The Public Square
Hardly had heads stopped shaking in the publishing world over the astonishing sales of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church in the United States (some three million copies in the first few months) than along comes Crossing the Threshold of Hope . Knopf put out more than eight million dollars for the American rights and pinned its promotional hopes on the Pope’s planned visit to this country in October. When the trip was postponed to next year, executives at Knopf heard the sickening sound of millions of dollars going down the drain. In happy fact, however, Crossing immediately jumped to the top of the best-seller lists, with bookstores complaining that they couldn’t get enough to meet the demand. It is now expected that the book will earn upward of fifty million dollars worldwide, all of it to be given to church-related charities.
There is something funny going on here. If you believe the prestige press, what we have in this book are disjointed philosophical and theological ramblings by a reactionary old man who heads an authoritarian institution that is lamentably out of touch with most Catholics and the entirety of the modern world. Insight into what is going on here begins with not believing the prestige press. Another way of understanding what is happening is proposed by the book’s author: “We find ourselves faced with a new reality. The world, tired of ideology, is opening itself to the truth. The time has come when the splendor of this truth (veritatis splendor) has begun anew to illuminate the darkness of human existence.” Some may think that excessively sanguine. The Pope’s hopefulness, however, is in no way to be confused with optimism. Optimism is merely a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and not seeing what you don’t want to see. The hope in Crossing the Threshold of Hope is on the far side of a relentlessly realistic, indeed painfully bleak, understanding of the human circumstance. Which is to say that it is on the far side of the cross.
On the dust jacket, written in the Pope’s hand, is “Be not afraid!” This, he notes, was the repeated greeting of the Risen Lord to his disciples. (Here and elsewhere, one is struck by the vibrant employment of numerous biblical passages, making the book, among many other things, an intriguing study in the ecclesial interpretation of Scripture.) “Be not afraid!” is the abiding message of the Church to the world, as it was also the theme of Karol Wojtyla’s sermon upon being inaugurated as Pope John Paul II in 1978. The plea of the book, reflected in the title, is that we must not stop at the threshold of hope and faith and love. Be not afraid to cross the threshold, for Christ, having gone ahead, is waiting to receive us on the far side of our fears. The book is philosophical and theological, to be sure, but most of all it is a testament to a profound piety forged in pastoral experience and prayer.
An Open-Ended Conversation
Some pages more than others, but every page evinces the intelligence, the warmth, and the passion of an extraordinary Christian soul. I read this book within days of having had a long and very lively dinner with the Holy Father, and all that we talked about has been much on my mind as I have gone back again and again to Crossing the Threshold of Hope . The best way I can describe the book is to say that it is very much like continuing an amiably earnest conversation over the dinner table for another ten or fifteen hours. It’s not exactly Everything You Wanted to Ask the Pope But Never Had the Chance . It’s better than that. There is a great deal that one might never have thought to ask but is essential to know if we are to understand this remarkable man and the faith that he proposes to us and to the world.
As most everybody knows, the genesis of the book was a plan to do an unprecedented worldwide television interview in October 1993, marking the fifteenth year of this pontificate. The interview didn’t come off, but the Pope was much taken with the questions submitted by the scheduled interviewer, Vittorio Messori, a noted Italian journalist. And so, in moments snatched between innumerable obligations, John Paul began writing down his responses to the questions, and, if you keep writing things down that way, pretty soon you have what could very well be a book. At least the Pope thought so, and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Holy See’s press director, thought so, and Leonardo Mondadori of the Mondadori publishing empire thought so, and now it seems that pretty much the whole world agrees.
Promotional hype to the contrary, it is not “unprecedented” for a Pope to publish a personal book that has no official standing. In the last sixteen years, this Pope has published several such books that have received little public attention. The new thing here is that he is responding directly to questions posed by a journalist, and they are questions of great interest to the general public. Another difference is the enormous financial investment that publishers have made in the book, combined, perhaps, with the reality of a world “opening itself to the truth.” And, of course, while the book itself has no official status, it does provide invaluable insight into the thinking behind the many encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and other official documents issuing from this pontificate.
In this commentary I will but touch on a few aspects of Crossing that bear upon matters of general interest, with particular reference to questions of concern to non-Catholics. Throughout the book there is a notable tone of modesty, both about his person and about the office he holds. To be sure, there is no trimming on the claims for the Petrine Ministry, but the accent is on the weakness and limits of Peter, and of the successors of Peter. Everything authentically Catholic, the Pope insists, must be understood Christocentrically, and Christ must be understood as the defining figure for all of humanity. He recognizes that the person of the Pope and the institution of the papacy is a puzzle and scandal for many. In response he cites Augustine, Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum christianus. (For you I am a bishop; with you I am a Christian.) “On further reflection, christianus has far greater significance than episcopus, even if the subject is the Bishop of Rome.”
Similarly Christocentric is the understanding of the Church. The institution of the Church is entirely at the service of the Gospel. He asserts that “the Church itself is first and foremost a ‘movement,’ a mission.” “It is the mission that begins in God the Father and that, through the Son in the Holy Spirit, continually reaches humanity and shapes it in a new way.” Elsewhere he suggests that the Church is a “protest movement,” challenging all the principalities and powers opposed to the mission of Christ that is the Church. “What else are the sacraments (all of them!), if not the action of Christ in the Holy Spirit? When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when the Church absolves, it is Christ who absolves; when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, it is Christ who celebrates it: ‘This is my body.’ . . . All the sacraments are an action of Christ, the action of God in Christ.” The foregoing is in response to Messori’s observation that people are perplexed by the silence of God. In light of the continuing action of God in Christ, says John Paul, “it is truly difficult to speak of the silence of God. One must speak, rather, of the desire to stifle the voice of God.”
