The Public Square

Richard John Neuhaus died on January 8, 2009, at the age of seventy-two”a great loss to the magazine, to American public discourse, and to his many friends.

We present here a previously unpublished essay, “The One True Church,” which he wrote in New York during his last months, together with a few of our favorite While We’re At It items from the nineteen years of his work in The Public Square.

My church is better than your church.
It sounds like the stuff of schoolboy quarrels on the playground: My dad can beat your dad! Yet, sad to say, that is how many Christians have understood recent statements on Catholic ecclesiology. In 2000 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document called Dominus Iesus and then, in 2007, reiterated its main points in “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church.”

The gist of these is that, with important qualifications related to Eastern Orthodoxy, non-Catholic churches are not to be called “Church” in the proper sense of the term but are better described as “ecclesial communities.” This was widely decried by many non-Catholic (and some Catholic) theologians as a departure from, if not reversal of, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It was, we were told, a body blow to ecumenism, the quest for visible unity among ­Christians.

I have on occasion offered this proposition: “The Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.” Some of my critics have questioned whether that is adequate. To say that it is the most fully and rightly ordered, they contend, implies or at least invites the inference that other communities are also the Church of Jesus Christ, albeit not so fully and rightly ordered.

To think more fully about this, we need to clarify what the Catholic Church claims for herself and what she does, and does not, acknowledge with respect to other Christian communities. My own thoughts are occasioned by two essays I read recently: one by Avery Cardinal Dulles in a volume called Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition and the other by Christopher J. Molloy, an essay titled “ Subsistit In: Nonexclusive Identity or Full Identity?” that appeared in The Thomist .

Before we can get anywhere with this discussion, two stipulations must be firmly in place. The first is that we are not engaged in a rivalry between our side and some other side. Some years ago, when William F. Buckley heard that a prominent Protestant had entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, he exclaimed: “This is great news. It’s like the Yankees stealing the star pitcher from the Red Sox.” That is an understandable tribal response, but it takes us back to the squabbling of boys on the playground. Questions of great theological moment are at stake. In these matters, Catholic and non-Catholic alike should have as their one concern the question of what Christ intended, and still intends, for his one Church”it being understood by all that, in the deepest meaning of the term, there can finally be only one Church, since the Church is the Body of Christ, of which Christ is the head, and there is only one Christ.

Tribalism has no place in this discussion. As John Paul II reminded Catholics in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio , being a Catholic is not reason for proprietorial pride but for profound gratitude for a grace received, all undeserved on our part. Moreover, a Catholic who does not earnestly want to recognize and rejoice in the gifts of grace to be found in other Christian communities will almost certainly be more hindrance than help in this discussion.

The second and related stipulation is that we are not comparing an ideal depiction of the state of Catholicism with less flattering depictions of other communities”or vice versa. It is not a matter of what we like or dislike in this community or that. I have decided views on certain Orthodox and Protestant virtues that Catholics might well emulate. As Malloy writes, in reflecting on the uniqueness of the Catholic Church “one can affirm both the essential fullness of the ecclesial reality of the Catholic Church and the concrete poverty and woundedness of her lived life, together with her practical need of the expressive ecclesial riches found outside her visible boundaries.” Not only can one affirm both, one must affirm both.

Subsistit In

With those two stipulations firmly in place, one notes that the chief reason the documents of 2000 and 2007 were viewed as setbacks to ecumenism is that, for a long time and in many quarters, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council was gravely misrepresented. Cardinal Dulles writes that there still exists a general impression that Vatican II mandated a revolution in Catholic ecclesiology. He cites writings by John O’Malley as well as those by Gregory Baum, who claims the council reflects a “Blondelian shift” from “extrinsicism” toward experience and immanence. The Church is what you experience it to be. Richard McBrien speaks of “Copernican” and “Einsteinian” revolutions that overcame the unhealthy “ecclesiocentrism” of the past. Others claimed the council teaches that the Catholic Church is but one church among many. Some went further, saying that the Church is not only not the ordinary means of salvation; it is an extraordinary means for people who happen, for one reason or another, to be Catholic.

