America Magazine, the Catholic Jesuit weekly journal, has produced an intriguing 5-minute film, "Three Hundred Years of Sister History," an informative look at the faith and achievements of religious women in the United States. This film, narrated by the late Catholic journalist Cokie Roberts, who died last week, can be seen on the Cafe Friday stream at https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/09/27/300-years-sister-history-5-minutes-beyond-habit.
Bishop Robert Barron is clear from the onset that Letter to a Suffering Church is his own statement: “I am not speaking in the name of my brother bishops, or of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or the Vatican. I have no authority whatsoever to do so.” [p. ii.] It is a happy prospect to see a widely respected clergyman, a bishop no less, shed his cuffs and talk from the heart. It is a disappointing reality that the other 200 bishops of the USCCB did not line up to his desk and plead to be cosigners of this honest assessment of the pain of the Church and the changes needed in the leadership and membership of the Body of Christ.
Because he addresses the abuse crisis—its causes and healing--in a multidimensional way, the text can bring perspective and healing to multiple populations, including his brother clergy, mourning lay faithful Catholics, and angry Catholics seriously contemplating leaving the practice of the church altogether. Although Barron is solicitous of the “Nones” who have left the Church, his points of reference may be less compelling to this population. It is worth noting that given the generally poor quality of religious education upon youth and adults alike over the past several generations, the author’s Biblical and historical references may be lost despite his best efforts to set them in meaningful context.
In his opening chapter, “The Devil’s Masterpiece,” Barron draws from his own experiences as episcopal parish visitor in Los Angeles to gauge the impact of last year’s revelations from the State of Pennsylvania and the Cardinal McCarrick revelations. He reports a wide range of emotions from parishioners who spoke to him; “What was particularly galling about the McCarrick situation was that Catholics had heard, since 2002, that protocols and reforms were in place that would prevent abuse going forward.” [p. 13] His bluntness about McCarrick’s years of promotions and the superiors responsible is refreshing. Catholics indeed have the right to be angry, though Barron does not comment on the continuing lack of transparency on this case.
“Light from Scripture” examines sexual abuses of power in the Old Testament, including instances where overseeing fathers and holy men sinned by allowing abuse to continue. Barron cites the story of Lot, who offered his virginal daughters to a rapacious mob in Sodom, and the ultimate abuse of religious power, King David’s adultery with Bathsheba while her husband was dispatched to a military suicide mission. Turning to the New Testament, the author examines the simple, guileless life of children and cites Jesus’ chilling words of judgment against those who would pervert children, that they [the perpetrators] have a millstone hung around the neck and be cast into the sea.
“We Have Been Here Before” surveys samples of the worst historical deviations of official Church conduct. The roots of Western monasticism are traced to Christian refugees from the sinful cities of Rome and elsewhere. The author notes that clerical sinfulness plays major roles in such classics as The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, and In Praise of Folly. In 1049 St. Peter Damian wrote to Pope Leo IX condemning the widespread practice of what we might call today the McCarrick Problem. Given his age’s belief that abbots and bishops were spiritual fathers to new young members, St. Peter called the sexual abuse of novices by superiors a form of “spiritual incest.”
Turning to the present, “Why Should We Stay?” summarizes Bishop Barron’s belief that for all of its sinfulness the Church remains the fullness of the Kingdom of God on earth, as Vatican II puts it, and cautions that separation from the Real Presence of the Eucharist is a loss that nothing else can fill. This defense of ecclesial fidelity is neither pedantic nor scolding, but a reminder of the saving grace that brought the Church member to sacramental initiation in the first place.
Bishop Barron concludes with “The Way Forward.” I found this a brief but powerful blueprint for what he believes must take place—a reform of the Church in capite et membris, “in head and members.” His ideas about priestly life and sanctity are very close to my own—that priests would do well to live more in the fashion of vowed religious in community rather than as independent contractors. But he goes on to address the need of reform of the laity as well, as it is his contention that a general laxity of moral observance in church and society generated a dropping of the guard, so to speak, a theory seconded by the American bishops’ John Jay Study of 2010]. “A better and stronger laity,” he concludes, “shapes a better and stronger [and less clerical] priesthood.” [p. 93]
At its modest price, Letter to a Suffering Church is the best pastoral comfort one can pass along to troubled family and friends. My hope would be that this text, as it stands, becomes the comforting voice of the full body of American bishops.
Stephen Greenblatt observes in his introduction to The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve  that the creation account in the Judeo-Christian Bible’s Genesis 2:4ff is so outlandish that one marvels at how many people over a long period of time believed the narrative to be factual in its details. In the American Catholic Church, in the days following Vatican II [1962-1965] many parish adult education meetings were thrown into turmoil by those learning for the first time that Adam and Eve might not be real people. Contemporary biblical scholarship triggered literal terror, articulated along the lines of “if you can’t believe in Adam and Eve, what can you believe in the Bible?” Nothing in this work should shake anyone’s faith; in fact, Greenblatt’s interdisciplinary approach to the Garden narrative opens the door to a greater understanding and curiosity about the Bible we think we know so well.
