Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Iota Unum and Lumen Gentium: a reader's questions

A reader, a Catholic convert from an evengelical background, writes that he has been troubled for some time by the trends in the Church, troubled by his suspicions that the problems seem to go deeper than he initially suspected and well into the administrative hierarchy of the Church. While no more interested in joining traditionalist fringe groups than in becoming Ba'hai, he says, he finds himself increasingly sympathetic to some of their criticism of the mainstream Church. With this background, he asks two questions: (1) what do I think of the book, Iota Unum, and (2) what do I think of Lumen Gentium, 16, where there is a passage that refers to those, who through no fault of their own don't have an explicit knowledge of God, but can be saved if they strive to lead a good life. As to Iota Unum, which he's just begun reading, he suggests that so far it seems to make "entirely too much sense" and he's "afraid of what he might find" if he continues reading it, although it seems that the Holy Father has begun to address some of the concerns raised. As to the Lumen Gentium passage, he alludes to Romans 1:18ff., suggesting that the passage sounds "suspiciously like Rahner," and asks whether there is an explanation behind this troublesome text.

It’s always an honor to hear from readers who have made the arduous journey from evangelicalism, with which I am quite familiar; and I suspect few cradle Catholics can fully appreciate just how arduous it can be, not least because of the formidable theological and cultural hurdles to be overcome in arriving at the Church's door. It is a daunting pilgrimage, and the challenges one faces are colossal. A common experience for those of us from this sort of background, I think, is considerable relief and exuberance and a feeling of homecoming upon reception into the Church, followed not long afterwards by a sort of sinking feeling when, like someone who has just bought a used car, we begin earnestly checking under the hood and find all the things that look precariously close to precipitating a disaster. Two extremes, I think, are to be avoided – (1) the extreme of pessimism and gloom where all one focuses upon is what’s wrong with the state of Catholicism in the world and ends up cultivating a mentality of criticism that allows the Devil to erode the joy of one’s salvation, and (2) the extreme of sticking his head in the sand, focusing only on the good, and remaining naively oblivious to the very real problems that the Church faces in our time. Between those two extremes, we’ve got our work cut out for us, and I think the Holy Father has shown us the way. He knows what’s needed -- our need to focus upon personal prayer and holiness as well as on the reform of what is wrong. With respect to the liturgy, for example, he knows that the current liturgy is a product of the hijacking of the liturgical reform after Vatican II. He knows that the Novus Ordo is, in many profound respects, inferior to the Traditional Latin Mass. But he also knows that the Council called for a reform of the latter Mass (but that the Novus Ordo is not a product of the mandated reform). Given these realities, he knows what has to be done, and also just how delicately complex the required operation is. A “reform of the reform” is needed, in effect, which is actually a re-doing of the reform of the liturgy mandated by the Council before it was hijacked. How this can be done in such a way as to not further aggravate a flock already tormented by internecine conflicts over innovations, abuses, amendments, and reforms of the Novus Ordo, is the big question. Part of the solution may involve a much wider restoration of the 1962 Missal, but this cannot be the ultimate solution for the Church as a whole, since an Ecumenical Council of the Church has mandated a reform of that liturgy. The only way forward, whether we like it or not, is back to the future, with constant fear and trembling and prayer and thanksgiving; and let us never forget the thanksgiving for the inestimable gift of Himself that we have in our churches, as desacralized and ruined as they may be.

Now, to our reader's specific questions: First, as to Iota Unum, I think it is a brilliant expose of problematic texts in the conciliar documents, among other things. Romano Amerio isn’t the first to point these out, of course. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger points out many flawed formulations himself, mincing no words, as Avery Cardinal Dulles points out in his article, “From Ratzinger to Benedict,” First Things (February 2006). One thing to remember is that Ecumenical Councils have nearly always had quarrelous political factions and that their canons and decrees are often forged in the crucible of political compromise, even as, by faith, we take their decrees to be guided by the infallible hand of the Holy Spirit. A close study of the Council of Trent will reveal similar factiousness. A good model of the proper sort of attitude toward such matters, in my humble opinion, is that maintained throughout most of his life by the British traditionalist, Michael Davies, who, no matter how critical he became of the status quo in the Church and even when he questioned the authenticity of the widely-presumed “schismatic” status of most SSPXers under canon law, never ever even hinted at recommending anything like sedevacantism or schism for his part, but to the last remained such a faithful servant of the Church that Pope Benedict himself could say of him that he “remained a man of the Church” who “knew that the Lord founded His Church on the rock of Peter and that the faith can find its fullness and maturity only in union with the successor of Saint Peter.” ("Liturgical views of the man who is now our Pope," Pertinacious Papist, October 2, 2006).

Second, as the the Lumen Gentium (16) passage, I presume the reference is to the following: “Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.” First of all, I would say, these sorts of passages are notoriously ambiguous and are obviously the product of compromises between conflicted interest groups in the Council. The down side is that this means they lend themselves quite easily to misunderstanding and heterodox distortion. This does not mean, however, that there is not a proper way these passages can be read. If you read the footnotes in the larger contextual passage, particularly those from Aquinas, you will begin to see what I mean. There is a tradition in the Church of distinguishing, between implicit and explicit faith (or knowledge), for example. None of the Old Testament saints had an explicit understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God, much less that Jesus Christ would be born of the Virgin Mary as an Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. They lived well before the time of Jesus of Nazareth. They could not justly be held accountable for explicitly failing to know and believe these things about God. The picture grows even more complicated when one draws back to take in those outside the Covenant of Israel, such as the sons of Ishmael, or the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. What did they know of God explicitly or implicitly, and what was their relation to Him? It’s hard to say. We do know, however, that God is just and merciful. Passages as this in Lumen Gentium, I think, may aim in part to address such lacunae in earlier Catholic theology on questions such as these. Their danger, of course, is that they may willy-nilly lend credibility to a naively optimistic and universalistic soteriology among dissident interpreters of the passages in question, which would eclipse and sideline the Person and work of Christ. There is much more to be said here, but here’s a beginning.

I solicit the further wise counsel of any of our other readers respectful of the Magisterium for our friend in regard to the questions he raises.

Addendum of related interest 11/2/06
Bernhard Blankenhorn, OP, "Christianity and Other Religions: Making Absolute Truth Claims in a Multi-Religious World" (Lecture delivered to the Chesterton Society of Seattle, October 19, 2006; hat tip to Kirk Kanzelberger)


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