Wednesday, February 04, 2004

America magazine on the "New Apologetics" of Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, et al.

In an article entitled "Do We Need a New(er) Apologetics?" in the February 2, 2004, issue of America, Richard A. Gaillardetz reviews the "so-called new apologetics" of figures like Scott Hahn, Gerry Matatics, Karl Keating, Mitch Pacwa, S.J., Peter Kreeft, and Patrick Madrid." He finds some strengths in their approach, and some weaknesses.

In the first place, Mr. Gaillardetz has some very positive things to say about these apologists and their approach. He writes:

A distinguishing feature of the approach of the new apologists is their obvious enthusiasm and passion for their faith. These are individuals who find Catholicism not a stifling, burdensome or irrelevant religion but a vital faith capable of transforming lives. Moreover, they effectively communicate that love and passion in their presentations....

Second, the new apologists are not afraid to talk of doctrine. And when they do so, it is not defensively but out of a deep-seated conviction that Catholic Christian doctrine is meaningful, relevant and communicates the truth of God's loving plan for humankind. There is a hunger among active Catholics for a reappropriation of their Catholic doctrinal heritage; yet in some circles of contemporary pastoral ministry, it is no longer fashionable to talk about church doctrine. Sometimes this reluctance reflects a certain embarrassment regarding one or other church doctrine. At other times, however, I fear it is the result of the still inadequate theological formation of many pastoral ministers. Too often, their ministerial formation has given them only the barest of surveys of the history and development of Catholic teaching.

Third, the new apologists have responded effectively to Protestant fundamentalist attacks on the Catholic faith. They recognize that many Catholics are not well catechized and therefore are often vulnerable to attacks on the biblical foundations of the Catholic faith. These apologists are often quite successful in exposing Protestant fundamentalist caricatures of Catholic belief and offering demonstrations of the biblical foundations of central Catholic beliefs--about the Eucharist, for example, or infant baptism.
These are welcome observations. It is refreshing to see a magazine so perennially and tendentiously critical of the Vatican as America publish an article recognizing the life-transforming power of traditional Catholic teaching, as well as the the importance of enthusiasm for the Catholic Faith, sound doctrine, catechesis, and effective responses to Protestant fundamentalist attacks on the Catholic Faith. This is heartwarming, to say the least, and Gaillardetz is to be commended for his willingness to seriously address these issues as straightforwardly and honestly as he does.

But even amidst his discussion of the "strengths" of these new apologists, Gaillardetz writes:

.... Indeed, many who purchase their books and tapes or attend their many speaking events seem unaware that the material presented represents a particular ideological perspective. I recall one graduate student who was genuinely surprised when I positioned Hahn's theology on the far right of the contemporary Catholic theological continuum....
Note that here, even while discussing the "strengths" of these apologists, Gaillardetz tips his hand (though, frankly, I'm not sure he is even aware of having a "hand" to tip). Not only that, but he tips his hand with a gesture freighted with irony, for he points out that many who purchase the books and tapes or attend the conferences of these apologists "seem unaware that the material presented represents a particular ideological perspective," all the while seemingly unaware of the particular ideological perspective that animates his own, all-too-critically-unreflective perspective. This is clear when he describes Hahn's theology as "on the far right of the contemporary Catholic theological continuum," offering no indication of where on that relativistic "continuum" a position of Catholic orthodoxy might be located, or, indeed, so much as a nod of awareness of such a need or possibility.

Next, Gaillardetz turns to what he considers problematic about these new apologists:
The apologetical refutations of fundamentalist assaults on Catholicism often mirror the very methodology they condemn in their opponents. Many of the new apologists enter too willingly into "Bible wars," in which Protestant biblical proof-texts are simply parried with a Catholic proof-text in support of a particular Catholic teaching or practice. Moreover, their theological methodology often assumes an overly propositional view of revelation, that is, a tendency to locate divine revelation in a particular text or propositional formula. There is little sense that while divine revelation is encountered in a set of propositional truths, it is ultimately more than this.
First, let me try to be sympathetic with what Gaillardetz is saying here. I think it may be true, in some cases, that a Christian believer (Catholic or Protestant) who wandered into a debate between a Catholic apologist like Gerry Matatics and a Protestant fundamentalist apologist like, say, James White, might find himself alienated by the seemingly arcane biblical and theological jargon, as well as, in some cases, the tone of the exchange. In some cases, this may be due to the unfamiliarity of the interloper with the terms and issues of the debate, though in other cases it may be due to the fact that the debate degenerated into needlessly technical details or random biblical proof-texting divorced from any sensitivity to historical or literary context. Yet I must admit that, on the whole, I have found these apologists to be serious and able students of Scripture and Tradition who generally avoid these pitfalls.

