Sunday, October 12, 2008

John Lamont on what was wrong with Vatican II

Part I. Why the Second Vatican Council Was a Good Thing & Is More Important Than Ever

Longtime readers will remember the article by John Lamont published in New Oxford Review, which we reproduced online by permission of the editor: "Why the Second Vatican Council Was a Good Thing & Is More Important Than Ever" (Musings, August 31, 2005). That article was prompted by a question raised by NOR in response to a Crisis magazine article by George Sim Johnston, whose article was subtitled: "Why Vatican II Was Necessary." Dale Vree, the Editor of NOR, had written: "We'd dearly like to know why it was. We can think of a few things that Vatican II did that were good and necessary -- but only a few -- and we doubt if an ecumenical council was necessary to accomplish them." Lamont said that this was an excellent question that needs an answer, and his article was written to take up the challenge posed by it.

Lamont's article is one of the best I've seen and too long to be summarized here; but after making the case that the disasters that followed the Council were not caused by its documents, he gets down to the business of laying out why the Council was a good thing. Briefly, he argues that there were two kinds of problems the Council was required to address -- external and internal problems. External problems involved such things as Church-state relations, which required the sort of natural law argument for religious liberty made by Dignitatis Humanae; the evolving relations with Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians, which elicited the kind of ecclesiological statements one finds in Unitatis Redintegrato; and relations with the Jews, which demanded the Church's forthright rejection of antisemitism found in Nostra Aetate.

The internal problems addressed by the Council are far subtler, deeper, and more difficult to discern. It is here, however, that Lamont is particularly illuminating. Following Louis Bouyer, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Servais Pinckaers, he sees these problems as ultimately stemming from the influence of nominalism on Catholic thought in the late Middle Ages, "an influence that gave rise to Protestantism, and that in the emergency of contriving a Catholic response to Protestantism was not properly eradicated." What sorts of problems does Lamont identify?

Among other things, there was a tendency to identify religion with obedience to orders and commandments, and to separate it from happiness and truth. One manifestation of this tendency was was anti-intellectualism and hostility towards reason: "If faith is a matter of obeying orders, then asking questions about Catholic belief is insubordinate." Another was the spiritual weakness stemming from a morality of obligation that regarded the development of a life of prayer, virtue, and pursuit of holiness as the province of the religious, rather than the laity. Yet another was a defective attitude toward the world resulting from this weakness: if religion is seen as a matter of obeying orders and the secular world is largely ignoring the orders, the orders themselves are seen as flawed, in need of being changed, or at least rephrased, to make them acceptable.

The Council addressed this weakness in four ways: it (1) presented Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of human nature, along Thomist lines, with the Church offering the means needed to attain this fulfillment; (2) asserted that everyone, not just religious, is called by God to be perfect; (3) insisted on the necessity of Catholics being familiar with the Scriptures; and (4) promoted, in Sancrosanctum Concilium, the revival of the liturgy that had been developing since the 19th century, and had been endorsed by Pius XII's encyclical Mediator Dei.

Yet, as Lamont states, "These attempts to address this fundamental weakness, however, were received by a Church that was still enthralled by them," which is what explains the disasters that followed the Council and the triumph of the very weaknesses the Council tried to remedy. "Its attempts at overcoming the nominalist mindset were interpreted as rejecting the previous requirement of obedience," freeing "all the bitterness and resentment that had been produced by such obedience ... untrammeled by any intellectual discipline or loyalty to truth. The idea of coming to terms with the world, which was given support by some utterances of John XXIII and Paul VI, was embraced as the main theme of the Council, despite the lack of any basis for it in the conciliar documents." The triumph of this weakness, according to Lamont, "means that the Council's teaching is even more important now than at the time it was convoked," an importance compounded by the fact that the basic Church teaching it sets forth, largely taken for granted at the time, is now widely rejected. "There does not seem to be a better way of promoting these teachings than by getting the clergy and laity to realize that they are taught by the Council that progressives claim as their own," concludes Lamont.

Part II. What was Wrong with Vatican II

Last year, John Lamont published another article, this time entitled "What was Wrong with Vatican II" (New Blackfriars, Vol. 88, 2007) [fee levied for online access]. He begins by rehearsing the broad outlines of the turmoil and catastrophe that followed the Council, admitted by no less an authority than Pope Paul VI in an often-quoted sermon on June 29, 1972, in which he remarked that "from some crack the smoke of Satan had entered the temple of God."1 He notes that Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Curia on December 22, 2005, distinguished two different ways of interpreting the Council -- a "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture," and a "hermeneutics of reform." While applauding this analysis as quite correct, Lamont observes that it leaves certain questions unanswered. "The bishops at the Council were the same people who presided over the mess that followed," he writes. "For the most part, they either wholeheartedly accepted the "hermeneutics of discontinuity and rupture," or else went along with measures that followed from it." While they may have done so for the most part in the sincere belief that they were implementing the Council, says Lamont, this raises a pressing question: "what was it about the Council that could have promoted its disastrous misinterpretation, and the calamities that resulted from it?"

While ecumenical councils cannot go wrong through teaching anything false, says Lamont, this does not mean that they cannot be "one-sided or ill-judged or even harmful in some respects"; and he gives as an example Canon 26 of the Third Lateran Council.2 Nevertheless, at pains to make clear that he does not think the Council was simply a disaster, Lamont reiterates the claim of his earlier article that the Council was on the whole a good thing and introduced a number of important and needed reforms (see above). But this only makes more urgent the task of sorting out the Council's flaws from its achievements:
This task is especially pressing, in my view, because traditionalists have not gone about it in the right way. I do not think that the Council can be held responsible for the liturgical abuses that followed it; in this I am supported by the view of Fr. Louis Bouyer, an important figure in the liturgical movement, who remarked of the post-conciliar liturgical changes that "perhaps in no other area is there a greater distance (and even formal opposition) between what the Council worked out and what we have."3 Nor do I think that the Council contradicted previous Church teachings on religious freedom, as the Lefebvrists maintain -- the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, on religious freedom, was the most debated and revised document of the entire Council, precisely in order to avoid such a contradiction.
Here is where Lamont approaches his thesis, first by the partial insight found in a common criticism of Gaudium et Spes:
A better criticism of the Council focuses on its constitution Gaudium et Spes, and accuses the document of an unrealistically optimistic view of modern culture. This is true as far as it goes, but it does not get to the heart of the problems with the Council. The circumstances; they go deeper. They are found in two areas; in the Council's teaching on mission, and in the view of the human condition that underlies its approach to mission. By mission I mean the task of converting unbelievers to Catholicism.
A. The Council's teaching on mission

Lamont continues:
The trouble with the Council's approach to mission is that although it stresses that Catholics must seek to convert unbelievers, it gives no adequate reason for doing this. It does give Christ's command to evangelize as a reason, but it gives no proper explanation of why that command is given, or of the good that the commandment is supposed to promote. This, of course, means that the command is unlikely to be followed; and it has in fact been largely disregarded since the Council.
This omission, as Lamont points out, represents a departure from Catholic tradition, which is replete with references to evangelization as an activity that should be undertaken in order to save the souls of unbelievers. Lamont offers ample historical documentation, which I will not detail here. He carefully analyzes the historical statements on invincible ignorance, noting the non sequitur of leaping from the claim that unbelief is not a sin when it is beyond the control of unbelievers to the conclusion that unbelievers will therefore necessarily be saved, despite lacking faith or baptism and still being subject to original sin. Earlier discussions of the subject articulated a more balanced position. Pius IX's statement in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore that unbelief need not be a sin and that unbelievers can be saved despite their unbelief, was never intended or taken as more than a modal statement, an hypothetical possibility; it makes no claim about what actually happens. All of the positions taken by the Church historically entail that, although it is possible that unbelievers can be saved, we should nevertheless endeavor to convert them in order to save their souls. Lamont comments:
However, the Council did not state this balanced position. It made no reference at all to unbelief rendering salvation doubtful. Instead, in its decree on missions, Ad Gentes, it offers the following rationale for missionary activity:
"Christ himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter as through a door. Hence those cannot be saved whom, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded by God as something necessary, still refuse to enter it, or remain in it (Lumen Gentium, 14)." So, although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb. 11:6), the Church, nevertheless, still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize."4
As a rationale for missionary activity this is absurd, since it does not give a reason for trying to convert unbelievers generally, but only a reason for trying to convert those (presumably rare) souls who are already convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, but obstinately refuse to follow its command to join the Church. It is in fact a rationale for avoiding missionary activity, since if people are not made aware that God founded the Church as something necessary for salvation, they cannot be lost through refusing to be baptized.
This neglect to mention the traditional rationale for mission could not fail to be noted by Catholics, and it led to predictable consequences. One was to lull Catholics into assuming that unbelief was not a serious obstacle to salvation, which eroded their interest in mission and evangelization. "This loss of interest was noted," says Lamont, "by John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, although that encyclical failed to properly address its cause." Another consequence was to lead Catholics to assume that the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and of Christianity were optional picture preferences. For if people who do not accept the distinctive tenets of Catholicism and Christianity can reasonably hope to be saved, then these distinctive tenets may obviously be thought to be unnecessary and discarded at will. Yet a third consequence for those Catholics who still continued to take salvation and evangelization seriously was to leave them vulnerable to the attraction of religious groups like Pentecostalists and other Evangelical Protestant sects who overtly stress the importance of mission and concern for the salvation of human souls. From this, says Lamont, stems the numerous defections of Catholics to Pentecostalists and other Protestant groups.

