What is so new about the promised “mountain of the Lord” is not that the wolf and the lamb are both there, but that the wolf remains a wolf and the lamb a lamb, and yet they dwell together without harm or hurt in God’s kingdom. Under God’s rule, conversion and obedience do not mean the loss of identity but the discovery of our true identity as one in Christ. ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ Magnificat, December 2014, Pages 37-38 ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤
A Right Understanding of Worship
The way back to God is the way of worship. If all that we are and become and do in our many-leveled life could be made one in worship, we should be saints. Some people think that Christian morality is no more than a series of don’ts; others a little less ill-informed think it is no more than a series of dos. These things are included, for being and doing are interdependent, but it is being that comes first in importance; and Christian morality tells us first of all not what we should do, still less what we should not do, but what we should be.
That is why you cannot possibly separate, as some people would have us do, the Church’s moral teaching from its beliefs about God’s revelation of himself to the world. You cannot possibly separate them, because the moral teaching is entirely determined by the doctrine; and if you try to isolate it, you destroy it. You could isolate this or that element in it; you could cling to the ideals of justice, kindness, generosity, fortitude; but these virtues would then cease to be the Christian virtues, because they would be divorced from worship.
FATHER GERALD VANN, O.P.
Father Vann (+ 1963) was an English Dominican and a popular preacher, lecturer, and author.
Divorce and Remarriage by Robert Spaemann
The divorce statistics for modern Western societies are catastrophic. They show that marriage is no longer regarded as a new, independent reality transcending the individuality of the spouses, a reality that, at the very least, cannot be dissolved by the will of one partner alone. But can it be dissolved by the consent of both parties, or by the will of a synod or a pope? The answer must be no, for as Jesus himself explicitly declares, man cannot put asunder what God himself has joined together. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Christian understanding of the good life claims to be valid for all human beings. Yet even Jesus’s disciples were shocked by their Master’s words: Wouldn’t it be better, then, they replied, not to marry at all? The astonishment of the disciples underscores the contrast between the Christian way of life and the way of life dominant in the world. Whether it wants to or not, the Church in the West is on its way to becoming a counterculture, and its future now depends chiefly on whether it is able, as the salt of the earth, to keep its savor and not be trampled underfoot by men.
The beauty of the Church’s teaching can shine forth only when it’s not watered down. The temptation to dilute doctrine is reinforced nowadays by an unsettling fact: Catholics are divorcing almost as frequently as their secular counterparts. Something has clearly gone wrong. It’s against all reason to think that all civilly divorced and remarried Catholics began their first marriages firmly convinced of its indissolubility and then fundamentally reversed themselves along the way. It’s more reasonable to assume that they entered into matrimony without clearly realizing what they were doing in the first place: burning their bridges behind them for all time (which is to say until death), so that the very idea of a second marriage simply did not exist for them.
Sadly, the Catholic Church is not without blame. Christian marriage preparation very often fails to give engaged couples a clear picture of the implications of a Catholic wedding. Were that so, many couples would very likely decide against being married in the Church. For others, of course, good marriage preparation would provide a helpful impetus to conversion. There is an immense appeal in the idea that the union of a man and a woman is “written in the stars,” that it endures on high, and that nothing can destroy it, both “in good times and in bad.” This conviction is a wonderful and exhilarating source of strength and joy for spouses working through marital crises and seeking to breathe new life into their old love.
Instead of reinforcing the natural, intuitive appeal of marital permanence, many churchmen, including bishops and cardinals, prefer to recommend, or at least to consider, another option, one that is an alternative to Jesus’s teaching and basically a capitulation to the secular mainstream. The remedy for the adultery entailed by remarriage of the divorced, we are told, is no longer to be contrition, renunciation, and forgiveness but the passage of time and habit, as if general social acceptance and our personal comfort with our decisions and lives have an almost supernatural power. This alchemy supposedly transforms an adulterous concubinage that we call a “second marriage” into an acceptable union to be blessed by the Church in God’s name. Given this logic, of course, it is only fair for the Church to bless homosexual partnerships as well.
But this way of thinking is based on a profound error. Time is not creative. Its passage does not restore lost innocence. In fact, its tendency is always just the opposite—namely, to increase entropy. Every instance of order in nature is wrested from the grip of entropy and over time eventually falls under its dominion once again. As Anaximander puts it, “From whence things arise, to that they eventually return, according to the appointed time.” It would be wrong to repackage the principle of decay and death as something good. We should not confuse the gradual deadening of the sense of sin with its disappearance and release from our ongoing responsibility for it.