So what is to be made of all this? A good place to start is with what the Second Vatican Council actually said. Lumen Gentium , the Constitution on the Church, reads: “This is the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, which our Savior, after his Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority, which he erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth.’ This Church, constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”

Much ink has been spilled in unpacking those three sentences, with most particular attention being devoted to the words “subsists in” ( subsistit in ). Much is made of the fact that the first draft of the constitution said that the Church of Jesus Christ is ( est ) the Catholic Church, which suggests that the final wording is a weakening of a straightforward identity of the Church with the Catholic Church. Both Dulles and Molloy point out, however, that subsistit in did not replace est but replaced adest in ”“is present in””a phrase that appeared in an intermediate draft. As a matter of fact, subsistit in was proposed by Sebastian Tromp, who had been a staunch proponent of the earlier est and the position that the Church of Christ is identical with the Catholic Church. In addition, the great majority of conservative bishops at the council voted in favor of the final draft, which clearly suggests that they did not think subsistit in was a watering down of the Church’s self-understanding.

A few years before he became pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explained it this way:

The word subsistit derives from ancient philosophy, as it was later developed among the Scholastics. It corresponds to the Greek word hypostasis , which of course plays a key role in Christology in describing the union of divine and human natures in the one person of Christ. Subsistere is a special case of esse . It refers to existence in the form of an individual subject . . . . With the word subsistit , the Council wanted to express the singularity and non-multipliability of the Church of Christ, the Catholic Church: the Church exists as a single subject in the reality of history. But the difference between subsistit and est also embraces the drama of ecclesial division: for while the Church is only one and really exists, there is being which is from the Church’s being ”there is ecclesial reality”outside the Church.


The elements of sanctification and truth to be found outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church are ecclesial elements. Can there be ecclesial elements without ecclesia ? Obviously, some fine but important distinctions are in order. The late Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, longtime head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, was fond of saying, “Christ and the Church are coterminous.” I take that to mean that, if one is in a living relationship with Christ, one is also in relationship with his Church, for body and head cannot be separated. Therefore communities of faith outside the Catholic Church are ecclesial communities.

And therefore Lumen Gentium says that non-Catholics who are baptized and believe in Christ are in a “certain but imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.” The goal of ecumenism is not to create a unity that does not exist but to bring to fulfillment the very real unity that is already there between Catholics and non-Catholics who are brothers and sisters in Christ. (For purposes of this discussion I leave largely aside the situation of the Orthodox, who have valid ordination and other sacraments and adhere to apostolic teaching. Among the Orthodox, according to Catholic doctrine, there are not just ecclesial communities but “particular churches,” although they are, in the language of CDF, “wounded” by the lack of full communion with the ministry of Peter exercised by the bishop of Rome.)

Realizations of the Sacrament

Molloy and others speak of the “full,” “complete,” “total,” and “exclusive” identity between the Catholic Church and the Church of Christ. Such language can easily mislead and is understandably offensive to non-Catholic Christians. The intention, however, is to underscore that the Catholic Church is nothing less than the Church of Christ and to counter any suggestion that the Catholic Church is”albeit the most fully and rightly ordered”only one church among other churches. Again, this is not a matter of boasting or of ecclesial rivalry, which should have no place among followers of Christ. It is a matter of being as faithful as possible to what Christ intended his Church to be.

Since Christ is manifestly present in other communities, and since Christ, the head, can never be ­separated from his Body, the Church, how are we to understand the presence of the Church in these communities that possess “ecclesial elements”? One formulation is offered by John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint : “Insofar as these kinds of elements exist in other Christian communities, the one ( unica ) Church of Christ has an efficacious presence therein. On this account, the Second Vatican Council speaks of a certain, albeit imperfect, communion. The constitution Lumen Gentium highlights that the Catholic Church knows that ‘for many reasons she is joined’ to these communities in a certain real communion of unity in the Holy Spirit.”

Molloy puts it this way: “ Dominus Iesus states not that the Church of Christ exists only in the Catholic Church . . . but that the Church of Christ exists fully only in the Catholic Church. The same document affirms that non-Catholic communions with valid orders and a valid celebration of the Eucharist [i.e., Orthodox] are ‘true particular churches.’ Therefore, the Church of Christ can exist elsewhere, though not fully.” Then one must ask, what Church is it that exists in the Orthodox particular churches and in the non-Catholic ecclesial communities? The answer would seem to be that the Church that exists elsewhere than in full communion with the Catholic Church is the Catholic Church.

