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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Academic Book Series: Point to Covers to See Titles
Predestination: Is it Catholic or Calvinist?
Links below do not necessarily imply blanket endorsement of their contents or sponsors.CrispAds Blog Ads
Google Custom Search
Google Custom SearchBook Reviews
Saturday, July 26, 2003Predestination: Is it Catholic or Calvinist?
It is present in Scripture. It is was made prominent by St. Augustine. The issue is predestination. As Catholics, do we hold to predestination, or is it a Calvinist doctrine? Given the presence of this doctrine or teaching in both Scripture (especially Rom. 8:28-30) and Augustine, it is no surprise that predestination is a doctrine of the Catholic Church. The crucial issue is what type of predestination. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks at various points about predestination. The following excerpt discussing the death of Jesus is in my view the one that is most telling in contrast to the Calvinistic version of predestination:
To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination," he includes in it each person's free response to his grace: "In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place."[Acts 4:27-28 ; cf. Ps 2:1-2 .] For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.[Cf. Mt 26:54 ; Jn 18:36 ; Jn 19:11 ; Acts 3:17-18 .]
Catechism, Section 600 (emphasis added).
For Catholics, God's predestination includes our free response to his grace. Genuine free will is intact. Also telling is the Catechism's discussion of death in general: "Death is the end of man's earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan, and to decide his ultimate destiny" (Section 1013). Notice the references to man's mission "to work out his earthly life" and to man's deciding his ultimate destiny. These references point to authentic existentialism, Christian existentialism, not the atheistic variety. (See also Catechism, Section 2008 on merit and justification.)
Related to the issue of predestination is the Catholic teaching that the converted can lose their salvation through mortal sin. In speaking of those who have received new life in Christ, the Catechism states that "[t]his new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin" (Section 1420; see also Section 1861). It is my impression that most evangelical Protestants do not believe that such a loss of grace is possible for the truly converted.
Ironically, modernist or liberal Catholics also seem to hold to a form of Calvinist predestination in disguise when they exaggerate the concept of a fundamental moral option defining one's entire life. The liberal Catholic moral theologian will argue that no one single act, however sinful, can alter the "fundamental option" of a Christian to walk with God. In this way, the misuse and exaggeration of the otherwise useful idea of a fundamental option becomes Calvinist predestination in disguise. Thus, we have the modernist rejection of the reality of mortally sinful acts in the Christian life.
Yet, what is the Calvinist idea of predestination? You can see a modern Calvinist Protestant explain his beliefs quite forthrightly and intelligently at Dr. David Heddle's attractive web log. William Placher, a Presbyterian theologian and historian of theology, describes Calvin's view as follows:
Scripture talks about goats as well as sheep, and our experience suggests that God's grace does not transform everyone. But if some are saved and others damned, and salvation has nothing to do with merit, it can only be because God has predestined some to salvation and others to damnation. . . . So how can one be certain of salvation? It is a question Calvin never really answered.
William C. Placher, A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press 1983), p. 222 (It should be noted that Placher is a mainline and in my opinion a "liberal" Protestant theologian).
My personal view is that those evangelicals who hold to the strong Calvinist version of predestination hold in practice to a view of free will that contradicts their stated doctrine. If we look at the commitment of many evangelicals to evangelizing, to rejecting sinful lifestyles, and to aiding those in need, it is clear, at least to me, that in reality they hold to a more balanced view of salvation that is closer to that articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than in their own historic doctrinal pronouncements. A strong version of predestination satisfies the natural human yearning for submission to the will of God and for recognition of God's majesty. With all due respect, I would contend that focusing on God as merciful can satisfy that same yearning without creating the theological conundrums about God's justice and about how to know if we are part of the elect. In my opinion, John Paul II in his emphasis on the mercy of God, shown in his encyclicals and also in his encouragement of the Divine Mercy devotion worldwide, has given us the Catholic response to the challenges of predestination. Our blessed assurance comes from the mercy of God open to all until the last moment of earthly life.
Friday, July 25, 2003Welcome to U.K. Readers
Catholic Analysis is happy to note that Holy Innocents Roman Catholic Church in Orpington, United Kingdom, has linked to this site. This parish's extensive website is a fine example of how a Catholic parish can use the internet to advance the New Evangelization. See this site.
Natural Family Planning vs. Contraception: Is There a Moral Difference?
