Archive for the ‘Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ Category


Chesterton and the Thereness of It 3 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus

May 23, 2014


He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“

No League of Tribes
Another and more serious obstacle to the appreciation of Chesterton is his alleged anti-Semitism. Joseph Pearce’s forthright treatment of that charge should put it to rest once and for all. Chesterton shared conventional English prejudices about Jewish influence, prejudices which today would be called anti-Semitic. This was exacerbated early on in life when a Jewish financier brought a lawsuit that entangled his family and friends in considerable unpleasantness. But, as a prominent rabbi wrote upon Chesterton’s death, “When Hitlerism came, he was one of the first to speak out with all the directness and frankness of a great and unabashed spirit. Blessing to his memory!”

Long before anyone could know the unspeakable horror to which it would lead, GKC was appalled by the barbarism of the Nazis, and particularly by their anti-Semitism. In 1933 he wrote that a measure of nationalism, understood as patriotism, can be a good thing. “But the racial spirit is a restless spirit; it does not go by frontiers but by the wandering of the blood. . . .

You can have a League of Nations; but you could hardly have a League of Tribes. When the Tribe is on the march, it is apt to forget leagues — not to mention frontiers.” He was among the first to perceive the connections between racial theory, eugenics, anti-Semitism, and the tribal impulse toward Lebensraum. He did not live to see his perception confirmed by World War II and the Holocaust.

Today it is often forgotten how very respectable were eugenics and related racial theories at the beginning of the century. In 1913, Chesterton vigorously attacked the Mental Deficiency Act, which had the strong support of the Church of England. The public committee advocating its passage was headed by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Bishop Barnes of Birmingham was a spokesman on behalf of the Christian case for eugenics, and he proposed: “Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society. . . . When religious people realize that, in preventing the survival of the socially unfit, they are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road, their objections to repressive action will vanish.” Chesterton recoiled with all his being from the notion of a eugenic society, spiritual or otherwise.

On these questions, too, his Catholic spirit was brought to bear. He reveled in the messiness of Catholicism. A significant difference between the Protestant and Catholic ways of being Christian, he suggested, is indicated by the fact that “the Protestant generally says, ‘I am a good Protestant,’ while the Catholic always says, ‘I am a bad Catholic.’“ Near the end of his life, he responded to a letter writer who brought a long list of charges against the Catholic Church, including its tolerance of a vast horde of criminals, prostitutes, and other disreputable types who hang on to its fringes.

True enough, says Chesterton, and an interesting fact it is. “They cannot get the Church’s Sacraments or solid assurances, except by changing their whole way of life; but they do actually love the Faith that they cannot live by. . . . If you explain it by supposing that the Church, though bound to refuse them Absolution where there is not amendment, keeps in touch with them and treats their human dignity rather more sympathetically than does the world, Puritan or Pagan . . . that also probably refers to a real fact. It is one of the facts that convince me most strongly that Catholicism is what it claims to be. After two thousand years of compromises and concordats, with every sort of social system, the Catholic Church has never yet become quite respectable. He still eats and drinks with publicans and sinners.

David Fagerberg and I were both Lutherans who later entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. Unlike Fagerberg, I was not conscious of Chesterton being a major influence in that decision, but perhaps he was by my side on the journey more than I realized. Certainly I look forward to good conversation with him in that inn at the end of the road, over a steak, a pint of ale, and a fine cigar. But, for the purposes of this preliminary reflection, let me leave it to Mr. Fagerberg: “Chesterton said saints are medicines because they are antidotes, claiming the saint restores the world to sanity by exaggerating what the world neglects. 

Chesterton was this author’s antidote: the one who exaggerated things which had been neglected. . . He can feel like a walking overstatement to someone who does not need the elixir, but to someone who does, he is an exact dosage. I have not written this for the purpose that it necessarily have the same effect on anyone else, only to repay my own debt by honoring a friend.” Chesterton is a very good friend to have in the communion of sinners made saints.


Chesterton and the Thereness of It 2 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 22, 2014
Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

Chesterton invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of his own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.

The Chief Idea
Even as a boy, Chesterton says, he had this intuition that any theory or attitude that deadened the experienced wildness of things must, to that extent, be false. “I had a strong inward impulse to revolt. . . . But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this: that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare.”

That was Chesterton the schoolboy. As an old man, shortly before he died in 1936, he wrote about what “I hope is not pompous to call the chief idea of my life. I will not say the doctrine I have always taught, but the doctrine I should always have liked to teach. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.”

Perhaps it is more a sensibility than a doctrine, but anyone who has read much Chesterton knows he taught it, and continues to teach it, with powerful effect. A life lived well is a life lived in response to grace, and from gratitude flows the wildness of wonder enough for an eternity.

He was impatient with the prissy, the proper, the excessively neat. Which no doubt explains in part his affinity for Hilaire Belloc. Pearce tells the delightful story of novelist Henry James paying a visit to GKC, which is interrupted by the arrival of Hilaire Belloc, just back from tramping through Europe and in a typically raucous mood: “Henry James had a name for being subtle; but I think that situation was too subtle for him. I doubt to this day whether he, of all men, did not miss the irony of the best comedy in which he ever played a part. He left America because he loved Europe, and all that was meant by England or France; the gentry, the gallantry, the tradition of lineage and locality, the life that had been lived beneath old portraits in oak-paneled rooms. And there, on the other side of the tea-table, was Europe, was the old thing that made France and England, the posterity of the English squires and the French soldiers; ragged, unshaven, shouting for beer, shameless above all shades of poverty and wealth; sprawling, indifferent, secure. And what looked across at it was still the Puritan refinement of Boston; and the space it looked across was wider than the Atlantic.”

Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were regular and friendly sparring partners in diverse forums, and one encounter produced this from Chesterton: “Shaw’s misunderstanding of Shakespeare arose largely from the fact that he is a Puritan, while Shakespeare was spiritually a Catholic. The former is always screwing himself up to see the truth; the latter is often content that truth is there.” Chesterton was much impressed by the thereness of things, and it had everything to do with his becoming a Catholic.

Before his conversion, he wrote to an Anglican friend: “As you may possibly guess, I want to consider my position about the biggest thing of all, whether I am to be inside it or outside it. I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks so silly, standing all by itself in a field.”

Later, he would write his mother to explain his conversion: “I have thought about you, and all that I owe to you and my father, not only in the way of affection, but of the ideals of honor and freedom and charity and all other good things you always taught me: and I am not conscious of the smallest break or difference in those ideals; but only of a new and necessary way of fighting for them. I think . . . that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity.”

Immediately after Chesterton’s reception into the Church, Belloc wrote him about his own reasons for being Catholic. The words of Belloc are, in tone and substance, surely Chestertonian: “And as to the doubt of the soul, I discover it to be false: a mood, not a conclusion. My conclusion-and that of all men who have ever once seen it — is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

A Good Argument
Today such sentiments might grate against ecumenical sensibilities. As a faithful son of the Church, Chesterton, and I suppose Belloc, would have gone along with the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council which recognizes that, while the Catholic Church is the Church of Jesus Christ most fully and rightly ordered through time, there are many beyond its boundaries who are, whether they know it or not, “truly but imperfectly in communion” with the Catholic Church.