Aristotle taught that there is a greater evil in habitual sin than in a single lapse accompanied by the sting of remorse. Adultery is a case in point, especially when it leads to new, legally sanctioned arrangements”remarriage”—that are almost impossible to undo without great pain and effort. Thomas Aquinas uses the term perplexitas to characterize cases like these. They are situations from which there is no escape that does not incur guilt of one sort or another. Even a single act of infidelity entangles the adulterer in perplexity: Should he confess his deed to his spouse or not? If he confesses, he might just save the marriage and, in any case, he avoids a lie that would eventually destroy mutual trust. On the other hand, a confession could pose an even greater threat to the marriage than the sin itself (which is why priests often counsel penitents against revealing infidelity to their spouses). Note, by the way, that St. Thomas teaches that we never stumble into perplexitas without some measure of personal guilt and that God allows this as a punishment for the sin that initially set us down the wrong path.
To stand by our fellow Christians in the midst of the perplexitas of remarriage, to show them empathy and assure them of the solidarity of the community, is a work of mercy. But to admit them to communion without contrition and to regularize their situation would be an offense against the Blessed Sacrament—one more among the many that are committed today. Paul’s instruction on the Eucharist in First Corinthians culminates in a warning against unworthy reception of Christ’s body: He who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgment to himself. Why did the liturgical reformers strike these decisive verses from the second reading for Mass on Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi, of all feasts? When the entire congregation stands up to receive communion Sunday after Sunday, one has to wonder: Do Catholic parishes now consist exclusively of saints?
But there is still one last point, which by all rights ought to be the first. The Church admits that it handled the sexual abuse of minors without sufficient regard for the victims. The same pattern is repeating itself here. Has anyone even mentioned the victims? Is anyone talking about the woman whose husband has abandoned her and their four children? She might be willing to take him back, if only to ensure that the children are provided for, but he has a new family and has no intention of returning.
Meanwhile, time passes. The adulterer would like to receive communion again. He is ready to confess his guilt, but he is not willing to pay the price—namely, a life of continence. The abandoned woman is forced to watch while the Church accepts and blesses the new union. As if to add insult to injury, her abandonment receives an ecclesiastical stamp of approval. It would be more honest to replace “until death do you part” with “until the love of one of you grows cold”—a formula that is already being seriously recommended. To speak here of a “liturgy of blessing” rather than of a remarriage before the altar is a deceptive sleight of hand that merely throws dust in the eyes of the people.
—First Things, August/September 2014, page 18.
Robert Spaemann is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Munich.
George Washington’s Inauguration
( A Prayer for the Fourth of July 2014)
Almighty and eternal God, you have revealed your glory to all nations. God of power and might, wisdom and justice, through you authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment is decreed. Assist with your spirit of counsel and the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to your people over whom he presides. May he encourage due respect for virtue and religion. May he execute the laws with justice and mercy. May he seek to restrain crime, vice, and immorality. We, likewise, commend to your unbounded mercy all who dwell in the United States. Bless us and all people with the peace which the world cannot give. We pray to you, who are Lord and God, for ever and ever.
R. Amen. — Archbishop John Carroll (alt.)
A Blessing for Fathers…
We bless you and we praise you, God of our Fathers, You are the God of Adam, father of the human family. You are the God of Abraham, our Father in faith, who was ready and willing to give up everything to be faithful to you. You are the God of Isaac, who was born of laughter and old age, and the God of Jacob, whose clever trick gained an inheritance for twelve tribes of sons and daughters, You are the God of Jesse, from whose loins a nation sprang, a sturdy family tree of monarchs, prophets, and priests. You are the God and Father of Israel, your child whom you love with all heart.
You are the God of Zechariah, who fathered St. John the Baptist and taught him the Torah, and of Joachim, the grandfather of Jesus. You are the God of Joseph, who loved and raised Jesus as his own. You are the God and Father of Jesus, and our Father in heaven, too: Holy is your name!
We thank you, God, for the gift of our fathers, for grandfathers, and godfathers and fathers-in-law, too. Send your Holy Spirit upon our fathers, in whose laps we were cradled, on whose knees we were bounced, by whose hands we were fed, instructed, and at times, corrected, in whose company we learned to work and play and pray, at whose side we hear your word and celebrate your mysteries.
Heal their pains and disappointments. Forgive all that needs to be forgiven. Give them the good that they have given others. Welcome into your arms those who have died.
Fill this world, O God, with a father’s love!
We ask this through your son Jesus Christ who taught us to pray to you as He lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, who is Father of the poor, one God forever and ever. Amen.
The Most Holy Trinity June 15, 2014
Ordinary Time: Summer
What do the words Ordinary Time mean? Dorothy Day said, “The words ‘Ordinary Time’ in our prayer books put me in a state of confusion and irritation. To me, no time is ordinary.” She was right. The Ordinary in “Ordinary Time” refers to ordinal counted time, not to a lack of something to celebrate. The Roman document, General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar, says: “Apart from those seasons having their own distinctive character (Advent, Christmas, Lent, Triduum, Easter), 33 or 34 weeks remain in the yearly cycle that do not celebrate a specific aspect of the mystery of Christ. Rather, especially on the Sundays, they are devoted to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects.