Today is the 35th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. One of the points repeatedly brought up by opponents of the encyclical is that there is no moral difference between the natural family planning approved by the Church and the contraception condemned as gravely sinful. This point is a welcome challenge because it allows us to see the truth of the encyclical in greater focus.
Paul VI makes the distinction between natural family planning and contraception in these words from the encyclical:
These two situations are essentially different. In the first, the spouses legitimately use a faculty that is given by nature; in the second case, the spouses impede the order of generation from completing its own natural processes.
Humanae Vitae, Article 16, para. 3 (trans. by Janet E. Smith).
Based on these words, many have correctly argued the moral difference between natural family planning and contraception by pointing out that in natural family planning there is merely an abstaining from intercourse, a decision not to engage in intercourse, while in contraception there is the intent and act of altering the natural end of intercourse. It is the difference between respecting intercourse by not altering it and redesigning intercourse.
In the encyclical, there are well-known references to the natural law as interpreted by the Church. It is also well-known that many attackers of the encyclical reject the very idea of natural law as binding. They caricature the reliance on natural law as a "physicalism" that reduces the human act to physical processes that do not reflect the moral condition of the participants.
In response to these attacks, let us examine the biblical basis of the encyclical. As a point of entry, let us focus on this sentence from Humanae Vitae:
[T]he one who uses the gift of conjugal love in accord with the laws of generation acknowledges that he is not the lord of the sources of life but rather the minister of a plan initiated by the Creator. . . . Man does not have unlimited power over his own body in general.
Humanae Vitae, Art. 13.
There is a related statement that also emphasizes the limits of man's dominion over his body by noting that the Church "encourages Man not to abdicate human duties by overreliance on technology" (Art. 18).
As a result, in my view, the major point of entry to understanding the teaching against contraception is that for Christians the body does not belong to man. Now, for most people, this view is astounding and even nonsensical. Most persons intuitively focus on the body as what is mine. But the biblical view that underlies all of the encyclical is that the body belongs to God. That is why the physical acts performed by the body are so significant. That is why the charge of physicalism is superficial and betrays an anti-biblical orientation.
If the body belongs to God, then the acts of the body must reflect the intent and design of God. The fact that this reverence for the body is referred to pejoratively as mere "physicalism" is, once again, a sign that the opponents of the encyclical view the body primarily as a tool or instrument that is at the full disposal of man. They view the body as one more useful physical object under the complete control of man. Those who decry the encyclical's focus on the high moral importance of how we use the body indicate thereby their view of the body as no more than the raw material for human design. That is a radically unbiblical view. In fact, it is the same technological view of the body that Paul VI warns against when he says that the Church "encourages Man not to abdicate human duties by overreliance on technology" (Art. 18; cp. Art. 17).
Thus, Humanae Vitate is not about the conflict between the aspirations of spouses and an outdated overemphasis on biology, as its critics would have us believe. Rather, Humanae Vitae is about the conflict between technological commodification of the body and the biblical teaching about the body. In this commodification, the body becomes no more than a product providing a service at the beck and call of unlimited human dominion over the body. This view of the body as a commodity or raw material, as a pragmatic instrument, is, as said before, radically unbiblical.
Paul VI assumed the biblical orientation of his audience within the Church. As events have shown, he was overgenerous in his estimation of the biblical mindset of this audience. The biblical references in the encyclical cluster in the part of Humanae Vitae discussing the pastoral manner of dealing with its implementation. These particular biblical references do not explain the underlying assumptions that led to the formulation of the teaching. Rather, they focus on the practical application of the teaching in the Christian community. As a result, there is a need to go back to the biblical basis for the heart of the teaching that the body does not belong to man.
In Matthew 19:3-6, Christ answers the Pharisees' question about the permissibility of divorce by referring to the creation accounts in Genesis:
"Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
(Christ interprets Genesis 1:27 & 2:24; RSV translation) (emphasis added).
Christ limits man's power over the body: man cannot take apart what God has joined together. Man does not have full dominion over his own body. Christ teaches that God's sovereignty over the body is primordial, "from the beginning."
The full expression of God's sovereignty over the body is in St. Paul, especially in 1 Corinthians:
The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. . . . Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:13, 19 (RSV translation).
