Sunday, August 20, 2017

The State of Contemporary Christianity

After meandering for about four years like the Jews in the desert, this blog has come to the end of the story of the faith because we have reached the present. Knowing what we know about the past, what can we say about the Christianity of our time?

Our faith is not the faith of martyrs. It is not the medieval faith of what earlier I called “the cathedral of Europe.” It is not even the witnessing faith of Bible-centered Protestants. Nor is it the faith of monarchical Europe, so ready to fulminate against anything that rocks the boat. Ecumenism has not come to full fruition and tolerance has not bridged divides within humanity.

The reign of God feels as distant as it was the day the apostles looked up agape as Christ ascended; in an important sense we are alone and bereft of that inspiring Jesus who turned human priorities upside down. Most people of my generation notice most of all that the seemingly eternal church structures to which our elders introduced us have lost their sway in society. Arguably, churches had lost their significance centuries earlier and as children we simply did not realize.

Pope John XXIII opened the windows of the Church to let the Holy Spirit in and, in some senses, that has been happening.

We live in a postmodern world in the sense that the scientific empirical consensus has broken down. Modernity, its birth first sensed about the late 16th century and its demise in its late, last gasp in the 20th after many obituaries had been written, was about a belief in reason based on sensory observation (helped by microscopes, telescopes and even computers, as extensions). For some time now, the insights of Freud, Kierkegaard, Picasso and Timothy Leary, to name only a few, have reminded us of ancient wisdom and intuitive knowledge.

The origin of the word “intuit” is instructive. Although its original English meaning in the 18th century was “to tutor,” it comes from Latin intueri, from in- “at, on” plus tueri “to look at, watch over,” which leads us to the current meaning of “to perceive directly without reasoning, know by immediate perception.”

There is nothing more intuitive than the idea of the Spirit of God, the breathed in (remember that Hebrew ruach for breathing!) soul of the divine, the spark of life that makes us see without eyes. This is what I see as the aim of contemporary Christian faith, a reaching to perceive beyond reason and beyond the senses to the center and ground of all being, which contains love.

We have reason to be skeptical of churches, their professionals, religion in general and a fair amount of the material they taught and sometimes teach. Yet the gospel is true, and Jesus was never known to have said anything about an obligation to go to church on Sundays, nor to prohibit abortion, nor most of the things we argue and fight about. He did ask us to stop fighting.

Would Jesus put his arms around Buddha, Muhammad, Zoroaster and even Richard Dawkins? Probably, most of all if he didn’t agree with them.

This does not mean that our journey of faith has been meaningless and pointless. The history of the Christian faith is our history as humans, coming to terms with things Jesus the Christ knew a long, long time ago. He didn’t have to live it; we humans did. Still do. Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Post-Vatican II Catholicism

The Second Vatican Council set off a series of movements and disputes that still echo today. Given the chance to reexamine and update the expression of an ancient faith, Catholics explored then rediscovered the gospel. They often read in an untutored way, in the light of modern experience, which varied by place and social group. Those who viewed change as heresy or even apostasy didn’t like it.

Despite the debates, Vatican II did not touch a single foundational doctrine. The most noticeable change every Catholic saw on Sundays was the translation and adaptation of the Latin rubrics—or script, if you will—of the liturgy of the Eucharist, the Mass, to hundreds of local languages. Another big change was the priest facing the people from behind an altar in the center of the sanctuary, the area behind the communion rail. An opaque rite in a dead language was now celebrated in an everyday language, choreographed to encourage participation from the pews.

When the council encouraged singing in church by the people, the council fathers had nothing more adventurous than Gregorian Chant in mind. Next thing anyone knew people were playing guitars in church, and they weren’t singing “Panis Angelicus.”

Rather, they favored popular songs such as “Dominique,” a 1963 ballad about St. Dominic written and performed by Jeannine Deckers of Belgium, then known as Dominican Sister Luc-Gabrielle, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) or The Singing Nun. Similarly, people chanted, swayed and clapped to “Kumbayah” (“Come by Here”), a modern song in the style of African-American spirituals that acquired an entirely fictional modern African pedigree. These were staples of the youth or folk Mass of the 1960s and 1970s.

The call to priests and members of vowed communities to reassess their life commitments led to widespread abandonment of mostly medieval garb by many religious orders and the deemphasizing of elite Catholic schools in favor of missions to serve the poor. The Catholic priesthood, in particular, suffered in the countries with the highest rates of vocations—Ireland, Spain and the United States—as the celibacy requirement came under challenge and many men left to marry.

At the theological level, scholars attempted to strip the essentials of Catholic teaching of the many adornments that had accumulated over the ages. Some involved dead metaphors and symbols that no longer spoke meaningfully to humanity about the essential gospel message.

Two communities of thinkers coalesced around two major international and multilingual academic theological journals: Concilium, founded in 1965 to promote discussion in the “spirit of Vatican II,” with the support of Anton van den Boogaard, Paul Brand, Yves Congar, Hans Küng, Johann Baptist Metz, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx; and Communio, founded in 1972 by Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper, Marc Ouellet, Louis Bouyer and others. To readers unfamiliar with the theologians named, the first was a forum for reformist and speculative views, the second a conservative reaction.

Catholics separated into two broad groups. On one side were partisans of John XXIII, the smiling pope who had provided the platform for modernization in form, if not substance, a man of humble origins regarded by many, with some justification, as saintly. The former Giuseppe Roncalli had a peasant’s ease with people and a diplomat’s charm, but he was spared having to preside over the Church after the council, and no one really knows how he would have handled the fallout.

In another group were defenders of Paul VI, the more cerebral pope who followed and had to implement council decisions. He was politically open to serious reform in society but was cautious doctrinally and in matters of moral discipline. The upper-class Giovanni Battista Montini was a consummate Vatican bureaucrat who attempted to put the brakes on a Church carriage that seemed propelled by a team of runaway horses.

The late Chicago priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley correctly placed the moment of the divide at the 1968 issuance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). In that document, Paul VI reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s traditional view of marriage and ban on the use of artificial birth control. As Greeley put it, the encyclical put many Catholics who had anticipated approval of “the pill” in the position of rebelling and discovering that no lightning bolt struck them. Catholic clerical authority was never quite the same.

Sex and sexual morality cut through the preeminent post-Vatican II Catholic controversies (everything from abortion, birth control, masturbation and premarital sex to homosexuality and priestly celibacy), but primarily in the wealthy West. The region offered contrasting situations: in western Europe churches had been emptying out since the French Revolution, whereas in the United States, Irish Catholicism had produced an immigrant religious ghetto that even today has the highest church attendance among Catholics worldwide.

The Catholic center of gravity, long set in wealthy regions, however, began to shift to Latin America, Africa and Asia, where the problems were primarily economic and social. The Church in many poor countries was saddled with a history of uneasy compromise with colonial authorities and the native elites that succeeded them. In Latin America, home to more than a third of the world’s Catholics, 90 percent of the population was baptized Catholic in the 1960s, but no more than 10 percent attended Mass regularly (lower than western Europe’s 15 percent); however, the culture was deeply and irretrievably Catholic.

Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (Progress of Peoples) fired the imagination of the Latin American clergy by reexamining the gospel in the face of worldwide rampant social and economic inequality. The 1967 encyclical, which The Wall Street Journal called “Communist,” eventually inspired some Latin American clergymen to support revolution.

In 1968, the Latin American bishops gathered in Medellin issued a historic message for “all people who, in this continent, ‘hunger and thirst for justice.’ ” Citing Vatican II, they reminded people that “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples.” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 69) Three years later, an unassuming theologian named Gustavo Gutierrez published Teología de la Liberación (Liberation Theology) and gave a name to a vast movement.

