A Pure Distillation of 1970s Catholicism

I vividly remember my graduate studies at Yale, in the heady and tumultuous days immediately following the Second Vatican Council. A number of young Catholics, priests, religious, and lay people embarked upon doctoral studies in theology in a non-Catholic university – one of the countless post-Conciliar innovations.

One of my professors, a committed Lutheran, with great respect for the Catholic tradition, issued a friendly caution. He said (in words to this effect): “I pray that the Catholic Church is not destined to repeat in twenty years the same mistakes it took us Protestants 200 years to make.” He was referring, of course, to Liberal Protestantism, whose nadir was masterfully summed up by H. Richard Niebuhr, for three decades a Yale professor: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

A recent article in The National Catholic Reporter brought these memories flooding back. The author, Jim Purcell, was ordained in 1965, the year the Council ended, and resigned from ordained ministry in 1972. He went on to work in Catholic Charities and as a vice president at Santa Clara University. He’s currently a member of NCR’s board.

Purcell calls for “a redistribution of power and authority” in the Catholic Church – “power” and “authority” seemingly indistinguishable, despite the scene of Jesus before Pilate, where Pilate’s power is ultimately futile before the truth of Jesus’ authority. (Jn. 19:11)

Aside from the predictable call for the ordination of women, Purcell aims at a deeper “revolution.” This would entail disconnecting the roles of priest and pastor, so that one, either woman or man, could be the canonical pastor of a parish without being a priest, thus striking “clericalism” (that dread foe!) a mortal blow.

Purcell then discloses the desired theological consequences of this revolution: “it would have the potential to shift the emphasis of pastoral leadership from the celebration of the Eucharist back to the preaching of the kingdom.” Echoing that well-worn mantra of the seventies, Purcell solemnly assures us that “Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God, not himself.”

Julian the Apostate burns the relics of John the Baptist (Legend of the Relics of St. John the Baptist) by Geertgen Tot sint Jans, c. 1490 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
Julian the Apostate burns the relics of John the Baptist (Legend of the Relics of St. John the Baptist) by Geertgen Tot sint Jans, c. 1490 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

He then contrasts this perspective with the (presumably baneful) “emphasis on the consecration of the bread and wine and [Jesus’] ‘real presence’ – that developed over time.” In a stunning leap of logic (not to say theo-logic) we are informed that “Jesus taught his disciples the ‘Our Father,’” not how to “preside at the Eucharist” or “say Mass.”

The mandatory, if ritualized, reference to “faith journey” follows, accompanied by the author’s confession that, though “the Eucharist is a very special food for my journey. . .the journey is primary not the food.” So much for “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you!” (Jn 6:53)

What is striking and symptomatic about such essays is their Christological minimalism, so sadly reminiscent of liberal Protestantism, now embedded, wittingly or unwittingly, in some institutions that persist in brandishing their “Catholic” pedigree.

One sorely misses that robust proclamation of the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the New Testament and the apostolic tradition. One hears no hint, for example, of Jesus’ declaration “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) Or Peter’s avowal: “Jesus Christ is the stone rejected by you the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)

One searches in vain for the stupendous claim at the close of that hymn in Philippians that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:11) The rampant and truncated Christology passes over – in embarrassed silence – “all things were created through Jesus and for Jesus” and that “in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:16-17) And there is little sense that God’s entire salvific intent for the universe is to “recapitulate all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10) – a vision that inspired countless generations of martyrs and teachers of the faith.

Instead, we get a bloodless Jesus, made to our measure, rather than our being challenged by the living Lord to grow into that “mature manhood, measured by the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13)

No wonder that, despite papal exhortations from Paul VI to Francis for a “new evangelization,” missionary zeal appears enervated, while the “nones” in our midst continue to proliferate. For if Jesus is just another voice, hawking his wares in the secular wilderness, who will set the fire of faith ablaze?

Now it happens that, just as the Council was opening, the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, delivered a series of lectures at Yale, later published as The Problem of God. Murray included a fine chapter on the development of doctrine in the early Church.

He defended, in his usual polished prose, the legitimacy of such development, in particular the dogma of the Council of Nicaea that the Lord Jesus Christ is “homoousios: consubstantial with the Father.” He did so in part to counter the great liberal Protestant historian, Adolf von Harnack who criticized the alleged “hellenization” by the early Church of the simple Gospel. Indeed, Murray went so far as to claim that the key question facing the nascent ecumenical movement was: “What think ye of homoousion?” Does Nicaea authoritatively convey and safeguard the authentic sense of Scripture?

In those halcyon and hopeful days, Murray could put the question within ecumenical discussion. Today, integrity demands it be also put to those who continue to identify ourselves as Catholics: “What think we of homoousion?”

Is Jesus Christ the preacher of the Kingdom, one in a line of the prophets, perhaps even the last and greatest? Or is he the only begotten Son, consubstantial with the Father, the eternal Word, the Light of the Nations, the universal Savior?

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).