Christians interpret the natural law through the lens of biblical revelation. Thus, Humanae Vitae assumes that Christians come to the debate about contraception fully accepting the view that the body belongs to God. Certainly, any theist who believes in God's creation can come to the same conclusion. But God has wisely chosen, because of our limitations and weaknesses, to grant us the biblical revelation of this truth in the Genesis accounts of creation and most radically in the Resurrection of Christ. In the Resurrection, the sovereignty of God over the body reaches its fullest and most overwhelming expression: God wills to preserve the body forever. This radical reverence for the body is shown, to borrow a phrase, by God's "preferential option" for the body. The resurrection of Christ is the ultimate sign of that divine dominion over and preference for the body.
Thus, the biblical revelation and the bodily Resurrection dramatically illuminate the natural law's emphasis on reverence for the body. For anyone to have ears to hear the prophetic teaching of
Humanae Vitae, that biblical and theological orientation is necessary. Unfortunately, many find that orientation alien to their embrace of a technological view of the body. That, in my view, is the reason Paul VI's encyclical has been such a sign of contradiction in this age of technology and will continue to be a sign of contradiction.
Thursday, July 24, 2003More Proof Humanae Vitae Was Right
TCRnews.com has an excellent article by former Anglican minister Dwight Longenecker from England that points to the growing Anglican embrace of homosexual behavior as a direct result of the Anglican embrace of contraception in 1930. Whom does Longenecker quote to support his contention? None other than the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams himself. From day one, Catholic opponents of contraception have pointed out that to legitimate contraception makes it logically impossible to disapprove of any sexual activity deemed desirable by someone somewhere. Even the beknighted Anglican leader can see the results of embracing contraception, although he is happy to go along with the consequences. Hoping against hope, maybe one day, a sense of honesty and honor will move Williams to abandon the ill-fitting title of Archbishop of Canterbury as a way to avoid further insulting the memory of its first holder, St. Augustine of Canterbury. The chair of St. Augustine of Canterbury has been vacant for too long. Let us hope that one day somehow its honor will be restored. See article.
True Mercy and Humanae Vitae
This Friday we come to the 35th Anniversay of Humanae Vitae. In the decades since its promulgation, thousands of Catholic clergy, teachers, and catechists have decided not to affirm this fundamental moral teaching. Even worse, they have decided not to teach it all. They have then turned around and argued that the widespread indifference of many people to this teaching calls for its revision. It is an interesting circle of bad faith and dishonesty: to intentionally keep people in ignorance, and then turn around and use the predictable effects of ignorance as justification to revise Church teaching. It reminds me of the phrase used in the Middle East when referring to the building of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as "creating facts on the ground." Rightly or wrongly, those who favor such settlements just go ahead and build them in order to present a fait accompli to negotiators. Now, my intent is not to delve into Middle Eastern politics, but rather to point out that the same bad faith strategy has been used by those intent on rejecting Humanae Vitae's (hereafter HV) stand against contraception.
The scandal is that those who reject the teaching of HV calling for respect for the procreative end and ordination of each and every marital act have deceived generations of Catholics by failing to present that teaching in an intelligent manner. Of course, the more fundamental problem is one of personal honor: if you cannot publicly affirm this fundamental Catholic moral teaching, then you have no business being a priest or a catechist or a Catholic religion teacher. Personal honor demands that you either communicate the teaching in a sympathetic manner or leave any position in the Church that involves teaching the faith. The options are many: the person who rejects HV could present the teaching intelligently by recognizing that he or she cannot substitute their own opinions for Church teaching (the option of public obedience) or they could just avoid any role in teaching the faith (the appropriate form of the option of silent obedience) or a person may as a matter of conscience, after serious and informed consideration, find it necessary to associate with another Christian community, such as a Protestant denomination (the option of conscience). The best option is the authentic fundamental option of continuing conversion to the call of Christ through the successor of Peter.
Yet, the dishonorable choice apparently made by many is to keep the Catholics they teach in ignorance. Well, if, as our tradition says, instructing the ignorant is a work of mercy, then what is the intentional act of keeping people in ignorance of Church teaching? Surely, it is not an act of mercy. I submit it is a punitive act.
Hordes of young Catholics have been denied instruction in the fullness of Catholic sexual morality. Instead, they have been taught a distorted version or even nothing at all. The punitive effects of this bad faith by those who freely choose to teach the faith are apparent everywhere, in spite of our denial: the normalization of fornication and "shacking up" as rites of passage for Catholic youth, the use of abortion as the "ultimate contraceptive," and a virtually complete loss of the sense that any sexual act, except maybe for rape or child abuse, can be seriously sinful. At the end of the day, ignorant young Catholics grow up, many saddled with blighted and avoidable pasts marred by promiscuity's deep emotional scars (and sometimes physical scars) and with past and present troubled marriages.