Lamont's discussion is detailed, and he considers various possible objections and offers replies; but these elude the scope of the present discussion.

B. The Council's teaching on the human condition

The second problem, the one underlying the Council's unsatisfactory teaching on mission, centers precisely on the reason for evangelization. Lamont writes:
The reason we cannot be confident of the salvation of unbelievers is that they are human, and are born into slavery to evil, suffering from the cancer of original sin. Damnation is the default setting for humanity -- that is why Christ had to die to redeem us -- so we can have no reason for expecting anyone to be saved unless they have undergone a real conversion. (This applies to Christians as well as unbelievers -- a Christian whose life is not noticeably different from those of the unbelievers around him has no reason to expect salvation.) To deny this is to deny the doctrine of original sin, and to ignore the evidence of human evil that is recorded in all of history. The Council did not of course actually make this denial; but, by remaining silent about salvation as a motive for missionary activity, it gave the impression that original sin and the evil that results from it are not realities. This failure to adequately acknowledge the reality of evil is the second problem with the Council.
Although the chief expression of this deficit is in the Council's teaching on mission, says Lamont, it can be found also in other places. For example, in Lumen Gentium, one of the most authoritative documents of Vatican II, one finds an unfolding of the inner nature and universal mission of the Church. Yet it's description of the Fall, says Lamont, passes over that event in the phrase: "when they had fallen in Adam, [God] did not abandon them."5 Missing is any explanation of the Fall, its effects, why Christ's death was needed to save us from it, or how Christ's death achieves this, even though these doctrines are indispensable for understanding the nature and mission of the Church. The problem, says Lamont, "goes deeper than being unrealistically positive about modern society; it is being unrealistically positive about the human condition itself.

This overlooking of the reality of sin and evil, according to Lamont, was the feature of the Council most responsible for the way the "Church of Vatican II" was fashioned by the bishops and curial officials after the Council. Lamont offers several examples:

(1) One example of an official implementation of this approach cited by Lamont is "the bowdlerization of the Divine Office, the public prayer of the Church." The Office, he notes, "is centered around the psalms, as is traditional, but every passage from the psalms -- and a few whole psalms -- that condemns evildoers, and threatens their punishment, has been removed." He mentions as an example Psalm 62(63), one of the most frequently recited Psalms in the Breviary, which stops at the line "My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me." The ending of the Psalm, with its negative message of condemnation upon the evil, however, has been removed. "This really shocking and blasphemous censorship of the Scriptures," writes Lamont, "illustrates how the 'spirit of Vatican II,' of which the refusal to acknowledge evil was a central part, was preferred to God's revelation."

(2) Another official measure Lamont considers is the new code of canon law promulgated after the Council. He cites canonists R. Michael Dunnigan and Charles Wilson as pointing out the greatly reduced role of penal sanctions in the new code, with penalties for specific crimes being reduced from 101 in the old code to 35 in the new, as well as concerns raised by Bishop V. de Paolis, formerly professor of canon law at the Gregorian University and secretary of the Apostolic Signature (the supreme court of appeal in the Church) at the time of Lamont's article.

(3) A third example mentioned is the abolition of the post of the devil's advocate in canonization cases

(4) A fourth is the "grave inadequacy of the new rite of exorcism," a rite, Lamont points out, "that has been described by the chief exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, as a farce."6

(5) On the level of one language group, as opposed to the whole Church, he notes the problem of the standard English versions of the liturgy originally produced by ICEL (the International Commission on English Liturgy) in the 1970s, "versions which the new secretary of ICEL, Fr. Bruce Harbert, has described as tending towards the Pelagian heresy."7

(6) As an example of policies not officially promulgated but generally agreed upon, Lamont cites the observation by Dunnigan and Wilson that even the reduced penal sanctions of the new code "have been tacitly abandoned, and that penal sanctions are no longer applied." The most scandalous instance, of course, is the sexual abuse by priests. While canon law requires the punishment of this offense (see canon 1395, sec. 2 of the 1983 code), the canonical requirement was ignored by bishops who simply refused to apply it. "This refusal was a reflection of the post-conciliar practice of appointing 'pastoral' bishops," writes Lamont. "A 'pastoral' bishop was understood to be one who would not confront rejection of the Church's doctinal and moral teachings, but instead treat such rejection as an acceptable option for Catholics -- and would require everyone over whom he had power to do the same."

(7) Turning to trends and policies outside the hierarchy, Lamont finds ready examples of the refusal to acknowledge evil in the wide acceptance of proportionalism and fundamental option theories by moral theologians. While both of these positions have been condemned by Rome, each is designed to permit or excuse actions formally condemned as mortally sinful, if not to completely remove any actual possibility of mortal sin. Another example of the influence of this mitigation of evil among self-styled 'progressive' Catholics is the general enthusiasm for some form or other of mitigated universalism as set forth by Hans Urs von Balthasar, which claims that we can at least dare to hope that no human being is damned. Yet another example is found by Lamont, also linked to von Balthasar, in the popularity of the connection between theology and aesthetics, which tends to minimize if not altogether neglect the problem of sin. "God is beautiful, and sin is ugly," writes Lamont, "but there is more to its evil than ugliness; ugliness in itself is not sin. Ugliness is unpleasant, but it does not as such attract the wrath of God and bring damnation."

What explains this refusal to acknowledge evil on the part of the Council, according to Lamont, and the adoption of this deficiency as the main aspect of postconciliar changes? "It should be stated that the postconciliar embrace of this refusal [to acknowledge evil] was partly due to shortcomings the Council tried to remedy," writes Lamont. Ignorance of Scriptures was one such shortcoming, and understanding of morality in terms of obligation (as detailed in Lamont's earlier article) was another. Yet none of these sorts of explanations explain the refusal to acknowledge evil on the part of the Council itself. Papal leadership, which Lamont discusses briefly, does not sufficiently account for it either. Given the time frame of the Council -- less than twenty years after Europe had been convulsed by the most brutal war in human history and during a period when a third of the world was groaning under communist tyranny (which the Council refused to condemn) -- this refusal to acknowledge evil, says Lamont, was "grotesquely incongruous and bizarre." Yet Lamont wonders whether it wasn't precisely this situation that led to the problem. In other words, Lamont wonders whether it wasn't the fact that the bishops of Europe had seen Europeans go from unprecedented cultural pre-eminence to committing the worst crimes in human history, that led them to recoil from the condemnation of evil. This reaction would have been exacerbated, particularly, in instances where they had found themselves compromised by moral dilemmas in the face of Nazi or Fascist rule. Lamont even speculates that the roots of this failure may go back to the Counter-Reformation, given that the idea that we have to rely on God's righteousness rather than our own is something that sounds Protestant to Catholics, and was thus devalued in the Catholic Church.

Be that as it may, Lamont states that it was not the Council's failure to acknowledge evil that was the cause of the diasters that followed it -- with the exception of the collapse in mission and evangelization. Yet "it was an indispensable catalyst for these disasters," he says, and lent them most of their strength. "Refusal to admit the existence of evil is not just a negative step; it usually leads to actual involvement in it. This is what happened after the Council, as the sexual abuse scandals illustrate."

