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An Interview with Hans Küng

 

[This interview originally appeared in Commonweal’​s April 9, 1971 issue]

Forty-three-years-old, tan, blue eyes, rectangular face, Hans Küng is a happy man, tranquil, and pugnacious. He was born at Sursee, in the canton of Lucerne in Switzerland: “I am a citizen of a very small country which has a long tradition of liberty. He also explains: “​My family was Catholic, without complexes. That left its mark on me. I am both free and rigorous with theologians and churches, Catholic or Protestant. Hans Küng made his secondary studies at the coeducational Gymnasium of Lucerne: “​I wanted to withdraw. I went to Rome in search of more discipline, to deepen my knowledge of traditional theology and the workings of the church. I arrived with a very, very obedient attitude. It took me at least five years to understand that the way of conceiving theology in Rome was outdated.

Studies at the Gregorian, directed by Jesuits: “​No doubt that’s the reason it is so often said I am a Jesuit. I’​m quite flattered, of course. But I am a secular priest of the diocese of Basel. He adds: “​I suspect that there are intelligent people outside the Society of Jesus.

Ordained in 1954, a vicar at Lucerne, he was sent to Paris to pursue his studies. He speaks with respect of his teachers, Congar, de Lubac.... After his doctorate in theology, he was named professor at the University of Tübingen. In 1962, John XXIII named him an official theological advisor at the Council. Küng explains: “​My concerns cannot be understood if you ignore the university milieu in which I live. I urge a battle for a Christianity with a more human face. I do not separate scholarship from everyday life: I love to celebrate Mass on Sunday with the whole community, to preach at home in Switzerland and to deliver the Christian message—all day long—to the patients at the hospital where I am assigned.

 

Claude-Francois Jullien: The preface of your book is very hard on Paul VI. It borders on insolence: “​it’s true that a journey to Jerusalem was undertaken.... But... the state of Israel has not been recognized.” You are speaking of the Pope?

Hans Küng: I respect the personality of Paul VI, his good will. I am persuaded that he has the best intentions, for the church and humanity. But how are these intentions realized?  Obviously, one could keep quiet. I know that there are people in the church and outside it who suffer because of this lack of honesty. I say only what other theologians, bishops, and Christians say in private… If the Catholic Church wants to be a community of free Christians, we must not follow totalitarian patterns. Criticism without loyalty is destructive; loyalty without criticism is totalitarian.

CFJ: You take the warpath against papal infallibility, defined by Vatican I as a revealed truth....

HK: Once upon a time, Catholics affirmed that the pope needed a papal state in order to be the pope. Those who disagreed were excommunicated. The pope’s state was taken from him: he remained the pope. It is the same with infallibility, in the sense of infallibility of propositions. For my part, I say: the church is infallible because it is sustained in the truth despite all errors, but it does not need infallible propositions to manifest its infallibility. Besides, I prefer the term indefectibility. This conception has behind it the original Christian message and the strongest tradition. It is not even in contradiction with Vatican I. When the infallibility of the church was defined at that time, it was supposed, in naive fashion, that this could not be conceived without infallible propositions, just as without a papal state. I have questioned this supposition. It is an inquiry. I simply ask for a well-grounded, well-argued response. My argument for a faith which knows why it believes relates to the concern of numerous Christians who no longer want to receive truths without reflection. We need propositions not only guaranteed from without, but which manifest their own truth....

CJF: This placing in question of infallibility implies also the end of the church as a monarchy....

HK: The pope’s authority will not be diminished but transformed. John XXIII did not have less authority than Pius XII and nevertheless he did not insist on formulas. He did not define dogma. The authority of John XXIII derived from the fact that it was founded not on him but on the Gospel.

When Paul VI builds on the Gospel (Populorum Progressio), he receives a warm welcome. But when he stresses a traditional truth of the church, as on birth control, he encounters difficulties. Now, I think—it is the point of departure for my argument—that infallibility was implicated in this very questionable stand taken on birth control.

CJF: You seem to enter into rebellion. You have refused to ask for an imprimatur.

HK: My gesture is not a rebellion. It shows that the imprimatur, prior censorship, is outmoded, like the inquisition. Sometimes one must resist authority to prove the necessity for changes.

The imprimatur did not spare my book, The Church, from proceedings by the Roman inquisition.... I know there are theologians and bishops who want an end to this absolutist system.

CJF: Has the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instigated new proceedings against your latest book?

HK: Not to my knowledge. But I would not be surprised if that is begun soon. Perhaps it is underway: it is always possible to instigate special proceedings by an irregular tribunal.

Rome asked the German bishops to declare themselves. They said that it seemed to them—it is a prudent enough statement—that certain decisive doctrinal elements were not safeguarded. They did not say which. They leave the theological discussion to the theologians. They have not replied to my very explicit question: does the infallibility of the church require infallible propositions? They even avoided the word infallible in their statement. I would hope that they repeat, after Gamaliel in the Acts: “​if their enterprise comes from men, it will destroy itself of its own accord, but if truly it comes from God, you will not succeed in destroying it.”

CJF: You have been reproached with overestimating the domain of infallibility. Since the publication of this book, the German Jesuit Karl Rahner, who is not a conservative, considers you as a “​liberal Protestant.”

HK: It is regrettable that my friend Rahner did not discuss this book with me before publishing his critique. His accusations are not well-founded; besides he is going to publish a new article a good deal more nuanced. Neither in the first article nor in the second, does he demonstrate that the authorities of the church can make in­ fallible statements. His method seems neoscholastic to me. He bases himself on dogmas without asking himself how they are to be interpreted in the light of the Gospel message. He speculates on dogmas and attempts to adapt them to today’s world. Our conflict is not that of a Catholic theologian and a Protestant theologian, but that of two theological methods. History will judge.

