Questions of Reform

In “True and False Reform.” (August/September), Avery Cardinal Dulles displays his usual clarity and forthrightness.

I do, however, differ from him in a nuanced but important way regarding the pastoral theology of Vatican II. I believe that the strength of his exposition on orthodoxy (with which I entirely agree) relies on the conceptual theologizing deriving from Trent, Vatican I, and the new Thomism. In effect, this style of reflection portrays Vatican II as a doctrinal council (especially regarding the ecclesial role of the bishops). As Cardinal Dulles remarks, “The Council exalted the episcopacy to an unprecedented peak of power and responsibility.”

My research on Vatican II as a pastoral council leads me to believe that Vatican II was primarily concerned with meanings and values , not doctrinal truths which had already been established by the Tradition of the Church. Hence, Vatican II’s style of reflection is a study in ecclesial subjectivity: i.e., on the corporate meanings and values residing in the ecclesial community. This descriptive, not defining, style of reflection is intent on serving a world in crisis on the model of the Good Samaritan. For this awesome millennial undertaking the Council projected a renewed Christocentric humanism or anthropology.

I have used the term “phenomenology” to elucidate the above “attitude shift” from objectivism to subjectivism, a shift that reflected that philosophy’s mid-century popularity in Europe.

John F. Kobler, C.P.
Immaculate Conception Monastery
Chicago, Illinois

I enjoyed reading Avery Cardinal Dulles’ “True and False Reform.” I would like him to clarify one statement he makes, and consider a question, both regarding the Lutheran Reformation.

First: In his essay Cardinal Dulles states, “Luther and his colleagues also took up the theme of reform, but in the name of correcting abuses they attacked essentials of the Catholic faith and became separated from the Church.” I would like to ask what “essentials of the Catholic faith” the Lutheran Reformers attacked, particularly since the presenters of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 took great pains to claim that their teachings were not contrary to catholic faith:


We have related only matters which we have considered it necessary to adduce and mention in order that it may be made very clear that we have introduced nothing, either in doctrine or in ceremonies, that is contrary to Holy Scripture or the universal Christian Church.

Further, Cardinal Dulles’ statement suggests that the Lutheran Reformers themselves created the break with Rome. Yet repeatedly in the Augsburg Confession the Reformers state that their goal is the unity of the Church:


Thus the matters at issue between us . . . may be discussed amicably and charitably, our differences may be reconciled, and we may be united in one, true religion, even as we are all under one Christ . . . . We on our part shall not omit doing anything, in so far as God and conscience allow, that may serve the cause of Christian unity.

At Augsburg the Lutheran Reformers sought to present a Catholic statement of faith, based on Scripture and tradition; their chief aim was the unity of the Church. That they “became separated” was not a result of their actions, but that the “jury””i.e., the papal representatives and allies, which included the emperor”had in effect decided the verdict in advance and rejected the Augsburg Confession once it was presented without the possibility of further discussion.

Second, Cardinal Dulles suggests eight “principles by which reform proposals in our day might be assessed.” Reading through them, could not the Lutheran Reformation, at least in its official document of the Augsburg Confession (not Luther’s actions per se), be considered a genuine reform movement within the Catholic Church? A strong case could be made that the proposals of the Lutheran Reformers, certainly at the Diet of Augsburg, met the tests of the eight principles Cardinal Dulles sets forth in his essay.

These are matters of historical debate. I am not suggesting in any way that Lutheranism today shares the same concern for unity of the Church and faithfulness to Catholic teaching that the Reformers at the Diet of Augsburg did, nor does it meet the test of the principles Cardinal Dulles suggests. How Lutheranism has betrayed its own Reformation heritage is another story, about which many more qualified than I have already written.

(The Rev.) Dan BilesSt. Paul Lutheran ChurchSpring Grove, Pennsylvania

In “True and False Reform,” Avery Cardinal Dulles promotes one reform that is specifically educational: the dissemination of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church to the laity. But the current Catechism tacitly excludes the traditional understanding of retributive justice as the primary purpose of the death penalty (2266, 2267) and of just war (2307, 2330).