Greenblatt assumes that the reader is not an intractable literalist: even Christian readers without introduction to the Biblical principles of interpretation will respect the obvious ground of high school science and the fatal road of inbreeding, which the Genesis author(s) accept with nary a worry. [Who bore Cain’s children? His mother, by the logic of the text.] Greenblatt walks us through the interpretations of the happenings in paradise, drawing from Jewish thinkers shortly before Christ to early Christian thinkers—notably St. Augustine: through the medium of art, notably Albrecht Durer of the Renaissance: the poetic epic of John Milton’s Paradise Lost; the discovery of new worlds and new peoples in America; the research of Charles Darwin; and the implications of “Lucy” and our predecessors of hundreds of thousands of years ago.
If Genesis 2 is not to be summarized as a “Neil Armstrong moment in time,” we are now free to speculate on the creators of the creation, so to speak, and ask how and why they composed this story as they did. The ancient world was awash in tales of how “the divine” initially “created men” and set their affairs in order with ground rules for how the divine and the human would interact. Greenblatt—focusing exclusively on the Jewish creation account--attempts to identify key intentions of these thinkers behind the Garden narrative; he concludes in the first instance that Adam is a holotype for future humanity, a template of a species along the lines of Linnaeus’ later cataloging of living species. Animals intrigue the author: he observes that while man is created as superior to the beasts and names them, “humans seem to be the only animals on earth that ask themselves how they came to be and why they are the way they are.” [p. 17]
We humans can take this as a philosophical complement, but the author observes that we are the only species that remains “lost”—disoriented, uncomfortable in our own skin, in need of an explanation. Given that Biblical scholars place the date of Genesis’ composition as late the fifth century B.C., very late in Jewish history and after the tragedy of the Babylonian Captivity, it is not difficult to imagine that thoughtful believers entertained many questions about themselves and their God.
Of the many creation myths of ancient times, Genesis 2 is one of few to consider relationships at some depth, human and divine, human and human. Adam and Eve’s relationship with God is confusing; Enlightenment figures in the modern era such as Voltaire would wonder aloud [though not too loudly] how God could seemingly set up his creation for failure. Why would the Lord tell Adam, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil? From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” Why would God withhold the best of his gifts, and why would one of his own animals, i.e., the cunning serpent, facilitate the crushing punishments of the couple’s disobedience?
The author does not have an answer, but he is not satisfied with later Christian attempts to put the garden disobedience at the center of Christian anthropology, either. He is certainly not alone in his critique of St. Augustine’s theory of the original sin of the garden as the cause of a basic human contamination with its roots in the seductive power of women. Most readers will be familiar with the traditional Catholic understanding of Adam and Eve’s sin and its biological/moral transmission in sexual intercourse. Several Catholic doctrines—the efficacy and necessity of infant baptism, and later the Immaculate Conception—would depend upon St. Augustine’s reading of Genesis. What is less appreciated is that for these Church formulations to hold sway, the biblical account of the garden sin must be read as literally true.
The historicity of Genesis was enforced by church teaching, but also through the many artistic portrayals of Adam and Eve in the Renaissance era and the exquisite telling of the tale in Paradise Lost. The author highlights the centuries-long efforts to establish with precision every detail in the Garden—including many not found in the biblical texts. By the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the Indies in 1492, the Garden narrative reached its zenith as a bedrock of history and Christian anthropology.
The irony of history is that “the fall” of Adam and Eve as a hard data pillar was touched off by Columbus and thinkers who followed. Columbus believed that he had landed in the paradisiac garden of Genesis, whose fifteenth century natives demonstrated no shame in their nakedness. [p. 233] Were these peoples unsullied brothers of Adam, still living a prelapsarian existence? Columbus was merely the tip of the iceberg as more information about the universe and the human species became accessible down through the present day. As late as 1950 Pope Pius XII labored to salvage a marriage of evolution and Adam in his encyclical Humani Generis [see para. 37].
Greenblatt’s effort is a rewarding reading exercise on multiple fronts.  It is a well-documented and eminently readable historical narrative of a familiar scriptural bedrock we have perhaps taken for granted;  It demonstrates the risks of undertaking theological study without a healthy communion with the full breadth of cultural wisdom.  It draws attention to the importance of art in theological expression.  It reminds us that Adam and Eve are more valuable to us as historical sacraments than as historical persons. In ending, the author declares that the garden couple “hold open the dream of a return, somehow, to a bliss that has been lost. They have the life—the peculiar, intense, magical reality—of literature.” [p. 284]
I am a little cranky today because I had planned to review Raymond E. Brown and the Catholic Biblical Renewal , but for some reason I cannot find the book, which contains all my notes for inclusion. My fear is that I either sold my copy to my second-hand dealer in Sanford, Florida when I did a massive housekeeping of my office recently, or that I left it at one of my counseling sites where it is presently holding open a door. So be it. I will get back to Father Brown soon, since any Catholic in ministry has been influenced by his biblical scholarship, knowingly or not.
