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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

... Henri de Lubac’s most important contribution to Catholic theology was a sustained analysis of the relation between nature and grace. In the 1930s he argued that standard theologies of the neoscholastic tradition used a metaphysically rigid, dualistic account of human destiny that ironically confirmed rather than overcame the modern suspicion that our everyday lives and concerns (nature) have no intrinsic contact with or need for the life of faith (grace). Instead of overcoming the dualisms that have tended to drive modern thought and life toward contrastive and fruitless antinomies, neoscholasticism unwittingly absorbed the tendency into itself.

When de Lubac claimed that the fundamental structure of neoscholasticism was a covert form of modernism, he was making a direct attack on the modes of theology that dominated the Church in the first half of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, he became a suspect character in the eyes of church authorities. In the 1950s he was silenced by his superiors in the Society of Jesus.

One would think that, as a result, de Lubac would have embraced the spirit of innovation that flourished after Vatican II. He did not. Near the end of his life he wrote a small and bitter book, A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace. In its pages he sought to address what he regarded as a fundamental misunderstanding of his basic insights, and its main thrust is a defense of the core theological judgments of the neoscholastic tradition he spent his life criticizing.

The message is clear: Readers cannot understand Henri de Lubac’s theology of nature and grace unless they know and accept the basic outlines of classical Thomistic theology. Thus the paradox, once again. By the 1980s, Henri de Lubac, the great critic of dry and dusty neoscholasticism, saw that the younger generation needed to be catechized into the standard, baseline commitments of Catholic theology. Ressourcement does not work if students have neither context nor framework in which to place the richness and depth of the tradition.

R.R. Reno, "Theology afer the Revolution" First Things May 2007 (review of Fergus Kerr's Twentieth Century Catholic Theologians).

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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi ("Saved in Hope")

According to John Allen Jr., Benedict XVI's second encyclical Spe Salvi might be considered a 'Greatest Hits' collection of core Ratzinger ideas -- "a compilation of core concerns, his idees fixes over almost sixty years now of theological reflection":
  • Truth is not a limit upon freedom, but the condition of freedom reaching its true potential;
  • Reason and faith need one another – faith without reason becomes extremism, while reason without faith leads to despair;
  • The dangers of the modern myth of progress, born in the new science of the 16th century and applied to politics through the French Revolution and Marxism;
  • The impossibility of constructing a just social order without reference to God;
  • The urgency of separating eschatology, the longing for a “new Heaven and a new earth,” from this-worldly politics;
  • Objective truth as the only real limit to ideology and the blind will to power.
Having just finished Benedict's second encyclical today -- in between naps, as is the tendency these days with a new youngster in the household -- I'm really at a loss as to what to offer in the way of blogging or commentary. I read it online, but suffice to say it's one of those texts where if I had a highlighter, I'd easily run out of ink. Then again, that's often the case when reading Ratzinger / Benedict XVI.

So what follows are some notes, impressions and passages which particularly struck me, perhaps as impetus for discussion by our readers.

* * *

Benedict begins by exploring the relationship between hope and faith in the Christian scriptures and the early Church. Benedict poses the question each of us must ask ourselves:

The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. Now the question immediately arises: what sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed? And what sort of certainty is involved here?

In sections 10-12 Benedict addresses the human condition without hope, the dual fascination and repulsion at the prospect of our soul's immortality; he addresses to some understandable misconceptions one might have concerning the meaning of "eternal life":

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John's Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.

Modernity and "the ideology of human progress"

Benedict asks: "How could the idea have developed that Jesus's message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?" -- this is a familiar charge that is, with respect to some articulations of Christianity, legitimate.

Benedict looks to "the modern age", when spiritual concerns were supplanted by scientific knowledge and man embraced "the ideology of human progress"; where reason and freedom were heralded "to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community." (This seduction of humanity by positivism and the reduction of reality to techne is another familiar theme in Ratzinger, discussed for instance in the forward to Introduction to Christianity).

Benedict looks at the French Revolution ("an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality") and Marxism ("with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized") -- as representative of modern man's futile attempts to establish the 'Kingdom of God' on earth:

Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.

In section 21, Benedict gives the perfect paragraph-length summary of the ambitions of Marxism and where it failed:

Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.

Regensburg Revisited

In section 23, Benedict again returns to the core message of his Regensburg address -- not a commentary on Islam (as emphasized by the press) but rather the restoration of reason to its proper place, in relation to faith:

If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human.

... human freedom always requires a convergence of various freedoms. Yet this convergence cannot succeed unless it is determined by a common intrinsic criterion of measurement, which is the foundation and goal of our freedom. Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope. ...

Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission.

The Social Dimensions of Spe Salvi

Benedict calls for "a self-critique of modernity in dialogue with Christianity"; Christians too must "learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots."

I'm struck by Benedict's addition of the phrase "what Christianity cannot offer" -- it is opportune, given the myriad presentations of Christianity in our age, from televangelists preaching a "gospel of wealth" and material success to those for whom Christian praxis is reduced to a politicized, revolutionary program for class warfare. Benedict is reputedly working on a third encyclical devoted to social issues, but I found this section on "the true shape of Christian Hope" very relevant:

Material progress is incremental. Man slowly gains a mastery of technique and power over his natural surroundings. But we cannot speak similarly of humanity's moral evolution:

. . . in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man's freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.
We can learn from the "lessons of history," the knowledge and "moral treasury" of previous generations -- or we can choose to reject it. This responsibility falls upon each generation.

What are the implications? -- First, according to Benedict:

The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order."
"Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all."
... every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.
I could not help but see in this section shades of Benedict's critique of certain aspects of liberation theology and it's call for the overthrow of "structures of injustice" and a reduction of the gospel to "politico-messianic hope and praxis" (see Preliminary Notes on Liberation Theology by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, circa. 1984).

There is present in this encyclical an "Augustianian realism" (characteristically Ratzinger) -- a lucid awareness of man's capacity for good and evil, and the inherent limitations placed upon man's striving by his nature.

Thus we are reminded that our scientific and technological achievements "opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. . . . If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world."

Self-Centered Salvation?

Benedict counters the criticism that Christianity's promise of eternal life is "falling back once again into an individualistic understanding of salvation":

Our relationship with God is established through communion with Jesus—we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone. The relationship with Jesus, however, is a relationship with the one who gave himself as a ransom for all (cf. 1 Tim 2:6). Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his “being for all”; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole.
Referring to Maximus the Confessor - this love of God and communion in Christ manifests itself in charity to others, is essentially other-oriented: "Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others. Loving God requires an interior freedom from all possessions and all material goods: the love of God is revealed in responsibility for others. . . . Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others."