Unity of Christians, Unity of Humankind
Repeatedly, the Pope returns to the question of ecumenism, and the connection between Christian unity and the unity of mankind. Those who have followed this pontificate with even moderate attentiveness know that there has never been the slightest question about the priority attached to ecumenism. On this score both traditionalist and progressivist Catholics have yet to catch up with the Pope. Traditionalists hesitate to cross the threshold and embrace ecumenism as an integral component of Catholic orthodoxy, while progressivists shrink back from the assertion that the only unity the Church can desire is unity in the truth. Divisions among Christians are a result of human sin, for sure, but John Paul suggests that something else, Someone else, has a hand in this. “Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ’s Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise . . . .”
In this book and elsewhere, John Paul regularly makes reference to what the West has to learn from the Christian East, and it is no secret that the reconciliation of East and West is viewed as the primary ecumenical responsibility of Rome. But his reflections suggest that there is also a deeper understanding of the Gospel issuing from divisions in the West, between Rome and the communities that claim the legacy of the sixteenth- century Reformation. The healing of the breach between Rome and the Reformation requires an appreciation of a “certain dialectic” in how the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. “It is necessary for humanity to achieve unity through plurality, to learn to come together in the one Church, even while presenting a plurality of ways of thinking and acting, of cultures and civilizations.” Divisions, then, may have served a purpose, but that does not justify continuing divisions that do not serve the truth. “The time must come for the love that unites us to be manifested! Many things lead us to believe that that time is now here . . . .”
The charge that the Lord Jesus gave to Peter makes ecumenism imperative. “The Petrine ministry is also a ministry of unity,” and that is entirely consonant with the Lord’s command to Peter, “Strengthen your brothers in faith.” John Paul thinks it significant that these words were said just as Peter was about to deny Jesus. “It was as if the Master Himself wanted to tell Peter: ‘Remember that you are weak, that you, too, need endless conversion. You are able to strengthen others only insofar as you are aware of your own weakness.’” Since the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church has spoken many times about sins against Christian unity. But this note of repentance and confession is now struck with increased urgency.
At a consistory of cardinals last May, a draft program was proposed to prepare for the Jubilee Year 2000. The program reportedly emphasized the need for the Church to confess its sins, not only against Christian unity but also in events such as the Inquisition and the persecution of heretics and Jews. It is said the draft was not well received by many cardinals. If the Church is the Body of Christ, some worry, one must be careful in speaking about the Church being capable of sinning. While such cautions are legitimate, it will not do to speak merely about individual members of the Church sinning, as though the authoritative structures and institutions that define the Roman Catholic Church are not implicated in their actions. Some inexcusably bad things have been done by popes and cardinals and bishops and religious orders-all inextricably entangled with what is meant by the “Catholic Church.” Beginning with his persistent reference to “the weakness of Peter,” this Pope seems to be searching for the appropriate way to ensure that, at the threshold of the Third Millennium, the Church will be found on her knees seeking for herself the forgiveness she declares to others. For Christians and for the world, it is thought, there must be something like an act of universal repentance and absolution if we are to walk upright into the Third Millennium. What such an act (or acts) might be remains unclear, but this Pope clearly intends to be with us in crossing that threshold, and in a November letter he had more to say about how we might cross it more fully united as forgiven sinners. In that letter, John Paul said that the Church must “become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ” and thus “sullied the face [of the Church].”
No Salvation Outside Christ
The concern for Christian unity inevitably comes up against what some view as Rome’s exclusivist claims to being, quite simply and without remainder, the Church of Christ. As is evident in a chapter of particular ecumenical interest (“Is Only Rome Right?”), that is not what the Catholic Church claims. “Outside the Church there is no salvation,” John Paul suggests, is another way of stating the “revealed truth that there is salvation only and exclusively in Christ.” Here he weaves a rich tapestry of biblical texts and the teaching of the Council that “The Church is in Christ as a sacrament, or a sign and instrument, of intimate union with God and of the unity of the entire human race.” To be saved is to be brought into the most intimate life of God, “into the Mystery of the Divine Trinity.”
This happens in the Church but that “cannot be understood by looking exclusively at the visible aspect of the Church.” The Pope does not put it quite this way, but the implication is that, where this incorporation into the life of God happens, where salvation happens, there is the Church. The Church, he says, “is far from proclaiming any kind of ecclesiocentrism. Its teaching is Christocentric in all of its aspects, and therefore it is profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Trinity.” Christ and the Church, one is invited to think, are coterminous. There are various levels and spheres of communion with the Church as it is most fully and rightly expressed in the Roman Catholic Church, but, in the final analysis, to say that there is no salvation outside the Church is another way of saying that there is no salvation outside Christ. This does not mean that only Christians can be saved. As the Pope turns to the question of world religions and the many who are not Christians, it appears that there are many who do not know the name of Christ who nonetheless are not outside Christ.
Asked why there are so many religions, John Paul refers, as he does regularly throughout this book, to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The several parts of that teaching must be kept in play. One part is that the “Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” Because truth and holiness are from God, all the many evidences of truth and holiness are of a piece, for God is one. In other religions can be found semina Verbi (seeds of the Word); their doctrines can “reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men,” that truth being Christ. The Church “is bound to proclaim that Christ is ‘the way and the truth and the life.’” Whatever truth and holiness is to be found anywhere finds its fulfillment in Christ, through whom God has reconciled everything to Himself. In considering the many ways of religion in the world, both past and present, we can affirm, says John Paul, that “Christ came into the world for all these peoples. He redeemed them all and has His own ways of reaching each of them in the present eschatological phase of salvation history.”
As generous as he obviously wishes to be to all, the Pope offers rather sharp strictures with respect to, for instance, Buddhism and Islam. Buddhism, with its disdain for and detachment from the world, has some similarity to varieties of Christian mysticism, but such Christian mysticism “begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end.” The Christian goal is not nirvana but perfect incorporation into the life of the Triune God. Islam is similarly limited: “Some of the most beautiful names in the human language are given to the God of the Koran, but He is ultimately a God outside of the world, a God who is only Majesty, never Emmanuel, God-with-us. Islam is not a religion of redemption. There is no room for the Cross and the Resurrection . . . . For this reason not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity.”