How do we celebrate “the mystery of Christ in all its aspects”? We gather every Sunday. Sunday is our original feast day. Christians have gathered every Sunday — the day of Christ’s resurrection, the first day of the week — ever since there were Christians.
When we gather on Sundays in Ordinary Time, as always, we hear the scriptures proclaimed. The Church reads straight through “the Gospel of the year,” either Matthew, Mark or Luke, each week often picking up where we left off last week. (We read John during Lent and Easter, and on feasts.) The first readings, from the first testament of the Bible or the Hebrew Scriptures, have been chosen for their relationship to the gospel passages. Many voices are heard through summer Ordinary Time. We also read through some of the letters of the Second Testament or New Testament or the Christian Scriptures. The mystery of Christ “in all its aspects” unfolds.
What is the heart of our Sunday celebration? We do our Eucharist; that is, we do our thanksgiving. We praise and thank God for all creation; we pray for the whole world, as we remember Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. We share the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. We are sent forth to be the body and blood of Christ in our homes, neighborhoods, our towns, our cities, our country, our world.
“What happens in our churches every Sunday is the fruit of our week. What happens as the fruit of the week past is the beginning of the week to come. Sunday is simultaneously a point of arrival and departure for Christians on their way to the fullness of the kingdom. This is not ordinary at all. This is the fabric of Christian living.” (Saint Andrew Bible Missal (Brooklyn: William J. Hirten Co., 1982.)
Monsignor Jack 1-3-5
“In a recent article in Commonweal magazine (“The Church in Crisis: Pope Benedict’s Theological Vision,” 6/3/05), Father Joseph Komonchak of The Catholic University of America insists that there is a “deeper continuity in the new pope’s basic theological approach and vision” than some commentators have recognized.
Father Komonchak argues that Joseph Ratzinger’s theological stance before and during the Second Vatican Council did not subsequently change from progressive to conservative mainly because of student unrest at the University of Tubingen in 1968.
Biographies of the new pope do point out that the future pope left Tubingen for the more sedate atmosphere of Regensberg, where his priest-brother Georg was the cathedral choirmaster. Undoubtedly, Father Ratzinger’s decision to resign from his more prestigious professorship in Tubingen had something to do with the harassment he increasingly experienced from students there.
Komonchak situates the new pope’s theological vision in the context of the frequently-cited division between theologians who interpreted the conciliar renewal as primarily one of returning to the sources of Scripture, early Christian writings, and the dogmatic decrees of the first few ecumenical councils (an overall approach known in French as ressourcement), and other theologians who saw Vatican II and the theological and pastoral developments it inspired primarily in terms of church reform.
In Father Komonchak^s reading of the matter, Pope Benedict XVI did not later switch sides, as it were, abandoning his previous support of the council, where he had been a theological adviser to the late Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany, and before that a close collaborator of the influential Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner.
The former Cardinal Ratzinger had been consistent in his view that the council was essentially a work of resourcement, of overcoming the limitations of the then-dominant neo-Scholastic theology by returning to the biblical, patristic, and doctrinal sources of the earliest Christian centuries.
What had upset him, Komonchak insists, was not the council as such but some of the developments that occurred after the council and in its name, particularly those affecting the Churchs’ liturgy.
Anyone familiar with my own writings (whether in this weekly column or in other venues) will not be surprised that, while I find Father Komonchak’s analysis very helpful indeed, I would not situate the matter in an either/or framework.
Authentic reform presupposes a return to the sources. True reformers, as the great Dominican theologian, Cardinal Yves Cougar, once reminded us, are those who call the Church not to a complete break with the past, but to a building upon the past in response to new theological and pastoral challenges.
Accordingly, it is not a matter of resourcement or reform, but of a resourcement that provides the foundation for ongoing reform, and of reform grounded in the authentic tradition of the Church rather than in one of the Church’s historical periods, as if frozen in time.
Impatience with neo-Scholasticism, Father Komonchak suggests, led the young theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, to “resist the nearly exclusive emphasis placed on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas,” which he found “too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made.” He “far preferred” the personalism of St. Augustine (d. 430) and the more ascetical approach of St. Bonaventure (d. 1274), himself a neo-Augustinian.
But what young Joseph Ratzinger seems to have opposed was not so much Aquinas’s “closed-in,” “mpersonal” theology as his readiness to seek common ground and enter into dialogue with the newly translated works of Aristotle and his Arabian commentators.
In his second dissertation, qualifying him to lecture as a theologian,the future pope showed how St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Aquinas, set himself against this development. He continued to insist on the unity of Christian wisdom for which Christ was the center of all knowledge.
