Volume > Issue > Letter to the Editor: September 2013

September 2013

Better a Good Protestant Than a Mediocre Catholic

Kenneth Whitehead’s article on “pick-and-choose Catholicism” (July-Aug.) could not have been more timely for me. While I can’t agree with much he had to say, I appreciate his contribution to my own inquiry.

I raised the “pick-and-choose” issue at a recent parish gathering; I was ridiculed for seeking some kind of “doctrinal litmus test” to determine whether or not I’m really Catholic. Some of my fellow parishioners suggested that I simply shrug off my differences with the Church as if they didn’t matter. They do matter to me and I prefer to face them directly.

For a number of years now I’ve had serious doubts about several Catholic teachings, including the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and papal infallibility. I also question the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. For me Humanae Vitae is unacceptable, as is the Church’s refusal to ordain women simply on the basis of gender.

In spite of all that, I would prefer to remain a Catholic. I love Catholic liturgy and culture, and, for the most part, Catholic doctrine and discipline as well. But it’s even more important that I remain honest, and I would rather be a good Protestant than a mediocre Catholic.

The issue for me now is not any of the particular questions I have raised, but where my dissent places me in relationship to the Catholic Church. Am I Catholic or not Catholic? So far, I haven’t met anyone who seems to know.

William M. Cundiff

Florence/Victor Parish

Washington, D.C.

Lasch: Beyond the Trees & Above the Forest

Christopher Lasch’s article “The Soul of Man under Secularism” (July-Aug.) clarified my vision for my pastoral work. My parish responsibilities call me to make discernments in the modern world, one tree at a time. Each call, each handshake, each prayer for a particular person is a struggle against secularism. Lasch lifted me up for a moment, out of the forest, to see the contours of the whole terrain. The sight was affirmative and informative. I don’t suppose he had pastors in mind in writing the piece, but it sure helped me.

Pastor David J. Hansen

Student Resource Center, University of Chicago

Victor, Montana

Mary in Blue

In response to Fr. Ken Russell’s guest column, “The Virgin Mary: China Doll or Prairie Woman?” (June): Mary probably dressed much like the women of her day, but in her glorified state, her beauty surpasses that of any beauty queen or Hollywood star. As for the color blue, which Russell suggests most women hate and cannot wear, there are many beautiful shades of blue, and if Mary is shown in blue it would only enhance her beauty. What is more restful than to gaze at a beautiful blue sky, with clusters of slowly moving fluffy white clouds?

Russell asks why Mary is portrayed praying the rosary. No one is stupid enough to believe that Mary is saying the rosary herself. She is merely holding it, as a symbol of the most efficacious prayer she pleads to have said.

Russell says that as a boy Jesus got “lost” in Jerusalem. Jesus was not lost. It was in His Father’s plan that He spend three days in the temple in Jerusalem. When Mary chided Him, He said: “Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?”

Mae M. Chabot

Denver Seminary

Ontonagon, Michigan

Mary: Not a "Prairie Woman" Now

In your June issue you ran an interesting piece by Fr. Ken Russell on the way in which Mary is portrayed in statuary. He counterpoised “glitzy and saccharine” popular images, which seem in his view to border on the idolatrous, to a carving depicting her as a rough and honest woman, pressed hard by tough experience, holding out her child to the world. I applaud both Russell’s taste in statues and his description of the particular image to which he responded. He made me want to go and see it myself.

But I was still troubled by his characterization of popular images as vulgar and misleading. Russell apparently thinks that Mary would be more relevant for us if she were portrayed as a “prairie woman for the prairie people we believers are.” I’m not sure what a “prairie” person is exactly, but I can think of a couple reasons why doing this might not be a good idea.

