Archive for the ‘Fr. Robert Barron’ Category


Discerning the Will of God 2 — Fr. Robert Barron

June 13, 2014
I spoke of the magna anima (the great soul) of the saint in contrast to the pusilla anima (the cramped soul) of the sinner. All of Paul's "fruits of the Spirit" are marks of an expansive and outward-looking magna anima. Love is willing the good of an­ other; joy is diffusive of itself; patience bears with the troublesome; kindness makes the other gentle; generosity benefits the neighbor; faithfulness is a dedication to a partner or friend; self-control restricts the havoc that the ego can cause. Which vocation ought to be mine? The one that awakens in me these attributes; the one that makes great my soul.

I spoke of the magna anima (the great soul) of the saint in contrast to the pusilla anima (the cramped soul) of the sinner. All of Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” are marks of an expansive and outward-looking magna anima. Love is willing the good of an­ other; joy is diffusive of itself; patience bears with the troublesome; kindness makes the other gentle; generosity benefits the neighbor; faithfulness is a dedication to a partner or friend; self-control restricts the havoc that the ego can cause. Which vocation ought to be mine? The one that awakens in me these attributes; the one that makes great my soul.

Discerning Christians have to move through this third phase, making up their minds, as well. They see God’s work and will in all that surrounds them; they apply a whole series of biblical grids, seeking to relate their story to the Great Story; now, they must decide precisely what God is saying and how God is luring them. Monitoring and encouraging this third step is essential in the work that I do in a seminary context. The men that I deal with are those who are trying, in a very conscious way, to discover how God is calling them. Is it priesthood or not? It can’t be both, and they know it. A judgment, in either direction painful, has to be made, and they know that too.

Often, as they entertain patterns for their lives in relation to God, a number of attractive possibilities emerge, and this multiplicity of scenarios makes the judgment that much more wrenching. But what seminarians do in a particularly focused way is what all responsible Christians must do.

The Flannery O’Connor novel that we examined earlier, The Violent Bear It Away, is nothing but a dramatic presentation of this third step of discernment. Having been introduced to two grids for understanding his life — his great-uncle’s biblical vision and his uncle’s rationalist one — young Tarwater had to judge which was right. As the stranger reminded him: “It’s either Jesus or you.”

And this is the rub. How do we make this all-important judgment, one that touches not simply on what we are to do but who we are to be? How do we know? Scientists proceed in their task by way of controlled experimentation, carefully eliminating hypotheses until they arrive at the most persuasive; and there is something similar in the arena of the spiritual. The discerning and reasonable disciple of Jesus can also employ a process of elimination, setting setting aside, gradually, various inadequate patterns.

Thus, when determining what God wants me to do, I can certainly eliminate a pattern of life that is at odds with the central narratives and symbols of revelation, say a life governed by sensuality, self-absorption, or violence. More pointedly, I can rule out a life that is inconsistent with the basic pattern of Jesus’ life; somehow I know that, whatever form my vocation takes, it will be, essentially , Christoform .

Thus, for example, a pattern of existence that is predicated on the assumptions that there is no life after death or that enemies should not be loved would be necessarily inadequate. But having negated these rather obviously problematic hypotheses, how do I proceed in the face of a variety of Christologically viable options?

Here the discernment must become more refined . One of the best guides is in the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Jesus had said that a tree is known by its fruits, and Paul makes this very specific. He tells us that the fruits of the Holy Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23), implying that the Spirit’s presence in one’s life can be read from its radiance in these soul-expanding qualities.

Earlier, I spoke of the magna anima (the great soul) of the saint in contrast to the pusilla anima (the cramped soul) of the sinner. All of Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” are marks of an expansive and outward-looking magna anima. Love is willing the good of an­ other; joy is diffusive of itself; patience bears with the troublesome; kindness makes the other gentle; generosity benefits the neighbor; faithfulness is a dedication to a partner or friend; self-control restricts the havoc that the ego can cause. Which vocation ought to be mine? The one that awakens in me these attributes; the one that makes great my soul. 

Now how do I know that my life is, in fact, bearing these fruits? It is most helpful to consult the Christian community. Just as in Dante our sins are more easily spied by those around us, so our virtues and charisms are often most clearly seen by our colleagues and companions . Therefore, we should listen carefully to others as we discern God’s path for us. John Henry Newman insists that the sensus fidelium ought to be consulted even in matters of doctrine; how much more ought this feel of the community be investigated in the determination of vocation.

Another powerful aid in discernment is honest and hopeful prayer. Over and again in the Scripture we are urged to pray, asking God even for the simplest things. In the New Testament virtually the only kind of prayer taught is the prayer of petition, and we are encouraged to pray ceaselessly, relentlessly. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is nothing but a string of eight requests, and we say it over and again in the course of the Christian life. Thus, when seeking to know the path, ask. And then ask again. And ask a third time. Then have the imagination and focus to look for the answer. 

Since God loves to work clandestinely, through a series of secondary causes, it is altogether possible that he is providing an answer to our prayer in the ordinary events, conversations, and people around us. But we must be attentive to these signs.

Lonergan’s final step is that of responsibility. Once we have been attentive, intelligent, and reasonable, we must, finally, accept the full implications of the true judgment we have made. Now we must adjust our lives in light of the truth that we have dis­ covered, no matter how uncomfortable that adjustment may be. As Lonergan well knew, many people fail precisely at this point: they have followed the process admirably and have made a correct judgment, but they just cannot bring themselves to act on it. Politicians judge that backing a particular bill is morally wrong, but they do it because of the desire to be reelected; or researchers discover a particular truth but fail to publish their findings for fear of losing their funding. 

I have known seminarians who clearly knew that they were called by God to the priesthood, but who opted not to become priests . And I have known those who determined, by a careful process, that they ought not to be priests and became ordained anyway. Both sets of people tended to go into tailspins. 

And so Christian disciples, on the path of discernment, must abide by Lonergan’s fourth imperative. They must have the courage of their Christian convictions and place in their body the truth that they have accepted. In some ways, this entire book — with its emphasis on embodied practice — has been an exhortation to make this indispensable move. But how can this step be encouraged?

Here again, I would emphasize the importance of the Christian community. As members of a living body, we bear each other’s bur­dens, just as one bodily system will compensate for the weakness of another. Thus, one person compels — by words, gestures, cajoling, and, in extreme circumstances, sanctions — the integration of knowledge and action in another. Frequently in the Scripture, we are urged to warn a brother or sister away from a sinful path, to correct and encourage in the direction of virtue. Another way that we do this is through prayer on behalf of one another. The Irish Dominican poet Paul Murray reported this line from his own spiritual director: “Paul, I’m praying for you;·so take great risks!”