This book stream on the Café weekly calendar is dedicated to thoughtful Catholics across the board—but particularly to those in active faith formation work whose busy schedules do not permit as much reading as one would need to address the major questions of the day. Reading, professional coursework, structured group study and discussion with your peers and colleagues, among other things, stokes the fire for the teaching experience while boosting your own confidence in ministry, particularly when engaging with adults. In reading the frequent questions on the Facebook Page “Catholic Directors of Faith Formation-Religious Education,” I am struck by catechist isolation from other Catholic parish ministers in their towns or deaneries, from their pastors, from their local diocesan offices, from professional publications, and from the experts in their fields in the outstanding universities of Catholic religious education such as Boston College and Dayton University, to cite a few. [See the breadth of the religious discipline in the undergraduate course offerings in religious studies in Dayton’s catalogue.]
I am also very aware that many of you in churchwork do not have much, if any, discretionary income to purchase or access the best in Catholic writing, be it theology or fiction. Nor are you given much, if any, paid continuing education or discretionary enrichment opportunities. When you have the time, read Kaya Oakes June 28 essay, “When professional Catholics burn out” in America Magazine. When your time and funds are scarce, you don’t want to strike out on a costly book purchase, or worse, devote precious time to “hack writing,” of which there is plenty in the Church book market right now.
I note with sadness [as does Oakes in her essay cited above] that fewer and fewer Catholics are pursuing professional studies at the college level, per research by CARA. There are many reasons, to be sure, but for our purposes here one of the most important take-aways from college religious studies and theology is an introduction to the respected scholars and authors of today. One of the best things I learned from college and grad school were the names of “sources,” i.e., the theologians, the history, the classic and contemporary books and journals, the publishing houses, and the schools of contemporary theological work. However, my own ministry history goes back fifty years, so I have had to work hard to stay abreast of religious education/theological developments over the years.
With that said, I would switch gears and make the argument that reading, and in our context theological reading, is a compelling pleasure that fires our imaginations to penetrate holy Scripture, our long and surprising history, the tradition of courage and wisdom manifested in our leaders and saints, and the almost utopian conceptualizations of renewing the Church in the image and likeness of Christ. Professional reading is work, but “work” in the sense that Michelangelo and Da Vinci, Christopher Wren and Frank Lloyd Wright, the Bronte Sisters and Mark Twain, “worked.” Their sweat brought them joy and fulfillment that makes our world beautiful and uplifting, sacraments of God in a true sense. A teacher, a preacher, a catechist is indeed an artist, not a technician.
As a psychotherapist I often suggest to my patients that they read more; the experience of good literature enhances the management of mood disorders. Some patients become dependent upon tranquillizers, but no one has ever needed a twelve-step program to disengage from the stimulation of reading. When the subject is narrowed down to books that increase theological competence, the question that often follows my assertions here is: which books? If it is any consolation, I have the same problem in selecting texts, and I can lose a whole evening browsing Paulist Press, Liturgical Press, National Catholic Reporter, Kirkus Review, Theological Studies, America, or The New York Times Book Review. Truth be told, I come across some of my best reads from the bibliographies of other good books. There might be some surprise that I include The New York Times among my haunts, for example, but the truth is that some of their editorial writers, notably David Brooks and Ross Douthat, continue to produce valuable works on public morality and church life in America that would enrich any Catholic agenda. The Catholic spirit is not easily corralled in textbooks.
In the preceding paragraph I focused upon works of interest and education in the religious framework. In 2003, however, Paul Elie brought together the histories of four Catholic authors of the mid-twentieth century who did not set out toward the catechetical in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage . Elie’s work describes the lives of four writers whom he considers to be the most significant Catholic authors of the mid-twentieth century, all of whom knew each other to varying degrees. Dorothy Day [1897-1980] converted to Catholicism and lived out her life at the often-painful frontiers of social justice. She is the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, editor of the paper The Catholic Worker, which still sells for a penny to this day, and author of over one dozen books per Amazon. As of 2016 her cause for sainthood is under review.
Flannery O’Connor [1925-1964] was introduced to me about 25 years ago by a colleague who was using O’Connor’s short stories to teach religion to senior high school students. O’Connor’s pedigree was a bit uncommon, a devout orthodox Catholic born and raised in the deep South. [There is a plaque on her Savannah, GA, home across the street from the Catholic cathedral.] A somewhat sheltered young woman, she fell ill early in life with lupus and before her death at age 39 she lived with her mother, wrote novels, and collected peacocks. She is remembered for a quote she delivered during a discussion of modern Eucharistic theology, “If the Real Presence is only a symbol, then the hell with it.”
