The Public Square
The Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, is a remarkable place. It very much reflects the vision of Timothy George, its founding and present dean, a Baptist of Calvinist proclivities who believes that evangelical Protestantism should be fully engaged in the quest for greater Christian unity. Beeson is mainly Baptist but makes a point of being interdenominational, evangelically speaking. George is also an invaluable participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. A while back, Beeson held a conference, in cooperation with the theological journal Pro Ecclesia, on the 2003 Princeton Proposal for the future of ecumenism (see First Things , June/July 2003). At the Beeson conference, I was assigned the topic The Quest for Full Visible Unity: The Role of the Roman Catholic Church. It was an occasion for rethinking what was meant by ecumenism in the last century and the meaning of ecumenism today.
If ecumenism is understood as the quest for full visible unity, and if full visible unity is understood as what the Catholic Church means by full communion, then it is perhaps not quite accurate to speak of the role of the Catholic Church. If that is the definition of ecumenism, perhaps it is more accurate to explore the possibility that, in crucial respects, the Catholic Church is the ecumenical movement. Not exclusively, of course, but in a singular way related to her self-understanding. If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be, ecumenism is not optional but constitutive. She cannot settle for understanding herself as one church among the churches in the way that other churches and ecclesial communities can and do understand themselves.
The 2003 Princeton Proposal reflects key aspects of a Catholic understanding of ecumenism. Guided by the prayer of the Church’s Lord in John 17, the signers declare that the statement of the 1961 World Council of Churches assembly at New Delhi remains the most adequate and comprehensive description of the unity that we must seek. New Delhi said: [This unity] is being made visible as all in each place who are baptized into Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord and Savior are brought by the Holy Spirit into one fully committed fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the one gospel, breaking the one bread, joining in common prayer, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all and who at the same time are united with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages, in such wise that ministry and members are accepted by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls His people.
That was forty-five years ago. The Princeton Proposal is undoubtedly correct in saying that where we are now is not where the ecumenical movement was supposed to be at the beginning of the third millennium. When the Princeton statement was first issued, I warmly welcomed it but noted its poignant tone. I wrote that it might better have been titled the Princeton Protest or the Princeton Prayer.
The Catholic commitment to the quest for full visible unity as full communion is, as has been reaffirmed again and again in the years since the Second Vatican Council, irrevocable. The Catholic Proposal and the Princeton Proposal are similar, if not identical, in their goal. In the Catholic understanding, the Catholic Proposal has been on the table since the apostolic era. In the unhappy circumstances following the sixteenth-century divisions, that proposal was typically put in terms of other communities’ returning to the Catholic fold. As Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, then head of the pontifical council for Christian unity, said many years ago, the word return is no longer part of the Catholic ecumenical vocabulary. Certainly individuals do return, but ecumenism is about the reconciliation of ecclesial communities.
Also ecumenically, a certain turning and returning is in order. The 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint invites us to look again to the first millennium, before the tragic divisions both between East and West and within the West, to see if there are not there possibilities for realizing the unity to which we are called. The call, however, is not to the past but to the future”toward the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer in John 17, which is a prayer for visible unity among all who call him Lord.
When full communion among all Christians is realized, nobody will feel a need to speak of the Roman Catholic Church, and there will certainly be no talk of returning to Rome, for then there will be, quite simply and comprehensively, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Catholic Proposal, unlike the Princeton Proposal, is not a protest against what has been lost or a wan plea for what might be restored, but is an anticipation of the promised future. It is not a program with goals and schedules; it is simply the Catholic Church as the present form of the promised reality of the one Church. That present form of the promised reality is held in trust, and lived in trust, for all Christians. Indeed, it is held in trust for all humanity, for, as the Second Vatican Council affirms, the Church understands herself as a sacrament of unity in and for the world.
Laying the Groundwork
With respect to what might be called ecumenical strategy, Ut Unum Sint is clear that unity with the Orthodox has, and must have, priority for the Catholic Church. Here is where the great divisions began, and here is where the healing must begin. John Paul II spoke repeatedly of the need for the Church to breathe again with both lungs, East and West. I believe it is true to say that the chief hope of John Paul upon becoming pope in 1978 was that his pontificate would see the healing of the breach between East and West. It follows that the deepest disappointment of his pontificate was the failure to reach that goal.
But in Ut Unum Sint, and in numerous other initiatives, he laid the groundwork for that healing to happen. It is fair to say that, between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, the only thing lacking for full communion is full communion. In terms of doctrine, liturgy, and ministry, everything is in place. What is lacking is the will. The will to unity in Orthodoxy may await another generation or two, or more. And, of course, it is manifest that Benedict XVI is determined to build on the groundwork laid by the council and subsequent pontificates.
As the Princeton Proposal makes painfully clear, ecumenism as the quest for full communion has, in the West, come upon very hard times. For many, this is the winter of ecumenical discontent and disillusionment, which we must not permit to become terminal discouragement. It is fair to say that the two long-standing dialogues in the West that bore highest promise and once seemed to discern on the horizon the prospect of full communion were the dialogues with the Anglican and Lutheran communions. Even in the view of the most ecumenically zealous, that prospect is no longer in sight.
The developments that now appear to be shattering the Anglican Communion are cause for deep sorrow. To be sure, there are Catholics who seem pleased to note that these developments simply vindicate John Henry Newman’s grim assessment, offered more than a century and a half ago, of Anglican claims to catholicity. But that is not the disposition of Rome, which since the council has tried to put the best possible construction on Anglican claims in the hope of moving toward eventual reconciliation. That a hope is disappointed does not mean an effort was misguided.
