Showing posts with label Church. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Church. Show all posts

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cheap Grace and Catholics

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the Church," Bonhoeffer opens. "Our struggle today is for costly grace."

In reading that famous opening line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's now-classic Discipleship, I knew I was in for a book that would not let me remain unchanged. It is the nature of the hearing of the Gospel, that once the essential content of the kerygma has been heard, there comes about  an eschatological event, where one can heed the call to "drop our nets", or leave as the young rich man does - sad, though still in full possession of his riches. The call of Jesus - announced through the proclamation that Jesus has conquered death for the forgiveness of sins, and is Lord of all, inaugurating his kingdom through the ministry of the Church - precipitates a moment of decision. Precisely because the call requires an answer, it cannot leave the person unchanged.

This is standard Christian theology, clear in practice from even a fairly superficial reading of the gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel polarises people because it confronts with a decision. What I have learnt from Bonhoeffer is not that discipleship demands change, but that it is precisely grace that demands change. We Catholics have a wealthy tradition of avoiding polarisations of things which must, even paradoxically, unite - faith and reason, faith and works, free will and predestination, Christ being human and divine.

Yet I wonder whether our modern Catholic has not fallen into precisely the trap of seeing grace as sharply distinct from obedience to the call of Christ. Perhaps this is because we have taken grace to mean cheap grace, which really is antithetical to discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes lucidly about what distinguishes cheap and costly grace:

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself. [...] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On the other hand: 

"Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. [...]

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it cost people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sins; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son – “you were bought with a price” – and because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give for our lives. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

We Catholics know this, so much do we understand (it is said) that grace is costly, that we fall off the other side and require more than just belief, adding works to "faith alone". That is the claim made against us by some Protestant groups. "True," they might say, "we recognize that this is not official Church teaching, that Catholics do believe in grace alone" - but, they hasten to add, "the average Catholic believes in works-righteousness." I disagree. I see the average Catholic - the "practicing" one, that is - as having accepted grace, but not costly grace, only the cheap variety. The average Catholic who goes to Mass seems to have "forgiveness of sins as a general truth [...] God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God." This is not to say that they are all like that - far from it!

This proclamation of cheap grace seems like the only thing that might attract the masses, the only way to effectively evangelise. Precisely because it denies the centrality of the call to discipleship, because it ignores the cost of responding to the call of Jesus Christ that is intrinsically linked to the Gospel, it is not the true Gospel. Cheap grace replaces Jesus with an idol, a god made in our image, who justifies all our wrongdoings because this idol is really our own self-forgiveness. It underlies the Catholic denial of the sacrament of reconciliation with the line that "God forgives me anyway", it is that absolution without personal confession. The Catholic who is scared of a fellow sinner in the confessional, and so chooses to go "to God himself" has denied the complete otherness of the true God, the holy God, and has replaced God with the grace that they bestow upon themselves.

These "good news" of cheap grace is not only the mortal enemy, as Bonhoeffer says, of the true Church, that community of true Christians, it also sickens that sociological group we also call "the Church." What Bonhoeffer writes of the Lutherans in his own time is true of Catholics now:

"But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquiered too cheaply? We have away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations, we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundaries between the church and the world, over costly grace?"

I had the opportunity a few months ago, and also just last week, to participate in that ancient liturgy, which still conserves that line reflecting the Church as distinct from the worldly. Before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the call is heard "The doors, the doors!" Those who were not baptised into the People of God must have left, and the doors shut, for they could not even participate from afar in that holy treasure the Church has, her only treasure: Christ incarnate. Those who wished to participate in that greatest of gifts must first renounce Satan and receive Baptism, be born anew into the People of God. This was how the early Christians responded to their Master's command that they not give what is holy to those who are not fitting to receive it. (Mt. 7:6) But we do not now consider that grace to be something for which we must renounce that which is antithetical to God.  We have cheap sacraments - all welcome! We have cheap grace, and it rots us from within.

Worst of all is that, if the average Catholic has only cheap grace, that most addictive of substances, we have lost sight of Jesus. Set aside that, from a sociological perspective, the good news of cheap grace gains few converts because it does not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit which necessarily changes a person, and so the official numbers dwindle. Cheap grace separates us from Jesus, not only because it is not the grace bestowed by Jesus, but because when that cheap grace justifies our sin, we are hardened into disobedience. That cheap grace which does not challenge our actions merely blesses them, and so we are estranged from the call of Christ to follow him.

If we are to become disciples of the Risen Lord, we are to become disciples of costly grace. For it is only when we find the pearl of great price that we are willing to sell everything we have to obtain it.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Church's Hypocrites

The Church will have hypocrites for as long as it is earthly. Hypocrisy flows from the damaged and fallen nature of humankind, and so the only ultimate cure lies in the healing of that broken nature, something that only occurs with finality at the End.

Whilst the Church will always have hypocrites, this does not mean that hypocrites are a good to be treasured qua hypocrites. We all seem to recognize this at least at some level - even those bent on some brand of moral relativism see hypocrisy as immoral. Perhaps this is because hypocrisy is a sin against one of the more treasured of values these days, that of authenticity, of "being yourself." In Jesus' parlance, a hypocrite is someone who acts in such a way publicly that is not reflective of the way they are in reality. Those we now call actors were the hypocrites: they act on stage in the guise of some other person, not acting as themselves. In today's usage, a similar idea is conserved, but the dichotomy is usually presented as between what a person says and what a person does - and normally, there is some clause about being deceptive about it, which I will largely omit discussion of until the end.