O’Connor’s relatively few novels are penetrating insights into the rural southern life she knew and explore human motivation and suffering. I don’t believe she set out to write “Catholic novels” as much as she intended to write about the redemption of broken souls. I have only read one work, Wise Blood , which I found surprisingly brutal but possessing harsh truths about the human condition that contributed to my late-in-life sensitivity to human suffering.
Walker Percy [1916-1990] is another southern product who, like O’Connor, lived a portion of his youth in Georgia where, in his teen years, he became a lifelong friend of Shelby Foote [the avuncular storyteller on Ken Burns’ PBS special, “The Civil War.”] Percy attended medical school at Columbia University, but he was stricken with tuberculosis and spent several years in isolation and recovery. He abandoned medicine for a literary career and became a man of letters. At some point in adulthood he converted to Catholicism and began his pursuit of non-fiction social commentary punctuated with six novels combining science fiction with medicine, social disintegration, and the inner alienation of modern man from himself, particularly in the ambiance of a changing southern culture.
I have read one of his novels, The Thanatos Syndrome , written around the same time as the invention of Prozac and growing fascination with social engineering. A fine review of the book and the man appears here. Percy never identified this work as a “Catholic piece.” And yet, as this book was published, Percy was undertaking spiritual counsel to become a [lay] Benedictine Oblate and was buried on the Louisiana Benedictine monastery grounds just three years later. [My wife and I plan interment at another monastery, with the Trappists, in South Carolina—who else is going to pray for your deliverance from Purgatory seven times a day when your time comes?]
The final author cited by Elie is probably the best known, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton [1915-1968]. Like Percy and Day, Merton was an adult convert to Catholicism whose unlikely journey to the Kentucky monastery of the Trappists is chronicled in his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain , which has sold 70 million copies to date. Under the monastic obedience, he did not write novels but is best known for a library of spiritual reflections and later, 25 years after his death, his seven volume diary of life in the cloister, a tale of grace and imperfection I have found intriguing and consoling over the years. He was an inveterate letter writer and corresponded with Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day.
Merton’s non-fiction feeds two passions that every Catholic must embrace: the cultivation of an uninterrupted inner spiritual life coupled with an engagement to bring Christ to the world. Merton traveled as far as Thailand to research the former among Buddhist monks while writing periodic pieces for Day’s Catholic Worker in solidarity with the needs of street people and day laborers.
Elie’s work stirs the imagination of his readers to examine Catholic authors of multiple stripes for new possibilities of spirituality, morality, and mission. The fact that all the authors cited above have been judged superior literary forces is a good lesson that a reader need not choose from between fine art and powerful content for an enriching encounter with a text.
I posted a review of Father John W. O'Malley's new release, "Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church"  over on the book's Amazon page. Vatican I declared the doctrine of papal Infallibility in 1870 and brought the papal office into the mainstream of world consciousness. The review can be read here.
When did the pope become “The Pope?” Catholics since biblical times have carried the image of Peter’s unique role as leader and unifier of those awaiting the Second Coming in glory. The precise nature of the authority and legitimacy of the Bishop of Rome has varied over time. In his classic “Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages”  R.W. Southern describes the eighth century’s interlocking of the pope’s authority to the very bones of Peter interred in Rome. Six centuries later, Boniface VIII would decree in “Unam Sanctam”  that “every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff,” both the most drastic claim of papal authority ever made and perhaps the fastest one to be rejected.
John W. O’Malley’s “Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church”  describes the Catholic effort to formulate a precise understanding of papal authority. Over a roughly seven-month period [1869-1870] the world’s bishops, at the invite of Pope Pius IX [r. 1846-1878], came together in Rome to discuss and formulate the ultimate authority of the office of Bishop of Rome. This is the council remembered for the formal declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility, and this is the council’s signal achievement, though it had hoped to address a broader agenda.
The author sets the table for the Council’s work with two fine introductory essays. “Catholicism and the Century of Lights” describes developments in Western European Catholicism in the era of the Enlightenment, or roughly from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789. In a Europe exhausted by 150 years of religious wars, the peace treaty of Westphalia for all purposes left stand a continent of coexistence among the various post-Reformation churches. As O’Malley puts it, many Catholic rulers and churchmen alike “wanted to put dogmatism, fanaticism, and religious wars behind them.” [p. 38] The restored authority of bishops and a renewed interest in art and literature refreshed the Church, as did the Enlightenment thought of Newton and Locke, among others.
