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Revolution in the Church

Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem

by Hans Küng, translated by Edward Quinn
Doubleday, 272 pp., $15.95

The dismantling of traditional Roman Catholic theology, by Catholics themselves, is by now a fait accompli. In their most vigorous intellectual renaissance since the high Middle Ages, Catholic theologians and exegetes have awakened from a long hibernation and in scarcely two decades have marshaled the most advanced scriptural scholarship—until recently the work mainly of Protestants—and put it at the service of a radical rethinking of their faith. The consequences for the Catholic Church as it approaches its third millennium are both immensely promising and, for some, deeply disturbing.

The emergence of a radically new Catholic theology founded on modern exegesis of the Bible has altered the intellectual topography of what was, until a few years ago, a serene and uniform field. In Roman Catholic seminaries, for example, it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the divine or messianic claims the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.

This kind of whittling away at belief in the divinity of Jesus is scarcely new. It reaches back at least to the last century when liberal Protestants like Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack tried to strip away what they thought were the Church’s divinizing embellishments so as to arrive at the real Jesus of history.

But the surprising thing today is that the scholars who are advancing the re-evaluation of Jesus are neither atheists who attack the Church from without nor liberal Protestants of the nineteenth century who would reduce Jesus’ message to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man nor advocates of Rudolf Bultmann’s skepticism about Jesus’ life and self-understanding. Rather, these scholars are Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians, most of them priests, faithfully ensconced at the heart of their infallible Church.

A few of them, like Hans Kung, have had their wrists slapped. In 1979 the Pope removed him from his chair of Catholic theology at Tübingen, but he was not excommunicated and continues to teach theology there. Others are circumspect about what they say outside professional journals. But the fact remains that a new and revolutionary approach dominates Catholic theology today, even if the folk religion of most practicing Catholics still lives on the prerevolutionary fare that generally is served up from their local pulpits and especially from the one currently occupied by the conservative Pope John Paul II.

How did the change in Catholic theology and exegesis come about? The origins of the recent revolution in Biblical studies reach back to September 30, 1943, when Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu. The document, which is the Magna Carta of modern Catholic exegesis, gave scripture scholars permission to employ contemporary scientific methods in their work, thereby ending four decades of strictly enforced conservatism in Biblical matters. The encyclical, for example, put the first dent in the pre-Copernican decrees issued by the Pontifical Biblical Commission at the beginning of the century in an effort to halt what Rome thought was a much too modern reading of the Bible.

Between 1905 and 1915 the Biblical Commission published a series of rulings that obliged Catholic scholars to hold to the literal and historical truth of the Biblical stories that Eve had been formed from Adam, that the human race had descended from one couple, that there had been a prelapsarian Garden of Eden, and that the devil had tempted the first woman in the physical form of a snake. All this followed from the notion that the Bible was inspired word for word by God. The point is captured by Caravaggio’s painting of Saint Matthew in the Church of San Luigi in Rome, where the evangelist is portrayed, quill in hand and ear cocked into the distance, as he takes dictation from the Beyond. If the scriptures were verbally inspired and therefore inerrant, they had to be taken literally in every detail as God’s revelation of eternal truth in propositional form.1

Scholarly freedom in Biblical exegesis was reconfirmed during the Second Vatican Council and was extended to sensitive questions of New Testament research. During 1964 and 1965 the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the assembled hierarchy went on record that the Gospels were not exact historical records or eye-witness accounts of what Jesus had said and done, but products of second and third generation believers whose commitment of faith colored their memory of Jesus. The Vatican Council also permitted Catholic exegetes to work with their non-Catholic counterparts in the scientific investigation of the scriptures, thereby ending a longstanding anathema of Protestant higher criticism that had been summed up in the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (1893):

The sense of Holy Scripture can nowhere be found incorrupt outside the [Catholic] Church and cannot be expected to be found in writers who, being without true faith, only gnaw the bark of Sacred Scripture and never attain its pith.2

With the doors now unbarred (before 1965 Catholic seminarians were not allowed to read Protestant theologians without special permission), Catholic scholars openly joined those outside the Roman Church in investigating the Bible with the best exegetical tools on hand. These include “form criticism,” the study of the early oral traditions underlying the New Testament, and “redaction criticism,” which sorts out the differing theological conceptions the evangelists used in reshaping earlier material into their Gospels. As the evolution of early Christian faith came to light, Catholic scholars began publishing the conclusion, startling to many, that the Gospel accounts of the claims Jesus supposedly made to be Christ and God did not come from his own mouth but were interpretations his followers created in the decades after his death.

The new reading of Christianity that Catholic scholars now propose is not a rationalist attack on traditional doctrine but the result of scientific exegesis of the New Testament. The state of affairs was summarized by Cardinal William Baum, formerly the archbishop of Washington, DC, and now perfect of the Congregation of Catholic Education in Rome, when he said that “the ‘evidence’ of Scripture, both to the scholar and even to the believer…is of itself inconclusive in determining the meaning of the most fundamental tenets of the Christian faith: the identity of Jesus, the meaning of his life and death, the nature of his triumph, the obligations imposed on his followers, the consequences of his life for us, etc.”3

The new approach that Catholic scholars are taking to Jesus and the scriptures I shall call, by way of shorthand, the “liberal consensus.” By that I mean the scientific methods employed and the conclusions generated by Catholic exegetes and theologians internationally recognized in their fields, the ones who hold the chairs, get the grants, publish the books, and define the limits of scientific exegesis and theology in the Catholic Church today. This liberal consensus reflects the presuppositions and procedures that Catholic scholars like Rudolf Schnackenburg, Raymond E. Brown, Roland Murphy, Pierre Benoît, John P. Meier, J.A. Fitzmyer, David M. Stanley, Rudolf Pesch, Walter Kasper, David Tracy, Edward Schillebeeckx, Hans Küng, and hundreds of others use when they do their research—as well as the results they publish in their monographs and in such scholarly journals as the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, New Testament Studies, Revue Biblique, Biblica, and Biblische Zeitschrift.