Rather than being merciful, Catholic teachers who have hidden and undermined HV have been mercilessly reckless and punitive in confirming their charges in moral ignorance. And then there are the more prominent and outspoken mockers of HV, such as best-selling author Garry Wills. Or the more mild-mannered "centrist" former Commonweal editor Margaret Steinfels who views dissent as something to be celebrated as part of Catholic identity with all the warm fuzziness of a sixties and seventies communal experience.
We cannot help wondering about the motives involved. It seems to me that those publicly attacking HV should come forward and tell us, along with their public rejection of HV, what personal experiences have led them to this rejection. We are burdened with their prominently displayed opinions, but, as far as I can tell, have not been given a clue as to the personal experiences that must surely lie behind those opinions.
To the extent the rejection of HV by Catholic liberals is accompanied by their own present or past practice of contraception, I cannot avoid seeing the powerful motive of rationalization. All of us are powerfully moved to justify our sins, whether for brief periods of time or for decades or for a lifetime, even when they are done with and remain in the past. There may even be those who, while themselves not directly involved in contraception, are intent on justifying the lifestyles of their children. This rationalization is a fruit of our great human ego and its insatiable appetite for self-justification. Surely, those pundits who loudly proclaim their rejection of HV have an obligation to share what have been their experiences. In that way, the audience can apply common sense judgment to determine what weight to give their public rejection of HV.
Some will respond by saying that surely some who reject HV, such as unmarried clergy and others, have not themselves practiced contraception. To that, I would agree. In that case, we need to know more about the emotional basis for attacking HV. Is it a resentment of authority? Is it a rejection of the demands of chastity in general? What is the wider ideological basis for the rejection of HV? The root ideological bias may not even be related to sexuality at all.
Let us consider the issue of authority. The late moral theologian and priest Bernard Haring is celebrated to this day as an opponent of HV. Yet, from my reading, it appears that Haring was deeply influenced in his thinking by his personal experiences in the German army during World War II that understandingly left him deeply suspicious of authority. Here is a quotation from his writings:
‘What most influenced my thinking about moral theology was the mindless and criminal obedience of Christians to Hitler, a madman and a tyrant. This led me to the conviction that the character of a Christian must not be formed one-sidedly by a leitmotif of obedience but rather by a discerning responsibility, a capacity to respond courageously to new values and new needs, and a readiness to take the risk.’
From Lavinia Byrne, Haring Lecture, The Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (20 Oct. 1999) (source quoted: "Free and Faithful in Christ, Bernard Haring, St Paul Publications, Slough, 1978, volume one, p.2"); available at Haring Lecture.
So when we examine the writings of Haring on HV, are we not entitled to take into account that he may be carrying a personal experience too far? Are his arguments motivated by an unreasonably, but understandably, overextended hostility to the exercise of authority? The solution to the past experience of evil is not to say a perpetual "yes" to every misguided wish of modernity and call that mercy. The proper response to the reality of evil is to speak the truth even when it contradicts the desires of the audience. And speaking the truth is mercy.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture (Pontifical Biblical Institute 2001)
Dr. Peter Williamson of Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit has published a study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, originally produced as a thesis for the Gregorian University in Rome. The thesis has been published as a book entitled Catholic Principles for Interpreting Scripture (Pontifical Biblical Institute 2001). The study centers on a document published in 1993 to gather together in one place the Church's view of biblical interpretation. In light of the flood of mass market books seeking to dismember the Scriptures, there is surely a need for Catholics, whether or not involved in biblical scholarship, to have a guide on this essential topic. In a sense, all Catholics interpret the Bible, whether listening from the pew at Mass or reading at home. In addition, many Catholics seek out biblical commentaries and introductions which exist in a bewildering variety-- most of which are by non-Catholics. Thus, Williamson's effort to cull the principles underlying the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document on interpretation is a welcome guide in this confusing situation.
Most striking is Williamson's confirmation of what many Catholics who seek out the help of biblical commentaries and introductions can attest to:
During the course of his studies over the last ten years, this writer has had the opportunity to ask students from Catholic seminaries and universities in many places about their Scripture courses. Although there are some impressive exceptions, he has found that--except for individuals who take a special interest in history, literature or languages-- the general experience is disappointment with Scripture courses. Most students approach Scripture courses with an interest in learning about God from the book which they regard as the primary written testimony to revelation. They often leave with their thirst unquenched by an approach which studies Scripture "just like any other ancient writing."