The parallel development of church and state did not sit well in Rome, and in the chapter “The Ultramontane Movement” O’Malley describes the profound dismay over developments between church and states. The French Revolution and the era of Napoleon were pronouncedly anti-Catholic, and the wave of populist revolutions across Europe, including Italy itself, led Pope Pius IX to sour on modern development and to reinforce the ultimate authority over Church and society in the person of the pope. His supporters became known as “Ultramontanists,” from the Latin “beyond the mountains,” specifically the land beyond the Alps, the Italian peninsula. The term carried double meanings, referring to the literal protection of the Papal States from Italian nationalists and to Catholics around the world sympathetic to the strengthening of the Office of Peter to protect the Catholic faith.
Pius, in summoning a council in 1869, did not do so without risk. One risk was the very real military intervention of the seizing of Rome, a factor which later did play a role in the council’s proceedings. Politically and theologically speaking, while a clear majority of bishops supported the definition of infallibility, there were many who called for precision in speaking of the nature and exercise of such power. Not everyone defined the doctrine as did the lay editor of the Dublin Review, William Ward, who famously declared his desire to have an infallible papal encyclical delivered to him at breakfast every morning along with the Times.
There was also a sizeable block of bishops, between a quarter and a third, with significant reservations or even opposition to infallibility. By far the most famous opponent was not a bishop, but rather the Munich Professor Ignaz von Dollinger, with his brilliant student Lord Acton, the latter famous for his dictum “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Most moderates at the Council embraced one form or other of Dollinger’s concerns:  loss of freedom of thought and expression within the Church;  isolation from much of the intellectual world;  damage to ecumenical relations, particularly with the Episcopal and Orthodox Churches,  fear of schism, and  fear of the impact of absolutism upon Church reform.
Although he did not invite Dollinger, Pius IX brought together a broad range of theologians to Vatican I and allowed for considerable discussion. Infallibility and the structure of the Church was one of six major issues prepared for discussion; other topics included issues of church and state, the sacrament of Matrimony, and Faith and Revelation. Primitive acoustics, summer heat, poor command of Latin, and an open-ended agenda with no set conclusion contributed to the restlessness of bishops, as did the sound of canons surrounding the city. Pius thus ordered the vote on infallibility, his primary agenda, moved to the top of the list, and on July 18, 1870, only two bishops voted against the definition, one from the United States. Many with reservations left before the vote in deference to the pope, who then adjourned the Council until safer circumstances might prevail, which never did in his lifetime.
O’Malley’s summary of the Council highlights its blessings and failures. Whatever their sentiments, most of the world’s bishops honored and supported the newly declared doctrine. One of the few major opponents, Dollinger, came to a sad end. When Otto von Bismarck declared that bishops would be little more than puppets, the German conference of bishops provided a rebuttal that Pius approved as an official interpretation of the relationship of pope and bishops. The Council enabled the pope to appoint the world’s bishops, something that secular rulers had previously controlled. Perhaps most significantly, Vatican I made the office of the papacy a visible, meaningful factor in the lives of everyday Catholics. However, Lord Acton’s words about the corruption of power had not been considered; the Church of 2019 labors with the conundrum of defensive authority in the face of its own dramatic administrative sins.
This is an update on developments from the previous post below.
If you are a regular visitor to the Café, you know that this site is dedicated in part to connecting adult readers to the best that Church scholarship has to offer. I am a lone crusader for the argument that parish catechetics is not a one-size-fits-all proposition with emphasis upon children. If adults are wise to the ways of faith, the children will follow in their steps.
A week or so ago National Catholic Reporter published an essay by a Franciscan scholar, Father Dan Horan, entitled “The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians.” I posted a link to the piece earlier this past week and have reposted it here if you missed it. I was troubled by the tone and the content, which carried a sense of “we academics will do the critical thinking; the rest of you read your Sunday bulletins.” I do not for a minute think that the author actually believes this, but I do think the essay as it stands lends itself to serious misinterpretation. [Father Horan, incidentally, joined the same province of Franciscans as I did years ago, though I am considerably older and have never met him.]
I decided to respond with a letter to the editor, which I did post in the blog around midweek. Yesterday NCR carried a piece noting the strong reaction of readers to Fr. Horan’s original piece, posting a sample of the letters received by the publication, which included an edited version of mine. I am providing a link to the letters, primarily so you can see the other reactions chosen for publication. Most of them comforted me with the thought that least I’m not the only crazy one.
What happened next is very interesting. A senior editor of NCR, Michael Sean Winters, entered the dialogue yesterday. He posted a substantive essay on Father Horan’s piece and the responses to it, entitled “Hang on to the ecclesial nature of the theological task.” Ostensibly written to support Father Horan’s thesis, Winters enters serious thought about who owns the responsibility for “thinking for the Church.” He is much more critical of academia than I was. Winters’ piece is well worth reading—in your armchair, if you like.
Time for me to move on to six neglected streams at the Café.
