Category: Bible and Theology

Today marks the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth. Over at the First Things site, I take the occasion to pay special attention to Calvin’s concern for articulating the antiquity, and therefore the catholicity, of the Reformation.

Among the factors that converts from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism very often cite as major influences on their move is the novelty of the former compared with the antiquity of the latter. This is, undoubtedly, an important point that ought to be addressed by concerned Protestants.

But I argue, in continuity with the Reformers, I think, that this concern is best answered in the first place not by discounting the value or the importance of antiquity, but rather by doing justice to the claims of the Reformation itself to representing the ancient and catholic faith.

Sometimes the Reformation is summed up by reference to the five “solas,” and Calvin is associated with the saying, “Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere.” (“I offer my heart to you, Lord, promptly and sincerely.”)

But the motto of the Reformers might just as well have been (as a colleague has put it), “Expellete nova, impellete vetera!” (“Out with the new, in with the old!”)

As one would expect with an encyclical from Benedict XVI, its strength lies in its use of theology to re-orientate Catholics and other Christians away from thinking in a merely secular — and sometimes hyper-politicized way — about questions such as economic and political questions.

The Christian understanding of truth and love and Catholicism’s careful integration of these theological and moral realities lifts us up and out of what the Pope calls the false ideologies and utopias that disfigure our minds and actions. Though they are mentioned sparingly, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas are clearly two of the major influences upon the theology informing this text, alongside sacred Scripture.

In these respects, Benedict XVI is being faithful to his theological method of “ressourcement,” pioneered by figures such as Henri de Lubac, S.J., which involves renewing the Church through returning to the primary sources of Christian inspiration. This helps to explain, for instance, the language of gift that permeates the encyclical and reminds us that the model of Christ the Son as God the Father’s gift to us has implications for economic and political life.

Obviously, there will be intense debate about some of the prudential judgments about questions of economic policy expressed in “Caritas in Veritate.” Here we find an element of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” which is not always coherent. I would also suggest that the often-negative relationship between extensive wealth-redistribution and the prior necessity of wealth-creation have not been sufficiently considered.

Concerning the global economy, there is nothing new about the encyclical’s reference to a world political authority from the standpoint of Catholic social teaching. In fact, some argue that it represents a logical extension of natural law reasoning about the political order.

The problem is how a world authority could possibly manage the global economy — i.e., billions of economic choices by billions of people and institutions on a daily basis. The principle of subsidiarity provides us with some guidance, but the encyclical may underestimate the tendency of state and international bureaucracies to pursue agendas that have everything to do with their own interests and nothing to do with the poor.

Of course, there are many economic and cultural observations in the encyclical that bear repeating. Benedict XVI’s dismissal of dependency theory as ” erroneous,” his warning against protectionism, and his affirmation that it is people rather than the market economy per se that creates economic evils should be welcomed as helpful correctives to particular ideas that often prevail among social justice activists.

Above all, the insistence upon permeating commercial and economic life with Christian truth — especially moral truth — and Christian love represents a bold challenge for us to apply the Catholic faith to every aspect of our economic lives.

In this regard, Benedict XVI is neither an anarcho-capitalist from the pages of “Atlas Shrugged,” nor a socialist straight out of “Das Kapital.” He is nothing more and nothing less than a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Published July 9 on Zenit
, the Catholic news agency.

As the squabbling continues over the at-times contradictory policy-suggestions contained in Benedict XVI’s social encyclical, there’s a risk that the deeper – and more important – theological themes of the text will be overlooked. It’s also possible some of the wider implications for the Catholic Church’s own self-understanding and the way it consequently approaches questions of justice will be neglected.

For historical perspective, we should recall that before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council there was – and remains – an intense theological debate within the Catholic Church about, firstly, how it renews itself in order to spread the Good News contained in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ more efficaciously; and secondly, what this means for the Church’s engagement with modernity.

Putting the matter somewhat simplistically, one group of twentieth-century Catholic theologians – including Henri de Lubac, S.J., Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, S.J., and Jorge Medina Estévez – maintained that the Church could only authentically renew itself by going back to the basic sources of Christian inspiration: most notably the Sacred Scriptures, Tradition, and the Church Fathers. It was on this basis that they thought the Church should speak to the modern world about, for example, justice issues. They were certainly not disinterested in the insights offered, for example, by modern sciences such as physics or economics. They were, however, convinced that unless the Catholic Church spoke in distinctly Christian terms, the uniqueness of Christ’s message was bound to be lost.

Another cluster of theologians, however, had a different starting-point. They argued that Church renewal meant looking to the modern world for guidance. It included figures such as Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., and Hans Küng. On one level, they were concerned with making the Christian message comprehensible to self-consciously “modern” people. But most eventually went further and argued that the modern world itself contained the hermeneutic for how Christians should engage the earthly city, and even defined what it meant to be Christian.

The problem with the second approach is that it quickly degenerates into a set of circular propositions such as the following: the modern world (as defined by, for example, Hans Küng) says that equality à la John Rawls or Karl Marx is the content of justice; the modern world defines Christian self-understanding; therefore the Christian concern for justice should be Rawlsian or Marxist in nature.