While the Pope stresses the requirement of respect for what is true and holy in all religions, it is when he comes to Judaism that respect is clearly joined to deep affection. Here are our “elder brothers in the faith,” a phrase John Paul has employed innumerable times. In the chapter devoted to Judaism, he recalls childhood experiences in Poland and the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi period. As Pope he has met frequently with Jewish groups, and he was the first Pope to worship at the great synagogue in Rome. At one such meeting a Jewish leader said, “I want to thank the Pope for all that the Catholic Church has done over the last two thousand years to make the true God known.” Some Jewish thinkers have suggested that Christianity is Judaism for the Gentiles, the way in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has, through Jesus, extended the covenant to the nations.
While not subscribing to that formulation, John Paul proposes a heightened sense of alertness to the mysterious and continuing bond between Christian and Jew. Israel and the Church are “two great moments of divine election,” and they “are drawing closer together.” What is said about the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism does not detract from but is based upon Jesus the Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promise. “The New Covenant,” says John Paul, “has its roots in the Old. The time when the people of the Old Covenant will be able to see themselves as part of the New is, naturally, a question to be left to the Holy Spirit. We, as human beings, try only not to put obstacles in the way.” Twice he notes the significance of the fact that the Church’s dialogue with Jews is conducted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, whereas dialogue with other religions is under different curial auspices. This reflects a recognition that a singular measure of unity already exists between those who worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.
John Paul is not much taken with the effluence of religiosities that appear under the banner of New Age. This, he suggests, is but another instance of the return of ancient gnosticism, the idea that liberation from the real world can be achieved by the adepts of a superior “gnosis” or “spiritual consciousness.” The Pope observes, “Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian.” Here and elsewhere, the heart of what is essentially Christian is Christ-the Word of God incarnate, redeeming the human project and drawing it to its completion in the life of the Holy Trinity. In this view, Judaism and Christianity-unlike Buddhism, Islam, and other traditions-understand creation and redemption in historical continuity; the accent of hope is not on salvation from the world but on the salvation of the world. In support, he repeatedly cites John 3:16, “For God so loved the world . . . ”
To Keep Conscience on Guard
Speaking of salvation invites reflection on damnation. In some forms of piety to be found among both Protestants and Catholics, salvation is defined almost exclusively by reference to damnation. To be saved is to be snatched from hell, which is the destination of the generality of humankind. This is not the sensibility of John Paul, who, with early fathers of the Church and the continuing tradition of Orthodoxy, emphasizes the cosmic nature of a redemption that is directed toward the fulfillment of man in the life of God, indeed toward theosis or deification. Nonetheless the Pope is concerned about preachers and catechists who “no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell. And perhaps even those who listen to them have stopped being afraid of hell.”
He sympathetically recognizes that the undeniably biblical teaching about hell has been a problem for great Christian thinkers from Origen in the third century to Hans Urs von Balthasar in the twentieth. After all, it is clearly God’s will that “all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2). Or, as John Paul puts the question, “Can God, who has loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal torment?” He answers, “And yet, the words of Christ are unequivocal.” In Matthew 25, for example, Christ speaks clearly about those who will go to eternal punishment. So who is in hell? “The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard. This is a mystery, truly inscrutable, which embraces the holiness of God and the conscience of man. The silence of the Church is, therefore, the only appropriate position for Christian faith. Even when Jesus says of Judas, ‘It would be better for that man if he had never been born,’ His words do not allude for certain to eternal damnation.”
It is the case, however, that “there is something in man’s moral conscience” that rebels against the loss of the doctrine of hell. After all, the God who is Love is also ultimate Justice. Reflecting on those who are responsible for creating “hells on earth,” one must ask: “Can He tolerate these terrible crimes, can they go unpunished? Isn’t final punishment in some way necessary in order to reestablish moral equilibrium in the complex history of humanity? Is not hell in a certain sense the ultimate safeguard of man’s moral conscience?” Among some Protestants there is considerable anxiety that the Catholic Church teaches “universalism,” the doctrine that all will ultimately be saved, or even Pelagianism, the heresy that it is possible to be saved without the grace of God in Christ. John Paul goes to some pains to clarify these questions.
He notes that ancient councils of the Church rejected the theory of a final apocatastasis according to which all would finally be saved and hell abolished. Yet one gathers he does not disagree with von Balthasar, who, in a famous essay by that title, asked, “Dare one hope that all will be saved?” The answer would seem to be that one may so hope-perhaps even that one must so hope-while not denying the abiding alternative to salvation, which is damnation. As for Pelagianism, his interviewer asks whether one cannot live “an honest, upright life even without the Gospel.” John Paul: “I would respond that if a life is truly upright it is because the Gospel, not known and therefore not rejected on a conscious level, is in reality already at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him. Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul. The spirit blows where He will and as He wills (John 3). The freedom of the Spirit meets the freedom of man and fully confirms it.” In sum, there is no salvation apart from the grace of God in Christ. Even those who have never heard of Christ are, if they are saved, saved because of Christ. (For a fuller discussion of these matters see my commentary on Redemptoris Missio, the encyclical on Christian missionary work, “Reviving the Missionary Mandate,” FT , October 1991.)
Behold the Man!
But this discussion may give the misleading impression that Crossing the Threshold of Hope is an exercise in systematic theology. There is theological reflection, of course, but in the main it is an unabashedly personal disclosure of how this Pope understands himself, his office, the responsibilities of the Church, and, above all, the strange ways of God with man. There is much on his devotion to Mary and why the typology of male and female is essential to understanding Christ and his bride, the Church. Some readers will find the most affecting parts of the book to be the autobiographical reflections, especially on his abiding concern for young people. He says, “As a young priest I learned to love human love.” Such human love, rightly ordered, is on a continuum with the love of God, His for us and ours for Him.