On April 3, National Catholic Reporter presented an essay by Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M. entitled Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians.” At the risk of gross simplification, the author bemoans the shallow understanding of Catholics whose knowledge of things religious comes from skimming the internet. Father Horan is a member of my former Franciscan community, though I left the Order before he came to national prominence.
One of the objectives of the Catechist Café is connectedness of Catholic adults to the world of higher studies in the Faith. While I agreed with the author on many points—including the Catholic jungle of internet sites posted by amateurs, I felt compelled to suggest that the hallowed halls of ivy belong to all believing Catholics, not an academic elite. Thus, I submitted this letter to the editor of NCR. Whether it sees the light of day is anyone’s guess, but Café readers have the link to the original article, and my response beneath it.
“Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians” [April 3, 2019, Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M.]
The Brew Master’s Response:
Regarding Father Daniel Horan’s April 3 offering, “The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians,” the author targeted one contemporary problem and opened the door to several others. To his main point, it is not simply a problem of individuals skimming religious terminology and summaries from the internet for self-aggrandizement, or worse, for service to the wide varieties of parish ministry and catechizing. The more pernicious issue is what they are skimming. There is a distinct lack of visibility of sound professional theology on the internet and other sources for college educated and/or motivated Catholic readers and novice researchers. Were one to Google “Catholic Encyclopedia” this afternoon, the first entry to appear is the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, which literally ends in 1917. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Vatican II or Humanae Vitae. Where does the probing Catholic set off on his journey?
I would like to say Catholic academia, but I sense a disconnect between town and gown. One of the most underserved of Catholic faith formation populations is the cohort of professionally successful adults. Competent in so many areas of life, it is tragic that Catholic scholars on the whole have not developed suitable outreach to introduce wholesale adults to the writings of Church historians Massimo Faggioli and John W. O’Malley, moralist Margaret Farley, liturgist Joseph Martos, Scripture scholars Raymond Brown and John Meier; or slip the latest copy of America, Commonweal, or The Bible Today in anyone’s briefcase for the work commute.
It is a stretch to assume that in our church pews there are not many believers who can grasp the principles of cutting-edge theology for the enrichment of parochial life. I encounter many devout Catholic who are embarrassed by their own elementary grasp of theology as adults, and what is worse, many of them are immersed in providing adult education in their parishes. There is a tone in Father Horan’s essay [and certainly in his quotations from Anthony Godzieba]—dare I call it an academic clericalism? –that the career theologians alone can handle the deep thinking. The danger here is that academics are not by and large the ones passing the Catholic faith from generation to generation.
The villain of the piece seems to be computers and their spawn, and there is something to be said for that. The Catholic on-line world is replete with defenses of the Catechism and ad hominem attacks upon its critics, but this is, after all, how official present-day catechetics is conducted—as certainty—more akin to scholastic fidelity than internal reflection. If those in the armchairs look smug, it is because they have been told they enjoy that right by virtue of literal fidelity. The flexing of Catholic experience is becoming more affective and less left-brained. In several more generations, we will be an evangelical Church riding the wave of emotion because we have never learned to think. Over a century ago William James warned of the half-life of enthusiasm.
The greatest gifts that Catholic scholars can bring to the Church are twofold. The first is recognition of the challenges faced by “amateurs” who desire to know what “the experts” know. The second is recognition of the role of Catholic academia in catechetics. In his 2018 biography of the Biblical scholar Raymond Brown, Father Donald Senior describes the scholar’s efforts to build such bridges. After completing a major work, Father Brown would publish a smaller summary for public consumption, an invitation to come closer to Scriptural insight. How useful were his An Adult Christ at Christmas or A Risen Christ at Eastertime. Provide a Church “historiography” of reputable authors, publishing houses, and publications. Make the armchair a respectable seat of learning again.
Yesterday I posted a review on Amazon of Seminary: A Search  by the noted author Paul Hendrickson. In the early 1980's he was encouraged by his then employer, Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post, to narrate his experiences of seven years in the Trinitarian Seminary [1958-1965] in Alabama. I posted a direct link to the review to the Friday Stream available by clicking the title above.
I was feeling a little beat and my head, admittedly, started to nod during last Saturday night’s sermon when my 5% of conscious brain suddenly registered a rather startling narrative within the sermon: that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was a highly educated woman who attended organized schooling for some years. This was rather startling to hear in a sermon, since the sacred scripture reveals no such information about the Virgin Mary, nor does any competent Biblical scholar claim such a thing. Dating practically from post-New Testament times, individuals for a wide range of reasons have composed apocryphal stories about nearly every person or event in the New Testament. You yourself may have heard stories in your youth that young Jesus made birdies out of mud, breathed on them, and turned them into real birds which promptly flew away.