Second, however, let me offer a caveat. It may be true, as Gaillardetz says, that divine revelation is "more than" what we encounter in propositional truths--though he doesn't tell us how it is "more"--but it is surely safe to say that apart from these propositional truths (communicated through Scripture and Tradition and Magisterium), we have next to nothing by which to intellectually define the content of the Catholic Faith. Even Gaillardetz's concession that divine revelation may be "encountered" in a set of propositional truths could easily be interepreted according to the canons of existentialist theories of revelation to refer to my personal, subjective "experience" of the "numinous" or "transcendent," or whatever; but this would be to sever our "encounter" with "the divine" from any propositional definitions, leaving our faith adrift on a sea of subjective impressions far removed from the Church teachings that define the content of The Faith (what was traditinally defined as de fide). Hence, I would agree with Gaillardetz that a view of revelation focused on propositions to the exclusion of other dimensions of the Faith, such as its historicity, historical enculturation, as well as our personal experience of God and His grace, needlessly impoverishes itself. Such views have been practically rampant in certain currents of American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism in the last couple of centuries, as I note in my review of Mark Noll's book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Yet I would insist on the indispensability of the propositional dimension of revelation, as I believe that St. Thomas Aquinas does, for example, in designating the "literal" sense of Scripture the backbone of all other possible senses of the text in the opening treatise of his Summa Theologiae.

Gaillardetz continues:
......This view, in turn, tends to encourage a neo-triumphalism that can undermine ecumenical endeavors. Dialogue with other Christian traditions is reduced to comparing various sets of truth claims. This is evident in the stories of how many of the new apologists journeyed from a Protestant faith to Catholicism. These accounts testify to an intellectual and spiritual journey that ends in the conviction that other Christian traditions are fundamentally erroneous when compared to the truth claims of Catholicism (see Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home; David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic; Patrick Madrid, ed., Surprised by Truth).
Here, again, I am somewhat sympathetic with Gaillardetz' remarks, to start with. The tone of Catholic apologists can sound triumphalist, at times; and, especially when this tone edges toward the ecumenically insensitive, it can begin to seem obnoxious. But I have rarely heard any of the named apologists say anything completely untoward or out of hand--even though I have to admit that Karl Keating's sense of humor can sometimes get a little naughty, as when he once suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury is in fact just a Christian layman in clerical vestments; or Patrick Madrid's list of "Pat's Top Ten" fictional Broadway shows based on the life of Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses in his magazine Envoy.

On the other hand, while these apologists have not backed away from exposing and criticizing fundamental errors in the biblical interpretations or theological reasoning of various anti-Catholics, I disagree with Gaillardetz' assertion that they entertain any notion that "other Christian traditions are fundamentally erroneous when compared to the truth claims of Catholicism." In fact, more often than not, I find these apologists willing to affirm the broad body of doctrines and beliefs that they usually hold in common with their Protestant counterparts. More often--like Louis Bouyer, the Lutheran pastor who converted to Catholicism and became a leading Catholic liturgist, in his book on The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, or like Thomas Howard, the Evangelical English professor from Gordon College who converted to Catholicism, in his book Evangelical Is Not Enough--I find that they are ready to describe Evangelicalism, despite its differences with Catholicism, as a "good nursmaid" in the Faith, a good preparation for the Catholic Faith in terms of intimate familiarity with the Bible, high view of Scriptural inspiration and inerrancy, and serious view of fundamental Christian doctrines, emphasis on a life of prayer and personal devotion to Jesus Christ, such as might put most Catholics to shame.

Gaillardetz continues:
A third weakness lies in the ahistorical presentation of the Catholic faith. In defense of papal primacy and infallibility, for example--dogmatic teachings that I firmly accept--Karl Keating's Catholicism and Fundamentalism is far too reluctant to acknowledge the historical difficulties with some traditional Catholic claims regarding the origins of the papacy (e.g., that Peter functioned as a residential "bishop of Rome"). This ahistoricism is reflected in the failure to apply accepted hermeneutical principles in the interpretation of conciliar and papal decrees. An example of this can be found in a series of audiotapes by Scott Hahn, in which he insists that Vatican II's Dei Verbum virtually reiterates the teaching on biblical inerrancy of Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (1893). One could arrive at such a conclusion only if one avoided studying the textual history of Dei Verbum and focused exclusively on the final text.
Ordinarily, if someone accused an apologist of an "ahistorical presentation" of the Catholic Faith, I would assume he meant that the apologist displayed ignorance of Church history, historical theology, the development of doctrine, and so forth. That anyone would accuse the likes of these apologists of such ignorance strikes me as ludicrous. So I must assume that Gaillardetz has in mind something else. He notes, by way of example, the reluctance of Keating to acknowledge the "historical difficulties with some traditional Catholic claims regarding the origins of the papacy" and singles out as an example, the claim that Peter functioned as a "residential 'bishop of Rome.'" But I am more than confident that Keating is amply familiar with the fact that St. Peter's initial home base was in Jerusalem, that he arrived in Rome only later, and that there is probably no historical record describing Peter as a "residential bishop of Rome." Yet I am equally confident of Keating's awareness of the biblical data supporting the primacy of Peter and the historical data supporting his presence in Rome and role as the first bishop of Rome, as attested in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, for example. So I must assume, yet again, that Gaillardetz has something else in mind.