Father Komonchak acknowledges that “Bonaventure ended in an anti-Aristotelianism that came close to anti-intellectualism, and he was among those who urged ecclesiastical authorities to intervene and censure the Thomist position.”
This seemingly theoretical dispute came to a practical head at the Second Vatican Council, in the historic debate over the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes, “Joy and hope.”)
The division between the return-to-the-sources side and the reform side at Vatican II and beyond, Father Komonchak suggests, is really a division between those who regard the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium, “Light of nations”) as the key conciliar document and those who favor Gaudium et spes.
Again, however, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and. Either/or represents a sectarian vision; both/and, a Catholic one.
One assumes that the new pope’s theological vision is Catholic in the fullest sense of the word.”
“The New Pope As Theologian – II”
By the time this week’s column appears, more of the dust may have settled on the enforced editorial change at America magazine and additional information may have become available.
As of this moment, however, it seems clear that there had been pressure on the Jesuits, applied from both sides of the Atlantic – in the Vatican and among a handful of U.S. bishops – to correct perceived imbalances in the editorials and articles that have been published in the Jesuits’ highly respected weekly magazine over the past few years.
When the news first broke via an e-mailed press release from the America offices, those who had been completely out of the loop, including this writer, did not even suspect that Father Thomas Reese’s departure as editor-in-chief was other than voluntary.
But the word quickly spread as phone calls and e-mails from various media outlets began coming in. ] expressed surprise and astonishment when informed of the reports that Father Reese had indeed been sacked, as the British are fond of putting it.
I can think of no Catholic in the public sphere who is more moderate, more responsible, or more restrained in his judgments and statements than Father Thomas Reese. Indeed, he often bent over backwards, as it were, to avoid even the appearance of opposing official church teachings and policies.
But as the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. For all of his care and judiciousness in educating the public about the Catholic Church, Father Reese reaped not a vote of thanks from church officials, but a pink slip.
Some years ago, one of the best-read columnists in the Catholic press, a prominent priest-sociologist, used to complain about clerical envy. If memory serves, the columnist was referring to the sentiments that many parish priests might have felt toward highly visible priests like himself – author of many books, popular on the lecture circuit, frequent guest on television, and oft-quoted in the press. There may well have been priests who would have liked to see him taken down a peg or two.
One suspects that there is at least some measure of clerical envy involved here. Father Reese has been one of the most public faces on the U.S. Catholic scene, not only as editor-in-chief of America magazine but also as an author of several books, a much sought-after source for major newspapers and magazines, and a frequent contributor to network and cable television programs. He was all over television during the month of April, from the time of Pope John Paul II’s final illness through the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
By any reasonable standard, Father Reese’s public comments have always been fair, informed, balanced, and consistently respectful of the Catholic tradition. The last adjective that few people would have attached to him was “controversial.”
But perhaps it wasn’t the “controversial” part that was most bothersome, but the “public” part. Why is it that, when the major media outlets need some objective and straightforward illumination of breaking developments in the Catholic Church, they seek out people like Father Reese rather than bishops?
There are two reasons. First, many bishops are uncomfortable with the media and limit their availability to carefully crafted press releases. Second, when bishops do speak to the media, they tend to be guarded to a fault. They engage in what media people call “spin.” One rarely if ever hears a fresh, personal opinion, much less a respectful question raised about a particular Vatican initiative or pronouncement.
A major exception was the response of some high-ranking members of the hierarchy – but not in the U.S. – to the document, Dominus Jesus, issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in September, 2000.
Many people mistakenly charged that this document repudiated Vatican II’s teaching on salvation outside the Catholic Church. In that instance, however, there were bishops who, while defending the basic teaching of the document, openly criticized it for its tone and for its failure to incorporate important post-conciliar developments regarding ecumenism and relations with non-Christian religions.
Will any U.S. bishops or Father Reese’s brother Jesuits express their own concern about the meaning and impact of this latest action, which not only reflects upon the integrity of an individual Jesuit but also the Society of Jesus in the United States and one of its flagship publications?
Among the possible fallouts from this action are these two: first, the U.S. Catholic Church may lose one of its most credible and effective spokespersons with the capacity to explain and interpret developments in the Church to a wider public; and second, others like him may be less inclined to step into the breach.”
This essay, Part I and Part II, is provided by the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity. Please share it. Your comments and contributions are welcome. To be added to their mailing list write to: Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity; P.O. Box 31, Belleville, IL 62222.
by Rev.Richard P. McBrien, Theologian; 9/05/05
“A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine published a cover-story on Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The article focused on various aspects of his life and political career, including his religious affiliation and convictions.
Senator Santorum is a Catholic, albeit of a particular kind. He attends Sunday Mass along with Justice Antonin Scalia and other prominent Catholics of similar orientation at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Virginia, where the liturgy is in Latin and the priest prays with his back to the congregation, just like it was in the days before the Second Vatican Council.