Discerning the Will of God 1 — Fr. Robert Barron

June 12, 2014
By "attention," Lonergan means something very simple and, in practice, very elusive: seeing what is there to be seen. Seeing, not selectively, myopically, or superficially, but really taking in the light, colors, shapes, and objects that surround one. For Lonergan, many scientists go off the rails, not because they lack speculative intelligence, but because they get their data wrong, they don't  look .

By “attention,” Lonergan means something very simple and, in practice, very elusive: seeing what is there to be seen. Seeing, not selectively, myopically, or superficially, but really taking in the light, colors, shapes, and objects that surround one. For Lonergan, many scientists go off the rails, not because they lack speculative intelligence, but because they get their data wrong, they don’t look .

Earlier in his book The Strangest Way, Fr. Barron insisted  that, for Christians, God is not simply “out there” like a mountain waiting tho be climbed by the intrepid spiritual mountaineer; rather, God is himself a pusher, hunting us down with relentless love. I might shift the image a bit and suggest that God is not only behind us in pursuit, but also ahead of us in allurement., like another urging her child to take his first steps.

Alfred North Whitehead argued that a God is the great displayer of possibilities for his universe, the one who arranges and rearranges persons, objects and events in the hopes that his creation might come to richer and more creative expression. During the discourse the night before he died, Jesus summed up his life and ministry in these words: “I have said these things that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” [John 15:11]. And therefore Christians walking the path of discernment confidently and enthusiastically look. They know that God is luring them and so they hunt for signs. 

This process of watching and listening is an ancient ecclesial practice called “discernment.” One of the best guides in this practice is the twentieth-century Jesuit scholar Bernard Lonergan, for, as an academician, he specialized in questions of method (hunting down the truth) and, as a Jesuit, he was trained in the discernment of spirits (hunting down the will and movement of God). At the heart of Lonergan’s method  is a process that he expressed in terms of four imperatives:

      1. be attentive;
      2. be intelligent;
      3. be reasonable; and
      4. be responsible.

Let us examine these by turn.

By “attention,” Lonergan means something very simple and, in practice, very elusive: seeing what is there to be seen. Seeing, not selectively, myopically, or su­perficially, but really taking in the light, colors, shapes, and objects that surround one. For Lonergan, many scientists go off the rails, not because they lack speculative intelligence, but because they get their data wrong, they don’t  look . 

What does this mean for Christians? It means that they take seriously what Aquinas said concerning God’s immanence in all things, “by essence, presence, and power,” and that they see, consequently, everything as saturated with the divine. Many of the spiritual masters have de­fined prayer, not as an escape from the ordinary, but as a kind of heightened attention to the depth dimension of the everyday and the commonplace. 

Where is the divine will displayed? For the one who has the discipline of vision, everywhere and in everything. For many, the spiritual life becomes dysfunctional precisely at this beginning stage -they don’t look.

The next step in Lonergan’s method is the act of intelligence. By this he means the seeing of patterns, or what, in more classical philosophy, are called forms. Some people are extremely attentive, taking in thoroughly even the details of what goes on around them, but they are not intelligent, that is to say, they are not curious about the patterns of meaning that give coherence and order to what they have perceived. The grasping of intelligible structure is what Lonergan calls “insight.”  It corresponds to the “ah-ha” moment the sudden turning-on of the light, the “eureka!”— inducing grasp of meaning. 

In a scientific context, intelligence undergirds the forming of hypotheses or plausible explanations for phenomena; in a more interpersonal or psychological framework, it motivates the proposal of theories to explain behavior patterns; in a philosophical setting, it compels the relentless asking of the question “why?”

How does this second move of the mind play itself out in a properly spiritual context? Having taken in the world around them, confident that God is present in all things, intelligent Christians now seek to discern the patterns, to know precisely what God is up to. In this process, they utilize the lenses of the biblical and theological tradition, having insight by aligning their experience to the Great Story of divine revelation. Guided by the patterns of creation exodus, prophecy, vocation, sin and grace, Incarnation, death and resurrection, second-coming — they seek analogies and correspondences to their own story. 

Thus, as Moses was to Pharaoh, so I am to an oppressive employer; as Yahweh treated the Israelites during their exile, so God is treating me during my depression; as Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach, so I feel a commission to proclaim the word to my family. Picasso once said that the key to his artistic genius was the capacity to see visual analogies: the shape of that pear is like the contour of a guitar, which is like the curve of a woman’s body, etc. The intelligent Christian discerner must have the like capacity to see these analogies (similarities in difference) between the biblical and the experienced. 

Now just as the scientist or philosopher is trained through a long process of apprenticeship to see certain patterns, so the religious seeker must be trained through a long immersion in the universe of the Bible. This has happened over the centuries, as I have been arguing throughout this book (The Strangest Way), in icons, the lives of the saints, cathedrals, poems, songs, and especially the liturgy. The Christian community learns the practice of intelligent discernment through all of these means. 

The third step in Lonergan’s process is the hard-edged and decisive move of reasonability or judgment. Having surveyed perhaps an entire series of bright ideas, the reasonable person must now decide which is the right idea. All hypotheses, almost by definition, are interesting, but only one of them is adequate to the case and the evidence. At the second level of intelligence, playfulness is altogether in order, for sometimes the most outrageous hypothesis is the correct one.

When looking for insights, one should be expansive, wide-ranging, imaginative, even a little silly. But when seeking to make a judgment, one has to be clear, hard, and censorious: there is, after all, only one truly right answer. Many people, Lonergan thinks, are wonderfully attentive and insightful, but, they lack this crucial third intellectual quality of discrimination: they can never finally make up their minds. 



Easter With Fr. Barron (Again)

March 31, 2013

Back in 2011 I featured this wonderful post from Fr. Barron. Just as good then as it is now.


Our Christmas Posts 2012

December 25, 2012


I’m allowed to have a couple of traditions after plugging away for almost 4 years here. Repeating Fr. Barron’s retelling of the nativity in Luke is one of them and this Christmas prayer is another.

Listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:

And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:

Merry Christmas 2013!



