154. The Loss of Credibility of the Roman Catholic Church and the Theological Issues at Stake

October 1st, 2018

The public image of the Roman Catholic Church emerging out of the sexual abuse scandals is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Having several top leaders (cardinals, bishops, priests) and institutions (seminaries, schools, the Vatican curia itself) incriminated for either abusing children or covering up abuses undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome.

Over the last ten years, horrible things have come to light: first in Ireland, then Australia, then Chile, and more recently in the USA (where a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report exposed systemic abuses committed by priests) and Germany (with a recent report saying that 3,677 children have been abused by Catholic priests since the 1940s).These are just five regions where exposure of the traumatic evidence meant that the scandals could no longer be covered up. The impression is that we have not yet reached the peak. The vast echo of these scandals reached the Vatican headquarters when former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò accused vast sectors of the Roman Curia of covering them up and called for Francis’ resignation due to his inability to properly deal with the abuses.

Systemic Problem
The sexual abuse crisis has been on the table in a dramatically growing way since the years of Benedict XVI. Its increased scope was one of the reasons Pope Ratzinger felt overwhelmed, contributing to his abrupt resignation. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to deal with the issue first by using the analogy of the “black sheep”: these are terrible but isolated events and the church is dealing with them. Then, the magnitude and extent of the scandal revealed that the problem is neither regional nor limited to individual cases but lies within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Hence Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August) calling for repentance and envisaging stricter procedures in the recruitment of the clergy, in the prevention of abuse, and in the prosecution of abusers.

The “black sheep” metaphor is no longer adequate. The problem is systemic and pervasive. The magnitude of the scandals challenges the doctrine of the indefectibility of the (Roman) church, i.e. the view that the church never errs and that only her “sons” make mistakes as individuals. No, the church as a whole is called into question by the abuse of thousands of children by its leaders.

There are several issues at stake here. When nearly half of its priests are sexually active (as evidenced in the book Sex and the Vatican), a structural problem is evident. It is more than the failure of many individuals. It is the failure of a whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on. In the words of the above mentioned Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the USA, “The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated… These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” How will the church deal with the issue of homosexuality among its priests and its members? Will the church’s hierarchical structure be used to defend the victims, or to adopt a self-defending attitude? These continue to be standing and open questions.

More than a Moral Issue
Of course, every institution, every church, every community, every denomination is subject to failures. In this sense, the problem is not exclusively a Roman Catholic one. The Lord Jesus reminds us not to pass hypocritical judgment on others as if we were exempt from failing. If we are tempted to say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, we should be careful not to have “a plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:4).

Having said that, the disgusting scale of the scandal points to something bigger than a failure.

Here is what the above-mentioned report of Pennsylvania Grand Jury says:

There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands. Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

In Persona Christi?
A moral and institutional crisis? Yes, but there is more. One wonders whether a significant factor in determining the present-day moral disaster lies at the very heart of the theology of the Roman Church: not the only reason, but one that is often overlooked. The problem has to do with the Roman theology of priesthood and, in particular, with the organic association of the priest with Christ. The priest, by way of his office, acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as if he were Christ himself. In Roman Catholicism, the priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing the words by which the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ. The priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. The priest and bishop act in the person of Christ as the head through their leadership of the Church. The priest does not merely represent Christ, but acts as if he were Him.

This doctrine is grounded in the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ and the church. According to Rome, the latter continues and prolongs the incarnation of the former. In his masterful assessment of Roman Catholic theology, Gregg Allison speaks of “the Christ-Church interconnection” as being one axis of the whole Catholic doctrine (Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, pp. 56-66). The church acts in persona Christi because she carries on the incarnation after Christ’s ascension as if she were Christ, claiming his authority, demanding the obedience that is due Him, ruling in His name and on His behalf.

When the leader of a church and the faithful who belong to it operate within such a theological framework, to “control” consciences becomes a natural outcome and to create a state of emotional dependency and submission is a consequence. When the priest (and the church that empowers and protects him) acts in persona Christi, he thinks he is beyond accountability from below. His priestly state is somewhat superior to that of the submitted, ordinary people. Moreover, the imperial, top-down hierarchical structures of the Church of Rome provide another theological reason for evil high-ranking priests to take advantage of weaker people belonging to an inferior rank.