However, at 47 years of age today, Senator Santorum was only 4 years old when the Second Vatican Council opened in October, 1962, and only 7 when it adjourned in December, 1965.
He never attended a Catholic college or university, having received a B.A. in Political Science from Penn State in 1980, an M.B.A. at the University of Pittsburgh, and a Doctorate of Jurisprudence from the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
One of his fellow Catholic senators, Susan Collins of Maine, has referred to him as a Catholic missionary in the Senate. She occasionally attends the study group he organized to promote more knowledge of the Catholic faith. Only Republicans are invited.
One is tempted to ask if this is one of those cases of the blind leading the blind (with apologies to anyone offended by the politically incorrect usage). Indeed, there is a book, Catholicism for Dummies, co-authored by two priests who also lack theological credentials. But they are “safe” enough to have a regular program on Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).
In the Times Magazine article, Senator Santorum is portrayed as exuberant over the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope.
“What you saw,” he claimed, “is an affirmation by the cardinals that the church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years.” A remarkable statement indeed from someone who has never had a graduate-level course in church history.
Blessed John XXIII reminded us in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council that history is “the teacher of life.” Without a sense of history, one is always vulnerable to the temptation of accepting and repeating generalities that are without factual basis or, more specifically, are contradicted by the facts of history.
Many Catholics believe, for example, that only the pope can appoint bishops. But the pope has only exercised that prerogative for the universal Church since the 19th century. Before that, bishops were selected by various processes, the most common of which during the First Christian Millennium was election by the clergy and laity of the diocese in which they would serve.
Catholics today take for granted that bishops can be transferred from smaller dioceses to larger dioceses when they are deemed suitable for greater pastoral responsibilities. But in the early Church that was not only uncommon; it was absolutely prohibited – and by no less than the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the same council that defined the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the body of a deceased pope, Formosus (891-896), was dug up and placed on trial because he had accepted election as Bishop of Rome when he was already the bishop of another diocese in Italy (Porto).
A few months ago many people both inside and outside the Catholic Church speculated about whether the new pope would come from Latin America or perhaps from Africa. Throughout the First Millennium, this would have been unthinkable. Bishops were elected from the local diocesan clergy, and once in office they remained in the same diocese until death.
But these are only a few examples of changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church. There are countless others in the realm of doctrine (the Church once approved of slavery, while condemning the taking of interest on loans), liturgy (the Mass was originally in Greek, then Latin, and then in many other languages), and even the making of saints (it was not until the year 993 that a saint was canonized by a pope; before then it was a matter of acclamation by the people).
Senator Santorum is surely not the only Catholic who is unaware of the lessons of church history. Nor is he alone in mistakenly believing that “the church is not going to change,” that it is going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years.”
But if history is “the teacher of life,” we need to learn from it.”
The above two essays were published 8/26/2005 and 9/05/2005 and are provided by the Fellowship of Southern
Illinois Laity. Please share them. Your comments and contributions are welcome. To be added to their mailing
list write to: Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity; P.O. Box 31, Belleville, IL 62222.
How Much More Will the Father Give
- Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
- Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
- Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
- Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
- Only for today, I will devote ten minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
- Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
- Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
- Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
- Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
- Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for twelve hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.
— BLESSED JOHN XXIII
Blessed John XXIII (+ 1963) was beatified September 2000, and canonized May 2014.
“When you whispered a prayer this morning while sipping your coffee and eating your toast, to whom exactly did you pray? An old man with a beard somewhere beyond the clouds? Sophia, otherwise known as Holy Wisdom? The Holy Spirit? Jesus?
Elizabeth Johnson wants to know. In her new book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (Continuum, 2007), she examines how Christians the world over have experienced the presence of God in new ways since the last half of the 20th century. Theologians agree, she says, that we´re in a "golden age of discovery."
Even before her groundbreaking 1992 book, "She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse" (Crossroad), Johnson has been fascinated by how believers view God. "This might sound a little archaic," she told Fordham Online, "but I take my cue from Thomas Aquinas-the study of God and all things in the light of God. That articulates for me what theology is about."
A sister in the Congregation of St. Joseph who hails from Brooklyn, Johnson has been president of both the Catholic Theological Society of America and the American Theological Society. Winner of the U.S. Catholic Award in 1994, she served as a member of the national Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, a consultant to the Catholic bishops´ Committee on Women in Church and Society, a theologian on the Vatican-sponsored dialogue between science and religion, and on the Vatican-sponsored study of Christ and the world religions.
We´re hearing a lot from atheists today who want to persuade us that God doesn´t exist.
What do you as a theologian think about that?
Atheists are rejecting the old images of God that don´t really work that well even for Christians anymore. Just who is the God in whom Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin), doesn´t believe? I found a great quote from a review of his book, in which the reviewer said that Dawkins envisions God "if not exactly with a white beard, then at least as some kind of chap, however supersized." This is not the Christian God.
