’—which is to say, the historical-critical method—cannot be the last word concerning revelation; rather, the living organism of the faith of all ages is then an intrinsic part of revelation” (Id.). Here Ratzinger challenges us with the truth, whole and complete, contained in the living faith of the Church throughout the centuries.
In addition to his incisive analysis of the conflict over revelation, Ratzinger also has choice words on post-Vatican II liturgical implementation which he characterizes variously as “tragic,” causing “enormous harm,” and as leading to “disintegration of the liturgy” (Ratzinger, 148.) In a manner similar to his discussion on revelation, Ratzinger points to the lack of respect for tradition as creating a rupture in the development of the liturgy and calls for “a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council” (Ratzinger, 148-49).
In the end, the Cardinal’s small book of memories give us an overview of what still ails the life of the Church today. Echoing Augustine, Ratzinger ends his book by identifying his service to the Church with that of a beast of burden whose labor brings him close to God: “ ‘I have become your donkey, and in just this way am I with you’ ” (Ratzinger, p. 156). Joseph Ratzinger’s words and life remind me of the thoughts of one of our recently canonized saints, St. Josemaria Escriva: “Donkeys are humble, hardworking, persevering—stubborn – and faithful, with a sure step, tough, and – if they have a good master – also grateful and obedient” (The Forge, no. 380).
1. Ratzinger, Joseph, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1998) (156 pp.; $10.36).
Tuesday, January 07, 2003
The Strange Catholicism Celebrated at Notre Dame University
by Oswald Sobrino
If you browse in the religion section of a major bookstore, you are likely to come across the latest (1994) edition of Notre Dame theologian Richard P. McBrien's guide to Catholic belief boldly and inappropriately entitled Catholicism. The problem is that the U.S. bishops have documented that this volume is a bold misrepresentation of Catholicism. Below is a reprint of the U.S. Bishops' highly critical review of this work issued in 1996. In a previous posting, I pointed out the problems that arise when the media uses dissenting theologians like McBrien as "Catholic" experts to comment on events like a papal conclave or the continuing church scandal (12/21). In my opinion, the bishops' critique catalogues in detail why McBrien is not qualified to be a font of information on Catholicism in the media or anywhere else. Yet, you will see another example of the inappropriate role played by McBrien as a Catholic expert if you continue to browse in the religion section. You will probably come across the Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism (1995) edited by the same Richard McBrien with a gushing introduction by Notre Dame President Emeritus Theodore Hesburgh who goes out of his way to praise Richard McBrien. What is the problem here? Why go out of your way to praise someone who misrepresents Catholicism? This embarrassing circus is just more proof that the recently announced founding of a new authentically Catholic university in Florida, Ave Maria University, is long overdue.
Review of Fr. McBrien's "Catholicism"
by the National Council of Catholic Bishops'
Committee on Doctrine
[released April 9, 1996]
In recent letters to Father Richard McBrien, Archbishop John R. Quinn, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine and Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, acting chairman upon Archbishop Quinn's retirement, expressed disappointment that the new edition of Father McBrien's book Catholicism did not sufficiently correct several deficiencies that the committee had identified in its examination of the first two editions of the book undertaken in the early '80s. This examination culminated in a 1985 statement specifying a number of deficiencies that the committee hoped would be corrected in any future editions.1
In addition to bringing this matter to the author's attention, the Committee on Doctrine has also determined that a more general review of the book would now be helpful to the Catholic community at large. This review was prepared by the staff of the Committee on Doctrine and is published with the authorization of the committee.
This review provides an outline of the major difficulties that the book poses from the standpoint of those who are concerned to monitor the possible effects of the book, not on theological specialists, but on theological beginners, the vast majority of the people of God in every age. Insofar as Catholicism is a work of speculative theology, professional theologians may evaluate it; insofar as the book is an introductory textbook of Catholic theology, it has certain shortcomings from the pastoral point of view that will be examined in this review.
The problems which Catholicism poses as an introductory text fall into three categories. First, some statements are inaccurate or at least misleading. Second, there is in the book an overemphasis on the plurality of opinion within the Catholic theological tradition that makes it difficult at times for the reader to discern the normative core of that tradition. Third, Catholicism overstates the significance of recent developments within the Catholic tradition, implying that the past appears to be markedly inferior to the present and obscuring the continuity of the tradition. Falling within the latter two categories are difficulties that reappear throughout the work; they constitute a pattern that could be overlooked by an exclusive focus on particular passages.