Admittedly, there was long a dispiriting air of unreality about the otherwise admirable work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). This has everything to do with the well-known problem of reception, the huge gap between official theological dialogue and the actual faith and life of the churches. One might say that, as in the case with the Orthodox, ARCIC has laid the groundwork and sowed the seed for promising developments in the future, and indeed we must pray that is the case.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Anglicanism, unlike Orthodoxy, has embraced changes and will likely embrace more changes that pose new obstacles to unity. Walter Cardinal Kasper, head of the pontifical council for unity, has spoken very candidly about the fateful ecumenical consequences of the decision by the Church of England to ordain women as bishops. And there is the matter of Christian moral teaching, notably sexual morality. Early in his pontificate, John Paul was criticized for placing ethics and morality on the ecumenical agenda. Questions of faith and order, however, while they can be distinguished from questions of faith and life, cannot be separated from faith and life, meaning the faith lived faithfully.
There are striking similarities between Anglican and Lutheran developments, and they provide naught for our comfort. With Lutherans, too, full communion, at least in the view of some, could for a time be discerned on the distant horizon. Perhaps some still believe they see it, but I fear it is a delusion. For instance, the seven years since the signing of the Joint Declaration on Justification, understandably hailed as a momentous ecumenical breakthrough, have been gravely disappointing. Carl Braaten points out that, among many Lutherans, the Joint Declaration has been met by a great yawn. It is asked, Who today cares about those musty doctrinal disputes of the sixteenth century over questions such as justification? Lutherans historically declared justification to be the article by which the Church stands or falls. If only Rome would allow the preaching of this great truth, Lutherans said, ecclesial reconciliation would be possible. But now many Lutheran theologians reject the Joint Declaration, while others are discovering new fundamental differences that stand in the way of such reconciliation. It would seem that, in the view of many, what is distinctively Lutheran cannot be maintained except in separation from the Catholic Church.
Quite apart from disputes within the theological guild, the institutions of Lutheranism, both in this country and elsewhere, both in their liberal (ELCA) and conservative (LCMS) embodiments, appear to have resigned themselves to being permanently separated Protestant denominations. Within these denominations are the valiantly defiant enclaves of evangelical catholics, but few, if any, of them believe that Lutheranism as actually lived and institutionally embodied is open to Carl Braaten’s call of almost forty years ago”in the theological journal Una Sancta, which I then edited”for Lutherans to bring to an end the long exile from the Catholic Church. It is, however, more than conceivable that, at some point in the future, the company of evangelical catholics now within Lutheranism will enter into a dialogue directed toward full communion. And, of course, the same could happen with sectors of Anglicanism after the reconfiguration of the Anglican Communion.
Worlds Within Worlds
I have mentioned Anglicans and Lutherans, but that of course does not address the great majority of Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church. There are the communities of mainline-oldline-sideline Protestantism that, we do well to remember, include about a third of the Christians in this country. While there are theologically and evangelistically vibrant congregations here and there, the leadership of these declining bodies seems to be irrevocably set upon replicating a Kulturprotestantismus for a spiritually moribund liberal culture. In those bodies, once describing themselves as the ecumenical churches, it seems that nobody of influence is pressing for or is even seriously thinking about the visible unity in full communion under discussion here.
Then there are the worlds within worlds of what is generally called evangelical Protestantism. I am, I trust it is needless to say, wholeheartedly committed to the project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). We are, as we said in our first statement in 1994, brothers and sisters in Christ. What the Catholic Church calls our certain but imperfect communion with evangelicals and with all Christians will, please God, one day be perfected in full communion. ECT will in one form or another have, I hope, a long future, far beyond the lives of its founders and present participants. There is so much work to be done in correcting misunderstandings, in discovering and exploring commonalities, in tempering or removing hostilities, in contending for cultural renewal, and, above all, in proclaiming the saving gospel of Jesus Christ with one another rather than against one another.
But I assume nobody on either side of the ECT project expects that proposals for ecclesial reconciliation, and therefore for full communion, will be on the agenda in the foreseeable future. That, we may hope, will be the work of another generation, or the one after that. Yet even that hope is tempered by an awareness of the institutionally successful but theologically problematic dynamics of entrepreneurial evangelicalism that, through the church-growth movement and related strategies, perpetuate and increase ecclesial fragmentation.
And what are we to think about the explosive growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, notably in Africa, Latin America, and Asia? When”and I think it is a question of when”China really opens up, we may indeed witness what John Paul II anticipated when he spoke of the third millennium as the springtime of evangelization. But the majority Christianity of the South”and it is already the majority of Christians”poses new ecumenical questions. There are a little over two billion Christians in the world, of whom about 1.2 billion are Catholic. Catholicism and evangelicalism/Pentecostalism are the two rapidly growing movements in the Southern Hemisphere. But the terms evangelical and Pentecostal, as we understand those terms, do not begin to capture the wild diversity of this growth. There are tens of thousands of movements and communities, each of them counting thousands and, in some cases, millions of adherents.
Many of these movements may strike us as bizarre, syncretistic, and dubiously Christian. Thirty years ago, I traveled much of Africa studying new religious movements and was honored to meet the leader of one sizeable movement who was, he assured me, John the Baptist reincarnate. The founder of another movement was the Virgin Mary’s younger sister and the true mother of Jesus. (I forget the details of the putative history and theology behind these somewhat improbable claims.) Some of these movements spring from American or colonial European initiatives, while others are entirely indigenous, borrowing this or that from the Christian tradition. Many, as is to be expected among the very poor but not only among the poor, are movements focused on health and wealth, with miracles, signs, and wonders at the center of a fervent piety.