At the same time, I expect he would be impatient with styles of ecumenism that are reduced to niceness and take the edge off “the one fighting form of Christianity.” Not that Chesterton was a quarrelsome person. On the contrary, all testify to his civility and affability in the many disputes he relished. The trouble with a quarrel, he said, is that it interrupts a good argument.

A good argument must be about truth, and ecumenism that is more about negotiating differences than about discovering the truth is not very interesting. I have no doubt that Chesterton would agree with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who writes that our disputing ancestors “were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.”

Also, the alternatives to Catholicism that Chesterton knew were the Church of England and the Methodist chapel, anodyne forms of the faith unsuited to his spirited mind and soul. Were he an American, he might have found his fighting form of the faith in, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Missouri Synod Lutheranism. But there the fights are about such a small and selective part of all the truths in the world. So still today it would likely be the case that Chesterton could settle for nothing less than the capacious trysting place and company of combat that is the Catholic Church.

While he said that tradition is the democracy of the dead, he did not have any use for democratic governance in the Church. The Church is about truth, and truth is necessarily hierarchical. It is a very different matter in the civil realm. There Chesterton was a great democrat, but he didn’t think much of the way democracy worked in aristocracy-ridden England. The problem, he said, is that, while the people get to vote, they don’t get to pose the questions to be voted on. 

If things continue as they are, “There will be less democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much alike that he would not mind choosing them blindfold — and then for a great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.”

As the chief voice of the Distributist League, GKC advocated, with wavering energies throughout his life, an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. He understood himself to be in line with Catholic social teaching, specifically the teaching of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, and tried to be definite about the kind of capitalism that must be opposed.

“When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.’“ He recognized that “capitalism” can mean many different things. “Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas Aquinas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless.”

The ideas of economic distributism were never thoroughly developed, and perhaps could not be. But he relentlessly insisted that there had to be a better way in which ordinary people could take charge of their life and property, or, in the language of contemporary Catholic social teaching, be “the artisans of their own destiny.” 

The impulse of distributism, one might suggest, is to work out more fully the economic implications of the doctrine of subsidiarity-or as the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus puts it, “the subjectivity of society.” Today’s admirers of Chesterton who are also proponents of democratic capitalism tend to forgive him his economic views. In fact, those views may not be so distant as many think from what is rightly affirmed in today’s capitalism, which is notably distant from what Chesterton meant by the term.


Chesterton and the Thereness of It 1 — Fr. Richard Neuhaus 

May 21, 2014
Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.” A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world.

Another page becoming post, as I am cleaning up my site. This is a great combination: Neuhaus & Chesterton. A fairly long piece so I have divided it into three posts.


I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing. These thoughts are brought to mind by Joseph Pearce’s great big new biography, Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius). Mr. Pearce is clearly in love with his subject, so there is nothing here aimed at deflating Chesterton’s reputation, which will no doubt disappoint bien pensant readers for whom a worthy biography must expose the unworthiness of the life examined.

Biography as pathography is all the rage. The same critics might also complain that there is an inordinate amount of direct quotation of Chesterton, but I am inclined to the view that it is perfectly in order when it is Chesterton who is quoted — especially when much of the material is culled from private letters and other sources previously unpublished.

Pearce’s Chesterton is very much the Catholic Chesterton. And, as the title indicates, so is another recent biographical study by David W. Fagerberg, The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis are frequently compared as Christian apologists, and one meets people beyond numbering who were decisively influenced by these writers in their course of conversion.

In the case of Chesterton, however, the conversion is, more often than not it seems, not just to Christianity but to the Catholic Church. The phrase “just to Christianity,” of course, puts one in mind of Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Alan Jacobs of Wheaton College has suggested (“The Second Coming of C. S. Lewis,” FT, November 1994) that there was a certain guile in the “mereness” of Lewis’ Christianity.

Lewis combined the intellectual panache of Oxford and Cambridge with a one-size-fits-all Christianity that required no uncomfortably specific decisions about church, sacraments, and the sometimes embarrassing baggage of the Christian community through time, also known as tradition. I think there is considerable merit in Jacobs’ argument, and it has a great deal to do with why Lewis, unlike Chesterton, is so very popular with Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants.

Chesterton exulted in the specific, the particular, the thus and soness and thereness of things. What others viewed as embarrassments of the Catholic tradition he embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate that something manifestly wrong was, upon closer examination, but the shadow side of something greatly right. 

From childhood on, it seems that Chesterton had a keen appreciation that almost everything could be perceived as being otherwise. That is to say, the way we perceive reality is not abstractly universal but dramatically contingent. The key thing is to see what is there. This understanding is at the heart of his Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, a book that the distinguished Thomist, Etienne Gilson, called one of the greatest ever written on the Angelic Doctor. (I had long been familiar with Gilson’s praise of the book but thought it was in the nature of a courteous aside or maybe a book blurb. Pearce provides the full text of what Gilson said, and his praise of Chesterton’s treatment of Thomas obviously reflects his very considered judgment.)

To say that Chesterton’s reality was dramatically contingent is in no way to suggest that he would have any sympathy for the fashions of postmodernity in which reality is “socially constructed.” Quite the opposite is the case. For Chesterton, the “truth” was never in quotation marks. It was more like Dr. Johnson’s kicking the stone in response to Bishop Berkeley’s philosophical construction of reality. Although in Chesterton’s case it was a matter of being kicked by the stone, by the very thereness of things. From early on, he was aware of the seductive possibilities of being deceived by worlds of our own imaginative creation. Although it is not the point that Pearce is making, this is evident in a passage on Chesterton and homosexuality.

As a schoolboy, Chesterton encountered the usual homoerotic undercurrents, and was fascinated for a time by a fellow who played at being a diabolist. GKC later wrote, “I have since heard that he died; it may be said, I think, that he committed suicide; though he did it with tools of pleasure, not with tools of pain. God help him, I know the road he went; but I have never known or even dared to think what was that place at which he stopped and [so I] refrained.”

We can play at being devils or the Devil’s playmates. It can even be exciting. But it is false and therefore it is deadly. Long before John Paul II and Vaclav Havel popularized the phrase, Chesterton’s was a passion to “live in the truth.” The phrase is but a riff on the words of Jesus, “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” The alternative to being free is to be dead. Chesterton was exuberantly free. And, he would quickly add, he was free because he was bound to be free, being bound by the truth.

The Master of Paradox
To speak of being bound to be free is to indulge a trope that, let it be admitted, Chesterton sometimes overindulged, his beloved paradox. It is no disrespect to note that frequently the Chestertonian paradox does not bear close logical examination, being more verbal sleight of hand than substance.

