Volume > Issue > Letters to the Editor: September 1984

Letters to the Editor: September 1984

Losing Your Life to Find It

As a person who has follow­ed the Focolare movement for even more years than I have read the New Oxford Review, I found Greg Erlandson’s review of William Proctor’s book …An Interview with Chiara Lubich (May) particularly interesting. Perhaps I can give a few answers, on the basis of what I have ob­served, to some questions the book raised but is too brief to answer.

The comparison of their processes of “mutual correction” and “mutual emulation” with “sensitivity” or “consciousness raising” sessions is not a good one. A better comparison would be with the practice in some monastic communities of the “chap­ter of faults.” There is nothing of “getting in touch with your feel­ings” about this. It is not an oversimplification to say that, as with the other practices of the Focolare, it is an attempt to put into practice what our Lord call­ed, “My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

If I am really your friend, I will help you see defects in your­self of which you may not be aware, but which could be cor­rected. Or if you have made a mistake or failed in some way, I should tell you if I noticed and might be able to explain the fail­ure. A professional baseball team hires a pitching coach and a bat­ting coach to do precisely this, not to “put down” the player, but to help him perfect his skills. It would not be a bad analogy to say that a Focolare is a group of persons trying to achieve Chris­tian perfection as a team.

Lest this “chapter of faults” be discouragingly negative, each person must counterbalance his critique of the other by mention­ing something the other did or said which he found edifying.

In some other interview which Chiara, or one of her more expert followers, gave recently, I read an answer to Erlandson’s question: “Does Christianity pro­vide the safeguards to keep such a process from being destructive of the individual?” This is the major problem confronting a communitarian spirituality in a culture so concerned with pro­tecting our individual rights and liberties. The answer is that “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”: I have been amazed to watch, year by year, the matur­ity and development achieved by individuals who really plunge in­to living this spirituality. Unity does not mean uniformity, rath­er, perhaps, a reflection of the Divine Community of Three Per­sons. But there is no denying that unity requires an asceticism of self-denial; each grain of wheat goes down into the ground and dies, or so it feels, but then surprises itself by bearing much fruit, and not only in other souls.

It is a Christian paradox that the self is actually enhanced, not destroyed, by its own denial. One loses his life to find it, in this way of life, which is simple but not easy.

I am sure your readers have known individuals who actually shriveled up, or who failed to mature, as a result of guarding their freedom or their individual rights too fanatically.

This movement has been called, by a Dominican theolo­gian in Europe, a synthesis of all the great spiritualities in the his­tory of the Church. What Lubich said about “Jesus forsaken” is, she has often said, the key to the whole thing. I will not pretend that I understand it yet, but I’m still “hanging in.” One cannot but admire it profoundly and wish that it were better known.

Dom Julian Stead

Portsmouth Abbey School

Portsmouth, Rhode Island

Unfair to Schillebeeckx

I liked the May issue — ex­cept for the John F. Maguire review on Schillebeeckx. I thought it was shocking. There was no serious examination of Schillebeeckx’s work; just a reli­ance on Galot, who has function­ed as both complainant and judge in the case. Schillebeeckx is engaged in a quite heroic at­tempt to bring the resources of New Testament criticism to bear on troublesome dogmatic ques­tions. He hasn’t so far as I know been “judged” by the Church.

Maguire complains that what he says is different from Chalcedon; but he doesn’t show, or attempt to show, that what he says is contrary to Chalcedon. There is nothing reprehensible in looking for new ways to talk about the issues of Chalcedon; indeed, this is what John XXIII told us we had to do.

Schillebeeckx is worrying away at the group of problems discussed more than 20 years ago by Karl Rahner in his essays “Theos in the New Testament” and “Current Problems in Christology,” in Theological Investiga­tions, vol I.

I think it is shameful to write off a theologian of Schillebeeckx’s stature in a short popu­lar review likely to be read by people very few of whom will have read Schillebeeckx — and very few of whom will have read Rahner — and to manifest in the review the temper of one who thinks difficult dogmatic ques­tions can be settled in the face of the reading public in this sum­mary way.

I agree with Rahner that there is a “mysterious Monophysite undercurrent in ordinary Christology”; and what goes against an unacknowledged Monophysitism is often taken to be Arian or adoptionist.

J.M. Cameron

St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


I agree with Dr. Cameron that there is nothing reprehensi­ble in looking for new ways to talk about the issues of Chalce­don — specifically, new ways to elucidate the human nature of Christ and the divine nature of Christ as these relate to His One Divine Person — that is, so long as these new ways correspond adequately to the already estab­lished relevance of the Church’s Christological formularies.

As all recognize, the Coun­cil of Chalcedon declared that the two natures of Christ are joined in One Divine Person. Of course Fr. Schillebeeckx need not, in a strict sense, take this formulary as his point of depar­ture; on the other hand, he must certainly avoid dissolving its meaning. Does he succeed?

Schillebeeckx’s starting point is not confidence-making. “A priori and in the first instance I do indeed start from the notion that the man Jesus, who appear­ed within our history, is a human person — what else should he be?” But how could this not be a mistake, since there is only one Person in Christ, a fact that in no way diminishes Christ’s human nature? In order to correspond with Chalcedon, Schillebeeckx will, in the last instance, have to drop his apriorism. To my knowledge, he has not done so.

This Christologically defi­cient humano-personalism leads Schillebeeckx to refer to the cross as a “radical fiasco” — a bad check which would bounce were it not for the fact that “the benevolent One opposed to evil — God — has the last word.” But this is to obscure the mystery of the cross, on which one of the members of the Trinity died (a human death): Unus de Trinitate mortuus est.

