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The Revolution in the Church

In response to:

Revolution in the Church from the June 14, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

I was most surprised by Thomas Sheehan’s misleading piece in the June 14 issue (“Revolution in the Church”), for I have frequently enjoyed Sheehan’s forays into Italian and Vatican politics. When it comes to the complex issues raised by the “new” Biblical scholarship, however, the professor loses his sureness of touch and flair for nuance. “Revolution in the Church” might be suitable as a discussion of Rudolph Augstein’s Jesus, Son of Man, but it in no wise captures the message or spirit of Hans Küng’s open-ended and hopeful Eternal Life?. Still less does it amount to an enlightening discussion of the liberal theologians who collectively make up the Concilium group. Sheehan’s tendentious “summary” of their writings traduces both the letter and the spirit of their work—works that are, in the vast majority of instances, motivated by their authors’ abiding faith in the Christ-hood of Jesus and the dependability of his promise of victory over death.

In his limning of the liberals’ viewpoint(s), Sheehan so crudely overreaches that he makes them appear to say things that they do not, and that are not inferable from their works. Choosing only Edward Schillebeeckx, Sheehan is correct that the Dutchman argues that Jesus advanced no claim in his lifetime to being the son of God, but Sheehan mis-infers from that that Schillebeeckx is maintaining Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. The theologian in fact writes, “The reason why, prior to Jesus’ death, an implicit ‘Christological confession’ (in a full Christological sense) was impossible is, in my view, the genuine historicity…of Jesus’ self-understanding and of his message…. The Christian disclosure experience, ground, source and release of a truly Christological confession of Jesus, presupposes the totality of his life, up to and including its being ended by his execution.” (Jesus, p. 387)

As to the decisive question “who do you say that I am?”, Schillebeeckx’s own words clearly communicate a position far different from the one Sheehan imputes to him (or to his liberal colleagues): “The crux of the argument…is enshrined, it seems to me, in this, that the entire ministry of Jesus during the period of his public life was not just an assurance or promise of salvation but a concrete tender of salvation then and there…. Although the historico-critical method cannote produce knock-down arguments on this score, still less can it assert categorically that so far as history goes we do not know how Jesus understood his own death. Jesus’ understanding of [his] death as part and parcel of his mission of tendering salvation seems to me, therefore, a fact preceding Easter…. This is a very important conclusion; for it means that even prior to Easter Jesus is saying, in effect at any rate, that the ‘Jesus Affair’ is to go ahead. This is not just a vision born of faith and based solely on the disciples’ Easter experience; it is his self-understanding that creates the possibility and lays the foundation of the subsequent interpretation by the Christians. There is no gap between Jesus’ self-understanding and the Christ proclaimed by the Church.” (Ibid. pp. 311–312; emphasis added)

It would be possible to adduce quotations such as the above from all the books of Tracy, Küng, Brown, and others of the liberal group whose works Sheehan misinterprets for the sake of being incendiary and iconoclastic. Contrary to the conclusions he extrapolates from them, however, these theologians and exegetes are very much accomplishing what they set out to do: providing Christians with a purer, surer basis for faith in Jesus Christ.* Sheehan’s arguments finally turn on crude assumptions: because the resurrection and the virgin birth are not literally true, or because the Christ-hood of Jesus and the possibility of eternal life are finally matters of faith and hope, therefore Christianity should withdraw its (in Schillebeeckx’s words) “tender of meaning, of salvation” and take refuge in pious agnosticism. I find his logic hopeless and his attitude hope-less. I am sorry that Professor Sheehan took the tack he did, for a careful, reasoned, nuanced review of the liberals’ contribution might have struck a significant blow for causes that he has, in other pieces, clearly shown he believes in.

Steven Englund

New York City

Thomas Sheehan replies:

These letters offer, respectively, a philosophical argument (Dupré), a theological argument (Englund), and no argument at all (The Notre Dame Three). What they share is at least the question of how to read the Scriptures, and I shall use their positions to illustrate three distinct debates that are currently raging in and around Catholic theology.

The first debate is between traditionalist readings of the Bible and the liberal consensus in exegesis—let us say, between exegetical scholarship and the lack of it. It is simply a fact that Biblical exegesis has gone through a Copernican revolution in this century and that Catholic scholars, with the explicit encouragement of Rome, are now on the cutting edge of that revolution. Traditionalists like the Notre Dame Three are certainly at liberty to treat the work of these scholars with “scornful amusement,” but they thereby condemn themselves to the pre-Copernican museum reserved for all those who do not keep up with the disciplines they pretend to practice or presume to judge. To be taken seriously, the Notre Dame Three must do their homework before they come to class: they must give evidence that they have read and understood (not necessarily agreed with) the scholarship they dismiss.

The second debate, to which Professor Dupré calls our attention, is taking place within the liberal camp and has to do with the gap between Biblical exegesis and theological language. I quite agree with his statement of the problem: critical exegetes often fall back on uncritical God-talk, and critical God-talkers often take refuge in uncritical exegesis. Another aspect of that debate is the question of how much historical science can prove about Jesus and how much faith must supply in order to hold that he is the Christ and the ontological Son of God.

That brings us to the third debate, which is illustrated by Professor Englund’s severe attacks on my article. It is the debate between the liberal Catholic interpretation of Jesus and the one I hinted at toward the end of my article. I cannot take up the debate here, but I shall state the following theses. First, I neither said nor implied nor inferred that Father Schillebeeckx does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Of course he does, and that is obvious to anyone who reads his books. But secondly, I did raise the question about the basis on which any believer makes the claim that Jesus is the savior who offers and embodies God’s salvation, that is, God himself. History cannot show this to be the case, not even the post-Bultmannian scholarship that Schillebeeckx uses and perfects. History can show only that Jesus apparently thought he was a special prophet in whose words and deeds God was present. Everything after that is a matter of faith; and since liberal Catholic theologians know that fact, I credited them with being (willingly or not) pious agnostics.

Finally, let me say quite clearly: I am not a liberal Catholic, I am not a pious agnostic. The position I suggested at the end of my article lies on the other side of that.

  1. *

    Schillebeeckx writes that he intends to make it clear “to Christians that the theological use of the historical sciences need not undermine faith [which can, rather] be a critical accompaniment to faith and can help it in a distinctive way.” (Interim Report on the Books “Jesus” and “Christ,” p. 30)

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