How can this problem be corrected? While it is inevitable, as in the case of the sex scandals, that evil cannot be ignored forever, this recognition itself is insufficient. "In order for such a correction ot have its best effects in the Church," says Lamont, "it will be necessary to admit the one-sidedness of the Second Vatican Council with respect to evil, and to remedy this one-sidedness through a better understanding of the teachings of Scripture and tradition on the power and gravity of evil in this world, and on the warfare that Christians have to carry out against it."


  1. Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, X: 1972 (Vatican City: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1972), p. 707. [back]

  2. "... We declare that the evidence of Christians is to be accepted against Jews in every case, since Jews employ their own witnesses against Christians, and that those who prefer Jews to Christians in this matter are to lie under anathema, since Jews ought to be subject to Christians and to be supported by them on grounds of humanity alone" (Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1: Nicaea I to Lateran V, ed. Norman P. Tanner S.J. [London: Sheed & Ward, 1990], p. 224). [back]

  3. Louis Bouyer, The Decomposition of Catholicism, tr. C.V. Quinn (London: Sands & Co., 1970), p. 99. [back]

  4. Vatican II, Decree Ad Gentes, para. 7, in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery O.P., new ed. (New York: Costello, 1992), p. 821. [back]

  5. Vatican II, Dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium, para. 2, in Flannery (1992), p. 350. [back]

  6. In an interview in 30 Days, June 2001. [back]

  7. In an interview in the Catholic Herald, May 2002. [back]

[John Lamont is professor at Catholic University of Sydney, 99 Albert Road, Strathfield NSW2135 Australia. Hat tip to Prof. E.E.]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Jesus of Nazareth

by Pope Benedict XVI, a featured book review by Michael P. Foley

[Christ Pantocrator -- St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai]

During an interview, Peter Seewald once asked Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger a pointed question: How many ways are there to God? Seewalt, a lapsed Catholic, was perhaps hoping to catch the author of the "infamous" document Dominus Iesus--which reaffirms Jesus Christ as the only source of salvation--in a "gotcha" moment of intolerance and rigidity.

But the Cardinal surprised him. "As many as there are people," he replied. "For even within the same faith each man's way is an entirely personal one."1 Though Ratzinger also made clear that the only way to God is through Christ, it was his focus on each man's encounter with the Way that discombobulated the jaded journalist. That same disarming blend of the orthodox and the individual is evident in Ratzinger/Benedict XVI's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth, which the author describes not as an "exercise of the Magisterium" but an "expression of [his] personal search 'for the face of the Lord.'"2

The Historical-Critical Method

The Holy Father's salutary distinction between his office and his opinions does not mean that Jesus of Nazareth has little to do with the teachings of the Church. One of the book's central aims is to rectify that form of biblical exegesis known as historical criticism. Begun in the eighteenth century as an
enlightenment attempt to strip revealed religion of its claims to the supernatural and the miraculous, historical criticism now dominates biblical studies both Catholic and Protestant and shows no sign of abating, despite the rise of other schools of interpretation such as literary criticism.

* * * * * * *
Though Ratzinger also made clear that the only way to God is through Christ, it was his focus on each man's encounter with the Way that discombobulated the jaded journalist.

* * * * * * *

As its ideological beginnings make clear, historical criticism is a mixed blessing for Christianity. On the one hand, it was designed to undermine the believer's confidence in the reliability of the sacred text, and consequently it has destroyed not only many a man's orthodox convictions but his entire faith. For contemporary examples of this one need only think of the twaddle advanced by the "Jesus Seminar" or the articles gracing the covers of Time and Newsweek every Easter that deny the Resurrection on the authority of renowned biblical "experts."

On the other hand, it is thanks to the methodology of modern biblical studies that we have made enormous strides in understanding our biblical manuscripts, in our grasp of the original languages, andin our knowledge of Scripture's historical and cultural context. At its best, historical criticism helps exegetes better understand the literal sense of the text.

Benedict makes clear in his preface that he is aware of historical criticism's "indispensable dimension" as well as its significant "limits" (xv, xvi). Undergirding the conflict between historical-critical studies and Christian orthodoxy, however, is a deeper issue: who is the ultimage interpreter of the Bible--the Church, with its rule of faith, or the Academy, with its own canons of judgment? One of the most chilling passages in Jesus of Nazareth is Benedict's reflections on a short story by Vladimir Soloviev in which the Antichrist comes as a renowned Scripture scholar who believes that one should "measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview" (35):

The Antichrist, with an air of scholarly excellence, tells us that any exegesis that reads the Bible from the perspective of faith in the living God, in order to listen to what God has to say, is fundamentalism; he wants to convince us that only his kind of exegesis, the supposedly pure scientific kind, in which God says nothing and has nothing to say, is able to keep abreast of the times (36).

It is no doubt statements like this that led Cardinal Renato Martino to say that Jesus of Nazareth is not only a book with "salt and pepper" but with "hot peppers."3

* * * * * * *
Most of the controversy generated by Jesus of Nazareth so far has been not over any of Benedict's interpretations of this or that passage but his underlying conviction that the Church is in a beter position to understand its own sacred texts than the Academy.

* * * * * * *

For Benedict, only eyes fortified by Faith, Hope, and Charity can truly see the living mysteries disclosed in the Scriptures.4 While historical criticism can be useful, it must be firmly subordinated to the Apostolic Faith (xxiii), and it must remain cognizant of the fact that its own reconstructions of the past are hypothetical and hence tentative (xix). Most of the controversy generated by Jesus of Nazareth so far has been not over any of Benedict's interpretations of this or that passage but his underlying conviction that the Church is in a beter position to understand its own sacred texts than the Academy. That this should come as a surprise or a scandal to anyone indicates the extent of the crisis we are in and why the Pope is wise to address it.

[Saint Jerome from a mural]

On the whole, however, Benedict's own approach is more constructive than critical. His Holiness highlights the auspicious "fact that the inner nature of the [historical-critical] method points beyond itself" (xviii). Just as modern science, when it is understood properly, points to the need for a science or scientia greater than itself, so too does historical criticism implicitly (and perhaps unwittingly) reveal the possibility that every word in the Scriptures "contains more than the author may have been immediately aware of at the time" (xix).

A Master Exegete

Hence, there will always be a need to examine what the Church Fathers called the sensus plenior, the fuller Christological meaning of both Testaments made present through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To hold this involves no blind appeal to authority or voluntaristic suspension of discernment. On the contrary, Pope Benedict masterfully demonstrates that the most rational and reasonable way to read the Scriptures is with the recognition that the so-called "Jesus of history" is the "Christ of faith" (xxii), that the dichotomy between the two created by many exegetes invariably butchers the very text they purport ot understand and thus undercuts their own claims to competency. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point.

In his chapter on the Baptism in the Jordan, Benedict takes advantage of the spectacular discovery of the Qumran or "Dead Sea" scrolls in the 1940s, reflecting on the possible connections between the desert Essenes (an ascetical, quasi-monastic Jewish community) and Saint John the Baptist. But while many scholars tend to reduce John's ministry to that of the Essences, Benedict, looking at the same data, more convincingly argues that in light of what we know from Qumran, "the Baptist's appearance on the scene was something completely new; the baptism he enjoined is different fromthe usual religious ablutions" (14). The Essenes had frequent ritual washings to be sure, but these stand in contrast to the unrepeatable act by the Baptist that is "meant to be the concrete enactment of a conversion that gives the whole of life a new direction forever" (ibid.). Like any good Catholic missionary, John was taking preexisting symbols and transforming their use and meaning to betoken a new and divine reality.

Second, in his chapter on the Gospel of Saint John, Benedict reviews the commonplace contention that while the other three Gospels are more or less historical, John's Gospel is a much later product of theological speculation and hence does not reflect the "real" Jesus. Yet as Benedict points out, this conjecture presupposes that theological reflection is a hindrance rather than an aid to knowing who this Man is, and this is absurd: if Christ is who He says He is, the only way to know him is through faith. Ultimately undergirding the "historical Jesus" obsession is a remarkably naive understanding of history as something that can be captured in a series of transcripts. But as John himself points out in his Gospel through his use of the conceept of memory, "remembering" the story of the Christ can only happen through an awakening of the Spirit that makes the data of the past intelligible (231-34). Benedict's careful exploration of the biblical author's self-understanding provides a key to unlocking the text that modern exegetes have been trying in vain to pick.