That the liberal consensus has become dominant in Catholic scholarship does not mean that those identified with it embrace all the work of their colleagues. Here, as in other fields of research, scholars have reached a consensus not on a body of dogmas but on the questions to be asked and the methods for answering them. A consensus allows wide-ranging internal dispute, but it draws lines that exclude certain presuppositions and procedures. This does not mean that old approaches are universally rejected or that they cease to function in certain circles. For example, one can still find seminaries where Ludwig Ott’s long summary of traditional theology, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, is required reading. But scholars who continue to employ the older methods find themselves pushed to the margins of scholarly discourse. The gradual triumph of a new approach in a discipline is usually in direct proportion to the retirement of those who held the old one.4

Many of the conclusions of the “liberal consensus” conflict sharply with traditional Catholic doctrine. Today, for example, one would be hard pressed to find a Catholic Biblical scholar who maintains that Jesus thought he was the divine Son of God who preexisted from all eternity as the second person of the Trinity before he became a human being. Strictly speaking, the Catholic exegetes say, Jesus knew nothing about the Trinity and never mentioned it in his preaching.5

Nor did Jesus know that his mother, Mary, had remained a virgin in the very act of conceiving him, let alone, as Thomas Aquinas thought, that she delivered him while her hymen remained intact. Most likely Mary told Jesus what she herself knew of his origins: that he had a natural father and was born not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth, indeed without the ministrations of angels, shepherds, and late-arriving wise men bearing gifts. She could have told her son the traditional nativity story only if she had managed to read, long before they were written, the inspiring but unhistorical Christmas legends that first appeared in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke some fifty years after her son had died.6

Moreover, according to the consensus, although Jesus had a reputation as a faith healer during his life, it is likely that he performed very few such “miracles,” perhaps only two. (Probably he never walked on water.) And it seems he ordained no priests and consecrated no bishops, indeed that he did not know he was supposed to establish the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church with St. Peter as the first in a long line of infallible popes. In fact, Jesus had no intention of breaking with Judaism in order to constitute a separate Church. Rather, he restricted his mission to Jews and called on his disciples to repent, to celebrate the dawning of God’s kingdom, and perhaps to expect the imminent arrival of an apocalyptic figure called the “Son of Man,” whom Jesus never identified with himself.7

Reactions to the reevaluation of Jesus vary considerably according to one’s relation to the Catholic community. Quite understandably many people outside Roman Catholicism respond with about as much interest as they would to the news that the Dalai Lama had surrendered his claim to being the reincarnation of the Buddha. Yes, they might say, it is encouraging that the Catholic Church, one of the last institutions in the world to control science by ideology (and in fact the only institution to ban Galileo’s theories well into the nineteenth century), has begun to accept the notion of freedom of research and speech. But within Catholicism the hegemony of the liberal consensus is extremely controversial and risks splitting the fold of the faithful into rival camps. Hans Küng’s new book on life after death, growing as it does out of the consensus’s reinterpretation of the resurrection of Jesus, will add heat and light to the controversy.

  1. 1

    Extreme fundamentalists thought God had inspired even some translations of the Bible. This may explain Texas governor “Ma” Ferguson’s feelings about requiring Spanish as a second language in grade schools: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for Texas children.”

  2. 2

    Enchiridion Biblicum, fourth edition (Rome, 1964), no. 113.

  3. 3

    Creativity and fidelity in the Catholic Church,” The Washington Star, January 27, 1980, pp. G-1 and G-4.

  4. 4

    The English translation of Ott’s book (German original: 1952) has been reissued by TAN Books (Rockford, III.), 1974. For a discussion of the different approaches to contemporary Catholic theology, see David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (Seabury, 1975) and The Analogical Imagination (New York: Crossroads, 1981).

  5. 5

    On Jesus’ preaching about God see Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Cross-road, 1979), pp. 140–271.

  6. 6

    On the question of Mary’s virginal integrity, see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, pp. 205f. The most comprehensive study of the Infancy Narratives in any language is Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Doubleday, 1977). The question of virginal conception is treated there, pp. 517–533, and more fully in his The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (Paulist Press, 1973), pp. 21–68, where Brown’s conclusion on Mary’s virginity (pp. 66f.) is that “the totality of the scientifically controllable evidence leaves an unresolved problem” which calls for ecumenical discussion and, ultimately, resolution within the frame of the teaching authority of the Church.

  7. 7

    On Jesus miracles see Walter Kasper, Jesus the Christ (Paulist Press, 1977), pp. 89–112. Kasper remarks: “A divine intervention in the sense of a directly visible action of God is theological nonsense” (p. 95). Jesus’ use of “Son of Man” statements is summarized in Schillebeeckx, pp. 467–472, Kasper, pp. 109–110, and in Gerald O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus (Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 61–65.

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