The purpose of punishment, according to the Catechism , is to defend society or to provide restitution (“to redress the disorder caused by the offense”), not to exact deserved retribution. As to just war, the Catechism omits the traditional Augustinian-Thomistic justification for war”i.e., the punishment of evildoers who deserve to be punished for their wrongdoing”in favor of the justification of national self-defense, which need not coincide with retribution.

The current Catechism ’s distortion-by-exclusion of the traditional understanding of retributive justice will thrust the Catholic Church directly onto the pathway toward moral irrelevance because if retributive justice has somehow become outdated, then”who knows?”we might be able to save ourselves without the graceful help of the Redeemer.

So why does Cardinal Dulles insist upon disseminating a Catechism that distorts the traditional Catholic understanding of retributive justice?

T. Dan Tolleson
Houston, Texas


Avery Cardinal Dulles responds:

The writers of the three letters here printed take my article as an occasion to make some points that are of special concern to themselves. In the first letter Father Kobler repeats his thesis that Vatican II was a phenomenological council. While there is much to be said for that view, the Council cannot be said to have restricted itself to phenomenology. In some cases it exercised clear doctrinal authority. The language of Lumen Gentium 20 and 21 (the twice-repeated “This sacred synod teaches . . . ”) leaves no room for doubt that in these texts the Council was issuing doctrinal statements about the episcopate.

Pastor Biles raises the familiar question whether the Augsburg Confession could be recognized as orthodox by the Catholic Church. During the preparations for the 450th anniversary celebrations of the Confession in 1980, several distinguished theologians contended that such recognition would be possible, but in the end the Holy See stopped short of full recognition. The Pope contented himself with affirming the finding of the German Catholic bishops that they could find in the Augsburg Confession “a full accord on fundamental and central truths.” In my judgment the Confession’s rejection of the sacrifice of the Mass, of religious vows, and of the power of the bishops to impose laws binding in conscience is very difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with Catholic teaching.

Mr. Tolleson expresses a distaste for the Catechism of the Catholic Church , which I had mentioned only in passing. Unlike him, I regard it as a magnificent, though not flawless, synthesis of Catholic doctrine. It does not put much emphasis on retribution, but it does refer to eternal separation from God and “eternal fire” as punishments inflicted in hell. In speaking of criminal justice it states that the punishment should be “proportionate to the gravity of the offense” and that it may avail to expiate the guilt of the offender.

True, the Catechism does not approve of punitive wars, but to the best of my knowledge their legitimacy is not a part of modern Catholic teaching, nor am I aware that it has ever been taught by the Magisterium.


Memory and Moral Agency

“Why Remember?” (August/September), by Gilbert Meilander, is characteristically wise and beautiful, but should not be read as a judgment that amnesia entails moral impotence. Life, to be sure, is a story to remember, but the nonnarrative potential of each self is even more crucial. And the remnant of reason in a person like “Jimmie G” is fully adequate for its achievement. His life lacks the ordinary experience of temporal succession, but, like any rational person, he remains aware (remembers?) that he is responsible, as Professor Meilander puts it, “to live the story as best one can.” And even a memory so stripped of sequential content is up to this universal task. Jimmie’s inability to assemble and deploy historical factual details may frustrate his grasp of truth or right conduct in particular circumstances. What he retains is the capacity to say yes or no to that elemental duty to do his best”to keep looking and hoping. This commitment to the search itself is the one act necessary and sufficient to the highest human possibility. I don’t read Professor Meilander to the contrary.

John E. Coons
School of Law
University of California
Berkeley, California



Are You Comfortable?

R. R. Reno’s connection of an overblown fear of suffering with acedia or spiritual apathy in “Fighting the Noonday Devil” (August/September) gave me an “aha!” moment about a troubling phrase that I hear in conversation nearly every day.

The phrase is the question, “Are you comfortable with that?” The responder then describes his or her degree of “comfort” with a decision about to be made. I have heard a dean in the school where I teach ask other teachers if they are “comfortable” with a decision to suspend a student. I have heard a member of a city agency ask another member at a public hearing if he is “comfortable” with denying a citizen’s motion. I hear the comfort question asked over and over again, about decisions large and small. It crowds out questions that should be asked about right and wrong, about justice, about a decision’s intellectual or moral benefits.