On the other hand, a man standing on his head and waving his legs, which is Chesterton’s image for a paradox, doesn’t bear close logical examination either. The spectacle, if it means anything at all, is to point to something in the vicinity of the spectacle. But the paradoxical phrase “bound to be free” does stand up to the most rigorous examination, if it is understood that the binding is to the truth. For Chesterton, Christianity, by which he means Catholic Christianity, frees because it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

Paradox, Chesterton insisted, does not obfuscate but illuminates. When praised for his mastery of the paradoxical trope, Chesterton responded that God, not he, is the master of paradox. His friend Maisie Ward explained it this way: “What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God’s infinity and the limitations of the world and of man’s mind. To us limited human beings God can express His idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a greater truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden or incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we will not do it we shall miss a great deal of truth.” Chesterton’s discovery was that Catholicism is large enough and various enough to accommodate all the paradoxical combinations by which the fullness of truth is revealed. The Church is, he said in a typically fetching formulation, “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”

A trysting place is where lovers meet, and Chesterton’s was a lifelong affair with the truth that has entered into liaison with all the truths in the world. But to pull this off you have to actually live in the trysting place, which means to live in the truth, which means to live in Christ, which means to live in the Church that is the presence of Christ through time. The Church, he asserted, is ever so much larger from the inside than from the outside. To the modern mind and its notion of freedom, becoming a Catholic was to enter into an obedience that narrowed one’s horizons.

Chesterton contended that precisely the opposite is the case. Obedience (from the Latin obedire) means responsive listening, and the invitation of the Church is an invitation to the high road of freedom. How could there be anything confining about listening and responding to an invitation to dance with all the truths in the world? Obedience, for Chesterton, is not a matter of closing down one’s critical faculties but of putting them in proper order. Doctrine and dogma provide a framework for intellectual inquiry that is otherwise random, impulsive, and idiosyncratic. “To become a Catholic,” he wrote, “is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.”

David Fagerberg treats insightfully the ways in which those who resist entering into the trysting place of Christ and his Church often seem to be fearful of a closed and confining space. One might say they are claustrophobic. Fagerberg agrees with Chesterton, however, in suggesting that the more common phenomenon is that people resist because they are agoraphobic. They are afraid of the wide-open public spaces that freedom calls home. The Catholic Church does not so much provide a refuge and resting place as it launches one into all the worlds — spiritual, mystical, intellectual, historical — that are engaged by all the truths in the world. Faith as adventure is at the heart of Chesterton’s exuberance.

Chesterton surely understood that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, but his characteristic accent was on the wildness in God’s mercy. If you are living in the truth, you can with defiant, almost swashbuckling, confidence take on all comers. James Joyce, not the most orthodox of Catholics, said the Catholic Church is Here Comes Everybody. I don’t know if Chesterton ever commented on that way of putting it, but my hunch is that he would have rather liked it. A church that is not marked by paradox, that trims history and the excesses of life and thought to fit its preferences — in short, a church that is not wild — could not be the trysting place of all the truths in the world.



Jesus of Nazareth: The Book by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

May 16, 2012

The unknowing reader might at first think that Jesus of Nazareth is coauthored. At the top of the dust jacket is “Joseph Ratzinger.” Then, directly below it, in much larger type, “Pope Benedict XVI.” Perhaps it was, in the manner of many books, written by the pope “with the assistance” of Joseph Ratzinger. But of course that is not the case. The book, we are told, has undergone a “long gestation.”

Most of it was written by Joseph Ratzinger when he was Joseph Ratzinger, and he says that, since becoming Benedict XVI, “I have used every free moment to make progress on the book.” As it is, Jesus of Nazareth is Part I of a larger project. It is the story of Jesus from his baptism in the Jordan to Peter’s confession of faith and the Transfiguration. Part II, including the infancy narratives, may or may not come later [It has. DJ], “As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given.”

We [First Things] are very pleased to have published the review of Jesus of Nazareth by Richard Hays, the distinguished professor of New Testament at Duke University. It is, I believe, the very model of what a book review should be. It tells what the book is about, respectfully engages its arguments, and sets forth in an accessible way both its strengths and weaknesses. I expect the pope was pleased with Mr. Hays’ sympathetically critical treatment of the book. But, of course, and as always, there is more to be said.

Initial reports that the pope was going to publish the book emphasized the novelty of the idea. One British paper excitedly reported that the pope was declaring that he is not infallible. And indeed he writes: “It goes without saying that this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but it is solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of Jesus.’ Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial goodwill without which there can be no understanding.” It also goes without saying — although the pope has just said it — that this book has nothing to do with infallibility, which is a very precise and narrowly defined exercise of teaching authority that ensures that the Church will never require anyone to believe what is false.

Nor is it unprecedented for a pope to publish a book that claims no magisterial authority. One thinks, for instance, of John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope and Memory and Identity, the former, like the present book, being an international bestseller. Some popes are undeniably prolific. Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903, issued eighty-five encyclicals, plus hundreds of pastoral letters, bulls, and other documents. But it is true that in the past two centuries popes tended to be seen as rather remote figures who spoke in public seldom and then in the mode of magisterial authority. That changed dramatically with John Paul II, and Benedict is obviously following in his steps, and indeed going further. He has, for example, engaged in extended Q & A sessions in public gatherings.

The complaint is heard that John Paul, and now Benedict, are expanding papal authority and hogging the public spotlight, making the pope the teacher of the Church. Who listens to their bishop when they can listen to the pope? The same voices once complained that the papacy needed to be “humanized” and “personalized” rather than presenting itself as an oracle issuing occasional pronunciamentos from on high. There is no pleasing some people.

A Living Relationship
As to why he published Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict says, “It struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and the message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growth of a living relationship with him.” The entire book is marked by this sense of urgency. It is not so much another book about Jesus as it is an invitation to follow him in the adventure of discipleship. Of course it is also about Jesus and is supported by the scholarship pertinent to historical facts and the development of the Church’s understanding of his person, message, and mission. Although, as Richard Hays respectfully noted, some of the scholarship is rather dated.

Of the writing of books about Jesus there is no end. I don’t know whether Benedict had in mind and seeks to counter fabrications such as The Da Vinci Code and its predecessors and imitators, but it seems more than likely. I see Garry Wills has a new book out, What Jesus Meant. It purports to explain what Jesus meant to say and no doubt would have said had he the advantage of being Garry Wills. While Wills and likeminded authors depict a Jesus in radical discontinuity with the Church’s teaching, Benedict — convincingly, if not surprisingly — makes the case that, from the beginning and on all the really big questions, the Church got it right.

Benedict is taken with Jacob Neusner’s little book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. In many ways, Benedict acknowledges, Jesus disappointed some messianic expectations. “What did Jesus actually bring,” Benedict asks, “if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?” “The answer is very simple: He brought God.” He continues:

 He brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance, gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature — the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth. . . . Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origins and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of the hardness of hearts that we think this is too little.

He is the “Christ,” meaning the Messiah. Since the title “made little sense outside of Semitic culture,” it was “joined with the name of Jesus: Jesus Christ. What began as an interpretation ended up as a name, and therein lies a deeper message: He is completely one with his office; his task and his person are totally inseparable from each other.” “In the end,” writes Benedict, “man needs just one thing, in which everything else is included; but he must first delve beyond his superficial wishes and longings in order to recognize what it is that he truly needs and truly wants. He needs God. And so we now realize what ultimately lies behind all the Johannine images: Jesus gives us ‘life’ because he gives us God.