An implication of that answer is that everyone who is baptized and believes in Christ is Catholic, although in imperfect communion with the Church. Some Christians who are quite sure that they are not Catholics may view that claim as an instance of outrageous ecclesiastical cheekiness, of recruiting by definition people who do not want to be Catholics.

Others, more charitably, may view it as the best that Catholics can do, given their peculiar ecclesiology. Yet others may recognize it as a consistent working out of what it means to be in continuity with the apostolically constituted Church as a distinct society through time. They might further recognize that the presence of the Catholic Church in their ecclesial communities gravitates toward full communion with the Catholic Church. Again the words of Lumen Gentium: “These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”

Does this mean that all Christians are members, or partial members, or something like honorary members of the Catholic Church? The Church does not say so. In the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (On the Mystical Body of Christ), Pius XII addressed the meaning of membership in the Church, but, as Cardinal Dulles writes, Vatican II took a somewhat different approach. The emphasis of Vatican II is on the Church as sacrament, which, he says, is of “foundational importance” to the ecclesiology of the council, appearing four times in Lumen Gentium and six times in other documents of the council.

Dulles explains: “Avoiding the term ‘member,’ which had become bogged down in controversy, [the Council] spoke of perfect and imperfect realizations of the sacrament. The sacrament of the Church is fully realized only in the Catholic Church, the visible and grace-filled society in which the bonds of professed faith, ecclesiastical government, and sacramental communion remain fully intact. These bonds belong together insofar as the true Church indefectibly possesses them all. But the bonds are separable in the sense that some may survive in the absence of others. Non“Roman Catholic communities may possess some authentic ecclesial elements and be able to make fruitful use of them as channels of grace.”

I would only offer what I am sure Cardinal Dulles would recognize as a friendly amendment, namely, that such communities do possess such elements and do make fruitful use of them. The Council teaching readily recognizes the evidence of Christian faith and holiness outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church; evidence, one might add, that is sometimes more conspicuous than the evidence found among some who are in full communion with the Church.

And yet there is no denying that Dominus Iesus of 2000 and “Responses to Some Questions” of 2007, both interpreting Vatican II according to the hermeneutic of continuity, were viewed by many as a cause of ecumenical scandal.

These documents said nothing new but simply aimed at correcting misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the Church’s teaching that had occasioned serious ecumenical confusions. Some Protestants thought that repeating the points in 2007 was rubbing it in a bit, but I suppose CDF had its reasons. In any event, we do Christian unity no favors by fudging what we actually believe.

Moreover, most non-Catholic Christians in the West do not bridle at the claim that what is authentically Christian in their communities is derived, in one way or another, from the apostolically continuing tradition that is the Catholic Church, beginning with the canon of Holy Scripture and the Christological and Trinitarian definitions of the early councils. Of course, what they have selectively received from the Catholic Church they have revised and reformed according to their understanding of the Bible or of the needs of the time, and such changes are the subject of continuing ecumenical conversation. People of goodwill do not take umbrage at the claim that such elements are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ [and] are forces impelling toward catholic unity,” although they have their own ideas about what form that unity should take.

All Christians can agree on the formula that there is finally only one Church because there is only one Christ and the Church is his Body. Of course, Catholics are insistent that the one Church is both visible and invisible. But all affirm the maxim extra ecclesia nulla salus ”at least to the extent that one must have heard the preaching of the gospel or read the Bible, both of which are impossible without the Church. As for saying that these other associations are ecclesial communities rather than churches in the full sense”as, for instance, the “particular churches” of Orthodoxy are churches”this should cause no hard feelings. Such communities do not claim to be what the Catholic Church claims to be.

They readily acknowledge that they are human associations united by common belief and purpose. The Presbyterian Church USA was formed in 1983, the Lutheran Church“Missouri Synod in 1847, and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, while the Episcopal Church claims a more venerable, or at least longer, legacy reaching back to Henry VIII’s styling himself Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534. True, there are Landmark Baptists and sundry Campbellites who claim they have uniquely preserved or restored the true Church of the New Testament, but most of them do not take that improbable claim very seriously today, and those that do are not part of the ecumenical project.