In what does our redemption consist?

"It is not science that redeems man," says Benedict. Rather, "man is redeemed by love." Not a merely human love subject to fickleness and dissolution, but an everlasting and unconditional love:

"He needs the certainty which makes him say: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man “redeemed”, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has “redeemed” us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote “first cause” of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). . . .

Whoever is moved by love begins to perceive what “life” really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await “eternal life”—the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life. Jesus, who said that he had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), has also explained to us what “life” means: “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we “live”."

Prayer as Response of Christian Hope

"How can Christians learn, articulate and exercise this hope in Christ? -- Benedict responds: "A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer." When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God." He refers to Augustine's example of stretching, expanding, purifying our hearts of vinegar to make room for God's honey.

To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. . . .
Prayer can never be merely individual or self-preoccupied; genuine prayer is that which turns us toward others, in solidarity with our neighbor and communion in the Church:
"For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope."

Benedict on human suffering

In sections 35-40, he embarks on a profound meditation on human suffering ("The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer") as a context for Christian hope:

"It is not by fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love . . . A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. . . . the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity."
Needless to say, it is only through the transformative hope that God brings that we as Christians can embrace suffering in this manner. Here Benedict recommends a revival of the practice of offering up our daily inconveniences and sufferings in Christ, an expression of our hope:
What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.
Benedict devotes the latter section of his encyclical (sections 40-48) on the Last Judgement as a manifestation of Christian hope (together with a rich, theological exploration of Purgatory and man's purification from sin in Chrisitan thought). "I am convinced," says Benedict, "that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life."

The following passage offers much food for thought (and some questions as well):

47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning-it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice-the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together-judgement and grace-that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

Benedict closes his encyclical with a beautiful homage to our Holy Mother Mary, the exemplification of Christian hope:

"With her 'yes' she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14)."

Additional Commentary on Spe Salvi

  • Some more "traditionalist" commentators are reading Spe Salvi as a rebuttal to what they perceive as the foolish optimism of Vatican II. Rorate Caeli provides an English translation of just such an article by Antonio Socci in Spe Salvi: the Anti-Gaudium et Spes:
    Benedict XVI does not quote, from the Council, even "Gaudium et spes", which nonetheless had in its title the word "hope", but wipes out the very mistake disastrously introduced in the Catholic world by that which was the main Conciliar constitution, "On the Church in the Modern World". The Pope invites, in fact, at n. 22, to a "a self-critique of modern Christianity". Particularly on the concept of "progress".
    Socci's reading is challenged by Dr. Philip Blosser and others in a rollicking combox debate.

    Pastor John Wright also disagrees:

    It is not hard to discern that Benedict is focusing his papacy on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, in inverse order. In this project Benedict continues the work of the Second Vatican Council. . . .

    Does the lack of a citation of Vatican II show Benedict's repudiation of the renewal efforts of Vatican II? A reading of Gaudium et Spes shows that this is not the case at all. Though "hope" occurs in the conciliar document's title, the use of "hope" is incidental to its purpose. When it is used as a theological virtue, Benedict remains in the center of the "spirit" of Vatican II. . . .

    Gaudium et spes should have included the Son to complete the complete witness to the Triune God involved in true hope, the theological virtue. But its concept of hope remains profoundly eschatological and in God. Benedict XVI completes this Trinitarian formula for the theological virtue of hope as he concludes his discussion of "the true shape of Christian hope" that also recognizes how a natural sense of hope is raised and perfected by the eschatological hope in God.

  • The Encyclical on Hope: On the "De-immanentizing" of the Christian Eschaton, by Fr. James V. Schall. Ignatius Insight December 2007:
    What Benedict does in this encyclical is, to coin a phrase, "de-immanentize" the eschaton. That is, he restores the four last things and the three theological virtues to their original understanding as precisely what we most need to understand ourselves. These things have been subsumed into a philosophy that denies a creator God. It replaces Him with human intelligence and inner-worldly purpose as the proper destiny of the human race in the cosmos. This effort has simply failed, as Benedict shows in numerous ways. Thus, it is proper to re-present the central understanding primarily of hope. [...]

  • Commentary on Spe Salvi by Abbot Joseph of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (aka Mt Tabor Monastery), Byzantine-rite Ukranian Catholic. Word Incarnate December 21, 2007:
    . . . Hope for eternal life that is founded on faith in Christ is not merely something projected into the distant or obscure future, and hence something that we can persuade ourselves to postpone until we are old and have nothing else to do. It is a present and dynamic reality in our daily lives—and must be so if we are to live in such a way as to ultimately realize our hope for everlasting happiness.

  • Teresa Polk (Blog by the Sea) has a series of posts commenting on the new encyclical. The first is 10 Points on Prayer and Contemplation in Spe Salvi, followed by Spe Salvi and Liberation Theology.

  • A Different Kind of Hope, by Michael Liccione. Sacramentum Vitae December 19, 2007.

  • Pope Benedict and the Defense of Reason Claremont Review of Books December 13, 2007. Interview with Fr. James V. Schall, in part on Spe Salvi:
    One of the most interesting things about Spe Salvi was the reintroduction of the idea that we will be personally judged for our deeds not by political standards but by the standards of our being that are often known as "natural law." As Plato said, that the worst thing that can happen to a man who does or causes evil is success and praise for it. This success will usually prevent him from ever facing his own soul and the ultimate criterion by which it will be judged beyond politics. . . .

    It is significant that Benedict brings up both Hell and Purgatory in Spe Salvi. He does so precisely in the context of modern politics. We tend to forget that the topic of Hell is rooted in the last book of the Republic. It is a teaching necessary to confront if we are going to have any notion that the universe is established in justice and not in absurdity or meaninglessness. Rewards and punishments, as Socrates taught us, must finally be confronted, but only after things for their own sakes are known. The pope mentions the various "hells" that have appeared in modern times, beginning with the account of a slave girl from, of all places, Darfur, the Sudan. He is a German and knows about the twentieth century.

  • The Pope’s Anti-Political Politics, by Dr. Samuel Gregg. The Acton Institute. December 12, 2007:
    Today hundreds of theologians insist upon talking about everything except the essences of Christian faith, regarding such matters as “not relevant” to contemporary concerns.

    In Spe Salvi, Benedict demonstrates -- perhaps without intending to -- how wrong such assumptions are. A powerful theme of this encyclical is that a world without hope, or which reduces hope to creating earthly utopias, facilitates a view of politics that not only enslaves, but kills.