Catholics and even more traditional evangelicals and Pentecostals are given to referring to these movements in the global South as sects or cults. I think we should be cautious in using such terms. Twenty or fifty years from now, we will likely be in official dialogue with some of them, recognizing them as ecclesial communities, and it will not be helpful if they remember, as they surely will remember, that we once derided and dismissed them as cults and sects. Nor should we belittle the possibility that theological dialogue with these movements might one day be the more fruitful because their self-understanding is not, at least in most instances, defined by the longstanding Protestant-Catholic antitheses of the Northern Hemisphere.
Such, much too briefly and too generally, is the state of the quest for full communion with the Orthodox, with the Anglicans, with the Lutherans, with the mainline-oldline-sideline, with evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, and with the burgeoning Christianity of the South. The Catholic Church’s irrevocable commitment to Christian unity requires that we establish and maintain conversations with all parties in the maddeningly diverse worlds of all who call Jesus Lord, which, according to St. Paul, does not happen except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3).
Communio in Truth
Christ and the Church are coterminous; the body cannot be severed from the head. Where Christ is, there, in some spiritually significant sense, the Church is also. When the Second Vatican Council teaches that the Church of Jesus Christ uniquely subsists in the Catholic Church, it is to say that the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. This is the understanding advanced by the declaration Dominus Iesus, issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith six years ago under the leadership of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. In the teaching of the council’s constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium) , the saving and sanctifying graces to be found in abundance outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church gravitate toward unity with the Catholic Church.
This is not said in pride of possession”although it must be confessed that Catholics sometimes do speak in that mode. The Catholic Church is not our achievement. We have no grounds for boasting. What the Catholic Church believes she uniquely is is received and guarded as a gift for all Christians. As that reality is received by others, the Catholic Church will no doubt be greatly enriched and changed by the gifts that others have received and guarded during their time of exile. It must also be confessed that some Catholics bridle at the suggestion that the Catholic Church should in any way be changed. But the life of the Catholic Church, too, reflects in many ways the unhappy fact of Christian disunity. Catholics, too, must be aware of a sense of exile from the fullness of the Christian community.
The hoped-for consequence of the Catholic Church’s irrevocable devotion to full communion among all Christians will bring with it changes that we cannot now anticipate, as is also made clear in Ut Unum Sint . At the same time, it is underscored that there can be no compromise on those things that are constitutive of the Catholic Church being the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time. There is no point in full communion in anything less than communio in the fullness of the truth that the Church has been given to teach and guard. Anything less would result in the grave impoverishment of us all. At the same time, we must continue to explore together what is and is not required for communio in truth.
In this winter of ecumenical discontent and disillusionment, we await the stirring of the Holy Spirit, praying with John Paul II that the third millennium will be the springtime of Christian unity. As the second millennium was the millennium of divisions, he wrote, so must the third millennium be the millennium of unity. We do not know, we cannot know, the future. Behold, I am doing a new thing, the Lord says to the prophet Isaiah. What that new thing may mean for the fulfillment of Our Lord’s high priestly prayer is now hidden from our view. It may be some new challenge to our civilization, such as that posed by Islam, that will serve as a catalyst for a new Christian solidarity with implications for ecclesial unity. We do not know, we cannot know. We wait together, we study together, we pray together, and we must never tire of talking together.
While the movement of the Spirit and the gyrations of world-historical change are unknown to us, we here and now know the work that is ours. Toward the end of Ut Unum Sint , John Paul cites some of the questions that must be addressed in conversation with the communities issuing from the tragic divisions of the sixteenth century:
(1) The relationship between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition, as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God;
(2) The Eucharist as the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, an offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and Real Presence of Christ and the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit;
(3) Ordination, as a Sacrament, to the threefold ministry of the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate;
(4) The Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the pope and the bishops in communion with him, understood as a responsibility and an authority exercised in the name of Christ for teaching and safeguarding the faith;
(5) The Virgin Mary, as Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for Christ’s disciples and for all humanity.
The exploration of these great truths, John Paul described as a courageous journey toward unity. We could no doubt add to this list of five ecumenical challenges. We have more than enough work to do as we wait upon the Spirit. We have not the right and, finally, we have not the reason to despair. There is cause aplenty for discouragement, but there is no excuse for permitting that discouragement to become terminal. Jesus asks, When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth? Implicit in that question is another: Will he find people of faith who never halted, who never wavered, in laboring for the fulfillment of his prayer that they may all be one?
Over the years, Cardinal Ratzinger frequently spoke of ecumenism in terms of awaiting a movement of the Holy Spirit that we can neither foresee nor control. In 1986 he responded to an invitation from the editor of the Tübinger Theologische Quartalschrift to set forth his understanding of ecumenism. He concluded his reflection with this:
I can imagine that many will not be pleased with the concept sketched here. But whatever one can say about it, there is one objection to it which ought not to be raised: that this is a concept of stagnation and resignation or even a renunciation of ecumenism. It is quite simply the attempt to leave to God what is his business alone and to discover what then in all seriousness are our tasks. Among these tasks of ours belong doing and enduring, activity and patience. Anyone who deletes one of these pairs distorts the whole. If we tackle everything we have to do, then ecumenism will continue to be something very much alive and demanding, even more so than it has been. I am convinced that, freed from the pressure to do it ourselves and the overt and covert deadlines set by such pressures, we shall approach one another more attentively and profoundly than if we start to transform theology into mere diplomacy and faith into mere commitment.
It is in that spirit of doing and enduring, of activity and patience, that I return to my assigned topic and suggest that the role of the Catholic Church in the quest for visible unity is in faithfully being the Catholic Church, which includes an irrevocable devotion to full communion among all Christians.
Homosexual But No Longer Gay
There continues to be a lively, and sometimes ugly, controversy over ministries to gays such as Exodus International. Gay activists subscribe to the motto once gay, always gay”frequently suggesting that also those who were never gay are living in denial. Now along comes a book that throws considerable light on the subject: Tanya Erzen’s Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement , published by the University of California Press.