The essential question is this: What is the Catholic faith? You cannot reply only by enumerating I don’t know how many propositions. There must be a rather radical change in the Christian existence itself. I don’t think that it will be my book which provokes it. It has been coming for a long time. French theology, for example, accentuated the personalist aspect of faith—one believes in a person and not in some truths or propositions.... As for me, I struggle for a less rationalist and more existential Christianity.

CJF: The dogmas which have been taught as truths it was necessary to believe so as to have the faith—these seem placed in doubt....

HK: In reality, there is only reflection on dogmas. Personally, I have nothing against dogmas. I have spoken very seriously of the possibility of definitions in certain urgent cases, when the church must define that which is Christian and that which is not.

But dogmas must not be considered the way jurists consider laws. Jurists do not reflect on the fashion in which the law is to be taken. They are content to apply it. Dogmas are not laws but “​indicators,” perhaps, which must be interpreted in the light of the Christian message itself.

CJF: Hans Küng, you are violently criticized in the church. Have you ever been tempted to quit it?

HK: I have had numerous temptations, never that of leaving the Catholic Church. If I criticize it more than some others do, it is, on the contrary, a sign of profound adhesion.

Many people would be happy to see me leave the church. Certain ones wait for me to rejoin them on the outside. Others, within the church, desire my departure: they do not accept the notion of criticism from within. In Civiltà Cattolica, the old Jesuit review published in Rome, Father Rosa accuses me of heresy. They would like a new witch hunt.

Me? I feel the church is where I belong.

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

Declaring What We See, Wayfaring

Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time a couple of years ago, I was overcome with emotion upon approaching St. Peter’s Baldachin, Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sculpted bronze canopy below which lies the tomb of Peter himself. Being in that spot made Peter present to me in a way he had never been before. I believe it had something to do with the familial experience of visiting a tomb. Every Holy Week, I like to reflect on the Gospel reading of Jesus’s trial before the Sanhedrin and Peter’s denial of Jesus (Matthew 26:57–75). That reading of course ends with: “Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: ‘Before the cock crows you will deny me three times.’ He went out and began to weep bitterly” (Matthew 26:75). That day in St. Peter’s Basilica, I sensed his bitter tears. Peter had been witness to all that Jesus had done; he could have stood and spoken on behalf of Jesus during the trial when “the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses?” (Matthew 26:65).

Peter denied Jesus because he was afraid of losing his life. One can understand the fear he felt from having witnessed Jesus being unfairly tried; he could have suffered the same fate that night. When confronted by danger, our instinct is self-preservation. I imagine that Peter wept bitterly for the loss of Jesus, for feeling that he had failed him, and for the awareness of his human frailty. Of course, we know how the story ends, and the power of Peter’s witness bears much fruit after the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection depend entirely on the testimony of those who were with Jesus. When we celebrate Easter, we celebrate witness and testimony.

This past Holy Week saw the beginning of the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the second- and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter of George Floyd. Both the prosecution and defense are keenly aware of the power of the disturbing footage of the incident, recorded by Darnella Frazier, who was only seventeen on that day in May 2020. Frazier testified on Holy Tuesday. “When I look at George Floyd,” she told the court, “I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they are all Black.” She expressed regret for not having physically intervened to help save Floyd’s life. When I heard her testimony, I thought of Peter, whose fear for his own life at the hands of the authorities kept him from attempting to save another. I felt for her grief, but I also know that her testimony, her video, has continued to move many throughout the world to work for racial justice. On Good Friday, the act of adoring the cross was intended to bring us closer to the love of Christ, which by association deepens our love for humanity. Our bitter tears are intended to help us recognize the many moments that Jesus is crucified in our society. Every instance of racism and xenophobia is the pain of the crucifixion. Good Friday asked, “Are you a witness to the pain, suffering, and beauty of the ones who our society crucifies?” Do we feel with them? Do we stand with them?   

Christ’s Resurrection invites us into communion, to give testimony and witness to the love, justice, and mercy needed in this world.

While we might be feeling as if there’s hope for an end to the pandemic, we are still far from seeing an end to hatred. On the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on March 21, Pope Francis tweeted:

Racism is a virus that quickly mutates and, instead of disappearing goes into hiding, and lurks in waiting. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think.

The shaming continues as we see an increase in anti-Asian rhetoric and violence, and as our attention shifts from the pandemic to our continued social, economic, and political ailments.

On this Easter Sunday, as we do every year at Mass, we proclaim the Easter sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, before the Gospel. Towards the middle of the sequence, we hear an exhortation to Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the Resurrection:

Speak, Mary, declaring
     What you saw, wayfaring.
‘The tomb of Christ, who is living,
    The glory of Jesus’ resurrection;
Bright angels attesting,
    The shroud and napkin resting.
Yes, Christ my hope is arisen;
    to Galilee he goes before you.’

The bitter tears on Good Friday invited us to recognize our human frailty, our failure to love, to extend justice and mercy. Christ’s Resurrection shows us the road towards salvation. It invites us into communion, to give testimony and witness to the love, justice, and mercy needed in this world, to declare what we have seen, wayfaring, and to trust that Jesus goes before us.

What We’ve Been Missing

A new mood pervades every socially distanced conversation now that America’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is underway. And, I should add, the delays in distribution have done nothing to dampen this mood. For whatever the logistical and moral failures of our country’s sundry vaccination programs, it is undeniable that hope has entered the scene in a new and palpable way. There is an end in sight to this nightmare; that is reason enough for joy. It is a joy of resurrection, of new life in the flesh.