What he has in mind becomes more apparent when he refers to these apologists' "failure to apply accepted hermeneutical principles in the interpretation of conciliar and papal decrees." Now just what are these "accepted hermeneutical principles," and how have these apologists violated them? He writes:
An example of this can be found in a series of audiotapes by Scott Hahn, in which he insists that Vatican II's Dei Verbum virtually reiterates the teaching on biblical inerrancy of Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus (1893). One could arrive at such a conclusion only if one avoided studying the textual history of Dei Verbum and focused exclusively on the final text.
Now what does Gaillardetz have in mind here? What "accepted hermeneutical principles" would render untenable Hahn's interpretation of Vatican II's Dei Verbum as a virtual reiteration of the teaching on biblical inerrancy of Pope Leo XIII's Provindentissimus Deus? Gaillardetz tacitly concedes that there is nothing in the "final text" of Dei Verbum that would contradict Hahn's conclusion. In fact, despite the fact that the Pontifical Biblical Commission's document of 1994, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, encourages Catholic biblical scholars to take every possible advantage of the latest developments in historical-critical methods of Bible study, I can find in it nothing--not even in its cautions against "fundamentalist" approaches to biblical interpretation--that would contradict Hahn's affirmation that the Church continues to teach, as she has always taught, a high view of biblical inerrancy.

Now, when Gaillardetz asserts that one could arrive at Hahn's conclusion "only if one avoided studying the textual history of Dei Verbum," what does he mean? What is the "textual history" of Dei Verbum? What Gaillardetz probably has in mind is the various drafts and editions the document underwent on its way to its final form. It is a fact, of course, that there always are competing views of what should go into such a document, and it is well-known that at the time of the drafting of the documents of Vatican II, there was a large faction of Catholic revisionists who dissented from the Church's historical dogmatic and doctrinal traditions and wished to refashion Catholicism to their own liking. Doubtless many of these Catholic biblical scholars found embarrassing the views in Pope Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus, which affirmed a high view of literal inerrancy and biblical inspiration, such as many liberal Protestants and Catholics today would readily accuse of being "fundamentalist"! Doubtless, too, this is why even most Catholic biblical scholars who accept this teaching of the Church avoid discussing it. What's the last time you heard any Catholic scholar of national standing defend the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible? But the fact that it isn't discussed much any more, that the Vatican II documents barely mention it, that the Pontifical Biblical Commission is utterly silent about it, or that Catholic modernists and dissidents have repudiated it, does not mean that the Church has abandoned this teaching. (For a defense of the traditional Catholic teaching on biblical inerrancy up through the Vatican II documents, see Willaim G. Most, Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teachin, and Modern Scripture Scholars.)

In conclusion, Gaillardetz writes:
Finally, the new apologists evince a peculiar kind of Catholic romanticism that speaks easily of the transcendent truth and beauty of the Catholic Church and its teachings but fails to acknowledge its pilgrim status as a human community. Belief in the indefectible holiness of the church does not preclude one from also holding that the church itself, understood as the whole people of God, the congregatio fidelium, is always only more or less faithful to its call to holiness. Especially in the wake of the recent clerical abuse scandal, does it make any sense to continue to hold that one may speak of the sinfulness of individual Christians but not, in any sense, of the sinfulness of the church itself? To insist on this is to overlook the way in which the sins of the church's members are never strictly private failings, but acts and omissions with communal ramifications that can weaken the sacramentality of the church as a sign and instrument of salvation before the world.
Here, it seems to me, Gaillardetz wants Catholic apologists to adopt a posture of humility. But why? In answering this question, it quickly becomes apparent that he confuses (inadvertently, I hope) two things he's asking us to be humble about: truth and holiness. It's one thing to want Catholics to be humble because of the sins of Catholics (a failure of holiness); but it's quite another to want Catholics to be humble because of supposed errors in Church teaching (a failure of truth), which would be a denial of the dogma of ecclesiastical infallibility. Gaillardetz states the matter confusedly. On the one hand, he chides these apologists for "a peculiar kind of Catholic romanticism that speaks easily of the transcendent truth ... of the Catholic Church and its teachings...." What's wrong with this? This would seem to be nothing more than a faithful reiteration of what the Church herself teaches. The problem, Gaillardetz suggests, is that these same apologists fail to acknowledge the Church's "pilgrim status as a human community." What is this supposed to mean? That we members of the Church are human and fallible, that even the most knowledgable of us only "sees through a glass darkly," as St. Paul says (1 Cor. 13:12)? Well, what's new? We all know that. But what how is that supposed to undermine our confidence in the infallible truth of Catholic teaching?

