Category Archives: Theology

Who is Christ in our time?

A running fight between a priest and his religious superior over how direct the priest can be in his preaching that Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The Life has been ensuing for an extended period of time. The dialogue between the two is not edifying. The superior is arguing that the priest is teaching his own brand of Catholicism that is offending some of the faculty and some of the parents. The priest is preaching and teaching what Church believes, and is articulated in the Second Vatican Council and other documents like Dominus Iesus. The latter contends that the fruits of V2 have too often generated poorly catechized adults and has contributed to a general weakening of the truth of salvation. Jesus Christ has been reduced to moralisms or what beige Catholicism shows, “the nice Jesus.” Reading the homilies you do realize that the priest is not pouring vinegar in the eyes of the congregants but he is being clear in his teaching: the gospel is true, and the magisterium of the Catholic Church is accurate –salvation is at hand. His point: Do you believe in what is biblically revealed by God? Or, is theology made up as you go along to get along? If it is the latter, then we are in deep trouble.

Catholics can’t be the only ones dealing with matters of doctrine and dogma. Sure enough, the Wall Street Journal answered my question. No, Catholics, the Orthodox and other ecclesial communities are having to face the problems of what is being preached, and what face of Jesus Christ is being revealed today to the world. The secularists are not the only ones to “change” the face of Jesus. The content of a priest’s preaching is as much important as the how something is said. Words matter; concepts matter, clear thinking is crucial. Yet, style cannot be confused with content.

In the “Houses of Worship” column in WSJ today Stephen Prothero writes about a Seattle Evangelical Pastor Mark Driscoll and his efforts to portray a more robust understanding of who Jesus Christ is, an image that does not make Jesus out to be a “pansy.” Driscoll evidently believes that many quarters of Christianity have distorted the Christology to fit contemporary concerns. Prothero characterizes Pastor Driscoll as believing “too many American churches are populated by ‘chicks’ and a bunch of nice, tender chickified church boys.” In other words, what Driscoll sees in Christian churches today is a face of Jesus that is cosmetically altered to fit a current ideology, one that is not too challenging, one that has little-to-no-concern for ultimate things. Dare I say, the current Jesus is anemic.

I think it is fair to say that Jesus Christ we ought to preach, the Second Person of the Trinity, is not made in the image and likeness of certain men and women. He is the image of Someone greater, the Divine Mystery.

What else does Driscoll think and say? Apparently, his assessment indicates that some Christians have swapped out the revealed Son of God for “a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in his hair.” Jesus is metrosexual. Sounds similar to the controversy noted above. Prothero notes that some segments of American Christianity, since the 1800s, have preached a “Jesus as a brave warrior –not a meek preacher….” It is thought that if the image and person preached –Jesus– was more masculine men would be coming back to the practice of religion, or we would be more faithful to what is biblically revealed. I am not sure that has to be an agenda item; but I am concerned that the truth be preached and not glossed-over to suit a constituency.

I happen to think that the person of Jesus we often warm up too is inconsistent with what is foretold in the prophecies of the OT, and in the portrait given in the NT. Sacred Scripture does not give us an effeminate savior. Quite the contrary, Jesus of the NT is not aiming to be a “nice God-man interested in how you’re feeling.” We don’t have a Savior who is a good social worker. Salvation is not the liberation of personal anxieties but the liberation from sin and death; it is the opening the possibility of encountering the Beatific vision. Think of Jesus’ interaction with tax collectors, the pharisees, the mis-guided apostles and so on, ought to give us an indication of the person of Jesus: being “nice,” that is, sentimental, is not going to get you to heaven.

Prothero quotes Billy Sunday who said in 1916: “Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, think-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-carat Christianity.” A strong, masculine Jesus was transformed in the 60’s and 70’s with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.” You know, I think Billy Sunday is right.

Stephen Prothero is uneasy with and dismissive of, Pastor Driscoll and Sunday, because he lacks a Catholic understanding of Scripture, liturgy, and theology. Prothero, likes suburban Catholicism with a pretty low Christology. It seems to me that he sees the person of Jesus as relative and subjective. And is inconsistent with what is witnessed by the saints. Rather unfortunately, Prothero doesn’t hold to the existence of objective reality, objective truth. A reading of the person of Jesus in Scripture and orthodox biblical exegesis shows a face of Jesus concerned more with the true “ends” of man and woman rather than being given a make-over to suit post-modern problems in psychology. Nowadays, according to some, you just have fit-in if you are going to be an acceptable preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What is an Apostolic Exhortation?