Also a lot of the atheists writing today are scientists who just want to clear the deck of God so they can do their science. They´re primarily opposed to the fundamentalist approach.
You´ve said that Christians today have many "stale, worn-out images of God that no longer satisfy." What are they?
We might be a bit beyond Michelangelo´s image from the Sistine Chapel of the old man with the beard, but nevertheless, God is too often still a "chap." It´s just assumed that God is this single individual with more power than anyone else, who intervenes now and then to get certain things done, and whom you need to satisfy on a number of levels. Again, this isn´t the God of Christian revelation. When you hear talk radio or people in the press talking about God, this is the God they´re talking about. This image is so unworthy of us.
My daily bread is teaching college students and graduate students, and I find among them that this image just doesn´t work. Especially as they rebel against their parents, which one tends to do at that stage, it´s even less attractive to have the super-parent idea of God. Both in this and other countries, I see a terrific hunger for a mature faith, but that´s not being fed by much of the preaching that people hear, most of which also uses this stale idea of God.
Where did this image come from?
In the Middle Ages, or even at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, ideas about God were drawn mainly from scripture and sacramental practice and from people´s spirituality. Once the Enlightenment started in the 17th century, as Western philosophers began to throw off authority and to sort out ideas on their own, theologians adapted that method as well. They began to reason toward the fact of God´s existence on the basis of natural phenomena, and they came up with the idea of a superior being at the apex of the pyramid of being. We call it the God of theism.
What is forgotten in this image is that this God became incarnate, that God is everywhere present in the Spirit, that God is filled with compassion. It became a much more distant God, while at the same time ironically not distant enough because God became just a more powerful player than we are.
This theistic God is also in competition with the world. It´s a zero-sum game: more of God, less of me; more of God, less of the natural world; more of God, less of my own freedom. That is an aberration from the Christian understanding of God, which is that God set the world up in its own integrity and gives us our freedom. The more we have of God, the freer we are. All of this got lost after the Enlightenment.
Before the Enlightenment, were biblical images more alive in the church?
I don´t want to paint any age as the golden era, including our own, although I think we´re in a renaissance right now. If you look at the Middle Ages, you see God spoken of as "the fountain fullness overflowing." Richard of St. Victor speaks of the deep relationality that is at the heart of God.
Theologians in the Middle Ages wrote tomes on these ideas. We didn´t have anyone doing that during the Enlightenment, with the exception of Cardinal John Henry Newman in England, but he went back and read the Fathers of the church, which caused the whole God question to open up for him again.
The Enlightenment didn´t touch the East in the same way. Even today if you read Christian Orthodox theologians, you get a much different sense of the fullness of God´s trinitarian life, inviting the world into communion. It´s so different from this monarchical, solitary ruler God that we have, the God about whom we ask questions like, "Why is God letting this illness happen to me?" What did I do that´s wrong?
What is attractive about this idea of God?
This all-powerful God can bless you or curse you; therefore you better please him to get the blessing and not the curse. That´s a pattern of relationship that people have with their parents. It´s familiar. It brings a certain measure of security. Also many people don´t know any other God. They haven´t been exposed to any other understandings.
There are some exceptions: You see some wonderful renewed parishes, for example, where people are living a more biblical approach to God. And this image of God is not widespread in the Hispanic community, where people have the sense of God walking with them. Their home altars and other expressions of their popular religion all indicate the closeness of God, a whole different sort of relationship.
Hispanic theologians today say that their community did not go through the Enlightenment. Conquistadors brought with them to the Americas late medieval Catholicism, which blended with indigenous religion. While Europe went through the Enlightenment, the believers in the Americas did not.
But in general I think the image of the theistic God is very widespread in our country. You hear it in sermons. And it´s not just me saying this: The U.S. bishops have said that preaching in our country is in a very bad way in terms of the Catholic tradition. The late German theologian Karl Rahner, S.J. was saying the same thing back in the 1950s and ´60s. He said that the words of the preacher fall powerlessly from the pulpit "like birds frozen to death and falling from a winter sky." I sit and listen to some sermons and I think, "Come on, think of all the wonderful things you could say with this text."
How does one´s theology of God affect one´s everyday life and faith?
If you´re a believing person, you draw your deepest values from that. How you make moral decisions and vocational decisions, how you treat other people – it all flows from how you see God working.
None of the newer theologies of God are innocent in terms of politics. Every one of the ideas I explore in my book has political implications. They are concerned with power and who uses it and the powerless and how they are affected. So if you let any one of those theologies get into your understanding, you´re going to vote differently, you´re going to volunteer differently, you´re going to use your money differently. Theology, I think, can be very powerful as a tool. It´s my conviction that we all have a theology, so how it shapes your life depends on what it is.