Colombian priest Camilo Torres Restrepo asserted that “if Jesus were alive today, He would be a guerrillero” not long before he died with a machine gun in his hands. Nicaraguan priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal founded a community of peasants and exiled artists in the Solentiname Islands, where he lived during 1965-1977 and penned the Gospel of Solentiname before joining the cabinet of the first Sandinista government. Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara, archbishop of Olinda and Recife during the 1965-83 Brazilian military regime, was an outspoken advocate for the poor and for human rights. He said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”

Liberation theology attempted, in Câmara’s view, to do with atheist Marx what Aquinas did with pagan Aristotle. Similarly, an echo influenced by the second wave of feminism produced feminist theology, with notable exponents such as Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. They saw Jesus as distinct from the social culture of his time in his ennobling treatment of women. Within the Catholic Church, feminist theologians have pressed for the ordination of women, so far unsuccessfully. Because feminist theology emerged among European, or “white,” women critics mounted counterpoint submovements such as “womanist,” Asian feminist and mujerista theology.

These few examples of post-Vatican II developments did not fail to evoke counterrevolution.

The Society of Saint Pius X, founded in 1970 by the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, is a notable example. When he attended the Vatican II council as a bishop, Lefebvre had been a ringleader of the conservative bloc, fighting change tooth and nail.

Lefebvre articulated four common views among those who oppose, and still seek a reversal of, Vatican II changes. He rejected ecumenism in favor of the idea that only Catholicism teaches the truth, proposed tolerance instead of a principle of religious liberty, supported total papal supremacy rather than the council’s (still unrealized) collegiality among bishops and adamantly opposed replacing the Latin Tridentine Mass with the new Mass of Vatican II.

In 1988, when Lefebvre consecrated four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, he was excommunicated. Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the four bishops in January 2009.

Lefebvre’s views are today advanced far more subtly by other movements, such as the secretive Opus Dei (“Work of God”), a group founded in 1928 by Spanish priest Josemaría Escrivá, which often connects politically and economically influential lay people—including the late Antonin Scalia— and priests worldwide in a very conservative, morally dualistic group.

A much more extreme view is Sedevacantism (from the Latin phrase sede vacante, “the chair [of Saint Peter] vacant”), held by a few of ultratraditional Catholics who do not consider recent pontiffs bona fide. They argue that the Catholic Church adopted heretical modernism, and some hold that the papal see has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Two popes tried to bridge the divide by adopting the name John Paul. Pope Francis opted to canonize John XXIII, whose cause had been blocked by conservatives, and John Paul II—until his successor’s reign a favorite of the tradition minded.

Passions have subsided with time. The Kumbaya spirit of post-Vatican II renewal has the aura of more innocent and naive times; devout young Catholics who genuflect and wear veils in church wish for a pre-Vatican II Church that never actually existed. Vatican II dared Catholicism to look at itself in the mirror, see a few warts and attempt, sometimes clumsily, to remove them. It’s no surprise that the task would not be easy and consensus hard to restore. Perhaps tomorrow.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Fourth Awakening


Although the notion of a Fourth Awakening is debated, there was such a phenomenon between 1960 and 1980, mostly in the United States, although later exported. Made up of primarily Protestant fervor, it took a personal approach to God and signaled weakening of traditional rites, traditions and denominations.

The process involved several elements. One was the weakening influence of mainline Protestant churches. These are, classically, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed and Methodist denominations, along with smaller or more loosely confederated congregations identifying as American Baptist, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ.

Overall membership in Protestant denominations declined in their traditional regions—for example, from 63 percent of the U.S. population in 1970 to 48 percent in 2012. In 1910, 79 percent of Anglicans lived in the United Kingdom; by 2010, 59 percent were in Africa. Protestants made up about 2.5 percent, 2 percent and 0.5 percent of Latin Americans, Africans and Asians at the beginning of the 20th century and by the end were 17 percent, 27 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively.

Some of this had to do with secularism in the advanced economies in which Protestantism was born. Another factor was the shift to more conservative denominations (such as the Southern Baptists and Missouri Synod Lutherans), which grew rapidly in numbers. Baptists were by the 1980s the single largest Protestant U.S. denomination. These churches battled secularism on issues such as abortion, evolution and gay rights.

At the same time informal nondenominational movements were growing, particularly the Pentecostal-inspired Charismatic movement, which spilled over into Catholicism, and the Jesus movement.

The Charismatic movement (so called from the Greek word for gifts of grace) involved mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics who experienced supernatural phenomena similar to those in the Acts of the Apostles, including speaking in and interpreting tongues, sudden faith insight, gifts of healing, prophecy and discerning spirits. Charismatics drew on Pentecostalism, but distinctively their involvement with the movement began with a dramatic encounter with God called “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” sometimes including the laying on of hands on the new member.

The movement spilled over into Catholicism when two Duquesne University professors, Ralph Keifer and Patrick Bourgeois, attended a congress of the Cursillo movement—a group founded in Spain, based on a three-day lay leadership training weekend—in August 1966 and came across a book by an evangelical minister involved in the Charismatic movement and inner city gang ministry, The Cross and the Switchblade. The book stressed the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s charisms. In January 1967, they attended a prayer meeting where they received baptism in the Holy Spirit. Keifer sent news of the experience to friends at the University of Notre Dame, where a similar event later occurred, and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, as it came to be called, was launched. The hierarchy was initially cautious, but by 1975 Pope Paul VI recognized the movement.

A similarly informal, personal-conversion-based Evangelical Christian movement began in those years on the U.S. West Coast parallel with and linked to the hippie movement. Now an Eastern Orthodox priest, Duane Pederson, a former self-proclaimed “Jesus freak” and founding editor of the Hollywood Free Paper, an early alternative newspaper, is widely credited with coining the terms “Jesus people” and “Jesus movement.” Pederson explained that when a reporter asked him, as one of the movement’s leaders, about the phenomenon, he said, “We’re people who love Jesus.” The names took off.

The movement flourished among counterculture youth with long hair in the streets, in coffee houses and communes. It even developed its own music—the musical Godspell is an early mainstreamed example—that later gave rise to the Christian rock genre. It presented a countercultural path to heaven through conversion.

An offshoot of the Jesus Movement were the “Jews for Jesus,” a 1971 development led by Joe and Debbie Finkelstein, with Manny Brotman, that grew within Hebrew Christian Alliance—an outgrowth of the hugely controversial Protestant proselytism of Jews in 19th century Britain and early 20th century United States.

The new movement took the counterculture, drawing as its inspiration the prophecy in Ezekiel 37:8-14. The HCA in 1975 changed its name to Messianic Jewish Alliance and a new attitude that emphasized remaining Jewish faith in Yeshua and the establishment of Messianic synagogues—today there are about 150 in the United States and 100 in Israel—rather than churches.

Messianic Jews, estimated at about 500,000, are evangelical in theology and use both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Israeli Supreme Court has disallowed them as Jews for the purposes of being admitted to Israel under the Law of Return and most Jewish bodies deem them Christian, rather than Jews, despite their assertion to being both.

Indeed, the Messianic Jews meshed well with both Charismatics (sometimes called “Charismaniacs”) and the Jesus People, who aimed to call their faith back to its New Testament origins, when most followers of Jesus were, indeed, Jewish. All three aspired to greater and more genuine commitment, rejection of materialism and compromise with the world and a believing community infused with the gifts of the Spirit.

Unlike Messianic Jews, the Charismatic and Jesus People movements waned in the 1980s as the counterculture collapsed and evangelicalism entered into an unholy alliance with the neoconservative political movement, which effectively exploited it for electoral gain.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Vatican II


The Second Vatican Council was the most significant religious event in the 20th century, each person reading it differently. To many Catholics the council launched the Mass in the local language with the priest facing the people and lots more singing by the congregation, got nuns to swap habits for dowdy street clothes, gave a sudden new prominence to the Bible and effectively opened anything and everything to questioning. Protestants I have known, even clerics, remember it for ecumenism.

For most Catholics, the 1962-65 period of Vatican II is the dividing line between a “before” picture of the Church and an “after” that endures today. I was 10 years old when it started, barely aware of the issues, and by the time it ended I was an adolescent rocking and rolling to the changes, and I finally understood what was going on in church.

Vatican II was unquestionably the largest ecumenical (or general) council of the Church. Attendance varied from 2,100 to nearly 2,400 voting bishops. This does not count the phalanx of periti (Latin for “experts”) nor the observers from 17 Orthodox churches and Protestant denominations—nearly 100 by the end of the last session. Among those who took part, four became pope: Giovanni Battista Cardinal Montini succeeded John XXIII as Paul VI and saw the council to its conclusion; Bishop Albino Luciani became John Paul I; Bishop Karol Wojtyła became John Paul II; and Joseph Ratzinger, a peritus, became Benedict XVI. The experts included a star-studded cast of theologians, including Karl Rahner, John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac.