Williamson, p. 155.
This situation is, however unsurprising, still shocking. Catholic seminaries and universities are there to nourish the faithful in the Scriptures. For such widespread disillusionment to exist among their students is a sign of a professoriate in a crisis of faith. The culprit in this situation is the misuse of the historical-critical method which seeks to study Scripture with objective criteria to uncover " ' the historical processes which gave rise to biblical texts' " (Glossary, p. 395). The Pontifical Biblical Commission (hereafter "PBC") views the historical-critical method as "indispensable" but not exclusive (Appendix, p. 344). The PBC also points out that this method "can and must be used without philosophical presuppositions contrary to Christian faith" (Appendix, p. 344).
The most troublesome philosophical presupposition that troubles believers is the assumption that the supernatural is fictional. Thus, biblical study begins to mimic physical science so that only that which is verifiable by everyday routine secular experience or laboratory experiments is ipso facto true or historical. Thus, the miracles of the Bible become material for deconstruction, rather than exceptional but historically real signs of God's power.
Another problem is the deconstruction of the unity of Scripture. Williamson notes the problem:
In biblical writings which bear signs of redaction [i.e., editing] over the ages scholars have sometimes been too ready to interpret difficult texts as later additions that simply disagree with earlier strata. Three problems characterizes such interpretations. First, they are hypothetical and often are contradicted by subsequent scholarship (especially literary studies). Second, they excuse the exegete from the task of explaining the meaning of biblical writings in their final state. Third, by stressing difficulties in the text or by urging complicated redactional hypotheses they deny, implicitly or explicitly, that coherent meaning exists in those biblical writings. Yet this contradicts the experience of generations of Jews and Christians.
Williamson, pp. 124-125.
Note how the search for different layers or strata by scholars sounds much like archaeology. Again, the atmosphere is one of pursuing what is allegedly scientifically verifiable in the narrow sense of excluding the synthetic work of divine inspiration. The result is an atmosphere of unreality where texts are rejected as unified wholes and are instead broken into pieces and layers. In a way, such excessive deconstruction ironically creates its own literary mythology composed of unverifiable, extremely speculative, and highly subjective theories of redaction which contribute little or nothing to the understanding of the message of Scripture, as attested by students.
In response, the PBC teaches that individual texts of Scripture are to be interpreted "in the light of the whole canon of Scripture" (Williamson, p. 117). The Commission affirms that "Catholic exegesis recognizes the essential unity of Scripture, which encompasses differing perspectives . . . yet presents an array of witnesses to one great Tradition . . . ." (Williamson, p. 117). In light of the occupational mania for redactional theories by biblical scholars (a mania which of course provides the necessary raw material for endless professional publication), the PBC emphasizes that "[i]t is the canonical text in its final stage which is the expression of the word of God" (Williamson, p. 29; emphasis added). In other words, the pieces lying about at the end of literary deconstruction (destruction?) are not the inspired word of God. So it is not surprising that many Catholic students find a focus on such redactional theories unfulfilling.
Williamson's book is lengthy (338 pp. of primary text) and thus full of many more worthwhile insights into the Commission's document. One interesting theme is the Commission's failure to take more seriously the potentially positive contributions of "fundamentalists" who may offer a necessary corrective to the failures of mainstream biblical scholarship (cf. Williamson, p. 61 & note 24).
Williamson also notes the need to clarify the relation between history and the events depicted in the Bible (p. 62 & note 25). In this regard, it is worth noting the intellectual inadequacy of writers like Luke Johnson of Emory University who refuse to refer to the Resurrection of Christ as historical because it is "beyond the empirical methods of historical research to verify" (p. 59; see also note 20 at p. 59). As others have pointed out, to refuse to call the Resurrection "historical" is, to most ears, "a denial of its reality" (p. 59 note 20). In my view, the witness of the apostles and others to the empty tomb and to the appearances of the risen Christ qualify as historical verification. In my opinion, the problem that writers like Johnson have with calling the Resurrection "historical" is its miraculous nature, which contradicts the modern scientific world view, not the lack of historical witness. In this regard, I personally would go further and say outright that historical methods can indeed verify the Resurrection event, and that the real stumbling block is the modern prejudice, especially strong among academics, against miraculous divine intervention.