Erzen is a social scientist at Ohio State University, and she reports on her year spent with participants in a California ministry called New Hope. Her study convinced her that change is an extraordinarily complex process in the ex-gay movement.
Change is a conversion process that incorporates religious and sexual identity, desire, and behavior. Sexual identity is malleable and changeable because it is completely entwined with religious conversion. A person becomes ex-gay as he accepts Jesus into his life and commits to him. Much has been written about the widely publicized sexual scandals of prominent ex-gays, but in the ex-gay movement it is far more scandalous to abandon Jesus than to yield to same-sex desire.
It is commonly accepted that a person will continue to experience desire and even occasionally lapse into same-sex behavior as part of the overall conversion process. Recovery and relapse are built into the creation of an ex-gay identity, and sexual falls are expected. Rather than becoming heterosexual, men and women become part of a new identity group in which it is almost the norm to succumb to temptation and return to ex-gay ministry over and over again. As long as the offender publicly repents and reaffirms her commitment to Jesus, all is forgiven.
Organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign are adamantly opposed to ministries such as New Hope. They are heavily invested in the claim that sexual identity is fixed, unchangeable, and perhaps biological. Gay activists and writers promote the view that sexual orientation is innate, that people are born that way. Erzen writes that studies such as those of Simon LeVay and Dean Hamer, which argue that a gay brain or gay genes exist, are revered as the basis for a minority identity and entrance into U.S. civil rights discourse. The argument for gay rights and anti-discrimination laws depends heavily on asserting the analogy with the civil rights movement, in which skin color is not a choice but an unchangeable given.
Of course, there are many men and women who once identified themselves as gay and were part of the gay subculture and who then made a successful transition to another way of being in the world, including marriage and children. Gay activists vehemently try to deny or belittle such success stories. Psychiatrists and others connected with the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), however, say that the psychotherapeutic success rate with homosexuals is about the same as with other patients struggling to overcome a deep-seated problem, namely, about one-third. But these are not the people who interest Tanya Erzen in Straight to Jesus .
The queer thing”by which she means the odd thing”about the people at New Hope is that their identity is not that of gays who have become heterosexual but that of gays who are now ex-gays. Ex-gay movement members, like other conservative Christians, view themselves as part of a positive transformation of American culture and religious life, often describing themselves as embattled or besieged by secular culture or the gay rights movement. They present a cultural critique of conservative Christianity, which often ignores homosexuality, of a secular culture that denies the right to attempt sexual conversion, and of the possibilities for living as gay men and women. Ex-gays may still be homosexual, meaning that they experience same-sex desires, but they are no longer gay, meaning that they no longer equate their identity with their desires.
Make no mistake. Tanya Erzen is no sympathizer with what she describes as the Religious Right, although gay activists sometimes suggest that her sympathy for people in the ex-gay movement means she is just another conservative homophobe. What she does in Straight to Jesus is to add necessary dimensions to our understanding of those struggling with homosexual desire in the context of Christian discipleship. Straight to Jesus is a book deserving of serious attention.
Israel in the Service of Judaism
At a recent conference sponsored by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua ruffled feathers, to put it gently. He declared that only Israel, and not Judaism, could ensure the survival of the Jewish people. Unless Jews lived in Israel and took part in the daily decisions of life in a Jewish state, they did not have a Jewish identity of any significance.
As might be imagined, this did not go over well with an audience of AJC members from all over the United States. They do not live in Israel but are sure that they are Jews. Hillel Halkin, who does live in Israel and who writes regularly for Commentary and the New York Sun, comments: If expressing his opinions about American Jews meant hurting their feelings, [Yehoshua] should have picked another time and place for it.
Before getting to his disagreement with Yehoshua, Halkin says this: Indeed, despite the great inroads made by assimilation”in some ways, as a reaction to them”the hard nucleus of the American Jewish community, which numbers somewhere between one and two million people, is, Jewishly speaking, better organized, better educated, more committed, and more culturally and religiously creative than it has ever been before. And, the more committed they are, the more American Jews tend to care about Israel, too, and to give it their political and financial backing. This is hardly of no significance.’ These Jews deserve an Israeli’s respect and gratitude, not his disdain.
Mr. Halkin later got his turn on the AJC platform. He was asked whether, in view of all the threats to Israel, it was not a good thing that the Jews of the world also live in the diaspora. He responded, You know, if, God forbid, Israel should someday be destroyed or go under, I couldn’t care less about the Jews of the Diaspora or what has happened to them. In his column, Halkin elaborated on that impromptu response:
It’s not that Jewish life in the Diaspora has no significance, it’s that Jewish life in Israel has more. Israel represents such an enormous Jewish adventure”the only adventure in which the Jewish encounter with modernity is complete and all-embracing”that it’s hard for me to understand how any Jew who really cares about being Jewish would want to be anywhere else. Why would anyone want to sit out such an adventure on the sidelines? . . . It’s possible to strike out in history no less than in a ballgame. The loss of the First Temple was the Jewish people’s first strike. The loss of the Second Temple was its second. One more and”as far as I’m concerned-it’s out. If the Jewish people cannot maintain the state of Israel, it does not deserve to survive even one more day. If that, bad manners aside, is what A.B. Yehoshua really had in mind, I agree with him this time, too.
That strikes me as a remarkable statement. Those who know Israel much better than I do say that it reflects a viewpoint very widespread among Israelis. It is for Jews to offer a Jewish response to that position, but it is for Christians to try to understand it. The idea that only Israel, and not Judaism, can ensure the survival of the Jewish people is arresting. Reliance upon, and obedience to, the God of Israel apparently does not enter the picture.