For one thing, Mary is simply not a prairie woman now. And it is precisely because she’s not that immense numbers of the poor and desperate people throughout the world have recourse to her intercessions. Second, Russell must be aware that the vulgar portrayals he despises derive for the most part from quite precise descriptions and images provided by those who have claimed, with some apparent reason, to have encountered her directly — Bernadette at Lourdes, Catherine Laboure of the Miraculous Medal, Juan Diego at Guadalupe, and others. And how can he possibly ask why Mary is often portrayed with a rosary in her hands without at least mentioning the story of Fatima?

It can help us persevere to remember that Mary once lived as we do, with uncertainty and pain. But we should not forget who she has become.

I have not seen her myself, of course; nor have I got an image of her that fully satisfies me. But she’s given me, in personal prayer and in history, no reason to think her main concern is that I be able to relate to her as a “prairie person.” In point of fact, she’s drawn my attention to quite other matters, some of them things I would have found it convenient otherwise to ignore. If the way she’s appeared in recent times doesn’t square with “good theology,” perhaps it’s not the popular statues based on those appearances but the theology that’s suspect. In any case, I’ve come to care less about her images than her personal aid, help I’ve needed to draw closer to her son.

Jeff Brenzel

St. Charles Seminary

South Bend, Indiana

Longing to See the Prairie Woman

Perhaps you could persuade Fr. Ken Russell to give us the address of the parish that houses the statue of our Blessed Mother he referred to? His piece described a depiction of Mary many of us have longed to see. Perhaps there are photographs that can be purchased?

Ed. Note: The address is St. Joseph’s Church, St. Joseph, MN 56374.

Joanna R. Gutman

Chicago, Illinois

Whistling in the Dark

May I robustly add to the provocative writings in your pages by inquiring of Anglican Canon Mark L. Cannaday (letter, June), who in the “tradition” he lives out of revived “with great clarity” optional celibacy for the priesthood? Could it have been Thomas Cranmer and his cronies, who cunningly connived to conceal their lack of celibacy, and concubines, from that ferocious enforcer of clerical celibacy King Henry VIII? Or was it Matthew Parker, who decided that getting rid of celibacy was not enough and who, through invalid ordinations and consecrations, got rid of the priesthood?

While sympathizing with the Canon’s understandable fear of feeling second-class as a “married priest,” I fear that his whistling in the dark does little to bolster his argument, whatever it does for his courage. To invoke the caricatured Cardinal, the titillating Thorn Birds, and the juvenile Joshua as deep depositories of wisdom is to miss the tragic seriousness of his situation. By all means, let us get on about making the Church one — not, however, via an easy-chair ecumenism, but by a prayerful, painful search for the Truth.

James P. O'Kielty

Albany, Georgia

"Old Dogma"

Many thanks to Richard Becker for his article (May) on my views on the historical reliability of the Gospels, based on my book of that title and on supplementary presentations I gave at the University of Colorado’s Theology Forum. The first four paragraphs summarize my perspectives most fairly and concisely. Given the disparate nature of my material, Becker is to be commended for grasping the heart of my concerns so well.

Beginning with the second full paragraph, however, Becker turns from summary to critique. From this point on I cannot recognize my own views. Neither my book nor the lectures dealt with the three questions Becker wishes to discuss: canonicity, interpretation, and locus of authority. This section of the article does not critique what Becker so aptly summarized in the first part. Rather it replies to a common, traditional evangelical perspective which I for the most part do not share. Becker apparently assumed that since I reflected well-known evangelical concerns regarding the historical reliability of Scripture that I must follow the “party line” in other respects as well. His critique makes several telling points against that party line; I wish to go on record affirming that they are not points against my views!

But I would like to say something else as well. Progress will not be made in Catholic-evangelical dialogues by simply reaffirming well-entrenched perspectives which have proved inadequate. Becker points out several of these within evangelicalism with his quotations from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but then he reverts to even more simplistic, traditional Catholic formulations to answer his three questions: “Who defined the canon of Scripture? The Church. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture? The Church. And who guarantees the special authority and reliability of the Scriptures? Again, the Church.”