For Catholics involved in catechetical work or other pastoral work, this book provides an excellent and clear guide to the Church's view of biblical interpretation. Williamson has provided an extremely useful appendix summarizing the principles he draws from the PBC's document, in addition to a glossary. Yet, any Catholic who reads the Bible will find it enlightening. In closing, let me emphasize a point made by Williamson: the Bible belongs to everyone, not just to professional scholars. In fact, I cannot resist closing with this quotation which makes the same point quite vividly. Williamson is quoting the nun who is director of "the highly successful Biblical School of the Archdiocese of Denver" who "normally avoids hiring instructors with doctoral degrees":
Our experience shows that devoting their energies to the scholarly issues currently being debated interferes with a scholar's ability to help ordinary people relate Scripture to their lives, especially in the first few years after getting their doctorates. Though some scholars communicate about the Bible with ordinary people exceptionally well, for many who get their doctorates, it's hard to come back . . . .
Williamson, p. 155.
The lesson is clear: let us retake the Bible. It belongs to the Church.
(This book is available at Amazon.com in a paperback edition published by Loyola Press in 2002.)
Kevin Miller at the Heart, Mind & Strength blog (see Blogroll at side margin) has some perceptive constructive criticism of my remarks that may be of interest. I agree with his point that redactional theories can be of value. My quarrel is with the excessive focus on such theories at the expense of the final canonical text. In that sense, I am in full agreement with the comments of Cardinal Ratzinger quoted by Kevin Miller. This useful back and forth demonstrates that the internet can provide a sort of "peer review" that is no longer the exclusive domain of traditional academic journals. For that, I am appreciative.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale Univ. Press 2003)
Historian Robert Wilken has given us the benefit of his close study of early Christianity by providing insight into some of our current dilemmas as Christians. In the past, prior to his reception into the Catholic Church, Wilken questioned as speculative some of the arguments advanced by theologian Michael Novak in First Things in favor of the all-male priesthood, without necessarily taking issue with Novak's conclusions. Thus, it is of interest that Wilken's latest book now presents insights that actually bolster arguments in favor of the all-male priesthood.
In describing the iconoclast controversy in the ancient Eastern Church, Wilken describes the writings of Theodore of Studium, who died in 826, "abbot of a monastery near Constantinople at the beginning of the ninth century" (Wilken, p. 254). As background, it is good to recall that the iconoclasts aimed at abolishing the veneration of icons as idolatrous, beginning in the early eighth century with the efforts of Emperor Leo III in Constantinople (p. 242). Wilken points out that "[a]s has often been the case in the church's history, the challenge of a divergent point of view became the occasion to clarify what was believed," in this case about the Incarnation (p. 242). We see the same dynamic also at work today in Wilken's study of the iconoclast controversy which illuminates and clarifies what Catholics affirm about the necessity of the all-male character of the priesthood.
The most powerful argument against those claiming that icons were violations of the commandment against making graven images is the response succintly summarized by Wilken: "If No Image, No Incarnation" (p. 253). In other words, we can depict God because God became man in Jesus. Prior to the Incarnation, we could not properly depict God in an image. But, with the incarnation, we have now seen the image or icon of God, as stated in the New Testament (Col. 1:15: "He [Christ] is the image [eikon] of the invisible God . . . ."). (Interestingly, in 1 Cor. 11:7, Paul refers to the male [the Greek "aner" obviously meaning male in this context] as "the image [eikon] and glory of God" in contrast to the female: does Paul have in mind the connection with Jesus as the image of God as noted in Colossians 1:15? It cannot be ruled out or dismissed peremptorily that Paul's comment on the male as the image of God might here be influenced by the fact of the Incarnation, with Christ as the Second Adam.)
Wilken interprets the argument of Theodore of Studium against the iconoclasts in a way highly relevant to current controversy about the all-male priesthood:
Theodore was convinced that the iconoclasts thought much too abstractly about Christ. Their language suggested that the divine Logos had assumed humanity in general, "flesh without distinguishing features." But something in general can be grasped only by the intellect, not by the senses: "If Christ assumed our nature in general . . . he can be contemplated only by the mind and touched by thought." A symbol can depict an idea or concept or abstract quality, but an icon displays the reality itself, in this case the person of Christ. The original is present in the icon because of its likeness to the person.
Wilken, p. 256-57 (emphasis added).