We anticipate a return to life as we knew it, to communion with one another in all its varied forms. We eagerly await the return of the old, happy bustle, restaurants and bars and coffee houses full and humming with chatter and clatter. We also look forward to what we cannot expect: those chance meetings that constitute the thrill of the everyday. The totality of human community—which must include those nameless faces, those passing mysteries who exist in the background of our quotidian routines—is just months, not years, away. Soon, I will be able to smile at a stranger with more than just my eyes.

“Peace be with you,” the resurrected Christ said to his disciples when he appeared in their midst, behind doors they had shut in fright. To say the same words to one another, on an ordinary Sunday, would mean resurrection; to sing with one another even more so. A few Sundays ago, the celebrant at Mass announced that the strictures on public singing had been relaxed and people should once again join in the chants of the major Mass parts. Barely anyone did. Fear has too much choked the sanctuary, and we long to hear the words, “Fear not,” so that we may clothe Christ’s sacramental flesh, exposed and present among us, with a fitting raiment of praise.

The recurrence of the same, again and again, makes of each day an inescapable limbo.

The coronavirus has shattered the rhythm of our social clocks, halting that most human of activities: marking time with ritual and celebration. Some of the mystics among us report that they have been living in an “eternal now” since the pandemic began. But for those of us who have yet to attain these spiritual heights, the recurrence of the same, again and again, has made of each day an inescapable limbo. Both our secular and religious calendars remind us that time is not meant to be empty and directionless, that instead it should pulse with a melody spiraling toward the future. The pandemic muffled that music. Soon we will be able to hear it again.

Many of us spent Thanksgiving and Christmas alone, engaging friends and family only through a screen. And we were the fortunate ones: hundreds of thousands of Americans had died by the time the holidays arrived. Because of the virus’s high transmissibility, their loved ones were barred from their right to mourn in bodily proximity to the departed. Yet we hope that, after just a few more months, our pent-up tears can flow again as family members safely meet to embrace one another and honor their beloved dead.

This year has taught us in an unprecedented way what it means to look for the resurrection of the flesh. “In my flesh I shall see God,” Job proclaimed from his own isolation and pain; and so it was that in human flesh God was seen, appearing again in the body after the horror of crucifixion and absence. The Christian doctrine of the Resurrection—so repugnant to Greek sensibilities when St. Paul first preached it at the Areopagus—has become all too comprehensible after the collective trauma we have suffered: of course Christ returned to his friends and his mother in his flesh, however transfigured; of course doubting Thomas wanted to feel his way into the Resurrection. “I touch, therefore I am” will be our new refrain when we are at last raised up from the pit.

I suspect that even after COVID-19 recedes into memory—God hasten the day—we will not soon forget the joy of resurrection. Perhaps the recollection of it will make us more patient with the flesh of others. Perhaps it will grant us more compassion for our own flesh too. And perhaps we will comprehend more intimately why the flesh is our eternal destiny, and why God has forever made it his own. 

Issue: 

Two Adoptions

At nine months old, I was brought from Taiwan to my adoptive parents in Los Angeles. In the photos of us meeting under the glaring LAX terminal lights, it’s hard to see what had already been lost. My mom was thirty-five and my dad forty-two. Their still faces look young, but I’d later learn they felt old to be new parents. Infertility had shadowed their first thirteen years of marriage, their pain sharpened by stigma, their siblings’ growing families, and an old Chinese fear of invasive Western fertility treatments.

After my adoption and naturalization were finalized, I was issued an American birth certificate that listed my adoptive parents’ names for mother and father. The palimpsest of my Taiwanese birth certificate holds the name I was given by my birth mother, who kept me for a day, along with her name, my weight in kilograms, and a time sixteen hours ahead of Los Angeles. My parents gave me both birth certificates, plus my passport and immunization records, the day I moved out of state for graduate school. Holding them together, I remembered the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I watched on repeat throughout middle school. A time warp causes the Enterprise to meet versions of itself from other possible realities: destroyed Enterprises, ones with crews near death, ones whose government has dissolved. I instinctively understood the sci-fi grammar of the show. Every possibility must stay contained in its own universe; seeing them all at once is a critical rupture. My second birth certificate starts the story I know as mine. The first one starts a shadow life that runs alongside me, a life my birth mother and I did not get to live. It feels as real as the one I’m living now.

My mom once told me she and my dad were matched with another infant girl before me. She didn’t tell me why that adoption fell through, but she takes it as evidence that I was meant to be her daughter. I didn’t share my mom’s sureness in how things had worked out. I didn’t want to feel destined to be separated from my birth mother. Perhaps we all arrive at every moment of our lives by a series of near misses, but the knowledge of this other girl haunted me. I could feel her living a version of my life, which has always felt like a version of infinite other lives, each hinging on the smallest of shifts.

But we never talked about this in our home. My adoption filled a years-long hole in my parents’ marriage and the space I came to occupy was fragile. Their protracted grief, never entirely processed or healed, was easily triggered. My sadness or frustration, adoption-related or not, made them retreat as if freshly wounded, guarding their broken hearts even from the person who was supposed to repair them. The psychologist Pauline Boss writes that adoption is one kind of ambiguous loss “that defies closure, in which the status of a loved one as ‘there’ or ‘not there’ remains indefinitely unclear.” But to feel a sense of loss for my birth mother would be a betrayal of my parents and the acceptable adoption narrative of gratitude, good fortune, being chosen, and receiving a better life. Sometimes a birth mother’s sacrifice is mentioned, but mostly there is no room for loss. Not for the illegitimate child of an unmarried teenager who escapes poverty and ostracization with two parents in America. Adoption is all resurrection and no cross.