Still, the council’s enduring significance was not about size or star power but about its content, which was not primarily dogmatic or doctrinal. The council reviewed the Church in its role as the keeper of the one, true and complete Christian faith. It also tackled its relations with other Christian churches through ecumenism and with other religions, its place in the modern world and, consequently, the renewal of clerical and consecrated roles, liturgy, disciplines and much more.

It was all put into 16 documents (four constitutions, three declarations and nine decrees)—the formal legacy of the council. They are, in order of adoption (Latin title first):

1. Sacrosanctum concilium, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963.
2. Inter Mirifica, Decree on the Means of Social Communication, 1963.
3. Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 1964.
4. Orientalium Ecclesiarum, Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, 1964.
5. Unitatis Redintegratio, Decree on Ecumenism, 1964.
6. Christus Dominus, Decree Concerning the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, 1965.
7. Perfectae Caritatis, Decree on Renewal of Religious Life, 1965.
8. Optatam Totius, Decree on Priestly Training, 1965.
9. Gravissimum Educationis, Declaration on Christian Education, 1965.
10. Nostra Aetate, Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, 1965.
11. Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965.
12. Apostolicam Actuositatem, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 1965.
13. Dignitatis Humanae, Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965.
14. Ad Gentes, Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church, 1965.
15. Presbyterorum Ordinis, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, 1965.
16. Gaudium et Spes, Pastoral Constitution on the Church In the Modern World,1965.

They can be read at the Vatican website under Documents of The Second Vatican Council.

“The Church is not a museum,” Pope John XXIII advised the periti. In opening the council, he explained what he meant: “The Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world.”

Why was this necessary? The Catholic Church was almost 2,000 years old, had survived centuries of (sometimes self-inflicted) turmoil and there was no indication that it was on the wane.

What changed was the world. A third of humanity remained Christian, as was true in 1900. But the majority, which had been in Europe, shifted mostly to developing countries. A third to nearly half of all Christians now lived in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America.  Conversions surged in Africa, now home to the majority of Anglicans. Moreover, two world wars had directly and indirectly called nearly every human hope into question.

Given this setting it is not difficult to see the council’s conclusions as pointing in two directions, one inward, touching on doctrine (lightly) and disciplines (in somewhat greater depth), and another outward looking at other churches, religions and institutions, then finally placing the Church within that world.

Among the inward-looking documents, perhaps the most significant is Dei Verbum. Since Trent, Catholic popular teaching had deemphasized the Bible in favor of dogma from the hierarchy; Catholic biblical theology was almost nonexistent. Dei Verbum was remarkable because it treated Scripture as the result of tradition, but noted that tradition feeds on Scripture, so that both are a single vehicle for the revelation of God. This is the only expressly doctrinal document.

Next in importance is, probably, Sacrosanctum concilium. It dealt with worship and revised the rules to emphasize “the whole People of God,” common prayer and singing. It expanded Scripture readings, introduced the vernacular (the language of the people) as an allowed replacement of Latin and called for greater inclusion of laypeople. This is what all Catholics noticed right away.

These were the girders that underpinned decrees and declarations about members of religious orders and priests, the role of the laity and, more significantly, greater collegiality among bishops. Many of these rules were externally put into practice, even though the substance did not always change.

Looking outward, the council fathers examined Christianity in Unitatis Redintegratio (literally, “restoring unity”) the decree on ecumenism, which openly declares:

“Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communions present themselves to men as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ Himself were divided. Such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature.” (UR, 1)

The document calls for efforts to restate beliefs and enter into dialogue in the interest of greater understanding and eventual unity. It is accompanied by several others. Especially notable is Nostra Aetate (“our times”), which deals primarily with Judaism and antisemitism. It also opens a door for non-Christian religions by asserting that even though the Church received the fullness of revelation, other faiths also reflect divine interaction with humanity.

Another notable outward-looking document, Dignitatis Humanae, was influenced by an American, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who urged consideration of freedom of thought, particularly when it came to the relationship between church and state.

At the time, the council fathers who opposed it (it garnered one of the highest number of “no” votes, 77, of any document) argued that “error has no rights.” In opposition, they preferred the model of Spanish-speaking countries where the Catholic Church was officially recognized and protected by the state and had veto power on social policy, with relations between the government and the Vatican regulated by a concordat or agreement.

Murray persuaded a majority to accept that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.” (DH, 2) The deist Thomas Jefferson would have endorsed such a view.

Catholics remain deeply divided about Vatican II, especially in the United States, where Catholics tend to be legalistic—less so in Latin America and Europe. Two popes tried to bridge the divide by taking the name John Paul from the two conciliar popes, one seen as more “liberal” (John) and the other more “conservative” (Paul), possibly because of his 1967 encyclical against birth control. Popes John and Paul, however, were not notably different in theology.

The council inspired many Protestant denominations to hold similar meetings. The 1968 Anglican Lambeth Conference, for example, dropped the requirement that priests assent to the doctrinal Thirty-Nine Articles of 1571 and allowed open communion, meaning that anyone in attendance could receive the Eucharist.

Ecumenical dialogue resulted in the common lectionary or Sunday readings and the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in December 1999. Because this coming November will be celebrated as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a follow-up joint document, Declaration on the Way, was issued in preparation.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Inspired by the Holy Spirit


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.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

New Things

When I was growing up, the world was in a Cold War between the capitalist West led by the United States and Soviet Communism led by the Soviet Union, both armed to the teeth with weapons capable of wiping out all life from the planet. I first was taught that Christianity was anti-Communist (although what was opposed most was the atheism of Marxism-Leninism). Only later did I learn that the Christian faith points to a third way that is neither capitalist nor Communist and resembles what I know as democratic socialism. This came from (mostly papal) social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Catholic social teaching arose just about parallel to the Protestant social gospel movement and in response to more or less the same phenomenon—the appearance in 1848 of a broad socialist labor movement reacting to harsh early industrialization and very savage capitalism. In 1891, taking notice of the ferment of about a half century, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical titled Rerum Novarum.

Papal encyclicals, or circulars, grew out of the early custom of bishops sending a letter to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Church. The word encyclical is a Latinized form of the Greek enkyklios, meaning “circular,” “in a circle,” or “all around.” Papal encyclicals, issued in Latin, which is still the official language of the Holy See, are usually named after the first two or three words of the document. “Rerum novarum” means literally “of new things,” although in the official English translation it is “revolutionary change”—for many complicated reasons an acceptable rendition.

In this document, Leo takes stock of new things in the political, economic and social spheres and sets out some principles he thought were appropriate applications of the gospel, in particular the subject of his subtitle, Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. Leo first describes the situation like this:

“... the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” (RN, 3)

However, Leo is no firebrand. He states that socialists “would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community” and affirms a right to private property, but he limits that right with a reminder that all things in creation were given to humanity as a whole rather than to particular people. He favors a society of harmony and mutual respect between labor and capital, with rights and obligations, and rejects class warfare.

“The proletarian and the worker,” Leo declares, must do a good job, respect the property and person of the employer, refrain from violence and disorder and stay away from “men of evil principles.”

The “wealthy owner and the employer” have many more responsibilities. They must respect workers as people of dignity, not “bondsmen” (unfree servants). Employers must acknowledge that “working for gain is creditable, not shameful” and the source of “an honorable livelihood.” Leo calls it “shameful and inhuman” to “misuse men as though they were things” to be used for profit and valued only for “their physical powers.” Employers are urged to respect workers’ souls and  allow them time to fulfill religious duties. They should protect their workers from corruption, from leaving their families or squandering their earnings, and not overburden them or demand work “unsuited to their sex and age.”

On wages, Leo goes on at length, stating first that “to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain” is condemned by human and divine law. “To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven,” he writes. “The rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing.”

Leo directs the government to look after the common good, especially the greater needs of the working class, in what he calls “distributive” justice.