Marriage and the Just State — George Weigel

October 9, 2012

This engraving accompanies the astrological chart for Benjamin Brownsell, married 29th November 1784. A man and a woman face one another and clasp hands, as they stand between two pillars. Two naked cherubs (a boy and a girl) are about to place laurel wreaths on them, symbols of victory for the bride and groom. The two children are the zodiacal symbol for Gemini, the twins; they have stepped out of the ring of the zodiac, and other signs are visible to each side. Between and in front of the couple another cherub is ready to lift a garland to the woman. In the foreground, musical instruments, including a harp, a trumpet and a violin; baskets of roses; urns of incense; above the pillars a domed roof culminating in a fruit basket, and two doves embracing. The temple bears symbols of the heart pierced by arrows. All very symbolic. There is a caption: “Marriage is Honorable in all.”                        Hebrews, Chapter 13. Verse 4

Back in the day, altar boys loved to serve weddings because it involved ready cash: minimally, $5 (which in those days meant something), often a ten-spot.  Once in a great while an exceptionally generous best man would slip each server an envelope with $25 — a small fortune to a boy in the early 1960s.

Serving weddings should have enlarged more than the youthful exchequer, however. For wedding servers were exposed, time and again, to the prescribed “exhortation” the priest read to the couple before they pronounced their vows. That exhortation is worth recalling, now that the very idea of “marriage” is being contested on four state ballots, and in the national election, on Nov. 6:

“My dear friends: You are about to enter upon a union which is most sacred and most serious. It is most sacred, because established by God himself. By it, he gave to man a share in the greatest work of creation, the work of the continuation of the human race. And in this way he sanctified human love and enabled man and woman to help each other live as children of God, by sharing a common life under his fatherly care.

“Because God himself is thus its author, marriage is of its very nature a holy institution, requiring of those who enter into it a complete and unreserved giving of self. But Christ our Lord added to the holiness of marriage an even deeper meaning and a higher beauty. He referred to the love of marriage to describe his own love for his Church, that is, for the people of God whom he redeemed by his own blood. …

It is for this reason that his apostle, St. Paul, clearly states that marriage is now and for all time to be considered a great mystery, intimately bound up with the supernatural union of Christ and the Church, which union is also to be its pattern.

“No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. …”

It’s impossible to imagine a Catholic priest pronouncing those words at a gay “wedding.” And that impossibility illustrates several Catholic theological objections to the notion that same-sex couples can “marry.” “Gay marriage” is opposed to the divine order built into creation and to the Gospel: for “gay marriage,” by its very nature, cannot be a fruitful one-flesh union, and “gay marriage,” which by definition involves grave sin, cannot be an image of Christ’s spousal love for the Church. Thus Catholics who support “gay marriage” are deeply confused about both Word and Sacrament, the twin pillars of Catholic life.

In public policy terms, the Catholic critique of “gay marriage” reflects the Catholic idea of the just state. Rightly understood, marriage is one of those social institutions that exist “prior” to the state: prior in terms of time (marriage existed before the state), and prior in terms of the deep truths embedded in the human condition. A just state thus recognizes the givenness of marriage and seeks to protect and nurture this basic social institution.

By contrast, a state that asserts the authority to redefine “marriage” has stepped beyond the boundaries of its competence. And if that boundary-crossing is set in constitutional or legal concrete, it opens up a Pandora’s box of undesirable results. For if the state can decree that two men or two women can make a “marriage,” why not one man and two women? Two women and two men? These are not paranoid fantasies; the case for polyandry and polygamy is now being mounted in prestigious law journals.

And if the state can define “marriage” by diktat, why not other basic human relationships, like the parent-child relationship, the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, or the priest-penitent relationship? There is no principled reason why not.  Thus “gay marriage” is another expression of that soft totalitarianism that Benedict XVI aptly calls the “dictatorship of relativism.”

Conscientious voters will keep this — and the Democratic Party platform’s endorsement of “gay marriage” — in mind on Nov. 6.

A short addendum here:

A Light Unto My Path — Father Robert Barron
G.K. Chesterton observed that secular society regularly complains about the Church’s imposition of laws and regulations, especially in the arena of sex. What was true in Chesterton’s time is even truer today: contemporary secularism criticizes the Church as finger-wagging in matters sexual. Whereas the non-religious world says, “Do what you want,” the Christian world says, “No!”

Chesterton turned this conventional wisdom on its head. When two young people fall in love, they don’t say things like, “I’m rather fond of you” or “I’ll stay with you as long as things work out.” They become poets and make the most extravagant statements: “I will give my very life for you!” and “You are everything to me; I will never love another the way I love you.” Young lovers would want those sentiments written across the sky for all the world to see.

In insisting on the indissolubility of marriage, he concluded, the Church wasn’t imposing a burden; it was ratifying the natural exuberance and intensity of true love. In the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus teaches, “What God has joined together, no human being must separate.” The natural intensity of love is strengthened and elevated through association with the supernatural love of God. If without reference to God, young lovers naturally pledge their undying fidelity to one another, how much more when they realize that their love is ordained by God and ordered to his purposes.

The indissolubility of marriage is a liberating law of both nature and grace.


Considering Vatican II — William Doino Jr. & Fr. Robert Barron & Francis Cardinal George

September 4, 2012

Second Vatican Council by Lothar Wolleh

Three contributions here. The first is a wonderful little blog posting from William Doino Jr. that I found very comforting to read. I hate to see my Church squabbling and a lot of post Vatican II “dialogues” seem to have been just that. Next Fr. Barron offers some perspective in a YouTube video. Finally a reading selection from Francis Cardinal George’s keynote address at the conference, “Keeping the World Awake to God’: The Challenge of Vatican II,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., 12-14 January 2012. Taken all together, an excellent look back at Vatican II as it nears  its 50th anniversary.

And a special invitation to any reader of PayingAttentiontotheSky who lives in the Boston area. I belong to a Communio Reading Group that will be taking up Cardinal George’s keynote address. If you would like to read the piece, I would be happy to email it off to you along with directions to St. Clement’s Shrine where we meet on September 23rd.  Join us and share some Catholic Fellowship as we discuss.


It has now been almost fifty years since the Catholic Church created waves by opening the Second Vatican Council. And for many, the tumult continues. Vatican II has become nothing less than a battle over the mission of the contemporary Church.

The progressive left sees the Council as an open-ended innovation whose revolutionary promise has yet to be fulfilled. The traditionalist right views it with deep suspicion and is sometimes heard to say (if not openly, at least sotto voce) that the Church would have been better off had it never occurred. But the vital center of Catholicism — if it can be called that — has always defended the Council as a necessary and faithful extension of the Church’s evangelical mission to the modern world. The historian Edward Norman gave voice to this perspective when he wrote:

The remarkable thing about the Council was that it was able to produce more or less exactly what it set out to do: a statement of the Catholic faith in modules of understanding intelligible to modern culture yet completely conformable to past tradition — an achievement the more remarkable in view of the incoherence of western culture in the 1960s.