And what is the significance of the Temple if it is not the Temple of the Lord? Is it, in fact, being suggested that, in the absence of the Lord, the state of Israel is the Third Temple? Is it the case that the state of Israel simply is Judaism? There are Jewish thinkers, such as Rabbi David Novak, who caution Jews against turning the state of Israel into a false god. There are Christian Zionists who assign to the state of Israel a central role in God’s plan of salvation, quite apart from whether Jews share that discernment. Then there are the deep probings of St. Paul in Romans 9 through 11, exploring the purposes of the one God in the one covenant binding two peoples in a common destiny.
It is possible that the destruction, God forbid, of the state of Israel would be seen by many Jews as the end of the People of Israel. For both Jews and Christians, that is a compelling reason to be committed to the survival and safety of the state of Israel. In this commitment, however, it is understood that the state of Israel is in the service of Jews and Judaism, not”as Yehoshua and Halkin would seem to believe”the other way around.
An Answer to Theological Impoverishment
There is much to agree with in Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay After the Big Chill: Intellectual Freedom and Catholic Theologians, published in Commonweal . He writes, inter alia, When the pope is understood not only as final arbiter to the deposit of faith but also its only source of theological reinterpretation, there is surely at least an impoverishment of the Church’s theological life. Agreed. That can be a problem.
But then there is in his and similar articles so much tendentiousness that makes honest conversation about the problem exceedingly difficult. Begin with the title suggesting that John Paul’s repressive instincts created a big chill in Catholic theology. One might more plausibly argue that John Paul’s many pedagogical initiatives are an invitation to high theological adventure and exploration.
In the Church that Prof. Johnson prefers, he writes, No longer would a respected and respectful editor of a Jesuit journal be removed for the sin of advocating fairness; no more would a leading theological ethicist be removed from a tenured position or a systematic theologian be quelled by the same threat. This is not worthy of Prof. Johnson, who is himself a respected New Testament scholar.
Fr. Thomas Reese was removed as editor of America by his Jesuit superiors- perhaps at the prompting of Cardinal Ratzinger”because under his editorship it was no longer clear that the magazine was on the Church’s side of many controverted issues. And assuming Prof. Johnson is referring to Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Roger Haight, the former orchestrated the effort in the Catholic academy to reject unambiguously the Church’s teaching on human sexuality as set forth in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the latter refused to clarify his published ambiguities about whether, among other things, Jesus is truly God. Fr. Curran is now teaching at a Methodist university and Fr. Haight at a liberal Protestant seminary, where they can both teach whatever they want and there is still a certain panache attached to Catholics who daringly defy church authority.
What is gained by Johnson’s employing a sneer phrase such as the sin of advocating fairness? Fr. Reese and his superiors disagreed on what constitutes journalistic fairness, and Fr. Reese lost. One can disagree with those who made that decision without suggesting, as Johnson does, that they are opposed to fairness. Perhaps there is still an adolescent frisson provided by the image of the Roman inquisitor saying, Fr. Reese, you stand accused of advocating fairness.
In a similar vein, Johnson writes: Defenders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith argue that its investigations and sanctions of theologians are about truth in advertising’-Catholic theologians in Catholic colleges should teach the way the Vatican says they should teach. Such a claim does little more than reduce theological truth to catechesis.
To be sure, theology is more than catechesis. Given the state of doctrinal illiteracy among Catholics today, however, catechesis is nothing to sniff at. References to truth in advertising are usually in the claim that courses on Catholic theology should teach Catholic theology”what the Magisterium of the Church teaches”not what alienated academics think the Church should teach. As in any discipline, there is a knowledge to be transmitted. Certainly the great tradition of Catholic dogma, doctrine, and theological reflection is immeasurably more interesting than theories borrowed from current fashions in religious thought. Minimally, students should know the tradition before they are encouraged to question it. And yes, Catholic colleges claim that their aim is to educate students who will intelligently embrace and live the faith. That is why they are called Catholic colleges. Why is this aim dismissively described as reducing theological truth to catechesis?
Theology’s role, writes Johnson, is not simply to transmit the faith, but also to interrogate the faith in the name of and on behalf of the truth. Agreed. The greatest theologians in the Church, from Origen through Aquinas to Rahner, have tried to strike this delicate and dangerous balance. Agreed again. One might also mention Hans Urs von Balthasar as a recent example of one who interrogated the faith in order to deepen and enrich it.
But interrogating the faith can take different forms. One may interrogate the faith in the sense of asking questions, on the assumption that the faith provides answers. Or one may interrogate the faith in the sense of throwing the faith into question, on the assumption that it must conform to our answers. Worthies such as Aquinas and Balthasar did the former, in the hope of eliciting answers from what the Church calls the deposit of faith and also helping the Church to articulate those answers more precisely and persuasively.
But what does this have to do with teaching theology in Catholic colleges today? How many theologians comparable to Origen, Aquinas, Rahner, or Balthasar are members of the Catholic Theological Society of America, the trade guild of academic theologians? And can one imagine Aquinas or Balthasar inviting college sophomores to interrogate”which in this context clearly means to challenge and question”doctrines that they only heard of yesterday?
Johnson writes: For a vast number of Catholics, especially younger Catholics, it is axiomatic that the pope is not only chief pastor but also sole theologian. On every matter, the pope is not only the last word (arguably a legitimate and necessary role) but also the first word (arguably a dreadful displacement of ecclesial functions). There is something to that, but maybe people trust the pope, in a way that they do not trust most academic theologians, to tell them the truth about the Catholic faith. That is not axiomatic. It is simply a conclusion based on unhappy experiences with college teachers of theology.