In this schema of reasoning, there’s no obvious way of testing whether a particular modern proposition accords with Divine Revelation because the modern world itself is regarded as somehow summarizing the content of Revelation. In effect, whatever is considered to be modern – and whoever sets himself up as defining the content of modernity – becomes the arbiter of what is and is not Christian. (more…)

Pope Benedict XVI’s much anticipated economics encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, is scheduled to be released early next week, according reports. For a good sense of this pope’s thinking on economics, we offer an article the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger presented in 1985 at a symposium in Rome.  The Acton Institute published it under the title “Market Economy and Ethics.”  As indicated by the following quote, the pope believed in integrating morals into economics in order to have sound and successful economic policy:

This determinism, in which man is completely controlled by the binding laws of the market while believing he acts in freedom from them, includes yet another and perhaps even more astounding presupposition, namely, that the natural laws of the market are in essence good (if I may be permitted so to speak) and necessarily work for the good, whatever may be true of the morality of individuals. These two presuppositions are not entirely false, as the successes of the market economy illustrate. But neither are they universally applicable and correct, as is evident in the problems of today’s world economy.

Without developing the problem in its details here — which is not my task — let me merely underscore a sentence of Peter Koslowski’s that illustrates the point in question: “The economy is governed not only by economic laws, but is also determined by men…” Even if the market economy does rest on the ordering of the individual within a determinate network of rules, it cannot make man superfluous or exclude his moral freedom from the world of economics. It is becoming ever so clear that the development of the world economy has also to do with the development of the world community and with the universal family of man, and that the development of the spiritual powers of mankind is essential in the development of the world community. These spiritual powers are themselves a factor in the economy: the market rules function only when a moral consensus exists and sustains them.

According to the Catholic News Agency, an Italian newspaper claims to have acquired some parts of the upcoming Caritas in Veritate encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI.  Some of the quotes published by Corriere della Sera are claimed to be from the encyclical and align with the predictions that the Pope will be advocating for morality to be the basis of solving our economic crisis. Here is a quote:

Without truth, without trust and love for what is truthful, there is no conscience or social responsibility, and the social action falls under the control of private interests or logics of power, with the destructive effect on society, even more on a society on the way to globalization, in difficult moments like the current ones.

Corriere della Sera also says that the encyclical will address a number of global issues, including world hunger.  The Italian paper pulls a few other claimed quotes from the Pope’s encyclical: Charity in truth requires an urgent reform to confront courageously and without hesitation the great problems of injustice in the development of the nations; Food and water are universal rights; [and] the development of all nations depends above all in recognizing that we are one single family.

Despite all of the rumors, predictions, and claims to know what the Pope’s encyclical actually says, we are going to have to wait until to release to finally hear the Pope’s words.  The PowerBlog will continue to cover the encyclical prior to and after its release.

There has been much discussion, commentary, and debate on Pope Benedict’s much anticipated encyclical on the economy Caritas in Veritate (remarkable for a statement that has not yet been released).  At the PowerBlog, we will keep you informed on what is being said about the encyclical and, when it is released, we look forward to providing great coverage.

Two of the most recent commentaries came from John Allen Jr. in the National Catholic Reporter and Michael Novak in First Things.  In Allen’s preview of the new encyclical he states:

In effect, what Benedict laid out last night likely amounts to the theological and spiritual substructure of the encyclical, minus the specific economic prescriptions.

The core of what Benedict said, during an ecumenical vespers service at the grand basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, is that building a better world requires forming better people.  Structural reform thus presuppose personal moral and spiritual renewal, including a life devoted to prayer and the sacraments.

Allen further hints at the theme of the encyclical with his statement:

The idea that a better world must be built on better people is likely to be a core theme in Caritas in Veritale, and the pope dealt with it at length yesterday.

“Paul tells us [that] the world cannot be renewed without new human beings,” Benedict said. “Only if there are new human beings will there be a new world, a renewed and better world.”

There is much speculation that the new encyclical will be in favor of free markets and Novak responds to the criticism from those on the left:

For moralists, it is essential to see how often (not always) government itself sins grievously against the common good, out of a lust for power and domination over others.  Furthermore, government often (not always) generates foolish and destructive regulations, and often dispenses justice that winks rather than justice that is blind.  Government is more frequently the agent of injuring the common good than the ordinary lawful actions of free citizens.  During the twentieth century, governments too often destroyed the common good of their citizens for years to come.

I had the privilege of lecturing at last week’s Acton University on the topic of Lutheran Social Ethics. In preparing for that session, I was struck again at just how “Lutheran” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sounds every time I read him.

Here’s an example. Last week I asked, “Whither justice?” and noted some of Luther’s words on the subject. Here’s Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, virtually echoing Luther:

What does it matter if I suffer injustice? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me even done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? Must it not be beneficial and conducive to humility for me to learn to bear such petty ills silently and patiently?

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
By

Just how zealous for justice ought Christians be? I admit that I’m always just a bit put off when folks describe the prime mission of Christians as pursuing justice in the world. Let’s not forget that the foundational Christian reality is forgiving love on the basis of the divine justice manifested on the cross.