 

As an adult convert seeking baptism, all I knew of adoption was that it came with a price. I knew loss was a current that buoyed my every blessing, that we all come at some cost or another. While preparing for my sacraments, a sense of mourning stalked me, which I told myself was a sign of seriousness and devoutness. From the beginning, the price of conversion seemed to be my parents. Entering the Church felt like outright rejecting them, as opposed to the slow, silent inching away that had been happening for years. Everything faith demanded of me seemed to rebuke their spoken and unspoken values: sacrifice your desires, never give anything away, stay away from strangers, never rock the boat, adoption is a secret. I had been trying to leave these things behind all my life; becoming Catholic seemed to offer an official means to do it at last.

My parents never joined me, my husband, and our daughters for Mass when they visited, offering instead to keep the girls home with them. When I said the girls would come with us, hoping my parents might follow, they said they’d go for a walk and see us when we got back. They had always kept close to the familiar and safe, neither holding me back nor accompanying me toward whatever American independence I was chasing. Church was one more place—like college in another city, graduate school in another state, then jobs and a marriage across two more states—to which they would not come with me.

Adoption is a series of paradoxes: the strangers who form an immediate family; the life given in being given up; the two childless mothers of the same daughter. I know the other girl and I cannot both be my parents’ daughter. Neither can I belong to both my parents and my birth mother. And yet I do.

I began to hope for what an adult adoption might offer: a new place with room for the life already lived and the life to come.

In the adoption I did not choose for myself, the beginning of my story never belonged. To be my parents’ child, I needed to be theirs alone, to amputate the first nine months of my life. It was an expectation of loyalty and gratitude, but also a shield against the unbearable. Along with adoption, Boss also names immigration as a source of ambiguous loss. My parents had already lost their language, culture, people, and sense of belonging. Perhaps they were already so haunted and pressured to be grateful in the face of dire sacrifice, that they could not find a way to share a daughter with her other life. Perhaps there is only room for one such loss in a lifetime.

St. Paul uses the term huiothesia in several letters to refer to the Roman form of adoption where an adolescent or grown male comes to live on a family’s estate, helps maintain it, and is granted a share of the inheritance in return. Huios for “son” and thesia for “to place.” For Paul, entering the family of God resembles this practice of a stranger receiving a place in a home. With conversion, I began to hope for what an adult adoption might offer: a new place with room for the life already lived and the life to come.

In the adoption I was choosing, I understood death and resurrection. The first twelve left everything to follow. The disciple must come hating their father and mother. I knew the price of being reborn. What I knew nothing about was grief. The long, dark sabbath. Preparing the tomb, the oil and spices, the clean linen. The earthquake. So much happened in the waiting and mourning. Grief changed people’s sight as much as it transformed Jesus’ body until, with the familiar gone, a new kind of stranger emerged to be met.

I waited three years for my sacraments. I waited to discover what I must learn to grieve, but all I did was gain: a faith community, friendships, spiritual direction, service, a prayer life, a vocabulary for grace, reconciliation, and holy desires. Even my bouts of outrage signaled that I cared about the fate of this family. I came to faith desiring more. I was given permission to stop trying to bring less. In becoming Catholic, I would not leave my parents behind, but I could stop waiting for them. A Chinese daughter stays near her parents in both proximity and filial duty. She walks with them as a guide and support, going only as fast as they go and only as far. Waiting for them wasn’t just a way to avoid hurting them; it was another way of waiting for myself to be different. While nothing can alter or supersede my first adoption, I believe my second adoption might resurrect some of the first one’s losses.

 

I was baptized on a Sunday in November at our parish. I didn’t invite my parents because we don’t talk about my faith. Maybe it was also to spare them watching me be received into another family. I remember my pastor telling me to expect a lot of water. It has to be flowing, he said, as if it wouldn’t count otherwise. When I returned to our pew, my hair dripping into my white sweater and perfumed with the chrism, my three-year-old retracted her outstretched arms. She gaped at me incredulously and whispered, “Look at you! You spilled.”

I received my first Communion alone at the altar before the rest of the parishioners, the first shard of the host sharp against my cheek. I chose the confirmation name Anne, for the graces of my own motherhood. I was called by it once, the third name of my life. It’s printed on a certificate celebrating my first three sacraments, along with my full name, the name of my husband (who is my sponsor), my date and place of birth, and the names of both my parents. The cardstock with its scalloped border can barely contain all the words.

As the other parishioners received Communion and filed back to their seats, they paused before me in the front pew, rolling the body of Christ to one side of their mouths to smile at me and my family. Some put their hand on mine or on my wet shoulder. Some touched my sodden hair. In Romans 8:22, St. Paul writes, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” My waiting was not over, but was now joined to all of theirs. For however long we might have until the final adoption, we wait together, as St. Paul says, with endurance, hoping for what we cannot see, carrying what we carry, all spilling into our places.

Issue: 

‘But to be Young Was Very Heaven’

For a boy of fourteen, growing up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in the South Bronx, heaven was far from the young Wordsworth’s paean to the French Revolution. Closer to heaven were the World Champion New York Yankees, about to embark, in 1953, on their record fifth-straight World Series title.

Bliss it was to be alive and marvel at one of Mickey Mantle’s tape-measure home runs. And one no longer had to spend 50 cents on a bleacher seat at nearby Yankee Stadium. The eight-inch illuminated screen had finally made its way into most apartments of the five-flight walk-ups that housed Manhattan’s overflow.

But there was another bliss that even a fourteen-year-old intuited to be still more heavenly. It was summed up by the altar boy’s first response at the Tridentine Mass’s “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar.” To the priest’s proclamation, “Introibo ad altare Dei” (“I will go to the altar of God”), the server replied, “Ad Deum qui laetificat iuventutem meum” (“To God who gives joy to my youth”). Few were the boys who, at some point, did not envision themselves in the role of the priest, announcing: “I will go to the altar of God.”