Since Jesus' polemics where often against the Pharisees, and since this group is the one Jesus accuses memorably of being hypocrites (cf. Mt. 23), it is the Pharisees we think of most prominently as being hypocrites. And since our Anglophone cultural baggage derives much from the time of the Reformation, our view of the Pharisees is that they were a mean Judean sect, bent on being nasty to everyone and telling them how wonderful they themselves were, they were religious leaders who pestered everyone with their yoke of legalism and works-righteousness. In particular, they completely denied grace as a free gift and were completely unmerciful to anyone.

It seems commonplace, to accuse Church leaders of being hypocrites, or faithful Catholics of being hypocritical, by analogy with the Pharisees: totally mean to everyone, always trying to control the way to heaven by telling people what they can and cannot do, and never being merciful and kind to people (unlike that Jesus chap, the clause is sometimes added). This accusation comes from both the secular world and other groups of Catholics, and to a lesser degree from others.

Now, whether the analogy between the Pharisees as they were in history and particular Catholics nowadays holds is an interesting question. The socio-cultural context of the writing of the New Testament means that an objective view of the Pharisees in not sought - like often happens between religious kin, Christians are quick to differentiate themselves from the Pharisees in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages. Certain myths do exist, however: for instance, the Pharisees were not religious leaders. Whilst it is common to hear talk of Jesus challenging religious authorities - something he did do, at least to some extent - his discussions and polemics with the Pharisees are not instances of this. The Pharisees were a lay group, a particular sect of Judean-Israelite religion, they were not religious leaders. They did not deny grace, did not preach works-righteousness, and I suspect they were mostly very intent on being kind and merciful (even though they probably also had a thoroughly in-group morality). The dis-analogies and myths that we think of when we hear the term Pharisee are numerous. But this is not my point, regardless.

The idea that the only way to be hypocritical is to be like our caricature of the Pharisees should be challenged, for whilst I freely acknowledge that there are many hypocritical Catholics among the faithful, I suspect that the Church's hypocrites that are hiding in plain sight are not the faithful Catholics, but the so-called "dissident" and "nominal" ones.

To be a hypocrite (in modern speech), it was said before, is for there to be a gulf between one's words and actions. If I tell people that it is always important to wash their hands before eating, but do not do so myself, I am being hypocritical. I put to the reader that when the faithful Catholic confesses, as is the true doctrine of the Church, that they are sinful in need of redemption, wrongdoers in need of forgiveness, and yet that not only they do wrong, but also others, and sometimes the wrongdoings of others are different to those which he or she commits, though all wrongdoings are immoral - they are not being profoundly hypocritical. It is true, when faithful Catholic encounters the mercy of God in the confessional, they are acknowledging hypocrisy, admitting that they have done differently to what they professed to be right. And yet, the nominal and dissident Catholics, whilst they also have this hypocrisy that arises from wrongdoing (or worse, hypocrisy arising from claiming that they commit no wrongdoing), they have a hypocrisy far more insidious, one that is not momentary in the occasion of sin, but endures further.

Quite simply, they claim to be something they are not. The litany of exceptions that flow from the phrase "I am Catholic, but..." amount to a resounding "I profess to be Catholic, yet deny it in my being." This is the essence of hypocrisy. It need not be vocalized so clearly, either: there are those who claim to be faithful and true Catholics, yet testify otherwise by their lives: "I have not been to Mass in a couple of years, but I am still a true Catholic," some might say. Perhaps they are very kind people, but let us not be held in jest: the one who claims to be Catholic yet denies that this involves gathering in communion with the rest of the Church for Mass denied in their lives that they are in fact Catholic.[1]

Or they might profess to be Catholic and deny it by their other words: "I am a true Catholic and am pro-abortion." Perhaps this person genuinely thinks they hold coherent beliefs, but in actual fact, they do not. A vegan who eats pork is either not a vegan or does not actually eat pork: the two cannot be held simultaneously. For exactly the same reason, a Catholic pro-abortionist is an oxymoron.

Now, there is some subtlety introduced when a person says "I am a progressive Catholic." Here, the terms admit reconciliation. Far too often, however, what the sentence really means is "I am a hypocrite, I claim to be Catholic when I am not." Progressive Catholicism, for most who claim to be its adherents, is the same as the Catholic buttery above - by adding Progressive as a qualifier, what is implied is that litany of exceptions to actual Catholicism, this time with some good marketing. After all, who is opposed to progress? Certainly not Catholics. But when some modern cultural fad is declared to be progress, such as the recognition of the right to kill one's child, Catholics do not reject it and hence reject progress, it is rejected for being regress. 

I could label myself "A Catholic for Change for the Better" - and if I started calling myself that, who could be opposed? But what would really be hiding, or at least obscuring, is my vision of what the Better is. I might think it would be better if all male, 19 year old students were stoned. I could say that the institution of this would be progress over the dreadful state of affairs where most of the people in that group are not stoned. Though this example is hyperbolic, the point should be clear: it is not the qualifying label that really matters, the label is chosen for PR, what matters is whether the qualifier actually negates the noun, whether claiming to be "progressive" actually constitutes a denial of being Catholic. If it does, then it is hypocrisy.