  • More on Spe Salvi - discussion at Cahiers Peguy (Communion & Liberation collective blog). December 9, 2007.

  • Hope: An Encounter with Love a commentary on Benedict XVI's encyclical "Spe Salvi" by Legionary of Christ Father Juan Pablo Ledesma, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university. Zenit News Service. December 7, 2007.

  • On Christian Hope, by Charles J. Chaput, archbishop of Denver. December 5, 2007.

  • Spe Salvi 2.2 Discussion of the encyclical @ Amy Welborn's. December 5, 2007.
  • "Spe Salvi, says Pope Benedict", by Christopher Howse. December 1, 2007: "A colleague, staring at the Pope's latest encyclical, remarked, "There's no news here. It's all about God." He was right, after a fashion..."

  • Encyclical Seen As Tackling "Urgent Need" Zenit interview with Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi of the Vatican Press Office. December 2, 2007.

  • The second in a possible triptych of encyclicals, by John Allen Jr. National Catholic Reporter November 30, 2007:
    With Spe Salvi,, Benedict solidifies his profile as a “pope of the basics” – determined to accent the core principles of the Christian faith.

    Early indications suggest that Spe Salvi may succeed in appealing to a wide cross-section of Catholics; even the German reform group “Wir Sind Kirche,” for example, one of Joseph Ratzinger’s harshest critics over the years, issued a statement today calling the encyclical “impressive and engaging.”

    Moreover, the focus on love and hope for his first two encyclicals also serves the pope’s ecumenical purposes, since Christians have not been divided historically on these two virtues. Competing understandings of the faith, on the other hand, have been far more explosive.

* * *

The Catholic News Agency reports that over one million copies the new encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, have been sold since it was released on November 30.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ

On eve of pope's Brazil trip, Sobrino defends liberation theology", by John Allen, Jr. National Catholic Reporter May 8, 2007:
On the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s departure for Brazil, his first trip to Latin America, one of the region’s best-known Catholic theologians – whose work recently drew a negative review from the Vatican – has spoken out forcefully in defense of liberation theology and its “option for the poor.”

Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino’s essay, his first public statement since a critical March 14 notification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, comes in a May 1 collection of essays published by the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. . . .

In his 4,000-word essay, Sobrino does not comment in detail on the Vatican notification, but he offers a ringing defense of liberation theology. [MORE]



  • Doctrinal congregation head finds his work mostly behind the scenes, by John Thavis. Catholic News. March 16, 2007:
    Although some critics described the Vatican's action against Father Sobrino as authoritarian, for Cardinal Levada it was an example of how carefully and cooperatively the doctrinal congregation operates.

    "I think we work in a more collegial fashion than in most instances in the church," Cardinal Levada told Catholic News Service in a wide-ranging interview in mid-March.

    "We take into account all the relevant data before articulating our position," he said. That means thorough reflection and discussion by groups of theological peers before decisions, reprimands or decrees are handed down, he said.. . .

    The study of Father Sobrino's works began well before Cardinal Levada arrived at his position, at a time when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- was at the helm of the doctrinal congregation. . . .

    Cardinal Levada said Father Sobrino was given ample opportunity to consider and respond to the critical review.

    "The congregation works very slowly in reviewing a theologian's work, perhaps too slowly in many respects. It attempts to guarantee fairness for the theologian and put aside any idea that somebody is being railroaded," the cardinal said.

    Theologians under review can have their own theological or canonical adviser. Any critique is based not on anonymous accusations but on the theologian's published works or public statements.

    "Often the question is whether a theologian really believes something that is contrary to the faith, or whether he has expressed his thinking badly or partially," Cardinal Levada said.

    Ultimately these questions are examined by a group of theological peers that routinely advise the congregation, then by the cardinal and bishop members of the congregation, and finally by the pope for his final judgment, the cardinal said.

    "We don't publicize this process, because in some instances, I say gratefully, we have not had to come to a public notification. If a theologian acknowledges an error or a too-partial presentation and agrees to make an adequate correction in a subsequent book or article, then we'll consider the matter closed," he said.

    So far, the cardinal said, that has not been the case with Father Sobrino, and so a public warning was necessary. Although Father Sobrino is 69 and currently not teaching, he remains an influential voice in Catholic theology, Cardinal Levada said.

  • Sobrino's notification: a sign of things to come, by John Allen, Jr. National Catholic Reporter March 16, 2007.

  • Vatican Aide Reflects on Sobrino's Errors, Highlights Need for Sound Christology March 16, 2007.

  • Vatican censures Sobrino, who calls procedures 'not honest' March 14, 2007.
  • The Sentence Against Theologian Jon Sobrino Is Aimed at an Entire Continent May 14, 2007:
    ROMA, March 20, 2007 – Last Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a diminutive friar from Peru in the black and white habit of the Dominicans came before Benedict XVI, who was officiating over the rite in the Roman basilica of Santa Sabina. The pope applied the ashes to his head.

    The friar was Gustavo Gutiérrez, author of the 1971 book “A Theology of Liberation,” which gave rise to the theological current of the same name.

    In 1984, and again in 1986, this theology was severely criticized by two documents from the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, signed by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But it still influences large sectors of the Latin American Church, in their mentality and language.

    Not all of its major exponents have taken the same path. Gutiérrez has corrected some of its initial positions, has entered the Dominican order, and at the beginning of this Lent he was called to give a theology course at an illustrious pontifical university in Rome, the Angelicum, where Karol Wojtyla studied.

    But another famous liberation theologian, the Jesuit Jon Sobrino, a Basque émigré to El Salvador, where he co-founded the University of Central America, UCA, has held firm on his positions even after the congregation for the doctrine of the faith placed two of his books under examination. . . .


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI on "Faith, Reason and the University" (Regensburg, 2006)

In 1969, following a tense period at the University of Tübingen (see The difficult years, by Gianni Valente 30 Giorni May 2006), Joseph Ratzinger received the invitation to teach at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria.

Having turned down the initial invitation in 1967, he remarks in Milestones that "I was still dean [of the faculty of theology at Tübingen], but the exhausting controveries I experienced during academic meetings had changed my attitude". So it was with understandable relief that he accepted the invitation. Ratzinger would later reflect on his years as "a time of fruitful theological work" and of "acquiring a theological vision that was ever more clearly my own" (Milestones p. 149/150).

The website of the University of Regensburg proudly features a section devoted to Pope Benedict's years at Regensburg, where he was appointed in 1969 as a professor of dogmatic theology. For B16 history buffs, the website posts a number of wonderful artifacts, including a newspaper announcement and certificate of his appointment, along with his later appointment to the International Papal Theological Commission.

