Dear Editor (First Things),
It was with great sadness that I read "Vatican Says Catholic Christianity Necessary for Salvation." (NC Catholic, 9/10/00.) Just now, my wife -- a non-practicing Catholic -- is entering my office, and frankly I'm afraid she'll peek over my shoulder, see this most recent edition of quasi-infallible bafflegab, and again have good reason to wonder why I "hang in there."
Despite the last gasps issuing from the Congregation for the Faith, decentralization of Vatican authority is a fait accompli. Curial careerists wish to defend themselves, to shore up the only power base they've known, by issuing "authoritative" declarations like Dominus Iesus. Hardliners resisted John XXIII's aggiornamento from the beginning, and have continually fought to impugn the Council's recognition of the truthfulness of other religions. These pilpulistic men seek to reverse the spirit of the Council by adhering to the letter of law. They've sacrificed the Incarnation on the altar of abstraction. I'm reminded of the Pharisaic hair-splitting that caused Jesus to rail against devout practitioners as "whited sepulchers, full of dead men's bones and rot."
Where is the sensus fidelium which Rev. Theodore Hesburgh describes so eloquently? Given the Vatican's supercilious treatment of the collegium of bishops, the sensus fidelium doesn't even show on radar. This stonewalling of the universal church vitiates every unilateral decision emerging from Rome.
Please don't mistake me. Authority is a real issue.
However, to declare that 'the Old and New Testaments are the only sacred writings inspired by the Holy Spirit' is not so much an appeal to authority as an attempt to shackle the Paraclete to human dictate. In the white noise of Cardinal Ratzinger's academic posturing, where is there room for the small voice of God --- the voice that can only be heard in emptiness and silence?
I've read the entire text of "Dominus Iesus." Here's an excerpt which cuts to the heart of the authority issue: "The Church's tradition reserves the designation of inspired texts to the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, since these are inspired by the Holy Spirit.24 Taking up this tradition, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council states: "For Holy Mother Church, relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself".25 These books "firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures".26"
It would be beneficial - perhaps salvific - if the Catholic Church disavowed infallibility, thus restoring the primacy of Faith. In fact, it may be necessary for the Church to countermand infallibility. Why? Because it is NOT true that Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy "whole and entire, with all (their) parts, (were) written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 20:31; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19-21; 3:15-16), (and that they have) God as (their) author, and (that these books) firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures".26"
From beginning to end, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are larded with human superstition --- with absurd purificatory and dietary enjoinders that contradict the necessary relationship between reasonability and truth. Nor do these absurd Levitican and Deuteronomic enjoinders transcend reasonability by aegis of revelation. Scores of early biblical commands have no ring of divinely inspired truth. Have you had a penectomy? Then "you may not become a member of the assembly of the Lord." This is not inspired scripture. This is nonsense.
Even a cursory reading of the texts makes clear that Catholic officialdom cannot defend these particulars. To do so would destroy credibility. Who would pretend, for example, that universal salvation once depended on the destruction of cooking pots touched by chameleons and geckos? In Deuteronomy, we find a riotous surfeit of bloodthirstiness. Take this example: "In the towns of these nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you as your holding, you must not leave a soul alive." Not a soul left alive... The "thunder sky God" who inhabits the early books of the Old Testament is not the God of whom Jesus speaks. To hide behind dogma by pretending otherwise is an act of deception that does not further the kingdom of God.
At the time of the Second Vatican Council, relatively few Catholics read the Bible, an avoidance dating back to Rome's condemnation of lay people who read Scripture. As increasing numbers of Catholics read the Bible, the manifest absurdities contained in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy will be seen as clear contradictions of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.
If the Constitution of the Church is wrong on this point -- or, if the sensus fidelium believes that it's wrong (as it inevitably will) -- what will be left of Rome's claim to magisterial inerrancy?
Before Church authorities mount a response to this line of inquiry, they might consider the following probe... Any bishop who thinks Leviticus and Deuteronomy pass "the straight-face test" will be asked to read the texts - unexpurgated - to his Cathedral congregation. Got any cantankerous kids? Take 'em outside the city gates - and with the participation of the entire community - stone them to death. Got any clothes made of polyester and cotton. The Lord condemneth thee for thou shalt make no cloth containing two fibers.
(It is notable that early Christians - including Christ's own apostles and disciples - saw no need to devise a biblical canon. Then, the 2nd century Christian gnostic, Marcion, alleged that Jews and Jewish culture were absolutely Satanic. In reaction, "orthodox" Church Fathers validated Jewish scripture by canonizing it. While at the drawing table, they also formulated the New Testament Canon.)