Most Fully and Rightly Ordered Through Time

In sum, Catholics should not fear offending our ecumenical partners by affirming what we believe the Catholic Church to be. To be sure, that affirmation has weighty implications. For instance, Lumen Gentium also says, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” But that, too, should not offend non-Catholic Christians, since we can all agree that such a person would be acting against his conscience and his sure discernment of the will of God. If he continues on that course without repentance, he could not be saved. It is quite a different matter with those who do not know”i.e., do not recognize the truth”that the Catholic Church is what she claims to be. They are wrong about that, of course, but that, presumably, is one reason why they are not Catholics.

And so I think I’ll stay with my admittedly provocative title, “The One True Church.” In accord with the Church’s teaching and appreciative of the scholarship of such as Cardinal Dulles and Christopher Molloy, I will also continue to make the case for the proposition that “the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time.”

While We’re At It


• George Lindbeck was an official Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council and he recalls a meeting with John XXIII when the pope spoke on some of his favorite words from Scripture, “the mercies of the Lord are new every morning.” The pope said he had a hard time deciding what to do on any given day, but the Lord was merciful: He always told him every morning. Lindbeck thought he was referring to his convoking of the Council, which took everybody by surprise but which the Lord presumably told him to do. He adds: “John XXIII would repeat those words if he were with us now. He was basically a traditionalist rather like Mother Teresa, for example, and I suppose he would be appalled at much of the aftermath of the Council. Perhaps he would sometimes even wonder, as Luther did after the Reformation after a comparable lapse of time, whether it was really worth it. Yet the Lord’s mercies are new every morning. What stops these words from being Pollyannish is their context: They come from Lamentations (3:22-23). Even in our day, cheerfulness keeps breaking through.” (February 2003)

• Long ago, when I was a student at Concordia College (now Concordia University) in Austin, Texas, I was greatly impressed by a sermon that kept returning to the theme, “God has no grandchildren. He only has children.” The preacher’s point was that faith cannot be inherited; each of us become children of God by our own act of faith. I do not reject that insight when I observe that, in saying Mass today, there are few parts of the rite that so consistently touch my heart as the phrase before the Sign of Peace, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” The Church does believe with me, and for me. We do have grandparents and brothers and sisters and cousins and a host of the faithful both here and in glory who sustain us in faith. This truth was brought to mind in reading an address on “The Question of Authority” by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster in England. He cites the commentary by Henri de Lubac on the statement by the third-century Origen, “For myself, I desire to be truly ecclesiastic.” I have written a good bit on what it means to be an “ecclesiastical Christian,” and some say they are puzzled by the phrase. I mean what de Lubac writes in The Splendor of the Church : “Anyone who is possessed by a similar desire will not find it enough to be loyal or obedient to perform ­exactly everything demanded by his profession of the Catholic faith. Such a man will have fallen in love with the beauty of the house of God; the Church will have stolen his heart.” Which is to say that Christ has stolen his heart. Murphy-O’Connor notes that today the word “authority” is so problematic because it is habitually associated with power. But ecclesial authority is grounded in love, the love of God in Christ. He writes: “The Church has nothing to offer but Jesus Christ. The reality that the Church offers to our world is Christ, his gift of forgiveness and his gift of love. These are given in his word, in his sacraments, in his presence, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Peter in the Acts of Apostles, we say, ‘I have neither silver nor gold but I give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, walk,’ and Peter then took him by the hand and helped him to stand up (Acts 3:6-7). If Christ’s is the authority of the Church, Peter is the model of its exercise. He is also a sign of the paradox which is our experience of human weakness and God-given strength. Peter was given the power of the keys, but it was not because he was strong or because he was faithful. He was, for some considerable time, neither. He betrayed Jesus out of his own mouth. His shame and his moral collapse at that moment was utterly disabling. Surely Peter is the least authoritative and trustworthy of founders? One might think so; but it is here that something of the mystery of God’s graciousness and freedom is revealed, and, as with the cross, we discover a truth which is a source of incomprehension (perhaps even scandal) to many. The answer is that we can trust Peter precisely because he has fallen, because he is weak, because he is forgiven, and because he is raised up to service. We trust him because in him we see God’s power working in our human weakness. Peter knew from his own experience the depth of the gift he offered; he knew that it was neither his gift nor his authority but that of the One he denied and yet loved. Like each one of us, he experienced not only his own need of forgiveness; he experienced first hand from where that forgiveness comes. He was both empowered and commissioned to go out and to offer that same forgiveness to the whole of mankind. He was indeed the rock on which the Church was founded. She, like Peter, speaks not out of any kind of false strength, but out of her experience of weakness. And she speaks God’s truth that she lives and experiences every day. This is the authentic voice of the Church, a voice enriched with the gifts our Lord has given her and emboldened and quickened with the authority with which he has invested her: ‘Go therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and know that I am with you always, even to the end of time.’” (February 2003)