As the preacher last weekend was also an educator, I was surprised that he would introduce into the liturgy an unverifiable and unsourced tale. I believe it is the right of worshippers and church members in general, not to mention honest inquirers outside the Church, to learn the source of educational offerings, even in sermons. It is particularly wise for church ministers to do so, because we are more frequently challenged by “the orthodox police” in adult education, i.e., those who hold to the narrowest construction of Church pronouncements without full understanding of their complexity and accompanying documentation. In 40 years of catechetical training I was accused of “heresy” a few times, and even reported to Rome once. I was quoted as saying that confessions should not be heard before Mass. My bishop at the time, having received the complaint from Rome, asked me to elaborate what had happened. What I actually said in class was that the Vatican-approved rite of individual Penance is a matter of some length, and I wondered if the brevity of time available before public Mass did justice to the full rite.
This incident occurred in the 1980’s; were a student to challenge me with a similar criticism on the Sacrament of Penance, I could readily cite the 2015 Instruction from the Congregation of Divine Worship, “Rediscovering the Rite of Penance,” which assumes that every confession is a divine engagement of intensity. If I may quote from this document:
It is not simply a question of the penitent speaking out a list of sins as if into the air or to no one. One confesses to the priest. The priest, for his part, is instructed to engage in a careful interaction with the one confessing: «If necessary, the priest helps the penitent to make an integral confession and gives him suitable counsel». This back and forth between penitent and priest is nothing less than the ritual form that enacts the penitent’s encounter with Christ himself in the person of the priest. For this reason, the priest is instructed to help the penitent to understand the deepest meaning of this encounter.
In truth, all Catholics need to exercise some measure of precision in talking about the teachings and practices of the Church. Until recently I belonged to a small neighborhood faith group where we had a “pontificator” who was a dependable source of misinformation to the other members, most of whom did not have post-Confirmation catechesis or religious education. I am not quite certain how Martin Luther came up in discussion, but someone saw fit to render a string of biographical inadequacies, marital difficulties, and theological errors about Luther that would have surprised Luther himself and probably offended anyone brought up in the traditional Lutheran heritage of faith, whatever their faith tradition today. Accurate readings of Luther’s life and works are available today such as Eric Metaxas’s biography that I have used on Café posts.
Catholic catechesis in the present day is lagging. As journalist Kenneth Woodward explained to my senior priests’ gathering last November, every generation of American Catholics is exponentially less educated in the Faith than the previous ones, because of a parallel decline in theological training of church ministerial staff, notably catechists, Catholic school teachers, and parish facilitators. [Such functions were, years ago, exercised by religious women and men with bachelors’ degrees as a minimum, and many with theological masters’ degrees.] Parish faith formation personnel—those with the diocesan certifications or on-line programs such as the University of Dayton’s—tell me they feel very inadequate when addressing an assembly of inquisitive and critical professional men and women.
Complicating the situation further is the Internet, which has no means of distilling the wheat from the chaff where Catholic study is concerned. For example, if you enter the term “Catholic Encyclopedia” into your search engine, you will usually come here, a site called Catholic Encyclopedia. You do not need expertise in historiography to recognize that, as an academic or faith formation tool, a work completed in 1912 might not contain a century which produced John XXIII, John Paul II, and Francis; there is no entry for either World War or Vatican II. Random internet searching or visits to the local library are at best crapshoots.
Some parishes provide their members with free access to FORMED, an all-purpose Catholic multimedia site that carries the “good housekeeping seal” of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. FORMED runs the gamut from e-books to inspirational films to catechetical instruction. It is a good basic platform subscription service; my pastor has elected to pay for full-parish coverage. If I read the website correctly, a parish subscription for parishes of 250+ members runs to about $1850/year. Whether this service is too pricey for some parishes is hard to say, though it appears that accommodations are available for small parishes.
I recommend that an adult Catholic carry a subscription to a publication like America, the Jesuit weekly which combines news, theology, and culture, and register for email updates from publishers such as Paulist Press and Liturgical Press, which feature college level peer-reviewed works for the more intensive reader. And in terms of going to the source, every important document to come forth from the Vatican is available on-line for free at this attractive if complex site.
It is enough of a problem that the richness of Scripture and the experience of Church History is poorly grasped; it is worse when poor interpretation mixes with home brewed piety posing as sacred writ. I seem to recall from my high school years the principle of Gresham’s Law, that “bad money drives good money out of circulation.” Beware of counterfeit theology: hold that bill to the light.
I will be away for the next ten days but check in each day for an interesting link or book recommendation.
America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Bishop Fulton Sheen
By Thomas C. Reeves
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2007):
Fulton J. Sheen will never be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church for two obvious reasons: his sins are bright scarlet and we know them too well. Sheen established a television intimacy with the American public in the 1950’s that only a few individuals have achieved—Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson come to mind—through his apostolic use of that explosive new video medium. I was a lad in Catholic elementary school when Sheen delivered his prime time homilies from 1952 through 1957. While I remember little of the content of those shows, I was captivated by the style. Sheen, I noticed, paused to let the audience think. None of my local priests did that, nor did they have Skippy the angel to erase the blackboard.