Professor Reno writes that our vague moral sentiments about suffering as life’s major evil “overwhelm our immediate duties and corrupt our ability to function within the complexities of ordinary moral relations.” Surely the constant conversational reference to comfort reflects this determination to avoid suffering, no matter what the cost of apathy and inaction.

Ann White
Washington, D.C.

Evasive on Sodomy?

In the course of discussing Senator Rick Santorum’s controversial statement about sodomy (While We’re At It, August/September), Richard John Neuhaus avers that he is “not a fan of laws that are not intended to be enforced.” This strikes me as disappointingly evasive, as it is not often that one sees Father Neuhaus evade a controversy.

Perhaps he could clarify for First Things readers: Would he support the anti-sodomy law (now ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) if it were intended to be enforced? Sen. Santorum, as Fr. Neuhaus acknowledges, merely asseverated Roman Catholic orthodoxy on the question of homosexuality. And the good people of Texas, acting through their duly elected representatives in passing a law against sodomy, have also affirmed in the simplest republican means open to them, that same Roman Catholic and, more broadly, Christian orthodoxy. Would Fr. Neuhaus support its enforcement? Or does he believe that some principle of jurisprudence, political philosophy, morality, or mere politics precludes the people of the United States from the democratic affirmation of the faith of their fathers?

Most conservatives have been fully willing to castigate the Lawrence decision for its dubious arguments, its implications for same-sex marriage, and its creeping obliteration of the principle of federalism in what Justice Antonin Scalia called in his dissent “morals legislation.” Far fewer conservatives have been willing to positively defend anti-sodomy laws themselves. I recall Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review , a talented writer and shrewd analyst, noting with some surprise on National Review Online ’s web-log, sometime after the Santorum affair, that very close to a majority of Americans (according to poll numbers) actually favor anti-sodomy laws, which is a decidedly different thing than merely favoring the right of legislative bodies to criminalize sodomy without interference from the courts, as Mr. Ponnuru and many right-wing intellectuals do. In my judgment, this revelation suggests that National Review may be to the left of the country on the whole question of sexual morality. I am interested as to where Fr. Neuhaus and his fine publication stand.

Paul J. Cella III
Atlanta, Georgia


RJN responds:

There is nothing evasive in agreeing with Aquinas and many other worthies that not everything immoral can or should be made illegal. Whether Texas should have and enforce an anti-sodomy law is for the people of Texas to determine. In New York, the enforcement of such a law would, in my judgment, be politically impossible under existing and foreseeable circumstances, and attempts to pass or enforce such a law would cause severe damage to the common good. In different places and different times, one might be led to a different prudential judgment.


Protestants and Tradition

I note Richard John Neuhaus’ response to my review of Thomas Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (“ Haeresis as Doctrinal Orthodoxy,” Public Square, August/September). With no disrespect to Father Neuhaus, I must say in all humility that my critique of Oden’s book deserves a better response than that it elevates private judgment over historic Christianity. Such a dismissive response does not take seriously the Protestant critique of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditionalism.

Fr. Neuhaus’ response to my review of Oden’s book can almost be reduced to the claim that I am Protestant and insist, as do all classical Protestants, that tradition is second in authority to the written Word of God in matters spiritual and theological. To that I plead guilty. My criticism of Oden’s book arises because Oden is also Protestant, and yet his account of the authority of tradition could be interpreted as more consistent with Orthodox and Catholic traditionalism. That does not mean it is therefore automatically wrong; it only means that those committed to Protestant principles may want to pay close attention to Oden’s direction and consider whether they can go there with him. My review appeared in a publication read primarily (although not exclusively) by Protestants.

Roger E. Olson
Professor of Theology
George W. Truett Theological Seminary
Baylor University
Waco, Texas

RJN responds:

I do not see the pertinence of Professor Olson’s having reviewed the Oden book for a Protestant audience. In fact, it is precisely for that audience that the conventional pitting of Scripture vs. tradition needs to be challenged. Oden, a leading participant in the project Evangelicals and Catholics Together, is not, as I understand it, agreeing with “Orthodox and Catholic traditionalism” but is proposing a more coherent Protestant approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

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