Edward Schillebeeckx
Edward Schillebeeckx; drawing by David Levine

“…Professor Hans Küng, in his writings, has departed from the integral truth of Catholic faith, and therefore he can no longer be considered a Catholic theologian nor function as such in a teaching role.”

Declaration on…Hans Küng
promulgated by Pope John Paul II December 18, 1979

“What should we say about the practice of combating or silencing those who do not share the same views…?”

Truth, the Power of Peace
promulgated by Pope John Paul II December 18, 1979


When Pope John XXIII was asked how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied, “About half.” However, one office of the Roman Curia loves its work so much that it recently has been putting in overtime: the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—in an earlier incarnation known as the Roman Inquisition.

This is the group whose predecessors had Giordano Bruno burned at the stake on February 17, 1600, in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori, and thirty-three years later managed to convince Galileo that prudence and a longer life lay on the side of a geocentric model of the universe.

Although papally mandated executions have been outlawed in Italy since 1870, it seems that the spirit of the Inquisition is a gift that goes on giving. In Rome last December the Vatican’s watchdogs of orthodoxy were hard at work interrogating the sixty-five-year-old Flemish theologian Edward Schillebeeckx, professor of theology at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, Holland, for alleged heresy in his recent work Jesus, An Experiment in Christology. One of the inquisitors, the arch-conservative priest and theologian Jean Galot, came to the hearings fresh from a Vatican Radio broadcast (inside Vatican sources say it had the prior approval of the “highest consultants” to the Pope) in which he condemned Schillebeeckx and others for denying the divinity of Jesus and—this was the lowest blow of all—for being publicity hounds.1 Perhaps Galot was piqued because Schillebeeckx’s book Jesus, An Experiment in Christology voiced aloud what most theologians admit privately: that Galot’s 1971 work Vers une nouvelle théologie is based “on a completely mistaken interpretation of the authors dealt with, and so does not make the grade as a piece of scholarship.” In any case, Schillebeeckx got his revenge four days after the hearings, and indeed by an act of God. On December 19 lightning struck the Vatican Radio tower and silenced it for eighteen hours.

Although Schillebeeckx will have to wait several weeks before learning whether he is a heretic, the Sacred Congregation waited only seventy-two hours after his trial before condemning another progressive theologian, fifty-one-year-old Hans Küng. Because of his “contempt for the magisterium of the Church” on the issue of papal infallibility—expressed most recently in his Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit?—as well as on the issues of the divinity of Jesus and the virginity of Mary, the Congregation declared Küng barred from his chair of dogma and ecumenical theology at the State University, Tübingen, in West Germany. “I am deeply ashamed of my church,” he told reporters, and a day after the decree was announced he defied the Pope by holding a public lecture in which he told two thousand cheering supporters that he would fight the Holy See’s Lehrverbot.

The reaction among Küng’s backers was immediate and strong. The day after the congregation’s actions and in direct contradiction to its declaration, seventy American Catholic theologians published a statement in which they declared that, even though they did not necessarily agree with Küng on every point, they did indeed consider him “a Roman Catholic theologian.” A few days later fifty Spanish theologians issued a similar declaration. For almost two weeks the local bishop of the Tübingen area, Georg Moser, refused to serve official notice of the dismissal. But on December 28, after consultation with Moser and conservative members of the German Conference of Bishops, Pope John Paul II reiterated his censure, albeit in softer tones. The warrant has been served, and the beleaguered Küng is officially removed from his chair of theology.

Because of his international renown (last August he lectured on God at the Peking Academy of Social Sciences—the first Western theologian ever to be so invited), the case of Hans Küng has become a cause célèbre. However, it is only the latest in a series of inquisitorial actions undertaken since Karol Wojtyla became Pope. Earlier in 1979 the Sacred Congregation silenced the French theologian Jacques Pohier, O.P., and barred him from saying Mass and organizing public meetings because his book Quand je dis Dieu (Editions du Seuil, 1978) cast doubts on the physical resurrection of Jesus. On November 5, a month after Wojtyla’s visit to the United States, the Jesuit priest William Callahan, the head of “Priests for Equality” (read: priests for the ordination of women), was silenced by his superior and removed from Washington DC for challenging the Pope “on issues about which he has clearly declared himself.”