There are several levels of papal teaching. Not all documents that come from “Rome” or “the Pope” have the same weight or a degree of personal adherence of the faithful. The Church in her experience has A friend of mine asked me about the differences between a bull, the encyclical and the exhortation issued under the name of the pope.

The following –in the order of importance– gives a sense of what I am talking about:

  • Papal Bull is a generally a legal document covering any topic.
  • Apostolic Constitution (often given as Papal Bulls) are used typically to make a change in a church law or to define something as definitive with regard to faith and morals, changes in ecclesiastical circumscriptions, and the like…
  • The Motu Proprio are legal acts not covered in the Code of Canon Law
  • Encyclical (originally circular letters by bishops) is an exposition on a topic that regards a pastoral concern and giving insight into the Faith and ministry of the bishops, but only the papal version can be authoritative to resolve a particular issue or to advance.
  • Apostolic Letters are addressed to particular groups for a jubilee or a clear up a matter of concern.
  • Apostolic Exhortation is published to encourage the faithful to live in a particular manner or to do something, e.g., post synodal documents offered to the church in summary of a previous synod and hoping the faithful will do something helpful for the life of the church (e.g., the new evangelization, go to confession, rely on St Joseph).
  • Papal Addresses are given to groups like the Knights of Columbus, the plenary meeting of the Academy of Science, to Congregation of Worship or some such significant gathering; papal addresses have a point to make.
  • Papal Rescript answers a question or a request for dispensation.
  • Apostolic Brief is a matter of minor importance but nonetheless need a decision from authority.

Each document has a particular formula for addressing the recipient and authority of teaching.

Not every document listed above requires a complete agreement on our part. Some of what is given to us is the prudential judgement of the Holy Father (the Magisterial part of his office) while other documents are to be accepted de fide, that is, on faith and adhered to with one’s intellect and will. The bulls, constitutions and the elements of faith and morals contained in the encyclicals are to be closely followed and accepted as needed for salvation. However, these documents are not the same as defining dogma. For that we have the tool of papal infallibility and this tool is seldom exercised. Since the definition of infallibility was made at Vatican I, the Church has only defined two dogmas using the ex cathedra formulation. Both were Marian teachings in the Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Assumption.

With regard to the documents noted from the letters down, we are not required to give our complete consent intellect and will to; we are, however, asked to sincerely and significantly consider what is being offered to live the Christian life with greater openness, integrity and holiness.

Theologians will speak of the teachings of the Church as part of the consistent teaching of the Church, based on biblical revelation, that Catholics must receive the ordinary papal teaching with the “religious submission of intellect and will” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25). What does this mean? Essentially, it means that faith and reason are united so as to inform the way we live. The posture we hold is to have have open our mind to to what is proposed for our salvation and to allow our views and lives to be shaped by the teaching. It is not an easy task and we understand that a religious submission of intellect and will is always a journey, and gradual conforming ourselves to what Jesus Christ expects of us: to be a person fully alive in God’s glory.

Communion given to divorced and remarried Catholics?

Robert ZollitschThe former archbishop Freiburg im Breisgau Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, 75, tried to legislate a change in pastoral practice to allow remarried Catholics who have not received the required annulment from a previous marriage bond to receive Holy Communion. His resignation was accepted by the Holy Father on 17 September 2013. Archbishop Zollitsch, as the emeritus archbishop, has no authority to make such an allowance due to his canonical status but also because the proposal he was hoping to enact contradicted the theology of the Church. 

The several at the Holy See were clearly unhappy at Zollitsch’s bold (wreckless?) attempt to change a practice without thinking through the theology. Not that the happiness of the authorities Church is the goal of anything. Heaven is the goal and we get there by correct teaching, sacraments and compassionate leadership. The chief shepherd of a diocese, even he is the former shepherd, cannot on his own authority, make a change in theology. The transcentals (the beautiful, the good, the true and the one) can’t be ignored; neither can clear teaching based on Scripture.

Does something need to be done? Very likely. We do have a problem that needs sensitive guidance. But there we have to see to it that a few things are done: First, start giving good human, spiritual and catechetical formation to couples engaged to be married. Second, seek to walk with all married couples. Third, help to bring reconciliation to couples whose marriages are no longer sacramental. But Zollitsch created a chaos.