Thomas Reeves is to be commended for the manner in which he tells the truth, the whole truth, about Sheen without defacing the Bishop’s many good works and his positive influence upon a wide and diverse American public. Sheen’s life was indeed a message “written with crooked lines” and one is reminded of Christ’s words to the penitent woman, “her sins, many as they are, will be forgiven because of her great love.” Though haunted by the pride and ambition that would seem to stalk nearly all television evangelists who followed, in the final analysis Sheen did love his God, though he himself ran a close second.
Born in 1895 on a farm in rural Illinois, the youthful Peter John Sheen was devout, smart, and disdainful of manual labor and farming. He was hardly the first country boy to see the cloth as a step up from shoveling manure. We forget that he was originally a priest of the Peoria, Illinois, diocese, possibly because of his distinguished academic record at the Louvain.
There is an air of mystery about Sheen’s academic status, though. Desperate to escape a life in Peoria, Sheen joined the philosophy faculty of Catholic University in 1926 but never became “one of the boys” of the staff. In fact, tenure was denied him for some years, in part because the young priest was away from the campus three days a week for his growing number of speaking engagements. [In 1928 he hired a clipping service to track his press notices.] Catholic University itself was in academic, political, and organizational disarray. The school was frankly under-funded and underachieving. Perhaps to ease himself out of the philosophy department and into theology, Sheen invented for himself a second doctorate, an S.T.D. that suddenly appeared after his name in 1928 and which remained on his letterhead as late as 1966. Reeves speculates that Sheen got away with this massive deception precisely because it was so audacious, and no one would have expected it of him.
Reeves wonders if Sheen is under-appreciated today as a scholastic. Although brilliant and prolific, Sheen was not original, and added nothing of substance to twentieth century philosophy. Sheen’s strength was apologetics: the presentation of Catholic faith and devotion in simple, straightforward, and yet cosmopolitan ways. For about forty years, from 1928 through 1966, Sheen was arguably the best preacher in the United States, dividing his time between public appearances, radio and television, prodigious devotional writing, and fundraising for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith [and, surprisingly, acting as an “observer” of sorts for J. Edgar Hoover, who admired his fierce anti-communism.] His work for the Society earned him the title bishop, appointed auxiliary to Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York in 1951. Reeves finds that Sheen was a holy priest who made a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament and spent hours personally instructing converts, including numerous celebrities of the entertainment and publishing industries.
Having said that, it cannot be denied that Sheen shocked his clerical brethren with a champagne lifestyle. While a faculty member at CU Sheen built a magnificent home in NW D.C. and entertained frequently and graciously. As a fund-raiser, millions of dollars passed through his hands, though there is no whiff of impropriety. Reeves does comment upon Sheen’s total absence of fiscal management skill, his arrogance and petulance that insulated him from sound advice, his unfettered cash charity, and his pride of bestowal, so to speak. These factors, coupled with his Cardinal Spellman’s own devils, led to an estrangement between the two that produced one of the strangest episcopal appointments of our lifetime.
In October 1966 Fulton Sheen was appointed bishop of Rochester, NY. To church observers it was clear that Spellman had orchestrated the transfer for ultimate humiliation effect. In public, at least, Sheen put the best face on things, explaining that his tenure would be an experiment with the reforms of the recently concluded Vatican II. In truth, Sheen was a pre-Vatican II autocrat who alienated nearly every local constituency. His unilateral decision-making cost him his priests, and his explicit criticisms of racial policies at Kodak the support of the city’s largest employer. He was deeply wounded that Rochester did not recognize the celebrity in its midst, and within three years “America’s best preacher” withered into retirement.
If the Rochester years were his crucifixion, they also brought Sheen into communion with his best self. In retirement he publicly regretted his earlier opulence and vanity. He became less dogmatic and more open to philosophical systems other than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although not entirely shedding his theatrical instincts, he lived the last of his 84 years with an optimistic piety that belied the sufferings of multiple illnesses. Appropriately, he was found dead in his private chapel. Throughout this remarkable life, with its graces and glosses, Sheen’s prayers were always sincere. His arrogance and sense of self-importance are perhaps the less desirable fruits of his utter certainty in the truth and goodness of God and the holiness of the Roman Catholic Church.
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2018 postscript: Bishop Sheen has not been canonized to this point. There is nasty litigation between the Archdiocese of New York and members of Sheen's family, as the latter are seeking to have the bishop's remains removed from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to a site in the Peoria, Illinois, Diocese. Moreover, Catholic University is enduring yet another identity crisis, not unlike those of Sheen's years, the 1920's.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything
Book Club: The Interesting Books You Haven't Had Time To Read
To stay current, shop judiciously, and spread your education dollar.