On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI was again welcomed to the university, to give an address to students and faculty. His lecture was titled "Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections", the text of which is available at the Vatican website.* While I'll highlight a few points, I recommend a reading of the full text -- it is "vintage Benedict": at once stimulating and provocative.

The Pope spoke about his days teaching at the University of Bonn, of the dialogue between departments, "working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason." By way of illustration he mentions an exchange "by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both, and proceeds to mention one point, "itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole," as a starting point for his reflections on the relationship between faith and reason:

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true?

In answer to this question, Benedict contends that there exists "the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God," pointing to the Christian understanding that "God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason."

Benedict goes on to discuss the significance of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament -- the Septuagint -- which fosters this encounter between biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry ("From the very heart of Christian faith and, at the same time, the heart of Greek thought now joined to faith, Manuel II was able to say: Not to act 'with logos' is contrary to God's nature.")

According to Benedict, this integration of faith and reason is at the heart of the Christian conception of God. He notes that there arose in the history of Christianity itself schools of thought which have endangered this very conception, and which, when taken to their logical conclusion, are found to be profoundly incompatible. I personally found the following passage one of the more provocative and stimulating:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language (cf. Lateran IV). God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love transcends knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is logos. Consequently, Christian worship is λογικὴ λατρεία - worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).

According to Benedict, this "inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry" is not only at the very heart of Christianity, but in the historical origins of Europe as well: "this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

In the latter half of his lecture, Benedict voices his concerns with the call for the "dehellenization" of Christianity -- of severing Christianity from its Greek heritage. He observes three stages of this program of dehellenization:

  1. the fundamental postulates of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, countering what they perfecived to be a philosophically-conditioned and corrupted Christianity with a wholesale reliance upon sola scriptura -- "faith in its pure, primordial form, as originally found in the biblical Word";

  2. the "liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries", with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. -- Harnack positing a "return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message underneath the accretions of theology," thereby bringing Christianity back into harmony with modern reason through the purging of its theological elements (the divinity of Christ and the Trinity). This is in accord with what Benedict describes as the "modern self-limitation of reason," which confines itself to that which is scientifically (mathematically and emperically) verifiable -- thereby dismissing as irrelevant (subjective) "the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics."

  3. the proposition of "inculturation" -- that, in light of experience with cultural pluralism, "the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures . . . [who] have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux." To this Benedict responds:
    The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.
Against this program of dehellenization, Benedict does not propose a rollback of the Enlightenment. He acknowledges "the positive aspects of modernity", pointing out that the scientific ethos is itself "the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, embodies an attitude which reflects one of the basic tenets of Christianity").

Rather, what is called for is a "broadening of our concept of reason and its applications," overcoming "the self-imposed limitation of reason" to that which is emperically verifiable, and a true restoration of theology to its place in the university, in genuine dialogue with the sciences -- "not merely as a historical discipline and one of the human sciences, but precisely as theology, as inquiry into the rationality of faith." Only then, says Benedict, "do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today."

In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures. . . .

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.

The subject of this lecture is certainly a familiar one to Benedict. Shortly after his election, Zenit News featured an interview with Timothy O'Donnell, president of Christendom College, who spoke on Benedict XVI's Commitment to Faith and Reason in Universities. O'Donnell predicted that the Holy Father's experience as a university professor would have an influence over his pontificate, and that he would carry on Pope John Paul II's legacy "by stressing the synthesis of faith and reason in the Catholic intellectual tradition."
. . . I think that our current Holy Father will continue the good work initiated by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic constitutions "Sapienta Christiana" and "Ex Corde Ecclesiae."

I think he will find it particularly important to continue to speak to the vital role that must be played by Catholic institutions of higher learning in an effort to once again re-engage the culture and communicate effectively to the world the great synthesis of the Catholic intellectual tradition, which unites both faith and reason and recognizes in both of them a common source in Almighty God.

Responses to the 2006 Regensburg Address
  • Mark Scott (Rome of the West) ignores the tangential sound-byte approach of the media and gets to the heart of the address in his post, Holy Father's Speech on De-Hellenization of Religion:
    This is the critical question: "Is acting according to reason also acting according to the Will of God?"
  • Prof. Stephen Bainbridge comes to the point:
    Pope Benedict XVI's speech at the University of Regensburg is a challenging read - it's dense and, in a way, highly technical. Yet, it rewards close scrutiny. . . .

    [T]he Pope is staking out a set of claims about the relationship of man and God that stand in opposition not only to the Islam of Ibn Hazn, but also that of the Protestant Reformers, the Jesus of History crowd, and (an area of particular concern for this pope) post-Christian Europe. The Pope is also renewing the claims of the Church Universal to have a truth that is transcendent, rather than culturally-bound.

  • Oswald Sobrino (Catholic Analysis) has also been taking a look at the speech in its entirety -- part 1 examines the Pope's opening remarks on the use of coercion to spread religion; part two tackles Benedict's critique of the loss of reason in the West:
    . . . the major part of the speech is not about Islam at all but about a wider trend: the abandonment of reason in the modern world. Fanatical religious violence is but one manifestation of that trend. To judge by the number of paragraphs in his speech, what concerns the Pope more is the abandonment of the fullness of reason in the West. The Pope begins his discussion in the fifth paragraph by posing the question: "Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always intrinsically true?" For the Pope, the idea that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature is an intrinsically true idea that is a perennial contribution of ancient Greek culture for all the world, whether Western or not.
    Thanks in large part to the irresponsibility of the media, the Vatican is preoccupied in a public relations venture to safeguard the lives of Christians. But this -- the loss of reason in the West; the integration of biblical faith and philosophical reason at the heart of Christianity, at (according to B16) the very foundation of Europe itself, the question of "dehellenization" -- is what we should be talking about, and I hope what many will be returning to this topic, once the fires of controversy have subsided. (Update 9/18/06) - Here is Part III on Oswald Sobrino's reflection on the Pope's address.

  • The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man, by Fr. James V. Schall. Ignatius Insight September 15, 2006:
    . . . with this lecture we are in heady academic surroundings. All is genteel. All is formal. All is, yes, "intellectual." But it is here where the real battles lie hidden. What we see in Regensburg are, after Deus Caritas Est, the second shots of the new pope at the heart of what is wrong in our world and its mind. These "shots," however, are designed to do what all good intellectual battle does, namely, to make it possible for us to see again what is true and to live it.