It is added by some that there are a diversity of views within the Catholic Church. This is absolutely true, there are a diverse set of views - theology would be over if there were not! One such plurality is over some soteriological questions, such as Molinism and Thomism in how to combine free will and predestination. Whilst both views cannot be correct, the Church contains people advocating both (a split which has traditionally been Jesuit-Dominican respectively). What those people tend to mean is that the Church contains views contrary to its teachings, and this is not the case. One can claim to hold to some dissident or heretical view only by deceiving either oneself or those around one, claiming to be something one is not, or in short, hypocrisy.

Let me return briefly to the clause I ignored that is often added to the definition of hypocrisy, ie, that the hypocrite not only acts contrary to their profession of belief, but also that their action is concealed, that there is deceit involved that amounts to a position of moral superiority being wrongly attributed to the hypocrite. If that qualifier is added, then the case of sin-is-hypocrisy mentioned at the beginning is not hypocrisy. However, the nominal and dissident "Catholics" still fall into the bounds of the definition, since they claim to be Catholic only deceitfully.

Perhaps the preceding has seemed overly harsh. I do not think so, I think it is important to flag hypocrisy and deceit in the Church - how can the Church reform if it does not identify the negative elements? Or perhaps it has seemed instead overly arrogant, as if I could say what is and is not Catholic. It has been my intention to keep the examples of ways in which one's Catholicism is denied to the minimum to avoid creating criteria for in-and-out, for precisely that reason. However, it is not arrogant to point out that, in actual fact, the word "Catholic" really means something. It is a word with content. As such, some combinations of the word with other terms produce logical contradictions, just like "vegan meat-eater" or, to use the canonical example, "married bachelor." Such an entity does not exist, and when someone points out that when a married man to claims to be a bachelor he is in fact mistaken or lying, it is not arrogant, it is simply applying the meaning of the words correctly.

Whilst I doubtless hope in vain, it is my hope that hypocrisy will begin not only be identified among those who do wrong, but also among those who claim the identity "Catholic" that they act contrary to.

[1] Some extreme cases could be given where somebody really is a faithful Catholic and has not been to Mass - perhaps they are imprisoned, perhaps there is absolutely no-where Mass is offered, etc. However, this is not a particularly large group, and certainly not the subject of my point here.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Doctrines qua Data

Whilst I knew that this happened in general, in recent times I have personally been asked and challenged variously to defend the idea of doctrines. Are they not good insofar as they are practical? Are they not vestiges of past authoritarianism, that should now be dispensed with as progress is made? Is it not narrow-minded to see doctrines as true when something new could appear which discounts them? Can you really affirm a doctrine to be true without some other experience of its veracity?

These questions have been timely as I think about what it would mean to have a theology that expresses itself in language and conceptual structures of today (cf. Theology in the Language of Today). I would like to propose tentatively that doctrines could be viewed as the theological analogue of data in the natural sciences. In particular, I will use physics, since it is the sort of data I am most familiar with.

First, what does it mean for something to be data in the natural sciences? Data is the collection of facts that have been observed or measured in a system. In the very simple kinematics problems that are done in high school physics, the data set might be the stopping distance of some cart. The job of the scientist is to take that data, which could be called the "given", and explain why it occurs. A theory in physics is not the concoction of pure thought, but an explanation of empirical data, the starting point of all good science.

Data is hence not opinion. Data is the starting point for science. From the observation that the cart with bigger wheels is going slower when it gets to the bottom of the ramp, one begins to devise a theory that explains it. But the data itself is not science,  even though it is a necessary condition for science. This is why data or evidence is sometimes called the "given", precisely because it must be given to do science.

Data does not only start science, it constrains science. Does a particular scientific theory explain the observable phenomena? If yes, then it might be correct. If not, then it is to be rejected. Furthermore, data modifies or even re-invents theories: the hugely successful theory behind classical mechanics, for instance, was shown to be the limit of the more general theory of quantum mechanics when phenomena started to be observed that did not fit the classical picture. In all of this, however, the data is only added to. Nothing that was genuine data before is now considered non-data.

One moment where data looks like it is rejected is in the case of outliers or systematic error (for instance, faulty apparatus). Outliers are rejected because they are seen as not truly being part of the genuine data set. Similarly, when systematic error is found in an experimental method, setup or execution, the data collected is rejected because it is not real data. Here, by data I mean the actual evidence, what is really empirical, and I will set aside the issue of faulty data.[1]

My proposal is that doctrines are the analogues of data for theology. Let me set aside the epistemic barrier that separates empirical data from theological data (or doctrines), a very important issue. Suppose, also, we do have a clear idea of what doctrines are and are not infallibly defined. If we can assume to have a set of doctrines that have been infallibly taught (an instance might be the doctrine of the Trinity), then the parallel with data is relatively clear: we can talk about a doctrine set (viz a viz data set), about doctrines as the starting point for theology, or doctrines as constraining, modifying and reinventing theology.