Genuine Dialogue

It is no coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth is itself an excellent example of how historical criticism, purified of its pretensions to high science and rightly reordered, can bear much fruit. But the book, which covers the earthly ministry of Our Lord from His baptism to His transfiguration (a second volume on the infancy narratives and the Passion is forthcoming), boldly engages a number of other controversies as well. Perhaps the most fascinating example of this is the Pope's response to Rabbi Jacob Neusner, whom Benedict calls a "great Jewish scholar" (69) and a "truly attentive listner" (118). Neusner is the author of the 1994 book A Rabbi Talks With Jesus (reprinted 2000), in which he imagines himself in the crowd listening to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. As Benedict summarizes:
He listens to Jesus... and he speaks with Jesus himself. He is touched by the greatness and the purity of what is said, and yet at the same time he is troubled by the ultimate incompatibility that he finds at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount.... Again and again he talks with Him. But in the end, he decides not to follow Jesus. He remains--as he himself puts it--withthe 'eternal Israel'" (103-4).
Neusner, a distinguished professor of Judaism at Bard College, was unimpressed with the "Judeo-Christian dialogue [that] served as the medium of a politics of social conciliation" rather than a "religious inquiry into the convictions of the other."5 He lamented the post-WWII "conviction that the two religions say the same thing" and the Enlightenment "indifference to the truth-claims of religion."6 In other words, he was tired of the very same things that make a traditional Catholic bristle when he hears the words "interreligious dialogue."

Neusner's response was A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, in which he takes with the utmost seriousness and respoect the teachings of Jesus even though he ultimately cannot accept them. Why not? Because "the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement,"7 whereas Jesus, with His frequent "You have heart it said... But I say unto you" emendations, is clearly going beyond the Torah and hence daring to improve it. Neusner rightly recognizes that with these statements Jesus is claiming to be God, and this astonishing assertion is something to which he cannot assent.

Rabbi Neusner later said of his book that he wanted to explain to Christians why he believed in Judaism, and that this explanation "ought to help Christians identify the critical convictions that bring them to church every Sunday."8 It certainly did for one reader. Benedict writes: "More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus' words and to the choice that the Gospel places before us" (69).

* * * * * * *
This is interreligious dialogue at its very best, the kind of serious conversation reminiscent of Saint Thomas Aquinas' turn to Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, where respect for the other does not devalue respect for the truth.

* * * * * * *

In what is the longest treatment of any living author in Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope joins "in the rabbi's conversation with Jesus" (70). He argues that Neusner is absolutely right in his analysis of what Jesus is saying, but he contends that this does not constitute a violation of the Torah. On the contrary, drawing from the testimony of the Hebrew Bible the Pope argues that the Torah points beyond itself, beyond the borders of Israel, that God's "one great definitive promise to Israel and the world" was the "gift of universality" which is made possible by the God-man who comes to save both Jew and Gentile (116).

This is interreligious dialogue at its very best, the kind of serious conversation reminiscent of Saint Thomas Aquinas' turn to Rabbi Moses Maimonedes, where respect for the other does not devalue respect for the truth. Neusner himself was amazed that the Pope should honor him in this way. In responding to Jesus of Nazareth, the rabbi wrote, "Someone once called me the most contentious person he had ever known. Now I have met my match. Pope Benedict XVI is another truth-seeker. We are in for interesting times."9

Theological Wisdom

To dwell as I have done on the Holy Father's disputations with contemporary issues such as biblical criticism and Judeo-Christian dialogue should not, however, obscure the more fundamental fact that Jesus of Nazareth is first and foremost a treasure of timeless theological wisdom. Benedict is a master reader of Holy Writ, a sleuth of the sacred who artfully connects seeminly disparate scriptural passages or Patristic interpretations to reveal a deep and rich teaching. No matter how well you think you know the Bible, the Pope will surprise you.

* * * * * * *
For Benedict, only eyes fortified by Faith, Hope, and Charity can truly see the living mysteries disclosed in the Scriptures. While historical criticism can be useful, it must be firmly subordinated to the Apostolic Faith, and it must remain cognizant of the fact that its own reconstructions of the past are hypothetical and hence tentative.

* * * * * * *

To mention just two examples: Benedict's explanation of why Jesus deigned to be baptized is not that He wished to rid Himself of His guilt (for He obviously had none) but that He wished to "load the burden of all mankind's guilt upon his shoulders" (18). Like Jonah the prophert, Our Lord inaugurated His public ministry by being thrown into the sea so that others may live. Benedict notes that in Eastern icons depicting Christ's baptism, the river Jordan appears "as a liquid tomb," a Hades into which Christ descends and out of which He rises to be greeted by the Father and the Holy Spirit" (19).

Similarly, Benedict offers a powerful exegesis of the three temptations in the desert by framing this event with a difficult question: Why didn't Jesus turn stone into bread (if not to feed Himself then at least others) or take control of all nations in order to bring peace on earth? Indeed "What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world?" (44). "The answer," Benedict continues, "is very simple: God. He has brought God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham and then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom literature.... It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth" 944).

As this answer suggests, the Pope is never far from the face of the Lord in his exegesis. Everything that Christ says, such as his preaching on the Kingdom of God (ch. 3) or His parables (ch. 7) brings us primarily, not to a doctrine, but to Himself. When Our Lord speaks of the Kingdom of God, for example, He is speaking about His own kingship, Himself. And when He tells the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He is indicating how He Himself is the "concrete realization of the father's" mercy towards the sinner (208).

I mentioned earlier that Peter Seewald was disarmed by Cardinal Ratzinger's answer about the ways of seeking god, and now I should add that that experience reignited his own search for the Lord and his return to the Church. Let us hope that the hot but nourishing peppers in Jesus of Nazareth will have the same effect on those of us whose love of the Lord has grown cool.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview With Peter Seewald, trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 32. [back]

  2. p. xxiii. Cf. Ps. 27:8. [back]

  3. "Cardinal: Pope's Book Goes Against Grain,", 22 July 2007. [back]

  4. Looking at the logical lapses of Rudolf Bultmann, for example, "we see how little protection the highly scientific approach can offer against fundamental mistakes" (220). [back]

  5. Ibid. [back]

  6. Ibid. [back]

  7. Ibid. [back]

  8. Ibid. [back]

  9. Ibid. [back]

[Dr. Michael P. Foley is a professor of Patristics at Baylor University and the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The present review of Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Winter 2008), pp. 34-37, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cardinal Ratzinger's 2002 defense of his liturgy book

Two years before his death in 2004, Father Pierre-Marie Gy, O.P. published a critical review of Cardinal Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy, which appeared in La Maison-Dieu 229.1 (2002), 171-78. The future Pope Benedict XVI did not take a benign view of Fr. Gy's criticisms, and asked that he be allowed to publish a response to the review in the same journal, as soon as possible. The two articles have recently been published in English translation in Antiphon 11.1 (2007), 90-102.

The reader need not look far to find what provoked Cardinal Ratzinger to respond. In his article, "Cardinal Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy: Is It Faithful to the Council or in Reaction to It?" not only is the French Dominican critical of Cardinal Ratzinger, but he takes to making bald assertions such as
The Spirit of Liturgy obliges one to wonder whether the Cardinal [Ratzinger] is in harmony with the Council's Constitution on the Liturgy. He is faithful to the piety of his Christian childhood and of his priestly ordination, but insufficiently attentive, on the one hand, to the liturgical rules currently in place (should he not, when he writes on this subject, give an example of attentiveness and fidelity?) and, on the other hand, to the liturgical values affirmed by the Council.
In the final analysis, it is appropriate to admit that Cardinal Ratzinger, though a great theologian, is not on the same level of greatness when it comes to knowledge of the liturgy and the liturgical tradition, whereas precisely the latter quality characterized the works and the decisions of the conciliar liturgical reform.
Further, Gy refers to the liturgical conference in which Cardinal Ratzinger participated at Fontgombault in 2001 a "traditionalist conference," implying that Ratzinger is a "traditionalist."