    The Regensburg Address, I suspect, will go down as one of those seminal and incisive analyses that tell us who we are and where we are. It will remind us of what we are by teaching us again to think about the God that the skeptics, the dons, the theological faculties, including Muslim faculties, have too often obscured for us. Civilization depends also on thinking rightly about God and man -- all civilization, not just European or Muslim. Such is the reach of this lecture.

Update! 9-23-06

* In reading Benedict's speech I was relying on, and quoting from, the Provisional Text of the Regensberg address, on the website of Vatican Radio. In comparing it to that which is posted on the Vatican website, I see there are some minor variations in translation but I trust the meaning is essentially the same.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Impressions of "Radical Orthodoxy"

Pontifications -- echoing Pastor John Wright -- asks: "Is Radical Orthodoxy radical and orthodox?":
No doubt the radical orthodox theologians are doing important work that needs to be done. It is crucial that the nihilism of post-modernity be confronted and exposed. But the world cannot be saved by a philosophy, not even a philosophy of incarnation. It cannot even be saved by a brilliant theology. It can only be saved by Jesus Christ. He, and he alone, is our gospel.

Six years ago Russell Reno published his concerns about the radical orthodoxy movement (The Radical Orthodoxy Project First Things 100. February 2000). His principal concern—its love of theory. How tempting it is, as we survey the chaos of theology and the inability of the Church to effectively proclaim the gospel to the world, to turn to theory to cure our ills. We will save the Church and the world by our brilliant speculations. As Reno writes: “Against the weakness of the gospel—in churches that seem not to hear and in a culture increasingly blind—we are tempted by theory. We imagine that by sheer theological genius and intellectual virtuosity we can reconstruct an all-embracing Christian culture, we can uncover and make present the glue that holds everything together.”

But this is not the way forward, says Reno. We must resist the lure of abstraction. The Church will only be renewed as we re-immerse ourselves in the concrete particularities that is the Church, for it is there that Christ is to be found.

Some of my friends are rather enthusiastic endorsers of this movement. And while The Chronicle of Higher Education hails it as ""biggest development in theology since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door," I honestly haven't taken much time to dip into it. In fact, I confess that I have difficulty even summoning the urge to investigate it for a number of reasons:

First, it seems that many works in 'Radical Orthodoxy' presuppose a graduate degree in philosophy on the part of the reader. As Charles W. Allen explains in "Postmodern Critical Augustinianism for Dummies" (Encounter Summer 2003 -- his own attempt at clarifying RO):

. . . [Radical Orthodoxists] aren't making many efforts to communicate beyond academic circles. To read them at all, you have to be at least somewhat familiar, first, with "classic" writers like Plato, Plotinus, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas Aquinas, and their favorite whipping boy, John Duns Scotus. Then, as if that weren't enough, you have to stay current with post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Lacan, Michel de Certeau, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, and other recent French theorists. (Non-Gallic thinkers, it seems, are cited only when necessary, and I gather that most German-speakers -Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger - have to be dead.)

Also, your vocabulary must include a liberal sprinkling of terms like "nihilism," "semiosis," "jouissance," "libidinal logic," "mathesis" "aporia," "fecund," "convenientia," "asyndeton," and so on.11 Terms like these shouldn't be all that objectionable. Some have been around for a good while, and sometimes nothing else will substitute. But when you can hardly get through a single paragraph without running across at least three or four of them, you may begin to lose patience. It's enough to make terms like "perichoresis" or "hypostatic union" sound downright homespun.

I majored in philosophy and theology in college, and despite my indulgement in your typical Bacchanalian festivities, managed to retain a good amount of knowledge in the basics. That said, at that time I had precious little interest in the French post-structuralists (fashionable as they were) and when I find a new theological movement that (from what I hear) demands a familiarity with such -- well, I find it a little intimidating.

Likewise, as the Pontificator says, "whether the radical orthodox folk are worth engagement probably depends on how much time one has on one’s hands and what one intends to do with the reading." Besides the usual distractions (such as blogging), there seems to me far worthier voices in the Catholic tradition to spend my free time with.

Finally, among the turning points in my own path to Rome was my taking into account the vast riches of Christianity and the figures I had studied up to that point: the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Duns Scotus, St. Thomas Aquinas. It struck me as rather curious, and moreover, something of a scandal, to study these pivotal figures in Christian thought at a Lutheran college -- the bulk of them, of course, Catholic -- to claim an appreciation for what they had to offer, and all the while (I came to recognize) distancing myself from the very Church to which they belonged.

Perhaps I am a bit naive in thinking thus, and I certainly mean no disprespect to all those who are representative of the 'Radical Orthodoxy' movement -- professors and scholars who are undoubtedly far more learned than I. However, I admit that as a convert, one of the first impressions I had upon hearing about this bold new project, as with any other contemporary intellectual movement in the Protestant tradition, was the sense of "having one's cake and eating it to."

What I mean is the fact that, from what I understand, a good number of participants in "Radical Orthodoxy" draw from the riches of St. Augustine and the Ressourcement theologians (Ratzinger, von Balthasar, De Lubac, et al.), and yet do so as Protestants. As The Pertinacious Papist remarked when I had inquired his personal impression of "Radical Orthodoxy":

"I've only heard rumblings, and I don't give it much more expectation than the latest of many attempts to render Christianity fashionably cool by Protestants who want to remain orthodox. All this "re-packaging" !!! Why not just CATHOLICISM?"
Well, why not?

In "Timid, Theological Radicals" The Japery October 18, 2005), Fr. Jape's own assessment of RO ("a really Catholic critique of modernity that falls short of recognizing the need to be Catholic," he mentions that Russel Reno came to just such a turning point, an account of which is given in Out Of The Ruins (First Things 150 February 2005):

On a Saturday in mid-September of last year, the feast day of St. Robert Bellarmine, I was received into the Catholic Church. I pledged to believe and profess all that the Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God. The priest anointed me with the oil of confirmation. I exchanged the sign of peace with gathered friends and, after long months of preparation, I received the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Two years after the publication of In the Ruins of the Church, "a kind of manifesto against such a move from Canterbury to Rome," Reno went a step further:
“I will obey my faithless abbot,” I insisted to myself. “Why?” I asked. “Because my theory requires it,” I replied. “But then to what am I loyal -- to my theory, or to what God is telling me in the strange instrument of an increasingly apostate church?” By spring of 2004 the answer was clear. I was loyal only to my theory. The words of St. Augustine haunted me: “What am I to myself but a guide to my own self-destruction?"
We can discuss post-modernism -- or, in this case, "Postmodern Critical Augustinianism" -- to our heart's content, but it seems to me that any Protestant scholar with a genuine interest in "remaining orthodox" in this day and age will ultimately be obliged at some point to consider the claims of the Catholic Church. For it seems to me, no genuine appeal to "orthodoxy" can be made unless it is from within the very Church founded by Christ himself. (Consider for a moment the witness of just a few contemporary converts in the 20th century, many of whom having arrived at this very conclusion: Fr. Neuhaus, Fr. George Rutler, Scott Hahn, James Akin, Jay Budziszewski, Peter Kreeft, Avery Dulles, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Thomas Howard, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alisdair MacIntyre . . . et al.).