Bliss even those early mornings, with the smell of incense and beeswax awakening the senses. In retrospect one can perceive a formative ascesis for the youngsters who served Mass. Memorizing the Latin responses, phonetically transcribed on the four-sided instruction card: “iuventutem—u ven to tem;” rising at 6 a.m. to arrive with time to spare for the 7 o’clock Mass in hope that the old sacristan with gnarled hands would let you toll the monumental bell; struggling to light the silver candlesticks perched high above the altar, wicks stubbornly uncooperative; even sacrificing Captain Video and the Video Ranger on Monday evenings to serve Benediction at the Miraculous Medal Novena.

Our small “national” parish had three priests, the pastor and two “assistants.” And though there was no parish school, there was an abundance of funerals, baptisms, weekly Masses, catechism classes, and hospital visits to keep them busy. One, recently arrived from Italy, used his “day off” to work, over many years, toward a doctorate at Fordham University. He became a mentor and friend, plying this high-school freshman with books beyond my ability to understand fully, but which nonetheless enchanted and opened vistas. Even more significantly, he guided me into the worlds of opera and classical music that have delighted and sustained me for these nigh seventy years since he first gave me a two-volume set of 78-rpm records of Verdi’s Aida.

The memory has remained as an urgent reminder that discerning the boundary between good and evil is an ongoing imperative.

I mentioned the Monday evening novena that was a parish staple. It kindled devotion, even as it was, undoubtedly, a social occasion as well: time to pray, but also to meet and to gossip on the church steps. A further feature of those Monday evenings was the presence of a visiting priest, a teacher who offered the lengthy sermon in the course of the novena. He was a fluent speaker, but without rhetorical pretense. His sermons, as I recall, were both straightforward and substantive. Not only was he a fresh voice, he avoided the formulaic approach that marked many a Sunday sermon. His gave one pause, made one think. In addition he was personally affable and considerate. Before the service he’d inquire about our families and our schoolwork, not in a perfunctory way, but showing real interest. Often, after the novena, I would accompany him the four blocks to the subway station for his return home.

One day in January, I was summoned to my high school’s front office. There I was astonished to be given a piece of mail addressed to me. Inside was a note wishing me a “happy fourteenth birthday.” It was from the novena priest. The envelope also contained two dollars. Now two dollars for a fourteen-year-old in 1953, was, if not quite bliss, certainly a welcome blessing. Even more than the money, though, was the sense of being remembered, cared about. A small gesture, perhaps, but precious to me. The following Monday I expressed, as best I could, my thanks for his thoughtfulness, and Father invited me to go with him to a movie that coming Saturday. I arrived at the residence where he lived and he brought me to his room. To my embarrassment, I was suddenly maneuvered onto his knee and given fourteen birthday slaps on my backside. Confused and embarrassed, I was told it was customary in his family to celebrate birthdays in this fashion.

Absolutely nothing else occurred, that day or thereafter. We went on to the movies. I have no recollection of what we saw. But I remember that on the bus we discussed Leonard Feeney, SJ, whose poems and essays we had been reading in my high-school English class. I dimly knew that there was some controversy surrounding Feeney, and Father explained to me Feeney’s misinterpretation of the Church’s teaching regarding who could be saved. I listened intently, avid to understand.

Yet now, in light of all that has transpired over the last twenty years, I cannot but wonder whether anything more had been intended. In language that has, sadly, become all too familiar: Was I being “groomed”? Did a sensitive, intellectually alert priest see in me a young protégé, perhaps a future seminarian? Or was a lonely man impelled by a less salutary desire? I cannot hazard an answer. But the memory has remained as an urgent reminder that discerning the boundary between good and evil is an ongoing imperative, and that we are all too often prone to self-deception.

Once the press of schoolwork forced me to cease serving the Monday evening novena, our paths no longer crossed. For most of the years since 1953, I considered my interaction with Father in a positive way, grateful for his solicitude and instruction. And I did ascend to the altar of God who was, indeed, the joy of my youth, and who continues to pour forth blessings. I remember thankfully, eucharistically, to our gracious God all those priests whose guidance, sure or stumbling (like my own), has accompanied me on the way.

Poem | The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary

That numinous healer who preached Saturnalia and paradox

has died a slave's death. We were maneuvered into it by priests

and by the man himself. To complete his poem.

 

He was certainly dead. The pilum guaranteed it. His message,

unwritten except on his body, like anyone's, was wrapped

like a scroll and dispatched to our liberated selves, the gods.

 

If he has now risen, as our infiltrators gibber,

he has outdone Orpheus, who went alive to the Shades.

Solitude may be stronger than embraces. Inventor of the mustard tree,

 

he mourned one death, perhaps all, before he reversed it.

He forgave the sick to health, disregarded the sex of the Furies

when expelling them from minds. And he never speculated.

 

If he is risen, all are children of a most high real God

or something even stranger called by that name

who knew to come and be punished for the world.

 

To have knowledge of right, after that, is to be in the wrong.

Death came through the sight of law. His people's oldest wisdom.

If death is now the birth-gate into things unsayable

 

in language of death's era, there will be wars about religion

as there never were about the death-ignoring Olympians.

Love, too, his new universal, so far ahead of you it has died

 

for you before you meet it, may seem colder than the favors of gods

who are our poems, good and bad. But there never was a bad baby.

Half of his worship will be grinding his face in the dirt

 

then lilting it up to beg, in private. The low will rule, and curse by him.

Divine bastard, soul-usurer, eros-frightener, he is out to monopolize hatred.

Whole philosophies will be devised for their brief snubbings of him.