Recently, Archbishop Müller wrote an article outlining the Church’s  teaching about marriage, divorce and the sacraments in L’Osservatore Romano.

Today, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote a letter to Archbishop Zollitsch, who now serves as the Apostolic Administrator of his former diocese. The following translation of Archbishop Müller is the work of Mark de Vries.

Archbishop Müller’s letter:

MüllerWith the Document Prot. N. 2922/13, of 8 October 2013, the Apostolic Nuncio has communicated the draft of the guidelines for the pastoral care of separated, divorced and civilly remarried people in the Archdiocese of Freiburg, as well as your newsletter to the members of the German Bishops’ Conference prior to the publication of this letter, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A careful reading of the draft text reveals that it does contain very correct and important pastoral teachings, but is unclear in its terminology and does not correspond with Church teaching in two points:

“Remarried divorced people themselves stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist”

1. Regarding the reception of the sacraments by divorced and remarried faithful the proposal from the bishops of the Oberrhein area is recommended anew as a pastoral direction: after a process of discussion with the parish priests, people concerned can either reach the conclusion to participate much in the life of the Church, but to deliberately refrain from receiving the Sacraments, while others can in their concrete situations achieve a “responsibly reached decision of conscience” and be able to receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, and this decision is “to be respected” by the priest and the community.

Contrary to this assumption the Magisterium of the Church emphasises that the pastors must recognise the various situations well and must invite the affected faithful to participation in the life of the Church, but also “reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have  remarried” (cf. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, of 22 November 1981, N. 84; also compare the Letter of this Congregation of 14 September 1994 about the reception of Communion by remarried divorced faithful, which rejects the proposal from the Oberrhein bishops; and Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis of 22 February 2009, N. 29).

This position of the Magisterium is well-founded. Remarried divorcees stand in the way of their access to the Eucharist, insofar as their state of life is an objective contradiction to the relationship of love between Christ and the Church, which is made visible and present in the Eucharist (doctrinal reason). If these people were allowed to receive the Eucharist this would cause confusion among the faithful about the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage (pastoral reason).

2. In addition to this a prayer service is suggested for divorced faithful who enter into a new civil marriage. Although it is explicitly stated that this is not some “semi-marriage” and the ceremony should be simple. but it would still be a sort of “Rite” with an entrance, reading from the Word of God, blessing and giving of a candle, prayer and conclusion.

Such celebrations were expressly forbidden by John Paul II and Benedict XVI: “The respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples  themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful,  forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to  perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry. Such ceremonies  would give the impression of the celebration of a new sacramentally valid  marriage, and would thus lead people into error concerning the indissolubility  of a validly contracted marriage” (Familiaris Consortio, n. 84).

The affected faithful are to be offered support, but it must be avoided that “confusion arise among the faithful  concerning the value of marriage” (Sacramentum Caritatis, N. 29).

Due to the aforementioned discrepancies, the draft text is to be withdrawn and revised, so that no pastoral directions are sanctioned which are in opposition to Church teaching. Because the tekst has raised questions not only in Germany, but in many parts of the world as well, and has led to uncertainties in a delicate pastoral issue, I felt obliged to inform Pope Francis about it.

“Going paths which fully agree with the doctrine of the faith of the Church”

After consultation with the Holy Father, an article from my hand was published in L’Osservatore Romano on 23 October 2013, which sumarises the binding teaching of the Church on these questions. This contribution was also published in the weekly edition of the Vatican newspaper.

Since a number of bishops have turned to me and a working group of the German Bishops’ Conference is dealing with the topic, I would like to inform you that I will send a copy of this letter to all the diocesan bishops of Germany. Hoping that on this delicate issue we are going pastoral paths, which are in full agreement with the doctrine of the faith of the Church, I remain with heartfelt greeting and blessings in the Lord.

We need Negative theology

Thinking about the way we come to understand the contours of our relationship to God we have the work of negative theology. We inhabit a world in which human beings have faith and reason and they pursue the beauty of Truth. The truth here is not an object but a person. Christians call truth by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the second Person of the Trinity. I like Father Dumitru Staniloae’s theological work since I encountered his writing a decade ago in theology school. Father is now deceased but he was an Orthodox priest and theologian of the Romanian Orthodox Church, who, in my opinion, has relevance for Catholics today.