What are some of the theologies of God that you´ve been investigating?
They include images from feminist theology, from Latin America and from Latinos in the United States, as well as the God who emerges from encounters with religious pluralism. Also God as envisioned in Europe after the Holocaust, God as seen through the African American experience, and several others.
Each of the new images of God I studied has biblical grounding, each refers in some way to the Trinity, each of them is oriented in some way to religious practice. All of them support the idea that God is deeply involved, deeply concerned with what happens in the world. If you love God, then your heart needs to be conformed and configured to God´s heart. You have to feel that way toward the world as well. There will certainly be differences of opinion about how to do that.
You mentioned the Trinity. This solo God of the Enlightenment doesn´t seem to have anything to do with the Trinity.
The Trinity has been just about lost forever in the West. Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican, says the Holy Spirit is the Cinderella of theology in the West, in the kitchen doing all the work while the other two get to go to the ball.
The view of God in classical theism also does not see God through the lens of Jesus Christ, which is basic to the Christian understanding of God. Therefore it leaves out everything that is beautiful and attractive and that makes people want to be Christian. Jesus and his life, death, and Resurrection just don´t factor in.
The new theologies from Africa and Latin America, on the other hand, are examples of a new kind of trinitarian theology. They don´t let Christ and the Spirit drop away. They´re rooted in an understanding of God related to the world. These understandings are so basic to Christian faith and tradition, I call them a gift to all the rest of us.
You frequently use the term "the living God." What does that mean??
It´s a term found all through the Bible. I love it. The living God is always ahead of us, always surprising, always calling us to come ahead. Wherever "the living God" is used, it indicates a life of fullness, of flowing water, new reality, new justice, new peace. The different theologies I studied use different words for it: getting back to the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of life.
These new theologies of God start with human experience.
What´s the significance of that?
When I was writing She Who Is, it dawned on me that our original approach to God, where God first reaches us, is through our experience-and that´s the Spirit. The Spirit is present in nature, in our human interactions, in the depths of our own soul, at the end of our reaching out in love.
Take the Catholics of Latin America. Where did they get the idea of God as liberator? They didn´t just say one day, "Let´s have a new idea of God." It started in the struggle for justice, for a well that had clean water so babies wouldn´t die before their first birthday. In that work, and in their prayer and reflection over that work, people said, "This is what God wants us to do." Then when they read the Book of Exodus, they read it with new eyes because of their new experience.
In every single one of these theologies, it is experience that opens the door, that leads the way in. Then theologians come along and think about it, but they couldn´t do that without the experience of the Christian people first. We believe, as St. Anselm said a thousand years ago, that theology is faith seeking understanding. You have the church–the community–and theologians reflect on what the community´s faith means. The experience is there as a primary source.
What is revelation then?
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, revelation became highly intellectualized. It came down to doctrine: We knew certain truths, certain beliefs. You´re a Christian if you believe this. I would say Vatican II´s Dei Verbum, The Constitution on Divine Revelation, changed all that. Its opening sentence says, "In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of his will." In the gift of God´s own self comes understanding something of who God is, so revelation becomes much more experiential right from the start. That experience is then articulated in words and finally it is written down. We call it revelation.
I always regret that word, revelation. It sounds like an object, but it´s a relational dynamic that has brought to birth wisdom in the Christian community about God and fidelity in the way people live.
What we are called to believe is actually a mystery, God´s own giving self. Rahner uses the image of the horizon: You see it, but you never get there. You can´t control it or comprehend it, because then it wouldn´t be God.
How can different images of God all work together and still be Catholic?
There can be many theologies among people who still believe in one Creed.
Theology is simply an articulation of what faith means in this time and place for this people, so that will change over time. The Creed is a point of unity. We come together over the heart of the confession of faith and the reception of the Eucharist that unites the community.
Isn´t there the potential for so many different theologies to get out of control?
Yes, but whose control, exactly? Certain theologians who wrote in every one of these theologies have been criticized by Rome. This approach can be threatening to a hierarchical power structure, because it says that truth also resides among the baptized, that those who are filled with the Spirit have a wisdom.
I don´t mean to knock the institutional church. Rahner wrote that the church has its charisms and its offices, and that often there´s tension between the two. Theology is a charism, and the office is often in tension with that. The good function of the church office is unity; it keeps everybody from losing the heart and soul of what we believe, from falling into fads and trends and that sort of thing. I would never not want to have a central authority that functions as a uniting factor.
Let´s talk about "God acting womanish," as you call it.
Where does this theology stand today?
There are major images of God in a female form in scripture and in our mystical tradition especially. Maternity is the main one, but the wisdom texts about Sophia are another. Some theologians make the case, too, that the Spirit has a female name in Hebrew and acts in feminine ways.
