Saturday, August 09, 2014

Reconciling Judas: Evangelizing the Theologians

Straight from Guy Noir, with whom I agree entirely when he says: "One of the best essays I've read in a long time -- but then, I can't remember reading anything by Edward T. Oakes that I haven't appreciated and benefited from." Though more could be said, it's an insightful analysis of the state of the Church and how we got there.

Edward T. Oakes, "Reconciling Judas: Evangelizing the Theologians" (
In 1968, a professor of theology at the University of Regensburg wrote a modestly sized treatise on the Apostles' Creed called Introduction to Christianity. Its impact, however, was anything but modest, for the book so captivated Pope Paul VI that he made its author archbishop of Munich (and later cardinal, one of his last appointments to the college); and just a few years later, the new pope, John Paul II, summoned the same man to Rome to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His name, of course, is Joseph Ratzinger.

Not many books have changed history, but this one certainly did, not just for the author personally but also for the wider Church. For it would be hard to exaggerate the influence of this bookish Bavarian, not just on John Paul II (perhaps the most influential pope in history) but on Catholics worldwide through the cardinal's role as doctrinal overseer and enforcer of magisterial orthodoxy. What made the book itself so remarkable was not just its deft use of the Apostles' Creed to explain Christianity to the lay reader or its acute analysis of unbelief and the secular mind. An even greater virtue of the book was the future cardinal's keen analysis of why the promising spirit of Vatican II failed to bring about a reunited Christianity and a re-Christianized Europe.

According to Ratzinger's analysis, post-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe had been conned into adopting an evangelical strategy too superficial in its approach and too intimidated by Enlightened objections to Christian doctrine. He illustrated the reasoning behind this anemic strategy with a parable, one that Soren Kierkegaard once recounted about a fire that breaks out backstage right before a circus is set to perform. In panic the stage manager sends out one of the performers — a clown as it happens, and naturally already in costume — to warn the audience to leave immediately. But the spectators take the clown's desperate pleas as part of his schtick; and the more he gesticulates the more they laugh, until fire engulfs the whole theater. This, said Kierkegaard, is the situation of Christians: The more they gesticulate with their creed, the more laughable they seem to their skeptical neighbors, until the world becomes engulfed in the flames of war and mutual hatred — a hell on earth as prelude to the hell after death. If only these Christian clowns had first thought to change out of their goofy costume, he implied, the theatergoing world might have been spared. Read more >>
[Hat tip to JM and C.B.]


Ralph Roister-Doister said...

I am underwhelmed by this little essay by Edward Oakes. But then I am underwhelmed by the writings of Joseph Ratzinger as well. In both cases the word "disingenuous" springs to mind.

The point which Oakes is concerned to develop is, he says, couched in the theology of Ratzinger, circa 1968. "Post-Enlightenment Christianity in Europe,” Oakes paraphrases, “had been conned into adopting an evangelical strategy too superficial in its approach and too intimidated by Enlightened objections to Christian doctrine." There is certainly much truth to the point: after all, "post Enlightenment Christianity" is a very large slop bucket, in which is found a rainbow coalition of slop, extending from Schelling and Schleiermacher to Rahner and Balthazar, Oakes's long time inamorata theologica.

Ratzinger's point, as plumped by Oakes, is that "anyone who has followed the path taken by Protestant theology in the past two centuries, and by Catholic theology in the past four decades," has ended up at a point where Christianity is difficult to believe, much less profess, and is treated by progressives as a kind of intellectual ecdysis. No argument here.

But how did Catholics get to that point "in the past four decades" -- actually now five? Another way to ask the question is: who were the periti, the theological elite of V2? V2 was, after all, the occasion wherein the post-Englightenment putsch was formally declared. Ratzinger, Kung, Rahner, Congar, Schillebeeckx, De Lubac were all prominent among its fomenters. Of the most prominent names, only Balthazar was reduced to cheerleading on the sidelines (which must have galled a showman of his abilities).

By the early seventies it was clear that theological insurgents had successfully steered Catholic theology, pastoralism, evangelism, etc, in a calamitous direction. A small minority of V2 strategists, moved by the murmurings of a vestigial conscience, backed away from the appalling results of the V2 putsch, Ratzinger most prominent among them. From the sideline, Balthazar, once the most ardent among the avant-gardists, was now voicing second thoughts too, although his concerns seem to have been motivated by worries that Rahner was now (the later sixties and seventies) regarded as the brighter theological star.

The punchline to this appalling joke of ecclesial leadership is that Pope Francis is being trotted out as a theological primitive who will lead the Church away from post-enlightenment crypto-secularity. “Primitive” in some respects he may be, but make no mistake: the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is now a man whose significant pronouncements so far have served, for the most part, to validate the premises of the “post-Enlightenment” agenda, not oppose them.

And what about Oakes? As a long time admirer of most of the men who are responsible for the very situation he now decries – men who have been, in a sense, his career makers -- how much deference has he actually earned as analyst and commentator from anyone? His greatest achievement seems to be that he is indisputably a skilled survivor – sort of a David Gergen among Catholic academiciams.

Sheldon said...


Thank you for your detailed comment. I always appreciate especially your lengthier commends, from which I never fail to "live and learn."

This comment, in particular, serves as a fine brief summary of post-conciliar theological shenanigans of the "Rheinland" theologians, illustrated by means of a couple of their representatives.

Illuminating, though depressing. But thanks again.

JM said...

"inamorata theologica" R F L O L

RDD, I fear you are right, but hope you are at least somewhat overstating the case.

To paraphrase HvB, "Dare we hope...?" I am not saying you *are* wrong, just I HOPE you are!

But anyone can read Ratzinger's "Faith and the Future" -- in which he so successfully makes the case for unbelief you half wonder what on earth he does believe, or why -- and realize the papacy is now long past doing any decisive teaching, at least where matters of doctrine are concerned. It is impossible to imagine any sort of declaration like those outlining Marian distinctives to ever be made now -- which only makes those seem more incredulous. Every statement now is broadened so it means just what it says and the exact opposite. "No salvation outside the Church...." is a great example, since it is now maintained alongside HvB's universalism.

But when the popes seem like they are least are *sounding* orthodox, if we can't get a little excited about that, what's left?