• A medieval monk, it is said, worked all day on a manuscript, finally writing in the margin, Nunc scripsi totum, pro Christo da mihi potum ”I have now written everything, for the sake of Christ give me a drink. That I was told by an author whom I invited over for a drink at the house when he delivered his article. It may be true. At the end of some days it is certainly apt. (May 2001)

• Everybody who writes much, and especially those of us who write too much, gets asked from time to time, Who have been the great influences on your thinking? Your scribe is eager to acknowledge his debts to a host of thinkers who have personally graced his life, including such as Richard Caemmerer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Joseph Ratzinger, and Alexander Schmemann. But any such listing runs the risk of unfairly leaving people out, for it seems that life has been one sustained and intensive conversation with thinkers from whom one has learned more than he is aware, and therefore more than he can acknowledge. Near the top of the list, however, if not at the very top, would have to be Arthur Carl Piepkorn. A Lutheran scholar of immense erudition, Piepkorn, who died in 1973, was for many years professor of systematic theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, this writer’s alma mater. He was, among his many other achievements, a pioneer and major inspiration of the ­Lutheran“Roman Catholic theological dialogue. The intention of Lutheranism, Piepkorn taught, was to be a confessional movement within and for the Church of the West. Lutheranism became a separated church by accident and by what were perceived to be the theological and political necessities of the sixteenth century. Some students of Piepkorn, including this writer, subsequently became Roman Catholics, while most continue to strive within Lutheranism to turn that movement toward its constituting intention. To understand Piepkorn is to understand, in large part, the crisis of Protestantism at the edge of a new millennium”or at least those parts of Protestantism that claim the legacy of the sixteenth-century Reformation. It is therefore with particular satisfaction that one notes the appearance of a new book, The Church: Selected Writings of Arthur Carl Piepkorn . Edited and introduced by Michael Plekon and William Wiecher, and carrying an afterword by this writer, the book is published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. (January 1994)

• Avery Cardinal Dulles, the closest of collaborators and friends, died December 12 at age ninety in the infirmary of the Jesuit residence at Fordham University. Avery Dulles was a master of the Catholic theological tradition by which he was mastered and which he joyfully served. He combined erudition, intellectual intensity, and ecclesial fidelity in a lifelong devotion to the Church, joined to a wry sense of humor and disarming humility about his part in the grand scheme of things. Generations of Christian thinkers have been placed in his everlasting debt. You can be sure that there will be much more about Avery Dulles in these pages. For the moment, we thank God for love’s fire that burned to the end, and we pray that the truth to which he bore tireless witness is now opened to him in the fullness of the Beatific Vision for which he longed with nothing less than everything. (February 2009)

