Letters to the Editor: October 1986
Lay Involvement: Superficial Cure
John A. McDermott is certainly correct when he points out that contemporary Catholicism is not dealing adequately with issues such as pornography and aid to parochial schools (“Weakness Amid Strength: The Roman Catholic Paradox,” Jul.-Aug.). But his suggested cure — more lay involvement in the Church — is superficial at best.
The reason the Church is so weak today has nothing to do with laypeople being cut off from decision making. Laypeople were even more cut off in the 1940s and 1950s, when the Church was indeed a force to be reckoned with in American society. Everyone from Hollywood producers to Democratic politicians paid attention then. You can argue that a clergy-dominated Church was inappropriate or that the power it generated was misused. You can’t argue the power wasn’t there.
The Church is weak today because both clergy and laity are badly divided on political and even theological issues. Until those divisions are healed, we’ll continue having trouble getting our act together.
Tenafly, New Jersey
It is commendable that John A. McDermott (Jul.-Aug.) would like some ministerial concern for laypersons involved in worldly work. But I couldn’t help but think of that highly energetic and innovative laywoman Dorothy Day. She would never have sat back and waited for the Church to map out a program for her. She trusted her sense of what the Church needed, and then simply did the deeds. I suppose that because she was a convert, she didn’t feel subject to that born-Catholic, hierarchical attitude which causes people to wait for others at the head of the Mystical Body to make the first moves.
I also wonder whether viewing the Church as a social movement and worrying about her “political” strength aren’t the very weaknesses that cause the Church to be a not-so-potent yeast in our society. If, like Dorothy Day, we made the “least little ones” (who have not “arrived” financially and socially) our primary focus, and if, like her, we took the risk of knowing and caring about the disadvantaged at a personal sacrifice to ourselves, then perhaps our society would hear better what we say on moral issues — perhaps even marvel again at how Christians love one another.
John A. McDermott’s article (Jul.-Aug.) provides us with food for thought. However, the food may need a bit more mastication.
Among other points, McDermott suggests the “alienation of the laity” has had causes other than doctrine or anti-clericalism. Perhaps so, but he seems to have overlooked accompanying circumstances.
Doctrinally, the method of presenting ostensibly new teaching seemed to be: “You dummies educated before Vatican II don’t know such things as Christ was True Man as well as True God.” Indeed, it seemed that the new teachers took for granted that those of us past 40 didn’t know a damned thing — oops, a blessed thing.
Doctrinal presentation in Catholic classrooms not infrequently carried a message: “Now, your parents used to believe or practice thus and so, but now….”
Anti-clericalism? No, we still love our priests and religious — though many of them seem to have organized to oppose their (and our) hierarchy. When they show little regard for the teaching authority of the Church, alienation sets in.
Clifford J. Reutter
After my book The Unbound Spirit: God’s Universal Sanctifying Work was published, I received a congratulatory letter from a Patricia Treece, author of a volume on St. Maximilian Kolbe entitled A Man for Others. She wrote: “To recognize the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus the possibility of holiness as well as salvation, among the non-Christian members of the human family is something so important that I find myself amazed no one has done it previously in forthright a manner.”
Unbound Spirit is not an effort at proselytism, as Henry Dieterich in his NOR review (Jul.-Aug.) would have it be. Instead of attempting to make converts out of pagans, it endeavors to instruct believing Catholics in a doctrinal truth, namely, the universal possibility of salvation. According to this teaching, in the words of Vatican II, “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God, and moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (Lumen Gentium 14). Even those who have not reached an explicit knowledge of God can be saved (ibid., 16). The salvation of sincere and loving pagans and nonbelievers occurs not through their own efforts, but through the saving power of grace, without which no one is saved.
If my book makes a modest contribution to theology, it is not by way of grinding out some new dogma. It is by explaining, illustrating, and biblically supporting accepted Church doctrine. It is, moreover, by explaining it in connection with the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is inseparable from the Holy Spirit. Sanctifying grace means the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit to the soul. Yet, the work of the Spirit in the sanctification of non-Christians has not been emphasized. My hope was to render to the Holy Spirit the credit due him.
My focus in Unbound Spirit is on the Holy Spirit. It is not on Jesus, as Dieterich apparently wishes it were. I’m sorry! That does not, however, mean that the role of Christ in salvation is forgotten about. I explicitly point out in my book that all salvation is linked to Jesus and His Church: “There is no salvation apart from Christ nor apart from his Church which extends his presence in the world, and which subsists in Roman Catholicism.” No pagan or atheist “who sees himself as fundamentally obligated to embrace Christ and the Church through baptism and freely, maliciously (to the point of sinning mortally) refuses to do so can be saved, if he or she dies in the refusal.”
Non-Christians in invincible ignorance, however, can be saved “if they live a life of love,” as I say in my book. “The Holy Spirit effects sanctifying grace in them.” Hence, there may indeed be abundant salvation apart from a conscious commitment to Christ and formal membership in Catholicism.
The key element in salvation is love. The loving person discussed in the book is not, however, “mushy” as Dieterich suggests. He is the person of agape — selfless, universal love.
One thing in Dieterich’s review that jolted me was his suggestion that I am “prepared to condemn” certain biblical passages dealing with man’s authority over creation. I recognize a possible historical link between Genesis 1:28, etc., and Western man’s abuse of creation. But I condemn only the abuse.
I admire Dieterich and the zeal with which he writes, and appreciate his status as a convert from paganism. But I respectfully disagree with his perspective that the concerned Christian should preach and not compose “fancy theology.” There are many charisms in the Church. Teaching Christian doctrine is one of them.
Prof. Charles DeCelles
Department of Religious Studies, Marywood College
Ed. Note: Indeed, the Catholic position is not that one must be a Catholic — or a Christian — to have the possibility of salvation. But neither is it the Catholic position that we are dispensed from the obligation — and joy — of preaching the Gospel to all mankind.
James J. Thompson Jr., in reviewing my Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Jul.-Aug.), attributes to me opinions not expressed in the book. Although I am a Republican, I do recognize what is not conservative about the party of Big Business and Abraham Lincoln. Nowhere do I suggest that Southern conservatives can have more than a conditional, cautious alliance with those whose proper symbol is the bulldozer.
I wrote (and still believe) that conservatives in the South must “forget about the black vote as such.” What I meant by this expression was that Southern blacks (as a block) vote on the Left, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. They vote for government and more government. My admonition said nothing against making common cause with black voters outside the “block vote.” Or about racial policy per se.
Prof. M.E. Bradford
Department of English, University of Dallas
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