The problem of a papal-centric Church that Johnson deplores is reinforced by the fact that many academic theologians have devoted their lives”and confused and demoralized innumerable young people along the way”to sustained guerilla warfare against the Church’s Magisterium. Johnson speaks of how the experience of women, homosexuals, and others can become an effective interpreter of God’s self-disclosure in the world. This raises the conventional litany of dissent, including items such as the ordination of women and the moral acceptance of homosexual acts.
On these and related questions, many theologians, including Luke Timothy Johnson, endlessly press for change, even though the Magisterium has unambiguously held that they are settled. That they are settled does not mean that they cannot be discussed, as is often asserted. A teaching must be discussed in order to be taught, but the discussion”including the discussion of questions lodged against the teaching”is in the service of the truth taught. While the Magisterium is not the only theological word, it is, as even Prof. Johnson allows is at least arguably true, the last theological word.
Yes, theologians should interrogate the faith. But in Prof. Johnson’s own writings, the difference between interrogating the faith and rejecting, even mocking the faith is far from evident. For instance, he wrote in Commonweal (June 20, 2003) on the Church’s solemn pronouncement that she is not authorized to ordain women to the priesthood:
The Roman church’s willingness to lose an ordained priesthood altogether rather than ordain married men or (horrors) women may be noble to some, but to more and more American Catholics, it appears as suicidal self-delusion. Its eagerness to ordain old men or widowers and married men into the diaconate appear as desperate avoidance mechanisms and an expression of fear and loathing toward normal sexual beings and above all toward women’s bodies. It is now no longer even possible for theologians to speak in favor of women’s ordination despite the fact that every argument advanced for an all-male clergy is laughable (at best) and blasphemous (at worst).
He treats in a similarly dismissive manner the Church’s teaching on contraception, the morally disordered nature of homosexual acts, and other matters of great moment. The question that Prof. Johnson might well ask himself is this: Why should the Church’s leadership, or Catholics more generally, heed a putatively Catholic theologian who declares that the Church’s official teaching is laughable or blasphemous and unworthy of serious consideration?
Johnson writes, The theological impoverishment of the Church today is real and, if something is not changed, it will undoubtedly get worse. I could not agree more. But the analysis of the problem offered by Johnson and many others is entirely papal-centric. The fault lies, they say, with the exercise of papal authority. What is lacking in these complaints is an element of self-examination, of honestly coming to terms with what has gone so radically wrong with the academic theological guild, especially in this country and Western Europe.
Complaints such as Prof. Johnson’s would be taken more seriously if they engaged carefully nuanced reflections on the problem, such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1990 document, The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, or Avery Cardinal Dulles’ 2003 essay, published in these pages, True and False Reform. As it is, theologians go on endlessly about the repression of academic freedom and of their ever-so-creative ideas while ignoring the Magisterium’s invitation to face up to the full importance and dignity of their task. That task is, first of all, to communicate the faith faithfully and effectively, and also to interrogate the faith in order to deepen, enrich, and more persuasively propose that faith to the world.
It simply will not do to continue to blame our theological impoverishment on the pope. The answer to theological poverty is to provide theological riches. Incessant whining, dissent, and agitation against papal authority is a distraction from that theological task.
The Nazis did not invent, but they ruthlessly acted upon, the notion of lebensunwertes Leben , life that is not worthy of life. Quality of life rhetoric is today employed by the proponents of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer clearly saw that The distinction between life that is worth living and life that is not worth living must sooner or later destroy life itself. On April 9, 1945, Pastor Bonhoeffer was executed for his opposition to a regime that was blind to that truth. In the following passage from the Ethics, he is discussing just war and capital punishment, and he asserts, All deliberate killing of innocent life is arbitrary. The discussion continues:
This last principle has not remained uncontradicted. The problem which arises here is the problem of euthanasia. The question of principle is this: Is it permissible to destroy painlessly an innocent life which is no longer worthy of living? Two kinds of motive lie behind this question, consideration for the sick and consideration for the healthy. But before any particular aspects of the problem can be examined, it is necessary to state, as a matter of principle, that the decision about the right to destroy human life can never be based upon the concurrence of a number of different contributory factors. Either an argument is cogent enough in itself to bring about this decision, or else it is not cogent at all, and if this is the case, no number of good additional reasons can ever justify such a decision. The destruction of the life of another may be undertaken only on the basis of an unconditional necessity; when this necessity is present, then the killing must be performed, no matter how numerous or how good the reasons which weigh against it. But the taking of the life of another must never be merely one possibility among other possibilities, even though it may be an extremely well-founded possibility. If there is even the slightest responsible possibility of allowing others to remain alive, then the destruction of their lives would be arbitrary killing, murder. Killing and keeping alive are never of equal value in the making of this decision; the sparing of life has an incomparably higher claim than killing can have. Life may invoke all possible reasons in its cause; but only one single reason can be a valid reason for killing. To fail to bear this in mind is to undo the work of the Creator and Preserver of life Himself. It follows from this that to support the rightfulness of euthanasia with a number of essentially different arguments is to put oneself in the wrong from the outset by admitting indirectly that no single absolutely cogent argument exists.