The point of the argument is that Christ did not just become human in general but that Christ became a specific person, a male with distinguishing features. We should pause at this point and note that it would not be surprising that those distinguishing human features of the male Jesus would have resembled those of Mary, his mother. Again, we have the complementary presence of male and female in the Incarnation through the pairing of Mary and Christ in the economy of salvation. In any event, what Theodore emphasizes is the particularity and specificity of the Incarnation, as opposed to an abstract understanding of it.
Earlier in his book, Wilken emphasizes the historical specificity that characterizes the Christian faith: "The Christian gospel was not an idea but a certain kind of story, a narrative about a person and things that had actually happened in space and time. It was, says Origen, an 'event recorded in history' " (Wilken, p. 15). This distinctive historical specificity of the Christian revelation is what underlies Theodore's defense of the appropriateness of icons after the Incarnation. In accord with all of this, the sense of the faithful manifested in Sacred Tradition has linked the maleness of Jesus in the Incarnation to the maleness of his apostles and their successors in the priesthood. To this day, that is the witness of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, which are the only major Christian bodies to have maintained intact the apostolic succession.
In fact, one, if not the, major argument on behalf of the tradition of the all-male priesthood is the iconic argument in which the priest is the icon of Christ who stands in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ") at the Eucharist. Interestingly, Wilken includes in his book discussion of the Eucharist as the act of "recall by making present" or anamnesis which is "more than mental recall" (Wilken, p. 34). Wilken rightly points out that in the Eucharist, "the life-giving events of Christ's death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time" and become present again in the liturgy (Wilken, pp. 34-35). In my view, this "recall by making present" is intimately tied to Wilken's earlier description of the Gospel's essential character as historically specific.
This historical specificity as re-presented in the liturgy recalls the distinguishing historical and human features of the Incarnation, including the maleness of Jesus. The reader can see that all of these insights presented by Wilken form a coherent and mysterious whole when viewed through Sacred Tradition's teaching on the all-male priesthood. Absent the all-male priesthood, the distinctive historical specificity of the Gospel is replaced in the liturgy with a merely abstract and intellectual Gospel that is not true to the ethos of ancient Christian tradition. This "abstract Gospel" can end up falsifying the tradition's teaching on the bodily Resurrection of Christ and on our own bodily resurrection, along with related moral teachings about the appropriate use of the body in light of the Resurrection.
There are other insights in Wilken's book that bear on modern concerns, such as abortion (quoting Basil, bishop of Caesarea, on the embryo at pp.142-43), the difference between Christian and Muslim views of those outside the faith (p. 318), and the patristic understanding of the Beatitudes (p. 273). In other words, Wilken has given us a professional scholarly work from which the thoughtful reader can gain great profit.
Monday, July 21, 2003Don Quixote, Cardinal Ratzinger, and the Aftermath of Vatican II
In 1982, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger published Principles of Catholic Theology with an epilogue entitled "On the Status of Church and Theology Today." (Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology [Ignatius 1987 (1982))] pp. 367-93). In the epilogue, Ratzinger gives his view of the Church in the post-Vatican II or "Postconciliar Era." He appraises the state of the Church in 1982 by noting the great lie that has taken Vatican II hostage to the strange theological projects of heterodox writers such as Hans Küng and Garry Wills. This falsification of Vatican II proceeds "through an isolated reading of the intention expressed in the prefatory paragraphs" of Gaudium et spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Ratzinger, 390). In prefatory Articles 1-3 of Gaudium et spes, the Council proclaims its "solidarity" with the human family and its intention to engage in dialogue or conversation about the problems of all humanity. This spirit of Vatican II seeking to bring the Gospel to the heart of human society has been twisted by the heterodox into a blank check for revising the heart of the Gospel.
In contrast to this falsification of the Council, Ratzinger makes clear "that [as of the 1980's] the real reception of the Council has not yet even begun" (Ratzinger, 390). He goes on in reference to Gaudium et spes:
What devastated the Church in the decade after the Council was not the Council but the refusal to accept it. This becomes clear precisely in the history of the influence of Gaudium et spes. What was identified with the Council was, for the most part, the expression of an attitude that did not coincide with the statements to be found in the text itself, although it is recognizable as a tendency in its development and in some of its individual formulations. The task is not, therefore, to suppress the Council but to discover the real Council and to deepen its true intention in the light of present experience.
Ratzinger, pp. 390-91.