The Vatican's relatively recent quest for infallible papal authority -- an ironically adulatory reaction to the scientific "certainties" of Modernism -- usurps God's authority and vests it in a human institution.
Tragically, papal infallibility has painted the Church into a corner. We find ourselves in an intrinsically corrosive situation. Every future ex cathedra pronouncement will successfully preach to a like-minded choir --- confirming the passions of some, while permanently alienating others. It can be argued that the Church will benefit from the winnowing effect of alienation, but it is wrong to pretend that ongoing alienation fosters catholicity. The urge to prove --apodictically -- that one is absolutely "right" is inevitably wed to self-righteousness. Although a few ecclesiastical experts may make necessary distinctions, the popular imagination always transforms self-righteousness into belligerence. (The turmoil now taking place in Israel is provoked by two religious factions, each of them certain God is on their side. I am not comforted -- but am sorely distressed -- by the "knowledge" that we Catholics really have God on OUR side.)
The Church is strongest when it's members believe the tenets of Faith, not when they're obliged to believe self-arrogated claims of knowledge. Ultimately, it is the obligation of believers to Believe, not to pretend - on a questionable 19th century assertion - that they Know.
Catholics are most credible, most convincing, and most lovable when they say: "I believe in the teachings of Jesus so strongly that I'm prepared to die for my belief."
Catholics are weakest, most alienating and most belligerent when they say "I know this is true, and my knowledge proves you wrong."
Ironically, infallibility undermines belief by enabling people to depend on external pronouncement rather than develop soulful relationships with the Living God and with their living communities.
As Viscount Morley once said: "It is not enough to do what is right. One must do it rightly."
Or, as T. S. Eliot observed : "The last temptation and the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason."
It is possible to get the content "right," and still sin at the contextual level.
I don't pretend to know the "unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit." As a matter of speculation, however, Catholic officialdom is on very shaky moral ground in Dominus Iesus, and is, substantively, leading the faithful into needless and unjustified pride.
Several weeks ago, on the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Mark, the first evangelist to record Christ's life, quoted Jesus: "How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you hypocrites when he wrote, 'This people pays me lip service but their heart is far from me. Empty is the reverence they do me because they teach as dogmas mere human precepts. You disregard God's commandment and cling to what is human tradition.'"
23 months before his death, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote: "Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic church, and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God's name. It is an insult to God himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to."
Setting aside Cardinal Ratzinger's opinion for a moment, should Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is incapable of inspiring ANYONE - regardless their religious affiliation - to write down sacred truths (both de facto and de jure to borrow Cardinal Ratzinger's prissy terminology)? Is it wrong for Catholics to posit that "the one church of Christ could subsist also in non-Catholic churches?"
"Other sheep have I who are not of this flock..."
What are we creating here? An exclusive club?
I know an elderly woman who renounced Catholicism after sending her daughter to borrow the rectory phone in a panicked attempt to locate a pre-school child who had suddenly disappeared. The priest answered the door and said: "Where's your quarter? No quarter, no call." No doubt this priest subscribed to every document issuing from Rome. No doubt his punctilious adherence to orthodoxy made him certain of his personal goodness.
In the early church, Christians (not yet denominated "Catholics") held to a simple scriptural belief: "You will know them by their love for one another."
Or consider the 25th chapter of Matthew, just prior to Christ's trial and crucifixion. Jesus affirms that the final separation of 'the saved' from 'the cursed' will depend on the performance of corporal works of mercy. In this passage, Jesus cites NO other qualification --- NO need to adhere to any theological tenet. "The righteous" proceed to defend themselves, insisting that they've always provided for the needs of Jesus. To which Jesus responds: "'The king will answer,' "Truly I tell you: anything you did for one of my brothers here, however insignificant, you did for me... anything you failed to do for one of these, however insignificant, you failed to do for me... A curse is on you; go from my sight to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels.""
With the passage of time, the chief litmus for Catholic "membership" has shifted from the actual practice of love to lip-service endorsement of dogma, doctrine and intellectualized formulae.
Too many religious - and legions of lay people - have made peace with The Head's usurpation of The Sacred Heart.
Do I have a triumphalist obligation to explain to my Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic friends -- as well as my wife -- that they 'may participate in some diluted form of divine grace,' but that they're "gravely deficient" in comparison with those of us who have the full means of salvation.
If this is bridge-building, we would wisely pray for flying pigs in hopes of grabbing one as we plunge to the canyon floor. Pontifex minimus....