It is frequently claimed, Benedict writes, that the teachings of Jesus, especially in the Beatitudes, represent “the Christian ethics that is supposedly superior to the commands of the Old Testament.” This, he says, is wrong, since “Jesus always presupposed the validity of the Ten Commandments” and explicitly said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Running throughout Jesus of Nazareth is a powerful anti-Marcionite insistence upon the inseparability of the Old and New Testaments. The German biblical scholar H. Gese is favorably quoted: “Jesus himself has become the divine word of revelation. The gospels could not illustrate it any more clearly or powerfully: Jesus himself is the Torah.”

In his “talk” with Jesus, Rabbi Neusner poses the question: What of the law and the prophets did Jesus leave out? The answer is “Nothing.” So what then did he add? The answer is “Himself.” To which Benedict adds, “Perfection, the state of being holy as God is holy as demanded by the Torah, now consists in following Jesus.”

Agreeing with Neusner, Benedict underscores that the crucial decision is in response to the question, Who is Jesus? Echoing Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the Church, Benedict writes: “Jesus has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God. He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world. This universality, this faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . is what proves him to be the Messiah.”

As an aside, Benedict takes exception to the now common use of the Tetragrammaton (“I am who I am”), the name of God given to Moses. This, he says, is who God is without qualification. “The Israelites therefore were perfectly right in refusing to utter this self-designation of God, expressed in the word YHWH, so as to avoid degrading it to the level of the names of pagan deities. By the same token, recent Bible translations were wrong to write out this name . . . as if it were just any old name. By doing so, they have dragged the mystery of God, which cannot be captured in images or in names that lips can utter, down to the level of some familiar item within a common history of religions.”

Benedict returns to the Jewish-Christian connection in his treatment of the parable of the prodigal son, which he prefers to call the parable of the two sons. A conventional interpretation is that the elder brother represents the Jews. In the parable, the father says to the elder brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” In this way, writes Benedict, “the father not only does not dispute the older brother’s fidelity but explicitly confirms his sonship.” Thus “it would be a false interpretation to read this as a condemnation of the Jews,” writes Benedict.

At the same time, there are those, both Jews and non-Jews, for whom “more than anything else, God is Law; they see themselves in a juridical relationship with God and in that relationship they are at rights with him. But God is greater: They need to convert from the Law-God to the greater God, the God of love. . . . In this parable, then, the Father through Christ is addressing us, the ones who never left home, encouraging us, too, to convert truly and to find joy in our faith.” This is a delicate treatment of a delicate subject. Christians who affirm the universality of the mission of Christ cannot help but hope that all people, including Jews, will accept him as the promised Messiah. At the same time, one is somewhat surprised to find in the foregoing passage traces of the idea that Judaism is a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of love. That is an idea that is apparently rejected elsewhere in the book.

Jesus of Nazareth is indisputably a scholarly work, although a scholarly work that is readily accessible to the general reader. Benedict at several points addresses the problems associated with contemporary biblical scholarship. A purely historical approach to individual texts cannot recognize the Bible as the Bible, the book of the Church. Such a method “can intuit something of the ‘deeper value’ the words contain. It can in some sense catch the sounds of a higher dimension through the human word, and so open up the method to self-transcendence.

But its specific object is the human word as human.” “We have to keep in mind the limits of all efforts to know the past: We can never go beyond the domain of the hypothesis, because we simply cannot bring the past into the present.” Therefore, we must go beyond the historical-critical method to recognize that these texts constitute the one Scripture that speaks with a living voice and is to be understood by “taking account of the living tradition of the whole Church and of the analogy of faith (the intrinsic correspondence with the faith).”

An “Anonymous Community”
While recognizing the limits of much biblical scholarship, Benedict regularly invokes its practitioners, either to agree or disagree with them. In one paragraph, for instance, we encounter Peter Stuhlmacher, Martin Hengel, E. Ruckstuhl, and P. Dschulnigg. (German is, after all, the pope’s first language.) Many scholars claim that the high Christology to be found in, for instance, John’s gospel is the construction of the early community trying to make sense of their experience of Jesus. Benedict is skeptical. “The anonymous community,” he writes, “is credited with an astonishing level of theological genius — who were the great figures responsible for inventing all this?

No, the greatness, the dramatic newness, comes directly from Jesus; within the faith and life of the community it is further developed, but is not created. In fact, the ‘community’ would not even have emerged and survived at all unless some extraordinary reality had preceded it.” On question after question, critical biblical scholarship turns out to offer little more than “a graveyard of mutually contradictory hypotheses.” But as I said, while he recognizes the severe limits of such scholarship, Benedict nonetheless employs its findings and suppositions in advancing his argument.

Benedict does not mention by name Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose work he has elsewhere praised very highly, but one suspects Balthasar’s presence, if only to disagree with him, in the treatment of Christ’s descent into hell. There is this, for example, on the baptism of Jesus: “Jesus’ baptism, then, is understood as a repetition of the whole of history, which recapitulates the past and anticipates the future. His entering into the sin of others is a descent into the ‘inferno.’ . . . He goes down in the role of one whose suffering-with-others is a transforming suffering that turns the underworld around, knocking down and flinging open the gates of the abyss.”

And there is this: “The Apostles’ Creed speaks of Jesus’ descent ‘into hell.’ This descent not only took place in and after his death but accompanies him along his entire journey. He must recapitulate the whole of history from its beginnings — from Adam on; he must go through, suffer through, the whole of it, in order to transform it.” And again: “Thus it is not only after his death, but already by his death and during his whole life, that Jesus ‘descends into hell,’ as it were, into the domain of our temptations and defeats, in order to take us by the hand and carry us upward.” While employing aspects of its rhetorical force, Benedict distances himself from Balthasar’s contention that, in his descent, Jesus experienced the hell of the damned.

A striking feature of the book is the author’s delight in tackling biblical passages that strike many as strange, if not contradictory. He notes, for instance, that the “Good Shepherd” text of John 10 does not begin with “I am the good shepherd” but with another image, that of the door. “He who does not enter the sheep-fold by the door but climbs in by another way is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.” Then Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep.” How to understand this? Benedict answers: “This can only really mean that Jesus is establishing the criterion for those who will shepherd his flock after his ascension to the Father. The proof of a true shepherd is that he enters through Jesus as the door. For in this way it is ultimately Jesus who is the shepherd — the flock ‘belongs’ to him alone.”

Or consider Luke 9:18, where we read, “As he was praying alone, the disciples were with him.” That is, says Benedict, a “deliberate paradox.” “The disciples are drawn into his solitude, his communion with the Father that is reserved to him alone. They are privileged to see him as the one who . . . speaks face-to-face with the Father, person to person. They are privileged to see him in his utterly unique filial being — at the point from which all his words, his deeds, and his powers issue.”

In his treatment of these and other passages, Benedict follows the pattern of the early Church Fathers. Nothing in the biblical text is accidental or out of place; every passage, every word, has its purpose. While his book does not address in detail the question of scriptural inspiration, the presupposition of divine direction is evident in every page.

As I said, the review by Richard Hays in the last issue is, in my judgment, altogether admirable and quite the best that I have seen anywhere. The foregoing reflection is simply intended to lift up additional aspects of the book, in the hope that it will encourage others to read it with the care that it deserves. Jesus of Nazareth is not, as the author himself takes pains to underscore, the last word on the subject. But it is a greatly needed word in a time when mass audiences are titillated by fanciful fabrications about the discovery of “the real Jesus.” The last word on the Word will be spoken when there is a final answer to the last words of the Bible, “Come, Lord Jesus.”