A. Examples of Inaccurate or Misleading Statements
1) The Impeccability of Jesus Christ
Catholicism insists that it is possible to hold the faith of the church while maintaining that Jesus Christ could have sinned. "It is not that Jesus Christ was absolutely incapable of sin, but rather that he was able not to sin and, in fact, did not sin"( p. 547). The book argues that "both views-the one favoring impeccability and the one that does not-are within the range of Catholic orthodoxy" (p. 547). This position, however, cannot be reconciled with the Christology of the councils.2 In two natures, Jesus Christ is only one hypostasis (or person), the hypostasis of the Word. With Christ there is no possible subject of the verb to sin. There are indeed two wills in Christ, but only one person, one subject. The contention that Jesus could have sinned, if followed to its logical conclusion, inevitably implies a Nestorian or an adoptionist Christology, though it must be said that Catholicism does not draw such extreme conclusions.3
2) The Virginal Conception of Jesus
Catholicism presents the virgin birth of Jesus as being of uncertain and perhaps even doubtful historicity.4 The book argues that belief in the virgin birth should be considered a theologoumenon, "a nondoctrinal theological interpretation that cannot be verified or refuted on the basis of historical evidence, but that can be affirmed because of its close connection with some defined doctrine about God" (p. 542). While the adjective non-normative has been deleted from the new edition's definition of theologoumenon (in the study edition, p. 516), the book continues to describe belief in the virgin birth as "nondoctrinal." This belief, however, has been a constant part of church teaching from the first century and has been reaffirmed by the Holy See since Vatican II.5
It is confusing to say, as Catholicism does (p. 543), that the cooperation of Joseph in the conception of Jesus was not excluded by any explicit definition. That point has been implicitly taught in the creeds, and the implication has been spelled out by constant and repeated magisterial teaching since the fifth century.
The 1985 statement of the Committee on Doctrine pointed to (among other matters) the treatment of the virginal conception of Jesus in Catholicism as one of those that were found "confusing and ambiguous." This description also applies to the treatment of this question in the new edition, for it remains substantially the same. The book seems to suggest that as a result of modern biblical scholarship the scales tip against the factual historicity of the virginal conception. Interpreted in this way, Catholicism comes very close to denying, if it does not actually deny, an article of faith.
3) The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
While Catholicism offers an examination of the virgin birth and concludes that this belief is a theologoumenon, its treatment of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is purely descriptive and never systematic. The matter is discussed in terms of a descriptive history of the development of this belief, an account that itself appears in the course of an overview of the development of veneration of Mary in general (pp. 1078-1100). This overview has a decidedly skeptical tone, emphasizing the lack of reference and the occasionally negative references to Mary in the New Testament and in the early church, the influence of apocryphal and particularly Docetic writings, and the opposition of major saints and theologians (Bernard, Bonaventure, Aquinas) to doctrines such as the immaculate conception.
The book stresses that the New Testament says nothing about the perpetual virginity of Mary (rather, it speaks of brothers and sisters of Jesus) and asserts that even in the second century there is no evidence for this belief apart from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (pp. 1081-83). According to Catholicism, the development of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary "coincided with a newly positive assessment of virginity" (p. 1083). While the book does not explicitly conclude that the cause for the acceptance of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was the church's desire to promote virginity as an ascetical state, the reader seems to be invited to draw this inference. It was because the church sought to foster the "glorification of the Virgin Mary for ascetical reasons" that the church ignored the opposition of those like Tertullian who recognized that such a doctrine "introduced a new danger of Docetic trends" (p. 1083). The acceptance of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary is presented as closely if not inextricably linked with the fostering of asceticism, which supposedly arose only in the third century. After pointing out the absence of evidence for this belief in the New Testament and second-century fathers, including the opposition of Tertullian, the text continues:
"Mary's perpetual virginity, however, came to be almost universally accepted from the third century on. By now consecrated virgins had been established as a special state in the church, and Mary was presented to them as their model" (p. 1083).
Although Catholicism does not arrive at any explicit conclusions as to the status of the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, the description of the history of the development of this belief gives the impression that rather than a truth that the church only gradually uncovered, the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was a creation of the third-century church as part of its program to promote virginity and asceticism. The book apparently favors the view that Mary had "normal sexual relations after the birth of Jesus" and that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters, while admitting, however, that the New Testament evidence does not constitute an "insuperable" barrier to the belief that Mary remained ever a virgin (p.1081).
B. Overemphasis on Plurality Within the Catholic Theological Tradition
1) The Focus on Description
Catholicism is committed to presenting a wide plurality of theological positions, both Catholic and non-Catholic. This emphasis on description, however, leaves the necessary task of synthesis relatively neglected. The book gives an overview of the theological scene in all of its variety and presents numerous brief summaries of many positions. It confronts the reader with a broad range of opinions and requires the reader to make judgments among them. The problem, however, is that the reading of the text itself does not prepare the reader to do this. The rapid succession of brief summaries does little to help a beginner to understand, for often such summaries are only useful if one already has knowledge of the subject. The book does not do enough to enable the reader to grasp what is the main current of the Catholic teaching and theological tradition.7
The central problem is the fact that the intended audience of the book is those who are just beginning to study theology. The book requires the reader to find his or her own way through what is sometimes a bewildering number and variety of positions. There is a difference between respecting the intelligence of the reader and making unrealistic demands upon one's intended audience. While a trained theologian may have little trouble negotiating through the various positions presented, a beginner does not have a developed sense of what are really important departures from Catholic tradition and what are not. The danger here is that the reader could simply become confused about what the church believes. It is a weakness of this book that, by devoting so much attention to the presentation of the multiplicity of opinion, it provides insufficient direction for those seeking to know what is truly at the core of the faith.
