Sunday, July 23, 2017
Any illusion of Christian societies in Europe and its colonies died in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Critiques based on Freud, Darwin and Marx, industrialized murder in two world wars, a worldwide clamor for justice and a world order led by an accidental world power sustained by nuclear weaponry all put the lie to Christendom. Yet the intuitive soul of Christian faith survived, awaiting a better day.
This is about that interim period, from roughly 1891 to 1962, that set the stage for our modern day expressions of faith. At this point almost all the ideas of our time were on the table.
History sped up. My grandparents were born in the mid-to-late 19th century to a life that had changed little since Jesus’ day: people used animals and wind power to travel, candles to see at night, speech or handwriting to convey ideas. Social order was prescribed by institutions that seemed built for the ages. There may have been a faraway glimmer or a faint rumor of changes still deemed the stuff of fantasy. By the time the last of them died, there was a realistic aim for men to set foot on the Moon.
During this period, the Christian faith, for most churchgoing Christians in the pews, changed little. Almost everywhere, except in certain tyrannized societies, up to four-tenths of society observed weekly Christian rituals of their local church, the rest pretending to assent and showing up on feast days for family outings. Sincere believers made a mildly heroic effort to live out some semblance of the gospel message while watching horrified as everything they thought they stood for was disregarded in public.
Meanwhile, the clergy, theologians and scholars made a quiet attempt to defend the Christian faith from outright annihilation in the gears of the modern machine. In 1913, the Catholic Encyclopedia was published. In 1919, Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth published his Commentary on Romans, responding to Liberal Protestantism and beginning the Protestant neo-orthodox movement.
In the 1926-1929 Cristero War in Mexico, Catholics rebelled against persecution and anticlerical laws (and the expulsion and assassination of some 4,000 Catholic priests), and many laypeople fled to the United States. Popular piety’s last gasp was the 1917 apparition of Our Lady of Fatima to three young people, in Fatima, Portugal, which included the October 13 “Miracle of the Sun” witnessed by about 100,000 people in the Cova da Iria fields near Fatima. The Catholic Church anticipated the late 20th century and early 21st century emphasis on spirituality by canonizing a modern mystic, Therese of Lisieux in 1925.
A series of conferences attempted to begin shoring up the institutions that proclaimed the faith by beginning talk of common action. One example was the 1910 World Missionary Conference, a primarily evangelical event. Another is the 1920 encyclical of the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople suggesting a “fellowship of churches” similar to the League of Nations. The key event for mainline Protestant denominations was the Lutheran-led World Conference of Life and Work in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1925, which gathered Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, with the much regretted absence of the Catholic Church.
Meanwhile, in Rome, there was also quiet ferment. Much as he had responded to socioeconomic developments, Pope Leo XIII also cautiously opened the door to modern historical and textual criticism of the Bible in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus. Leo’s step followed bubbling from below: Fr. Joseph-Marie Lagrange, O.P., founded the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem in 1890 and the Revue Biblique in 1892, which eventually led to the modern Jerusalem Bible translation.
This bud was nipped by Leo’s two successors. Pius X launched an antimodernist crusade, which also had the influence of Freud and Darwin in its sights, and his Pontifical Biblical Commission demanded the most traditionalist interpretations. After him came Benedict XV, who opposed all efforts to incorporate modernism and condemned them under the forbidden doctrine of “integrism.”
Quietly, quietly, some pressed on, despite Vatican thunder. Throughout the 19th century scholars at the Catholic Tubingen school timidly attempted to incorporate some of the insights of the new methods and engage in dialogue with their more advanced Protestant colleagues, who enjoyed greater freedom.
It was not until the early 1940s, when a series of anonymous pamphlets against modernism in biblical scholarship—possibly inspired by the Fascist regime—was sent to Italian bishops, the the policy was reviewed.. The Pontifical Biblical Commission wrote what some deem a draft of Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (Inspired by the Holy Spirit), issued on the 50th anniversary of Leo’s letter.
Pius wrote that biblical texts should be interpreted according to “the literal meaning of the words, intended and expressed by the sacred writer,” supported by efforts to “determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed.” The document ushered in a springtime of Catholic biblical scholarship that has not abated to this day.
In countries such as the United States, the opening led to unparalleled new scholarly dialogue between Protestant and Catholic scholars to the point that a Catholic was elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature, which was by custom Protestant. Similarly, Protestants were admitted as leading members of the Catholic Biblical Association. As a result, U.S. Catholic scholars such as the late Raymond Brown and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza became widely recognized across denominations and internationally as legitimate and leading scholars.
It was not entirely accidental that the new freedom in biblical scholarship occurred beginning in the early 1940s, nor that, well under the surface of conventional Catholic parish life, similar experimentation and a new sense of freedom began to be felt in the Catholic Church. The proximate cause, in my opinion, was the Nazi attack on the cultural foundations of Christian institutions.
The Christian martyrs of the era all died in concentration camps, two in Auschwitz one in Flossenburg: Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD, was a German Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism and became a Discalced Carmelite nun; Maximilian Maria Kolbe, O.F.M. Conv., was a Polish Conventual Franciscan friar who volunteered to die in place of a stranger; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, spy, anti-Nazi dissident and key founding member of the Confessing Church.
Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In a French missionary initiative, priests worked in factories to experience the life of the largely unchurched and secularized working class. Fr. Jacques Loew, who began working on the docks of Marseille in 1941, effectively started the movement. When France was liberated in 1944, there were missions in Paris, Lyons and Marseille where the clergy hoped to win over an urban working class lost since the French Revolution at least.
It was a short-lived effort, as in the new Cold War era the Vatican became nervous about political repercussions, particularly links to the Communist Party, for which French workers voted massively. In 1954 Loew disbanded the effort, established the Saints Peter and Paul Mission to Workers, then went off on foreign missions to Africa and the shantytowns of São Paulo, Brazil. Missionaries such as these brought new ideas to the Catholic clergy in the developing nations, particularly of Latin America, where a third of all Catholics live.
Two notable postwar voices of the time were Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and Bernard Häring (1912-1998).
Lubac, a Jesuit, spent years in the French Resistance alongside Communists and became instrumental in launching the nouvelle théologie (New Theology), which drew on new insight from scriptural reinterpretation. He was named one of the few nonepiscopal cardinals—technically, even a layman can be named a cardinal, whose main job is to elect a pope—in his later years; his best known work is Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man.
Häring, a Redemptorist priest, was a missionary in Brazil, drafted into the German army and served as a medic, but the Nazis barred him from acting as a priest. After the war, he became a moral theologian and came to fame with his three-volume The Law of Christ, which is a personalist and scripture-based approach to the treatment of ethics.
These are only two of many who prepared the way for a son of sharecroppers, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, to open the Church’s windows for the Holy Spirit.