Reading Selections from The Persistence of the Catholic Moment by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

November 3, 2010

A familiar pose

The Persistence of the Catholic Moment by Richard John Neuhaus was originally printed in the February 2003 issue of First Things. It came to me as I was preparing it as a reading selection for Paying Attention To The Sky, that this article encapsulates much of what Fr. Neuhaus’ public ministry was.  One of my problems as a Catholic convert has been to figure out the lay of the land in the politics of the Catholic Church. I can’t imagine a better summation of that than what is written here.

Being an ecclesial Christian seemed to be part of what being Catholic was but more of my fellow Catholics seemed to define themselves in ways I could not fathom. On the one side was Church teaching and on the other was a group who adamantly seemed to say “No, no, that’s not what it means…” I had to learn to take care navigating the scholarship and personal opinions of people like Luke Timothy Johnson or Garry Wills.

This article is eight years old but I wish I had had it four years ago when my journey to become Catholic began.

The Catholic Moment
In 1987, while I was still a Lutheran, I published a book titled The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World. There I argued that the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this was, I contended, the Catholic Moment. I am frequently asked whether I still believe that, or whether the Moment has been missed, or derailed, or simply delayed. The short answer is: If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be — and about that I have no doubt — then every moment from Pentecost to Our Lord’s return in glory is the Catholic Moment. But the degree to which that Moment is realized in the little span of time that is ours depends on whether contemporary Catholicism has the nerve to be fully and distinctively Catholic.

Being Catholic
To be Catholic is not a private preference but a matter of ordering one’s loves and loyalties to the very public communal reality that is the Catholic Church.
For others, religion may be what a person does with his solitude, or what people do together with their solitudes, but Catholicism is a corporate reality. It is what Catholics used to call a “perfect society” within the imperfect societies of the world, or what Vatican II, with essentially the same intention, calls the People of God. It understands itself to be an apostolically constituted community, and its distinguishing mark is communion with the Bishop of Rome who, alone of religious leaders in the world — and this is a matter of the greatest symbolic and practical significance — is not a citizen or subject of any temporal sovereignty.

Catholicism In The Public Square
It is suggested by some that the public influence of Catholicism has been greatly weakened, not least by the scandals of the past year. The question of Catholicism in the public square, however, is not — at least not chiefly — the question of Catholic influence in social change or public policy, never mind electoral politics. Catholicism in the public square is a matter of being, fully and vibrantly, the public community that is the Catholic Church. More than by recent scandals, Catholicism in the public square is weakened by its gradual but certain sociological accommodation to a Protestant ethos — also in its secularized forms — that construes religion in terms of consumer preference and voluntary associations in support of those preferences. It is weakened also by what is aptly called the totalitarian impulse of the modern state — including democratic states — to monopolize public space and consign religion to the private sphere, thus producing what I have called the naked public square.

The second dynamic is evident on several fronts, and is now at crisis level in Catholic education, especially higher education, and in health care. At issue is the freedom of the Church to govern herself. It is not enough that there be a flourishing network of voluntary associations called Catholic parishes confined to doing religious things on Sunday morning and other appointed times. That is not what the Second Vatican Council meant by the apostolically constituted public society called the People of God. The great Catholic battle of the modern era has been for libertas ecclesiae – the liberty of the Church to govern herself. In America today, for reasons both internal and external to the life of the Church, that battle is being lost on some fronts.

Catholicism Is Flourishing
In many ways, Catholicism in America is flourishing. It is far and away the fastest growing religious community in the country, with almost 200,000 adult converts per year, and patterns of immigration and youthful adherence that will likely expand its numbers far beyond the present sixty-three million. Contrary to the fears of some, and the hopes of others, there is no evidence that the events of the past year will impede this growth. In this country and worldwide, the two most vibrant and growing sectors of the two billion-plus Christian movement are Catholicism and evangelical/pentecostal Protestantism. John Paul II speaks of the new millennium as a “springtime of evangelization,” and there is reason to believe that is much more than wishful thinking.

In this country and elsewhere, we witness the beginnings of historic convergences between Catholics and evangelicals. Such cultural and moral convergences are not without political consequences, but more important are the spiritual and theological convergences that could reshape the Christian reality in the century ahead. (In this connection, I warmly recommend a careful reading of Philip Jenkins’ recent book, The Next Christendom.) So Catholicism is flourishing. The question is, with specific reference to America, how and in what ways will Catholicism be vibrantly, or even recognizably, Catholic?

Liberal Catholicism
Three years ago, marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Commonweal magazine, its former editor Peter Steinfels wrote an article that is, I believe, both wise and courageous, “Reinventing Liberal Catholicism: Between Powerful Enemies and Dubious Allies.” Since the dawn of modernity, said Steinfels, liberal Catholicism has been marked by several characteristics: a devotion to libertas ecclesiae; an eagerness to critically engage the culture; an understanding that the Church is in history and therefore necessarily involved in change and development; a devotion to unfettered intellectual inquiry; a recognition of the integrity and autonomy of distinct spheres of human activity; and an interest in reforming the structures of the Church in support of her apostolic mission through time. Heroes of this liberal Catholicism, according to Steinfels, are such as John Henry Newman and Jacques Maritain. If this depiction of liberal Catholicism is accurate, we should all want to call ourselves liberal Catholics. Which is another way of saying that, although Mr. Steinfels and others may have problems with this, we should be John Paul II Catholics.

Liberal Catholics, says Steinfels, have been riding high since the Council; they have largely defined what is meant by the post-Vatican II Church. But now they are facing the “powerful enemies” mentioned in his subtitle, and, in this pontificate, liberal Catholics are viewed as suspect by Rome. “The most obvious and fundamental working difference between these [enemy] groups and liberal Catholics,” he writes, “turns on the possibility that the pope, despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit, might be subject to tragic error. Liberal Catholics believe that this possibility, which all Catholics recognize as historical fact, did not conveniently disappear at some point in the distant past, like 1950, but was probably the case in the 1968 issuance of Humanae Vitae and cannot be ruled out in the refusal of ordination to women.”

To which this liberal Catholic (as defined above) responds that of course this pope can and has made mistakes. But what is now called liberal Catholicism is besieged and suspect because of its refusal to honestly receive the teachings of Vatican II as authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium, and not least by the pontificate of John Paul II. Liberal Catholics joined with what Steinfels calls their “dubious allies” on the left in claiming that Vatican II called for a revolution, and they acted accordingly. It is now obvious that it was a revolution that was not to be.

Vatican II And The Catholic Left
The now failing revolution predictably provoked reactions of retrenchment, resulting in the toxic discontents of both right and left in American Catholicism. What has not been received, what has not been embraced, what has not been internalized, what has not been tried is the bold proposal of renewal and reform advanced by John Paul II. Although the future of the proposal is uncertain, those bishops who have in recent months been calling for a plenary council in the United States to solemnly receive the Second Vatican Council and its authoritative interpretation are, it seems to me, exactly right. The way forward is the way of the Council that was and is. Thirty-seven years is enough, and more than enough, of bitter contention over the imagined Vatican II of leftist enthusiasms and rightist fears.