He recognized the need for associations that “opportune aid to those who are in distress, and which draw the two classes more closely” and was the first pope to support one kind of association, stating, “The most important of all are workingmen’s unions.” He saw them as similar to medieval guilds and declared, “It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.”

The encyclical was just the beginning of the development of a broad body of social teaching dealing with people, systems and structures to promote justice and peace, which began to be seen as part and parcel of the Church’s mission. This body of teaching is now vast and has prompted the development of crusades such as the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, begun in 1933 by Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper. It grew into some 240 communities committed to “nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken.”

The development of such teaching was not in a straight line nor particularly well understood by all.

In 1931, on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno. Pius was most concerned with totalitarian political doctrines that led to atheist Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy.

Pius XI wrote that “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.” (QA, 80)

In one major unintended effect, the encyclical spurred some members of the hierarchy and well-to-do Catholics to invoke “subsidiarity,” a word the pope never used, as a catch-all prescription for achieving social justice—usually as a pretext for supporting conservative, laissez-faire policies that relieve government of responsibility for social problems. In fact, Quadragesimo Anno was a direct strike at the one-size-fits-all policies of an all-encompassing dictatorial state such as the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy. The encyclical proposed that, rather than a super-state charged with every minute thing in the nation, economic, social and political problems should be dealt with at the most immediate level of government that is consistent with a suitable solution. It is not a papal ban on regulatory government action nor on national antipoverty programs.

For good measure, Pope John Paul II, who lived under Soviet Communism and understood Leninist Marxism well, proposed a balance. In two of his social teaching encyclicals, the 1981 Laborem Excercens, and Centessimo Anno, issued on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he made a point of balancing subsidiarity, which he supported in its proper understanding, against solidarity, the notion that we are all responsible for one another.

Separately, and particularly addressing the threat of global war and the worldwide turmoil brought about by vast economic disparity between rich and poor nations, Pope John XXIII in 1963 issued Pacem in Terris. His successor, Pope Paul VI, drew on this letter when he told the United Nations, “the new name for peace is justice.” In 1965 the Second Vatican Council, presided over by popes John and Paul, approved Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), a broad statement of economic, social and political questions from the Christian point of view.

Those who are interested in pursuing the study of Catholic social teaching should check out the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

British and U.S. 19th Century Protestant Effervescence

A scholarly controversial third awakening movement—said by some to span from the late 1850s to the early 20th century in Britain and the United States—was really a period of effervescence within evangelical Protestantism. It touched on slavery, temperance and reacted against science, while spawning denominations whose Christian credentials remain questionable. The period still affects Christian religious discourse.

Slavery and Civil War


U.S. Protestant churches were growing rapidly and adopting a “muscular” Christianity of manliness, athleticism, teamwork, discipline, self-sacrifice and as one writer put it “the expulsion of all that is effeminate” that also sought to reach the unchurched, nationally and around the globe. However, the storm clouds of the U.S. Civil War split them.

In the North, most mainline Protestant denominations touched by Pietism—a German movement that emphasized personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal, individual devotion and piety—supported Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party and urged prohibition of alcohol and social reforms. Revivals were halted during the war in the North, but in the South they flourished, especially within the Confederate Army.

Slavery supporters pointed to the New Testament Letter to Philemon, which Paul addressed to a Christian slave owner. The letter was carried by Onesimus, a runaway baptized by Paul and persuaded to return to slavery. Christians of the 19th century Confederacy saw this as biblical evidence of God’s approval of slavery. But U.S. slavery was unlike any slave system of antiquity or even the 19th century, particularly in the degree of dehumanization of Africans kidnapped and sold as property on U.S. shores.

Moreover, Onesimus’ initiation into the faith strongly suggests he was an unusual individual. The early Christians gathered in small secret cells under the pressure of persecution rarely welcomed slaves, for fear that they were spies. The letter makes plain that Philemon is to treat Onesimus like a brother in the faith; within the Church, Onesimus became a bishop, died a martyr and is revered as a saint in Orthodox Christianity. The epistle’s message is clearly that the faith welcomes people of all stations, even slaves, as an extension of the Beatitudes’ “blessed are the poor.”

The Social Gospel


The social gospel movement applied Christian ethics to economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tension, slums, poor sanitation, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools and war. The term was first used by Charles Oliver Brown (1848-1941), who was a bugler in Sherman’s army and later became a minister, but the movement’s leading figures were Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch. Toward the end of his life Rauschenbusch wrote A Theology for the Social Gospel, which sums up the broad ideas of the movement. He argued that a focus on personal sinfulness “has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion.”

By the 1870s women were leading figures, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union mobilized a social crusade against liquor, pornography and prostitution and sparked the demand for woman suffrage. The WTCU, by the way, still exists.

The movement also gave rise to “settlement houses,” such as Hull House in Chicago, run by Jane Addams, which helped the poor and immigrants with such services as day care, education and health care. The Young Men’s Christian Association was started in the 1880s to help rural youth adjust to city life without losing their religion. It quickly became an institution of the social gospel movement, serving all needy youth and inspired such groups as the Methodist Epworth League and Lutheran Walther League.

A parallel 1880s offshoot, the Salvation Army, was founded in London’s East End in 1865 by formerly Methodist Reform Church minister William Booth and his wife and rapidly crossed the Atlantic. It was modeled after the military, with its own flag and hymns whose words were often set to popular pub tunes. The evangelical London Missionary Society brought together Anglicans and Nonconformists for outreach to Africa and the South Pacific and inspired similar efforts across the Atlantic.

New religions


The period’s religious effervescence also spawned unquestionably new religions that, like Mormonism, took Christianity as a starting point but wandered far afield.

The earliest of these and most closely related to Protestantism is the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which grew out of the Millerite, or Adventist, movement of the Second Awakening and was established in 1863. The denomination observes Saturday instead of Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, as the Sabbath, believes the Second Coming (or advent) of Jesus Christ is imminent and interprets the book of Revelation in a fairly rigid and unorthodox way. Particularly controversial is the place of founder Ellen G. White, who claimed visionary experiences and the role of prophet. Her Conflict of the Ages is essentially a paraphrase of the Bible in the purple prose typical of 19th century romanticism.

A similar group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, drew from the Second Awakening’s millenarian leanings. It was founded in the 1870s by Charles Taze Russell. The Witnesses reject the trinity, immortality of the soul and eternal punishment, which they consider unscriptural. They pointedly reject celebrations of Christmas, Easter, birthdays and occasions they deem pagan and incompatible with their view of Christianity. They believe that the destruction of the present world, or Armageddon, is imminent and that only Revelation’s 144,000 saved will survive final judgment—yet they have 8.3 million members worldwide today. Jehovah’s Witnesses are best known for their door-to-door preaching, distribution of literature such as The Watchtower and Awake! and refusing military service and blood transfusions.

Other new religions of the period drew from the writings of Phineas Quimby (1802-1866), a philosopher, mesmerist and healer. He originated “New Thought” or “Higher Thought,” which holds that an “Infinite Intelligence” (God) is everywhere, spirit is the totality of real things, true human selfhood is divine, divine thought is a force for good, sickness originates in the mind and “right thinking” has a healing effect.

Yes, you guessed it: New Thought inspired Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910) to found Christian Science, which gained a national following. Through the sale of her book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as a holy book parallel to the Bible, Eddy became a multimillionaire.

Charles Fillmore (1854-1948) took a page from Eddy’s playbook. After the alleged spiritually healing of his wife of then-incurable tuberculosis, the couple launched Unity, known informally as Unity Church. Their followers believe in the divinity of Jesus, but only in the sense that all humans are the children of God and share divine potential.

Fundamentals


While all these effective departures from Christianity via Protestantism were taking place, a cross-denominational evangelical theological movement emerged in response to scientific developments that put to the test biblical passages concerning the origin of the world—humans in particular—and miracles. It adopted a literal and very strict reading of the Bible. While Liberal Protestantism and the modernists attempted to adapt, this new movement, which took some ideas from the First and Second Awakenings, fought back with new doctrinal interpretations of its own.

What came to be called Princeton Theology responded to modern criticism of the Bible by developing the doctrine of inerrancy starting in mid-century. Princeton Seminary theology professor Charles Hodge (1797-1878), among others, argued that the Bible was factual because God inspired or “breathed” exact thoughts into the biblical writers, citing 2 Timothy 3:16. Late in his career, his massive Systematic Theology explained that the Bible was divinely inspired, religiously authoritative and without error.