* * *

Responding to the Pontificator's post, Patrick X. Gardner shares a similar concern:

All in all, I think that RO asks important questions, whether or not they are wholly original questions, and whether or not their answers hit the nail on the coffin. Where they cozy up to ressourcement theology, I tend to read with my head nodding. But I find a paradox in the fact that much of the RO “theory” attempts to give the church a huge muscle over secular and godless thought, while it’s esoteric jargon limits it to the academic elite and stops it from having any strengthening effect on the living church. Truly, an avid army of seminarians is needed to devote time translating RO back into english to start with! But overall, my greatest problem with RO: its ecclesial ambiguity. Where is its home? I tend to think a huge problem with its ineffectiveness is that it is not grounded in any determinate body of Christ. How then ultimately affect a “movement” of Christ’s members in a substantial and spiritually rich way? Also, a little more direct engagement with Scripture wouldn’t hurt:)
and, likewise, Michael Liccione:
. . . It could be argued that such is the same in spirit as what Aquinas attempted with Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century. And it can be quite a useful exercise for religious professionals. But aside from some defects noted by others, I have one major beef with both ["Radical Orthodoxy" and "The Emerging Church"] movements: they evade what I consider the most important theological question of our time.

That question is: what is the Church? The question actually breaks down into three: Does any single, visible, historically continuous communion of local churches constitute “the” Church universal? If not, why not and what are the consequences we must live with? If so, which is it and why?

I believe those questions are the most important of our time because the issue on which they center—namely, the one raised by the first—recapitulates the ancient debates about the person and natures of Christ. As St. Augustine noted in a statement I’d appreciate somebody’s quoting and referencing again, the whole Christ is not just the Jesus who walked the earth, died, rose, and now abides in glory. The whole Christ is Jesus AND the Church, his Bride, whose union with her Groom constitutes his Mystical Body. In some sense, therefore, the Church is divine as well as human. Yet to emphasize the divinity of the Church at the expense of her humanity is to fall into triumphalism, exclusivism, and even fanaticism, even as emphasizing her humanity at the expense of her divinity is to fall into cynicism, false universalism, and secularism. This is a balance we have to strike correctly, just as the great ecumenical councils of the first millennium did about the person and natures of the Son of God himself.

* * *

In the interest of fairness, Eric Lee reminds us that "it depends on who you read," and that the criticisms offered by Pastor John Wright were "from within" the tradition, having himself taught a class on the subject. Lee also provides a very helpful rundown of some contributors to the RO series: James K. A. Smith, William Cavanaugh, Conor Cunningham, Tracy Rowland, and Daniel M. Bell.

Likewise, see this compilation of posts on Radical Orthodoxy by David Jones; Dixon Kinser's introductory blog-post: Thoughts on Something Called Radical Orthodoxy, and a nearly exhaustive bibliography of resources related to Radical Orthodoxy (both pro- and con) maintained by Jerry Stutzman, Calvin Theological Seminary (.pdf format).

* * *

No doubt my personal lack of enthusiasm about this theological project will come as a disappointment to some of my friends, and perhaps it would behoove me to look into this further before dismissing it altogether. So, I will make this concession to my readers who favor the movement: recommend ONE book in the RO series that you would particularly like me to read this year, tell me why it impressed you, and I'll make a good effort to do so. (Note: Tracy Rowland's Culture & Thomist Tradition after Vatican II need not count, as it is already on my reading list).

Peace in Christ.



Friday, June 17, 2005

On "The Preferential Option for the Poor"

Catholics who are the least bit aquainted with the social doctrine of the Church have encountered the term "preferential option for the poor." According to Charles Curran, the phrase has its origins in the "liberation theology" espoused by radical Catholic theologians in Latin America (excerpt from Catholic Social Teaching Georgetown UP, 2002).

In an article for the U.S. Catholic (Why the preferential option for the poor is not optional, November 1997), Jack Jezreel chronicles the use of the phrase from a 1979 pastoral document by the Latin American Bishops, to the 1986 statement "Economic Justice for All", revisited in 1994's "Communities of Salt and Light", as well as pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

[Update 6/19/05 -- According to one reader, the phrase "first appeared in official episcopal documents in the SECOND Latin American Episcopal Conference, that of Medellin, in 1968 -- the Liberation Theology movement in many ways grew out of this meeting. It is in the last pages of the Medellin documents, under the heading "Preferencia y Solidaridad"." Thanks!]

Pope John Paul II spoke of this preferential option on many occasions, preferring the term "preferential love for the poor" -- the website The Social Agenda, a collection of Magisterial texts compiled by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, from which we offer two excerpts that convey a sense of this "preferential option":

It will not be superfluous therefore to reexamine and further clarify in this light the characteristic themes and guidelines dealt with by the Magisterium in the recent years. Here I would like to indicate one of them: the preferential option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning our ownership and the use of goods. (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 42)

In seeking to promote human dignity, the Church shows a preferential love of the poor and voiceless, because the Lord has identified himself with them in special way (cf. Mt 25:40). This love excludes no one, but simply embodies a priority of service to which the whole Christian tradition bears witness. This love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future. (Ecclesia in Asia, n. 34)

It should not suprise us that the phrase itself is subject to a wide variety of interpretations, often reflecting the political and spiritual orientation of the individual.

For instance, operating in the spirit of St. Francis, the Catholic Worker movement advocates the adoption of voluntary poverty. According to the Catholic Worker "Manifesto" Aims and Means:

"The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge and belief in love." (Dorothy Day) By embracing voluntary poverty, that is, by casting our lot freely with those whose impoverishment is not a choice, we would ask for the grace to abandon ourselves to the love of God. It would put us on the path to incarnate the Church's "preferential option for the poor."