2) The Mainstream and the Fringes
Catholicism's emphasis on the plurality of theological positions on various issues is that by including so many positions it leaves the reader with the impression that all of these positions are part of the mainstream theological conversation, when in fact a number of them are decidedly on the fringes. The burden is on the reader to discern which positions are in the mainstream and which are not.
For example, when the book places the Christology of Hans Kung between that of Karl Rahner and Walter Kasper, it implies that all three are equally representative of the Catholic theological tradition. Similarly, the opinion of a radical feminist such as Rosemary Radford Ruether appears among the Catholic positions on ecclesiology (p. 704) and worship (pp. 1073-74). Matthew Fox is treated as one of the major figures of post-Vatican II spirituality; the only hint that the text gives as to Fox's position on the outer fringes of Catholic theology is the understated caution that "the titles of his early trilogy of spiritual books tended to veer somewhat from the conventional" (p. 1048). This descriptive approach, with its successive summaries of various positions, does not provide the beginner with enough information to assess the place of these positions within the Catholic theological tradition as a whole.
One of the schools of thought presented is that of feminism. The label feminism connotes a broad range of concerns and opinions. While feminist theology has made an important contribution to Catholic thought, some of the positions taken by feminist theologians are in fact quite far from mainstream Catholic theology, if not actually inconsistent with orthodox belief. The problem is that Catholicism embraces feminist theology as a category in toto, without making any distinctions, and gives no hint as to the extent to which some forms of feminist theology are in tension with the Catholic theological tradition. The book portrays feminist theology as part of the established consensus of contemporary theology and adopts its language, speaking in terms of "patriarchy" and "androcentricism" (pp. 350-355, 533). In the Preface, the book presents the emergence of feminist theology as the foremost example of positive change in the church since 1980 (p. xliv). One of the essential criteria offered for Catholic Christology is a congruence with a feminist interpretation of Christ:
"Christological explanations which interpret the maleness of Christ in an androcentric way or the headship of Christ in a patriarchal way effectively deny the proclamation and praxis of Jesus regarding the universality of God's love and the openness of the kingdom to all, women and men alike" (p. 533).
Catholicism offers no explanation of the meaning of the terms patriarchy and androcentrism, however, and fails to give the reader a sense of the degree to which aspects of feminist methodology are in tension with the tradition.
Particularly troubling are the discussions of the "fatherhood of God" and 'God language" (pp. 352-55) and the treatment of the maleness of Jesus in a chapter on Christology (pp. 512-13). It seems to be implied that the practice of speaking of God as Father or Son and of Christ as bridegroom is "patriarchal" and "androcentric." The reader is not alerted, however, to the difficulty of reconciling these radical theses with biblical usage and the Catholic tradition. The biblical and traditional language, even in cases where it is figurative, cannot be reduced to freely chosen metaphors for which we may substitute others at will. Titles such as Father, Son and bridegroom are indelibly inscribed in the Christian consciousness and have authentically theological reasons behind them. The admittedly demanding but nonetheless crucial questions of revelatory language and of the "analogy of faith" at issue here do not receive adequate treatment.
3) Insufficient Weight Given to Magisterial Teaching
While Catholicism is concerned to include a wide range of voices in the theological conversation, the teaching of the pope and bishops is often reduced to just another voice alongside those of private theologians. By presenting the range of views, the text is obviously intended to reflect the fact that there is serious debate over certain questions in the contemporary church. The problem is not that the book describes positions in opposition to those of the magisterium, but rather that its presentation often lends them more weight than the magisterium itself. The method in several controversial questions is to present the official teaching and then to follow it with a rebuttal by Catholics who disagree. The impression is thus given that the "official" teaching is only one among a number of opinions, in no way binding on the faithful.
For example, the presentations of the questions of contraception, homosexuality and women's ordination all take for granted that these are open questions; the official church teaching appears as merely one of the options for the reader.8 Different positions are presented, and it is left to the reader to make a choice, while the text implies that the "official church position" is erroneous on all three points.9
In the treatment of contraception-one of those matters pointed to in the Committee on Doctrine's 1985 statement as "confusing and ambiguous"--it might have been appropriate to mention that five popes since 1930 have consistently taught that contraception is intrinsically evil. For this and other reasons, Catholics who reject this teaching would be invited to reconsider their positions. The treatment of contraception in Catholicism, however, does not encourage such Catholics to undertake a reconsideration of their views on the matter, but rather confirms them in their lack of acceptance of magisterial teaching.
Likewise, the question of women's ordination is another problematic aspect of the book cited in the 1985 statement that has not been corrected. Again, the issue is handled simply as a "disputed question" in theology. The official teaching of the church is inserted in a section headed "arguments against," thus giving the impression that whatever doctrine the church may have on the question is not binding.