 

But regained excels kept, he taught. Thus he has done the impossible

to show us it is there. To ask it of us. It seems we are to be the poem

and live the impossible. As each time we have, with mixed cries.

 

 

This poem first appeared in the March 26, 1993, issue of Commonweal

Identity Crisis

Those who remember the Laetare Medal controversy of 2009 might be feeling a little déjà vu as Notre Dame approaches this year’s commencement. That was when Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, was supposed to receive the honor. But she refused, citing the controversy over then-President Barack Obama’s attendance. The university didn’t issue the award, and that was also the last time a sitting U.S. president visited Notre Dame. Now, twelve years later, people are wondering: Will the university invite Joe Biden, just the second Catholic president in U.S. history?

That this is even a newsworthy issue shows how easily we can be distracted from the larger underlying concern—namely, the crisis in American Catholic higher education. It’s a bigger problem than the collapse of ecclesial credibility and the behavior of the bishops, and it can’t be blamed solely on politics. Student enrollment is trending down, for a variety of reasons—from perceptions about academic competitiveness and future employability to economic conditions related to the pandemic. Even Jesuit institutions, generally thought to be the strongest subgroup of Catholic universities, are feeling the pressure: John Carroll University, Marquette University, St. Louis University, and Wheeling University are dealing with deficits, cutting staff, or gutting programs.

But in seeking to address these challenges, many schools are putting their Catholic identity at risk—namely, by positioning and marketing themselves as part of the mainstream liberal-progressive realm of higher education. Of course, there are conservative Catholic institutions that are doubling down on Catholic identity, even if in ways that can be concerning. But these schools have a strong natural affinity with certain kinds of Catholics, as well as a supportive institutional partner in the clerical establishment. You could say that liberal-progressive Catholic higher education has no such “core strengths,” and that may be partly its own doing. It has embraced deconstruction of the neo-Scholastic hegemony since Vatican II so fully that it’s now suspicious of any Catholic institutionalism. It has been too accommodating of the identity politics that have taken root since the 1960s. It is perhaps still too closely linked to a vision of Catholic higher education laid out more than fifty years ago in the Land O’Lakes Statement, which is showing its age. And, in a sort of culminating gesture, it adopted a view of 1990’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae (and also the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1992) based on the belief that John Paul II and the Vatican were imposing an unacceptably unilateral understanding of Catholicism and Catholic education.

There is a liberal inability to understand the shift occurring at the magisterial level in the Catholic Church.

That is why locutions like “in the Catholic tradition” or “in the Catholic heritage” entered the mission-statement language of so many Catholic universities in the last few years. “Hiring for mission” has replaced “hiring Catholic,” with mixed results. If “hiring Catholics does not in itself guarantee that the Catholic mission of these universities will be preserved and nurtured,” as Peter Steinfels wrote here all the way back in 2007, the same can also be said of hiring for mission. One of the problems with hiring for mission is that the fear of ecclesiastical tyranny is still much stronger than the fear of being put completely in the hands of technocrats. The capitalist culture of today’s university model puts the business school in a central place and outsources moral responsibility to business-ethics programs. But even liberal-progressive Catholic institutions tend to make Catholic identity a matter of marketing and public relations. What is often forgotten is that since there is no constitutionally established church in the United States (as there is, for example, in Germany), the Catholic educational and cultural structure still relies on an essentially ecclesial institutional system that benefits only marginally from the support of public institutions.

We know about Catholic conservatives’ rejection of Pope Francis. But there is a liberal inability to understand the shift occurring at the magisterial level in the Catholic Church, where the discourse is moving away from “pelvic issues” and toward the crises brought on by globalization and corporatization. This shift has only tangentially affected the Catholic theological academia in the Western Hemisphere. Discussions about confronting racism, exclusion, and sexual violence are squarely within the mission of a Catholic university. But much less attention is devoted to the corporatization of the Catholic university and the way that administrators and faculty members alike have embraced it. My Villanova colleague Gerald Beyer, in his recently published book, Just Universities, writes that “like their secular counterparts, Catholic universities vary in the degree in which they have succumbed to corporatization and market fundamentalism.” He makes the argument, following Henry Giroux’s critique of “gated intellectuals,” that all those who work at a Catholic college or university (as well as all Catholics) need to be concerned with these issues, not just with their own agendas.

Something else to consider is how the Catholic Church and the Catholic education system haven’t been spared in this global age of resentment. It is a resentment toward the ecclesiastical system, resulting from the fallout of the sex-abuse crisis, the refusal to deal with racism, and the apparent detachment from reality affecting many members of the hierarchy. But there is also a resentment toward the ecclesial vocation of Catholic institutions of education, based on the view that the Church is identified not just historically but essentially with racism, colonialism, and sexism. It’s the view that sees any tradition as oppressive rather than as possibly liberating, life-denying rather than life-affirming, and therefore not worth adhering to, much less saving—an attitude that can be summed up as “extra Ecclesiam, sola salus”: the only salvation is in leaving the Church. It’s difficult to counter such an attitude, especially after decades of political alignment between the majority of the Catholic hierarchy and the Republican Party, including Trump’s GOP.

Resentment presents its own problems for the question of Catholic mission. If it is obvious that Catholic colleges and universities should not be engaged in proselytism, what’s more controversial is the issue of the evangelizing and kerygmatic mission of these schools. What are departments of theology and/or religious studies in Catholic universities and colleges for? How did their roles change compared to the rise of other Catholic mission-related entities (office for mission, campus ministry, think tanks, etc.) and to the creation of more intentional, faith-based academic departments (Catholic Studies departments, for example)? Do departments of theology and/or religious studies have a future on Catholic campuses? (I’m not even trying to address the differences between theology and religious studies here.) It’s not hard to imagine a future without them. Substitutes already exist.