Norman’s perspective is better appreciated today. John Paul II’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, and Benedict XVI’s insistence on a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than rupture have both helped to recover a “deeper reception of the Council” as the Synod’s final report requested. The wonderfully clarifying universal Catechism was one of the Council’s greatest fruits. But even as Vatican II, properly understood, remains an achievement of the first order, its immediate consequences were anything but.

No sooner had the final session of the Council ended than dialogue gave way to worldly adaptation: Priests started abandoning their collars and nuns their habits, if not their orders. Large portions of the Catholic laity, flushed with a sense of unbounded freedom, stopped going to confession and Sunday Mass. Consciences once formed in the light of Catholic teaching began to morph into self-interest. The Church’s teaching against contraception, for example, was effectively thrown out the window by the laity. These events were not authorized by the Council, and somehow secularism and relativism had penetrated the Church.

Leading Catholics whose writings had done so much to influence the Council — men like Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac, Louis Bouyer and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jacques Maritain and Dietrich von Hildebrand — sounded the alarm. By 1967, Congar was asking: “Where do we go from here? Where shall we be in twenty years? I, too, feel almost every day a temptation to anxiety in the face of all that has changed or is being called into question.”

But none of these men turned their back on the Council or the Holy See. As von Hildebrand stressed:

When one reads the luminous encyclical Ecclesiam Suam of Pope Paul VI or the magnificent ‘Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ [Lumen Gentium] of the Fathers of the Council, one cannot but realize the greatness of the Second Vatican Council. But when one turns to so many contemporary writings…one can only be deeply saddened and even filled with grave apprehension. For it would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Among those who share von Hildebrand’s concerns is Father Paulo Molinari, S.J., who was a contributor to Lumen Gentium. Several years ago, I had the privilege to speak to him in Rome. In our lively discussion, three things stood out.

First, Vatican II was not a bolt out of the blue from Pope John XXIII. It was preceded by twenty ecumenical Councils, and Congar writes that “the Church has always tried to reform itself.” Pius XI and Pius XII had seriously considered holding a new Council themselves. Next, John XXIII’s famously jovial personality has led many to believe he was an unabashed progressive, and this has colored many accounts of the Council. But Molinari, a close friend of the pope, told me that this popular image of “Good Pope John” as easygoing and tolerant of almost any proposal, is “absolute nonsense.” Finally, statistics about the Church in the pre-Conciliar years are misleading, because there were many trends afoot — in theology, morality, politics, science, and exegesis — that were already having an unsettling impact on the internal life of Catholics.

At the end of our discussion, I still had one question: “All that being said Father, and granting the necessity, beauty, and orthodoxy of the Council’s teachings — how did their implementation go so disastrously wrong in the immediate years that followed?”

“The Council called us to find fulfillment in Christ,” he said gently, “but many Catholics confused that with their own self-fulfillment.” Stunned, I finally murmured, “That’s a pretty big mistake.” “Yes,” he replied, with tremendous understatement.

The Second Vatican Council wasn’t about us, but about Christ’s call, lovingly offered, to fulfill our potential on his terms, in and through the moral and spiritual teaching of his Church. It is the transformation that awaits us all — if we are prepared to accept it — promised by Christ two thousands years ago: “He that finds his life shall lose it and he that loses his life for my sake shall find it.”



 The Church In The World

The internal unity of the Church as communion should establish and model the external unity of the human race in solidarity, of nations and cultures and peoples living together in peace. The council therefore was an exercise in ecclesial self-consciousness, as Pope John Paul II explained this from the viewpoint of his own philosophical anthropology. How is the Church to change her self-consciousness in order to be God’s instrument for changing the world? How does the Church situate herself in the world so that she can be, as the first paragraph of Lumen gentium, the decree on the Church, says, “the sacrament or … sign of union with God and of the unity of all mankind.”

With that declared purpose in mind, a few points about the Church’s life demonstrate how there is continuity of principle but in always changing circumstances. In a changing world, principles themselves sometimes take on a different cast as well. Pope Benedict XVI has explained this as the hermeneutic of reform. There is development of doctrine in the Second Vatican Council because of a changed understanding of the Church’s pastoral life and mission. It was a reform council, which means some things changed. What changed was our sense of the Church and her mission today. Nothing was taught that contradicted what Christ had said and done in establishing the Church, but there were new interpretations of teaching in order to establish new efforts to perfect the Church’s mission.

The great ecclesiologist after the Council of Trent and in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation was St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). He was building on the work of the late medieval jurists who studied ecclesiastical structures of governance in relation to the various civil societies in which the Church lived. The earlier councils of the Church were concerned with responding to errors about the mystery of the Godhead in the Trinity, and in clarifying the person and natures of Christ. In the late middle ages, as the way of life of many Christians, including many in the papal court, was more and more separated from the way of life presented and modeled in the Gospel, the reform councils of the Lateran spoke about the Church in moral terms.

One could easily argue that the Reformation was rooted in the scandal of the Church’s pastors and faithful not living in conformity to what they were professing as they proclaimed the Gospel. But schism in the Church pre-dated the Reformation, and it was answered in juridical terms by the medieval jurists. James of Viterbo, in the early years of the fourteenth century, wrote the first canonical treatise in ecclesiology. St. Robert Bellarmine was working out of that received juridical framework for understanding the Church as a visible society, because the reformers were saying that the structures of the Church are adventitious: it does not matter really what form the governance of the Church takes because the Church is invisible, she is a work of grace.

It is true that invisible grace is the life of the Church, but because the reformers relativized and almost put aside or confided entirely to civil rulers the apostolic structures of the Church, Cardinal Bellarmine’s reaction was to define the Church as a perfect society, like the state. The Church’s members are not morally perfect any more than the state’s citizens are morally perfect; but both are perfect in the legal sense that both have everything needed to do their work to accomplish their mission. The Church has all the gifts necessary to fulfill her mission from Christ, just as the state has everything that it needs in order to fulfill its mission in this world.

St. Robert Bellarmine explained, in a more theological framework, how the Church possesses all that is necessary for her mission. He defined Church authority and its juridical limits and gave these a basis in Scripture and Tradition; he clarified the rights and duties of different classes of Church members. The Church was examined from outside, as if by an observer. The analogy for the Church’s self-understanding was the kingdom of France or the republic of Venice. That controlling metaphor meant that Church governance was still legitimated by jurisdiction, by the legal power to act.

This left the Church in the modern age with the dilemma of competing jurisdictions: how does one separate the domain of the Church and the claims of the new nation-states created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648? Both Church and state are perfect societies; both are complete; both have their rights. Yet each makes both religious and secular claims. How does one separate the domains of competence and, more than that, how can Church and state peacefully and respectfully cooperate?