Gaillardetz explains: "Belief in the indefectible holiness of the church does not preclude one from also holding that the church itself ... is always only more or less faithful to its call to holiness." Okay, but here Gaillardetz has switched from the question of the truth of Church teaching (the question of infallibility) to the question of the holiness of those who make up the Church membership (the question of impeccability)--a shift he muddles by conjoining with "holiness" the adjective "indefectalble," which is typically reserved for questions of Catholic belief, not Catholic behavior. The latter, he says, is "always only more or less faithful to [the Church's] call to holiness." Well, of course: but who wasn't aware of that? It didn't take the recent priestly sex scandals to remind us that we are all sinners. But here Gaillardetz also makes a move whose implicit danger seems to escape him. He asks: "Especially in the wake of the recent clerical abuse scandal, does it make any sense to continue to hold that one may speak of the sinfulness of individual Christians but not, in any sense, of the sinfulness of the church itself?" This, of course, may have a plausible ring to it--until we remember that in the Nicene Creed we affirm, as a matter of defined dogma, that the Church is "holy"! So what should one think here?

On the one hand, Catholicism teaches that the Church itself is holy. On the other hand, the recent sex scandals embarrass us with the reminder that even the Church's priests, in some cases, are notorious sinners, if not perverts and--in some cases--child molesters. It's one thing to humbly confess the failings of these Catholic priests, just as we confess our own failings, and Pope (who goes regularly to Confession, like every good Catholic should) his failings. But it's another to ask us to humbly confess that the Church herself is sinful, for this would constitute a denial of the biblical declaration that the Church herself is the spotless Bride of Christ. This is why Catholics, when they go to Sacramental Confession, are not only being reconciled to God, but also to their Church; for just as God is holy, so the Church is holy; and when we sin, we separate ourselves not only from Christ, but from His Body, the Church. This, of course, is a matter of Church teaching, for as the Catechism declares: "The Church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the soul, as it were, of the Mystical Body, the source of its life, of its unity in diversity, and of the riches of its gifts and charisms." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, sec. 809)

But if it's one thing to admit that Catholics are sinners, even if the Church as the Body of Christ transcends the temporal sinfulness of her members, it's yet another thing altogether even to suggest that the Church is fallible in her teaching. And that, I'm afraid, is what Gaillardetz' remarks do, despite, let us hope, his best intentions. It's a very good thing indeed for Gaillardetz to want Catholic apologists to be humble. But humility, as G.K. Chesterton knew, is a funny thing. Chesterton once wrote:
But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.... The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether. (G.K. Chesterton, "The Suicide of Thought," from Orthodoxy)
We may be thankful that Mr. Gaillardetz has written such an article highlighting the work of these Catholic apologists, which, in the first place, is appreciative of their work and aims in many respects. It is heartening to see their work taken seriously in the pages of a magazine like America, as I have said. We may be grateful, in the second place, that Mr. Gaillardetz has written such a provocative article, calling us to review what we understand to be the aim of Catholic apologetics, and warning us against some genuine dangers. These, I sincerely believe, are not to be dismissed lightly. On the other hand, it is to be regretted that Mr. Gaillardetz's article offers so little critical reflection on the ideological positions that animate his own perspective, on the assumptions underlying the historical-critical approach to biblical studies, or even the general tenor of contemporary Catholic revisionism, which bears every indication--as in so much contemporary Catholic biblical scholarship--of thoroughgoing contamination by the legacy of classic Liberal Protestantism and its naturalistic Enlightenment assumptions, as well as by the contemporary fallout of deconstructive postmodernism. This is not surprising, however, as these assumptions have seeped down into the general population in our own time and permeate the outlook of most rank-and-file Catholics, to say nothing of Protestants and non-religious secularists.