This continuum of the life of God and the life of man is at the heart of all of John Paul’s thinking. This is the humanism in his “prophetic humanism.” He never tires of repeating that the revelation of God in Christ is the revelation of God to man but also the revelation of man to himself. Citing Blaise Pascal he says, “Only in transcending himself does man become fully human.” (Apprenez que l’homme passe infiniment l’homme.) This truth is demonstrated by Christ in his love that is perfectly ordered to the Father in the power of the Spirit. Thus Christ has “touched the intimate truth of man.” “He has touched it first of all with His Cross. Pilate, who pointing to the Nazarene crowned with thorns after his scourging said, ‘Behold, the man!’, did not realize that he was proclaiming an essential truth, expressing that which always and everywhere remains the heart of evangelization.”
John Paul is impatient with sociological analyses of spiritual realities. The Church does not march to statistical calculations but to the songs of Zion. At the same time, he does not shrink from offering his own assessment of the Church’s circumstance at the edge of the Third Millennium. “If the post-conciliar Church has difficulties in the area of doctrine and discipline, these difficulties are not serious enough to present a real threat of new divisions. The Church of the Second Vatican Council . . . truly serves this world in a variety of ways and presents itself as the true Body of Christ, as the minister of His saving and redemptive mission, as the promoter of justice and peace.” As the major transnational community, the Church is a force also in international affairs. “Not everyone is comfortable with this force, but the Church continues to repeat with the Apostles: ‘It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4).”
Tom Burns, former editor of the Tablet (London), catches the feel of the book very nicely. “To write of John Paul II as a pontiff of the first millennium is not to say that he is an anachronism, but on the contrary that the radicalism of that time, when grace struck its roots into nature, when the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church, and mankind had to choose between stark alternatives, has come round full circle. The most modern of all popes recalls the most distant in time: ‘Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world’s soul . . . . The struggle for the soul of the contemporary world is at its height when the spirit of the world seems strongest’-words that might have been spoken in the catacombs of ancient Rome.” At the threshold of the Third Millennium, they are words of invitation to cross the threshold of hope.
Russia: Wilderness Years Ahead
For many evangelical Protestants in this country, post-Communist Russia is a vast mission field ripe unto the harvest. Russian Orthodoxy, however divided and dispirited by its years of subservience to political dictatorship, is strongly united in opposing the “invasion” by Western Christians. And, of course, it is not only the evangelicals who are resented. Much more deep-seated in the soul of Orthodoxy is a suspicion of the designs of Rome. As we have observed in these pages, there is today a sense of heightened expectation regarding the reconciliation of Rome and the churches of the East. But the obstacles to bringing together what was formally sundered in 1054 are still formidable.
A German writer, Barbara von der Heydt, has been examining the spiritual and cultural commotions in Russia and offers her findings in “Russia’s Spiritual Wilderness” (Policy Review). Since his return to Russia, the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has been portrayed in the Western press as an ineffectual old man whose prophetic rantings have been largely ignored by the Russian people. In fact, the article by von der Heydt suggests, more people may be listening than those press accounts allow. Although not always so simply stated, Solzhenitsyn’s message is simple: the past sufferings and present ills of Russia are attributable to the fact that “men forgot God.” While Orthodoxy will have to play the primary role in any moral and spiritual rejuvenation of Russia, this requires that Orthodoxy itself undergo significant changes. Although generally unknown in the West, Orthodoxy has a glorious history of martyrs in this century. Under communism, many thousands of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, and lay people were killed for their Christian witness. The celebration of the Russian martyrs is a source of spiritual renewal, but at the same time it raises awkward questions about current church leaders who, with few exceptions, collaborated with the Evil Empire.
There are other problems. Von der Heydt spoke with Mikhail Dmitriev, a political reformer battling the nationalistic forces of imperial revanchism. “Despite his own agnosticism, Dmitriev claims that the only way to reform Russia, which he calls a ‘profoundly atheistic society,’ is to restore Christian values. But he makes the point that Orthodox values are pre-Reformation values, which are counter to markets and capitalism, condemning the accumulation of wealth and forbidding the taking of interest. ‘The Reformation never reached Russia, and this is the attitude which controls their attitudes to economic behavior. Orthodox values are not compatible with real market values.’ As reformers move ahead in the transition, some significant elements of the Russian Orthodox Church perceive a loss of Russian national identity in the westernizing reforms, and therefore oppose them. Dmitriev concludes Russia needs an infusion of Protestantism into Orthodox thinking on the market.”
The Russian Orthodox are not likely to welcome the suggestion that they need to learn from Western Protestants. Yet, unlike both Protestants and Catholics in the West, Orthodoxy had no occasion to develop, either conceptually or practically, the ways of coping with the often troubling dynamics of democracy and the free market. Under communism, Orthodoxy was a fragile refuge from the world. Now it is being called upon to restore the moral character of a people who see only confusion, chaos, and the ascendancy of a gangster elite beyond the reach of any legal or moral authority. Von der Heydt’s conclusion is sobering: “As daunting as the economic and political tasks are, reforming the character of the nation’s soul is far harder yet. But in the absence of such a moral transformation, there can be no lasting economic or political reform. The destruction of the Russian soul was so devastating that it will take years for the country to find its compass. A free and stable Russia cannot emerge immediately. Indeed, it may take more than a generation. The children of Israel wandered forty years in the wilderness, unlearning the traits of slavery in Egypt before entering the Promised Land. Russians may be entering their wilderness years in their exodus from the slavery of communism.”