At more or less the same time, Dwight L. Moody made revivalism the centerpiece of his activities in Chicago by founding the Moody Bible Institute in the 1880s. With it began a series of Protestant evangelical nondenominational institutions that propounded similar methods and advanced similar ideas, as yet unsystematized.

The movement got its name well after the initial excitement died down. In 1910, the Bible Institute of Los Angeles began to publish a series of 90 essays written by 64 different authors, originally in a 12-volume set, called The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth, later known as The Fundamentals. Sponsors subsidized free distribution of over 3 million volumes to clergy, laymen and libraries.

The work affirmed core conservative Protestant beliefs, particularly of the Reformed tradition, and defended against ideas deemed to oppose them. It is widely considered the foundation of modern Christian fundamentalism and the source of its most commonly cited beliefs:
  • inerrancy of the Bible;
  • literal truth of biblical accounts (especially miracles and creation);
  • the virgin birth of Jesus;
  • the bodily resurrection and physical return of Christ; and
  • Christ’s total atonement for others on the cross.
While these beliefs echo elements of the faith since apostolic times, the literalist and proof-texting way in which they are expressed, brooking no questioning or reasoning, makes them fundamentalist.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Oxford Movement

In the early 19th century, at the learned core of England, Oxford University, there arose a movement that eventually became both the Anglo-Catholic (or “high church”) wing of the Church of England and the source of converts—or from another perspective, returnees—to the mother church of Rome.

Originally known as Tractarianism after its series of Tracts for the Times, published from 1833 to 1841, its members began by arguing for reinstatement of older Christian beliefs and practices in Anglican liturgy and theology. Before 1845 their adversaries called them Newmanites, after John Henry Newman, later as Puseyites after Edward Bouverie Pusey.

At the time, the Church of England clergy was mostly evangelical, almost Methodist. The country was molded by Whigs such as Thomas Macauley who viewed Britain as moving inevitably toward greater liberty, enlightenment, liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. English liberals of the era abhorred the violence of the Reformation and in 1828 repealed laws against Protestant Dissenters. In 1829 they approved Catholic Emancipation, effectively legalizing Catholicism for the first time since Queen Elizabeth.

The spark that set off the movement was an 1833 bill dealing with Irish ecclesiastical property. This was a bit of delayed housekeeping, but it reminded some of the closing and expropriation of monasteries. In 1801, when Ireland was incorporated into the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the United Church of England and Ireland was established under the Anglican see of Canterbury. Parliament was now merely dotting a few i’s and crossing t’s.

In a sermon preached by John Keble (1792-1866) on July 14, 1833, titled “The National Apostasy,” he called these moves Britain’s “apostasy.” In the controversy that followed several Oxford churchmen defended Keble.

That was how a series of tracts was launched, eventually 90 in total, monographs by Newman, Keble, Pusey and others. They also translated writings of the Church Fathers and collected them in 48 volumes.

Drawing on writings of the first three centuries of Christianity, these Tractarians criticized both evangelicals and liberal Protestants and proposed Anglicanism as one of three branches (along with Catholicism and Orthodoxy) of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the Nicene Creed—the so-called Branch Theory. The famous Via Media (or Middle Way) between Protestantism and Catholicism was born.

Via Media was the title of a series of the tracts that was written by Newman around 1834. He paid homage to the the Elizabethan Thirty-Nine Articles that defined Church of England doctrine, but proposed, along with his fellow Tractarians, that the Elizabethan Settlement of Anglicanism should be reinterpreted it as a compromise between Rome and Reform.

The Oxford Movement resulted in Anglican religious orders of men and of women and incorporated ideas and more powerful emotional symbolism in the liturgy. The Eucharist gradually became more central to worship, vestments became common and Catholic practices were reintroduced. Controversy followed and sometimes wound up in court.

Anglican bishops refused to post Tractarian priests to regular parishes, so many began working in slums. What they saw led them to criticize British social policy, both local and national. They launched the Christian Social Union, and many bishops eventually joined. Just wages, questions about the nobility’s income from rents, infant mortality and industrial working conditions were among their concerns.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was a popular Oxford priest. After writing his final tract, Tract 90, he came to see the Branch Theory as inadequate. He could not accept separation between Catholicism and Anglicanism. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845. Several years later he was ordained a priest and then named a cardinal, although not a bishop. He was a prolific and eloquent writer, and his legacy is rich.

He wrote the poem “Lead, Kindly Light” while crossing the English Channel at night in a storm. He drew hope when he saw a light from the coast, which he interpreted as a divine beacon. This is the opening verse:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Apologia Pro Vita Sua is Newman’s careful chronicle of the development of his religious thinking, published serially between 1865 and 1866, in response to public criticism by Church of England cleric Charles Kingsley after Newman’s resignation as Anglican vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford. His 1870 Grammar of Assent, written for a nonbelieving friend, articulates the reasoning he thought could lead a person to belief.

Newman influenced a vast legion of Anglicans to convert to Catholicism. Among the best known are the poet and eventual Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), the eventual Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957), whose English version of the Vulgate Bible is exceedingly poetic, and poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist and novelist Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), popularly known for his Father Brown mysteries, which always feature within them a religious theme.

Edward Pusey (1800-1882), also an Anglican cleric at Oxford, carried on the movement after 1845. He remained a lifelong Anglican fighting to revive pre-Reformation teachings and practice. His sermon before the university in May 1843, “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent,” got him suspended for two years from preaching, but the condemned sermon became an overnight bestseller.

Pusey engaged behind the scenes in several theological and academic controversies, through articles, letters, treatises and sermons. The Church of England was the established church, so these issues straddled the religious and political spheres. His most notable books, on the subject in which he was most influential are Eucharist, The Doctrine of the Real Presence (1855) and The Real Presence ... the Doctrine of the English Church (1857); he also wrote The Eirenicon, an effort to find a basis for union between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. He was accused of ritualism, but Pusey didn’t cotton much to lovers of bells and smells. He defended them, though, when they were accused of breaking the law; however they returned the favor by shutting the Puseyites out.

Perhaps the most notable figure influenced indirectly by Pusey was the 1948 Nobel Prize winner T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), who renounced his native-born U.S. citizenship to become a British subject in 1927, the year he also converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism. He became a warden of his parish church, Saint Stephen's, Gloucester Road, London, and a lifetime member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He identified “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion” and 30 years later summarized his views as having “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.” His most noted work with a religious theme is his 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral, concerning the assassination of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Second Awakening

The Second Awakening

Meanwhile, the Protestant side of Christianity, especially evangelicalism, remained still a relatively small part of the faith worldwide, still splintering with every new idea. Specifically in the U.S. context, the Second Awakening from the 1790s to the 1840s was distinctive in two respects: the launch of entirely new denominations and millennialism.

The first of several splits was, predictably for the United States, around the problem of racial prejudice, as slave and free African-American Baptist and Methodist preachers emerged. One such figure was “Black Harry” Hosier, an illiterate freedman whose remarkable ability to memorize long biblical passages made him popular with white and black audiences; however, he was repeatedly passed over for ordination and barred from voting at the conference that formally established American Methodism. Another was Richard Allen, who was ordained by the Methodists in 1799 but also faced discrimination.

In 1816 Hosier and Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. As evidence that racial prejudice was widespread, in 1821 the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was founded as another denomination in New York City.

A similar split occurred among the Baptists, whose organization into local congregations already made for a loose denomination. Formed by slaves and free African Americans in South Carolina and Virginia, the denomination spread to other states, with a side effect of fostering the demand for freedom. During African-American revival meetings in Virginia in 1800, one leader, Gabriel Prosser, devised a plan for slave rebellion that was discovered and crushed before it started. After the Nat Turner Uprising of 1831, African-American congregations managed to maintain their independence in Baptist associations, but many Southern state legislatures passed laws requiring the presence of a white man at their meetings.

Fragmentation was further aided by another development, a sudden interest in the lurid, dreamlike visions in the book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse, which lends the work to a variety of interpretations.