For decades, the Catholic left has called for a Vatican Council III to “complete” the work of Vatican II. Others on the left, such as Garry Wills, dissent from that call, claiming that Vatican II put the teaching Magisterium out of business once and for all, “diffusing” ecclesial authority throughout the Spirit-guided private opinions of the People of God. This move is implausibly presented as what is meant by the sensus fidelium.

The burden of Steinfels’ argument is that liberal Catholicism made a great mistake since the Council in not distinguishing itself and, when necessary, separating itself, from its “dubious allies” of the Catholic left. Turning from its intellectual and theological tasks, liberalism got bogged down in the canonical litany of leftist complaints about contraception, homosexuality, women’s ordination, and clerical celibacy, along with endless agitations aimed at “power sharing” in church government — and all of these linked to the larger question of papal teaching authority. Moreover, sectors of the Catholic left became increasingly part of a political and cultural left that is increasingly secularist and post-Christian, and even explicitly anti-Christian. Liberal Catholics, says Steinfels, should have made it clear that, in very important respects, these dubious allies of the Catholic left were not allies at all.

The association with the Catholic left created, he wrote, a crisis of irony, a crisis of intellect, and a crisis of inclusiveness. The absence of irony and historical perspective led to fanaticism and a sectarian spirit. The refusal to make serious arguments nurtured anti-intellectualism and an emphasis on an ever-expanding inclusiveness which emphatically excluded those not of like mind and resulted in a loss of Catholic identity. The Catholic left, he says, has no patience with liberalism’s devotion to “compromise, incrementalism, or extended analysis and debate.” “The Catholic left,” he writes, “is an offspring of liberal Catholicism, but is rooted in the dramatic appeals and confrontations of the 1960s” rather than the liberal, and mainly European, tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But so smugly triumphalistic were liberals following the Council, while at the same time — and somewhat contradictorily — so fearful of their powerful enemies on the right, that few were, and few are, prepared to challenge the dubious alliance with the Catholic left. The old maxim applied: the enemy of my enemies . . .

Steinfels point about Catholic identity is of particular importance. One has waited for a long time for a persuasive answer to the question of why, if the canonical litany of left-liberal demands were met, Catholicism would not be very much like old-line liberal Protestantism. Perhaps like the Episcopal Church, except very much bigger and with shabbier liturgical practices. The Catholic left has little interest in, or capacity for, addressing the question of what makes Catholicism distinctively Catholic, and liberal Catholics have not called them to account on that score. With respect to Catholic identity, Steinfels writes, the attitude on the left takes the form of the question, “Isn’t [the question of what is authentically Catholic], after all, a task we can leave to church authorities, whom we will then feel free to criticize?”

Cradle Catholics And Ecclesiastical Fundamentalism
There is among cradle Catholics of a left-liberal bent — and perhaps this is more evident to those who come into the Church later in life — an astonishing insouciance about the solidity and perdurance of Catholicism. Catholic identity, what makes Catholicism Catholic, is a question that will take care of itself or is somebody else’s worry. It is not our job, they seem to be saying, to maintain the ecclesiastical playground in which we pursue our deconstructive games. This apparent insouciance may be a form of unshakable faith in the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail. But I think not.

Rather, it seems to me, this insouciance — or to call it by another name, this recklessness — reflects an ecclesiastical fundamentalism that is akin to the Bible fundamentalism of some other Christians. It is indifferent to the incarnational reality of a Church subject to the trials, testings, distortions, inspirations, and mistakes of history. I do believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church, but the ravages of the reckless confidence that no serious harm is done by unbounded criticism, conflict, and contradiction should not be ignored. There is the harm of souls misled — and possibly lost — of intellectual and artistic traditions trashed, and of innumerable persons denied the high adventure of Catholic fidelity.

Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne
I recently had occasion to reread Jacques Maritain’s The Peasant of the Garonne, a book written in the months immediately following the conclusion of Vatican II in December 1965. Critics at the time called it a cranky book of disillusioned hopes, and there is truth in that; but it is also a stunningly prescient book that recognized what might be termed the hijacking of liberal Catholicism and its long-term consequences. As a liberal, Maritain had no illusions about what came to be called “the pre-Vatican II church.” He knows about the anti-intellectualism, the suspicion of scholarship and science, and the stifling juridicalism of disciplinary measures. “All this,” he writes, “was going to build up, in the unconscious of a great many Christians, clerics and laymen, an enormous weight of frustration, disillusionment, repressed doubts, resentment, bitterness, healthy desires sacrificed, with all the anxieties and pent-up aspirations of the unhappy conscience.

Comes the aggiornamento. Why be astonished that at the very announcement of a Council, then in the surrounding of it, and now after it, the enormous unconscious weight which I have just mentioned burst into the open in a kind of explosion that does no honor to the human intelligence?” The explosive reaction to the earlier repression, says Maritain, resulted in interpretations of the Council marked by a “kneeling to the world.” He leaves no doubt that he believes these interpretations are, in fact, misinterpretations — sometimes innocent, sometimes deliberate. As for the Council itself, it “appears as an island guarded by the Spirit of God in the middle of a stormy ocean that is overturning everything, the true and the false.”

Humanae Vitae
The storm and its aftermath were powerfully evident a few years later in events surrounding Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical on human sexuality. That moment marks, among other things, the point at which bishops largely — albeit in most cases inadvertently — surrendered their role as teachers.
An orchestrated campaign of theologians and other academics publicly rejected a solemn magisterial pronouncement on faith and morals, and the world held its breath to see what would happen. A few bishops tried to impose discipline, but they were not supported by Rome, and the result was that nothing happened. Except that it was now established in the minds of many that the Church pretends to teach with authority, but bishops, theologians, priests, and the faithful are free to ignore what is taught.

Humanae Vitae, it is important to underscore, does not stand alone. The teaching that the conjugal act of love should be open to new life and not be negated by contraceptive means is deeply rooted in centuries of tradition. Humanae Vitae reaffirmed that tradition, as did Pius XI when it was first thrown into question in 1930, and as has every pontificate since then. There is, I would suggest, no new argument that has not been addressed in papal teaching. It is true but entirely beside the point that most Catholics do not adhere to the teaching; most Catholics have never had the teaching explained to them in a manner that invites their assent. It is simply not plausible that liberal Catholics such as Newman and Maritain would not affirm that this teaching of the Church is binding upon the Catholic conscience.

Critiques of liberal Catholicism — where it went wrong and how it might be set right — such as that offered by Peter Steinfels are to be warmly welcomed. The concern for Catholic identity is on the mark, but I suggest that no identity is recognizably Catholic if it skirts the question of obedience. Here, too, we need the intellectual honesty and civil discussion for which Steinfels calls.