If we decide that inhabiting our religious tradition is incompatible with contemporary academia, we’re only legitimizing another religious canon while forsaking our own.

Once it was assumed that Catholic colleges and universities must teach faith across disciplines. Now, despite the fact that the faith perspective on mainstream Catholic campuses tends to be articulated, thanks to Vatican II, in ecumenical, interreligious, inclusive, and non-proselytizing terms, that faith perspective has become controversial (not in statements, but in deeds) as a driver of overall educational mission. Doing theology in, with, and for the Church, as well as for the broader world, has become controversial not only for non-theological faculty, but also sometimes for theology and religious studies departments on Catholic campuses. In addition to compatibility problems with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, this also presents compatibility problems with Pope Francis. If the perspective of lived faith is discarded from the outset, if the missionary and evangelizing dimension is discarded, one wonders what the liberal Catholic enthusiasm for Francis is about. It reminds me of the enthusiasm “cold warriors” had for John Paul II.

Many progressive Catholics ignore Catholic conservatism or even hold it in contempt. But they can’t afford to ignore the current “Francis moment,” to neglect this shrinking window of opportunity for exercising the energy needed to give new life to a Catholic understanding of education. From Laudato si’ to Fratelli tutti, it is clear that Pope Francis is leading a movement that rejects Catholic exclusivism and neo-fundamentalism, that critiques neoliberal capitalism, that seeks development of doctrine on the death penalty and the dismantling of a moral rigorism in the service of a bourgeois and conventional Catholicism. This fits perfectly well with efforts emphasizing diversity and inclusion as part of a Catholic identity that goes beyond what the canon of Western civilization contains. Yet at the same time, the relief brought about by Pope Francis’s disavowal of the culture-war agenda can sometimes work almost as a kind of functional anti-Catholicism, in which Catholicism and Catholic culture are taken seriously only insofar as they support the technocratic paradigm of the contemporary university or one side of the two-party ideological agenda.

In his latest book published in English, The Unnamable Present, Italian author Roberto Calasso uses opposing images of “terrorists and tourists” and “fundamentalism and Silicon Valley” to describe the divide of faith in contemporary society. To presuppose a detachment from one’s faith perspective as a prerequisite for scholarly objectivity and a condition for being at a university open to cultural and religious diversity would make us spiritual tourists—visitors who conceal their religious tradition or choose not to inhabit it at all. This includes faculty, students, and administrators. If we decide that inhabiting our religious tradition is incompatible with contemporary academia, we’re only legitimizing another religious canon while forsaking our own.

It’s true that practices of discipleship come first, and then comes reflection. But that reflection is essential to spell out further implications at the level of praxis. The insistence on social justice, diversity, and inclusion—as commendable as it is—needs doctrinal and theological foundations, where the dimension of normativity is not rejected a priori. These ideas can and must be articulated as elements of the mission and identity of Catholic institutions of higher learning. Catholic social thought can survive only on the basis of theological foundations—a theology that is different from the apologetics of the tradition or of the papal magisterium. Surrendering Catholic education to a post-theological and post-ecclesial mode will sooner or later make social Catholicism not just politically and culturally irrelevant, but also intellectually impossible to explain and justify. Other countries face a similar challenge. In Germany, for example, theology departments in state universities (in a system of concordat—established Church) are in conversation with the bishops and the seminaries over the direction and the future of Catholic theology. But these kinds of discussions aren’t happening in the United States, in part because of the private-market nature of Catholic higher education, in part because of the almost total estrangement from the institutional Church.

I came to this country in 2008 in part because of the control the Catholic Church in Italy exerted over theology, so I’m not indifferent to the threat that ecclesiastical tyranny presents to Catholic intellectual life. But it would be an illusion to think that Catholicism can survive, much less thrive, if we disregard the fate of Catholic academic institutions and the place of theology within them. To paraphrase Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the university is one of the places where the Church does its thinking. If we lose the “Catholic” university, we’ll be left with a reactionary, non-thinking Church.

Holy Waiting

My husband and I recently stood in line at a vaccine-distribution center, waiting for its regular hours of operation to end and hoping there might be a surplus of doses that, if not used, would otherwise expire. A man behind us asked if this was indeed the standby line for shots. We said it was, and we started talking about our hopes that there would be enough left over to reach our place in line. Twenty minutes after the facility ended its official appointments, people ahead of us began to disperse. But holding on to hope, we kept our spot in line even as others were abandoning theirs. Finally a young man looked back at us and gestured with his hands that there were no vaccines left. There was a sense of relief that we wouldn’t need to wait any longer in the cold, but we were also disappointed, resigned to our loss. I took solace in knowing that we had experienced this with other members of our community. Shared disappointment, in this case, made it easier to bear. We would simply continue to search and continue to wait.

Although waiting is a spiritually significant part of Holy Week, waiting has also been such a part of our pandemic experience that I’m finding it difficult to intentionally embrace it as something specific to this week. I have waiting fatigue, and need to reflect on what makes for “holy waiting.” 

Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of the Lenten season, is a microcosm of the extended Triduum celebration during Holy Week.

Palm Sunday, the last Sunday of the Lenten season, is a microcosm of the extended Triduum celebration during Holy Week. The drama of the passion is crammed into one liturgical celebration. We begin with Jesus’s triumphant procession, palms waving in the air, accompanied by a Gospel reading that unites the gathered community in praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9–10) Jesus’s arrival communicates that the hope of a new kingdom is now a reality. Liberation, the salvation that the people of God have been waiting for, is found in Jesus. After the liturgical procession, the liturgy of the word continues. The Gospel reading picks up with Mark’s narration of the preparations for the Passover feast, the feast itself, Judas’s betrayal, and Jesus’s prayer and apprehension in the garden, before concluding with the Crucifixion. The whiplash caused by the range of emotions is intended to leave the faithful bewildered. First, we are waving palms and singing praise for answered prayers for liberation; then, we’re kneeling in silence before the crucified Jesus, questioning everything.