Notably, Revelation 20:1–6 begins with the description of a vision as follows: “I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” During that millennium, the newly awakened U.S. evangelicals began to believe, Christ would preside over a golden age or earthly paradise before the final judgment. In the 1830s and 1840s, from a mixture of massive disillusionment with existing mainline Protestantism and fevered enthusiasm for Revelation and other extrabiblical sources, the Advent Movement emerged, which involved expectation of the impending Second Coming (or Advent) of Jesus.

One obvious outgrowth was Millerism, named after preacher William Miller, who was a forerunner of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Another less obvious development was the “holiness” movement, an attempt to emphasize Wesleyan teachings on sanctification, which led to an organizational break between mainline Methodist and Holiness churches.

Such discontent sparked a longing for “primitive” or original Christianity, which grew in popularity after U.S. independence. This made sense to immigrants from Britain of the early 19th century, who viewed the new nation as pristine and undefiled and the perfect place to restore Christianity. One group that resulted from such efforts was the Shakers, committed to simplicity and lifelong chastity.

More broad and secular was Restoration Movement, led by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, who resisted what they perceived as spiritual manipulation at revival camp meetings. In the South, revivals drawing on the ideas of the Campbells were led by Barton Stone. In the end, all reverted to the original emotional pressure techniques of the original model.

Another spinoff, the Latter-Day Saints or Mormons, was founded by Joseph Smith. A farmer in western New York, he claimed that in 1827 an angel showed him writings in “reformed Egyptian” engraved on golden plates buried in Cumorah Hill. Known as The Book of Mormon, the plates tell the story of an oddly Hebraic God’s revelations to the ancient original Americans and the appearance of Jesus Christ in the New World shortly after his resurrection. The angel is said to have conveyed God’s command to Smith to translate the plates into English so he could restore Christ’s true church in Smith’s time, “the latter days.”

The addition of new scripture, among other unusual practices and beliefs (including polygamy and the belief that African Americans are “cursed”), makes Mormonism an outright departure from Christianity as understood since the times of the apostles. It was not the last such deviation in the United States, but it remains the only full-fledged pseudo-Christian religion to spring out of the Second Awakening.

More mainstream effects sprung from the preaching of Presbyterians and Methodists who remained within their denomination but set the stage for new outcroppings in the Third Awakening.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Making of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism

Although the Catholic Church is the only Christian body present at every stage of the history of Christianity, the 19th century gave birth to a frozen Catholicism of unschooled, overly devout  laypeople led by an absurdly papist and clerical hierarchy. It was irrelevant to citizens and workers seeking just rights, rigidly Tridentine and roundly disregarded in the public square and the academy. When I was a youth it had a simple name: pre-Vatican II.

As the 19th century neared, the overwhelmingly Catholic majority in Europe and Spanish America was monarchical, absolutist in philosophy and politics and prone to popular piety; its Catholic faith and practice remained the soul and heart of society. Between 1789 and 1848, that worldview changed radically with the French Revolution and the emergence of socialism.

Two leaders of the Catholic Church, Popes Pius VI and IX, are most to blame for badly misreading the signs of their times. That failure led the Church to lose the working class, intellectuals and the new industrial era’s leaders.

The French Revolution’s anti-monarchical impulse included a kind of anti-clericalism fueled by popular criticism, even among devout Christians, of the privileges, wealth and even corruption of the clergy. To understand an ordinary French person’s perception of the clergy, consider the Estates General under the Old Regime, the king’s legislative and consultative assembly made up of various classes (or estates).

The composition and powers of the Estates-General never changed: representatives of the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (the nobility) and Third Estate (commoners, in other words, all others). Of course, the Estates General was largely symbolic. When the revolution broke out, the king discovered that the last king to call them to meet was his grandfather.

This was the social stratification of much of continental Europe. Closest to the king, due to its alleged special connection to God, was the clergy, next was the nobility, then the rest. When the rest rose up against the king and nobility, the clergy was tossed out as so much dirty bathwater.

During two years known as the Reign of Terror, revolutionary authorities in France suppressed the Church, nationalized church property, exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more. In October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one that counted the date of the Revolution as Day One, and festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled along with forms of a new moral religion that included a deist Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheist Cult of Reason—briefly mandated by the government in April 1794.

Similarly, the Revolutions of 1848, the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, aimed for democracy and an end to old feudal structures left in place by the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which with some cosmetic border touch-ups essentially restored the pre-French Revolution absolutist monarchies. It was an uprising led by new ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto was published as a battle cry in February, weeks after the first uprisings.

However, these revolts were not communist. Led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers they did not hold together. They began in January and February and the longest lasting, in Hungary, was crushed in August. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. Nonetheless, serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary, the absolute monarchy ended in Denmark and parliamentary democracy was introduced in the Netherlands. Radical ideas were aloft, and the new, post-French Revolution capitalist bourgeoisie was chastened.

The two popes who lived through the aftermath of both revolts were not pleased. Pius VI rejected the French Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791 and suspended priests who accepted it, protested the execution of Louis XVI and condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man. France retaliated by seizing the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin, and Napoleon eventually attacked the Papal States.

Public reaction to the papal defense of monarchy and the old order is evident in the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, published in 1798. During a long audience with Pius VI, one of the most extensive scenes in the novel, Juliette shows off by presenting the pope with a verbal catalogue of alleged immoralities committed by his predecessors.

The response to 1848 came from Pius IX, also known as Pio Nono, the longest-reigning elected pope (from 1846 to 1878). Pio Nono effectively led a grand demarche to close every window, lock every door and make sure that not a single modern idea seeped into the holy sanctum of the Catholic Church.

Pio Nono’s pontificate is most notable for three telling developments: in 1854 he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; in 1864 he issued his Syllabus of Errors; in 1869 he convened the momentous First Vatican Council.

Mary’s immaculate conception was an ancient teaching derived largely from the treatment of Mary as God bearer. The ancient fathers wondered how someone tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve could be the bearer of God. Of course, that raises the question of how Mary could have been born immaculate to St. Anne and St. Joachim, and on and on.

Pio Nono did not invent the immaculate conception. A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on December 8 as early as the 5th century and had been bubbling up for centuries. Indeed, in response to some of the excesses of popular piety of the time, Pio Nono made it clear that Mary still needed redemption by her son; her sinless conception was a kind of preredemption. The declaration had broader consequences.

Ten years later, Pio Nono issued the Syllabus, a broadside against every possible non-Christian idea arising from the cauldron of the French Revolution. It condemned pantheism, naturalism, absolute rationalism, moderate rationalism, indifferentism and latitudinarianism, socialism, communism, secret societies, Bible societies and liberal clerical societies.

He condemned the notion that “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil” as well as the notion that all the truths of religion proceed from reason. Condemned also was the idea that Catholicism should not be the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all others, as was proposed in many Catholic countries, and the notion of separation of church and state. He decried the idea of freedom of religion and worship. He expressly refused to accept the proposal that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

False, false, false, he said.

All this declaring got him into hot water. Some asked whether the pope had authority to define doctrine on his own, such as in the case of the Immaculate Conception. Pio Nono’s answer was to call the First Vatican Council in 1869, whose most momentous decision, under pressure from the pope himself, was to define papal infallibility.

Just to clarify, the council did not say that the pope could not make a mistake in anything; it only said that the pope is divinely protected from error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

The council was set to discuss a document on the nature of the Church after a summer break. However, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the Germans advanced and captured Emperor Napoleon III, eliminating the pope’s principal military protector. On September 20, 1870, the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and annexed it. A month later Pius IX suspended the council, after which he fled Rome itself for a time, then returned to declare himself “imprisoned” in the Vatican.

The First Vatican Council was not formally closed until 1960, by Pope John XXIII, in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962. From 1870 until then, having already lost the allegiance of the leading intellectual lights of the day in continental Europe, the attention of secular rulers and the following of the industrial working classes, the Church went into the long slumber of the pre-Vatican II era that I described at the beginning.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Scholars Say

The earliest public debate around liberal Protestant ideas started when German scholars attempted to get at the factual and historical Yeshua bar Yosif from Nazareth. Vaulting past the lack of impartial and verifiable documentation, they developed the tools of modern biblical criticism, which is still controversial in some church circles.