We need to revive what Newman called the “grammar of assent” in recognizing that, on controverted questions such as artificial contraception and the Church’s inability to ordain women, the Church calls for the obedience of external and internal assent. I know that intellectual obedience is a scandalous idea in our time. And not only in our time, for it has been a stumbling block to many over the centuries. What is sometimes called “ecclesial faith,” as distinct from “divine faith” or “religious submission,” is an inseparable part of what it means to be Catholic, of what it means for our loves and allegiances to be rightly ordered. Contrary to modern doctrines of autonomy, there is nothing demeaning about obedience. The word is from the Latin ob-audire and means “to give ear to, to listen to, to follow guidance.”

The Relationship Between Freedom And Faith
Accepting full intellectual and moral responsibility for his decision, the Catholic decides who to listen to, who to follow, and, come the crunch, to whom to submit. The Catholic believes that, in the apostolically constituted community of faith, the Bishop of Rome is Peter among us. The Catholic believes that the words of Jesus, “He who hears you hears me,” have abiding historical applicability until the end of time. The bishops teaching “with and under” Peter can teach infallibly. Infallibility means that the fullness of apostolic authority will never be invoked to require us to believe anything that is false. The relationship between freedom and faith is set forth in Vatican IIs Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

It is only in freedom, however, that human beings can turn to what is good, and our contemporaries are right in highly praising and assiduously pursuing such freedom, although often they do so in wrong ways as if it gave a license to do anything one pleases, even evil. Genuine freedom is an outstanding sign of the divine image in human beings. . . . Human dignity demands that the individual act according to a knowing and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure.

I may not understand an authoritative teaching of the Magisterium, I may have difficulties with a teaching, but, as Newman understood, a thousand difficulties do not add up to a doubt, never mind a rejection. I may think a teaching is inadequately expressed, and pray and work for its more adequate expression in the future. But, given a decision between what I think the Church should teach and what the Church in fact does teach, I decide for the Church. I decide freely and rationally — because God has promised the apostolic leadership of the Church guidance and charisms that He has not promised me; because I think the Magisterium just may understand some things that I don’t; because I know for sure that, in the larger picture of history, the witness of the Catholic Church is immeasurably more important than anything I might think or say. In short, I obey. The nuances of such obedience, of what is meant by “thinking with the Church” (sentire cum ecclesia), are admirably spelled out in the 1990 instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian.” It is an instruction that can be read with enormous benefit also by those who are not professional theologians. My point is this: Liberal Catholicism cannot be reinvented, it cannot be rehabilitated, it will not be vibrantly Catholic, until it candidly and convincingly comes to terms with obedience.

Freedom And Truth
The great question, a question that has ramifications that go far beyond assent to Catholic teaching, is the relationship between freedom and obedience — or, more precisely, between freedom and truth. The question includes ecclesial obedience to the truth, as Catholics believe the truth is made known. We are bound by the truth, and when we are bound by the truth, we are bound to be free. The relationship between truth and freedom is as true for non-Catholics or, indeed, for non-Christians as it is true for Catholics, as is magnificently argued by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).

What went wrong with aspects of liberal Catholicism has its roots in what went wrong long before the 1960s. What went wrong was the submission to an Enlightenment or rationalist tradition — found also in a romanticism that too often mirrored what it intended to counter — of the autonomous self. Still today there is a liberal Catholic reflex, shared by secular liberalism, against the very ideas of authority, obedience, and the truth that binds. The Catholic insight about human freedom, an insight that we dare to say has universal applicability, is that we are bound to be free. The truth, in order to be understood, must be loved, and love binds. And so also with the apostolic community that embodies and articulates the truth.

Coming to terms with the question of obedience means coming to terms with the one who said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” The modern regime of secular liberalism adopted the slogan “The truth will make you free,” but pitted it against the one who is the truth. More radically, it pitted truth and freedom against any authoritative statement of truth, and against authority itself. The liberal ideal was that of the autonomous, untethered, unencumbered self. The consequence of that impossible ideal is conformism to the delusion of autonomy or, as the history of the last century so tragically demonstrates, blind submission to totalitarian doctrines that present themselves as surrogates for the truth that makes us free.

The “Dubious Ally”
The “dubious ally” that has done in liberal Catholicism again and again is the conceptual regime of secular liberalism, and its misconstrual of the connection between freedom and truth. The result is liberal Catholics who insist that they belong —  “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”  – but it is a belonging without being bound. Let it be admitted that this is true of all of us — in different ways, and to a greater or lesser extent. There is perhaps no greater obstacle to our entering upon the high adventure of Catholic fidelity than modernity’s perverse idea of freedom, an idea that we breathe with the cultural air that surrounds us. And there is important truth in the maxim “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” The baptism by which we are indelibly marked is an abiding bond, and a magnetic force drawing us always toward the completeness of the conversion to which we are called. That conversion is perfected in obedience to the truth that freedom is discovered in obedience to the truth. For the Catholic, such obedience can in no way be separated from the community that St. Paul describes as “the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Will Catholicism Be Catholic?
And so I end where I began. The question is whether Catholicism will be Catholic. The historical and sociological dynamics to which I alluded earlier have led to a serious unraveling, an unraveling gleefully celebrated and encouraged by the Catholic left. Liberal Catholicism, rightly understood, is an honorable tradition and could today be a source of renewal, but that depends upon its capacity and readiness to receive the invitation — an invitation so powerfully and persistently issued by this pontificate — to enter upon the high adventure of fidelity to the truth.

At the end of his aforementioned essay, Peter Steinfels lists five developments the Church must address in the new millennium: human sexuality, technological control over genes and minds, relations among world religions, changes in historical consciousness and cultural pluralism, and the meaning of individual freedom and democracy. Through encyclicals and other teaching documents, John Paul II has for twenty-four years, in obedience to the spirit and the letter of Vatican II, addressed each of those questions comprehensively, repeatedly, with formidable intelligence and persuasive force. But, with notable exceptions, his witness has not been received. Not by bishops, not by priests, not by catechists, not by traditionalists who think Vatican II was a mistake, and not by liberal Catholics who incessantly pit Vatican II against the living Magisterium of the Church.

We very much need bishops who are teachers of the fullness of the faith. Perhaps God has given us the bishops we have in order to test our faith, but we know that the purpose of the episcopal office is not limited to providing spiritual trials, as salutary as spiritual trials may be. Above all, and this applies to all, we need a conversion to ob-audire — to responsive listening, to lively engagement, to trustful following, to the form of reflective faith that is obedience. The word went forth from the Second Vatican Council, and I believe in the promise of Isaiah 55 that “the word shall not return void.”

After more than three decades of confusion, contention, and conflicts that have long since become a bore to serious people, we are perhaps on the edge of genuinely receiving the Council and the living Magisterium of which the Council is part; the living Magisterium apart from which there would be no Council, apart from which the Council cannot be rightly understood. If so, the Catholicism that is flourishing now and will likely flourish in the future will be believably and vibrantly Catholic. If so, the consequences for the Christian movement in world history are inestimable. I believe this could happen. In fact, were I writing a book about this promise and possibility, I might very well borrow a title from myself and call it The Catholic Moment.


He Is Not Here by George William Rutler

October 29, 2010

Richard John Neuhaus

A homily was delivered by Father George William Rutler at the Mass for the Repose of the Soul of Richard John Neuhaus at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 8, 2010. Came across it the other day and it reminded me of the hole in my heart.

