Friday, 9 May 2014

Differing currents of thought: fact or fiction?


[Warning: Long read.]

One of my favorite passages in Evangelii Gaudium - Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, and de facto blueprint for the future of the Church - regards diversity of theological thought, where he says:
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word.” (§40)
With the above model in mind, let me take you through the latest moves in a “cognitive reconciliation” process that has been underway for many years now and that I have commented on before: the dispute between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). As you can see from the previous post, my take on the situation was in agreement with the CDF, especially after reading the LCWR’s “Systems Thinking Handbook” (where only the last of these three terms seemed to apply). In fact, I came away thinking that the CDF were being quite soft on the LCWR, whose Handbook could clearly be seen not to be Catholic, even by a non-theologian. As such, I felt that the CDF were doing their job both with precision and with prudence, which is no mean feat.

Last week then saw the next round of talks between the two parties, which Cardinal Müller kicked off with talk that reiterated the previous assessment’s validity and that lamented the limited cooperation of the LCWR over the last months. There, Müller, whose fan I have been for a long time, focused on criticizing the LCWR’s “focalizing of attention [...] around the concept of Conscious Evolution,” as expounded by Barbara Marx Hubbard, even leading to “some religious Institutes modify[ing] their directional statements to incorporate concepts and undeveloped terms from Conscious Evolution.” Müller then spoke very directly about what the CDF (which he heads) thought of Conscious Evolution:
“Again, I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language. The fundamental theses of Conscious Evolution are opposed to Christian Revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the Incarnation of Christ, the reality of Original Sin, the necessity of salvation and the definitive nature of the salvific action of Christ in the Paschal Mystery.”
And, again I have to say that I am 100% with Müller and that the above statement is an expression of tact and restraint that I personally would find hard to maintain. Marx Hubbard’s “Conscious Evolution” is muddled, buzzword-addled gibberish that at best aspires to pseudo-philosophy. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity and in no sane context would it even be considered a “current of thought in philosophy, theology [or] pastoral practice.” To borrow another Marx’s linguistic device, I’d say that Conscious Evolution is to thought what military justice is to justice. It’s as if the LCWR took a shampoo ad (with its micro-ceramides and nanosphere complexes) as the starting point for a new theory of cosmogeny. If, after reviewing the Conscious Evolution website, you arrive at a different conclusion, please, proceed to ordering the official “EvolvePac” - the “Evolutionary Tool-Kit to-go” (and it is unlikely that I’ll ever see you here again).

So far, so good. “But,” you might ask, “what does this have to do with Evangelii Gaudium?” And you’d be right to question my train of though here, since the above is just an instance of a speck of dust being flicked off the Church’s shoulder. There is no question of a diversity of thought having to be “reconciled by the Spirit.”

Let’s therefore turn to another part of Cardinal Müller’s talk, where he criticizes the LWCR for their non-compliance with the CDF’s order that “speakers and presenters at major programs [are to] be subject to approval by the [the CDF’s] Delegate,” Archbishop Peter Sartain. Müller then proceeds to reiterate why this provision has been put into place, and to give an example:
“This provision has been portrayed as heavy-handed interference in the day-to-day activities of the Conference. For its part, the Holy See would not understand this as a “sanction,” but rather as a point of dialogue and discernment. [...]

An example may help at this point. It saddens me to learn that you have decided to give the Outstanding Leadership Award during this year’s Assembly to a theologian criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in that theologian’s writings. This is a decision that will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment. Not only that, but it further alienates the LCWR from the Bishops as well.”
What piqued my interest here is that the theologian in question is not named and furthermore that no comment is made by Müller on what it is about their writings that’s amiss (cf. the very clear and direct criticism and naming of Marx Hubbard). Also, a careful reading of his words shows that the objection here is firstly to the process having ignored a provision put in place by the CDF (who does have legal authority over the LCWR) and secondly to the lack of unity with the local Church in the USA.

I was curious though to understand what doctrinal errors the US bishops have found and who the theologian was, so, I dug a bit deeper.

It turns out that the theologian is Dr. Elizabeth Johnson - a Distinguished Professor of Theology at the Jesuit Fordham University in New York City and that the bone of contention with the USCCB is her book “Quest for the Living God.” Having read the USCCB’s assessment of her book made me even more curious, since it sounded to me like its central point was the incompleteness of Johnson’s book (i.e., a focusing only on some aspects, like the economy of the Trinity and not its immanence, or an overemphasis of others, like that of apophasis to the point of denying analogy in the context of our capacity to know anything about God) and that “the book is directed primarily to an audience of non-specialist readers and is being used as a textbook for study of the doctrine of God.”

The next step was obvious - to get a copy of Johnson’s book and see for myself. Here I have to say that I can very clearly identify the basis of the USCCB’s criticism - looking at the cited passages and reading around them provides a picture that is fairly represented in the USCCB’s assessment and, unlike Johnson in her response to the assessment, I don’t believe there has been any misunderstanding.

However, I’d like to argue that Johnson’s case is categorically different from the new-age self-help of the LCWR Handbook or the pseudo-philosophy of Marx Hubbard’s “Conscious Evolution.” Johnson is no charlatan - far from it! Reading her book gives a clear sense both of a sharp and erudite mind and of a person intent on seeking to encounter and understand God (a point also underlined by the USCCB being at pains to emphasize that theirs is “no judgment of the personal intention of the author”). Her writing is full of statements like “theology today [...] seeks understanding of God at once contemporaneous with culture and resistant to its wrongs,” or that “[i]nsight develops [...] from heart to head to hands,” and that:
“Signifying the Creator, Savior, and Lover of all the world, the whole cosmos as well as all human beings, the phrase “the living God” elicits a sense of ineffable divine mystery on the move in history, calling forth our own efforts in partnership while nourishing a loving relationship at the center of our being: “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2).”
I have to say that the above could well have come from Pope Francis, Cardinal Ravasi or even Cardinal Müller. Hers is very much Christian and (part of) Catholic thought and clearly a candidate for the kind of process proposed in Evangelii Gaudium. While I agree with the USCCB’s assessment that her writing is misleading (by being incomplete and aimed at a broad audience), I do also think that it is rich in insight and that the response should have been to initiate dialogue, which, sadly has not taken place - also to Prof. Johnson’s disappointment. I believe that it would be well possible for Johnson to extend what she has written in a way that would not change her position, while making its relationship with the Church’s teaching explicit rather than ambiguous to a theologically untrained reader.

To conclude, let me just refer to Cardinal Kasper, who has been asked about this case during his visit to the US this week and who has been quoted as saying: “Sometimes the CDF views things a bit narrowly. Aquinas was condemned by his bishop. So Johnson is in good company.” I believe it is the CDF’s job to view things narrowly, but also that it is the whole Church’s job to be broad and to facilitate exactly the kind of “differing currents of thought” that Pope Francis speaks about in Evangelii Gaudium.