It is to obscure the fact that the cross is the instrumental cause of our salvation, an inex­haustible source of grace for all the world.

On this point, Cameron is quite right: I was all too “sum­mary” in my treatment of Schil­lebeeckx, directly quoting only Schillebeeckx’s claim that the Redemption is accomplished “despite” Jesus’ death. On the other hand, this “despite” is link­ed with Schillebeeckx’s aprior­ism; indeed, it signals a rather “mysterious undercurrent” in his far-from-ordinary “experiment in Christology.”


It is always good for the soul to be read a sermon.

So I appreciated John Cort’s, my good friend, personal reflections on several scriptural passages in his May column. But perhaps it is only fair to give John a sermon in return.

Cort attributes to me an idea on poverty and wealth that does not adequately represent my book The Spirit of Demo­cratic Capitalism. My thought on this question has many strands and even the one John cites he misinterprets. Since it is unlike John to be unfair, I attribute his willful blindness (I replied to his similar public remarks at Notre Dame last December) to the par­tisan passion often visited even on persons of good will.

True enough, I do say that whether a Christian is poor or wealthy is irrelevant. In this sense, I quote from St. Augus­tine’s commentary on Psalm 34: “It is not a matter of income but of desires…. Look at the rich man standing beside you: perhaps he has a lot of money on him, but no avarice in him, while you, who have no money, have a lot of avarice” (The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, p. 258).

But a second strand of my thought is represented on page 345: “To jump from the laws of life on the spirit to the laws of political economy is a big and in­appropriate jump. Success in this world is often entirely the opposite of success in the life of grace. ‘Many who are now last will be first, and many who are now first will be last’ (Mt. 20:16). God re­gards not the worldly success of man but his response to God’s Word in his heart and deeds…. The Bible is replete with warn­ings that worldly success is not only the same as salvation, and surely no sign of it, but even a common obstacle to grace. ‘It is as difficult for a rich man to en­ter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’ (Mt. 19:24). There is reason to believe that Calvinist preachers in Great Britain were as likely as any other preachers to inveigh often and sulphurously against worldly success.”

A third strand is found a lit­tle earlier on the same page: “The Jewish and Christian view shows that God is not committed to equality of results. One stew­ard differs from another in his performance; some virgins are foolish, some wise. The faithful son receives no celebration com­parable to the one given by his father for the prodigal. Workers who arrive at the eleventh hour receive the same wage as those who bore the whole day’s heat. St. Paul bids all to compete, to measure themselves as he mea­sures himself, and to outdo him if one can: God will be the judge. Religious compassion does not entail levelling.”

A fourth strand is found on page 28: “The world as Adam faced it after the Garden of Eden left humankind in misery and hunger for millennia. Now that the secrets of sustained material progress have been decoded, the responsibility for reducing mis­ery and hunger is no longer God’s but ours.”

Further citations might be multiplied. The point is that the Gospels are a more dynamic force, releasing far more creative and imaginative energies, than Cort’s useful reflections bring to light. In order to honor the Gos­pels, and to teach me a lesson, it was not necessary for him to construe my book more narrow­ly than the evidence warrants.

Michael Novak

American Enterprise Institute

Washington, D.C.

Infant Doe & God’s Judgment

I see two problems in Shel­don Vanauken’s letter to the editor (June) supporting Infant Doe’s authorized fatal neglect. The first is with the idea that a newborn’s handicap comes from God, and that therefore a fatalis­tic surrender should follow. Dis­ease and death entered the world because of sin, not because of the will of God, so in a sense they do not come from God at all.

But more importantly, just because we recognize God’s hand in allowing misfortune to come to us, why should we think that He doesn’t want us to rise up to overcome it? If He allows me to get hit by cancer or a car, am I defying Him if I go to a doctor for help? How can we think for a minute that it was in harmony with the will of God to let Infant Doe starve to death — just be­cause he was born with an easily correctable throat malformation?

The second problem in Van­auken’s thinking is his confusion on the question of “extraordi­nary” treatment. Intravenous feeding, and even the throat sur­gery Infant Doe needed, are neither of them nowadays con­sidered extraordinary life sup­port methods. The withholding of such ordinary treatment, to the result of the death of that child, will be judged by God.

I will not be condemned if I watch a child fall off a 100-foot cliff into 100 feet of water — es­pecially given the way I swim — and don’t make an extraordinari­ly heroic leap in after him. But if I stand passively by in my back­yard and watch an infant drown in a wading pool, I will be guilty of murder. It makes no differ­ence if he is retarded or not.

Anne Cherney

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Am I Odd?

In James J. Thomson Jr.’s review of Walker Percy’s book Lost in the Cosmos (June), he states that in regard to Percy’s work, “conservative orthodox Christians do not much cotton to a faith so fraught with questions and doubts.” As the review pro­gresses, Thompson asserts that Percy’s work is rejected by vir­tually all quarters of society, lib­eral and conservative. He then says that, “those who read Percy with enthusiasm are odd and dis­parate individuals.”

These remarks struck me as rather strange, or should I say as enlightening. Up until reading Thompson’s review, I had always considered myself a “conservat­ive orthodox Christian” and, at the same time, not only an avid reader of Walker Percy but someone who found Lost in the Cosmos beautiful and illuminat­ing to the nth degree. Either Thompson has miscast his as­sumptions about who Percy’s readership really is, or it may be that, unknown to myself, it turns out that I have been an “odd and disparate individual” all along.

Franky Schaeffer

Schaeffer V Productions

Los Gatos, California

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