While We’re At It:
From its beginnings in 1992, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) has been very deliberately an unofficial project composed of a continuing working group of participants who speak from and to their several ecclesial communities. There is an acknowledged difference between Catholic and evangelical participation, in that Catholic participants are bound by and determined to be faithful to the central teaching authority, or Magisterium, of the Catholic Church. In the communities that comprise contemporary evangelicalism, doctrinal and theological leadership is exercised by individuals and institutions that have earned the confidence of Christians within their various spheres of influence. We are pleased to note that the following evangelical leaders are among those who have endorsed the most recent statement, That They May Have Life (see page 18):
Alan K. Andrews, CEO, The Navigators
Mrs. Jill Briscoe, author and speaker
Dr. Bryan Chapell, president, Covenant Theological Seminary
Dr. David S. Dockery, president, Union University
Dr. Os Guinness, senior fellow, The Trinity Forum
Dr. David P. Gushee, Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy, Union University
Ted A. Haggard, president, National Association of Evangelicals
Bill Hybels, pastor, Willow Creek Community Church
Dr. Duane Litfin, president, Wheaton College
Dr. Richard Mouw, president, Fuller Theological Seminary
David Neff, editor and vice president, Christianity Today
Tony Perkins, president, Family Research Council
Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, president, Calvin Theological Seminary
Dr. Ron Sider, president and founder, Evangelicals for Social Action
Joni Eareckson Tada, founder, Joni and Friends International Disability Center
Rick Warren, pastor, Saddleback Church
Dr. James White, president, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
There are numerous send-ups of how contemporary politicians or scribblers might render the Gettysburg Address. About eighty-seven years ago, a group of public-spirited leaders decided . . . etc., etc. One might call this the Cliffs Noting of historical greatness. The other day, I ordered from Netflix a DVD of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The slipcover tells the story: Fearful that Caesar will become Emperor of Rome, fellow senators Cassius and Brutus conspire against him. Caesar ignores warnings to lie low, heads to the Senate and is brutally stabbed. Caesar’s right-hand man, Mark Antony, rallies the public against the conspirators, who flee Rome”with Antony’s army hot on their heels. Evelyn Waugh would love it. Right you are, up to a point, Lord Copper.
Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, a number of writers, the late Susan Sontag among them, opined that, however wrong their action, we must recognize a certain courage and perverse heroism in the action of those who flew those planes into the Twin Towers. Such comments prompted outraged protest, in part because they were sometimes joined to the implication that America got what it deserved. Writing in the New York Review of Books , Freeman J. Dyson returns to the question. They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world. Dyson has been reading newly published diaries of the Japanese kamikaze pilots at the end of World War II and suggests that the September 11 terrorists were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out . . . . Even after recognizing the great differences between the circumstances of 1945 and 2001, I believe that the kamikaze diaries give us our best insight into the state of mind of the young men who caused us such grievous harm in 2001. If we wish to understand the phenomenon of terrorism in the modern world, and if we wish to take effective measures to lessen its attraction to idealistic young people, the first and most necessary step is to understand our enemies. We must give respect to our enemies, as courageous and capable soldiers enlisted in an evil cause, before we can understand them. The kamikaze diaries give us a basis on which to build both respect and understanding. Mr. Dyson is on morally treacherous ground, verging on the nihilistic French adage that to understand all is to forgive all. Elements of human dignity and sympathy are not entirely obliterated by the abominations of which human beings are capable. Dante’s damned are nonetheless human beings created in the image of God. It may be that the most perverse of sexual practices are not untouched by a glittering scintilla of the desire to love and be loved. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, wrote sympathetically of the courageous and capable soldiers who did not shrink from doing the necessary evil that it was their duty to do. Giving respect to terrorists set upon the slaughter of innocents is not, contra Dyson, an effective measure for reducing the attraction of their demonically twisted idealism. Quite the opposite is the case. The evil they do is to be objectively named, condemned, despised, and opposed. The subjective state of their mind and soul is the business of God. It is in the absence of God that a shriveled and sentimental humanism produces an inverted morality that requires the gilding of evil with respect for the idealism of its perpetrators.
The picture shows a woman with a hole in her body. The hole is the shape of a baby, and behind the woman is the same shape floating in the air as a haunting presence. Similar pictures can be found in the literature of groups such as Feminists for Life, illustrating the abiding heartbreak of women who had their babies killed by abortion. In this case, however, the picture accompanies a review in the New York Times Book Review of a book by Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away . The book recounts Ms. Fessler’s interviews with one hundred women who gave up their babies for adoption in the years prior to the unlimited abortion license decreed by Roe v. Wade in 1973. The language of adoption, writes the reviewer, Kathryn Harrison, makes it clear: Babies are surrendered. They’re given up. Relinquished. Mothers, even very young and panicked mothers, don’t usually part from their babies without a struggle. Fessler tells of a nun in a maternity home saying to a young woman, Write down on this side of the paper what you can give your baby. Write down on the other side what the adoptive parents have to offer. That the adoptive parents could offer so much more in terms of family and financial security was obvious. On the first side of the paper, however, the young woman wrote simply one word, Love. For the reviewer, this is a clinching argument. Unmentioned is that the adoptive parents could also give the baby love. The message of the book and the review is anti-adoption. More explicitly, it is pro-abortion. Because of legal abortion, women in difficult circumstances need no longer have their babies adopted. They can have them killed. That’s putting the matter bluntly. In fact, as Paul Swope wrote in these pages in Abortion: A Failure to Communicate (April 1998), studies suggest that many unmarried young women who are pregnant view abortion as the least of three evils. They feel that to keep the baby would be a kind of death to their life plans and sense of who they are, while to let the baby be adopted would be a form of child abandonment. Abortion presents itself as the easiest way out. The well-documented and widespread consequence is post-abortion syndrome, which is medical terminology for the most human of responses: a deep and abiding awareness of guilt for having betrayed the most fundamental of bonds, a mother’s protection of her child. We can be rather sure, however, that a book telling the stories of women who experience lasting remorse about having had an abortion would not be reviewed, never mind reviewed favorably, in the Times.