Although Cardinal Ratzinger's book is concerned with liturgy, says Gy, none its ten or so references to the liturgy mention any important aspects of the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy "with the single exception of 'active participation,'" which, he says, the Cardinal considers dangerous because it seems to involve "a risk that the Church may celebrate itself." In particular, he finds surprising that Cardinal Ratzinger does not even refer to article 48 of the Constitution on the Liturgy, which he considers seminal. Article 48 is the one that states that the Church desires that the faithful at Mass "should not be there as strangers or silent spectators," but "should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing," learning also "to offer themselves." Gy reads Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy as a reactionary document. He insists that "it is hard to see why not a whisper is breathed about the way Paul VI constantly followed the work of the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy ... as was witnessed not only by Msgr A. Bugnini, secretary for the work of liturgical reform, but also by its principal architects."

The theme of "active participation" surfaces again when Fr. Gy turns to the question of "celebration ad orientem," to which Cardinal Ratzinger devotes a chapter in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Gy finds Ratzinger's treatment "unsatisfactory both historically and with regard to the issue of active participation." On the historical side, Gy faults it for its explicit dependence on Louis Bouyer, who was a "great voice of the liturgical movement," but was "not necessarily a great historian," as demonstrated, in Gy's view, by his assumption that praying toward the East was a liturgical concern of the "entire West." Yet neither Bouyer nor Ratzinger take into account, says Gy, the work of the Bonn liturgist Otto Nussbaum, according to whom the celebration versus orientem was not introduced into the papal liturgy until Avignon. "It is a mistake ... to see celebration facing the people as the result of the Protestant denial of the eucharistic sacrifice," asserts Gy.

On the side of "active participation," Gy faults Ratzinger for a reactionary piety that is marked "by an attachment to the priestly prayers said in a low voice, that the faithful of his country began to follow in a missal around the beginning of the twentieth century (if they did not recite the rosary during the Mass)." He suggests that Ratzinger seems unaware of the distinction between the private prayers of the priest and the prayers said by hims as celebrant, "and he situates himself de facto in the untraditional line, begun at Trent, of the private Mass as the fundamental form of the Mass, which subsequently allowed music to cover over the canon of the Mass spoken in a low voice, a practice criticized by the 1970 missal and that seems to be a bit missed by the Cardinal and by the Church musicians of his country."

Cardinal Ratzinger's article, "The Spirit of the Liturgy or Fidelity to the Council: Response to Father Gy," is divided into five points and a conclusion. First, writes the Cardinal:
It is quite simply false to say, as Father Gy does ... that I see in participatio actuosa "a risk that the Church may celebrate itself." The entire second chapter of the fourth part of my book is dedicated to "active participation" as an essential component of proper celebration of the liturgy. What is needed in the first place is to set aside a false and superficial interpretation of this fundamental notion: active participation cannot consist in assigning exterior activities in the liturgy to all the faithful gathered for the eucharistic celebration.... How one could have mistakenly read a rejection of the dispositions of the Council in my criticism of superficial interpretations of active participation and in my attempt to confer on it a deeper and ultimately more concrete modality, remains a mystery to me.
Second, Cardinal Ratzinger expresses his pleasure that Fr. Gy insists on fidelity to liturgical rules, assuring him that they are of one mind on the question. Yet he notes that such is not the attitude of a considerable portion of liturgists these days. Liturgical anarchy, he says, constitutes the principle obstacle to a general and positive reception of the missal of Paul VI: "The liturgy is often so different from one parish to another, that the common missal is scarecely visibiel anymore."

Third, Ratzinger writes
It is true that Paul VI approved the missal published in 1970 in forma specifica, and I hold to it with an inner conviction, even if I regret certain deficiencies and do not consider each of the decisions made the best possible. I should prefer, on this point, not to get into the question how far, in the preparation of the missal, the wishes of the pope were truly sought out and maintained in detail. That is a matter for future historians to resolve, once all the material is available.... Why did the Pope withdraw his confidence from Bugnini in the end and remove him from the work on the liturgy? That must certainly remain an open question. Questions like it naturally change nothing in the obligatory character of the missal, and I could wish, as I have said, that all liturgists should bring to this matter the seriousness it deserves. But that the impression should arise as a consequence that nothing in this missal must ever be changed, as if any reflection on possible later reforms were necessarily and attack ont he Council -- such an idea I can only call absurd. ... a cardinal of the Roman curia, since deceased, an iminent man, completely involved in the conciliar reform, told me personally that one day he had asked Bugnini about the longevity that he attributed to "his missal." Bugnini answered that he estimate it at approximately twenty or thirty years. On this point, I am altogether decidedly in disagreement with Bugnini: a missal is not a book good for only 20 or 30 years; rather it is situated in the great continuity of the history of the liturgy, in which there is always growth and purification, but not rupture.
Fourth, on the question of the ad orientem direction of the liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger says that he finds Fr. Gy's statements "inconceivable." Gy's suggestion "that the question of 'orientation' is valid only for the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin I find utterly incomprehensible." Moreover, in his summary of his own position, Ratzinger states "that the great tradition of 'orientation,' the act of turning toward the 'Orient' as the image of the return of Christ, in no way requires that all altars must once again be reversed and that the priest's place be changed as a consequence. On the contrary, one can satisfy the internal requirements of this apostolic tradition without undertaking great external transformations, by arranging things such that the Cross ... should be the common focal point of the priest and the faithful - such that it is placed in the middle of the altar, and not to the side." He adds that none of his critics has yet told him why this very simple idea of the Cross as the focal point of the liturgy is false.

Fifth, in response to the observation that he is not a liturgest and therefore lacks adequate training in the subject, Cardinal Ratzinger responds that non of the great fathers of the liturgical renewal -- Guardini, Jungmann, Bouyer, Vagaggini, etc. -- was originally a liturgist; and "this was so quite simply because this discipline did not yet exist at the time. Hence, such criticisms, he suggests, are superficial and without value.

In closing, Cardinal Ratzinger adds a final remark:
Father Gy's declaration that the meeting at Fontgombault was a gathering of traditionalists irritated me. In reality, the invitees were only well-known persons who clearly accept the Second Vatican Council -- in continuity with the history of the Church -- and who represent at the same time quite diverse orientations. The question being raised, which really is one of pastoral significance, was how liturgical reconciliation, and hence a fuller acceptance of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, could be achieved. I am reluctant to label as traditionalist all those who are not in agreement with the current mainstream of liturgists, and to raise to the level of an obligation a uniformity of thought that cannot be reconciled with the breadth of the conciliar reform. Such partisan labels are contrary to the dialogue that we must all strive to conduct today, and to which the present attempt at dialogue with Father Gy hopes to make a modest contribution.
Of related interest:
Alcuin Reid, ed., Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy With Cardinal Ratzinger: Proceedings of the July 2001 Fontgombault Liturgical Conference (St. Augustine's Press, 2004).
[Hat tip to Prof. E.E.]

Monday, March 10, 2008

Is God's Love Unconditional?

By Carmelo Fallace

Is it true that, as many a modern homilist is wont to say, "God's love is unconditional"? It is true without question that the love of God, as stated in the Old and New Testaments, is rich, it abounds, it fills the earth, is unfailing, is faithful, is steadfast, it endures forever, is great, is higher than the Heavens, it surpasses knowledge, is better than life, etc. It is comforting and reassuring to hope that God's love is unconditional -- and it must be true, otherwise, many priests and homilists wouldn't say so. Right?

Let us begin our inquiry by defining our terms. According to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, "unconditional" means not conditional or not limited, but absolute, unqualified. When we add the word "love" to unconditional, it becomes, by definition, love with no conditions, now and forever more. Accordingly then, "unconditional love" means that no matter what we do or don't do, we will continue to be loved in exactly the same way. In other words, unconditional love means, as far as God is concerned, that whatever we do -- good or bad -- does not matter, and we can expect God to love us the same as He always has.