A further weakness is that the arguments on each side are presented so succinctly that they are hardly intelligible unless one consults the documents to which the book refers. In particular, Catholicism gives an oversimplified summary of the 1976 report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. The book maintains that the commission "reported that it could find no support for the exclusion of women from the ordained priesthood on the basis of the biblical evidence alone" (p. 776, emphasis added). It does not report the commission's statement that "the masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested to by Scripture in an undeniable way." While acknowledging that the New Testament by itself alone does not settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the priesthood," the report did say: "Some think that in the Scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility, considering that the sacraments of eucharist and reconciliation have a special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out by the New Testament."
Finally, there are passages in the book that speak of popes having "erred in matters of faith" (p. 781; cf. p. 762) and having come down on the side of a heretical position" (p. 479) without explaining the scope and significance of such errors. In the absence of further explanation, such statements could serve to cast doubt on the reliability of church teaching. Catholicism gives insufficient clarification on such issues.
4) Doctrinal Minimalism
Also in keeping with the emphasis on the plurality of opinion within the Catholic tradition, the overall direction of the text of Catholicism is toward reducing to an absolute minimum the church teachings and beliefs that are to be considered essential to the Catholic faith and to which one must adhere in order to consider oneself Catholic. In part, this is the result of the aforementioned inclusion of a range of widely divergent and sometimes contradictory positions in the theological discussion, an inclusion that implies that there is very little that these positions hold in common.
At the same time, a tendency toward minimalism also arises from what appears to be the book's concern to accommodate those who may have difficulty accepting some part of the Catholic faith as it has traditionally been understood. At times, the text seems to make every effort to provide Catholics a way out of accepting church teachings or beliefs that are controversial or difficult to understand in terms of contemporary ways of thinking. For example, the book seems to go out of its way to allow someone to remove the doctrine of the virgin birth from any connection with history by asserting that "whether the Holy Spirit's involvement positively excluded the cooperation of Joseph is not explicitly defined" (p. 543). The implied conclusion of the discussion of the belief in the virgin birth is that as long as one affirmed that in some way Jesus shared an intimate communion with God from birth, then the virginity of Mary is not essential (p. 542). Similarly, the text often implies that the most intellectually respectable position is the minimalist position, the one that makes the least demands upon the believer in terms of reconciling belief with current attitudes of thought, as in the argument for positing ignorance in Jesus, where the book asserts that "there is no incontrovertible proof that [Jesus] claimed a unique sonship not open to other persons" (p. 551).
It is against this backdrop that the brief section on the binding force" of the Marian dogmas (pp. 1102-4) appears somewhat troubling and ill-advised, even if the conclusions, drawn from the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, are in themselves quite nuanced. It seems to fit into a pattern of setting minimum requirements for belief.
C. Overemphasis on Change and Development
Catholicism's clear affirmation of the superiority of modern theology and modern anthropology -based upon the advances made by modern science and philosophy-provides a crucial background for its presentations of various positions. The problem is that this embrace of modernity is so enthusiastic as to imply a certain naive denigration of premodern thought (and thus of all forms of thought that do not embrace modernity). The text is at times quite harsh in its criticism of patristic and medieval thought (pp. 163-65).' From the perspective of Catholicism, modern thought has definitively superseded ancient and medieval thought.
"Significant scientific, philosophical and theological advances in our understanding of human existence did not occur until the 18th and especially the 19th centuries, with the discoveries of Darwin and Freud, the new social analysis of Marx and the new focus on the human person as subject in the philosophy of Kant, in idealism and in modern psychology. The medieval view of human existence could not, and did not, do justice to the special character of the person" (p. 164).
In this view, only with the Enlightenment do we have the basis for an adequate anthropology and thus for an adequate theology. "In the final accounting, the Enlightenment marks the division between an often precritical, authority-oriented theology and a critical, historically sophisticated and philosophically mature theology" (p. 641)
Thus the contemporary theologian who has absorbed all the advances of modern thought is in a superior position with regard to the tradition as a whole (and also to ecclesiastical authorities who may be still operating from a premodern or preconciliar point of view). For Catholicism, modern thought becomes the prism through which the tradition must be viewed and judged. This is the basis for the book's emphasis on change in the tradition. After the Enlightenment, everything is now subject to revision because of the attainment of this higher vantage point. "Because of the scientific, philosophical and theological developments outlined in Chapter 4, the time for an anthropological recasting of all the traditional doctrines is at hand" (p. 166). The book often does not explicitly say that some traditional teaching must be discarded, but it points the reader in this direction by noting that history seems to be moving in a certain direction, thus implying that the traditional doctrines are soon to be superseded. Examples would be belief in the virgin birth and the intrinsic evil of homosexual acts.
Catholicism interprets Vatican II as the justification for this approach to theology. In this view, Vatican II marked a great change in direction because the church ceased to oppose and instead welcomed the modern world and sought to incorporate the advances of modern thought (pp. 77-80; 92; 95; 166-67; 910-11; 1214). Preconciliar and premodern are here effectively convertible. Left unmentioned are the ressourcement movement leading up to the council and the council's own calls for renewal through a further ressourcement by a return to the sources of the tradition. In Catholicism, the council appears simply as an aggiornamento, a one-sided embrace of modernity.
