Month: August 2003

Happy Birthday (Shawn McElhinney’s) Rerum Novarum!

A belated congratulations to I. Shawn McElhinney, who celebrated the birthday of his blog Rerum Novarum on August 18th. Those who have defended Vatican II and the Holy Father against the
slanders of Radical Traditionalists can testify how much time and effort it requires, and St. Blog’s is truly blessed to have Shawn’s skills applied to this task. A number of Shawn’s works are found here (with special attention to “A Prescription Against Traditonalism”). When he’s not blogging on his own, Shawn lends a hand in “exposing the crackpots of the self-styled traditionalist fringe” on The Lidless Eye Inquisition.

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Raging Against the Vatican

Envoy Magazine‘s Carl Olson blogs on the “Luther complex” of the controversial priest Hans Küng, whose memoir My Struggle for Freedom is due for publication in November:

There is no denying Küng’s intelligence and scholarly brilliance . . . but the Christian Faith is not about being smarter than other people. It is ultimately about humility and holiness, both being gifts of God through Christ. From what I have read, Kung’s arrogance is legendary. Contrast that with the incredible humility of Cardinal Ratzinger, once a colleague of Kung’s, whose work for the Church has exhibited the sort of humility, strength, firmness, charity, and pastoral vision one expects from a true disciple of Christ.

I’ve actually enjoyed some of Fr. Küng’s books, particularly those on interreligious dialogue. I’m currently reading Christianity & World Religions, a collection of essays by Küng and two other scholars on Hinduism, Buddhism, & Islam, and I am definitely interested in reading his memoirs (particularly his reflections on Vatican II and his early years at the University of Tübingen, when he and Cardinal Ratzinger were colleagues). But I concur with Olson’s criticism of Küng’s arrogance — his greatest flaw is his preoccupation with himself and his dissent with the Vatican.

Two dominant themes that have influenced Küng’s work is his vision of a “global ethic” for the world’s religions 1 and his conception of a “paradigm change” in the development of Christian theology, the latter hermeneutic derived from the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. Unfortunately, Küng’s attempts to apply paradigm analysis to religious history are not always productive, and result in obscuring the subject. This was the impression I received reading Küng’s massive Christianity: Essence, History & Future (Continuum, 1996), which I am amused to find placed alongside other ‘introductions to Christianity’ in Catholic bookstores. Likewise, Eugene Fisher says of his earlier work Judaism: Between Yesterday and Today:

Küng attempts to summarize all of the Jewish history and thought through paradigm theory. But in this instance that theory turns into a procrustean bed. A key test of any attempt to describe another religious tradition is whether members of that tradition will actually see themselves in the attempted description. In this case, I do not believe that very many Jews will see Judaism depicted here either accurately or sympathetically. This book tells us a lot about what kind of religion would be an ideal one in Küng’s mind. But it tells us almost nothing about what Judaism in its many manifestations over the centuries has been, is, or could be. In short, it fails to live up to its title.2

It is appropriate that Dr. Fisher places Küng’s work alongside that of Rosemary Radford Reuther in the ‘Polemical’ category in his biography, rather than ‘Introductions and General Overviews’ of Judaism. Returning to Carl’s description of Küng’s “Luther complex”, Allen Mittleman describes this book as a “challenge to reform [Jewish] tradition along Küngian theological lines”, and criticizes Küng’s furious polemic against “the Law”, concluding:

“his profound hostility to the dominant mode of Jewish piety impairs his ability not only to interpret Judaism but to converse with Jews. I have no duty to listen to someone who evidently holds my way of life in contempt.”3

Stripped of his authorization to teach as a Catholic theologian in 1979, Küng still bears a great deal of resentment towards the Vatican. This chip on his shoulder becomes increasingly more explicit in his later works. His latest work, The Catholic Church: A Short History, is not so much a ‘history’ as an opportunity for him to reiterate his earlier criticisms of papal infallibility and the Vatican heirarchy.

However, when it comes to autobiographies extolling one’s intellectual brilliance & lamenting martyrdom at the hands of the Vatican, Küng could certainly take lessons from the progressive Episcopalian/former-Dominican Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest. In reaction to the Congregation’s investigation of his work, he composed an open letter to Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican “to call to task . . . for their sins of omission and failure to teach a credible faith and spirituality, [and] to try to educate [them] and the public about creation spirituality.”