In his thoughtful post Blessed Are They The Poor in Spirit: A Catholic View of Economics (Cooperatores Veritatis June 7, 2003) Greg Mockeridge contends that the "preferential option" entails the necessary inclusion of those in need, helping the poor to better themselves, to improve their economic conditions by putting their creativity to use in the workplace and becoming financially self-sufficient:

The genius in the cultivation of resources and economic success finds its fulfillment in the preferential option for the poor. A society whose economic activity is exclusive to anyone because of race or social class cannot truthfully claim economic prosperity despite superficial appearances of it. In ignoring the poor, society not only fails in its duty to help those in need, but also deprives itself of the beneficial contribution of ingenuity that is gained by those who, through their circumstances, have discovered ways to make astoundingly productive use from the most meager resources. Growing up in a large blue-collar family myself, I know first hand how to make abundances from the scantiest of means. This sort of ingenuity has been the hallmark of American economic prosperity. We have seen immigrants come to this country with nothing more than faith in God and gratitude for their freedom build economic empires. The preferential option for the poor is not a political play toy exploiting the needy by creating an unhealthy dependence on government programs nor is it "...exclusive or discriminatory toward other groups", (Centesimus Annus n 57), but a recognition that the economic chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In Reforming Our Attitudes (Religion & Liberty September / October 1995), Fr. Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, discusses how we can practice Christian charity in ways which recognize the innate human dignity of the poor:

First, we can no longer believe that the call of compassion is satisfied by simply writing a check. The poor are asking for much more than our money. We must begin to make the more difficult sacrifices of our time, energy and talents. We must go to the poor where they live and enter into their poverty in order to help them rise above it. In our efforts to help those suffering the effects of poverty, dollars may be the least important consideration.

Another attitude that must change is our tendency to believe that as individuals we cannot make a meaningful contribution. When faced with a homeless person, the temptation is to think “What could I, with my limited experience and resources, do?” We therefore turn to simply giving money. We need to rethink this response and consider other ways we can contribute; perhaps volunteering at a private shelter, or maybe starting a shelter where there is none, or even having a conversation with a homeless person, as a person, and ask them what they truly need. This is the more radical approach because it requires that we listen to the poor and allow them to become part of the solution — not just the target of our pity.

A third attitude we must adopt is that we no longer view the poor as incapable. One of the most egregious faults of current government programs is the hidden assumption that the poor will always remain poor. While admitting that some people suffer from more than the effects of poverty which prevent them from becoming productive members of society, many of those receiving government assistance can contribute to the elevation of their standard of living. The poor themselves have to be a part of the solution to their own problems. Requiring some level of participation and responsibility on the part of individuals will offer the opportunity for more than dollars or a job, it will offer the opportunity for self-esteem.

Fr. Sirico's approach strikes me as being suprisingly close to Dorothy Day's -- at least in spirit, if not in policy. Browse through her extensive writings and you'll encounter a strong believer in personal responsibility and self-empowerment, highly critical of state-sanctioned welfare and handouts which leave the poor in a state of dependency.

Contrary to the Catholic Workers of today who indulge in either general dismissals or denunciations of "the neocons", I believe Ms. Day would have the desire and the capacity to truly listen to somebody like Fr. Sirico, or Michael Novak for that matter. They may not see eye to eye on the merits of the free market, but it's likely that they would have discovered common ground in an appreciation of the personalism and social thought of Pope John Paul II.

* * *

In his pastoral letter A Time for Honesty, addressing the scandal of "pro-choice politicians" and the argument that "the Church has many social teachings and abortion is one of them," Rev. John J. Myers, Archbishop of Newark, took a moment to clarify the Church's position on social teaching -- given the nature of this post it seems fitting to close with his words:

The Church's social teaching is a diverse and rich tradition of moral truths and biblical insights applied to the political, economic, and cultural aspects of our society. All Catholics should form and inform their conscience in accordance with these teachings. But reasonable Catholics can (and do) disagree about how to apply these teachings in various situations.

For example, our preferential option for the poor is a fundamental aspect of this teaching. But, there are legitimate disagreements about the best way or ways truly to help the poor in our society. No Catholic can legitimately say, "I do not care about the poor." If he or she did so this person would not be objectively in communion with Christ and His Church. But, both those who propose welfare increases and those who propose tax cuts to stimulate the economy may in all sincerity believe that their way is the best method really to help the poor. This is a matter of prudential judgment made by those entrusted with the care of the common good. It is a matter of conscience in the proper sense.

Related Links & Resources

The online archives of The Acton Institute offer much food for thought on how we can engage in effective compassion and assist the poor and financially impoverished. Here are just a few:

  • In Human Capital and Poverty (Religion & Liberty January/February 1998), Gery Becker notes that "Human capital, e.g., the skills, education, and values of an individual, constitutes our most valuable and available resource for ameliorating poverty."

  • In Effective Aid to the Poor, Dr. Digby Anderson, Director of the London-based Social Affairs Unit, addresses the two challenges which poverty-relief faces: Generosity and Efficiency:

    Giving away money is easy, provided you’ve got enough in the first place. But giving away money efficiently is very difficult. And that remains true whether the donor is the state, a voluntary association, or an individual. . . . The modern church rightly tells the rich to give to the poor. It presents the problem as one of lack of generosity. And so, in part, it is. But the church has little to say about how the poor are to be identified, how much each one should get, how to establish priorities among claims for charity, which forms of help are best, and how to avoid help becoming harm.

  • In Poverty, Virtue, and Grace (1996 Lord Acton Essay), Fr. Robert Johansen -- yes, of the blog Thrown Back -- draws upon the thought of Lord Acton, who "held the conviction, expressed by Christian thinkers throughout history, that poverty is not a merely material problem, but a moral and spiritual problem as well."

  • John Paul II’s Use of the Term Neo-Liberalism in Ecclesia in America, by Michel Therrien. Based on a paper delivered at the Pontifical College Josephinum April 8, 2000.

  • Finally, Fr. Neuhaus illustrates the need for civil dialogue on such matters between Catholics in "Against Neoliberalism" (First Things 95 August/September 1999: 80-99.):

    The Zwicks’ essay is an extended polemic against neoconservatism, a.k.a. neoliberalism, a.k.a. capitalism. So, as might be expected, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Father Robert Sirico come in for very unfavorable mention. The neoliberalism supported by this writer and his friends, say the editors, "mows down people who are in other countries through slave wages, international trade agreements and torture taught at the School of the Americas to ensure that ‘freedom’ prevails. It is very violent." But the Zwicks go beyond the usual suspects. They write, "Another well–respected priest, Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J., defends slave wages as being better than no wages." Fr. Dulles is not simply a well–respected priest, he is undoubtedly the most widely respected Catholic theologian in the United States (to whom, not incidently, Appointment in Rome is dedicated). And, if one really wanted to press the point, might one not be able to make the case that low wages, even very low wages, are better than no wages at all? But, in fact, what the Catholic Worker says is false.