• Just one more word on our friend Avery Dulles. I note the obituary written by Fr. Drew Christiansen, S.J., editor of America , which suggests that Dulles’ conservative turn in the 1970s had to do with his signing the 1975 Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation “at the request of his friend Richard John Neuhaus.” This is, I am afraid, a grave disservice to Cardinal Dulles’ intellectual integrity in his determination to “think with the Church.” Others have also suggested that Dulles’ betrayal of liberal orthodoxy is attributable to his having fallen under the influence of the First Things crowd. As a matter of fact, Dulles did not simply sign the Hartford Appeal. He was one of its initiators and architects, having spent several days hammering out the statement in cooperation with such luminaries as Peter Berger, George Forrell, Stanley Hauerwas, Thomas Hopko, George Lindbeck, Ralph McInerny, Richard J. Mouw, Carl Peter, Alexander Schmemann, Gerard Sloyan, George Tavard, and Robert Louis Wilken. Far from having signed the statement as a personal favor, in the book on Hartford, Against the World for the World , Dulles wrote a major essay in its support, “Unmasking Secret Infidelities: Hartford and the Future of Ecumenism.” As a matter of further fact, Dulles had about the same time, in his capacity as president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, made a memorable address on why many, if not most, academic Catholic theologians were no longer doing Catholic theology as he understood that task. These were themes he constructively developed in his numerous essays in First Things over the last almost twenty years. The truth is that many Catholic theologians are deeply embarrassed that their most distinguished and honored colleague was unabashedly a conservative in that he was a formidable and persuasive defender of the faith as it is taught by the Church. Those who, like then Cardinal Ratzinger, admired Avery Dulles and supported his creation as a cardinal understood that his life’s work was marked at every step of the way by courage, candor, and care. As Benedict XVI wrote on the news of his death: “I join you in commending the late cardinal’s noble soul to God, the Father of Mercies, with immense gratitude for the deep learning, serene judgment, and unfailing love of the Lord and his Church, which marked his entire priestly ministry and his long years of teaching and theological research. At the same time I pray that his convincing personal testimony to the harmony of faith and reason will continue to bear fruit for the conversion of minds and hearts and the progress of the gospel for many years to come.” (February 2009)

• Cardinal Newman’s reference to his patron saints recalls last month’s comment on the declining practice of bestowing the names of saints at baptism. At the risk of excessive self-referentiality, a word on the use of “Richard John,” about which I have frequently been asked. The story of how that happened is quite prosaic. I was the seventh child and sixth son, and my parents had run out of preferred names for boys, so they suggested that the older children write the names they wanted and put the slips of paper into a pot on the stove, from which Dad, with eyes closed, picked Richard John. My oldest sister, Mildred, says that was her slip of paper. As a boy I was called Dick, and I have an elderly aunt who still calls me Dicky. Anyone else who tries that should expect a cool reception. At college, I decided to be known as Richard, and at seminary, Richard John. I had chosen them as my patron saints, and they seemed not to have objected. St. Richard is Richard of Chichester, also known as Richard de Wyche, since that is where he was born in 1197 in Worcestershire, England. He was chancellor to Boniface, archbishop of Canterbury, who opposed Henry III’s appointment of a bishop in Chichester and appointed Richard in his place. In the subsequent dispute, Rome came down on the side of Boniface and Richard, a decision that King Henry refused to accept until he was threatened with excommunication. St. Richard is, or so I fancy, the combative side of my patronal protection, especially when it comes to the rights of the Church. With no offense to St. Richard, St. John, the apostle and evangelist, is my premier patron. He is the disciple whom, as we are told in the Fourth Gospel, “Jesus loved.” I take consolation from the conclusion of his gospel: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” After the millions of words I have written, and the millions I may yet write, I will have hardly begun to tell my story of his love. (February 2007)

• There are, however, other movements afoot. When the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came out in 1989, Canadians jumped the gun and started using it in the Mass. Rome jumped on the Canadians, noting that there were doctrinal problems with the NRSV, which was in some instances more an interpretation than a translation. What is called “inclusive language,” for example, substituted the third person plural for “he” and “him” in Old Testament passages that the Church has always understood to refer to Christ. The Canadians got to work on revising the NRSV to meet Rome’s objections and report that they have now received official approval for their rendering of the lessons used in Sunday Mass. (A further advantage of the Catholic edition of the RSV is that, unlike the Canadian Revised New Revised Standard Version, it is a complete Bible, meaning the same text can be used for study and for liturgical purposes.) But now there may be a question about whether the National Council of Churches (NCC), which holds the copyright for the RSV and NRSV, will go along with Canada’s RNRSV. (March 2007)