Many claim that "unconditional love," or something similar, has a biblical basis, that it is written or implied in the Bible, or perhaps in some other Church document. But of the more than 800 instances of "love" in the Bible, none states or implies that God's love is unconditional. Furthermore, there is no official Church document that uses the word "unconditional" to describe God's love. There must be some mistake! some might demur. How could this be? Yes, there has been an enormous mistake, but it is not in the Bible or Church documents. The real mistake regarding unconditional love has been made by those dissenting and rebellious teachers who try to appear more loving and compassionate than God and His Church. And these imposters have succeeded in attracting good Catholics to follow them into a fantasy world where the only reward is endless misery in the deepest furnace below.

If there is any doubt, ask anyone who spreads this false teaching to show you the evidence that God's love is unconditional, chapter and verse, please -- or to provide the proper citation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or any other official Church document. But do not take anyone's word for it. Neither be deceived by the argument that such-and-such a book explains God's unconditional love in detail. False beliefs have been used by God's enemies since the time of the Apostles, and have usually, if not always, originated from Catholic people, often from priests and even bishops. Recall the words of St. Paul: "There are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!" (Gal. 1:7-9).

Let us look at what God loves, then at what He does not love. According to Scripture, God loves:
- His servants who are faithful (1 Kgs. 8:23)
- Those who trust in Him (Ps. 32:10)
- Justice (Ps. 37:28)
- The righteous (Ps. 146:8)
- He who pursues righteousness (Prov. 15:9)
- Those who love Him (Dan. 9:4)
- Those who keep His commandments (Dan. 9:4)
- His Son Jesus (Mt. 3:17)
- Those who show their love for Jesus is genuine by obeying His teachings (Jn. 14:21-23)
- His sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5)
- A cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7)
- Those for whom He gave up His life as a sacrificial offering (Eph. 5:2)
- His children who act in righteousness and love their brothers (1 Jn. 3:1,10)
- Those who have been called (Jude 1:1)
- Those kept safe for Jesus Christ (Jude 1:1)
- Those He has freed from sin by His blood (Rev. 1:5)
- Those He has made priests for His Kingdom (Rev. 1:6)
- Those He reproves and chastens (Rev. 3:19)
Instead of mentioning so many different qualifiers, why does the Bible not say that God loves everyone, regardless of what they have said or done? The reason, it seems, that God did not make such a blanket statement is because He does not love everyone -- precisely because of what they have said or done. If Scripture had made only a blanket statement, that could possibly indicate that God's love is unconditional. Unfortunately, for all of us, the whole truth is that nowhere does the Bible state as much, or anything close to it.

Now, let us examine what God does not love. The Bible has 137 references to hate, but we will use only those pertaining to our discussion of the things God hates. For example:
- Wickedness (Heb. 1:9)
- Seeing His people worship other gods (Jer. 44:3-4)
- The burning of sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to gods (Deut. 12:31)
- Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, false witnesses, a man who stirs up dissensions (Prov. 6:16-19)
- He who plots evil against his neighbor and he who swears falsely (Zec. 8:17)
- Robbery and iniquity (Is. 61:8)
- Divorce (Mal. 2:16; see also Mt. 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Lk. 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11)
- The practices of the Nicolaitans (imposters) (Rev. 2:6)
- Esau (Mal. 1:3; Rom. 9:13)
- The wicked person and all who do evil (Ps. 5:5)
- Those who love violence (Ps. 11:5)
It may astound some to learn that the "God of love" hates some people for any number of good reasons. But does God ever love someone today and hate him tomorrow? Again, let us look at Scripture. In Jeremiah 16:5, God says, "I have withdrawn my blessing, my love, and my pity from this people." In Hosea 1:6, the Lord says, "I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them." Again, in Hosea 9:15, "Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious."

And, in 1 Samuel, although King Saul had been anointed by God, when Saul disobeyed Him, God took away His love from Saul, and he died ignominiously by his own hand on the battlefield.

So, what does all this mean to us today? It means the same as it has always meant, that God says to us, Here is what I expect of you, and in return, here is what I will give to you. If we fulfill our part of the contract, He will fulfill His. That condition includes God's mercy for us, as He says, "You shall therefore carefully observe the commandments, the statutes and the decrees which I enjoin on you today. As your reward for heeding these decrees and observing them carefully, the Lord, your God, will keep with you the merciful covenant which he promised on oath to your fathers" (Deut. 7:11-12).

But, one might argue, doesn't St. Paul state that nothing can separate us from the love of God? St. Paul says, "What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?… No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 37-39).

Paul here lists the things that cannot separate us from God's love. But is there anything or anyone that can separate us from the love of God? Yes. Only we, as individuals, can separate ourselves from God! Even God will not interfere with our choices -- though our choices may take us to Hell. It is true that God respects our choices, but His Law says that for every action by us, there is a reaction from Him, as history and Scripture indicate. We can restore God's love only by repentance and conversion to His ways. As Jesus said, "As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in His love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete" (Jn. 15:9-12; italics added).

St. Jude echoes this: "Keep yourselves in God's love" (1:21-23). St. Jude reminds us that God's love is assured if we obey His commandments. Of course, everyone of good will hopes that our joy will be complete some day, but it cannot happen without observing God's commandments -- that is the condition for His eternal love.

Therefore, when we go astray and sin, we must repent sooner rather than later, make use of the Sacrament of Confession, and then, if we are truly repentant, He will forgive our sins, for St. John says, "If we acknowledge our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make Him [Jesus] a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:9-10).

He will always forgive us, if we are repentant. Only the God of love can do that for those who have chosen to be His people.

The Long Island Catholic, the official paper of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., published a column by Msgr. James McNamara (March 28, 2007), in which the phrase "unconditional love" was used several times. I responded to Msgr. McNamara's column in a letter to the editor (April 4, 2007), challenging him to provide the biblical or other official Church reference indicating that God's love is unconditional. Amazingly, Msgr. McNamara responded in the same issue that "…The writer [Mr. Fallace] is correct," and repentance is required to be forgiven by God. Nevertheless, Msgr. McNamara still insisted that "God's love is unconditional." But is repentance not itself a condition?

God's love is conditional upon the following of His commandments. When we fail, God may withdraw His love from us. But we may restore God's love only by repentance. Is not repentance what Satan and his devils refused to do? Will He not be as just with us for our lack of repentance? He will demand true repentance on our part for every sin we have committed.

God's love, then, should be considered conditional upon repentance. What follows is a partial list that should be more than enough to confirm that God insists on our repentance before He forgives us, and that we must ask for it each time we sin and before we die:
- "People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him [John the Baptist] and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins" (Mk. 1:5)
- Jesus said, "But I tell you, if you do not repent, you too will all perish" (Lk. 13:3)
- St. Peter said, "Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19)
- "You overlook the sins of men that they may repent" (Wisd. 11:24)
- St. Paul said, "I preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance" (Acts 26:20)
- "For it is written: 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then each of us shall give an account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:11-12)
- "No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account" (Heb. 4:13)
If the "unconditional love of God" is a fallacy, why do so many clergy and laity seem eager to proclaim it? That they persist in proclaiming something contrary to Church teaching could indicate a heretical or rebellious attitude on their part. Such attitudes can be very dangerous to these people and to those who hear them proclaim mistaken religious beliefs. God has said, "If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he [the wicked man] shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself" (Ezek. 33:8-9).

Jesus Christ reiterated this when He said, "Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him" (Lk. 17:1-3; italics added).

So God's love is not unconditional. If God's love were unconditional, there would be no Hell and all the unrepentant sinners, no matter how evil, would go to Heaven. So, what is God's love if it's not unconditional? It is covenantal. This means that if we want to continue to experience His love, we have to meet His conditions. God's love is eternal, it is constant, but He makes it absolutely clear what He loves and what He hates, and whom He loves and whom He hates. That God's love is unconditional is a modern deception invented by the devil; it is designed to blur our vision so that we can join him in the underworld.

As individuals we have to choose one of two options. Either we choose to accept, follow, and obey the god of the modern secular culture, or we choose to accept, follow, and obey the God of the Bible as taught by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Are these not the only two choices in life?

In paragraph 33 of Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis ("The Sacrament of Love," Feb. 22, 2007), he explains very clearly that "Mary of Nazareth appears as someone whose freedom is completely open to God's will. Her immaculate conception is revealed precisely in her unconditional docility to God's word. Obedient faith in response to God's word shapes her life at every moment…. She is the Immaculata, who receives God's gift unconditionally and is thus associated with his work of salvation. Mary of Nazareth, icon of the nascent Church, is the model for each of us, called to receive the gift that Jesus makes of himself in the Eucharist" (#33).