First in this line was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a philosopher and writer who leaned, like many U.S. Founding Fathers, toward Deism. In a small work originally circulated only among friends, he argued that Jesus was a Jewish political preacher who proposed a worldly new order. Pointing out differences between Jesus’ preaching and that of the apostles, Reimarus deemed Christianity an invention of the disciples, who stole Jesus’ body to fake his resurrection.

Reimarus set scholars off to the races on a new kind of research. The general public became involved only when David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) published his 1835 attempt at a historical portrayal in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). The work instantly earned a reviewer’s sobriquet of “Iscariotism of our days” (a reference to Judas Iscariot), setting off a European scandal.

Originally a seminary student, Strauss later studied at the University of Tubingen, an association that makes him one of the first academics known in theological circles as the “wild boars” who came roaring out of the Black Forest. He studied for a year in Berlin under Schleiermacher and Hegel before returning to Tubingen.

In his Life of Jesus, Strauss did not go so far as to deny Jesus’ existence, but he called the miracles in the New Testament “mythical” additions. At the time, biblical scholars were divided between rationalists, who found logical and rational explanations for the seemingly miraculous, and supernaturalists, who defended the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and their claims of direct divine intervention. Strauss took a third way: he explained miracles as myths developed by early Christians as their faith in Jesus developed. This ushered in what was then an entirely new textual and historical approach to the rise of Christianity, which he called the theory of “demythologization.”

Strauss was excoriated by the traditional elements of society (Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, called Das Leben Jesu “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”) and their supernaturalist academic cohorts as well as by the rationalists, notably Hegel fellow alum Bruno Bauer. The latter, also known for his association with Karl Marx and later Friedrich Nietzsche, was chosen by Hegelians to refute Strauss in their Journal of Philosophical Criticism, in which Bauer debunked Strauss’ claims to draw on Hegel, showing that they came from Schleiermacher instead.

The first academic movement of demythologization went far beyond the arcane disputes between Strauss and Bauer. It is best described by the title of a 1906 work by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a ground-breaking history of early modern biblical studies. What matters for the purposes of faith is not so much the original rumblings and battles of debunkers as their effect on most serious biblical interpreters—except the most literalist.

Between the 1830s and the end of the 19th century, Schleiermacher’s approach expanded into entire fields of study. These started with textual criticism, or an examination of the text to identify its origin and trace its history, often by spotting errors that crept in as generations of scribes copied manuscripts.

Another skein is source criticism, which looks for the sources behind a biblical book or passage. Using this approach, traceable to 17th-century French priest Richard Simon, one of the most influential 19th century biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), developed a now widely accepted four-source documentary theory about most of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses.

Wellhausen collated bits and pieces of various scholars’ theories about the Pentateuch. He expanded on source criticism to study the texts’ internal consistency (redaction criticism) and how various passages are woven together (form criticism) and arrived at four sources identifiable in the text by their characteristics. Scholars gave the sources, authors or schools of scribes the following names:
  • Jehovist (J), also called Yahwist (Jahwist in German), estimated to have been composed around 850 BCE, calls God Yahweh and includes much of Genesis and parts of Exodus and Numbers.
  • Elohist (E) from the use of the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, starts with Gen. 15, overlaps with J and dates to about 750 BCE.
  • Deuteronomist (D), identified originally by Wilhelm de Wette as material found only in Deuteronomy, believed to be composed around 621 BCE.
  • Priestly (P), a source split off from E that gave us material from Gen. 1 through Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, probably written down around 500 BCE.

Although the four-source theory has enjoyed broad consensus, in recent years some elements have been called into question. Still, it provides very useful insight to readers who are not scholars.

For example, the current text of the story of the universal flood in Genesis 6 through 9 contains two distinct interwoven narratives (J and E). Why did the rabbis of the 5th and 6th century BCE weave them together? Because both were ancient and revered narratives retold by people of faith the rabbis did not feel authorized to undercut. This helps the nonscholar begin to grasp that biblical texts cannot be read as glibly as the morning newspaper or a religion blog.

Biblical criticism also stumbled, in the New Testament, with what is known as the Synoptic Problem: how is it that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke can be read as more or less parallel (in Greek, synoptikos) accounts, yet sometimes disagree in content, wording (including occasional key sayings) and order? Most of Mark is found in Matthew, but only about half of Mark is in Luke; in Matthew and Luke some 235 verses (someone actually counted) are very similar.

The answer, scholars still say, is the two-source theory. Introduced in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1866), it was not widely accepted among German academics until 1863, when Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832-1910) endorsed it. This united what had been a denominational divide among scholars. Before Holtzmann, Catholic scholars tended toward a theory dating to the school of St. Augustine of Hippo, that Matthew was the basis for Mark, which Luke used, along with Matthew. Protestant biblical scholars sided with the early biblical critic Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), who argued that Matthew begat Luke who begat Mark.

Weisse, however, argued for two sources only. The first is Mark, which almost everyone now agrees is the earliest gospel. The second is a hypothetical lost collection of “sayings of Jesus,” a document known as Q, from the German Quelle (source).

There are, of course, numerous other questions and theories debated by biblical scholars and many other tools of criticism. The research has also bred innumerable arguments among Christians, some of which are best left for later. For now, it’s enough to have an inkling of what it means when a discussion of the Bible includes the words “scholars say.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Birth of Liberal Protestantism

Just as Protestant enthusiasm was sweeping English-speaking North America and Britain, on the European continent, in Prussia, not far from the cradle of the Augustinian monk who launched the Reformation, there was ferment of a more intellectual variety. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a theologian, philosopher and biblical scholar, became the first to attempt to grapple with the Enlightenment from a Christian position, giving rise to the modern Liberal Protestant school of thought.

The tendency he set in motion was, in some respects, at odds with the strongly emotional and popular religion of the Awakening and Evangelicalism. Schleiermacher poured the cold water of reason on biblical writ and belief in creeds as he grappled with Enlightenment ideas, including rationalism and empiricism. The latter admittedly called into question arguable and factually doubtful Christian views, a challenge to faith that persists in our era; Schleiermacher took a leap to feeling yet became enamored with then-new intellectual tools.

Enlightenment ideas developed against the backdrop of absolutist monarchies shielded in palaces from the shouts and cries of Bostonians dumping tea against a colonial tax and the French rabble storming the Bastille prison, as well as the sooty toot of the first steam engine and the clanging of the first factory gears. Schleiermacher was attempting to uphold a tradition of faith in the face of two central ideas that became the basis of all science, technology and, indeed, even capitalism today.

The first of these was the glibly optimistic 18th century notion that the power of the intellect to make sound choices, distinctions and deductions—reason—would, given correct facts, lead all people to the same conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, all men will agree to what is self-evident, such as their equality, unalienable rights and so forth. On the list of things agreed on was Deism, a tenuous philosophical assent to a Creator, source of all—yet only in the sense of a clockmaker who has made a watch, then set it down on the worktable and gone on to better projects.

Uneasily born as its twin, the second proposition was a method of inquiry based on empiricism, a theory that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience; since no one can see, touch, taste, hear or smell God, faith is unprovable, unreasonable and factually false. Admittedly, modern science has learned from, among other developments, Einstein’s overthrow of Newton, that factual knowledge is tentative and only probably true, subject to constant revision.

Associated with these ideas are brilliant minds of the 17th and 18th centuries. Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hume and many others overthrew forever the monopoly of a world understanding based on invisible spirits and demons, which had held humanity in thrall since people lived in caves. Reason and factuality are notable for their continued currency as the basis of American society, despite their obvious flaws: reasonable people will disagree even given the same facts, and facts are not quite the same as truth.

Schleiermacher, the son and grandson of pastors, came from Pietism, a German Protestant movement that combined Lutheran emphasis on biblical doctrine with individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life, and an early education in a Moravian school that espoused the similarly reform-minded, biblical and pious views of Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation peasant leader from Bohemia. He nonetheless began life plagued with doubts about faith.