Capitalism and the Kindness that Kills
Perhaps every author knows the lurking fear that somewhere in the book manuscript is an error so gross that it will cast a shadow over the entirety of his argument. Something inadvertent of course, a case of meaning to say one thing but having, most embarrassingly, said another. So one asks friends to go over the manuscript and hopes-in today’s publishing world it is usually a vain hope-that an editor will also be paying attention. In this connection our sympathy to Andrew Kimbrell, author of The Human Body Shop (reviewed by Bernard Nathanson in First Things , December 1993). This memorable howler in the very first paragraph of the very first chapter survived into the second edition. Kimbrell is discussing the sacred meanings traditionally associated with blood. Then this: “Blood also plays a central role in the Christian sacramental traditions, where it is transformed into wine and consumed as the essence of life, the very presence of ‘the living God.’” Reverse transubstantiation, so to speak.
Regrettably, this is not the only howler in a book that is otherwise useful and should have made more of an impact than it has. Kimbrell provides an extended survey of deeply troubling developments in the exchange and sale of human body parts, the “commodification” of the body itself, and the reckless experiments now under way that are accelerating our civilizational slide into the horrors of eugenics that most people thought, wrongly, had been forever discredited by the Third Reich. For those who are morally uneasy about having been sleeping well lately, we warmly recommend the bedtime reading of The Human Body Shop.
As Nathanson pointed out, however, Kimbrell weakens his argument by proposing that we merely regulate, or submit to further public discussion, some practices that, if not effectively prohibited, are inherently unregulatable. For instance, he urges “a moratorium on the use of induced-abortion fetuses for transplantation and research until the profound ethical and legal problems surrounding this practice are fully discussed and resolved.” The difficulty is that those who engage in this practice think that the profound questions, if there are any, have been fully discussed and resolved, while those who disagree deem the practice evil beyond discussion. Kimbrell’s proposal puts one in mind of the observation that when you come across an article titled “Whither Incest?” you somehow know that it is not going to be a vigorous defense of traditional morality.
Similarly, Kimbrell says we should not permit the creation of new species by putting human genes into animals “until there has been a full public debate on the issue and the ethical and environmental consequences of the genetic engineering of animals are better understood.” Whither Humanoids?
Kimbrell’s urgently important warnings would have been enhanced by the omission of the concluding chapters that attempt to explain what has brought us to the present unhappy pass in which eugenic practices threaten what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.” According to Kimbrell, it is all the fault of modernity; more specifically it is the fault of Enlightenment rationality; and most specifically it is the fault of capitalism. Echoing the apocalyptic assault on modernity in Jeremy Rifkin’s foreword to the book (Kimbrell works for Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends), the author depicts Adam Smith as the serpent in the garden who seduced the modern world into embracing “the gospel of greed.” He writes, “In [Smith’s] system there are no ethical choices to be made, only utilitarian judgments exercised by each individual pursuing his or her own material self-interest.” One wonders from what leftist tracts Mr. Kimbrell has derived his understanding of intellectual history. (We are told that Mr. Kimbrell is, in fact, a “distributionist” in the mode of Chesterton and Belloc. Unfortunately, in the present book his polemic is largely indistinguishable from that of vulgar Marxists.) He also writes that today countries everywhere are turning away from market economics to a greater reliance upon social control. One wonders what newspapers he reads. As with transubstantiation, his history seems to have gone into reverse.
To be fair, perhaps Kimbrell does not know that Adam Smith was, above all, a moral philosopher, the author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments , and a proponent of market exchange within the constraints of moral culture. (For a splendid account of Smith’s work, see Jerry Z. Muller, Adam Smith in His Time and Ours [reviewed in First Things by Michael Novak, August/September 1993].) Kimbrell calls for replacing democratic capitalism with what he calls the politics and economics of “empathy.” But surely C. S. Lewis already marked that trap for us, as did Walker Percy in novels such as Love in the Ruins and, especially, Thanatos . The movements for abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, and related practices are all motored by the engine of empathy. Percy’s hero-priest in Thanatos calls it the kindness that kills. The advocacy of the culture of death is riddled with the rhetoric of empathy, compassion, and caring. Creating an efficient market for the sale of body parts, relieving the radically handicapped of lives not worth living, engineering babies that will be more lovable and therefore, presumably, more loved-it is kindness all the way.
There is a great deal that is wrong with capitalism, even when one specifies democratic capitalism, as there is a great deal wrong with everything human. The Rifkin-Kimbrell attack on the free economy may win them friends on the left, and recruits for the resistance to the engineering and marketing of human life are to be welcomed, no matter how ideologically misguided they may be on other questions. The same might be said of their romantic celebration of environmentalism as the alternative to modernity. Ecofreaks Against Eugenics may be doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but allies do not come made to order.
A serious intellectual response to the evils vividly reported by Kimbrell, however, begins with the knowledge that there is no desirable alternative to modernity and the market economy. Neither modernity nor the market are acceptable as they are; both are subject to change and will change, for better and for worse. These are truisms. How they change depends in largest part upon factors that transcend economics and the dynamics that are presumably inherent to the abstraction called modernity. This is the wisdom of Pope John Paul’s encyclical on political economy, Centesimus Annus . With Rifkin-Kimbrell, John Paul understands that persons are not property and that many things must not be subjected to the forces of the market. Unlike Rifkin-Kimbrell, he knows that our hope lies not in railing against modernity and capitalism but in making and effectively implementing clear moral judgments. The Pope calls for a restoration of politics as moral deliberation.
The fault lies not in the great systemic evil of everything that has happened since the Enlightenment; the fault lies in ourselves. The perils rightly deplored by Mr. Kimbrell are not so much, as he contends, the result of technological breakthroughs; they are much more the result of cultural breakdowns. We can say No, and we can make politically and legally effective arguments for saying No. Of course we may fail, but then history comes with no guarantees-except its happy consummation in the Kingdom of God. But about this we should be clear: If warding off the evils described in The Human Body Shop depends upon reversing modernity, our chances are similar to those of turning blood into wine. And then we are back to debating “Whither Incest?”