On February 2, 2007, Pope Benedict addressed the 11th annual World Day of Consecrated Life. His speech included a passage on unconditional love and its application: "Consecrated life, therefore, is by its nature a total and definitive, unconditional and passionate response to God."

The Pope has indicated the proper use of the word "unconditional": Unconditional love is the relationship we must have toward God -- not God toward us. Furthermore, because He is the Creator and we are the created, we are His servants and He is our Master -- and He owes us nothing.

Let us pray for our proper response to God's love: O God our Father, let our Christian hope to be with You in Heaven open our minds, decrease our pride, and encourage us to obey Your will. Help us to follow the example of Mary who finished the race and won the prize of Your true love. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

[Carmelo Fallace, the author of several books on family life issues and past director of Natural Family Planning and associate director of Marriage Preparation for the Archdiocese of New York, is the Editor of Catholic Family Life Messenger (CFLM), from which this article was adapted with permission (April-May 2007). To receive CFLM free of charge, write to CFLM, PO Box 115, Lake Grove NY 11755, or visit He is coordinator of the independent New Oxford Reading Clubs (for information, phone 631-588-7495). He and his wife have seven children and 20 grandchildren. The present article was originally published in the New Oxford Review (February 2008), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Crisis of Meaning in the Sign of Peace

by Michael Foley

The rite of peace, which was restored to all Masses in the 1970 Missal, has fallen onto hard times. Though some Catholics wholeheartedly praise it as the "highpoint of the Mass" (as one of my priest friends has been told several times by his parishioners), others view the matter differently. The 2005 Eucharistic Synod worries that the greeting has assumed "a dimension that could be problematic," as "when it is too prolonged" or "causes confusion."1 In Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the peace becoming "exaggerated" by emotion and causing "a certain distraction" before Holy Communion.2 Consequently, the Supreme Pontiff not only calls for "greater restraint" in the gesture of peace but has even raised the question as to whether it should be moved to another part of the Mass.3

How could such an ostensibly bright hallmark of the new liturgy become the object of such abuse? To answer this, we must reexamine the unique but all to hidden meaning of the kiss of peace in the Roman rite.

The Holy Kiss

The "holy kiss," as Saint Paul calls it,4 has almost always been an important component of the Mass. Originally the kiss--which was a full, lip-on-lip act--was given to members of the same and opposite sex; but by the late second century Church Fathers like Clement of Alexandria were complaining that a lascivious element between men and women was creeping into the proceedings. This problem was solved by segregating the sexes to different sides of the nave, a practice that was till being recommended as late as the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

[Pope Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at Ravenna, December, 2007]

Similarly, like most other kinds of kissing, the liturgical kiss was seen as a very intimate gesture, the kind of thing one would only do within one's family. Hence, the kiss was not given to "non-family members" such as heretics or catechumens. This principle was relatively easy to osbserve, since the early Church dismissed non-initiates after the homily, before the kiss was given.

The kiss remained a vital part of the liturgy until the mid-1200s, when it began to fall into disuse, and no one is certain why. The Church tried to sustain the rite by using a paten-like object called a pax-brede. This object, which can to this day still be used even at a Low Mass, is kissed by the priest, then the servers, then the laity, in order of rank. Eventually--perhaps because of disputes within the laity over who outranked whom--the pax-brede was restricted to the most notable dignitaries present, as we see in the 1962 rubrics.

* * * * * * *
By the time Pope Saint Pius V codified the Missal, actual kissing was no longer a part of it. The giver of the peace placed his hands on the recipient's shoulders and leaned forward towards his left cheek saying Pax tecum, to which the recipient replied, Et cum spiritu tuo.

* * * * * * *

The ritual kiss remained as well, though the laity ceased taking part in it and it remained limited to Solemn High Masses. It also underwent a gradual modification. By the time Pope Saint Pius V codified the Missal, actual kissing was no longer a part of it. The giver of the peace placed his hands on the recipient's shoulders and leaned forward towards his left cheek saying Pax tecum, to which the recipient replied, Et cum spiritu tuo. The rubrics state that the cheeks of giver and recipient should "lightly touch," though rubricians interpreted this as "a moral, not a physical touch"!5

While the Tridentine kiss may seem a bit rarified, it nevertheless maintains the phenomenology of a kiss while circumventing all of a kiss's potential drawbacks, such as the moral dangers of untoward eros or the legitimate concern for physical hygiene. Indeed, the word "accolade," which originally meant either an embrace or a kiss marking the bestowal of knighthood, comes from the Latin ad collum, "to the neck," because the act of falling on someone's neck betokens a kiss. (Note how the father kisses his prodigal son [Luke 15:20]). This is important, for in preserving the kiss's form, the Roman peace was still able to evince the rich tradition from which it was derived.

Moreover, the Tridentine pax preserved an already centuries-old tradition of ordered administration. In the 1962 Missal the priest kisses the altar near the Host (earlier rubrics have him kissing the Host itself) and then "kisses" the deacon who in turn "kisses" the subdeacon and so on. No one can give the peace who has not received it from someone else, including the priest, who has received it from Christ Himself.

* * * * * * *
The symbolism is both beautiful and clear. All true peace comes from Christ through the ministration of His Church. Grace cascades from the Eucharist through Christ's ministers to His people, forming what one author has called a "chain of love" that both binds and elevates.

* * * * * * *

The symbolism is both beautiful and clear. All true peace comes from Christ through the ministration of His Church. Grace cascades from the Eucharist through Christ's ministers to His people, forming what one author has called a "chain of love" that both binds and elevates. This is further echoed in the etiquette governing the ritual. While it is common in the Tridentine rite to bow to one's ecclesiastical superior at incensations, one does not acknowledge the rank of the peace-giver before it is administered, for, as the rubrics put it, "there is consideration not for the minister bringing it but for the Peace [itself]."6

Placing the Kiss

Another important feature of the kiss in the early Church is that there were two different places where it was given. All Eastern rites and several Western rites placed the kiss somewhere around the Offertory, while the churches in Rome and North Africa placed it after the Consecration. This divergence has caused considerable confusion among liturgists, some of whom see the Roman and North African usage as an unwarranted departure from apostolic times. The kiss of peace, they claim, is inspired by our Lord's admonition to "be reconciled to thy brother" before offering "thy gift at the altar" (Mt. 5:23-24), and hence the Roman rite should, following the example of the East, have the kiss at the Offertory.

The Paschal Kiss

What these authors overlook, however, is that there is not one theological rationale undergirding the kiss but two. While the Eastern kiss, which we may call the "conciliatory kiss," is indeed grounded in Matthew 5:23-24, the Roman kiss, which we may label the "Paschal kiss," takes its bearing not from the Sermon on the Mount but from the Paschal mystery stretching from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. That Paschal kiss has at least four distinct meanings.


First and foremost, the Roman kiss not only betokens peace but confers it. The kiss was seen not as a "sign of peace" or even the sign of peace--it was peace. The Roman liturgical books simply refer to the kiss as the pax. While this may certainly include reconciliation and forgiveness, the peace itself, as the 2004 Redemptionis Sacramentum explicitly states, is not done primarily for this reason.7

The Risen Christ

Second, the Paschal kiss symbolizes the Paschal Lamb, the resurrected and glorified Christ. In Saint John's Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to the Apostles and, after saying "Peace be with you," breathes the Holy Spirit upon them, a breath that gives them the power to forgive sins (John 20:20-23). Though the Latin Fathers rightly interpreted this passage as the institution of the sacrament of Penance, they also saw Christ's communication of the Holy Spirit through His breath as a kind of kiss. Hence the whole scene is redolent of the kiss of peace.

Similarly, in the story of the disciples of Emmaus, the Risen Lord meets two men, explains the Scriptures to them, and is recognized by them only in the breaking of the bread. Significantly, the text does not state that they went on to eat but that they raced back go Jerusalem to tell the Apostles, and that when they were describing what had happened, Jesus stood in their midst and said, "Peace be to you" (Luke 24:35-36). The story then ends by stating that Christ, to prove that He was not a ghost, ate some food and gave it to the others to eat. In other words, the Emmaus Resurrection story recapitulates the traditional Roman order of the Mass, from the Mass of the catechumens to the fractio panis to the rite of peace to the communion rite.