For the Catholic, notwithstanding some rough edges, there is a doctrine set which has been infallibly taught. Some doctrines are papal, others conciliar, still others are known to be true without being explicitly defined, but however they are arrived at, the Catholic theologian should consider them to be true. The doctrines of the Church are the starting point, constraints and modifiers of Catholic theology. This view helps explain exactly what the job of the theologian is: just like the scientist with empirical data, the theologian is to start from doctrines and bring them together in a unified way. This could be done in just one field (say, moral theology or Christology) or in a more comprehensive way (like the brilliant work of St Thomas Aquinas).

This view also explains two other phenomena of Catholic life, ones which produce considerable tension: namely, the role of the Magisterium (and in particular, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) as well as the so-called "development of doctrine."

The "Thuggish" Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

If doctrines are essentially theological data, as empirical data is for the natural sciences, then for a Catholic theologian to go against the truth of doctrines, that is, to be heretical, is essentially the same as for a scientist to produce a theory in contradiction of data. Pseudo-science and pseudo-theology are related by their denial of what the relevant data (empirical or theological) is.  It is no use to deny genuine doctrines in theology in the same way it is pointless to deny genuine data in physics. In this manner, the actions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which every so often issues a "Notification" relating to the erroneous propositions asserted by someone alleging to be presenting true Catholic thought, is just as reasonable as the scientific community condemning pseudo-science, like one of the science associations (for example, the American Physical Society) denying that young earth creationism can be thought of as science (not that I know of any time the APS has actually done this).

It is not "thuggish" to do so, as people have at times described the CDFs Notifications; the CDF is simply saying "no, whilst you may have taught this in good will, that particular stance is at variance with the facts; it cannot be taken as actually true." The stakes are much higher in theology than in science, however, as theology is at the heart of the lives of billions of people, and assuming that the Church is right for a moment, her theology has an impact on every human person. If scientific truths were of the significance of theological ones, it would be a moral obligation for the scientific community to issue every so often a condemnation of a particular stance as contrary to the facts of reality. If, as some people have claimed, teaching anti-evolutionism is child abuse, then it must be condemned as erroneous and actively opposed. To do anything less would be to cooperate with evil.

The problem some people have with the CDF is that they think doctrines are about "that which would be nice if true", whereas in fact, doctrines are more like "that which happens to be true." I do not regard all of the Church's doctrines are pleasant, but I do not believe them because they are pleasing to me, but because I consider them to be true. In this way, when some reformer tries, perhaps with the best of intentions, to change the Church by changing her doctrines, the reformer exclaims the scientific equivalent of "oh, but would it not be far better if classical mechanics were true, and not this complicated quantum mechanics!" Perhaps, perhaps not. But we must make do with the world we live in. Indeed, the further argument that claims to know better the mind of God is directly analogous to Einstein's famous statement relating to quantum mechanics that "God does not play dice." The facts of nature and God are both of the sort that regard our whims are largely irrelevant.

The Development of Doctrine

It also explains something else which has begun to be a topic of great interest in the last hundred and fifty years, particularly since Bl. John Henry Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: theology seems to change. No Christian theologian actually seems to believe exactly what the Christians in the first and second centuries believed. For instance, whilst I do not deny that the very earliest Christian communities believed in the divinity of Christ, it was not until a few hundred years later that the idea really took force. The Trinity is an even clearer example of development of theology.

It is true that, on the view I have just proposed of doctrines qua data, it makes no sense to talk about doctrines developing, but this seems to be a semantic difference. What Newman meant by the development of doctrine was that doctrines become more detailed and explicit over time - if you like, this is analogous to data being of improved quality as technology advances. In this sense, data allows itself to be "developed", but the underlying idea in Newman's thought is that theology develops.

Theology can develop as more doctrines are discovered. For instance, the Council of Nicea or the Council of Chalcedon, far from hindering the development of Christology, enhanced it. Doctrines produce creativity, they do not deny it, because creativity is about working with the given. Theology without doctrines would be like painting without colours or poetry without words - it would not be fruitful. I am reminded of a lecture given by the musicologist Jeremy Begbie in which he explained that the structure of music allows for freedom, a point echoed in another talk by Con Campbell, where he showed that the structure of jazz music was exactly what allowed for freedom in jazz bands. In this, they both apply that famous line of Jesus, that "the truth will set you free."

Of course, theology is not entirely about creativity, since in an artistic sense, creativity is about producing whatever is imagined, whereas theology is about discovering things that are true. Still, for development in theology to happen, creativity is to be possible, and for creativity to be possible, doctrines are important. The view of doctrines as data facilitates the connection between what is true and what could be true, by showing that doctrines are not stoppers to theology but the beginning of it.

Concluding Note

The idea of doctrines as (theological) data could be the starting point for a fruitful theology, though I doubt it is incredibly new. I am not aware of anyone else who has proposed it, although Bernard Lonergan may have, since from what I know about his epistemology, this view fits quite nicely. Alister McGrath may also have proposed it in his trilogy A Scientific Theology, but I have not read that yet. It is unlikely to be a very old idea, because "doctrines qua data" seems to be a framework that arises most naturally out of a post-scientific revolution culture. We now live in a culture, at least in the West, where the highest authority is science. For precisely this reason, the more scientific approach of viewing doctrines as analogous to how empirical data functions in the natural sciences may well be a fruitful manner of presenting the teaching of the Church to a scientific culture.