Various theories of the proper subordination of state to Church and of the Church’s liberty of action in the secular sphere have been elaborated. The Church needed an ecclesiology that established her freedom in the world for the sake of her mission that transcends the world. She also needed to explain how civil society is properly autonomous but not totalitarian. Before the Second Vatican Council, Pope Pius XII had already begun to draw on the thought of German theologians who, in the nineteenth century, moved beyond the juridical framework of the perfect society based upon jurisdiction toward a theology based upon the biblical metaphors that describe the Church in the New Testament.

The Church is related to Christ and the Holy Spirit as a mystery of faith and, in 1943, Pope Pius XII wrote on the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ in order to define the Church’s nature from the sources of her life from within rather than from her juridical organization. Pius XII wrote to combat the false notion that there are two different churches, an interior or spiritual church of all who believe in Christ and an external, visibly structured Church which can be analyzed without reference to her nature as a mystery of faith. He overcame ecclesial dualism by identifying the Mystical Body of Christ with the society and structures of the Roman Catholic Church, with no overlap.

The famous existet in of Lumen gentium says exactly that, but the council recognized the existence of gifts from Christ outside of visible Catholic communion. There are visible elements of ecclesial reality outside of the visible structure of the Catholic Church, and these relate people to the Church in ways that make salvation available. They are called vestigiae ecclesiae (vestiges of the Church). These elements of the Church outside of her pastoral and visible unity serve to include all Christians, in a certain limited sense, in her membership in such a way that it is possible to dialogue with them as brothers and sisters, to see something in them that is also in us, to see them as friends and as fellow believers, through a common baptism.

This is the conviction found also in the mission document of the council, Adgentes. Semina verbi, the seeds of the Word, are to be discovered in natural religions and in non-Christian religions so that, again, missionaries can dialogue with people of other faiths or of no faith at all, because seeds of the Word are present among them. God created the world, and the world therefore is good even in its own now fallen and wounded nature, the cosmos speaks of God to those who are listening. Our discerning everywhere vestiges of the Church and seeds of the Word enables the Second Vatican Council to say that all are already part of God’s family, even if not everybody realizes it. Catholics should therefore be the ones to initiate dialogue, and this ability presupposes that the Church is free to do so everywhere in the world.

Vatican II finessed the political dimensions of how the Church should be in the world by sidestepping the relationship between Church and state (which is still the unreconstructed way we speak of it in this country) and emphasizing instead the relationship between faith and culture. The most provocative and original section of the constitution on the Church in the world, Gaudium et spes, is the second chapter, on culture. The concept of culture is not too explicitly defined but nonetheless the Church’s parameters shifted from living the tension between two perfect societies to explaining the relationships between two normative systems — faith and culture.

We are who we are because of our culture, far more profoundly than because we are citizens of a particular nation state. Both faith and culture are normative for those who are believers; both are complete in themselves and both tell us what is important, what to think and how to act. If the Church is to be in the world as a leaven, then she must engage cultures. Just as the legalist approach to understanding the Church is inadequate to her full internal reality, so also her external relationship to the world through the institution of the state, while obviously still of great importance, becomes secondary.

The relationship between the Church and the world is defined by dialogue between faith and culture. The council fathers were therefore concerned about the conditions for authentic dialogue. To have an authentic dialogue between the universal faith and a particular culture, in order properly to situate the Church in the world in a new age, the council spoke to the freedom of the Church to fulfill her mission publicly and the personal freedom of conscience that is a natural right.

The council’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, depended partially on the prior work of John Courtney Murray, S. J. His groundbreaking articles in Theological Studies in the 1950s, remain, however, an institutional analysis. In countries where the state claims vast jurisdiction over its citizens’ lives, a legally defined relationship between the Church and the state is necessary because the Church could not otherwise be free. But in the case of a state with limited government, and the best example is the restriction placed on the state by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the state is contained within its own domain and therefore leaves free every other domain of human activity.

The United States does not have a government ministry of religion nor of culture, as European states often have. Our constitutional guarantees were thought to give the Church greater freedom of action. The document on religious freedom in the modern world, however, starts not from institutional considerations but from anthropology. It decides who we are as free people, men and women made in God’s image and likeness and therefore necessarily exercising our religious duties to God and expressing our religious beliefs publicly in society. The state must respect and permit that freedom. The dignity of the human person is therefore the foundation of Dignitatis humanae, and the document explains how that dignity is given to every human person because of his or her relation to God. Dignitatis humanae also speaks of freedom of conscience, but it talks about freedom of conscience vis-a-vis the state, not vis-a-vis the Church.

Freedom of conscience means a person has the right and obligation to act according to his or her conscience, but conscience is a practical principle in Catholic moral teaching. Freedom of conscience does not mean one has the right to interpret personally or to deny what God has revealed in Christ and still call oneself a Catholic believer. Freedom of conscience is often understood as a function of the sovereign self in an individualistic society. It means that individuals have a right, even by reason of the Church’s own teaching, to deny what is declared by the Church as authentically revealed. Every individual would then be a Church of one.

Rather, freedom of conscience is understood within the community of faith differently from the way that it is understood within the civil community. It must be, as a principle of both belief and action, respected totally in the civil community. Within the community of faith it must be respected as a principle of action but not as a principle of belief. Faith is a response to what has been revealed by God. Its contents are assented to as a whole, or else it is not faith in a God who reveals himself. Thomas Aquinas explained that, if one believes every article of the Creed but one, he or she doesn’t believe any of the articles, because “faith” would be reduced to an “assent” to an individual’s personal value system. In the realm of faith, an individual’s intelligence and will cannot be the criteria of what God has revealed, as if God’s word were not trustworthy without our verification.

The council’s teaching on the relationship between culture and world and on the freedom of religion and conscience builds on what was taught before, but the council shifts the tradition so there is a reinterpretation and a new emphasis rather than a simple reiteration of teaching. There is authentic development; there is reform. Reform means a principle remains but is now worked out in different ways because circumstances have changed and new insights have come to shape the Church’s living tradition.


The Ineffable Mystery of God – Fr. Robert Barron

August 21, 2012

The cloister yard of Santa Sabina where it is reputed St. Thomas walked and pondered.

After many years of exile from the courts of Egypt where he had been raised, a Hebrew man named Moses, while tending the flock of his father-in-law on the slopes of Mount Sinai, saw an extraordinary sight: a bush that was on fire but was not being consumed. He resolved to take a closer look. As he approached, he heard a voice: “Moses! Moses! … Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Then the speaker identified himself as “the God of your father … the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6), and he gave Moses a mission to liberate his people enslaved in Egypt.