The overall effect of this exaltation of the modern over the traditional is to provide a justification for those theological positions that call for a much greater accommodation of church teaching to contemporary culture and at the same time a distancing from traditional beliefs that are considered outmoded or incompatible with modern thought. The book often implies that the ..progressive" theologians are pointing to the future of the church and that the pope and the bishops have not yet caught up. In this sense, the theologians -and by implication the readers-have a superior vantage point from which to look upon church teaching and tradition. Church teaching can be effectively dismissed simply by being classified as reflecting "preconciliar thought."12
Summary and Conclusion
Catholicism poses pastoral problems particularly as a textbook in undergraduate college courses and in parish education programs. The principal difficulties with the book lie not only in the particular positions adopted, but perhaps even more in the cumulative effect of the book as a whole. The method is to offer a broad range of opinions on every topic with the apparent intention of allowing or stimulating the reader to make a choice. This places a heavy burden on the reader, especially since some of the opinions described do not stand within the central Catholic tradition. The reader who is a theological beginner could easily assume that all the authors cited are equally a part of the mainstream Catholic conversation, whereas some of the authors are closer to the margins. While the book could be a helpful resource to theologians looking for a survey of opinions on some question, it might well be bewildering and unsettling for Catholics taking undergraduate courses in theology. For some readers it will give encouragement to dissent.
The problem is further aggravated because Catholicism gives very little weight to the teaching of the magisterium, at least where there has been no explicit dogmatic definition. At many points the book treats magisterial statements on the same level as free theological opinions. On a number of important issues, most notably in the field of moral theology, the reader will see without difficulty that the book regards the "official church position" as simply in error.
This review has focused exclusively on the problematic aspects of Catholicism. Certainly, as the 1985 statement of the Committee on Doctrine affirmed, there are many positive features to be found in the book. Nevertheless, this review concludes that, particularly as a book for people who are not specialists in theological reasoning and argumentation, Catholicism poses serious difficulties and in several important respects does not live up to its ambitious title.
1 Origins, vol. 15, no. 9 (Aug. 1, 1985): 130-32. The Preface to the new edition of Catholicism is somewhat misleading when it characterizes the Committee on Doctrine review as "careful and essentially sympathetic," thereby implying that the bishops had no serious concerns with the book. In fact, in the way that the Preface refers to the committee investigation and statement, they appear almost as a subtle endorsement of the book or as a guarantee of its reliability as a guide to Catholic teaching in the sense that the book has withstood the careful scrutiny of the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
2 In the anathemas against the Three Chapters, the Second Council of Constantinople (553) condemned the opinion attributed to Theodore of Mopsuestia that Jesus attained impeccability only with the resurrection (Denzinger-Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum 434).
3 It is not that Catholicism is openly Nestorian or adoptionist. The book does uphold the divinity of the Son and the doctrine of the Trinity in general (p. 318). It explicitly affirms that the Word of God became human for our salvation (p. 480) and that 'Jesus Christ was, in his very being and from the beginning, the Word made flesh' (p. 556). Yet although the book at some points talks about maintaining both the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, at other points it seems unclear about the singleness of the hypostasis or the identity of the person. For example, the book speaks of the question of Jesus' sinlessness as being a question of "the intimate communion of Jesus with God" (pp. 548-49). Jesus Christ "was so completely in union with the Father that he was in fact absolutely without sin" (p. 547). Because of the hypostatic union Jesus was "aware of himself as a subject in whom God was fully present and as one who was fully present in God" (p. 556). Such statements certainly admit of an orthodox interpretation, yet there is a somewhat confusing tendency to juxtapose Jesus and God, as if they were somehow separate.
4 The book identifies two factors that have brought to an end the "virtual unanimity of belief" in the virgin birth and led many to deny the virginal conception of Jesus-"a newly critical way of reading the New Testament, and a newly evolutionary way of perceiving human existence and human history" (p. 543). Throughout the book, both of these are presented as unambiguous advances of modern thought and modern theology. Indeed, the book points out that the two factors that have led many to deny the virgin birth are "two of the same factors which generated a change in our understanding of Jesus Christ and of Christian faith itself" (p. 543). The implication is that those who embrace the new theology (supposedly vindicated at Vatican II) are those who deny or at least call into question the virgin birth.
5 The book itself refers to the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Fourth Lateran Council and the Second Council of Lyons.
6 See Lumen Gentium, 52 and 57; Denz.-Schon. 291, 294, 427, 442, 503, 571, 1880.
7 In the chapter on Christology, the book itself reveals an awareness of the problem of making one's way through the wide range of Christological positions briefly summarized in the text: "How does one even begin to evaluate such a wide array of theological positions?" (p. 530). The book does speak of "an objective and objectifiable Christian and Catholic tradition-(p. 530) and offers six "Christological criteria" to help the reader discern this tradition. This attempt at synthesis, however, is extremely brief (three pages) compared with the 35 pages of summaries of various Christologies. (The fact that these three pages are followed by another 30 treating "special questions in Christology" that either cast doubt on church teaching or at least reflect unfavorably on it does not help with this problem of discerning the core of the Catholic tradition.)