What “global ethic” is for Küng, “creation spirituality” is to Matthew Fox — the perfect antidote to the many ills (racism, sexism, patriarchy, et. al.) that pervade the Catholic Church and society as a whole. Fox is anything but modest about this achievement: as he proclaimed to one interviewer, “one of my main works or accomplishments was recovering the mystical tradition of Christianity.4.

According to Fox, Christianity has been spiritually-destitute ever since St. Augustine came up with the doctrine of original sin, and has made it his personal mission to repair the damage by propogating his notion of “original blessing.” With this end in mind, Fox re-translated Meister Eckhart and St. Hildegard of Bingen, and in turn used his own translations (rather than the original texts) as basis for his theology. And in a ploy that truly has to be read to be believed, Fox assembled snippets from various writings of St. Thomas Aquinas into a “dialogue” with himself. Readers of Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality will be hardly suprised to find that this great Doctor of the Church was actually a medieval proponent of Matthew Fox’s thought. 5 Such a move provoked scientist & theologian Lawrence Osborn to wonder:

This immediately raises the question of whether the authors in question are being allowed to speak for themselves. On closer examination, it appears that they are, in fact, being subjected to a bed of Procrustes. That mythological character used to measure travelers against his bed – if they fell short they were stretched to fit, if they were overlong amputation was the order of the day. 6

In what some may consider to be a blessing in disguise, Fox left the Dominicans and joined the Episcopalians in 1994, where he continues to promote creation spirituality and “the techno-cosmic mass.” As Douglas LeBlanc comments in his review of Confessions, “Matthew Fox has the exegetical and theological savvy to become a bishop in the postmodern Episcopal Church.” 8

Hans Küng and Matthew Fox, along with a host of other dissenting Catholics or ex-Catholics (John Cornwell, Garry Wills, James Carroll, et al.) have carved out a niche for themselves by raging against the Vatican. They’ve sold many books and much attention has been lavished upon them, especially in this time of crisis in the Church. But as Carl Olson says, “[Kung’s] work is the product of a particular era and does not contain the timeless qualities that exist in the work of Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II, and others.” Decades from now I imagine that Catholics will still be studying the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. I do not think these authors will enjoy such lasting appeal.

Note: Gerard Serafin has blogged on the alleged reconciliation with Hans Kung proposed by Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

  1. Küng penned the early draft of the ‘Declaration of a Global Ethic’ for the Parliament of Religions.
  2. Jewish-Christian Relations 1989 – 1993: A Bibliographic Update.
  3. The Scholar as Polemicist. Review of Kung’s Judaism: Between Yesterday & Today by Alan L. Mittleman. First Things 31 (March 1993): 45-48.
  4. “Original Blessing: An Interview with Matthew Fox” Nexus Nov. 2001.
  5. Catholicism for the New Age: Matthew Fox and Creation-Centered Spirituality, Mitchell Pacwa, S.J. examines Fox’s faulty translations. According to Pacwa, one of the Dominicans originally assigned to investigate Fox’s work, Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., reported at a 1991 lecture that “Fox’s work did not seem worth condemning because it was too superficial and did not appear to be a danger to the faithful. He was wrong, as he now admits.”
  6. Heresy or Hope? – A Critique of Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality, by Lawrence Osborn. TheoNet.net. Mr. Osborn also cites Rosemary Radford Reuther, who criticized Fox for “[lacking] the basic requirement of historical scholarship, and critical distance from his own agenda.”
  7. Confessions: The Making Of A Post-Denominational Priest, reviewed by Douglas LeBlanc for the Christian Research Institute.

Hans Kung & Matthew Fox: Raging against the Vatican

Envoy Magazine‘s Carl Olson blogs on the “Luther complex” of the controversial priest Hans Küng, whose memoir My Struggle for Freedom is due for publication in November:

There is no denying Küng’s intelligence and scholarly brilliance . . . but the Christian Faith is not about being smarter than other people. It is ultimately about humility and holiness, both being gifts of God through Christ. From what I have read, Kung’s arrogance is legendary. Contrast that with the incredible humility of Cardinal Ratzinger, once a colleague of Kung’s, whose work for the Church has exhibited the sort of humility, strength, firmness, charity, and pastoral vision one expects from a true disciple of Christ.

I’ve actually enjoyed some of Fr. Küng’s books, particularly those on interreligious dialogue. I’m currently reading Christianity & World Religions, a collection of essays by Küng and two other scholars on Hinduism, Buddhism, & Islam, and I am definitely interested in reading his memoirs (particularly his reflections on Vatican II and his early years at the University of Tübingen, when he and Cardinal Ratzinger were colleagues). But I concur with Olson’s criticism of Küng’s arrogance — his greatest flaw is his preoccupation with himself and his dissent with the Vatican.