When Moses asked for the name of this mysterious speaker, he received the following answer: “I am who am” (Exodus 3:14). Moses was asking a reasonable enough question. He was wondering which of the many gods — deities of the river, the mountain, the various nations — this was. He was seeking to define and specify the nature of this particular heavenly power.

But the answer he received frustrated him. For the divine speaker was implying that he was not one god among many, not this deity rather than that, not a reality that could, even in principle, be captured or delimited by a name. In a certain sense, God’s response amounted to the undermining of the very type of question Moses posed. His name was simply “to be,” and therefore he could never be mastered. The ancient Israelites honored this essential mysteriousness of God by designating him with the unpronounceable name of YHWH.

Following the prompting of this conversation between Moses and God, the mainstream of the Catholic theological tradition has tended not to refer to God as a being, however supreme, among many. Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest theologian in the Catholic tradition, rarely designates God as ens summum (the highest being); rather he prefers the names ipsum esse (to be itself) or qui est (the one who is). In fact, Aquinas goes so far as to say that God cannot be defined or situated within any genus, even the genus of “being.” This means that it is wrong to say that trees, planets, automobiles, computers, and God — despite the obvious differences among them — have at least in common their status as beings. Aquinas expresses the difference that obtains between God and creatures through the technical language of essence and existence.

In everything that is not God there is a real distinction between essence (what the thing is) and existence (that the thing is); but in God no such distinction holds, for God’s act of existence is not received, delimited, or defined by anything extraneous to itself. A human being is the act of existence poured, as it were, into the receptacle of humanity, and a podium is the act of existence poured into the form of podium-ness, but God’s act of existence is not poured into any receiving element. To be God, therefore, is to be to be.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury, one of the greatest of the early medieval theologians, described God as “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” At first blush this seems straightforward enough: God is the highest conceivable thing. But the longer one meditates on Anselm’s description, the stranger it becomes. If God were simply the supreme being — the biggest reality among many — then God plus the world would be greater than God alone. But in that case he would not be that than which nothing greater can be thought. Zeus, for example, was, in ancient mythology, the supreme deity, but clearly Zeus plus the other gods, or Zeus plus the world of nature, would be greater than Zeus alone. Thus the God whom Anselm is describing is not like this at all. Though it is a very high paradox, the God whom Anselm describes added to the world as we know it is not greater than God alone.

This means that the true God exceeds all of our concepts, all of our language, all of our loftiest ideas. God (YHWH) is essentially mysterious, a term, by the way, derived from the Greek muein (to shut one’s mouth). How often the prophets and mystics of the Old Testament rail against idolatry, which is nothing other than reducing the true God to some creaturely object that we can know and hence try to control. The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner commented that “God” is the last sound we should make before falling silent, and Saint Augustine, long ago, said, “si comprehendis, non est Deus” (if you understand, that isn’t God), All of this formal theologizing is but commentary on that elusive and confounding voice from the burning bush: “I am who am.”

Arguments For God’s Existence
I have firmly fended off the tendency to turn God into an idol, but have I left us thereby in an intellectual lurch, doomed simply to remain silent about God? If God cannot be in any sense defined, how do we explain the plethora of theological books and arguments? After all, the same Thomas Aquinas who said that God cannot be placed in any genus also wrote millions of words about God. Chapter 33 of Exodus gives us a clue to the resolution of this dilemma. Moses passionately asks God to reveal his glory to him, and Yahweh acquiesces. But the Lord specifies, “I will make all my beauty pass before you … But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives” (Exodus 33:19-20). God then tells Moses that while the divine glory passes by, God will place his servant in the cleft of a rock and cover Moses’s eyes. “Then I will remove my hand, so that you may see my back; but my face is not to be seen” (Exodus 33:22-23). God can indeed be seen in this life, but only indirectly, through his creatures and effects. We can understand him to a degree, but only obliquely, glimpsing him, as it were, out of the corners of our eyes. We see his “back” as it is disclosed in the beauty, the intelligibility, and the contingency of the world that he has made.

Following this principle of indirection, Thomas Aquinas formulated five arguments for God’s existence, each one of which begins from some feature of the created order. I will develop here the one that I consider the most elemental, the demonstration that commences with the contingency of the world. Though the term is technically philosophical, “contingency” actually names something with which we are all immediately familiar: the fact that things come into being and pass out of being. Consider a majestic summer cloud that billows up and then fades away in the course of a lazy August afternoon, coming into existence and then evanescing.

Now think of all of the plants and flowers that have grown up and subsequently withered away, and then of all the animals that have come into being, roamed the face of the earth, and then faded into dust. And ponder the numberless human beings who have come and gone, confirming the Psalmist’s intuition that “our years end like a sigh” (Psalms 90:9).  Even those things that seem most permanent — mountain ranges, the continents themselves, the oceans — have in fact emerged and will in fact fade. Indeed, if a time-lapse camera could record the entire life span of the Rocky Mountains, from the moment they began to emerge to the moment when they finally wear away, and if we could play that film at high speed, those mountains would look for all the world like that summer cloud.

The contingency of earthly things is the starting point of Aquinas’s proof, for it indicates something of great moment, namely, that such things do not contain within themselves the reason for their own existence. If they did, they would exist, simply and absolutely; they would not come and go so fleetingly. Therefore, in regard to contingent things, we have to look outside of them, to an extrinsic cause, or set of causes, in order to explain their existence. So let’s go back to that summer cloud. Instinctually, we know that it doesn’t exist through its own essence, and we therefore look for explanations. We say that it is caused by the moisture in the atmosphere, by the temperature, by the intensity of the winds, and so on, and as far as it goes, that explanation is adequate.

But as any meteorologist will tell us, those factors are altogether contingent, coming into being and passing out of being. Thus we go a step further and say that these factors in turn are caused by the jet stream, which is grounded in the movement of the planet. But a moment’s reflection reveals that the jet stream comes and goes, ebbs and flows, and that the earth itself is contingent, having emerged into existence four billion years ago and being destined one day to be incinerated by the expanding sun.

And so we go further, appealing to the solar system and events within the galaxy and finally perhaps to the very structures inherent in the universe. But contemporary astrophysics has disclosed to us the fundamental contingency of all of those realities, and indeed of the universe itself, which came into existence at the Big Bang some thirteen billion years ago. In our attempt to explain a contingent reality — that evanescent summer cloud — we have appealed simply to a whole series of similarly contingent realities, each one of which requires a further explanation.