Rather than perpetuating false dichotomies between Scripture and the Church, a better approach must surely be to affirm the valid insights of both Catholic and evangelical traditions. Of course, many Christians representing many churches did ultimately “define” the canon through a succession of post-apostolic documents and creeds. But these normally followed identifiable criteria, the validity of which can be discussed and evaluated: prophetic or apostolic authorship, widespread use and value for believers, internal consistency and orthodoxy, and the like. In the case of the Old Testament, evangelicals believe that a Jewish canon of Scripture was reasonably fixed by the first century, which Jesus and the apostles themselves endorsed, the parameters of which should therefore be adopted by Christians today. And this Jewish canon did not include the so-called Apocrypha or deutero-canonical writings.

Who has the authority to interpret Scripture? All Christians! I Corinthians 2:11-15 makes plain the illuminating role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Does this guarantee that all believers will do the job well? Obviously not! Evangelicals have been notorious about not admitting the obfuscating role of tradition in their various denominations and have been slow to appreciate the rich legacy of Catholic and Orthodox interpretations. But much of that is now changing, particularly in scholarly circles. And both Catholics and evangelicals are increasingly agreeing on accepted principles of hermeneutics which add further constraints to idiosyncratic, individual interpretations offered under the pretense of spiritual illumination. The sidebar quote from Newman on the Ethiopian eunuch (accompanying Becker’s article) proves irrelevant; the problem with that man was not that he was a Christian who lacked the insights of the Magisterium, but that he was a Jew (or God-fearer) who had not yet heard of Jesus — the one who was to become the key to a Christian understanding of the Old Testament.

Who guarantees the authority of the Scriptures? Yes, again the Church, in a sense, but only insofar as she remains faithful to her apostolic roots, for which the only existing first-generation testimony remains the New Testament. So to each of Becker’s three questions the answer must be neither “Scripture alone” (as in traditional evangelicalism) nor merely “the Roman Church” (as in traditional Catholicism), but “all major branches of Christian tradition considered together and tested against the teachings of Scripture when interpreted in light of their original contexts and intentions.”

Who knows where this might lead evangelicals and Catholics willing to work together? One recent Presbyterian commentator thinks it will lead to “an evangelical papacy” (F.D. Bruner, The Churchbook [Dallas: Word, 1990] p. 581)! I am more skeptical. But I like Bruner’s creativity far more than Becker’s repetition of old dogma which has gotten us nowhere.

Prof. Craig Blomberg

Denver, Colorado

Let's Hear More from Archbishop Quinn

Archbishop John R. Quinn raises some interesting points in his article on Newman and orthodoxy (May). It is certainly true that a historical method which shows development in the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith is indispensable for the formation of the Catholic mind. We need to move toward a retrieval of Catholic memory.

I would like the Archbishop to write about two more points. First, it would be a great pastoral service for him to offer us a fuller exposition of integralism. Obviously he could not do that in his article, which was already quite comprehensive. But we do need a more definite spelling out of the present day American variety of integralism. We need this so that we move away from vague labels to a reasoned dialogue with all the claims to truth.

A point Newman raised in the controversy with Gladstone comes to mind as a topic for another article. Newman says: “Historical evidence reaches a certain way, more or less, toward a proof of Catholic doctrines; often, nearly the whole way; sometimes it goes only so far as to point in their direction; sometimes, there is only an absence of evidence for a conclusion contrary to them; nay, sometimes, there is an apparent leaning of the evidence to a contrary conclusion, which has to be explained; in all cases, there is a margin left for the exercise of faith in the word of the Church. He who believes the dogmas of the Church only because he has reasoned them out of history is scarcely a Catholic. It is the Church’s dogmatic use of history in which the Catholic believes; and she uses other informants also, Scripture, tradition, the ecclesiastical sense or phronema and a subtle ratiocinative power which in its origin is a divine gift.”