8 On birth control: "There are two sides to the birth control question in Catholic moral theology" (p. 982). With regard to homosexuality, the book summarizes the current state of theology by presenting three positions, the "official magisterium" view standing at one of the extremes and the position of Charles Curran and Richard McCormick representing a "mediating" position (pp. 996-1000). At the end of the discussion of the ordination of women, the book begins its conclusion with: "Whatever position one takes on the ordination question ..." (p. 779).
9 The presentations of the conflicting positions often fail to be evenhanded, for the expositions of the dissident opinions are usually more fully developed than those of the "official" position, particularly since the expositions of the dissident opinions include the counterarguments that respond directly to the arguments used in support of the "official" position, whose counterarguments are not presented (e.g., pp. 983-89; pp. 777-78).
10 The book also at points presents a superficial understanding of patristic and medieval theology as when it asserts: "We are not composite beings, made of body and soul as two separate parts (as the medieval Scholastic philosophers had it)" (p. 159).
11 As pointed out above (Footnote 4), the book asserts that the factors that have led many now to deny the virgin birth are clear advances on the part of modern thought and modern theology (p. 543). Likewise, with regard to homosexuality, it is because "new questions are arising in light of new developments and scientific research in medicine, psychiatry and psychology" that the traditional teaching must be re-examined (p. 996).
12 For example, with regard to the question of natural law and the new approach proposed by some contemporary moral theologians, the book argues that "the hierarchical magisterium ... has continued to employ the philosophical approach of the preconciliar manuals of moral theology," as in Veritatis Splendor (p. 962).
Monday, January 06, 2003
Note on Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Belief in God
Many of us were exposed at some point in our own reading or in school to the philosophy of Existentialism whose most famous figure, at least among the general public, was the French atheist philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre. I recently heard Fr. Benedict Groeschel mention in an EWTN series that, before dying, Sartre had declared his belief in God. I managed to track down what Sartre apparently wrote in 1980 near the time of his death in a French newspaper:
I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.
Source: Handbook of World Religions.
(Note: This is a Protestant site.)
If the above quotation is indeed accurate, what an ending for one of the most famous atheists of the last century.
Why Liberals Redefine the Resurrection
by Oswald Sobrino
Liberal Christians (or, to use a more precise term, "neo-Modernists") are those who keep paring away what they view as scientifically “embarrassing” supernatural elements in the Christian tradition. They not only target the healings, exorcisms, and raising of the dead in the Gospels, but also the fundamental miraculous event of the entire New Testament: the resurrection of the body of Jesus into eternal life after his death and burial. While most liberals find it easy to engage in outright denial of the miracles in the Gospels, they usually adopt a quite different approach to the resurrection, namely, redefinition. Using obscure and ambiguous language, they claim to believe in the reality of a “resurrection experience” by Jesus’ followers but refuse to call this a resurrection of the body of Jesus buried in the tomb. For such liberals, the body of Jesus decomposed like all other corpses. The problem with this redefinition is that the Gospels clearly portray a bodily resurrection, the epistles proclaim it, and the historic creeds affirm it. Consequently, the liberals are engaging in a radical and fundamental revision of the gospel proclaimed in the New Testament, in the early Church, and in subsequent centuries. Many of us who accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus wonder why liberals go to such trouble to so radically redefine the fundamental Christian proclamation. It would make more sense for such liberals to declare Christianity superseded by their own version of ethical humanism. Yet many liberals have the puzzling habit of pursuing their redefined beliefs within historic Christian churches, although they live in highly secularized societies that certainly impose no penalty for abandoning these churches.
Philosophically, liberals are in effect saying that miracles are impossible. Therefore, they must redefine the bodily resurrection as a visionary experience. Theologically, they are saying that Christianity is not tied to the historical fact of a bodily resurrection but to a metaphor. As a result, they view the fate of the body of Jesus as unimportant. Pragmatically, they are telling us that our own bodies will not be resurrected at the end of the age. Ethically, they are telling us that Christian moral teachings which rely on the bodily resurrection to proclaim the sacredness of the body are baseless. In effect, the liberals are saying that the destiny of the body is not resurrection, but rather decay. This view of the body’s lack of significance recapitulates ancient heresies such as Gnosticism that denigrate the material in favor of the purely immaterial. In what follows, we will examine the subtle and equivocal linguistic games played by liberals to hide the full import of their redefinition of the bodily resurrection. Hopefully, this exposure will reveal what is really at stake in accepting or rejecting the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Let us take as an example a liberal Catholic theologian highly regarded by many—although the Church no longer recognizes him as a Catholic theologian. Hans Kung writes that there was no physiological continuity between the earthly body of Jesus and the risen Christ.1 Furthermore, the Swiss theologian denies that the resurrection was an historical event, stating that it was “not a miracle violating the laws of nature, verifiable within the present world, not a supernatural intervention which can be located in place and time.”2
Contrast with Kung’s position what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
The mystery of Christ’s resurrection is a real event, with manifestations that were
In examining Kung’s tortured account of the resurrection, notice how he simultaneously refers to the resurrection as both a non-historical event and a “real” event.4 Kung further qualifies this non-historical event as real “for faith.”5 Yet, Kung goes on to emphasize that for the disciples Jesus “does not live through their faith,” but rather “through God—for their faith.”6 Anyone familiar with the history of western philosophy recognizes the dialectical rhetoric of German philosophy. In other words, Kung wants to have it both ways: the resurrection is real, but there is no empty tomb or bodily continuity or historicity. In the end, one wonders if “real” is no more than wishful thinking. But for many, Kung’s tortured rhetoric does the trick; it affirms the resurrection of Christ without requiring any affirmation of miraculous or supernatural elements. Freed from what they view as scientifically unacceptable, modern Christians seeking approval in contemporary western society can breathe easy and continue to affirm the resurrection with a straight face. Unfortunately, many Christians, both lay and clergy, have fallen into this enticing rhetorical trap.