Thomas Aquinas argues that if we are to avoid an infinite regress of contingent causes, which finally explain nothing at all, we must come finally to some “necessary” reality, something that exists simply through the power of its own essence. This, he concludes, is what people mean when they use the word “God.” With Aquinas’s demonstration in mind, reconsider that strange answer God gives to Moses’s question: “I am who am.” The biblical God is not one contingent reality among many; he is that whose very nature it is to exist, that power through which and because of which all other things have being.

Some contemporary theologians have translated Aquinas’s abstract metaphysical language into more experiential language. The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich said that “finitude in awareness is anxiety.” He means that when we know in our bones how contingent we are, we become afraid. We exist in time, and this means that we are moving, ineluctably, toward death; we have been “thrown” into being, and this means that one day we will be thrown out of being; and this state of affairs produces fear and trembling. In the grip of this anxiety, Tillich argues, we tend to thrash about, looking for something to reassure us, searching for some firm ground on which to stand.

We seek to alleviate our fears through the piling up of pleasure, wealth, power, or honor, but we discover, soon enough, that all of these worldly realities are as contingent as we are and hence cannot finally soothe us. It is at this point that the scriptural word “My soul rests in God alone” (Psalms 62:1) is heard in its deepest resonance. Our fear — born of contingency — will be assuaged only by that which is not contingent. Our shaken and fragile existence will be stabilized only when placed in relation to the eternal and necessary existence of God. Tillich is, in many ways, a contemporary disciple of Saint Augustine, who said, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”

In 1968 a young theology professor at the University of Tubingen formulated a neat argument for God’s existence that owed a good deal to Thomas Aquinas but that also drew on more contemporary sources. The theologian’s name was Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger commences with the observation that finite being, as we experience it, is marked, through and through, by intelligibility, that is to say, by a formal structure that makes it understandable to an inquiring mind. In point of fact, all of the sciences — physics, chemistry, psychology, astronomy, biology, and so forth — rest on the assumption that at all levels, microscopic and macrocosmic, being can be known. The same principle was acknowledged in ancient times by Pythagoras, who said that all existing things correspond to a numeric value, and in medieval times by the scholastic philosophers who formulated the dictum omne ens est scibile (all being is knowable).

Ratzinger argues that the only finally satisfying explanation for this universal objective intelligibility is a great Intelligence who has thought the universe into being. Our language provides an intriguing clue in this regard, for we speak of our acts of knowledge as moments of “recognition,” literally a re-cognition, a thinking again what has already been thought. Ratzinger cites Einstein in support of this connection: “in the laws of nature, a mind so superior is revealed that in comparison, our minds are as something worthless.”

The prologue to the Gospel of John states, “In the beginning was the Word,” and specifies that all things came to be through this divine Logos, implying thereby that the being of the universe is not dumbly there, but rather intelligently there, imbued by a creative mind with intelligible structure. The argument presented by Joseph Ratzinger is but a specification of that great revelation.

One of the particular strengths of this argument is that it shows the deep compatibility between religion and science, two disciplines that so often today are seen as implacable enemies. Ratzinger shows that the physical sciences rest upon the finally mystical intuition that reality has been thought into existence and hence can be known. I say it is mystical because it cannot itself be the product of empirical or experimental investigation, but is instead the very condition for the possibility of analyzing and experimenting in the first place. This is why many theorists have speculated that the emergence of the modern sciences in the context of a Christian intellectual milieu, in which the doctrine of creation through the power of an intelligent Creator is affirmed, is not the least bit accidental.


The Provident Creator – Fr. Robert Barron

July 24, 2012

One of the most basic of biblical ideas is that God is the maker of all things. The opening lines of the book of Genesis speak, not so much of God’s nature, but of God’s creative action: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth …” (Genesis 1:1). Now there is a puzzle in regard to this primordial action of God; namely, why did he do it? If God is God, which is to say, the perfect act of being itself, utterly happy in his own nature, why would he bother to make things at all?

To answer this question is to move very close, spiritually speaking, to the heart of the matter. Precisely because God doesn’t need the world, the very existence of the world is a sign that it has been loved into being. We recall that to love is to will the good of the other as other. Since he has no needs in himself, all of God’s intention and activity in regard to what is other is therefore utterly for the sake of the other. The perfect God cannot be self-interested, and hence in regard to the universe he has made he can only be loving.

Drawing on Plato, the ancient Christian theologian Dionysius the Areopagite said that since the good is diffusive of itself, the infinitely good God naturally and exuberantly expresses his goodness to the world. The fathers of the First Vatican Council echoed Dionysius in saying that God made the world not out of need but in order to “manifest his glory” and to share his life and perfection. What we see in the lives of the saints is an iconic representation of this completely generous divine manner of relating to the other.

If God is the sheer act of to be itself, then God’s creation must be ex nihilo, from nothing. To understand this idea, it might be helpful to propose a contrast. When an artist produces a sculpture, he begins with marble or clay and then shapes that substance into something aesthetically pleasing. When a chef makes a meal, she blends water, meats, vegetables, spices, and sauces into a palatable conglomeration. Both agents are making something from something; they are reordering in a creative manner a re-existing substrate. But God, the very fullness of being itself, does not operate this way; he doesn’t shape some alien substance or matter into arm; rather he brings whatever exists outside of himself into being in its entirety from nothing.

Several important insights cluster around this truth. First, creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.

Second, all creatures are connected to one another by the deepest bonds precisely because every creature is coming forth, here and now, from God’s creative act. When I find my deepest center in God, I necessarily find your deepest center and that of every other creature, even of “brother sun and sister moon,” to use the language of Saint Francis.

Third, creation from nothing is a nonviolent act. In so much of the mythological tradition, the creation of the world takes place through a primal act of violence, one god defeating another, or a set of gods doing battle with their rivals. Often the physical universe is pictured as the remains of the conquered enemy. Even in the more refined philosophical accounts of Plato and Aristotle, the universe is formed through the imposition of form on recalcitrant matter.

But there is none of this in the Christian conception. God does not wrestle a rival into submission, for He has no rival; nor does he intervene to shape matter according to his aggressive will, for there is no matter that confronts him. Rather, through a sheerly nonviolent, nonintrusive, non-interruptive act of speech, God gives rise to the whole of finite reality: “Let there be light, and there was light … Let the water under the sky be gathered into a single basin, so that the dry land may appear … Let the earth bring forth vegetation: every kind of plant that bears seed and every kind of fruit tree … And so it happened” (Genesis 1:3, 9, 11). We can see now the deepest roots of Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent love articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. Though it seems ludicrous to our sinful minds, the recommendation to love one’s enemies and to resist evil through nonviolence is actually to dance in step with the most fundamental metaphysical rhythm of the world.