Two dominant themes that have influenced Küng’s work is his vision of a “global ethic” for the world’s religions 1 and his conception of a “paradigm change” in the development of Christian theology, the latter hermeneutic derived from the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. Unfortunately, Küng’s attempts to apply paradigm analysis to religious history are not always productive, and result in obscuring the subject. This was the impression I received reading Küng’s massive Christianity: Essence, History & Future (Continuum, 1996), which I am amused to find placed alongside other ‘introductions to Christianity’ in Catholic bookstores. Likewise, Eugene Fisher says of his earlier work Judaism: Between Yesterday and Today:

Küng attempts to summarize all of the Jewish history and thought through paradigm theory. But in this instance that theory turns into a procrustean bed. A key test of any attempt to describe another religious tradition is whether members of that tradition will actually see themselves in the attempted description. In this case, I do not believe that very many Jews will see Judaism depicted here either accurately or sympathetically. This book tells us a lot about what kind of religion would be an ideal one in Küng’s mind. But it tells us almost nothing about what Judaism in its many manifestations over the centuries has been, is, or could be. In short, it fails to live up to its title.2

It is appropriate that Dr. Fisher places Küng’s work alongside that of Rosemary Radford Reuther in the ‘Polemical’ category in his biography, rather than ‘Introductions and General Overviews’ of Judaism. Returning to Carl’s description of Küng’s “Luther complex”, Allen Mittleman describes this book as a “challenge to reform [Jewish] tradition along Küngian theological lines”, and criticizes Küng’s furious polemic against “the Law”, concluding:

“his profound hostility to the dominant mode of Jewish piety impairs his ability not only to interpret Judaism but to converse with Jews. I have no duty to listen to someone who evidently holds my way of life in contempt.”3

Stripped of his authorization to teach as a Catholic theologian in 1979, Küng still bears a great deal of resentment towards the Vatican. This chip on his shoulder becomes increasingly more explicit in his later works. His latest work, The Catholic Church: A Short History, is not so much a ‘history’ as an opportunity for him to reiterate his earlier criticisms of papal infallibility and the Vatican heirarchy.

However, when it comes to autobiographies extolling one’s intellectual brilliance & lamenting martyrdom at the hands of the Vatican, Küng could certainly take lessons from the progressive Episcopalian/former-Dominican Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest. In reaction to the Congregation’s investigation of his work, he composed an open letter to Cardinal Ratzinger and the Vatican “to call to task . . . for their sins of omission and failure to teach a credible faith and spirituality, [and] to try to educate [them] and the public about creation spirituality.”

What “global ethic” is for Küng, “creation spirituality” is to Matthew Fox — the perfect antidote to the many ills (racism, sexism, patriarchy, et. al.) that pervade the Catholic Church and society as a whole. Fox is anything but modest about this achievement: as he proclaimed to one interviewer, “one of my main works or accomplishments was recovering the mystical tradition of Christianity.4.

According to Fox, Christianity has been spiritually-destitute ever since St. Augustine came up with the doctrine of original sin, and has made it his personal mission to repair the damage by propogating his notion of “original blessing.” With this end in mind, Fox re-translated Meister Eckhart and St. Hildegard of Bingen, and in turn used his own translations (rather than the original texts) as basis for his theology. And in a ploy that truly has to be read to be believed, Fox assembled snippets from various writings of St. Thomas Aquinas into a “dialogue” with himself. Readers of Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality will be hardly suprised to find that this great Doctor of the Church was actually a medieval proponent of Matthew Fox’s thought. 5 Such a move provoked scientist & theologian Lawrence Osborn to wonder:

This immediately raises the question of whether the authors in question are being allowed to speak for themselves. On closer examination, it appears that they are, in fact, being subjected to a bed of Procrustes. That mythological character used to measure travelers against his bed – if they fell short they were stretched to fit, if they were overlong amputation was the order of the day. 6

In what some may consider to be a blessing in disguise, Fox left the Dominicans and joined the Episcopalians in 1994, where he continues to promote creation spirituality and “the techno-cosmic mass.” As Douglas LeBlanc comments in his review of Confessions, “Matthew Fox has the exegetical and theological savvy to become a bishop in the postmodern Episcopal Church.” 8

Hans Küng and Matthew Fox, along with a host of other dissenting Catholics or ex-Catholics (John Cornwell, Garry Wills, James Carroll, et al.) have carved out a niche for themselves by raging against the Vatican. They’ve sold many books and much attention has been lavished upon them, especially in this time of crisis in the Church. But as Carl Olson says, “[Kung’s] work is the product of a particular era and does not contain the timeless qualities that exist in the work of Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II, and others.” Decades from now I imagine that Catholics will still be studying the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II. I do not think these authors will enjoy such lasting appeal.