The Cult of Violence
Out in Hollywood, but not only there, Gerry Adams of the Irish Republican Army has been lionized by Americans on the two visits that the Clinton Administration, much to the consternation of Great Britain, has permitted him to make to this country. (The general rule is that terrorists are denied visas.) As of this writing, the cease-fire between the IRA and its Protestant opponents in Northern Ireland is still holding. Perhaps it will lead to some kind of lasting peace, but that does not change the fact that Adams is a very violent man with a history of involvement in the murders of dozens of innocent men, women, and children.
The Spectator notes editorially that violence is not just in Mr. Adams’ past. “Only recently, he has commented nonchalantly that the penalty for informing on the IRA is death. There is no trial or appeal for a man suspected of being an informer. He is simply eliminated by a bullet in the back of the head. The admirers of Mr. Adams in New York and Detroit who express so much outrage at what British lawyers and judges did to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six should consider how the IRA continues to treat people it suspects of talking out of turn. There are no Hollywood movies to be made about them, no biographies, no appeal funds-whether they were innocent or guilty, the fact is that they are now all dead. That is Gerry Adams’ version of justice.”
Simon Jenkins of the London Times reflects on a Hollywood birthday party given Gerry Adams by Martin Sheen, Oliver Stone, Tom Hayden, and other luminaries. “What gives Mr. Adams his glamour is not his present link with peace but his past link with violence. That is what gave a thrilling tingle to ‘Happy Birthday, dear Gerry.’ For those who make a living faking violence, a practitioner of the real thing has magnetism. Malcolm X and the Black Panthers enjoyed similar West Coast status. Gangsters, mafiosi, and convicted murderers have, I am told, great sexual appeal to certain women. If Jack the Ripper were alive today, Hollywood would not just buy his story (we would all do that), but would want to meet him, embrace him, feel his physical proximity. Using violence as a dramatic catharsis is one thing. Actors need an occasional first-hand encounter. I am sure Oliver Stone is even now working up a script Gerry Adams, the Movie , with guest footage of Mother Teresa, Steve Biko, and Martin Luther King.”
Moral Theology at its Pique
The slash-and-burn style of attack is more typically found in tabloids or in the editorial section of the New York Times than in scholarly theological journals, but Father Richard McCormick of the University of Notre Dame was het up, and the editors of Theological Studies gave him free rein. In the September 1994 issue he has a very long commentary on “Some Early Reactions to Veritatis Splendor .” Readers will recall that that 1993 encyclical made the case for the Christian vocation, indeed the human vocation, to holiness, which vocation requires a clear distinction between good and evil. In the course of making that argument, the encyclical is critical of “certain moral theologians” who seem to fudge the difference between good and evil, leading to a confusion in which evil is called good and good evil. These theological approaches are sometimes described as “proportionalist” or “consequentialist,” and most accent an understanding of “fundamental option” in which it is suggested that a person’s general orientation to the good, rather than specific acts, is what really matters.
It is generally thought that Fr. McCormick is among the theologians whom the Pope had in mind in Veritatis Splendor . Certainly Fr. McCormick thinks that. Others associated with the views that are criticized include Charles Curran, Bernard Haring, Louis Janssens, and, probably the most influential, Josef Fuchs. Fr. McCormick feels strongly that the criticism of him and his colleagues is most unfair. McCormick surveys some of the published responses to Veritatis Splendor in this country and elsewhere, including the January 1994 symposium in FT . With embarrassing predictability and absence of nuance, he announces his discovery that those who praise the encyclical are either confused or ignorant while those who attack it are insightful, bold, and right on target. As in The Mikado , Fr. McCormick has a little list, and on his list one is either a bad guy or good guy, depending chiefly, it seems, on one’s attitude toward McCormick and Friends. At least in drawing up his list, Fr. McCormick evidences a refreshing insistence upon absolute right and wrong. Those who agree with him are absolutely right and those who disagree are absolutely wrong.
Certainly Fr. McCormick does not let the Pope off easy. We are told that the encyclical “is prolix and repetitious, its analyses too frequently obscure and convoluted, and its presentation of revisionist tendencies tendentious, extreme, and ultimately inaccurate.” And, if that were not enough, it is also “acrimonious”-acrimony being something that Fr. McCormick most particularly deplores. Commenting on the FT symposium, Fr. McCormick notes that Stanley Hauerwas, David Burrell, and this writer are hopelessly confused, while Robert George of Princeton is guilty of misrepresenting the proportionalists, his guilt being mitigated only by his ignorance of the relevant literature. Hadley Arkes of Amherst is so dull-witted that he delivers “an analytic howler,” actually agreeing with the revisionists when he thinks he is disagreeing. And so Fr. McCormick goes on, and on, in his pique against the prolix, repetitious, tendentious, and acrimonious.
Nonetheless, the reader may find it worthwhile to try to rescue the germ of an argument from Fr. McCormick’s excited execrations. Those who have read McCormick over the years will welcome here his insistence that he really does believe in moral absolutes, that there are some things that are intrinsically-always and everywhere-evil. It is noteworthy also that he rejects the claim of critics that he and his revisionist associates want to advance an “accommodation with the spirt [sic] of the age.” Readers of McCormick and his colleagues have apparently been misled all this time by their endlessly repeated contention that received teaching must be revised in response to the putative needs and improved understandings of the contemporary world.
Welcome and refreshing also is Fr. McCormick’s brief comment on “the positive value” of Veritatis Splendor . “The encyclical directs its fire against the assumptions of the liberal society: absence of any sense of an objective moral order; the assertion of freedom over truth; conscience seen as the creator of moral law. This is right on target.” One must guard, however, against being too impressed by Fr. McCormick’s praise for parts of the encyclical. How to put this delicately? While it is surely with commendable effort that Fr. McCormick brings himself to acknowledge that this execrable encyclical is not without some merit, his concessions are not of such weight as to warrant a hermeneutical shift in the interpretation of his voluminous contributions to the contemporary state of moral theology.