And a trap it is, because it contradicts the historically verifiable content of the Christian Gospel. Even the late New Testament scholar Raymond Brown, whom some criticize for not fully embracing traditional scriptural interpretations, concluded that Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, dated at about 57 A.D., “very clearly talks about a resurrection of the body (even if transformed).”7 Brown adds that in I Corinthians chapter 15 “the burial/resurrection sequence virtually presumes that the risen body is no longer where it was buried.”8 And, of course, all four gospels consistently proclaim the empty tomb. The early Christians clearly proclaimed a bodily resurrection of Jesus entailing an empty tomb. As Brown puts it, “[t]here is not an iota of New Testament evidence that any Christian thought the body of Jesus was still in the grave corrupting.”9 Given the unequivocal nature of the preaching of the early Christians, to accept a redefinition of the resurrection is an astounding act of credulity that involves substituting the cultural biases of modern western theologians for the testimony of Jesus’ early followers. It is far more reasonable to take the early Christians at their word than to try to impose a twentieth century reworking of the gospel message. To use the liberal redefinition of the resurrection is to abandon continuity with apostolic preaching. The abandonment of the ancient kerygma or proclamation of the good news should be reason enough to resist the allure of a liberal redefinition.
But even more repercussions follow from redefining the resurrection. If Jesus’ earthly body was not transformed, the bodies of Christians will also be irrelevant to a redefined resurrection. When Christians teach that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit deserving of care, respect, and chastity, they are teaching, consistently with the bodily resurrection of Jesus, that our own physical bodies have an eternal significance and value (I Cor. 6:12-20). Thus, we would expect that the liberal redefinition of the resurrection would lead to the questioning of traditional Christian teachings on the use of the body, especially in the perennially problematic area of sexual relations.
As everyone knows, this abandonment of Christian teaching on the body has in fact occurred throughout the West. The rejection of marriage as the exclusive arena for sexual relations, even the rejection of marriage as exclusive to male and female partners, is now shifting from informal to open and official approval by so-called Christian denominations. Here is age-old heresy again proclaiming that what counts are not the actions of the physical body but the “spirit” alone, the same view attacked by Paul in First Corinthians. Today, our bodies and their reproductive capacities are increasingly viewed as tools, machines, or raw materials to be manipulated at will without any significant moral consequences. As John Paul II has stated, “the body is no longer perceived as a properly personal reality, a sign and place of relations with others, with God and with the world . . . .it is simply a complex of organs . . . to be used according to the sole criteria of pleasure and efficiency.”10 This reduction of the body to a commodity is not surprising given the lack of faith in a physical resurrection.
A related consequence of redefining the resurrection of Christ is the contemporary emphasis, as noted by many observers, on collective as opposed to personal sin. If the physical body itself is not eternally significant, then personal sin loses its own significance precisely because our specific physical bodies are what embody our personhood in the world. Given this emphasis, it is not surprising that there is a trend in the West to view sin primarily as a collective, social phenomenon rooted solely in class, family structures, and customs as opposed to viewing sin as a matter of individual responsibility and behavior.
Another consequence of redefining the resurrection is particularly relevant to Catholics. If the body of Jesus decayed in the tomb, we would expect a consequent deemphasis on the bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. Catholics believe that in the Eucharist the living Jesus, body and soul, humanity and divinity, becomes present today under the appearances of bread and wine. The belief in the real presence presupposes a risen and glorified Jesus, alive today in both body and soul. Thus, to receive the Eucharist is to reaffirm the bodily resurrection of Christ. Apparently Catholic bishops in the United States have become so concerned at the loss of belief by Catholics in the real presence that they recently approved a special document to emphasize this fundamental Catholic belief. The growing practice of eucharistic adoration is thus a welcome and needed affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Christ. The Eucharist is then truly understood, consistent with the belief of the early Church, as providing the foretaste of our own resurrection (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1000). Among those who embrace a non-bodily resurrection, we would expect a loss of faith in the real presence, which is exactly what has transpired.