Of course, there are other sociological and historical reasons that can explain the present-day abuses, but the theology encapsulated in the understanding of the priest as acting in persona Christi has had a role in creating a spiritual and cultural atmosphere of power in which abuses are tolerated. Will the church ever change its view of the priesthood as a separate, somewhat superior state acting in persona Christi?

As Martin Luther argued in his 1520 Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, the Church of Rome needed a biblical reformation of its theology of the priesthood based on the Christ-Church interconnection. For the Bible and for the Protestant Reformation, Christ alone is the head of the church, and its members are all equally endowed with the priestly role. None of them is “superior” to another. The Holy Spirit, not an institution or a class of people, is the only one who can be said as acting in persona Christi. This is a serious reform that Rome needed then and still needs today. Instead of defending its traditional outlook, which has lost all credibility, will Rome instead be open to change?

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153. A Few Remarks on the Evangelical Fascination with the “Sacramental Tapestry” — A Book Review of Hans Boersma’s Two Volumes on the Topic

September 1st, 2018

In some evangelical circles, “sacramental theology” attracts a growing attention and, in a few cases, makes converts to Roman Catholicism. For many of those coming out of a neo-fundamentalist mindset, focused on battles for objective truth and the certainty of belief, and often fighting secondary battles, some evangelical theology finds in the present-day Catholic discourse on “mystery” a nuanced and intriguing attraction.

Two books by Hans Boersma, Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of the Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), testify to the fascination some contemporary protestant theologians have for the categories of “sacrament” and “mystery.” These groupings were relaunched by the nouvelle théologie (new theology), a stream of Catholic thought (mainly French) that developed in the first half of the twentieth century. This strain of theology was highly influential at the Second Vatican Council and afterward.

These two volumes, the work of a professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, form basically the same work: the first is the editio maior (expanded version) and the second is the editio minor (condensed version).

In the first volume, Boersma shows how, at the end of the 19thcentury, under the influence of the Enlightenment that had broken the relationship between faith and life, Catholic theology built a theological-philosophical system that, in order to fight against the Enlightenment, ended up assimilating its plausibility structures. The Neo-Thomism that was carved into the encyclical Aeterni Patris of Leo XIII (1879) was a rational, sophisticated, intellectualist apparatus that lost sight of the “mystery” of faith expressed in the liturgy and the sacraments.

The nouvelle théologie is a reaction to this drying up of faith through the rediscovery of a sacramental ontology that “opens” the eyes of faith to the world (M. Blondel, J. Maréchal, P. Rousselot), makes fluid the distinction between the natural and the supernatural (H. De Lubac and H. Bouillard), insists on the category of incarnation and human “participation” in the incarnation (H.U. von Balthasar and M.-D. Chenu), rediscovers the “spiritual” interpretation of Scripture and tradition (J. Daniélou and H. De Lubac), and invests a great deal on ecclesiology in sacramental terms (H. De Lubac and Y. Congar). In short, it proposes a re-appropriation of the pre-modern heritage of the Christian faith as a way to appreciate afresh its Roman Catholicity. Everything revolves around the category of ressourcement: return, re-appropriation, re-assimilation of the tradition and, by extension, of the “mystery”.

Boersma maintains that the Protestant Reformation has also been a movement of ressourcement, above all of the Word of God. However, because of its unresolved sacramentalogy and its dependence on Nominalism, the Reformation has lost sight of the ontology of the sacrament and has been instead absorbed into other accounts of reality (reason, feeling, “relevance”). His attempt, then, is to build a bridge between the rediscoveries made by the “new theology” and evangelical theology so that the sacramental ontology becomes an essential part of the latter.

By sacramental ontology, Boersma means “the conviction that historical realities of the created order served as divinely ordained, sacramental means leading to eternal divine mysteries” (289). To achieve this aim, he suggests an embrace of the category of “mystery”, to discover the dynamic unity between Scripture and tradition, to value the Eucharist as a sign of communion and the summit of ecclesial life, and to rethink the distinction between what is natural and what is supernatural in order to appreciate their substantial continuity.