[1] If you are convinced that bad data ruins the parallel, or shows that the idea of doctrine is defective, then I would say this: bad data is like bad doctrine. In the Christian tradition, outliers would correspond to wacky Christian thinkers of ages past, or just their abnormal thought in one area. Origen, for instance, could be thought of as an outlier to be rejected on some issues. Systematic error arises out of getting doctrines in the wrong way - for instance, one might think of some heretical "council" as a good source of doctrine, where in actual fact, that council lacks the proper apostolic authority.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

A Sketch of my Ecclesiology - Reflection on "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles

Note: for those unaware of the jargon used in Christian theology, "ecclesiology" refers to the study of the Church, in particular, the Church as a theological reality, not primarily from a sociological point of view.

Among all the issues I am not properly qualified to have an opinion on (which, really, is all of them), I think ecclesiology ranks high. Except, like many issues, I am forced to have some sort of opinion, tentative though it may be - it was the case for ethics when I wrote "Why I am a Utilitarian and a Catholic" and, as I think came through clearly when I wrote "The Road to Rome", ecclesiology is one of those areas where every Christian has to have some sort of opinion; I do.

I finished reading one of the ecclesiology treasures of the past century: "Models of the Church" by Avery Dulles, a few days ago. Instead of doing a review, which I am not very good at doing anyway, I want to briefly present what the premise of the book was, present my own sketch of an ecclesiology, and see how it fits with other models, and how it stands up to the criticisms led by the late Jesuit.

Dulles understands the Church to be, in a nutshell, a mystery. As he notes, mysteries are things one explores intellectually and experientially, but that finally have inexhaustible wealth, they cannot fully be comprehended:

"The term mystery, applied to the Church, signified many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself." (p. 15)

To understand anything of the Church, he says, we do have certain tools:

"Among the positive tools that have been used to illuminate the mysteries of faith we must consider, in the first place, images. This consideration will lead us into some discussion of cognate realities, such as symbols, models and paradigms - tools that have a long theological history, and are returning to their former prominence in the theology of our day." (v. 16)

The first hundred pages deal with five models, the Church qua institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant. The second hundred deal with how these models relate to areas such as eschatology, ministry and the relation between the Church theologically and the churches (one might say "sociologically"), as well as evaluation of the models. I will focus primarily on the first half.

It is no secret that I favour what Dulles called the "mystical communion" model, which he divided into "People of God" and "Body of Christ", and of which I favour the latter. Not only do I consider this model to be primary, but I consider it to be significantly superior to the others, because I think the others can sublate to the Body of Christ conception of the Church.

Very quickly, why do I think that the Church is best described by the image of "Body of Christ" (or "Mystical Body of Christ")? Put simply, the apostle Paul clearly says so in his epistles to the Corinthians, Colossians and Ephesians. What exactly that means is open to some debate, but the truth of the matter is not; whilst he employs other images, none quite have the almost definitional status of the Church qua Body of Christ.

What about the other models? To understand how those fit together, I must explain a little what I think the term "Body of Christ" really means: it is open to confusion, because most Catholics (I include myself in that number) would probably think first of the Eucharist. In basic terms, I consider the Church to be the functional prolongation of the Incarnation, and hence that in her mission, structures and teachings she reflects those of Christ. However, the essence of the Church is not quite divine in the same way that the Son is divine, for even when the two spouses become one flesh, there remains distinction in essence: the woman, though one flesh with the man, remains woman, so too does the Church, though "one flesh" with Christ, remain distinct from him.

It is relatively clear, I think, how the other models form part of the Body of Christ one - the institutional aspect of the Church, though not primary, clearly follows from the fact that the Body has many parts, and some are leadership roles - in purely physiological terms, bodies have structures. They are not primary, but they are practical outgrowths of what is primary. The Church is also a sacrament: as Dulles points out, Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God; he is the embodiment of the love of God, made visible in his flesh. The cross is a sign of God's love, then, not just because it symbolizes God's love, but because it is truly and really the most excellent act of God's love, which is invisible in general, and visible in Christ Jesus.

The first three models refer to what the Church is, whilst the other two refer to what the Church does: because I conceive of the Church as continuing the Incarnation, the primary raison d'etre of the Church is the same of that of Christ. What was the ministry of Christ? It had the two aspects of herald and servanthood, of preaching the Kingdom of God and service, particularly to those overlooked, despised or rejected. Therefore these remain the crucial tasks for the Church, not in spite of the Church being the Body of Christ, but because of it!

Dulles writes of the "mystical communion" models, which include "People of God" and "Body of Christ":

"For many purposes the analogies of Body of Christ and People of God are virtually equivalent. Both of them are more democratic in tendency that the hierarchical models that we have seen in our [chapter on the Church as Institution] ... The image of the People of God, however, differs from that of the Body of Christ in that it allows for greater distance between the Church and its divine head. The Church is seen as a community of persons each of whom is individually free." (p. 49)

Whilst there are similarities between these two sub-models, I think Dulles minimizes a crucial difference, and responding to it will help respond to the objections that are raised to the Body of Christ image, and the deficiencies it is perceived to have.