This God who continually creates the universe from nothing must also be described as provident. The Deist view — on display in both classical and modern times and especially prevalent today — is that God is the orderer of the universe, but only in a distant way, as the source of the laws and basic structures of the universe. But Christian theology has no truck with Deism. It stands, instead, with the book of Wisdom, which speaks of God’s power “stretching from end to end mightily and ordering all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8:1).

God is not a celestial CEO, managing earthly affairs from an antiseptic distance; he holds the world in the palm of his hand, involving himself in things both great and small. Thomas Aquinas summed up this biblical perspective when he said that God’s providence “extends to particulars.”

Now to give the Deists their due, all of this stress on the particularity of God’s providence does seem to pose a threat to the independence and integrity of the created order. If God is hovering fussily over the whole of reality in every detail, how could we speak, for instance, of freedom or chance? A full treatment of the thorniest of theological issues would require an entire book, but for our purposes I would draw the reader’s attention, once again, to the noncompetitive relationship that God has to the world. God’s creativity and providence are necessarily expressions of the divine love and hence of the “letting be” of the other.

The providential God is not one great cause among many, interfering with the nexus of conditioned causes. We recall the language of the book of Wisdom, how “sweetly” God exercises his power, operating precisely through the realm of secondary causes. Perhaps I could illustrate this with a simple example. If asked, “How do you make a cherry pie,” one would say, presumably, “You bring together cherries, sugar, flour, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” Even the religious believer would not say, “You bring together ferries, sugar, flour, God, water, fat, and the skill of the baker, and the heat of the oven.” God is not one cause among many, but rather the reason there are cherries, flour, water, fat, the baker, and so on, at all. Hence, it is precisely through those causes and not in competition with them that the providential God works out his purposes.


On John Dominic Crossan — Rev. Robert Barron

March 9, 2012

The Rev. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, is founder of and host of the Catholicism Project. He is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary. This was buried in a CNN religion blog website.

I confess that I was a little surprised when I visited the CNN website and found a feature on John Dominic Crossan, the controversial scholar of the historical Jesus. I was surprised, not so much that Crossan was being profiled, but that the article was not appearing at Christmas or Easter or on the occasion of a papal visit. Dr. Crossan, you see, is a favorite of the mainstream media, who never seem to miss an opportunity to try to debunk classical Christianity, especially on major Christian holidays.

Crossan was a Catholic priest who left the priesthood in the late 1960s, finding that he was unable to hold to orthodox Christian beliefs concerning the divinity of Jesus. He gave himself to the study of 1st century Jewish culture and to the discovery of who Jesus “really” was, once the veneer of traditional dogma had been scraped away.

Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s of the last century, Crossan published a whole series of books and articles laying out his vision of Jesus as a “Mediterranean peasant” who had the temerity to challenge the Roman power structure, to advocate the concerns of the poor, and to show the power of the path of non-violence.

Now Crossan is a graceful writer and a careful scholar, and I’ll acknowledge gratefully that I’ve learned a great deal from him. His emphasis on Jesus’ “open table fellowship” and his readings of Jesus’ parables as subversive stories are both, I think, right on target. The problem is that he so consistently reads Jesus through a conventional political lens that effectively reduces him to the level of social reformer.

How does Crossan explain the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? They are, he says, essentially “parables,” figurative representations of the disciples’ conviction that Jesus’ way was more powerful than the Roman way. They were never meant to be taken literally but rather as poetic inspirations for the succeeding generations of Jesus’ followers. How does he explain the church’s dogma of Jesus’ divinity? It is, essentially, a misleading overlay that effectively obscures the dangerous truth of who Jesus really was: a threat to the cultural, religious, and political status quo.

Skilled at translating academic debates into relatively accessible language and blessed with a charming Irish brogue, Crossan became a favorite of television producers and documentarians. On numerous programs and specials, Crossan has popularized his reductionistic vision of Jesus and has succeeded in convincing many that orthodox Christology is appealing only to those who haven’t taken the time to think through the historical evidence clearly. Time and again, he has argued that his version of Christianity is for those who haven’t “left their brains at the door.”

The little problem, of course, is that Crossan is compelled to ignore huge swaths of the New Testament in order to maintain his interpretation. All of the evangelists indeed present Jesus as a dangerous, even subversive figure, a threat to the conventional Jewish and Roman ways of organizing things, but they are much more interested in the utterly revolutionary fact that Jesus is the Son of God.

They assert that he is Lord of the Sabbath and that he is greater than the Temple; they show him as claiming authority over the Torah itself; they relate stories of his blithely forgiving sins; they report his breathtaking words, “unless you love me more than your mother or father … more than your very life, you are not worthy of me;” they consistently show him as the master of the forces of nature. The only one who could legitimately say or effectively do any of these would be the one who is himself divine.

St. John gives explicit and philosophically precise expression to this conviction when he says, in regard to Jesus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” To maintain that all of this is a distorting overlay is simply absurd and requires that one blind oneself to the deepest intention of the evangelists themselves.

And the theory that the resurrection is an imaginative construct gives every indication of having been formulated in a faculty lounge and, in fact, does violence to the spirit of the early Christianity. What one senses on practically every page of the New Testament is an excitement generated by something utterly new, strange, unprecedented.

When the first Christians proclaimed the Gospel, they didn’t say a word about Jesus’ preaching; what they talked about was his resurrection from the dead. Look through all of Paul’s letters, and you’ll find a few words about Jesus’ “philosophy,” but you’ll find, constantly, almost obsessively, reiterated the claim that God raised Jesus from death.

The great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, moreover, that the very emergence of Christianity as a messianic movement is practically unintelligible, on historical grounds, apart from the reality of the resurrection. This is the case because one of the chief expectations of the Messiah was that he would conquer the enemies of Israel. Someone’s death at the hands of the Romans, therefore, would be the surest sign imaginable that that person was not the Messiah.

Yet the first believers announced, over and again, that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel: Jesus Christ simply means “Jesus the Messiah.” How could they possibly say this unless they were convinced that in some very real way Jesus had indeed proven more powerful than his Roman executioners?

This is where we see how untenable Crossan’s reading is. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then his disciples had no business saying that he had conquered Rome or that his way was more powerful than the Roman way. In fact, one would be justified in maintaining just the opposite.

My hope is that careful students of the New Testament and of early Christianity will see that John Dominic Crossan’s painfully reductive reading is a distortion of who Jesus was and that classical orthodox Christianity tells the deepest truth about the one called “the Christ.”


Our Christmas Posts

December 24, 2011

If you have a couple of minutes, listen to Fr. Barron retell Luke’s story:

And steal this Christmas prayer and use it sometime Christmas Day:

Merry Christmas 2012!



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