Then come the questions of why aren´t we using those images of God in our liturgies, why aren´t we teaching young people that this is an approach to God that can be used as well? The three major words for God are still Father, King, and Lord in Christian hymns, prayer, and liturgy. What that sets up unconsciously, whether you want it to or not, is the assumption that men have more in common with divinity than women do. Those three particular images also are very patriarchal because they refer not just to a male but to a ruling male, somebody who is dominating or being father in a patriarchal sense. Now that isn´t, of course, what scripture means or what Jesus meant when he called God Abba.
If you combine Father, Lord, and King with the God of theism, then you´ve got a problem. That´s one of those static ideas that does not feed the souls of a lot of people, men as well as women.
It´s very simple. Women are no longer relating to men in their lives as lord and king, and father no longer has that sense of control and domination that it had in a previous era. Women are no longer relating to their own fathers that way, let alone marrying men who act as fathers that way. Look at the partnership concept in marriage. Fathering is much more nurturing than it used to be.
There´s little that women then can bring into a relationship with God who is going to be their lord and king or their father. It goes blank, and not only that, but women are very uncomfortable with it. It´s not just neutral, it´s negative. Women think, "I don´t want a dominating man: Go away until you grow up and learn how to treat me like a human being." When that comes into the religious life of women, it becomes the heart of this crisis. You can have all the dictums in the world, but the old images just don´t work anymore.
What does it mean that we call God by male terms?
I have this sentence that I quote over and over again: The symbol of God functions. The male symbol of God functions to privilege a certain way of male rule in the world and to undercut women´s spiritual power, women´s own sense of themselves as made in the image of God.
We women have to abstract ourselves from our bodies to see ourselves in the image of God if God is always depicted as male. It has serious ramifications for spirituality and for the identity of believers and for the community.
Why is there so much resistance to using feminine images of God?
I think the rejection of the inclusive language lectionary, which the U.S. bishops applied for in 1992 and which was rejected by the Vatican, was a clear recognition that once you start making room for even nonsexist language about humanity, let alone feminine images of God, there´s a fear that women will want to move in socially and politically, and then you´ve got a challenge to church structure as we know it. I think there´s a great deal of fear of women´s power.
Can you imagine a church that took female images of God to heart?
Let me say, I think women and men are equal in sin and grace. I don´t think women are going to be the salvation of the church or of this country. I think we can all get on power trips. I´m convinced of it, maybe because I´ve been in a women´s religious community, and I have six sisters. I am disabused of this romantic notion of women´s greatness as compared to men.
At this moment in history, women have figured out what´s wrong with the current pattern and how their experiences have led to different ways of relating, organizing, and running things. Given the chance, they would bring that pattern into the church and let it play off and see what develops.
How do you imagine God when you pray?
Writing She Who Is was a deeply spiritual experience for me. By the time I had finished, I had migrated out of the patriarchal church and the patriarchal notion of God. I have never been able to pray that way again. The notion of God as the one who embraces us, in whom we live and move and have our being, is so much more my sense of God than the grand old man in the sky. Even when I´m at liturgy and I hear male language in prayers, I experience it differently.
You don´t revert back?
I had a very good friend who died five years ago of a brain hemorrhage, and I was the health care proxy for him. During the days in the hospital when he was unconscious and we faced a decision about removing the breathing tube, I was absolutely conscious of Sophia embracing him and me in this crisis. He was moving toward death, and I was guarding his death like a lion against the doctors who wanted to do a million procedures.
That to me was the moment I realized I could never go back. In a moment of crisis, you often revert to your childhood image of God. What I reverted to was this cosmic sense of the Spirit of God in even our dying, summoning us, walking with us.
The God who walks with us
What does God look like in the U.S. Hispanic community?
Is it different from God as envisioned by the people of Latin America?
The difference is in the local setting. In this country we don´t have civil wars, we don´t have the extreme difference between the wealthy and the poor that gave rise to liberation theology (although we´re getting there). We also have democratic processes, and Hispanic people have made it into the upper echelons of government.
The history of the Hispanic people in the U.S. is that they encountered and then became swallowed up in a Protestant, European culture, where even their language was under pressure.
Hispanic theologians in this country will say: We´re not doing liberation theology. They think liberation theology did not give enough credence to popular religion, that it neglected daily life in the family that shows itself in fiesta, and in what Hispanics call flor y canto, flower and song, a metaphor for beauty.
At a fiesta, the clergy and nuns are welcome, but they are not necessary. The people will have the fiesta anyway, which has a deep religious component. God accompanies the people, sustaining and strengthening them. Their love for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Good Friday processions, Posadas before Christmas, all speak of a God who understands the struggles and joys of human existence.
The sense of God´s closeness can be such a benefit to non-Hispanics like myself who don´t have that religious ambiance around us in our daily lives. All these new theologies can teach us something, but especially this one.”