Although these beliefs—refusal to recognize sins of the body, the emphasis on collective over personal sin, the loss of faith in the real eucharistic presence—theoretically follow from rejection of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, we should go further and ask if these beliefs in fact motivated the redefinition of the resurrection in the first place. Do these new beliefs follow from redefining the resurrection, or did these beliefs themselves motivate the redefinition of the Easter event? The argument can be made that the existential desire to escape personal responsibility for modern western conduct and lifestyles leads to the rejection of the eternal and sacred significance of the physical body, which in turn changes the understanding of Easter. Likewise, liturgical practices that deemphasized the real presence may have paved the way for a non-bodily understanding of the resurrection. Under either scenario, it is clear that changes in the understanding of personal morality and the Eucharist accompany a redefinition of the resurrection.
In Kung’s own work, we see the deemphasis on traditional personal morality:
Anyone who behaves with good will toward his neighbor fulfills God’s law
What is missing from Kung’s statement is any affirmation that we must refrain from certain intrinsically evil acts even if they disappoint the expectations and desires of our neighbor or restrict the freedom of our neighbor. He sums up by saying that what “helps the other person who needs me here and now is therefore good, that which harms or hurts him is bad.”12 This summation begs the question of what really helps the other person and how that is to be determined. If the physical body has an eternal significance, then the morality of certain acts—such as abortion, contraception, fornication, or mutilation—cannot be determined by the expectations, desires, and freedom of our neighbor. They must instead be determined by belief that the body is holy, a belief which will serve as a firm grounding for personal ethics. Without viewing the body as eternally significant, we are left with a highly amorphous and overly abstract norm: “what helps man, our neighbor or neighbors, is right.”13 The emphasis on whatever helps our neighbors focuses on social action as the genuinely modern question that replaces the old focus on the personal soul.14 In fairness, Kung spills much ink attempting to qualify this dichotomy, but the change in focus is obvious and telling.
As to the Eucharist, readers can reasonably conclude that Kung adopts the majority Protestant view of the Eucharist as “a commemorative and thanksgiving meal” which cannot appropriately be termed a sacrifice.15 Again, what is lacking is a firm grounding in the physical body of Jesus. Instead, we get only a spiritual presence.
Why then do liberals redefine the bodily resurrection of Christ into a non-bodily event? The answer is probably a combination of ethical and philosophical motives. Modern western culture embraces moral relativism; any beliefs underlying the sacred character of the body create too many problems for the hedonistic mentality. The secular world view dominant in the West rejects any miraculous events, whether it is the risen body of Christ or the eucharistic body of Christ. The acceptance of this world view forces the liberal Christian to revise the gospel proclamation. Liberals have traded the apostolic testimony for ethical relativism and the scientific exclusion of the miraculous. In return for this act of conformity, liberals receive the approval of modern western society. For those who embrace the historic Christian tradition, surrendering the Gospel to these contemporary trends is the equivalent of throwing pearls to swine. For those authentic Christians who are loyal to Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the world is a radically different place because of this event, and the comparatively trivial benefits of conformity are easily rejected.
1. Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, p. 350 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co. 1984) (hereafter "Kung").
2. Kung, p. 349.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd ed. 1997), paragraphs 639, 645, 647.
4. Kung, p. 351.
6. Kung, p. 352.
7. Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 535 (New York: Doubleday 1997).
8. Brown, p. 535.
9. Brown, Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible, p. 72 (New York: Paulist Press, 1990).
10. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) (1995), paragraph 23. See also John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) (1993), paragraphs 48, 49.
11. Kung, p. 561.
12. Kung, p. 561.
13. Kung, p. 562. Kung’s reliance on this highly abstract norm contradicts his eloquent statement that the concrete Jesus is the standard for a distinctive Christian ethics. See Kung, p. 549. If we believe the concrete Jesus rose bodily from the dead, then our distinctive Christian ethics will take very seriously specific moral prohibitions on the use of our bodies.
14. Kung, pp. 581-82.
15. Kung, p. 427.
Sunday, January 05, 2003
Epiphany of the Lord
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the day of the "showing to" or manifestation of Christ to the nations. In Isaiah, the prophet joyfully proclaims to Jerusalem that her "light has come" so that "Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your radiance." In Ephesians, St. Paul proclaims the revelation that the Gentiles are coheirs with Jerusalem "in Christ Jesus through the gospel." In Matthew, we have the familiar story of the magi from the east "overjoyed at seeing the star" stopping "over the place where the child was."
As Vatican II declared, Jesus Christ is Lumen Gentium, the Light of Nations. Today's feast is the feast of Christ the Light of Nations. He is the Light for all nations, even for those nations which have few, if any Christians, and seem to be impervious to the Gospel. Authentically apostolic Christianity holds that the Gospel must be proclaimed even to such nations so that they too can walk in the Light. In addition, Christ is the Light, not merely one light among many. He is the definitive Light for the entire world. So when, for example, secular writers-- James Joyce comes to mind-- speak of their characters as experiencing epiphanies, we know that such inherently partial epiphanies with a small "e" are utterly unsatisfying when compared with "the glory of the Lord" (Is. 60:1) manifested to Isaiah, to Paul, and to the magi.