• Meanwhile”are you still with me?”other English-speaking conferences, led by the UK and Australia, decided to undertake their own revision of the NRSV. The project was going along swimmingly until, quite abruptly, the NCC let it be known that it would not give permission for the NRSV to be used in the form proposed. So the Brits and Aussies are now thinking about using the Jerusalem Bible (JB) as the basis of their new lectionary. The Jerusalem Bible has its origins in a French project and made its first appearance in English in 1966. In 1985 a thoroughly “updated” revision was issued in English, the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB). The JB has an imprimatur for study purposes but not for liturgical use. (One notes that, after some hassle, it was decided that the Scripture references in the Catechism of the Catholic Church would be “adapted” texts from the RSV and NRSV.) So this would seem to leave us with the prospect of a Canadian RNRSV, a Brit-Aussie RNJP, and of course the American NAB”the last being in a constant state of revision, which makes it now, give or take an R or two, the RRRNAB. (It may be hard to believe, but in 1985, I think it was, Forbes magazine declared the Catholic Church to be the most efficiently managed international institution in the world.) The Second Vatican Council called for a common biblical text for each language group, preferably one produced in ecumenical cooperation. The Catholic edition of the RSV fits that description perfectly, but the bishops of the Antilles are alone in recognizing that. The upshot of all this is that, for the foreseeable future, American Catholics at Mass will be compelled to endure the clumsy novelties and embarrassing gaucheries of the ever evolving NAB. It really does seem that there ought to be an alternative other than moving to Bermuda. (March 2007)

• I see that Lionel, the maker of model trains, which had been operating out of a Detroit suburb for the past four decades, has moved its headquarters back to Manhattan. A while back I had a meeting in midtown and, having mistaken the time, arrived an hour early. I decided to spend some of the extra time in a visit to FAO Schwarz, the legendary toy store, and headed immediately to the model trains. They were all Lionel and, quite frankly, no comparison with the trains that enchanted endless hours of my boyhood. An uncle had brought those trains from Germany after World War II. He said he found them in the ballroom of a castle owned by Field Marshal Hermann Goering. I’m not sure that’s true”my uncle was sometimes a teller of tall tales”but the trains were magnificent. Six engines with well over a hundred cars, and the passenger cars with real leather seats and working lights in their ceilings. I wrote about those trains in my little book As I Lay Dying , the story of my ordeal with cancer fourteen years ago as of January. Which makes this an occasion to clear up a misunderstanding. I have several times been accused of stealing that title from William Faulkner. Stealing may not be the right word, since titles are not copyrighted. But in fact I took the phrase from John Donne, the seventeenth-century English divine, whose Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions was a great comfort during those trying months. Maybe Faulkner, too, got it from Donne. I don’t know. As for Lionel, I’m glad they’re back in New York, and it is good to learn that there is a growing market for model trains. But I can’t help feeling a little sorry for boys who will never know those German model trains that were an exquisite model of craftsmanship. Did I mention that some of the engines emitted real steam, and that cranes lifted the cars on and off the tracks? I don’t know where those trains are today, but in my mind’s eye I can see them now and am enchanted all over again. (March 2007)

• This is simply for the record. Every time I mention New York City’s being the prolepsis of the New Jerusalem, it provokes a protest from a reader or two who wonders how we can live so deprived of “nature.” Of human nature there is plenty, needless to say, but also of other kinds. For instance, I rather enjoy all the birds. Birds in Manhattan? You bet. Amy, who lives next door and is more avid about matters avian, gave me a list the other day of birds sighted this past year in our adjoining backyards: American robin, cardinal, purple finch, dark-eyed junco, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, house sparrow, field sparrow, starling, crow, pigeon, and mourning dove. Of tree-clinging birds there was the hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and common flicker. And one day I saw a falcon, ravenously eating a mouse it had killed. I’m not trying to prove anything, mind you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that list compares quite favorably with the sightings of those who, for whatever strange reasons, deliberately live somewhere other than New York City. (February 1999)

Sources:

George Lindbeck on John XXIII and the Council, Commonweal , November 22, 2002; Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor on authority, Origins , November 7, 2002; Christiansen on Dulles, America , January 5, 2009.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

Loading...