Dulles misunderstands the enormous difference between the two mystical communion models on how they relate the parts to the whole. In the People of God, each individual is presumably one of God's people, or perhaps one might say a "Person of God." In the Body of Christ, it is not so clear how parts relate to the whole, but what is clear is that the whole is far more than the sum of its parts: for I am not the Body of Christ, but together with others who are not the Body of Christ, we form it. Furthermore, the apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that not all within the Church are alike, a section it might be useful to quote in full:
"Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honourable we treat with special honour. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts."

So the Body of Christ is not exactly a "democratic" model, nor is it non-hierarchical, at least not necessarily so.

Still, Dulles has some important objections to consider, both to the Body of Christ model, and the Mystical Communion models in general. To the Body of Christ, he says that a historical analysis will yield different understandings of the Body of Christ, and a modern question might be "is this body a pure communion of grace or is it essentially visible?" (p. 50) He also notes that an "unhealthy divinization" can occur in this model, in particular, that if the Holy Spirit is the life principle of the Church, then the actions of the Church would be attributable to the Holy Spirit, rendering sin in the Church as unintelligible. To the Mystical Communion models more generally he enunciates again the objections to the Body of Christ model, adding also that these models "[fails] to give Christians a very clear sense of their identity or mission," and that it does not account for the relationship between the parts and the whole, between the "friendly interpersonal relationships and the Church as a mystical communion of grace."

The different understandings of the Body of Christ view of the Church should not be an enormous barrier, nor should lack of clarity about the relationship of its parts be considered such. Dulles, in the next chapter, shows that the institutional and mystical, the visible and invisible, can be unified in a sacramental view of the Church: I claim that the sacramental is already present in the Body of Christ model, for two reasons: first, as above, the Body of Christ reminds most Catholics of the Eucharist, not the Church - the Eucharist is an example of how the Body of Christ can be "really, truly and substantially" present in something, how the Eucharistic species can become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and yet remain a visible "substance", the bread and wine. Second, both Dulles and I consider Christ to be himself a sort of sacrament, in fact, a sacrament in the truest sense of the word: "Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God as turned towards man." (p. 62). Hence, just as the visible and invisible combine in the Eucharistic species, and as Jesus is himself a sacrament, so his Body, the Church, has the interplay between concrete and mystical within its very nature, which is sacramental because it is the Body of Christ.

Does the Body of Christ model divinize the Church unhealthily? Only to the extent that the Incarnation, in divinizing humanity, or Baptism, in imparting the divine life, does so. The concept of "Theosis", or divinization, has a long history in Christian theology, and yet I think it is quite clear that Theosis does not impute wrongdoing to God. Simply because I, in the words of the apostle Peter, "partake of the divine nature", that I have been adopted as a child of God, does not mean that I am sinless. When Paul says that his life is in Christ, he does not mean by that to infer he is sinless. One can be divinized without becoming God, and hence the Body of Christ can be divine without being impeccable.

Finally, on the view I have expressed above about what the Body of Christ model means, I have made it quite clear that it does give a clear charter for mission: unlike the People of God model, which seems to be static, from within the Body of Christ model comes what the Church should do - it should be the Body of Christ, and so do as Christ does.


By defending the Body of Christ model as primary to understanding the Church, I am not negating the importance of other models; I agree with Avery Dulles that the Church is ultimately unfathomable. Still, the Body of Christ "definition" of the Church is primary, in the same way that "true God and true man" is primary for understanding Jesus Christ, though we can nonetheless explore both his divinity and humanity, and give models like "King, Prophet and Priest", or the various models proposed by historical Jesus scholars, some more dubious than others, such as Cynic philosopher, "a marginal Jew", peasant revolutionary, proto-Marxist socialist egalitarian feminist libertarian anti-authoritarian revolutionary, etc... 

I heartily recommend Dulles' book, as I said, probably one of the most important ecclesiological books of the 20th century.

[Page numbers taken from Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974 edition]

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theology in the Language of Today

It is imperative for the Church in all times and places to be in dialogue without the culture of the world, and therefore for the Church to be able to couch her theology in the language of the world. Christians have done this to varying degrees of success over the ages. Part of the problem is that each society has a multi-layered culture which incorporates a different lexicon, and so the "vernacular" changes depending on who one is speaking to.

Why is contemporary language important? Many reasons spring to mind: one cannot truly believe what one does not understand, one will not learn what one cannot understand, mental barriers emerge when somebody uses language that is foreign. In this sense, relatable language is evangelical.

Another important reason is that language furnishes our conceptual framework. According to some people (in particular, adherents to linguistic determinism), the grammar and vocabulary of a language structures and could even limit and determine human knowledge and thought. Even if a theory of strong linguistic determinism is false, it remains clearly true that language provides clarity to concepts which would be too vague to communicate otherwise. Since language defines concepts for communication, it follows that understandable language is crucial for communication of the Gospel.

The fact that concepts appear in linguistic form is part of the reason why Christians have been hesitant to translate their conceptual frameworks into the vernacular of an age: precision arises when one uses a particular language, and dead languages have the bonus of remaining static and precise. Ecclesiastical Latin is an instance of a language the Church has declared "sacred", simply for the reason that theology most precise in Latin, in part because much theology was developed in Latin, in part because it is now dead and immutable.

