Review: "The Church in the Modern World" Part II

Friday, I began my review of a new book by three Creghton University theology professors – Michael Lawler, Todd Salzman and Eileen Burke-Sullivan entitled The Church in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes Then and Now.

The final subsection of their important and fine chapter on “The Ecclesiological Focus of Gaudium et Spes” treats the subject of the preferential option for the poor. This is especially important for understanding Pope Francis. They write:

Service in union with Jesus’ mission and empowered by Christ’s Spirit has to be rendered in accord with the manner of the One in whose name it is given – that is, with the generosity of a God who humbled the Divine Self to become human among the ranks of the poorest citizens of a conquered and oppressed nation.

The Social Doctrine of the Church is not an “add-on” for do-gooders. It flows from the example of, indeed from the very Self, of Jesus of Nazareth, and of the Triune God whom Jesus reveals, a point well made by Meghan Clark in her new book The Vision of Catholic Social Thought which I reviewed here at NCR last month. For those who hear the Social Doctrine and immediately start trying to hide behind “prudential judgment” and to draw a distinction between non-negotiable teachings on human sexuality and negotiable teachings on social justice, Gaudium et Spes is an insuperable obstacle and the pontificate of Pope Francis is making that obvious for all with eyes to see.

I said in the first part of this review that this book is important and timely, but also evidences a certain bias and that the text is uneven. The unevenness emerges in the third chapter when the authors address issues of theological epistemology. Much of their discussion is very fine. They are right that a casual, and even a not so casual, observer of recent years might think that there are only two types of ethical perspective in the world, moral relativism and the acceptance of divinely ordained moral norms. In fact, it is more complicated than that. They call attention to a fine essay by Joseph Komonchak which delineated two broad approaches to ethics that emerged at the Council, the neo-Augustinian perspective that emphasized eternal, unchanging truths, and the historically conscious neo-Thomist position. The conciliar documents evidence both tendencies in different parts but the neo-Thomist position is undoubtedly the dominant one. Interestingly, although the authors do not note it, there is the large, dare I say Augustinian, adverb “only” at the beginning of Gaudium et Spes 22  - “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.”- which happens to be the most frequently cited paragraph of the text in post-conciliar magisterial teaching. But, Komonchak’s analytical device, like all such devices, can be overused and my problem with this book is that they return to this contrast between neo-Augustinian and neo-Thomist so frequently, and with so little nuance, still less an exception, that you wonder where the editor was. A similar observation can be made about their employing the adjective “tortuous” to describe some of the debates at Vatican II: They use that adjective so many times it is, well, tortuous for the reader.

But, the deeper difficulty, the bias, comes when they examine Lonergan’s perspectivism. I am actually sympathetic to Lonergan’s theory that, in short, all of our intellectual claims are partial because our human perspective is partial, but that partiality is not the same thing as relativism. The authors use an example, again repeatedly, to make the point: Two people looking out of the same skyscraper will have vastly different perspectives if on is on the tenth floor and the other is on the fortieth floor. True enough. But, is it not also the case that the thing(s) they are looking at have a reality of their own. To the person on the lower floor, the tree may loom large and to the person on the fortieth floor it may appear puny. But, with further investigation, we can determine the truth of how large the tree is. And, all the time we are looking at the tree, making it the object of our knowledge, making it “the known,” the tree is still busy being a tree and performing photosynthesis. Yet, in their discussion of these important epistemological concerns, it seems that the weight is always on the perspectivist foot which usually happens to be the left foot. The chapter is fine, but to get a truer picture of the state of post-conciliar ethical considerations, it would need to be balanced by a more conservative presentation.

A similar bias attaches itself to their discussion of artificial birth control and, especially, the post-conciliar development of that teaching. Again, their treatment is useful, explaining the pre-conciliar teachings that began ranking the “ends” of marriage, with procreation in first place. The Council adopted the stance that saw no need to rank the ends of marriage, noting that it is ordered towards the well being of the spouses and towards procreation. This was an important step away from any biological reductionism in Catholic ethics. The authors note that first Pope John XXIII and then Pope Paul VI reserved the issue to themselves, and specifically to a committee to study the matter. The committee eventually recommended allowing the use of artificial birth control in some instances, but Pope Paul VI kept the ban in place. The authors appear greatly aggrieved. Surely, he should have listened to the theologians. But, you can’t, per se, use the fact that a consultative process was employed, over a long period of time, and then fault the decision-maker for reaching a different conclusion than the majority of those consulted. Would they have been happier if he had just thought on the issue on his own? Do they fault President Kennedy for overruling his advisors during the Cuban Missile Crisis, most of whom wanted a preemptive strike that would have led to World War III? The process used tells us nothing about the truth of the decision reached. And, the process was always, and was understood to be, consultative. I found their treatment of the matter overwrought, another instance of putting all the weight on one foot.

Chapter Five – “Being Christi-ian and the Service of Love and Justice” - crosses the line from bias into a bit of foolishness. First, there is that second word in the title, which is repeated throughout the chapter, “Christ-ian,” about which the authors state in a footnote, “We are fully aware of the contrived nature of the word. We use it throughout to underscore the demand made on those who say they are followers of the Chirst to live a life like Christ, a life that acknowledges reciprocation between God and the poor and excluded, and act accordingly.” Once, okay, but throughout? That is just jargon. The word “underside” is similarly deployed in a clumsy manner to describe those who are poor and excluded. Words should strengthen an argument, not call attention away from it. This desire for trendiness is one of my principal beefs with contemporary academic theologians – and with the academy more broadly.

But, there is worse. The authors write: “The theologians who have most detailed the connection between ritual Eucharist, ecclesial communion, and communional Christ-ian life are liberation theologians.” That is quite a claim and I imagine the writers at Communio would beg to differ and they would be right to beg to differ. Many of the arguments in this chapter are fine, but the whole would have been better is the authors had been more restrained in their language and their tilt.  

Overall, this is a good book, and a comprehensive one, even though I have not even mentioned all the chapters. I would not use it in a classroom or parish discussion group unless it was balanced with a more conservative presentation: In an educational setting, it is never right to give only one side of the story. This book desperately needed some editing. But, for someone who is more years away than I care to admit from the days when I studied the texts of Vatican II in seminary, I found myself getting excited again about the history and the content of this important and even seminal document. And that, for me at least, is one of the marks of a good book - it gets the reader excited again. With the cautions noted, I recommend it highly. 





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