The past year has not been abundant with fortune for the world or our nation — which made it precisely a time when one ached for commentary from Richard John Neuhaus. We waited, by an instinct that thought he would reply quickly. But there was an uncharacteristic silence. Gradually we realized through the tutorship of time that all his words in this world had been spoken. We can only surmise what he would have said when engaging the follies and faithlessness of our late culture.

His attentions are different now and, confident of an eternal life beyond all the ups and downs of the present, he can claim the epitaph of another man of letters, Benjamin Franklin, who likened his body to the cover of an old book with contents torn out and “stripped of its lettering and gilding” but which he believed would “appear once more in a new and more elegant edition revised and corrected by the Author.”

In the course of the hot and rancid days of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wondered whether the half-sun carved on Washington’s chair was rising or setting. Father Neuhaus, believing that Franklin was right when he decided it was rising, did everything in his own generation to keep it high. With a perspective longer than the great Franklin’s, he also remembered that day on the Emmaus road when the sun and hope itself seemed to be declining forever. Christ appeared as the sun himself, and the bewildered men on that road recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

Tonight the risen Christ is offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of Richard John Neuhaus, and many gathered here discern Christ more clearly because of how we discerned him in Richard. Christ’s Eucharist is death and resurrection together. Father Neuhaus said to me nonchalantly on the telephone one day: “All of us are dying.” At first I thought he was belaboring the obvious, but soon I learned that it was his way of telling me with crafted delicacy that he had only a few weeks to live. He had already taken the temperature of mortality in his book, As I Lay Dying, in which he said, “I believe that one learns to die, not by philosophizing, but by dying.” In the graceful way he died, he made his own body, stripped of its letters and gilding, an elegant second edition which we should call As I Lay Rising.

It was only a month before his own death that he came to this cathedral in physical pain, and grief no less hard, for the funeral of Cardinal Dulles. The mental and spiritual bond between Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus had a creative power that strengthened the Church. Risking gross simile and exaggeration of parallels in their respective chronicles, the contemplative reserve of Dulles and the social activity of Neuhaus, may remind us of Newman and Manning. But those contrasting Victorians, in sepia daguerreotype, were too great to fit comfortably in one room, while Dulles and Neuhaus, in the vivid color of our living memory, were each other’s strength, and enlarged the space they occupied.

Not far from eternal borders himself, Manning said at the funeral of one he loved more than liked, what we could say of our late friend, and no less of his own friend: “Who could doubt that the great multitude of his personal friends in the first half of his life, and the still greater multitude of those who have been instructed, consoled, and won to God by the unequalled beauty and irresistible persuasion of his writings — who could doubt that they, at such a time as this, would pour out the love and gratitude of their hearts.”

Christ disclosed himself on the Emmaus road only after he had opened the Scriptures and taught, for Christ the Priest is also Christ the Teacher, and it was that economy which made many of those who knew Richard Neuhaus remark that in many ways he opened the Scriptures and made our hearts burn within us with what he said. Such was his skill with words which he never trimmed to fit the folios of the cynics.

He had been nurtured in a tradition that stressed the preacher’s commission to flesh out the Word that was made flesh, that is, to preach the consequences of the Incarnation “heart to heart.” This was an expression congenial to Luther and Melanchthon though the words belong to St. Francis de Sales. Father Neuhaus came to understand, and then broadcast by his life, that what is true in essence could animate both Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Our departed friend said, “I became a Catholic in order to be more fully the Christian I was as a Lutheran and that is what happened.”

He could speak heart to heart, and we are here a year later in consequence of that. Becoming a Catholic was for him not a matter of burning the bridge behind him, Rather, it was a walk across the bridge on which he was first set in baptism. This is not to say that such a walk is without cost, for the bridge that any man of conviction crosses is a toll bridge. Grace is free but not cheap, and we know what it cost our Lord to give it to us.

The Eucharist as the “source and summit” of true devotion became the font and height of each day Father Neuhaus lived. This priestly vision only sharpened his prophetic voice. Among his benefactions to Catholic life in a troubled time was the way he lived a maxim of Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: “For the word of God is the light of the soul, and the sacrament the bread of life. These also may be called the two tables set on one side and on the other, in the storehouse of the holy Church.”

There is a story which has the attribute of being true, of two colleges in a university of Father Neuhaus’s native Canada. They were of opposite theological opinion , built facing each other. In the chapel of one was inscribed words of the Resurrection angel at the empty tomb, “He is not here.” One day some seminarians, from the more sacramentally ordered school, placed next to the inscription a sign reading: “He is across the street.”

Father Neuhaus was more aware of the full demands of charity, and did nothing like that, but he said in persuasive syntax tactful enough to win friends as deftly as he won debates, that Christ really is there. We must always remember the unfathomable patience and handsome pathos with which our Risen Lord spoke to those men on the Emmaus Road: “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”

There it was: correction without condescension, an appeal to the mind in the light of glory passing all understanding, and a zeal for souls that could beguile pedestrians to paradise. The one we last saw a year ago was yoked to that enchantment and daily he stood in the public square asking on behalf of his Lord who in a marvelous agony of grace had asked Philip, “Have I been so long with you and do you still not know me?” Father Neuhaus has bequeathed that public square to all of you who now can do in your own ways what he did in his singular way.

Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. Richard John Neuhaus sang those words before he learned Tantum Ergo. The author was a redactor of King David with his harp (Psalm 18:2): “The Lord is my rock and fortress and my deliverer.” The verses go on: “The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.” The words are far more ancient than the hymn. St. John had seen it all with his own eyes in his Revelation (11: 7,11): for he says: “And when they shall have finished their testimony, the Beast that ascendeth out of the Bottomless Pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them… And after three days and a half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.”


Thomas More’s Sorrow

June 2, 2010

While a prisoner in the Tower of London awaiting his certain execution, Thomas More reflected on, among many other things, the perfidy of the English bishops who signed the oath accepting King Henry as the supreme head of the Church in England. Only one, John Fisher, refused, and he paid with his life.

More’s words are hard, but he never for a moment doubted that the bishops are successors to the apostles, which only makes their perfidy all the greater. More was struck by the words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 7: “For the sorrow that is according to God produces repentance that surely tends to salvation, whereas the sorrow that is according to the world produces death.”

The second kind of sorrow was evident in the bishops who buckled in the face of what they viewed as the inevitable. The following is from a fine little collection edited by Matthew Levering, On the Priesthood. Thomas More writes:

“If sorrow so grips the mind that its strength is sapped and reason gives up the reins, if a bishop is so overcome by heavy-hearted sleep that he neglects to do what the duty of his office requires for the salvation of his flock — like a cowardly ship’s captain who is so disheartened by the furious din of a storm that he deserts the helm, hides away cowering in some cranny, and abandons the ship to the waves — if a bishop does this, I would certainly not hesitate to juxtapose and compare his sadness with the sadness that leads, as Paul says, to hell. Indeed, I would consider it far worse, since such sadness in religious matters seems to spring from a mind which despairs of God’s help.”

As John Paul II may or may not have said in another connection (Mel Gibson’s The Passion), “It is as it was.”
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus


Homosexuality and Love’s Duty

June 1, 2010

A new page here: 

Homosexuality and Love’s Duty


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