This hesitation is not without due reason, as the East-West schism shows: according to the 1995 document "The Greek and Latin Traditions Regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit" from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the famous filioque clause which separates the Western and Eastern Church doctrinally may not be a doctrinal difference at all, but a linguistic issue. "Procedere" has been used to translate "ἐκπορεύεσθαι" and "προϊέναι", whereas only the latter translation would reflect the doctrine affirmed by the Catholic Church, the former indeed being heretical. Whilst the East-West schism is more complicated historically than one simple doctrinal difference, the filioque controversy does indeed highlight the problems that can result when doctrines readily understood in one language are transferred to another. Less fundamental issues may well lie at the heart of other doctrines, such as papal infallibility, as John Ford points out in a recent article.[1]

Whilst theological orthodoxy is important, it is no substitute for the essence of the Church's apostolate, which is its missionary commission. So the Church must, despite risks, translate her theology into language which can be understood by the receivers of her missionary impulse. Who are these people? The Church's "preferential option for the poor", as well as her Master's anointing "to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:17, quoting Isaiah) makes clear that those who live in poverty are the first port of call for the missionary Church. So language appropriate to that context is required, and a rhetoric which is intelligible to the poor necessary.

Without minimizing the important duty towards the poor, the missionary comission is to preach the Gospel to all the nations, which includes those that are not marked distinctly by poverty (understood at least in part in material terms). This means that other groups need the Gospel translated into language fitting for their context - including my own, the analytic tradition in philosophy and the natural sciences. What does it mean to couch Christian theological concepts in the language and vocabulary of these groups?

I will not here embark on such a monumental project, although any Christian who lives in a particular cultural context must address the issue of formulating the core tenets of Christianity at some point, lest they deny their core vocation as Christians as missionaries. What I will do is make a few comments about past re-formulations of Christian theology, and ones underway at present.

It is important to note that this has been done before, in the hands of one of the greatest theological minds in the Western tradition, St Thomas Aquinas. In his day, Greek philosophy was the prevailing intellectual norm, and his Christianizing of Aristsotelian philosophy has profoundly marked the Western Church. St Thomas therefore presents us with the paradigmatic case of theology in dialogue with philosophy, even the philosophy of pagans like the ancient Greeks. It is true that some elements of Aristotelianism had to be condemned, but it equally true that the insights of Aristotle were important for theology, and if nothing else, allowed greater intellectual rigor in Christian theology.

Unfortunately, a large portion of Catholic philosophy has attempted to emulate St Thomas' Aristotelianism in a time in which it is untenable, instead of taking the dialogue insight and Christianizing the new "pagan philosophy." Just like in St Thomas' time, there will be many sceptics that such a venture is possible - a quick look at the Condemnations at the University of Paris will suffice to show that they abounded - and yet he managed to pull of an incredible feat. We must now turn to modern philosophy to see how current language can be used to express Christian truths, and so give renewed intellectual rigor to Christianity. The work of saints like St Edith Stein and St John Paul II are good places to start in the continental tradition's sub-area of phenomenology (I am unaware of any analytic philosophers in phenomenology), and perhaps John Joseph Haldane and Richard Swinburne, not to mention the Protestants Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, can form some sort of beginning of the analytic tradition's side of things.

The natural sciences must also be addressed with the eye's of a theologian, and I can think of no better starting place than the Anglican theologian Alister McGrath's trilogy A Scientific Theology, which I have the treat of delving into his first volume later on this year. Just like Greek philosophy might have been considered out of bounds for theology because it was pagan, so now the naturalism that prevails in scientific circles should not deter Christians from entering into it with the firm convictions of Christ.

I do not know what form a scientific theology would take, and yet it is undoubtedly necessary for a fruitful dialogue between religion and science, which is probably considered the most important intellectual authority in the West today. I do not know what an analytical philosophical theology would look like, and yet for intellectual dialogue between Christianity and what probably should be considered the highest intellectual authority, philosophy, it is crucial.

I find myself in the strange position of being in the middle of the three: a Christian, and therefore a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist. Whilst this characterization is certainly unfair, some might consider my area of science the very pinnacle - physics - if only because of the reductionism that is virally present in society. Misconceptions notwithstanding, if it is the case that I continue to learn about these fields of study upon which I am embarked, I should in principle be particularly capable of the task at hand. It is not a nice idea; it is a necessary one.

[1] Ford, John, "Infallibility - terminology, textual analysis and theological interpretation - a response to Mark Powell", Theological Studies, 74 (2013).

Friday, 27 December 2013

How to Write a Popular Article about Pope Francis: Five Top Tips

With the media's saturation with material on Pope Francis, this novel Pope has captured the attention of people who seemed to have written off the Catholic Church. He is Time's Person of the Year, The Advocate (LGBT paper) Person of the Year, the news is full of his one-liners. But with so much stuff being written about him, how does one hope to make a successful article? Here are the five top tips:

1. The most important point to make is how dramatically different the nice Pope Francis is from that dreadful Benedict XVI. Do not even consider mentioning any similarities, be they in tone or the identical teaching of the two Pontiffs – make sure you contrast heavily the conservative Benedict with the emancipated Francis.