Note: Gerard Serafin has blogged on the alleged reconciliation with Hans Kung proposed by Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

  1. Küng penned the early draft of the ‘Declaration of a Global Ethic’ for the Parliament of Religions.
  2. Jewish-Christian Relations 1989 – 1993: A Bibliographic Update.
  3. The Scholar as Polemicist. Review of Kung’s Judaism: Between Yesterday & Today by Alan L. Mittleman. First Things 31 (March 1993): 45-48.
  4. “Original Blessing: An Interview with Matthew Fox” Nexus Nov. 2001.
  5. Catholicism for the New Age: Matthew Fox and Creation-Centered Spirituality, Mitchell Pacwa, S.J. examines Fox’s faulty translations. According to Pacwa, one of the Dominicans originally assigned to investigate Fox’s work, Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P., reported at a 1991 lecture that “Fox’s work did not seem worth condemning because it was too superficial and did not appear to be a danger to the faithful. He was wrong, as he now admits.”
  6. Heresy or Hope? – A Critique of Matthew Fox’s Creation Spirituality, by Lawrence Osborn. TheoNet.net. Mr. Osborn also cites Rosemary Radford Reuther, who criticized Fox for “[lacking] the basic requirement of historical scholarship, and critical distance from his own agenda.”
  7. Confessions: The Making Of A Post-Denominational Priest, reviewed by Douglas LeBlanc for the Christian Research Institute.

What I did when the lights went off

Like many commuters in NYC, I was — to put a positive spin on things — blessed with the opportunity to take a scenic walk home across the Queensborough Bridge and along Queens Blvd. 1

A few vendors eager to exploit the panic for profit immediately jacked up the prices on essential materials (water, flashlights, candles). Thankfully, we encountered many benevolent souls along the way who provided free water — including a touching scene of two little kids manning a table all by themselves (with a large supply of plastic cups and gallon jugs from their parents), and a fire station which kept a hose running to cool people in the sweltering 90+ heat.

I walked this very same route on 9/11, so I was familiar with many of the spots where we rested — I even recognized one of the people offering free water and bathrooms as the same person who did so two years ago.

One time while we stopped to rest we noticed a young woman having a lot of trouble with her shoes (high heels) — her co-worker (boyfriend?) took off his own shoes, gave them to her, and walked alongside her barefoot.

The experience was not without humor — In Forest Hills I passed by a liquor store selling shots for $1.00, and a sushi restaurant attempting to clean out its stock (just what you really want on a hot day with a blackout: RAW FISH!)

As it grew dark there were many families sitting on the steps of their apartments with candles — one little boy (getting into the capitalist spirit) decided to try and sell his to passers-by for 25 cents, but the decision was quickly vetoed by his mother.

I walked in the door around 9:30pm. Residents of our apartment were hanging out front with candles and incense and had a radio tuned in to the news. It was nice to look up and see the stars for a change (a rare sight for those living in New York).

What I’ve learned from “The Blackout of 2003” — besides the importance of being prepared for emergencies — is that New Yorkers are an especially resilient bunch, especially after 9/11. (As one radio announcer commented, we’re “90% scar tissue”). 2 I was particularly impressed with the way (mostly) everybody pulled together over the last couple of days, both on the walk back to Queens and in general.

Although a transplanted Tarheel from North Carolina, I have to say I’m very proud to live here.


  1. Now that we have power again I charted my route on Mapquest and, although not mathematically certain, it appears to be btw/ 9-10 miles. Quite a trek!
  2. Still, we’re practically wimps compared to the Iraqis, who’ve been living under similar conditions for months!

Mel Gibson’s Passion Play

Bill Cork recently lamented:

It’s been 40 years since the Second Vatican Council, which (among other accomplishments) began a new era in Catholic-Jewish relations with “Nostra Aetate” . . . many books have been written and many official decrees and statements issued, documenting the slow path toward mutual understanding.

But today, I feel as if nothing has been accomplished. Most educated Catholics have not the slightest understanding of the issues that have been discussed and, we thought, resolved. We are back at square one.