Intentions and Acts
Fr. McCormick and others who sense that they are the objects of the Pope’s reproach protest that their work has been “caricatured,” “misrepresented,” and “distorted.” It is one of the less lovely aspects of their protest that they almost never suggest that they have been misunderstood, and that perhaps they are, at least partially, responsible for the misunderstanding. Against the “misrepresentation” and “caricature” found in Veritatis Splendor , Fr. McCormick insists that proportionalism never attempts to justify morally wrong actions by reference to a good intention. “If an act is morally wrong, nothing can justify it,” he says in a manner that seems quite unequivocal.
So very much turns on that “if,” however. One must inquire as to whether what seems to be an unequivocal formulation is in fact no more than a tautology: If an act is morally wrong, it is morally wrong. But consider: If an act that might otherwise be deemed morally wrong is done with a right intention, then it is not morally wrong. One can agree with the latter formulation without offending at all against the proposition that “If an act is morally wrong, nothing can justify it.” In short, that apparently unequivocal proposition turns out to be strikingly contingent.
In dealing with specific acts, the classical moral literature takes into account factors such as object, circumstance, intention, and motive. These terms are not always used in the same way; not even, according to some distinguished scholars, by Thomas Aquinas. Fr. McCormick insists that intention is not an add-on, it is not something in addition to what constitutes the act in question. He says flatly, “The intention makes the act what it is.” Here Fr. McCormick proposes a sharp distinction between intention and motive. A motive may be something extraneous to the act, something added to it. Then his formulation would seem to read: If an act is morally wrong as determined by its intention, nothing, including a worthy motive, can justify it.
Nobody in the discussion, past or present, has suggested that intention cannot contribute significantly to defining an act-to making the act what it is. Fr. McCormick employs a homely example. “For instance, handing money to another can be a variety of different things: payment of a debt, a loan, a gift, an alms, a bribe, etc. It is not possible to determine the morality of an action prior to determining what is objectively willed in it.” The example is homely, obvious, and irrelevant. The very act of handing money to another person has never been morally censured, never mind condemned as intrinsically evil. To understand what is happening in a specific instance of someone handing money to another one would of course have to know the intention. But what about having sexual relations with someone who is not one’s spouse? Is such an act intrinsically wrong? One has but to apply Fr. McCormick’s above-stated rule, “It is not possible to determine the morality of an action prior to determining what is objectively willed in it.”
The teaching of Veritatis Splendor is that such an act of sexual intercourse is intrinsically wrong, always and everywhere. There may be mitigating circumstances that would reduce the measure of culpability or guilt. One thinks, for example, of the extreme example in Sophie’s Choice , in which a woman commits adultery in order to save her child from the gas chambers. But the degree of culpability or guilt does not affect the wrongness of the act. The act cannot be made right; it can only be forgiven. At yet another point, Fr. McCormick proposes what would seem to be a clear and firm principle: “Once an action is said to be morally wrong, nothing can justify it.” Well yes, and it follows that, if an act is not said to be morally wrong, it needs no justification. It all depends, does it not, on who does the saying. What seems to be firm in Fr. McCormick’s assertions too often turns out to be flaccid almost beyond moral usefulness.
Consider McCormick’s description of the project of Fr. Josef Fuchs, the very influential figure whom McCormick believes the Pope has caricatured and misrepresented. Fuchs argues, says McCormick, “that it is a mistake to expect the Bible to lay out rights and wrongs in detail. Rather the Bible, especially the New Testament, aids our discernment in a different way. It provides a new and deeper understanding of the human person, of our vocation in Christ, of our being led by the Spirit, of our personal worth, etc. It is in such matters that the Church finds its original teaching function in moral matters.” Surely the teaching of the Bible and the Church provides all these wonderful things, and much more. But does not that teaching also “lay out rights and wrongs”? Forget the distracting words “in detail.” The question is not whether God’s revelation is in detail but whether it is specific. Is it a mistake to think that the Bible proposes-and that it is therefore the responsibility of the Church to teach-that there are specific acts that are intrinsically wrong? McCormick, Fuchs, and others seem to be saying Yes. Even with the best good will and giving them every benefit of the doubt, there would appear to be no other way of understanding them. Nonetheless, it is possible that their critics have misunderstood them and, dare one suggest, it is possible that they are at least partially responsible for that misunderstanding.
The reader may find it of interest to compare the assertions of Veritatis Splendor with statements by, for example, the estimable preceptor of the revisionists, Fr. Josef Fuchs. The following is from section 37 of the encyclical:
“Some people . . . disregarding the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom . . . have actually posited a ‘complete sovereignty of reason’ in the domain of moral norms regarding the right ordering of life in this world. Such norms would constitute the boundaries of a merely ‘human’ morality that would be the expression of a law which man in an autonomous manner lays down for himself and which has its source exclusively in human reason. In no way could God be considered the Author of this law, except in the sense that human reason exercises its autonomy in setting down laws by virtue of a primordial and total mandate given to man by God. These trends of thought have led to a denial, in opposition to Sacred Scripture (cf. Matthew 15:3-6) and the Church’s constant teaching, of the fact that the natural moral law has God as its author, and that man, by the use of reason, participates in the eternal law, which it is not for him to establish . . . . [This way of thinking] has led to an actual denial that there exists, in Divine Revelation, a specific and determined moral content, universally valid and permanent. The word of God would be limited to proposing an exhortation . . . which the autonomous reason alone would then have the task of completing with normative directives which are truly ‘objective,’ that is, adapted to the concrete historical situation.”