I had some fun in my book Catholic Matters with the rationale offered by the bishops of England and Wales when, many years ago, they rescinded mandatory Friday abstinence from meat. The gist of their explanation was that the practice might make Catholics feel that they are different. The elimination of Catholic differences has done wonders for church life in the UK. The logic is that making it easier to be Catholic will generate greater interest in being Catholic. It obviously doesn’t work that way. Never mind, the bishops of England and Wales have now decided to move holy days”Epiphany, Ascension, and Corpus Christi”to the nearest Sunday. The press release says that the change is needed to boost Mass attendance on Holy Days. Boosting Mass attendance on holy days by eliminating holy days is a neat idea. The release continues: The circumstances of modern life in England and Wales has made it impossible for a large proportion of the Catholic community to attend Holy Days. Impossible or just inconvenient? Inconvenience is part of doing one’s duty. It has always been the case that the obligation in what are called holy days of obligation does not apply to those for whom attendance is truly impossible. Christmas Day, the Assumption of Mary, and All Saints will not be moved to a Sunday of convenience. It doesn’t say so, but one assumes that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday will also continue to be observed on their respective weekdays.
I was asked the other day to contribute to a national symposium on the changing meanings of liberal and conservative. I declined. I rather dislike the business of defining political or ideological labels, although it goes on and on and maybe even serves a necessary purpose in some way not readily discerned. James Nuechterlein, former editor of First Things , would regularly, with a wry smile, sum up his philosophy: Change is bad. He is given to wry smiles. British prime minister Lord Palmerston is reported to have said, Change, change, change! All this talk about change! Aren’t things bad enough already? A later prime minister, Lord Salisbury, contemplating developments in the Middle East, remarked, Whatever happens will be for the worse, and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible. Then there was my father of revered memory who said of a colleague, He’s so conservative that, had he been present at the creation, he would have voted for chaos. So you can see I didn’t have much to contribute to the symposium.
Please say it three times after me: preimplantation genetic haplotyping. It is a new technique for screening embryos for six thousand inherited diseases. Elizabeth R. Schiltz, a law professor, writes in BusinessWeek: From time to time, we are all confronted with the disconnect between how we see ourselves and how others see us. I’ve always seen myself as a responsible, law-abiding citizen. I recycle, I vote, I don’t drive a Hummer. But I’ve come to realize that many in the scientific and medical community view me as grossly irresponsible. Indeed, in the words of Bob Edwards, the scientist who facilitated the birth of England’s first test-tube baby, I am a sinner.’ A recent book even branded me a genetic outlaw.’ My transgression? I am one of the dwindling number of women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and choose not to terminate our pregnancies. So when I hear about medical breakthroughs like preimplantation genetic haplotyping (PGH)”a new technique to screen embryos in the in vitro fertilization process for 6,000 inherited diseases”I can’t help but see 6,000 new reasons that parents will be branded as sinners or made to feel socially irresponsible for bringing their children into this world. Prof. Schiltz is author of Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics . For many people, aborting a potentially defective child is a no-brainer. Such a child would be an intolerable burden upon the parents, upon the family, and upon society. Many others simply refuse prenatal screening altogether, or only for the purpose of discovering a problem that might be remedied in the womb. Their commitment is to accepting and loving the life entrusted to them. But Prof. Schiltz is right: With the return of eugenics, such people are increasingly viewed as antisocial, if not outlaws. The late Christopher Lasch wrote that we congratulate ourselves on our moral progress because we no longer tolerate freak shows at the county fair. The real reason, he said, is that we are fast becoming a society that has no tolerance of, no place for, freaks. They should never have been allowed to be born. Moral discourse today, especially in the academy, is rife with talk about respecting the other. So long as the other is not so other as to be a burden.
Gays pressing for same-sex marriage are, in fact, strengthening family values conservatism. That is the complaint of gay activist Bill Dobbs and others who long for the old days when the gay subculture of bathhouses and unbridled promiscuity defied bourgeois constraints. The proponents of same-sex marriage are, he says, agreeing with an oppressive social order when they say, You must be coupled to be really fulfilled, for us to treat you as a full person. On the contrary, he insists, a choice to be gay is a choice for promiscuity”he calls it sexual generosity”in which every man is linked to every other man by at least the potential of being his lover. At the same time, 250 academics, celebrities, and writers have issued a manifesto titled Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships. The manifesto is signed by, inter alia, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and Cornel West. While supporting same-sex marriage, they insist that a similar recognition should be extended to all kinds of relationships involving any number of people who are connected in whatever ways they choose. Opponents have long said that that is the logic of the push for same-sex marriage, and now at least some supporters of same-sex marriage agree. Between the debased libertinism of Bill Dobbs and others, on the one hand, and the polyamorous social revolution proposed by Beyond Same-Sex Marriage, on the other, some conservatives may find themselves in the odd position of looking more favorably on the bathhouses. They may figure that the toleration of a subculture, no matter how morally abhorrent, is to be preferred to the dismantling of the social order. The politics of marriage and family makes for, if one may be permitted the phrase, strange bedfellows.
A big spread on the front page of the New York Times features the Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, a megachurch pastor in Maplewood, Minnesota. Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock. Boyd has been outspoken against evangelicals who equate allegiance to Christ with loyalty to the Republican party and is offended by those who appear to displace the cross with the flag. Fair enough. There no doubt are such excesses and distortions, some of them bordering on blasphemy. One has to wonder, however, whether the Rev. Boyd is alert to the way he is being used by the Times to advance one side in the very culture war that he says evangelicals should eschew. To paraphrase: Woe to you when the New York Times portrays you as a hero. Laurie Goodstein, the reporter, makes much of Boyd’s denial that America is a Christian nation. Demographically and in terms of its beginning and continuing cultural dynamics, America is inexplicable apart from Christianity. It is, in that sense, a Christian nation. If one means by Christian nation, however, a nation singularly marked by Christian virtue or divine election, America is decidedly not a Christian nation. The insistence of the New York Times and many others is that America is a secular nation gravely threatened by Christianity, and most particularly by Christian conviction applied to the public order. It is perfectly understandable that the