I certainly feel the same way sometimes — although I think it does depend on the parish and who you’re talking to. I’ve met my share of Catholics entirely ignorant of Judaism and well-learned on this subject. When it comes to the Jews, there is a remarkable tendency to err in both directions, either perpetuating the “teaching of contempt” and collective guilt repudiated by Nostra Aetate, or leaning in the opposite direction, as those behind the document Reflections on Covenant & Mission who concluded that Jews are exampt from the Church’s missionary mandate. 1

Bill’s frustration is no doubt provoked by concern over Mel Gibson’s Passion, about which there has been no end of blogging and journalistic commentary. Some of my fellow bloggers out there question whether this concern over Mel’s play is warranted, especially in light of the positive reviews from the select few who have seen it. To understand where Bill and other critics are coming from, I think it may help to learn about the manner in which some theatrical depictions of Christ’s passion and death — commonly known as “passion plays” — have, no pun intended, inflamed passions against the Jewish people over the course of history.

Since the advent of Vatican II, Christians and Jews have jointly undertaken a revision of questionable elements in these plays — the most famous case being the Oberammergau. The history of this famous play (and criticisms thereof) are chronicled by James Shapiro in his book Oberammergau, The Troubling Story of the World’s Most Famous Passion Play (Knopf, 2001), which you can probably find at your local library. Those who don’t have time to do so might check out the “Recommended Changes in the Oberammergau Passion Play after 1984”.

As a contemporary dramatization of the death of Christ, Gibson’s film probably does not contain the troubling elements of his predecessors. (Most of us will never know — and aren’t qualified to comment on the film directly — until we’ve seen it). The positive reviews I’ve read (like this one) lead me to believe that the Anti-Defamation League have little to fear regarding the content of the film.

Nevertheless, when those sensitive to antisemitism hear about the widespread release of a contemporary passion play, they really can’t help but be concerned. 2 And rather than denounce the slightest criticism of Gibson’s film as the product of “anti-religious bigotry”, it would do well simply to read, listen, and acquire an understanding of those things about which such critics are concerned.

Finally, the Guidelines for the implementation of Nostra Aetate call for all Catholics to “acquire a better knowledge of . . . the religious tradition of Judaism, [and] strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” To this end I couldn’t recommend a better starting point than How Firm a Foundation: A Book of Jewish Wisdom for Christians & Jews, by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein (Paraclete Press, 1997).


  1. I sought to address errors in both directions in a recent essay.
  2. I also think the fact that Gibson’s identification as a traditionalist Catholic and consequent denunciation of Vatican II may have a part in provoking Jewish concern, since Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate was a significant turning point in the reconciliation of Jews & Christians.

Further notes on the Episcopalian debate

  • A post from a reader to the blog TitusOneNine (8/7/03) offers some food for thought and a reminder on the necessity for charitable speech:
    I am an orthodox Anglican and a celibate gay woman. I can’t help but notice that the sense of betrayal and pain I have heard expressed by orthodox Anglicans this week is similar to the betrayal and
    pain I have experienced as a gay member of the church. I, like the 24-year-old woman you mention, have sobbed uncontrollably over the betrayal I experienced in two parishes that shut me out. . . .

    Although I do not agree with the confirmation of Bishop Robinson, I understand the pain and frustration behind the gay movement in the church. I wonder whether orthodox Anglican leaders understand it. I question that they do because I have not read any statements on the web acknowledging our pain and betrayal.

    I am not talking about same-sex blessings here or ordination of gay bishops. I am talking about entering a parish and discovering that I, as a homosexual, am NOT welcomed in the name of Christ. I am talking about news
    reporters who use words like “sodomite” and remain publicly unchallenged by orthodox leaders. Calling gay activists sodomites hurts me as well as the activists. We are all sinners, but some of us get a special, ugly label for
    our sins. Believe me, this will not help me form meaningful bonds with members of my current (and third) parish.

  • On a related note, I’ve received criticism of an earlier post which linked to
    this
    article
    , which in the context of the current debate of homosexual union casts the opposition in an unfair light (presenting the gay lifestyle as inevitably ridden with sexual promiscuity, when in fact the argument is for the blessing of “monogamous unions”). It is not something that I gave much consideration to when I
    initially posted, but I accept the critique and have edited my blog accordingly.

  • Finally, as an example of how to engage in a civil discussion of this provocative issue, I’d like to join Mark Shea & a great many others in recommending Maggie Gallagher’s
    MarriageDebate.com Blog.