If the first volume’s focus is historical, in the second volume the author opens up the implications of this immersion for evangelical theology. For him, it is a matter of rediscovering the “sacramental tapestry” of the created and redeemed reality. All the evangelical insistence on “propositional” truth should be tempered by the appreciation of a theology that is narrated, imagined, and symbolized, in search of deeper spiritual levels of meaning that go beyond the historical and literal sense and that are embodied in the sacraments. All the evangelical insistence on the “forensic” meaning of justification should be replaced by the experience of salvation as “participation” in divine realities. The sacramental mentality is imbued with real “participation”. Hence the title that indicates in “heavenly participation” the horizon of the Christian faith.

Boersma frequently uses the reference to “participation” without showing sufficient awareness of the implications of such use by Roman Catholic theology. In it, participation is used to dilute the understanding of Christ’s incarnation through its prolongation in the church, expanding the time of Christ’s revelation to that of the ecclesial tradition that supplements it, extending the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper to the “real presence” of the Eucharist, widening the work of salvation so as to include the human contribution to it, expanding Christology to make room for the claims of Mariology, etc. “Participation”, if not biblically defined and theologically understood, is the instrument through which theology becomes Roman Catholic theology.

After all, for Boersma what is at stake is to rebuild the synthesis between Platonism and Christianity that, well before the Protestant Reformation, was torn apart and replaced by the nominalist synthesis between Aristotelianism and Christianity. According to this view, the synthesis between Plato and the Gospel is the highest point of human thought. Is it really?

At this point, the author considers the Reformation to be a “tearing” of the one Church. However, was the church truly united before Luther? The Reformers did not separate from the church but gave the church a chance to rediscover the biblical gospel. Boersma’s view of the Reformation being the “tearing” of the one Church is historically simplistic and theologically reductionistic.

Dialoguing with Carl Raschke (The Next Reformation), Boersma hopes for a “forthcoming” and future Reformation that, away from the logic of  Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, and Christ Alone, will embrace the “great tradition” that unites all Christians and that is centered on the “catholic” emphases of the Eucharist, tradition, and the sacraments.

According to Boersma, the nouvelle théologie is the medicine that can heal the divisions between Catholics and evangelicals (190) by making the Catholics more evangelical and the Evangelicals more Roman Catholic. He seems to have a very idealized view of what Tradition and traditions are for Roman Catholicism. Has he ever visited a Catholic sanctuary or a Marian shrine or any religious festival? Is not his reading of Roman Catholicism based on the acquaintance of some enlightened theologian, rather than in real Catholic life?

Indeed, the “new theology” that Boersma wants to graft onto evangelical theology did not challenge the Catholic dogmas based on tradition rather than Scripture, did not change the traditional practices based on popular piety rather than Scripture, and did not modify the imperial structure of the Church based on tradition rather than Scripture. How can one be so optimistic about what the “new theology” can do if it has reinforced the Catholic system, rather than challenging it? It is evident that the author has felt its charming message and attraction to the point that his critical reading and overall analysis have lost their evangelical spine. Once the supreme authority of Scripture is fudged and justification by faith alone is blurred, is this theology still evangelical?

These books are a testimony of how theology can reach high levels of scholarship and sophistication without developing an adequate awareness of the issues debated. Alongside intelligent and timely observations, there are dangerous slips reflecting a theological naiveté when it comes to understanding the reality of Roman Catholicism as a whole.

The risk is that these sacramental accounts of theology fuel superficial ecumenical views without understanding what is at stake. The sacramental theology of present-day Roman Catholicism is the “heart” of Catholicism itself. One can understand how it can attract some evangelical circles that have not developed a biblically rich and historically aware theological imagination. Instead of the re-appropriation of the “great tradition” of the classical Christian faith (biblical, patristic, protestant, awakened, evangelical), they are fascinated with the version that is the core of the Roman Catholic synthesis. Is this the “next Reformation” they long for?

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