* * * * * * *
The Roman kiss, which we may label the "Paschal kiss," takes its bearing not from the Sermon on the Mount but from the Paschal mystery stretching from the Last Supper to the Resurrection.

* * * * * * *

The traditional allegorical interpretations of the Mass are also telling in this regard. Just as the Canon was seen to signify not simply the Last Supper but the various stages of our Lord's Passion, the kiss of peace was tied to the glory of the first Easter Sunday. "Peace be with you," as Saint Thomas Aquinas notes, is our Lord's signature greeting only after rising from the dead, and thus he interprets the three signs of the Cross the priest makes when saying "May the peace of the Lord be ever with you" as a mystical representation of the Ressurection on the third day.8

Moreover, in the traditional Roman rite the breaking of the Host and the subsequent dropping of a Particle into the Chalice take place immediately before the peace. The medieval doctors were quick to see in the fractio panis "the rending of Christ's body" during the Passion9 or the separation of His soul and body at the moment of His death. Similarly, they noted how the commingling of the Species aptly signifies the Resurrection, for the commingling of the sacred Body and Blood calls to mind the Easter reunion of all that had been sundered on Good Friday.10

The Holy Spirit

Third, drawing from John 20:23, the pax represents the breath of the Holy Spirit. In a particularly charming sermon, Saint Augustine expatiates about how the tender kisses of doves, symbols of the Holy Ghost, are examples of how Christians should administer the Paschal kiss, the he contrasts their chaste necking with the unkind kisses of ravens, who purportedly lacerate each other when they engage in osculation.

Chilling Counter-example

Fourth, the allegedly nasty way that ravens smooch was also for Augustine the perfect emblem for Judas Iscariot's notorious greeting to our Lord in Gethsemane. The irony that Christ was betrayed by the same sign that is paradigmatic of peace and fraternal charity was not lost on the Church Fathers, and thus the Judas kiss served as a chilling reminder of the grave danger of hypocrisy. It is for this reason that the kiss of peace is not given on Maundy Thursday in the Traditional rite, as the bitter aftertaste of the traitor's kiss is too fresh, too vivid, for those who take seriously the kiss of peace.


Finally, as Aquinas notes, the Paschal kiss helps us prepare for Holy Communion (III.83). This might sound odd given that today it is held in suspicion precisely because it seems to distract m ore than prepare, but this may have less to do with its placement than with the way it is currently observed.

[At the Episcopal Ordination and Installation of H.L. Bishop Camillo Ballin as Vicar Apostolic of Kuwait, Sept. 2, 2005, the newly ordained Bishop sets aside his staff and receives the kiss of peace from Bishop Francis Micallef, the retiring Vicar Apostolic of Kuwait, Archbishop Giuseppe De Andrea, the retiring Apostolic Nuncio to Kuwait, the other participating Bishops and all the members of the clergy present.]
In sum, these various meanings illustrate how the Roman kiss is a Paschal kiss, a kiss that flows from the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ rather than from His Sermon on the Mount. While this in no way depreciates the value of the Eastern conciliatory kiss, it does suggest that the two traditions are not interchangeable.

Peace in the New Missal

Vatican II's Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy does not mention the kiss of peace, though it robustly affirms the Mass as "a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet" (47), characterizations which elide nicely with the symbolic meanings of the pax we have been exploring.

Rather than restore the traditional Paschal kiss to those outside the sanctuary, however, the 1970 Novus Ordo mandates a different arrangement. The priest now says to the people: "Offer the peace to yourselves."11 The following is then supposed to happen: "And all signify to each other peace and charity, in accordance with local custom. The priest gives the peace to the deacon or server."12

By mentioning the priest's actions after those of the people, the new rubrics do not presuppose a causal relationship between the two. No longer is there expected a hierarchical cascading of peace from the embty tomb that is the high altar; rather, in insctucting the congregation to offer the peace to each other, there is a more or less spontaneous eruption of peace in the pews.

* * * * * * *
It is now more difficult to trace the link between the risen Eucharistic Christ and the peace He diffuses to His Churc, for the "chain of love" has ceased to be visible. The vertical mediation of Christ's peace has been replaced by horizontal immediacy.

* * * * * * *

Even aside from the excess that Pope Benedict laments have come from this arrangement, it is now more difficult to trace the link between the risen Eucharistic Christ and the peace He diffuses to His Churc, for the "chain of love" has ceased to be visible. The vertical mediation of Christ's peace has been replaced by horizontal immediacy. It is therefore not surprising that contemporary liturgiology has tended to emphasize the conciliatory function of the peace, thus conflating the two traditions.

Further complicating the new pax is the decision to let its gesture be determined by local custom.13 In many respects this is not unreasonable, for there are several places that associate public kisses with lewdness.14 Yet as we have already seen, what became the Roman form of the kiss can hardly be considered lascivious by even the most prudish culture, since not even the cheeks of the participants touch.

In America, the form that quickly came to dominate is the handshake. Again, prima facie this is not an unreasonable choice: as an indication that one is unarmed, the handshake is certainly as sign of peace. Unfortunately, though, it is a better sign of the peace that comes from the city of man rather than from the city of God. Handshaking signifies a truce or deal, the kind of agreement one makes in politics and business. It is not primarily a sign of love or intimacy. Indeed, unlike the kiss and every other sacred gesture, it has undergone no modification that would mark it as distinctive from the "profane" handshakes outside the liturgy, and thus it essentially retains its wordly resonance.

Moreover, a handshake is not a kiss in any form, and hence its liturgical use marks a break not only from a previously unbroken apostolic custom but from the rich cluster of meanings that came with it. It is for these reasons that a more pugnacious commentator than I might be tempted to conclude that regrettably, the current Roman kiss of peace is neither Roman nor a kiss nor about Christian peace.


It will be interesting to see whether in this post Motu Proprio era the kiss in the extraordinary form will ever be shared again with the laity or if the pax-brede will make a comeback. On the other hand, the crisis in the ordinary form appears to require a swifter return to tradition. Re-embracing the Paschal meaning of the Roman rite of peace could considerably enhance the Novus Ordo, just as replacing the horizontally spantaneous handshake with the hierarchically mediated accolade would recapture not only a sense of emotional restrain and gracefulness but a powerful theology of the Paschal mystery. Indeed, helping the new Mass rediscover rather than reinvent the kiss could be one of the traditional rite's greatest gifts to it, and thus it would contribute to the Holy Father's goal of the two missals "mutually enriching" each other.15 How sweet a kiss that would be.


  1. Propositio 23. [back]

  2. Par. 49. [back]

  3. Fn. 150. [back]

  4. Cf. Rom. 16:16; I Cor. 16:20; II Cor. 13:12; I thess. 5:26. [back]

  5. J.B. O'Connell, The Celebration of the Mass, p. 499, fn. 11. The rubrics are to be found in Caeremoniale Episcoporum II.viii.75. [back]

  6. Caeremoniale Episcoporum, I.xxix.8, trans. mine. [back]

  7. No. 71. [back]

  8. ST 3. [back]

  9. ST 7. [back]

  10. Therefore, it is reasonable that the kiss of peace, which represents the fruits of the Resurrection, follow that part of the Mass which mystically signifies the Resurrection itself. [back]

  11. This is my very literal translation of the Latin, Offerte vobis pacem. [back]

  12. Trans. mine. [back]

  13. No. 82 of the new GIRM also states that the particular sign must be determined by the Conference of Bishops. To my knowledge this has never been done in the U.S. [back]

  14. Actor Richard Gere found this out the hard way when in April 2007 he kissed an Indian actress on the cheek during a fundraiser in her homeland and was immediately burned in effigy by angry mobs in Bombay ("Gere Kiss Sparks India Protests," BBC News, 16 April 2007). [back]

  15. From the letter to the bishops accompanying Summorum Pontificum. [back]

[Dr. Michael P. Foley is a professor of Patristics at Baylor University and the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday? The Catholic Origin to Just About Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The present article, "A Crisis of Meaning in the Sign of Peace," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Advent/Christmas 2007), pp. 36-39, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]