    Fr. Dulles tells me that he remembers meeting the Zwicks at a meeting in Washington and, in private conversation, asked them what they thought of the argument of an acquaintance of his who does business in Latin America and claims that, although the wages he pays are low by North American standards, they are much higher than his workers could otherwise obtain. He says he does not recall how the Zwicks responded to his question, if they did. Since then, however, they have more than once published the claim that Fr. Dulles "defends slave wages" in Latin America. Such libel does nothing to enhance the legacy of Dorothy Day which the Catholic Worker supposedly champions.

    Surely, as reasonable Catholics, we can do better?

Update - A good follow-up discussion of this issue at the Catholic legal theory blog Mirror of Justice:

  • Mark Sargent asks How Elastic Is the Preferential Option for the Poor? (6/20/05)

  • MOJ colleague Rick Garnett counters inThe Prefential Option: A follow-up (6/21/05)

  • Another lively discussion by the Commentariat at Amy Welborn. (6/22/05)

  • A thought in progress @ Disputations:

    If poverty is an economic problem to be solved, then it's not my problem; I can barely handle my own economic problems, much less help others with theirs. If it's an economic debate, it's not my debate.

    And if it's an economic problem or debate, it's not really the Church's problem or debate, in any particular way. All the Church would have to do is remind everyone of the basic moral principles, then let the economists and policy makers go to town.

    But I don't think that's what the Church says. I don't think she regards poverty as a problem to be solved so much as a sorrow to be joined in. . . .

    The Gospel is not an economic development plan. The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or of drinking. Those of us who can speak of "the poor" rather than "we poor" must be in communion with those who can't, to share the life of the Spirit with them. Not in a patronizing way, assuring them they'll be just fine once they're dead; but in the way Christians were once known for loving each other.

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Sunday, February 22, 2004

Cardinal Ratzinger's Struggle Against Marxism

Kevin Miller and Paul Rex have blogged on the republication of Cardinal Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity in Italy, reported by Zenit.Org. The 12th edition of this famous text features a new introduction by the Cardinal, in which he "assesses the effects of the last 30 years on the Church" and expresses the belief that "1968, the year of student revolutions, and 1989, the pivotal year for Marxism's decline, are key to understanding the late 20th century.

Marxism has often been described as a "secular religion," expressing a comprehensive worldview, conception of human nature rooted in historical determinism. So engaging was "the Marxist doctrine of salvation" that many struggle with it's demise, and with great difficulty coming to grips with its legacy of suffering and oppression.

"Suffice it to think of how discreet the discussion on the horrors of the Communist 'gulags' has been, and the little that Alexander Solzhenitsyn's voice has been heard: Nothing is said about all this," he affirms.

"The silence has been imposed by a certain sense of shame," [Ratzinger] contends. "Even Pol Pot's bloody regime is only mentioned, in passing, every now and then. But the disillusion has remained, together with a profound confusion. Today no one believes any longer in any great moral dictates." 1

According to Ratzinger, the ultimate effect of Marxism was a pragmatism which justified the use of terror as the instrument of the good. "When the time came that all could see, if only on the surface, the ruins caused in humanity by this idea, people preferred to take refuge in a pragmatic life and publicly profess contempt of ethics."

Introduction to Christianity was first published in 1968, when protestors battled the police on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic Convention, and a flurry of radical student-uprisings swept across Western Europe. As John Allen Jr. notes in his biography, at the time that Cardinal Ratzinger was teaching, "the theology faculties of Tübingen became 'the real ideological center' of the movement towards Marxism, -- home, for instance, to the German philosopher Ernest Bloch, author of Principle of Hope, a Marxist analysis of Christianity and social change and whom Ratzinger remarked "made Heidegger contemptible for being petty bourgeois." 2

It was a period in which students and faculty alike fell victim to the indoctrination of Marxism, where the Cross of Christ was denounced as a "sado-masochistic glorification of pain," where the Church was accused as sharing in "the capitalist exploitation of the poor," and traditional Catholic theology of "propping up the system." And while Germany never embraced the violence that marked other protests, says Allen, they made full use of the theory and language of violent revolution, enough to warrant alarm of Germans who lived a few miles away from a Communist state.

Ratzinger would join two Lutheran theologians at Tübingen in confronting the Marxist presence on campus ("we saw the confessional controversies we had previously engaged were small indeed in the face of the challenge we now confronted, which put us in a position of having, together, to bear witness to our common faith"). After three years, however, he grew tired of student opposition (he and Fr. Hans Kung were both subject to constant student sit-ins and occupations of the pulpit), and decided to lend his support to establishing the Univeristy of Regensburg. His years at Tübingen revealed to him:

"a new spirit creeping in, a spirit in which fanatical ideologies made use of the spirit of Christianity . . . the unanimous will to serve the faith had come to pieces. Instead there was an instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel. That experience made it clear to me that the abuse of faith had to be resisted precisely if one wanted to uphold the will of the council. . . . I did see how real tyranny was exercised, even in brutal forms . . . anyone who wanted to remain a progressive in this context had to give up his integrity." 3
In Milestones Ratzinger explains further the dangers he perceived in Marxism:
. . . the destruction of theology that was not occuring (through its politicization as conceived by Marxist messianism) was incomparably more radical [then Bultmann's existentist Christianity] precisely because it took biblical hope as its basis but inverted it by keeping the religious ardor but eliminating God, and replacing him with the political activity of man. Hope remains, but the party takes the place of God, and along with the party, a totalitarianism that practices an atheistic sort of adoration ready to sacrifice all humaneness to its false God. I myself have seen the frightful face of this aetheistic piety unveiled, its psychological terror, the abandon with which every moral consideration could be thrown overboard as a bourgeois residue when the ideological goal was at stake.4
  1. "Cardinal Ratzinger Blames 1968 and 1989 for the Contempt of Ethics -- Postwar Cynicism and Marxism's Fall Paved the Way for Pragmatism". Zenit.Org. February 19, 2004.
  2. "For Bloch the human being, the natural world, and history all have the fundamental character of not-yet being: nature moves toward the future; history experiments; the human hopes. . . . daydreams, visions, stories, myths, and folklore [provide] the material for a critique of the present situation and the impetus for revolution. Because the stories of religion have so often expressed humanity's future yearnings, Bloch defined religion as that which reveals the telos of reality. Therefore, Bloch concluded, God is a projection of what humanity is, the desire for the future." - Rebecca S. Chopp, Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies (Orbis Books, 1986).
  3. Salt of the Earth (Ignatius, 1996). pp. 76-77.
  4. Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (Ignatius, 1998).

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