2. Similarly, talk about how much of a break this is from everything the Church has taught in the past: make it clear that Catholics are now pro-choice, and no longer believe any exclusivist nonsense like Jesus’ old-fashioned statement that “nobody comes to the Father except through me.” Make it doubly clear that anything the Church has ever taught or done is likely to be changed at upcoming synods and in future Pope Francis encyclicals.

3. Put in some good quotes that seem to suggest that Francis is indeed changing everything, but make sure all the context is removed, lest it sound like he is just saying something the Church has been saying for the past few decades under this Pope’s predecessor’s. Extra points for phrases like “rejection of dogma.”

4. Dedicate a paragraph to how concerned those nasty moralistic “conservative” or “traditional” Catholics are about this “liberal” Pope. If you can make out that the usual targets, like Cardinals Arinze, Pell or Burke are anything but chuffed at this new Pontiff, even better.

5. If nothing else, highlight how the Church is no longer concerned about the totality of the human person, which would include humanity as a sexual creature, but only the fashionable theme of care for the poor. Omit completely the strange talk of evangelism and missionary discipleship, and even more importantly, do not tie this in to anything like judgement or Hell, because that is uncool.


So there it is, the most important tips to making a successful article about someone who seems so great you might even call him Catholic. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Eucharist and Poverty

Spend enough time with Catholics from a broad enough background, and the issue of taking Holy Communion will pop up. Sometimes these discussions are very fierce. Broadly speaking, and I note that there is much more complexity and depth to what I write here, those who favour receiving our Lord on the tongue claim to do so in the name of reverence, and those who argue for receiving him in the hands do so in the name of freedom. There are lots of interesting commentaries on this issue, so I need not go into them.[1]

Historically speaking, faithful Christians have received on the tongue and in the hands. When receiving on the hands it was, traditionally, in a manner distinct to how it is received nowadays, but customs change, so this is not a necessary sign of invalidity. When receiving on the tongue, it was pretty much the same as these days, but again, not a necessary indicator that such a style must be normative.

The Eucharist makes the Church. The unity and essence of the Church is in Christ, and her participation in Christ is made possible first by Baptism, and then is nourished and renewed by the Eucharist – hence St Paul writes to the Corinthians: “The bread which we break, is it not participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” Christ, who is the bread of life, becomes the basis for the Body of Christ, the Church.

Continually nourished by the bread of life, the Church exists for her mission, on which Pope Paul VI states: the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” Evangelism is the proclamation of the good news. Were the Church to leave the good news (or gospel), she would leave her essence, and were the Church to keep silent the good news, then St Paul declares woe.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to similar effect when he explains his own ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This good news is universal in scope, it affects everyone in the world – but in Jesus’ typical style, he is first and foremost concerned with those in need. So are we. Right after declaring that the Eucharist makes the Church (CCC 1396), the very next paragraph of the Catechism opens “The Eucharist commits us to the poor.”

What does poverty have to do with how we receive the Eucharist? A lot, actually. The poor are not a group alien to us, indeed, we are the poor: perhaps not in terms of bank accounts, but in terms of how we relate to God, we are poor. There is no way around it – God has given us everything we have, even our very existence is a free gift. When we receive the Eucharist, when we receive Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – we receive the greatest treasure the Church has, or according to St Thomas Aquinas, the only treasure the Church has.

Cardinal Bergoglio handing out the Eucharist reminiscent
of how one hands out food to people in need.
Therefore, when we receive the Eucharist we must receive it in such a way that recognizes our poverty. This does not actually shed much light on how to receive Holy Communion, or perhaps it seems to indicate that in the hands is the right way to receive, for when does one actually feed a poor person by putting the food in their mouth? No, usually food is passed to them whilst they are standing, and in their hands.

We should receive the Eucharist in such a way expresses our spirit of poverty and both ways are appropriate within the poverty motif, as well as permissible by Church practice.[2] Jesus says something very important, however, when he talks about people coming to him: Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

Children are one of the neediest groups of all: they are not fully formed, they are not well educated, they lack means and the maturity. Even more than a spirit of poverty, of which Jesus already said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God,” we are told that also to the children does the kingdom belong to.

Is not the Eucharist more
nourishing than vitamin A?
It seems quite clear to me, when combining both lines of reasoning, how to partake of the Eucharist: I must receive this most Holy Sacrament as a child, as a poor child, as a child who cannot help themselves: on the floor and straight into the mouth. To do otherwise would be to make the appearance of having grown up and becoming self-sufficient – I can scarcely imagine a time in which a creature could say to God “cheers, mate, and thanks for all the fish.”

I suspect this issue is like vocation: one has a thousand reasons for why one pursues one course and not another, and hence can often lack any comprehension of why another would do differently. How to partake of Holy Communion is something the Church currently leaves up to individual preference – both ways are lawful, as they say, but perhaps not both ways are beneficial.

[1] For those interested, however, Danielle Bean commented in 2010 about the awkwardness involved in receiving on the tongue with Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (see, Paul Kokoski wrote an essay for the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, in which he discusses the claims of the Archbishop of Karaganda (Kazakhstan), Athanasius Schneider, (see and I found the foray into history of I. Shawn McElhinney fascinating (which can be found here:

[2] Something being permitted is different to something being encouraged, I should note.