The falsification of Vatican II by the heterodox is why it is important for Catholics to read again the texts of Vatican II. Upon re-reading, it becomes abundantly clear how far the disastrous aftermath of the Council left us from possessing the liturgy and mission envisioned by the Council itself. The papacy of John Paul II, with the central involvement of Cardinal Ratzinger himself, has been absorbed in restoring not a preconciliar setting, as falsely alleged by theological liberals, but rather with restoring the conciliar mandate from the Council documents that was submerged in the chaos following the Council.
To understand our present experience of the Council, Ratzinger turns to a literary comparison or "parable" from Miguel de Cervantes' classic Don Quixote. As the Encyclopedia Britannica (15th ed. 1986) says, echoed by other reference works, Cervantes was "the outstanding genius and supreme innovator of Spanish literature," but he is much more than that in spite of our Anglo-American myopia. The Britannica adds appropriately that "Don Quixote, after the Bible the world's most translated book, is considered both the first and, by many, still the greatest of modern novels" (Vol. 15, p. 753). Literary critic Harold Bloom agrees by concluding that Cervantes is a master who "dominates his genre [the novel] forever" (Bloom, Genius [Warner Books 2002], p. 15).
What does Ratzinger find in the world's first novel that enlightens our experience of the postconciliar era? Ratzinger points out that, at the beginning of the novel, Don Quixote the knight debuts as a fool obsessed with silly books of chivalry which are burned by the barber and the pastor in rebuke of the knight's medieval madness. As Ratzinger notes, in this literary scene the new modern world closes the door on the Middle Ages. But then something changes:
He [Cervantes] begins gradually to love his foolish knight. . . . [showing us] that the foolishness of consecrating his [Don Quixote's] life to the protection of the weak and the defense of truth and right had its own greatness. . . . What a noble foolishness Don Quixote chooses as his vocation: "To be pure in his thoughts, modest in his words, sincere in his actions, patient in adversity, merciful toward those in need and, finally, a crusader for truth even if the defense of it should cost him his life."
Ratzinger, p. 392 (quoting in part from Don Quixote).
In the end, we see that "the center of his foolishnesss . . . is identical with the strangeness of the good in a world whose realism has nothing but scorn for one who accepts truth as reality and risks his life for it" (Ratzinger, p. 392). Ratzinger then draws the comparison with the ten years after Vatican II by asking if we did not also engage in the same book burning or "auto-da-fé" comically portrayeded in Don Quixote:
We started out boldly and full of confidence in ourselves; there may have been, in thought and, perhaps, also in reality, many an auto-da-fé of scholarly books that seemed to be foolish novels of chivalry that led us only into the land of dreams and made us see dangerous giants in the beneficial effects of technology, in the vanes of its windmills. Boldly and certain of victory, we barricaded the door of a time that was past and proclaimed the abrogation and annihilation of all that lay behind it. In conciliar and postconciliar literature, there is abundant evidence of the ridicule with which, like pupils ready for graduation, we bade farewell to our outmoded schoolbooks. . . . [But] [g]radually we have stopped laughing; gradually we have become aware that behind the closed doors are concealed those things that we must not lose if we do not want to lose our souls as well.
Ratzinger, p. 393.
Is it an impossible dream? Not at all. No less than the Creator has guaranteed the victory of what Ratzinger (echoing St. Paul in 1 Cor. 1:25) calls "the foolishness of truth."
Sunday, July 20, 2003Special Sunday Post: Split in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.?
The media is awash in reports concerning the upcoming General Convention of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. which convenes in Minneapolis on July 30th. Keep an eye on this event. If this gathering approves the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire or passes a resolution approving of the blessing of same-gender couples, it appears likely that some conservative Episcopalians will split. What is interesting to outside observers is that those who may depart will be joining the majority of Anglicans worldwide who do not share the rejection of Christian morality that has become a hallmark of U.S. Episcopalians. The distinct minority in worldwide Anglicanism will be the tiny Episcopal Church U.S.A. (about 2.3 million members). The other reaction to watch is that of Anglican communities overseas, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is likely they will not remain quiet in the event the General Convention approves one or the other of these controversial proposals. This Third World roadblock to the longstanding Episcopalian quest to redesign fundamental Christian morality results from the booming growth of Christianity in developing countries outside of Europe and affluent North America. For observers, Catholic and non-Catholic, this turmoil should make it once again clear that the primacy of Peter is essential to the preservation of the deposit of Christian faith. See story.