Nor is the Congregation’s work finished yet. According to Vatican rumors their next targets will be Rev. Charles Curran, professor of moral theology at Catholic University, Washington DC, and Rev. Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian proponent of “liberation theology,”2 which is accused of having a Marxist tinge. Curran, who was briefly suspended from teaching in 1967 and submitted to a University “inquiry” in 1968 for his opposition to the papal stand on birth control, is now “in communication” with Rome about certain theses in his books Issues in Sexual and Medical Ethics and Transition and Tradition in Moral Theology (Notre Dame University Press, 1978 and 1979 respectively). Other American candidates for censure include another Jesuit, John J. McNeill, for his book The Church and the Homosexual (Sheed, Andrews & McMeel, 1976) and Rev. Anthony Kosnik, co-author of Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought (Paulist Press, 1977), a book which on December 5, 1979, merited a full page of Congregation criticism in the Vatican house organ, L’Osservatore Romano, a newspaper which Hans Küng has compared to Pravda.

At least these men are in good company. Last month it was revealed that in 1933 the young Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later to be known as Pope Paul VI, was submitted to an inquisition for “offending Catholic piety” in a “Protestant” vein by circulating a letter criticizing such Church practices as “sacristans collecting alms” during Easter Mass. The case was quickly closed but the experience may explain Pope Paul’s reluctance to silence progressive theologians during the post-Vatican II period of liberalization, an era which he suffered through rather than relished.3

But Pope John Paul II has been making up for lost time. All the recent actions of the Sacred Congregation have his explicit approval, and this fact prompts the question: Who is the real Karol Wojtyla? Is he the staunch defender of human rights who spoke at the UN, that “liberation theologian” who told Mexican peasants on January 29, 1979, that “if the common good requires it, there must be no doubt about expropriation itself, carried out in the proper manner”? Or is he a new Torquemada on the Tiber, determined to force Catholicism into a Procrustean bed modeled after the conservative Polish church? One wonders whether he still stands by what he said a decade ago in his central philosophical work: “The one who voices his opposition to the general or particular rules or regulations of the community does not thereby reject his membership…. There can be no doubt that this kind of opposition is essentially constructive”4—or whether he is intent on muzzling those liberal theologians who are critical of what 180 American scholars last October called his “monolithic vision of the Church.” The question, it seems, is: Who is really on trial—Küng and Schillebeeckx, or the Pope who has mobilized the campaign against them?

In any case his condemnation of Küng was so ill-timed that it became something of a bad Polish joke among Rome’s international press corps. At one and the same Vatican press conference on December 18 reporters were treated to the Pope’s stirring condemnation of ideological intimidation and political repression in Truth, the Power of Peace—his most courageous and frank declaration to date—and, moments later, to the announcement that Hans Küng had been silenced. This meant that reporters had to make sense, on the one hand, of Wojtyla’s defense of the “legitimate and inalienable rights of those who refuse to accept a particular ideology or who appeal to freedom of thought” and, on the other, his censuring of the Swiss theologian for teaching an opinion that “contradicts the doctrine defined by Vatican Council I and confirmed by Vatican Council II.” And all of this just a month after the Pope had declared that Galileo had been “wrongly condemned” by the same Congregation that fired Küng. The confusion led Dennis Redmont, bureau chief of the Associated Press in Rome, to ask from the floor, “Who’s running the show here?”

More and more the answer seems to be: a strict conservative, above all in matters pertaining to Church doctrine and authority. In his style of papal governance Wojtyla can be soft and accommodating when dealing with outsiders, but as hard as he can be with those within. Behind that papal smile, as Brecht says of Mack the Knife, there are teeth. Wojtyla’s speeches ad extra—in Mexico, Ireland, and at the UN—show a rare openness to the world, and a remarkable emphasis, as his encyclical Redemptor Hominis put it, on “man in the full truth of his community and social being.”5 But ad intra he is pulling hard on the reins. Whereas Pope Paul honored almost 97 percent of the 33,000 requests by priests for laicization, Wojtyla to date has yet to absolve a single priest from his vows. (The game was up, in fact, when he appointed the deeply conservative Cardinal Silvio Oddi—whom Paul had kept at arm’s length—to the head of the Congregation for the Clergy.) Instead he has cracked down hard on what he calls “secularizing tendencies” among the clergy and especially among Jesuits. At the Pope’s behest, Pedro Arrupe, Superior General of the Jesuits, wrote a letter to local superiors of the Society last October relaying Wojtyla’s demand that they “employ appropriate firmness in seeking a remedy for regrettable shortcomings” that are “a matter of personal concern” to the Pope. The list of shortfalls included: “independence of superiors, questionable relations with others, failures in the observance of the vows,…apostolic work incompatible with the priestly character,” and lack of “fidelity to the magisterium in doctrine.”6


Nor is Wojtyla any happier with leftist political leanings among certain Third World Jesuits. At a papal audience on December 10, 1979, at which the liberal Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens of Belgium was present, the Pope met a Jesuit from Bombay who is active in the charismatic movement and remarked to him, “So you’re not all Marxists!” When Arrupe heard the story he brushed it off by saying, “That’s just his Polish humor,” but others believe that the remark referred to reports from Latin American bishops, including the cardinal of Ecuador, about revolutionary Jesuits in their countries.

There are clear signs that Wojtyla’s Christmas present to Hans Küng heralds the end of the Vatican II era of freedom and the beginnings of a restoration papacy. Even before the curial sanction was imposed on Küng, the Pope had already made his least remarked upon but most ominous move to date: the promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Sapientia Christiana on April 15, 1979.7 What might appear at first glance to be an innocent revision—the first since 1931—of the rules for pontifical universities turns out on closer reading to be a major retreat from anything like what John Henry Newman envisioned in The Idea of a University. According to Sapientia Christiana theologians in pontifical universities “do not teach on their own authority but by virtue of the mission they have received from the Church,” and so must have a declaration of nihil obstat and the rights of a “canonical mission” (missio canonica).

Indeed, theologians have a “duty to carry out their work in full communion with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, above all, with that of the Roman Pontiff,” and they must present “personal opinions” only “modestly” (Articles 26, 27, and 70). These paragraphs are among those that the Congregation cited in its condemnation of Küng and that the conservative German Cardinal Joseph Ratsinger invoked to deny liberal theologian Johann B. Metz the chair of systematic theology in Munich last year. “If the Apostolic Constitution is literally applied,” Rev. Charles Curran has recently written, “it will mean that such canonically erected Catholic institutions cannot be true universities in the accepted sense of the term in the United States.”8

Sapientia Christiana applies only to pontifical universities, those which have been founded or endorsed by the Holy See (in America, for example, Catholic University in Washington DC but not Notre Dame). According to Curran, however, the proposed new Code of Canon Law, which is to be promulgated in the coming months, will most likely extend the principles of Sapientia Christiana to all Catholic universities. That would mean, for instance, that philosophy professors at Fordham and Notre Dame would be obliged “to demonstrate the consistency [of their positions] with the Christian view of the world, of man, and of God” (Article 79.Sec.1), a state of affairs that would seem to lend credence to George Bernard Shaw’s claim that a “Catholic university” is a contradiction in terms.

On the occasion of Wojtyla’s first anniversary in the chair of St. Peter, Hans Küng, whether prudently or not, decided to address some fraternal criticism to the Pope. Published in The New York Times on October 19, 1979, and a week later in Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Küng’s article, “Pope John Paul II: His First Year,” wondered whether “the darling of the masses and the superstar of the media” was “truly free from the personality cult of former Popes, for example Pius XII.” He intimated, in the interrogative mode, that the Pope was “not sufficiently familiar with recent developments in theology” and had become “a doctrinaire defender of ancient bastions.” He rebuked Wojtyla for approving of “the inquisitorial proceedings against other streams in contemporary Catholic theology, and this in spite of his call for human rights outside the church.” He asked, “Does this commitment toward the outside, the world, also correspond to a commitment toward the inside, the church, the ecclesiastical institution itself?” But he was not hopeful, and with prophetic foresight wrote, “Many Catholics and non-Catholics seriously doubt whether this Pope from a country with a totalitarian regime, with a closed, authoritarian church (understandable for domestic reasons), will in all instances be a guarantor of freedom and openness in our church.”

Just what influence this personal affront may have had on the Pope’s decision to silence Küng eight weeks later cannot be known with certainty. Some close to the Vatican say that Wojtyla was furious and wanted to show his challenger who was boss. (To be sure, he could not have been happy with Küng’s statement a year earlier: “When the pope and the bishops no longer adequately fulfill their leadership function, the key role devolves upon pastors and theologians of the Catholic Church.”9 ) Others, including this writer, believe that the condemnation was not a sudden decision but reflects the gradual but decisive shift toward conservatism in the German hierarchy. With the death of Küng’s personal friend Cardinal Julius Döpfner in July of 1976 and the rise of the conservative cardinals Joseph Ratsinger and Joseph Höffner, Küng found his support among the West German hierarchy eroding. According to a memorandum leaked to the Italian government from the Vatican Secretariat of State during the last papal conclave, a good number of West German and North American cardinals pushed Wojtyla’s candidacy because they were “against ‘openings’ and compromises” and “were looking for an ‘intransigent and conservative’ pope who would eliminate the errors that had occurred since the Second Vatican Council.”10

In any case Hans Küng has been on a collision course with the Vatican ever since 1957. In his book Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, Küng argued that Barth’s Lutheran view of justification by faith alone—God’s merciful acquittal of the faithful sinner from punishment—in fact converged with the Catholic doctrine as stated at the Council of Trent (1562-1563). The thesis was considered so radical and Protestant-leaning that it occasioned the opening of a dossier on Küng at the Sacred Congregation (Holy Office File 399/57/i). The file grew over the years as Küng published book after book on such controversial topics as intellectual freedom, celibacy, and church structures, and in 1967 the late Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, then the Vatican’s John Mitchell (they also looked alike), tried to suppress Küng’s The Church (London: Search Press) for asserting, among other things, that infallibility merely meant the Church’s “fundamental remaining in the truth, which is not disturbed by individual errors.” The further development of this theme in his Infallible? An Inquiry (Doubleday, 1971) and again a year ago in Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit? is the reason why Küng finally got sacked. “The chief issue,” Cardinal Höffner told the press last December, “is Küng’s stand on infallibility.”11

Among Roman Catholic theologians there is a growing consensus that what Küng calls the “meta-dogma” of papal infallibility, defined at the First Vatican Council (1870), is, for both historical and theological reasons, nothing short of a doctrinal mess. Küng can accurately claim that his own writings are “not an attempt to bring unrest and uncertainty into the Church, but only to give expression to the unrest and uncertainty already to be found on all sides” (Infallible?, p. 11). On historical grounds, the dogma has been rendered suspect by the police-state tactics with which it was forced through the Council by the iron-willed and epileptic Pius IX, who even then was popularly known as Pio No-No for his 1864 Syllabus of Errors. (Whether he was as conservative in his private life depends in part on the evidence available concerning the paternity of his young associate Cardinal Guidi.)

On theological grounds, as Küng asserts in his preface to A. B. Hasler’s Wie der Papst unfehlbar wurde, “the infallibility of the pope would surely not be defined today.” Indeed:

Today Catholic theologians admit, with an openness unaccustomed before, that the organs of “infallible” doctrinal decisions at least in principle…can err and in many cases have erred.12

For Küng, Pope Paul’s 1968 encyclical on birth control is the “Achilles’ heel” of the doctrine of papal infallibility. Instead of insisting on the correctness of that and other doctrines, he says, the church should leave infallibility “to the one to whom it was originally reserved: to God” and be content with a more modest “indefectability,” a state of being generally held in the truth of the Gospel with no guarantee that any papal statement, even if solemnly declared binding in faith (de fide), is necessarily free of error. In Kirche—Gehalten in der Wahrheit? (p. 69) he proposes a procedure of “learning by mistakes, ‘the method of trial and error’ (Karl Popper).”

Although Küng asserts that he is “holding fast to the reality of infallibility” even if he only speaks of “indefectability,” the Vatican has not been convinced by his subtle hermeneutics. He was called to Rome in 1971 to answer questions on his position, but responded that he would accept the invitation only if he could see the whole dossier on him and choose his own defense lawyer. The Vatican declined both requests, and Küng refused to come to Rome. Instead he accused the members of the Congregation of acting according to “the spirit of the Inquisition.” He assured them, “I do not consider myself infallible,” and in any case if they wanted to find out what he was teaching about infallibility they could come personally or send their representatives to his Tübingen seminar on the subject in the summer of 1972.13

They were not pleased. In July of 1973 the Congregation reiterated its position in the hard-nosed document Mysterium Ecclesiae and told Küng that if he subscribed to it they would close the case on him. Küng declared this procedure “inhuman and unjust” and asked whether the church were “a free, open community or merely a totalitarian system.” From Küng’s point of view, the Congregation answered the question for him last December.

Infallibility is not the only issue in Küng’s case. In his 1974 work On Being a Christian the Swiss theologian asserted—with the support of the best Catholic scholarship, it should be noted—that the words “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” do not derive from Jesus but from his later followers; that the resurrection “can not be a historical event in the strict sense”; that “the stories of the empty tomb are legendary elaborations” of the message that Jesus is alive with God; that the virginity of Mary is at best “symbolic” and even a “legend.” In his 1978 book Existiert Gott? he asserted again what he had said in On Being a Christian: that one must carefully avoid “identifying Jesus tout court with God,” that Jesus “never gave himself any messianic title,” and that the divinity of Jesus simply meant that “the real man, Jesus of Nazareth, is, for believers, a real revelation of the one true God and, in this sense, God’s word, his Son.”14


Whereas Hans Küng’s works have tended of late toward haute vulgarisation, addressed less to scholars than to the well-educated general reader (On Being a Christian, for example, rightly claims to be “only an introduction”), Edward Schillebeeckx’s Jesus, An Experiment in Christology takes the high road. A huge compendium of scriptural scholarship, it may be to contemporary New Testament studies what Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus was to New Testament scholarship at the turn of the century. It is occasionally rambling and frequently repetitious. It is often needlessly opaque (a chapter title on page 576 reads: “A conjunctural horizon of ideas and non-synchronous rhythm in the complex transformation of a culture,” when in fact he is talking about Thomas Kuhn’s notion of shifts in scientific models). His translator has not always succeeded in getting the text out of the Dutch (“Thus this in the Q tradition most probably somewhat later dogmatic interest…,” p. 83). But for all its faults it may well be the best and most complete examination of the biblical evidence for the meaning of Jesus ever published.

Strictly speaking the book is not theological or even Christological so much as historical. It inquires into the hidden sources of the New Testament so as to reveal how faith in Jesus developed from primitive Palestinian Christianity to the time when the New Testament was compiled. “With the aid of Formgeschichte [the study of the historicity of biblical writings by studying their literary form] our aim is, among other things, to penetrate to the earliest layer of the pre-canonical tradition, in order thus to open the way to Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 744). When Schillebeeckx burrows back into what he calls the “incubatory history” of the Gospels and Epistles his methods are analogous to those of a philologist who reads through a palimpsest to its second level or of an art restorer who removes a fresco so as to find the underlying cartoon.

While this is a delicate process in itself, it is the more so in the light of the current Vatican mood on orthodoxy. But Schillebeeckx is convinced that scriptural scholarship and Christianity in general are living through a Copernican Revolution which makes the culture (if not the message) of the New Testament far stranger to modern man than Catholic scholars have generally admitted. If Christianity is neither to become “an historical relic” nor to appeal to “supernatural hocus-pocus,” its message must first be ferreted out historically by a critical study of the New Testament texts and then submitted to a searching hermeneutics, or reinterpretation, that Schillebeeckx believes might save the substance of Christian beliefs. He appeals to Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and begs not to be considered a heretic just because he tries to state the core of the Christian message in a new set of categories. “Are we therefore non-Christian or less Christian?” he asks, if we seek “to preserve a living faith which in this age…has relevance for man, his community and society…?”

Those who (for whatever reasons) fail to understand what is really going on will…utter their reproaches; for they have a fixed impression that the faith is being…eaten away from within….. I do not begrudge any believer the right to describe and live out his belief in accordance with old models of experience, culture and ideas. But this attitude isolates the Church’s faith from any future and divests it of any real missionary power to carry conviction with contemporaries for whom the gospel is—here and now—intended. [P. 582]

This kind of project is at least as old as Rudolf Bultmann’s effort to “demythologize” the New Testament with the aid of Heidegger’s existential categories. But Schillebeeckx, following more recent biblical scholarship, reverses Bultmann’s strategy. Whereas Bultmann maintained that hardly anything relevant for faith could be known about the Jesus of history and that instead the whole Christian phenomenon is to be found in the Gospel’s proclamation (kerygma) of the Christ of faith (“Jesus arose into the kerygma,” as he put it), Schillebeeckx asserts that “the New Testament…gives us substantial information about Jesus of Nazareth” and that this historical identification of Jesus “can then show us what exactly it was that very early Christianity understood by the affirmation: he is the Christ, the son of man, the Son of God, the Lord” (pp. 437, 440; cf. pp. 71 and 515).

The textual archaeology whereby Schillebeeckx uncovers the earliest layers of the life and meaning of Jesus is as complex as it is thorough, and any summary runs the risk of simplifying his efforts. Nonetheless, in an attempt to synthesize his thesis I shall comment on five levels of the developing history of the meaning of Jesus as Schillebeeckx presents it.

  1. Jesus himself: His own experience of God and of his mission.
  2. Peter and the Twelve: What happened between Jesus’ death and the emergence of faith among his disciples.
  3. The “source-tradition”: The content of the most primitive “theology of Jesus” in the earliest Christian communities (called “Q” for the German word Quelle, “source”) before stories of the resurrection, empty tomb and Easter appearances arose.
  4. The resurrection stories: How the Easter faith came to be expressed in terms of a “raising from the dead,” an empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to the disciples.
  5. St. Paul and others: How the theology of Jesus, born in the earliest communities and eventually developed into the Synoptic Gospels, transformed itself into “Christology.”
  1. Jesus’ “Abba experience.” All scriptural scholars apart from fundamentalists agree that the Gospels are not objective records of chronological events so much as the result of an interplay between historical happenings and the interpretation of them by the earliest believers. The Gospels move in a “hermeneutical circle”: Jesus’ contemporaries on the one hand drew on their memories of his life when after Easter they interpreted the meaning of his exaltation and his expected return, while, on the other hand, their post-Easter faith shaped their interpretation of his historical life. “In other words,” Schillebeeckx writes, “these gospel stories of Jesus are themselves a hermeneusis [interpretation] of Jesus’ Parousia [or imminent second coming] and resurrection, while belief in the Parousia or in the resurrection was engendered by things remembered of the historical Jesus” (p. 401). In fact, there is no way out of this hermeneutical circle; the point, rather, is to enter into it in an adequate fashion.

Schillebeeckx’s key for unlocking the circle and sifting out the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith is what he calls Jesus’ “Abba experience,” the “source and soul of his message and conduct.” Jesus’ historically exceptional way of addressing God as “Abba” (“Father,” but as in the Italian papà) reveals his utter confidence in the benevolent nearness of a Father-God who will soon manifest Himself definitively in the world of men and triumph over evil. Jesus totally identified his own life with this imminent arrival of his Father, the “coming of the Kingdom of God.”

  1. Peter’s reassembling of the disciples after Jesus’ death. The central question is what happened between Jesus’ death and the birth of Christian faith in his followers some weeks or months later. The usual Christian answer is, of course, the resurrection, whether that be understood as an objective, perhaps empirically verifiable, historical event (as in fundamentalist interpretations) or merely as a subjective renewal of faith on the part of the disciples (as Bultmann and Willi Marxsen hold).15 Schillebeeckx chooses a middle path that preserves and modifies both interpretations. He locates the original Easter experience in a conversion process (subjective side) that led the disciples to see that Jesus was alive with God (objective side). The setting for this experience, he insists, was created by Peter’s reassembling of the disciples, probably in Galilee, after they had abandoned Jesus during his passion and death.

The “hard historical core of how they got reassembled” is, according to Schillebeeckx, the following: First, Peter had an experience of forgiveness of his cowardice and faithlessness in denying Jesus. Then he gathered the disciples together (and thus earned the title “the Rock”) and, in a setting of doubt and debate, recalled with them the life and Abba experience of Jesus. Then: “They all of a sudden ‘saw’ it” (p. 391): Jesus, abandoned and crucified, has been definitively endorsed by God: he is alive with his Father. This—and not some discovery of an empty tomb—is the “Christian experience of Jesus’ Easter presence” (p. 646); “…spiritual contact with Jesus, ruptured by death, has been restored: they can once more address each other in intimate, personal terms” (p. 345).

  1. The earliest expression of Easter faith: The question, of course, is, What did the disciples “see”? and Schillebeeckx’s answer is that in the literal sense of vision they saw nothing. They simply believed that Jesus is “the One who lives.” The most primitive expression of this faith by the Q-communities was that Jesus was the latter-day prophet and messianic judge who was “exalted” to God—without any mention of a resurrection. The language of a “raising from the dead” is not the “oldest and original interpretation factor,” in fact it is a “second thought” and “only one of the resources available” for expressing the victory of Jesus. Indeed, “the reality denoted by ‘Easter experience’ is independent both of the traditions centered around the Jerusalem tomb and of that of the appearances” (p. 397).
  2. How, then, did stories of Jesus’ “resurrection” and his “appearances” arise? Schillebeeckx follows scholars like F. NeyRinck and others who postulate that the early Palestinian Christians, following contemporary Jewish custom, carried on “a practice of venerating the tomb of Jesus at Jerusalem” (probably still containing his bones, although Schillebeeckx avoids declaring himself on the point). Out of this practice there arose the story of women finding the “empty” tomb a couple of days after Jesus’ death. But far from this story being a historical account, it is simply “an aetiological cult-legend…intended to shed light on the (at least) annual visit of the Jerusalem church to the tomb in order to honor the risen [exalted] One” (p. 336). The Gospel message, “He is not here; see the place where they laid him” simply means: Jesus is alive and should not be sought among the dead.

From this practice, in the “first few generations” of Christianity the language of a bodily raising from the dead began to take precedence over the language of “exaltation” as “the best way to make explicit an earlier spontaneous experience” (p. 396), for such language easily fit into the conceptual ambit of contemporary Judaism. Likewise, discussion of the “third day” on which Jesus was raised “tells us nothing about a chronological dating of the resurrection qua event (as, for instance, three days after Good Friday) or even of the ‘Easter appearances’; but it suggests everything about the eschatological, definitive, saving action of God vis-à-vis the crucified Jesus” (p. 532).

5. From a “theology of Jesus” to a “Christology.” The earliest interpretations of the meaning of Jesus as the Christ were not “ontological” but “functional”: they were concerned not with who or what Jesus was but with what he was meant to do, namely, usher in God’s definitive presence to man. Hence all of the titles attributed to Jesus by his earliest followers, whether latterday prophet or Davidic messiah (not in the nationalistic sense, however) or “Son of Man,” did not explain Jesus’ identity per se, but only his identification with God’s saving action. These, Schillebeeckx says, are “first-order assertions” about Jesus.

But as Christianity developed it had to ask who Jesus himself was (the “ontological” question) as the one in whom man’s salvation is achieved. This led to the relatively less important “second-order assertions” about the identity of Jesus, which St. Paul and later St. John developed. This matter points to the tricky question (for which Schillebeeckx was called to Rome) about the divinity of Jesus.

Along with orthodox Catholic theology he opposes the “Docetist” idea that Jesus was “a mundane god, masquerading in human form,” but unlike traditional theologians he regrets that “Christology from above”—Jesus, the God made man of the Gospel of Saint John—has dominated Christian thought from the early councils of Nicea and Ephesus onward. He prefers to revive “the possibilities inherent in the synoptic model” of a “Christology from below” (Jesus the man, exalted to the status of Son of God).

Schillebeeckx believes that today the Church should “present Jesus as first and foremost a question catalyzing what are the problems of our most deeply human, personal and social life” (p. 637). He is willing to go so far as to say that “In his humanity Jesus is so intimately ‘of the Father’ that by virtue of this very intimacy he is ‘Son of God”‘ (p. 658). Or, without the inverted commas: “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified-and-risen One, is the Son of God in the fashion of an actual and contingent human being” (p. 668). But that much having been said, “it is high time…for keeping silent in reverence and adoration….”

Whether Schillebeeckx’s position (and Küng holds substantially the same belief) is enough to satisfy the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope John Paul II remains to be seen. Wojtyla’s own intellectual forte is neither scriptural exegesis nor systematic theology, for which he seems to rely on conservative advisers, but moral philosophy. Although he is the first pope to be markedly influenced by the works of the German phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928), his intuitions on issues of personal morality—witness his stand on birth control—tend to be very traditional and Thomistic. No doubt an important factor in the Pope’s decision will be the outcome of the synod of Dutch bishops which by papal command will be held in Rome beginning on January 14, 1980—a kind of episcopal Canossa. During his interrogation last December Schillebeeckx was confronted by his nemesis Jean Galot, the French priest who had openly denounced him, with the charge, “Nowhere in your book do I find that Jesus is the Son of God,” and Schillebeeckx replied, “That is your opinion.”

Nonetheless, in a private conversation with me on the last day of Schillebeeckx’s inquisition, Galot delivered himself of the opinion that there is already enough to condemn the Dutch theologian in a short interview which Schillebeeckx gave just before coming to Rome. 16 On the other side of the fence, Galot’s colleague at Rome’s Gregorian University, Rev. Gerald O’Collins, S.J., author of The Easter Jesus and other works in Christology, adjudges Schillebeeckx “entirely orthodox” on the questions of the divinity and resurrection of Jesus. Doctores scinduntur, as Horace once wrote: “The scholars are divided.” The point, however, is that Galot votes in the Sacred Congregation and O’Collins does not.

It is fairly clear in what direction Pope John Paul II is leading the Church, but it remains an open question how far (and how many of) the faithful will follow him. Theologians may end up choosing the path of inner emigration in matters of faith and morals, just as many of the laity have done in the matter of birth control and premarital sex. In any case the old days of Roma locuta est, causa finita est, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed,” may be over. The Pope might do well to ponder the perhaps apocryphal exchange between Louis XVI and his valet on the morning after the taking of the Bastille. “This is a revolt!” the king said. “No, Sire,” replied his valet, “it is a revolution.”

January 2, 1980

This Issue

February 7, 1980