Negative theology is still a mental operation, the final one, mixed, however, as prayer is, with a feeling of the powerlessness to comprehend God. It is related to the comprehension of God through nature, history, Holy Scripture, art, dogma and in general through everything which is between us and God either as an external reality or as a system of concepts and symbolic images. Every reality, concept or symbolic image mirrors God as well as awakens in us the proof or unexplainable feeling that God is totally different, in comparison with them; so they compel us to negate all the positive attributes which, because of them, we ascribe to God. In other words,  all things in between open for us a perspective to God; at the same time they confront us with an infinite abyss of divine reality which we can’t grasp with our minds, and which first of all doesn’t show us anything that created realities, concepts and symbolic images do. But our mind, faced with this abyss still doesn’t give up looking at things, concepts and symbolic images, but turns its gaze from this to that and finds that they don’t give it the means to describe the abyss. It tries, we might say, to measure it with every measure in the world, in other words with every attribute or image, or with every concept based on created things. Finally, the mind realizes that not one is suitable. So it eliminates them one by one. Negative theology is therefore a mental operation because it investigates the context of various attributes and concepts and compares them with the divine abyss, which it lives somehow with feeling, and finds they are insufficient.

In a certain sense, negative theology is still a rational operation; it is still an exact weighing of each concept, whose limits only now appear to the mind in all their clarity. But the comprehension of the definite content of a concept is made at the same time as we cast our gaze over the divine abyss which reason can’t encompass, but which the mind gains by intuition, by a look or feeling of another nature; so this operation, although on the one hand mental, isn’t only rational, not only deductive, but has an intuitive element in it, the ascertaining of which is limitless and therefore can’t be described. It is a rational operation by which the mind concludes, nevertheless, that reason isn’t sufficient.

Father Dumitru Staniloae
Orthodox Spirituality, in the section titled “Negative and Positive Theology: A Dynamic Relationship”

Theology: Catholic and Orthodox?

What does it mean to say “Theologically… thus and such….”

There are many “professional” theologians and types of reflection on God, the biblical teaching, ecclesial tradition, prayer, the spiritual life, etc, how do you discern who to read? Sometimes the professionals lack the lex agenda (that is, the law of life) that’s required for an authentic Christian life.  By nature, we worship, believe, live and act in accordance with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It will make your head spin in trying to make a good decision on what to read and what to avoid. We know that not everything in print (or on a blog) is worth the time.

Admittedly, Catholics, clergy and laity alike, can stand behind the veil of something they know little about and the implications of what is published. Selecting a good book in theology is often made in a knee-jerk way. For example you will hear some priests say, “I will never read anything written by a Jesuit” or “she’s fema-nazi, a heretic” or there is a perspective that contends that “reading outside the ecclesial family is wrong.”

It is true, not everything in the field of liberation theology is germane to an authentic Catholic life. But that can be said of all the allied fields in theological reflection. An honest intellectual will say that you have to know what reasonable people are saying. We need less ideology and more openness to faith and reason is needed. Faith and reason are oriented in loving the truth. So while one could argue that the theological reflection of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger is far more satisfying than Hans Kung and Karl Rahner when you read, study and pray with sacred Scripture, knowing a something of the other is good.  A critical reader ought to be able to enter into a respectful and lively dialogue with thinkers; there can’t be an a priori stance that one or the other is always wrong. The default answer to every question doesn’t have to be NO. Yet. dialogue is not negotiation; openness to the other doesn’t mean you compromise the truth. The point is that we have to have an objectivity (know the the sources of claims made) about what believe and teach and live.

I have long argued that a Catholic’s first theological reflection is liturgical. The maxim of St Prosper of Aquitaine guides: legem credendi lex statuat supplicant. Meaning: The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition (Catechism, 1124). Let’s start here rather than attend to confessional lines of how catholic one is, or not.

The point of theology is reflect in a public way who God is and God’s grace operative in our world. Theology is in pursuit of wisdom and of making disciples.

A 2008 blog post at Erenikon, “What is Orthodox Theology?” asked the same questions regarding but for the Orthodox believer. I would say that much of is held and live in the Orthodox Church coheres with Catholic theology. Several Catholic theologians I know use the thinking of professional theologians who belong to the Orthodox Church.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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