To the Sources
Fr. McCormick charges that that is a misrepresentation, distortion, and caricature of what he and his fellow revisionists have proposed. But it seems very close to, if not identical with, his own description of Fuchs’ view cited above. In inquiring whether revisionists teach what Veritatis Splendor says they teach, there are hundreds upon hundreds of volumes that might be consulted. Since nobody will suggest that Josef Fuchs is unrepresentative of the view that Richard McCormick defends, however, it is possibly sufficient to limit ourselves at the moment to Fr. Fuchs and his recent book, Moral Demands and Personal Obligations (Georgetown University Press, 1993). Herewith a number of quotes that would seem to be pertinent:
“What is presented as ‘ethical natural law,’ and therefore as the order of creation and God’s will, is always, and necessarily, an attempt at interpretation, evaluation, and ethical judgment that cannot be simply ‘read off’ from nature and the heart. Therefore it always retains the character of an attempt, and does not generally compel one to see in it absolutely the one possible attempt and conditional judgment that always holds true. (page 25) . . . A moral judgment about right ethical conduct cannot be deduced from what is given in nature, but can be found through human, rational, evaluative reflection within human reality as a whole. (33) . . . God’s universal sovereignty is transcendent, not merely in the world, and is not, therefore, in competition with human rights. It follows that it is a fallacy to say that only God, not persons, may make decisions about [sexual morality] . . . . One cannot therefore deduce, from God’s relationship to creation, what the obligation of the human person is in these areas or in the realm of creation as a whole. (39) . . . Neither the Hebrew Bible nor the New Testament produces statements that are independent of culture and thus universal and valid for all time; nor can these statements be given by the church or its magisterium. Rather, it is the task of human beings-of the various persons who have been given the requisite intellectual capacity-to investigate what can and must count as a conviction about these responsibilities.” (55)
But enough. It does seem very much like, indeed indistinguishable from, what John Paul says “some people” teach. Similar statements, in fact nearly identical statements, can be found almost beyond number in the writings of Curran, Haring, Janssens, and their numerous disciples, and not least in the writings of Richard McCormick. Of course almost everybody is unfairly criticized at times, but one wonders why these writers protest so vociferously when their positions are calmly and accurately presented. After all, the reader has only to open their books to find out what they have said.
Of course a theologian is understandably and rightly troubled when criticized by church authority. One can confidently say that most of those challenged by Veritatis Splendor do very seriously intend to “think with the Church” and faithfully present her teachings. When a theologian encounters official criticism or thinks he may be the target of such criticism, surely the first instinct should be to ask whether the criticism is just. If he believes the criticism is unjust, there are ways to explain his position more fully and, in the course of doing so, help church authority to articulate its own position more adequately. All of this has been helpfully spelled out in recent years in an instruction from the Vatican titled, “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” What does not make much sense in response to censure is to claim that one has not said what one has said, repeatedly. The books are out there, and presumably the authors intended that they should be read. Reading an author’s books should not be construed as a hostile act.
The Issue Behind the Issues
The intention that informs Fr. McCormick’s committing this article in Theological Studies is helpfully clarified when he comes to what he calls “the issue behind other issues: ecclesiology.” He notes that many people admire this Pope for taking a firm moral stand in a world awash in relativism, but, he says, it is easy to admire the Pope “when their own personal lives are a comfortable distance from the pope’s concrete conclusions.” There is no arguing with the fact that it might be easier to be a Catholic theologian were it not necessary to be credibly Catholic. McCormick complains that Veritatis Splendor reflects a notion of the Church “as a pyramid where truth and authority flow uniquely from the pinnacle.” And it is true that the Catholic Church is constituted hierarchically. According to McCormick, however, Vatican II adopted a “concentric model” of the Church “wherein the reflections of all must flow from the periphery to the center.” (No Council text is cited.) Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said that “theologians of various continents and most varied orientations” had a part in the production of Veritatis Splendor . McCormick complains, “It would not be difficult to give a fairly large list of the theologians who were not consulted. Some were mentioned earlier and are the very ones whose work is criticized in the encyclical.”
Fr. McCormick is, as noted earlier, a formidable keeper of lists. And there are no doubt a good number of theologians who were not invited to help produce an encyclical the purpose of which was to set forth an understanding of morality to which they were publicly and, in some cases, vehemently opposed. One assumes that he is not unhappy because he was not invited to participate in the criticism of the position that he espouses. (Years ago, some flaky theologians expressed admiration for Chairman Mao’s “self-criticism” techniques, but not, so far as we know, Fr. McCormick.) Perhaps he is unhappy because, had he and his friends been invited, they might have helped produce an encyclical that put an official stamp of approval on their moral theories-or at least did not criticize their teaching.
One expects, however, that Fr. McCormick’s dyspeptic trashing of the encyclical and those who affirm it is not because he was not invited as a consultant on the project. Rather, in his “concentric” model of the Church there would seem to be no place for encyclicals, or for any other form of authoritative teaching that might set limits on what can legitimately be presented as Catholic teaching. Any such limits are viewed as a violation of freedom. He concludes his lamentation by citing the complaint of a group of Canadian theologians who shared his pique in reaction to Veritatis Splendor : “Such limits on freedom of thought and expression lead to a danger we should be very aware of today, at a time when reflective thought should be very active in order to respond to the needs and ever new problems of our time. These limits on freedom of thought and expression cannot respect what we call academic freedom here.”
Inquiring too closely into the meaning of such language-e.g., What are the “ever new problems of our time”?-risks being unkind. The “concentric” model turns out to be one in which the academic guild, rather than Pope and bishops, constitutes the magisterium or teaching authority. In that view, freedom understood as freedom from limits is the highest good. One might think that the result would be anarchy, a situation in which Catholic teaching is whatever a tenured Catholic teacher says it is. Just as likely, however, given the academy’s propensity for smelly little orthodoxies (a.k.a. political correctness), the result would be a rigid authoritarianism under which all who hope for advancement, or even security, are compelled to toe the line. The moral rules would be established by those whom the guild certifies as possessing, in Fuchs’ revealing phrase, “the requisite intellectual capacity” to determine what is right and wrong. By comparison, the magisterium of Bible, tradition, Pope, and bishops seems ever so much more capa