Such belittling belief -- and even more so, the formalized statement of such belittling belief -- is neither kind, compassionate, loving nor useful. Ironically, although Dominus Iesus may be completely Catholic, it often fails to be Christian. The document is inordinately proud, even arrogant. It smacks of cheap self-validation by putting other people down. I remember the days (even after the Second Vatican Council) when some Catholic Schools continued to teach that Jews were "Christ -killers" --- after centuries of teaching that ALL non-Catholics were condemned to eternal damnation.
The People of God will not tolerate restoration of vainglory, no matter how carefully Catholic officialdom nuances the attempt.
Let's not forget that Jesus was a practicing Jew, a passionate practitioner --- thoroughly dedicated to His "gravely deficient" religion.
Let's remember that Mary -- and all the apostles -- were practicing Jews. Peter saw himself --without reservation -- as a Jewish rabbi's disciple, practicing squarely within the Jewish religious tradition.
Did the Cross conquer sin only for those who subscribe to Catholic doctrine? If forgiveness is bestowed on all -- if Christ's sacrificial ransom is universal -- how can we presume to set limitations?
At the Last Supper, when Jesus enjoined us to remember Him, he spoke to an assembly of Jews. When Jesus broke bread, blessed wine and freely shared these gifts --- even with Judas --- Catholicism was, as yet, non-existent.
Are we playing an academic game to be concluded by an academic test?
To be graded by members of the academic Curia?
What is all this "jackassing around" but a fearful attempt to destroy Faith by substituting it with the putative certainty of infallibility?
At bottom, infallibility is an attempt to freeze revelation, to insure that the unpredictable will of the Living God is held in check by human constraint.
Although tradition is critical to the propagation of truth, it is even more essential that God be invited to surprise us, to dislodge us from routine ruts, to knock us off our Damascene horses, to stagger us with intermittent wonder so that - with cleansed perception - we might perceive truth directly and not be limited to a cerebral set of formulaic propositions.
The fearful impulse which propelled Pope Pius IX to ramrod infallibility through the First Vatican Council will only be reversed when a pope -- or some highly placed papal counselor -- goes off the deep end.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would have us swim in waters that are deep indeed. Not to mention murky, cold and poisonous to conviviality --- disrespectful of frank disagreement among the equal children of God.
Might an American prelate come forward to explain these dogmatic limitations of the Holy Spirit, and of Jesus Christ through whom all things subsist, and by whose sacrifice all people have been ransomed?
John's gospel - the last of the four - concludes with these words: "There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the world could not hold the books that would be written."
Who's to say these books are not still being written?
Revelation will emanate from the Mystical Body of Christ until the end of time.
It is all revelation.
Since the world is too small to contain the books that could be written about Jesus, perhaps the Church should teach that the totality of Truth requires us to reach beyond bookishness, into the realm of unprejudiced contemplation where the unimaginable fullness of God can overtake us as it did Thomas Aquinas. Swept away by a late-life mystical realization, Thomas stopped writing altogether: "Compared to what I have experienced, everything I have written is so much straw."
Claims of scriptural "absolutism" are intrinsically dubious. The actual embodiment of truth is always greater than -- and always qualitatively different from -- any verbal description of truth. Although words are critical to charting a course, our destination is, by nature, beyond words. The realization of truth is not the word "truth," just as the phrase "avocado taste" says nothing about the fruit's actual impact on tongue and nose.
We might wisely recall Mencken's (parsimonious) praise for Catholicism: 'The older I become, the more I respect Catholicism for treating life as a poem and not as an equation.'
Through excessive concretization of words -- by treating words as mathematical ciphers rather than poetic intimations -- we distance ourselves from the realities words represent. When words are too tightly defined, they shield us from the realities those words were intended to penetrate. What was originally a probe to help us explore, becomes a cocoon to keep us contained.
Logos resides at the heart of the Mysterium Magnum. However, given the unfathomable depth of the divine mystery, words -- as we human beings understand "words"--are jejune adumbrations of the transcendental Logos which IS the Sacred Heart of God expressing itself directly in the ongoing act of creation, death and redemption.
On a more mundane level, does Cardinal Ratzinger's verbiage condemn the graciousness of 83 year-old Father Paul who once assured his flock that "our Buddhist brethren are undoubtedly doing the work of Christ."
I believe Jesus warms to Father Paul and is chilled by the baroque casuistry of Cardinal Joseph.
I ask NC Catholic to begin publishing pertinent web addresses so readers can study original documentation as a supplement to the paper's routinely high-quality commentary. An editor of First Things kindly informed me that the entire text of Dominus Iesus is available at the Vatican's website: