Restoring the Primacy of Christ in the New Evangelisation

Tracey Rowland FAITH Magazine September-October 2010

Professor Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia, discusses the centrality of Christ in the "new anthropology" that is animating an international revival in Catholic family life.

At a launch of his latest book, Test Everything: Hold Fast to What is Good, Cardinal Pell announced that at the recent Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference all the bishops agreed that their most important job was to proclaim Christ as our Lord and Saviour. The three hundred or so laity present laughed. Cardinal Pell read our minds and said, well, this is progress given what some people think we should be doing.

Cardinal Pell did not specify who those people are or their alternative suggestions, but my mind turned to those theologians known as "correlationists" who for several decades have been trying to "correlate" and "accommodate" the Catholic faith to trends within secular culture. One gets the impression that for the common or garden variety correlationist, evangelisation is merely another word for "marketing". This kind of thinking has dominated the theology academies in the western world for several decades. One of its leading proponents was Karl Rahner and one of its strongest critics has been Joseph Ratzinger.

In his Principles of Catholic Theology Ratzinger noted that no one has ever used the formulas of the faith in the Old and New Testaments for the purposes of "advertising". Contrary to Rahner's promotion of the idea of using pithy "short formulae" to publicise Christian ideas, Ratzinger wrote that "borrowing from the instrumentarium of consumer economics explains nothing where there is a question of transmitting the faith". The catechumenate is not merely a process of intellectual instruction, but a conversion requiring prayer, and through prayer, a personal encounter with the persons of the Holy Trinity. In the first paragraph of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, he reminded the faithful that truth is a person. While there is such a thing as Christian morality,Christianity is not primarily an ethical framework, but rather it is about participating in the life of the Trinity.

Decades of "renewal" programmes in parishes which have taken the form of marketing fresh insights to small "encounter groups", often under the banners of buzzwords written on posters reminiscent of the kind which were used to promote five-year plans in the Soviet bloc, have done nothing to increase the numbers of practising Catholics. The empirical data shows that they don't work. Moreover the people who participate in them often do so because they are lonely and want to make friends. The successful professionals don't go anywhere near them. The ultimate effect lends credit to Nietzsche's thesis that Christianity is the religion of losers.

Some younger theologians are starting to acknowledge that the whole correlationist project was a failure. These tend to fall into two groups: those who follow Ratzinger's reading of the issue and those who continue to share the dream of the generation of 1968 of making the Catholic faith popular in the world, but who understand that to be popular today means being "post-modern" rather than "modern". Whereas the moderns believed in "truth" so long as it could be scientifically verified, the post-moderns have given up on truth altogether and eschew belief in any kind of absolute.

For the post-moderns one of the worst things in the world is a "master-narrative" - something which holds itself out as offering the truth for all people of all ages. Christianity is often criticised for being one of these. It is hard to market Christianity to post-moderns when its founder made comments like: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life."

It is therefore important to distinguish between those theologians who are interested in post-modern culture because they want to better understand its effects upon the human person's openness to evangelisation, and those theologians who think that Christ should be just another option at the market of meaningful symbols, no more or less significant than Buddha or Krishna.

For the younger theologians who follow in the trajectory of Karol Wojtyta and Joseph Ratzinger, the solution to the problems of both the Church and the World is to preach Christ as the alpha and omega of all creation, even if this amounts to the presentation of a master-narrative. One of the best summaries of this theological outlook can be found in paragraph 50 of Dominum et Vivificantem - Pope John Paul II's encyclical on the Holy Spirit:

"The Incarnation of God the Son signifies the taking up into the unity with God not only of human nature, but in this human nature, in a sense, of everything that is "flesh": the whole of humanity, the entire visible and material world. The Incarnation, then, also has a cosmic significance, a cosmic dimension. The "first-born of all creation", becoming incarnate in the individual humanity of Christ, unites himself in some way with the entire reality of man, which is "flesh" - and in this reality with all "flesh", with the whole of creation."

Embedded within this paragraph is the idea expressed in Gaudium et Spes 22, that "it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear... Christ...in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself."

It is a well-known fact that paragraph 22 was the most often quoted of all the paragraphs in the documents of the Second Vatican Council by the late Pope John Paul II. In an essay published in 1969 Professor Joseph Ratzinger, as he was, described Gaudium et Spes as offering a "daring new theological anthropology" which he applauded, although he thought it had not been well expressed in the document, which is renowned for its theological imprecision.

Thirty years later, the International Theological Commission, under the chairmanship of Cardinal Ratzinger, expressed the Christocentric nature of all human history in the following terms:

"In the last times inaugurated at Pentecost, the risen Christ, Alpha and Omega, enters into the history of peoples: from that moment, the sense of history and thus of culture is unsealed and the Holy Spirit reveals it by actualising and communicating it to all. The Church is the sacrament of this revelation and its communication. It re-centres every culture into which Christ is received, placing it in the axis of the world which is coming, and restores the union broken by the Prince of this world. Culture is thus eschatologically situated; it tends towards its completion in Christ, but it cannot be saved except by associating itself with the repudiation of evil."

Such an approach to culture and evangelisation is described in the academic jargon as "interruptionist". One does not "correlate" the Catholic faith to something else, or "recontextualise" the faith to some new cultural condition, but rather one "interrupts" the non-Christian culture with the message of the divine mediatorial office of the person of Christ as expressed so powerfully in the Letter to the Hebrews.

If one takes the message of the Letter to the Hebrews and of Gaudium et Spes 22 and indeed of the whole of corpus of the Christian scriptures seriously, then this primacy of Christ influences every dimension of theological reflection.

The territory in which it has been most discussed is that of moral theology, though even here it has been subject to different interpretations. As Livio Melina explains in his article "Christ and the Dynamism of Action: an Outlook and Overview of Christocentrism in Moral Theology", Communio: International Catholic Review 28 (Spring 2001), "the spectrum ranges from an affirmation of the primacy of Christ as exemplary model to an acknowledgement of a Christie ontology of the moral subject, from a reference to the critical mediation of anthropology up to an affirmation of his concrete human existence as the categorical norm".

Wojtyta and Ratzinger, along with Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar, tended to be found at the Christie ontology and categorical norm end of the spectrum. What Ratzinger in 1969 called a "daring new theological anthropology" now lies at the core of the curricula of the world-wide network of John Paul II Institutes for Marriage and Family. Thus one finds on the website of the Washington session of the Institute the statement that the mission of the Institute "begins in the abiding conviction of its founder that love reveals the meaning of the person and, through the person, of all 'flesh,' the whole of creation" (cf. Familiaris consortio, 11; Redemptor hominis, 10; Dominum et vivificantem, 50).

Apart from the John Paul II Institutes where this theological vision is central, there are numerous individual scholars who have taken it on board and are reflecting upon its implications for different areas of theology. Many of their publications can be found in the Communio journal, and in the Lateran's Anthropotes. The expression "nuptial mysticism" is also used as a short-hand code for this anthropological vision. Two of its leading proponents within the Sacred Hierarchy are Angelo Cardinal Scola of Venice, and Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Quebec City. The works of Archbishop Javier Martinez of Granada also explore the ramifications of Christ's sovereignty.

The spirituality of many of the new ecclesial movements is deeply embedded in a Trinitarian anthropology which assumes the vision of Gaudium et Spes 22. This explains the importance of personal prayer and Eucharistic adoration in many of these movements. Implicit within them is the attitude, expressed by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate, that a "humanism which excludes Christ" is inhuman. Implicitly they tend to be "interruptionists" even if they have never heard of the term. Their approach is to foster a lay spirituality which is conscious of the work of the Holy Spirit and of Christ's mission in revealing the Father's love and mercy. They live a life immersed in the sacramental practices of the Church and seek to bear witness to the truth by their love for oneanother and for those they meet outside their own circles. There are no gimmicks or marketing techniques, at least not among the more successful groups.

Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote that the new ecclesial movements are a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church but he also acknowledged that they are young movements and have "their share of childhood diseases". By this he meant that they are still in their infancy and have issues to resolve over time. Many lay faithful can tell stories of some strange policies and customs they have encountered in some of these groups. Nonetheless, whatever "childhood diseases" they have, being embarrassed to proclaim Christ as their Lord and Saviour is not one of them.

The generation of '68 effected a cultural revolution in the countries of the Western world and two generations have now been the guinea-pigs in its social experiments. Wojtyta and Ratzinger stood against the revolution both politically and intellectually. One finds in Wojtyta's works on human love and sexuality an alternative to both pre-Conciliar Jansenism and the fiction of "free love"; in it he develops an explicitly Trinitarian anthropology which elevates human life and love to the level of a dramatic participation in the Divine life itself. Ratzinger took this on board and worked on responding to what he has identified as the most serious theological issue of the twentieth century - understanding the mediation of history in the realm of ontology. He acknowledges that Rahnerunderstood that this issue was a major problem for the Church and one that could not be dismissed or ignored, but he believes that Rahner's mode of dealing with the problem opened the Church's own institutions up to the forces of secularism. As Pope he is now trying to heal the schism created by a generation that was, paradoxically, open to history but closed to tradition.

If these theological projects are taking some time to filter through the seminaries, parishes and academies it is because the Church too has her own children of the revolution whose lives have been dedicated to versions of the correlationist project and to what Benedict XVI calls the "hermeneutic of rupture", which they applied to the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The correlationist project ends up with "billabong theology" - something cut off from sources of fresh water. By the time someone has worked out what is in fashion and tried to correlate the Catholic faith to it, the fashion has already changed. As Hegel famously noted, the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

Faith Magazine

September - October 2010