All this is important for mapping out a sufficiently Vatican II theological method in light of the tremendous developments that have taken place in the area of historical critical methods of biblical exegesis. We need some reflections on the interplay between the definitions of history and the impact of secular methods of historical criticism on the study of biblical and patristic data. We might lump this together under the heading of hermeneutics. A related question might be: How do we allow for a historical critical method that is scientific enough, and for the conciliar definitions of orthodox faith that are held according to their proper meaning and integrity, when we are redesigning the method of our systematic theology?

We face two camps: those who tend toward fideism and those who tend to the critical approach. Catholic faith is meant to be saving for both kinds of persons. We need some basic theses that will steer the way in accord with what the Council offers us in Dei Verbum. There are elements of the solution in Newman that the Archbishop may be able to bring together in a future article for us.

Msgr. Richard Malone

Overbrook, Pennsylvania

Celebrating Walker Percy

The sixth New Oxford Review Forum of Southern California, “Love in the Cosmos: The Writings of Walker Percy,” was held at Loyola Law School on June 1. After our moderator, Leah Buturain Schneider, presented a brief biographical sketch of Percy, David Killoran, a professor of English at Loyola Marymount University, offered a thought-provoking opening presentation, using the novel Lancelot to skillfully elicit the major themes in the late novelist’s work. A lively and stimulating dialogue followed.

In the afternoon session we discussed several other works of Percy, exploring how his novels so powerfully evoke the sense of aloneness in the modern world. Percy suggests that modern men and women are spiritually lost but avoid this knowledge, seeking desperately to confirm the reality of personal existence in the vicarious: in movies or the evening television news. In the extreme, only when life itself is threatened do people feel truly alive, hence, perhaps, the growing appetite for violence. But Percy’s heroes, often portrayed as neurotic or even insane, are somehow shocked out of this numbness. They become aberrant in the eyes of others. They are forced to search for meaning, and, ultimately, or salvation. In their search, they must face the unbearable: the absolutes of good and evil, and the ambiguity of the world. Characteristically, Percy’s stories end with two people, both being searchers and survivors, in tentative dialogue.

The discussion also traced the many influences on Percy, including his Southern tradition, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and Christ symbols. Several of the participants offered highly personal accounts of Percy’s influence. One told of gaining an insight into the pattern of her own life from The Moviegoer, which freed her to rediscover her faith. Another attributed a change of direction in his life to Robert Coles’s book on Percy, which revealed the extent to which modern men will go to “avoid the freedom Christ offers.” Yet another recognized a “sacramentalism” in Percy’s works, perhaps derived in part from the influence of Hopkins, which suggests “a radical new aesthetic celebrating the senses and the concrete,” and concluded that what Percy offers is a perception of “the extraordinary in the ordinariness of things.”

Percy’s limitations were noted, including those that he himself recognized, particularly his characterizations of women, which some participants felt were thin and bordered on the stereotypical. But Percy’s vision, enhanced by his humanity and his Catholic faith, clearly had influenced and touched most everyone at our seminar. We all felt enriched by his work, and by the opportunity to discuss it in fellowship with others. We shared the rare delight of familiarity leading to discovery, which Percy would have appreciated.

Ronald Austin

Studio City, California

Towering Saint

It was fitting that you concluded your April editorial, which favored compassion and restraint in the Persian Gulf, with the quotation from St. Thomas More. More’s resolute faith is indeed a model for our times.

Readers of NOR who admire More may enjoy a recently published little book by Louis L. Martz entitled Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man (Yale University Press). Martz, Sterling Professor of English at Yale, deftly refutes some negative conclusions about More that were drawn by Richard Marius in his 1984 biography of More. Martz’s book also includes an elegant study of the books and letters More wrote while awaiting his fate in the Tower of London.

Michael Malloy

Ellicott City, Maryland

You May Also Enjoy

Here Come the (Canon) Lawyers

What doth it profit a man if he gains his rights and loses his own soul?

Not Hitler's Pope

Review of Hitler, the War, and the Pope

On Being at Once Catholic & Chinese

How much of Chinese daily and intellectual life, so utterly foreign to men from both Athens and Jerusalem, can be carried over into communion with Rome?