Starting with enrollment in the University of Halle, he encountered the full force of rationalism, including the ideas of Immanuel Kant and early biblical historical criticism, and became skeptical to the point of rejecting orthodox Christian teaching. Yet he remained a Christian in his own fashion, took up positions as a pastor and a professor of theology and slowly developed a view that threw out biblical writ, creeds and pseudorational dogmatic theology. Instead, he openly admitted religious feeling as the basis of a religion whose purpose was its own existence as a path from human experience to God.

On one hand, his writings address the writhing of those who embraced rationalism and empiricism and could no longer bring themselves back to dogmatic and archaic religious forms of the faith. On the other, he addressed the faith of those who viewed the mechanical outcome of Enlightenment “progress” as a challenge to belief and the destruction of social culture as they knew it.

He ended up turning Aquinas’ description of theology as faith seeking understanding on its head. In his work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher states: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand … For anyone who has not believed will not experience, and anyone who has not experienced will not understand.”

In the same work he proclaims what is today understood as the centerpiece of his overall faith view: “The feeling of absolute dependence [on God], accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God, as the absolute undivided unity.” Schleiermacher leapt past the fight between orthodoxy and rationalism to the inner life of the soul and the human search for God. It is no longer God seeking human creatures, but the reverse.

At a time in which church institutions were, fatally as we shall see, aligned with a Continental monarchical order that had become ever more absolutist—in his own Prussia various denominations united under the monarchy for a time—Schleiermacher proposed a break, in a variety of ways.

He wrote a protofeminist article, “Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies,” and in an essay titled “Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders” he rejected proposed civil assimilation of the Jews through baptism, which he argued would harm both Judaism and Christianity, and pushed for Jews’ full civil rights.

He is also one of the earliest Western thinkers, conceivably influenced by Kant, to reassert the unity of the body and soul, by merging what he calls “spiritualism” (or limiting the human being to the mind) and “materialism” (limiting the mind to the body) in what he calls “life.” This idea would have sat well with Jesus’ contemporary countrymen: ancient Hebrew uses exclusively concrete words for abstract ideas (wind or breath for spirit), as we have seen.

His most significant contribution grew out of his involvement in a then-raging academic debate: Does language precede thought, setting its order and serving as its necessary base? Or does thought dictate language? This arcane issue drew him into biblical interpretation, and he effectively became the father of modern hermeneutics, the art of interpretation and the study of explanation. The term was coined in the 1670s with reference intended to the Greek god Hermes, patron of messages, speech, writing and eloquence.

Hermeneutics was not new, nor much less invented by Schleiermacher. It was engaged in by Plato and Aristotle, the rabbis in the Talmud and even Christian biblical interpreters. Writing in the beginning of the third century, Origen of Alexandria was among the earliest Christian writers to suggest that much of the Bible is metaphorical or symbolic.

Language, Schleiermacher argued, is fundamental to human nature as a foundation of thought, self-consciousness, feeling and desire. It is social in nature even as inner communication. Language and thought give shape to human sensory images and are interdependent and bounded by each other. Meaning comes from words. People can be distinguished by their linguistic and conceptual differences.

Understanding verbal communication, distinct from explaining, applying or translating it, came first, he said, and should be applied to all texts, whether the Bible, law, literature or anything else. Interpretation of sacred texts must not rely on divine inspiration. The interpreter must assume that “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course, and so understanding must be willed and sought at every point.” The text’s historical context and linguistic and psychological aspects of the author come into play. Interpretation is an inductive process but also intuitive and hypothetical.

Finally, interpretation must look at each text as a part the whole work within which it is placed and the language in which it is written. The historical context, genre and what is known about the author’s entire work are essential as well.

It is difficult today to make clear just how revolutionary these notions were. Difficult, that is, until we turn to their immediate effect, which is where we turn next.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Popular Piety III: Sacred Heart


From the 17th through 19th centuries comes one other notable theme of piety, veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A close friend used to carry around a prayer card with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She dropped it one day and was told by a very secular Protestant, “You dropped your bleeding heart.”

The image may have been similar to the French holy card, circa 1880, depicted below, right. Note the spear, a reference John 19:34 (“one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water”), which tells of a Roman soldier who speared the dead Jesus on the cross (caption: “Behold this heart which has loved men so much. It is nothing but love and mercy”). Today a commonplace Catholic devotional artifact, it emerged in modern form only in the 17th century.

The heart as a symbol of affection or romantic love is near universal—although when the French first colonized Vietnam they learned that locals viewed the stomach as the organ of love. The oldest instance of the heart as a symbol relates to silphium, a now-extinct species of fennel from the Greek colony of Cyrene, North Africa, used most famously as a form of birth control. It was so popular that it was overharvested into extinction in the first century. Its seedpod looked like the modern Valentine’s heart, and Cyrene, which grew rich from the silphium trade, put the heart shape on its coins.

The modern Valentine heart is medieval, as are the very earliest allusions to the heart of Jesus. In early Christianity, there were meditations on the humanity of Jesus Christ and his sufferings on the cross, with particular reference to his five wounds (nails on hands, nails on feet and the spear to the side). In John 20:24-29 the apostle Thomas demands to see the wounds of the risen Christ.

In the 12th century, just when the heart became the locus of love in the European mind, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the piercing of his side revealed Jesus’ goodness and his heart’s love for us. Devotion to the wounds spread through the monastic orders and was propagated worldwide by the Jesuits, who admired the Franciscan devotion of the Five Wounds.

A well-known medieval litany the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ) pleads:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water flowing from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
Good Jesus, hear me
In your wounds shelter me
Never let me be separated from Thee
From evil one protect me
At the hour of death call me
Into your presence lead me
That with your saints I may praise you
Forever and ever
Amen
It was a hop, skip and jump from these devotions to the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a French nun and mystic. At the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial, where she made her final vows and was assigned to the infirmary as a not very skillful nurse, Alacoque experienced several private revelations between late 1673 and mid-1675.

She reported that Jesus let her rest her head on his heart, revealed the wonders of his love, and asked to be honored by the depiction of his heart. He said he had chosen her to make his love known to all people. Her superior, Mother de Saumaise, was skeptical, as were theologians called to authenticate the apparitions; even most members of her own community, who reputedly didn’t think much of her visions, were not persuaded.

She eventually convinced her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière, S.J., and opposition in the community ended in 1683, when the convent’s leadership changed and she was named assistant to the new superior. The convent began to observe privately the Feast of the Sacred Heart (today observed 19 days after Pentecost, on a Friday), and in 1688 a chapel was built to honor the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was promoted by the Jesuits, but remained the subject of controversy within the Church and was not officially recognized until 75 years after Alacoque died. She was beatified in the 19th century and canonized in 1920.

The Sacred Heart is also linked to the story of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, R.S.C.J. (1779-1865), a French saint who founded of the Society of the Sacred Heart (official name Religiosa Sanctissimi Cordis Jesu or Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).

The daughter of a well-to-do Burgundy family, Barat was born barely a decade before the storming of the Bastille. As a child and young woman she witnessed the conflict between the leaders of the revolution and the Church, which was under constant attack by the government between 1790 and 1801, when Napoleon signed a concordat with the pope.

In 1795 she went to Paris with her brother, a priest, who sought the anonymity of the big city and was received in a safe house. She worked as a seamstress and became an excellent embroiderer, while her brother taught her about the Church Fathers, mathematics, Latin and the scriptures. Sophie decided to become a Carmelite nun, but religious orders in France had been abolished in 1790.

Instead, along with three other women living in the Paris safe house, she took vows as one of the first members of a new religious congregation. At the time, however, the French government had outlawed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so the society took the name Dames de la Foi (“Women of Faith”) or alternatively, Dames de l’Instruction Chrétienne (“Women of Christian Instruction”). The second name described their activity, the education of girls and young women in schools, first in Amiens, then Grenoble and later Poitiers. Barat was elected superior in 1806.

From then on the network of schools grew exponentially throughout Europe, America and elsewhere. Barat dreamed of educating all children regardless of their parents’ financial means, but the schools rapidly became elite institutions and the intellectually superior nuns became known as the female Jesuits. She aimed to see that for every new elite school established, a corresponding “free” school was opened for poorer children, but this aim does not seem to have been accomplished.

As of 2015 about 2,600 religious serve in 41 countries around the world. Barat was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.