Or as Luther puts it in his commentary on Romans (emphasis added),

This is the reason (if I may speak of myself) why even hearing the word “justice” nauseates me to the point that if someone robbed me, he would not bring me such grief. And yet the word is always sounding in the mouths of the lawyers. There is no race of men upon the earth who are more ignorant about this matter than the lawyers and the good-intentioners and the intellectuals. For I in myself and with many others have had the experience that when we were righteous, God laughed at us in our righteousness. And yet I have heard men who dared to say: “I know that I have righteousness, but God does not notice it.” That is true, but it is a righteousness only in one particular; but for this God cares nothing. Therefore the only complete righteousness is humility, which subjects everyone to everyone else and thus gives everything to everyone, as Christ says to John: “Thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).

Thus in Dan. 3 Azariah confesses that he and his friends are at one and the same time suffering justly and yet are afflicted with evil, namely, at the hands of the wicked king. For even though he who acts does so unjustly, yet he does not do so to the person who suffers; for that person suffers justly. For by what legal right does the devil possess men? Or by what legal right does an evil hangman hang a thief? Certainly not in his own right, but by that of the judge. Thus men who glory in their own righteousness are unwilling to listen to the supreme Judge, but only to their own judgment, and because in respect to their victim they are innocent, they think that they really are innocent in every way.

Therefore since before God no one is righteous, absolutely no injustice can be done to a person by any other creature, even though he may have justice on his side. Thus all cause for contention is taken away from men. Therefore, to whomsoever an injury is done or an evil comes in return for his good actions, let him turn away his eyes from this evil and remember how great his own evil is in other respects, and then he will see how good the will of God is even in this evil which has come upon him; for this is what it means to be renewed in one’s mind and to be changed into another state of mind and to be wise in the things of God. Thus it is definite that Peter would not have glorified God if he had girded himself and gone where he wanted to go, even though he would not have walked a wicked path, but the highest road of righteousness. But after this road of his own righteousness was prohibited and he went where he did not want to go but where another wanted, then he glorified God. So also we cannot glorify God unless we do what we do not wish, even in the case of our own works of righteousness, indeed, particularly in the case of our own righteousness, our own counsels, or our own strength. And thus to hate our own life and to will against our own will, to be wise in opposition to our own wisdom, to confess sin in the face of our own righteousness, to heed foolishness spoken against our own wisdom, this is “to take our cross” (Matt. 10:38), “to be His disciples” (Luke 14:27), and “to be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong. I acknowledge that the ethical norm in social ethics is “justice.” But out of sheer humility let’s not be too zealous for justice, at least not without consciously, intentionally, and systematically connecting it to divine love.

First Things revisits Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s reflections on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and its role in American religious and political life, past, present, and future.

It was originally published in 2005, but deserves renewed scrutiny because Dolan was recently installed as the leader the Archdiocese of New York, widely perceived as the preeminent American see.

And his observations happen to be relevant to the Notre Dame controversy (see Michael Miller’s post below); and to the ongoing question of interpreting Catholic social teaching in the context of American politics (see Fr. Sirico’s post below.)

Said Dolan:

Bishops seem to sense that a return to the John Carroll-John England style of leadership might be in order. Above all, these patriarchs were concerned with building the Catholic Church in the United States. Bishops today increasingly ask whether it is now necessary to rebuild the Church in America, through reform and renewal. They wonder if we need to start internally, concentrating first on pastoral issues such as widespread catechetical illiteracy, the collapse of marriage and family life, the restoration of a “culture of life,” genuine liturgical reform, a return to the sacrament of penance, a national commitment to obey the third commandment, and the promotion of authentic renewal in the lives of our priests and religious…

As a graduate of Notre Dame I have been asked many times what I think of Notre Dame inviting President Barack Obama to speak at commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Many have ably commented on this, including Fr. Sirico here at Acton, Dr. Donald Condit, and over 50 bishops. I think the ND Response video piece sums it up well. But I received a video appeal from Notre Dame the other day asking for money which prompted me to comment. (See my reply to the appeal below)

I think Fr. Jenkins made a serious mistake of judgment in inviting President Obama to the graduation. The controversy over President Obama coming to Notre Dame is not an argument about the value of open debate at a university; it is not about President Obama. It is about a Catholic institution honoring a public figure whose positions directly contradict those of the Catholic Church on the key non-negotiable issues of life.

Faithful Catholics are free to disagree about a host – in fact, the overwhelming majority – of political and economic issues, but some moral issues, like the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life, are not up for debate and never have been. See Cardinal Ratzinger’s Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles especially paragraph #3

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Jenkins, has tried to justify the invitation on many levels, but the attempts have been exercises in sophistry. If you have any doubts on this score see Fr. Raymond De’Souza’s fine piece on the matter.

Despite the outcry against Notre Dame, Fr. Jenkins and his staff seem oblivious and continue business as usual. Just last week I received an e-mail from the Notre Dame development office with a video asking for money. The style was postmodern and adolescent, and the content of the appeal focused predominantly on race and environment–important concerns but tone deaf in the context of the current controversy.

Below is my (edited) response to the development appeal and my views on Notre Dame’s decision to honor the president. (more…)