November 1997

Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  By Michael J. Wrenn and Kenneth D. Whitehead. Ignatius. 409 pages. $17.95.

Flawed Expectations is an account of the reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church by the catechetical experts of our day. The authors are experts in their own right, and present a thorough, well-documented, and balanced report that outlines the origin, development, production, and eventual reception of the Catechism. The making of this universal catechism was noteworthy, aside from the sheer magnitude of the enterprise, for the degree and quality of the participation. The authors stress that the Catechism was written by and large as a collegial effort of the bishops of the whole world.

Written in French, the Catechism had to be translated into other languages. Many of us are vaguely aware of the controversies surrounding the initial translations into English. Flawed Expectations gives an in-depth account of what happened. The authors do an excellent job of reporting the facts and relating their significance. Anyone interested in the phenomenon of “inclusive language” in liturgical and catechetical documents would do well to read this book. In the appendices, furthermore, are two excellent essays on inclusive language, as well as a layout of excerpts from the Catechism: the original French; the initial (not approved) translation; and the final (approved) translation. The comparison is revealing.

The bulk of the book, however, narrates and analyzes the negative reception of the Catechism on the part of many Catholic theologians and catechists. These sections are not a joy to read. In excruciating detail, the authors report the sad story of the catechetical establishment’s slighting of the Catechism in the name of “current research,” “broader perspective,” and such. These catechists are the people who write the textbooks and run the workshops that inform how catechesis is done in our schools and parishes.

The negative response to the Catechism is widespread among these professionals. Eschewing the name-calling that tempts some orthodox circles, the authors report in sober and balanced fashion the magnitude of the crisis. This is no small accomplishment. Clear thinking and levelheaded debate are required, directed at the arguments — not the personalities — of those who confuse and muddle the teachings of the Church. The fair and objective tone of this book is one of its great virtues.

While example after example of speciously academic maneuvering around the clear and cogent message of the Catechism might cause one to despair, one must keep in mind that the work of the Church will not ultimately be frustrated. As the authors put it, “It is not that these people have not done, and will not continue to do damage. They have done a lot of damage, as we have unhappily had to document in these pages. Many of them still continue to occupy positions where they can go on inflicting damage. But let us say it very plainly: They have no hope whatsoever of ever transforming the Church.”

- Tom Frei



Christian Faith and the Theological Life.  By Romanus Cessario. Catholic University of America Press. 197 pages. $34.95.

Fr. Cessario has given us a rewarding experience in his Christian Faith and the Theological Life. I call the book “rewarding” advisedly. Fr. Cessario’s book is not “reader-friendly,” for it abounds in distinctions, citations, and technical language, but it richly rewards the patient and disciplined reader. The hasty browser might take its title to indicate an abstract or dry work, but once into it the reader finds that like all good books of theology, it is about reality, and so it is about life — the godly life. It explains the role of faith in the concrete, seven-days-a-week Christian life.

A cast of thousands appears in this book. One of Cessario’s great assets is his familiarity with the treasury of theological sources. From it he dispenses, with the liberality of the truly wealthy. Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, the sainted spiritual writers, the great academic theologians, and the Councils of the Church are all cited — an implicit acknowledgment of the great debt owed by any orthodox theologian of the 20th century.

The concrete encounter of the author with lived Christianity is plain. Cessario asks three questions whose importance is immediately obvious: Where does the godly life come from? What is it? Where is it going?

The book begins, as it must, with Christ, then proceeds to grace, then the believing person, and it considers the objects of faith; finally, it speaks of the connection of faith with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, particular attention is paid to the value of St. Thomas’s teaching on natural knowledge and the vital importance of the verbal precision found in the Church’s propositional expression of faith.

For all of this, “Bravo!”

- Theodore Rebard



An Introduction to New Testament Christology.  By Raymond E. Brown. Paulist. 226 pages. $9.95.

Reading the Gospels, one comes across things that seem to clash with the Nicene declaration that Jesus is God. The Lord replies to the rich young man who addressed him as good teacher, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk. 10:18).

Since the advent of historical-critical scholarship, it has been common to take at face value passages that seem to deny Jesus’ divinity and to explain away those that do assert his divinity. The much-publicized Jesus Seminar, which concluded that 82 percent of the sayings attributed to Jesus were never said by Him, displays the extent of this tendency. In this confusion, Fr. Raymond Brown offers a comprehensive and objective treatment of New Testament Christology and scholarship.

Every passage of the New Testament that pertains to the issues of Christology is gathered here. The passages are organized according to whether they seem to support the divinity of Jesus, seem ambiguous on the point, or seem to deny His divinity. The texts are independently assessed, and Brown consistently summarizes every topic, providing his conclusions. Four appendices treat the development of the messianic concept, the Resurrection, the question of whether New Testament Christians called Jesus God, and the Christology of John’s Gospel.

The gist of the book is that modern scholarship’s tendency to downplay New Testament passages supportive of the divinity of Jesus and all things supernatural is colored by bias — just as the “bias” of orthodoxy harmonizes difficult passages with the truth that He is divine. The criteria some scholars use in assessing the New Testament seem to start with the assumption that there are no miracles and that Jesus was not divine. Indicative of Brown’s own methodology is his treatment of the Jesus Seminar: “Historicity…should be determined not by what we think possible or likely, but by the antiquity and reliability of the evidence…. As far back as we can trace, Jesus was known and remembered as one who had extraordinary powers.”

Brown concludes that during the period of the New Testament’s composition there was a growth in the understanding of Jesus as the Messiah and as divine and an increased willingness to attribute such titles to Him. A Catholic understanding of authority in the Church and Scripture does not have difficulty with this concept of growth and development. But the crucial assertion Brown makes is that such development had already expressed itself in the New Testament. The Nicene assertion in the fourth century that Jesus is “true God from true God” was not a late or anti-biblical formulation.

Brown’s book is a long-overdue, critical corrective to much of what is currently passing for scholarship on the issues of New Testament Christology.

- Keith Massey





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