Palm Sunday and the Holy Triduum set us up to discover that what we hope for, what we wait for, isn’t always what we expect it to be. We are so preoccupied with the joyfulness of the palms and praise that we might miss that our hope rides on a colt that has never been sat on before (Mark 11:2). Jesus arrives on a set of imperatives that no other king has ridden on. As we journey through Holy Week, the liturgy invites us to embody the experience of the Apostles whose faith filled them with hope, but whose experiences in Jerusalem made them fearful for what would become of them. Good Friday will take us back to where we left off on Palm Sunday. We are silent before the cross, before death, an experience so definitive that one can understand the Apostles’ and disciples’ disappointment and sorrow. The waiting reaches its climax at the Easter Vigil, where our waiting is ritualized in the darkness.  

Jesus, our new beginning, arrives in Jerusalem upending our expectations. Waiting for liberation from the old way of being requires an openness to the unexpected, to being surprised, and to accepting disappointment without mistaking it for loss. Holy waiting is not a passive experience. I’m reminded of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s prayer “Patient Trust”: 

We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.... Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. 

It is in the intermediate stage, in the time after the Crucifixion, before the resurrection—in the holy waiting—that we learn who we are becoming. 

Against Lying

We’re seeing an epidemic of lying in America. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I wish we would hear more preaching on the Eighth Commandment. You know, the one that tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor.

The most alarming symptom of this epidemic is the spread of the “Big Lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election—a lie he and his political allies continue to propagate. But more fundamentally his whole presidency legitimated and instrumentalized habitual lying as a political tool. The more often lies are circulated, the more distrust grows. In the absence of truth, the door is thrown open to conspiracy theories and fantasy.

The problem is not just Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell pushing baseless claims on television, or MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell making deranged videos that purport to prove voter fraud. It’s also the sinking feeling that we have drifted into a disorienting “post-truth environment” where the difference between fact and fiction no longer matters.

I admit that politics has always been rampant with temptations to spin the facts. But nowadays it has become easy to reach beyond garden-variety exaggeration or prevarication and go for outright lies. It’s the Trump ethos. The more brazen the untruth, the better. When politicians model themselves on Trump, they become impervious to facts. For example, the Washington Post recently reported on a whole string of blatant falsehoods that Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) employed during his campaign for Congress. He claimed that he was going to attend the Naval Academy when, in fact, his application had been rejected. He said that he was accepted by Harvard and Princeton; this too was untrue. Did his friend really leave him for dead at the scene of his terrible accident? The friend and the medics who aided him deny it. Beyond flagrant misrepresentations of his own personal history, he also lied about others in order to advance his career. He won votes by using a manipulated video clip of his primary opponent that totally misrepresented her views, then traveled to the southern border of Texas and proclaimed that thousands of American children were being kidnapped by drug cartels and sold as sex slaves, “one of the greatest atrocities I can imagine.” Except that it never happened.

Why does moral opprobrium no longer attach to lying?

Another newcomer to Congress who strives to emulate Trump, Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), has likewise been called out for telling tall tales. Her oft-repeated account of why she began to carry a firearm is a prime example. A man was “beaten to death” in front of her restaurant, she says, and seeing him victimized so brutally made her feel the need to protect herself. Horrible, right? What really happened, however, was that the man died of a drug overdose in an alley several blocks away. The story earned her three Pinocchios from the Washington Post, and was debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes. She remains unfazed and unrepentant.

Why does moral opprobrium no longer attach to lying? Have we forgotten that bearing false witness is wrong? How could it be possible that Donald Trump lied to the public more than thirty thousand times while in office, yet suffered little or no loss of support from Christian churches—including many of our Catholic bishops and parishioners? You could theorize that his supporters are cynical or gullible, but the fact remains that a serial liar was our president for four years and millions of Americans were prepared to vote for him again as though it didn’t matter.

Such gross mendacity in American public life ought to be cause for alarm. Our bishops and pastors should be losing sleep worrying that their flocks are falling prey to those who would exploit their credulity. And what of the people who have accepted the view that it is fine to defame others if it serves “the cause”? It should bother us that conspiracy theories circulate with such reckless abandon and lives are being jeopardized by disinformation—whether about election fraud, climate change, face masks, or the COVID-19 vaccines. People can die because of lies.

Rarely have we seen the consequences of lying so vividly displayed in a single day as we did during the violent January 6 assault on the Capitol. Precisely because those who attended the rally-turned-insurrection believed the “Big Lie” that Trump’s “landslide” victory was being viciously stolen, they stormed the seat of American democracy, terrorized elected officials and their staffs, killed a police officer, injured many others, and vandalized public property.

The Church needs to do something about this. A line from one of our Eucharistic Prayers speaks to me in this regard: “May your Church stand as a living witness to truth and freedom, to peace and justice.” Is the Church really “a living witness to truth” in America? And if not, how can we make it so?

Issue: 

Discerning the Grain of Wheat

As vaccine distributions continue to rise and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths gradually declines, we begin to wonder what integrating into a post-pandemic society will be like. Last Friday, Los Angeles eased restrictions on businesses, stepping down one level on its four-tier scale from “purple” (most restrictive) to “red.” But as a resident of L.A. I nonetheless felt a nervous vulnerability on hearing the news, since I’m not yet vaccinated. My decision to come out of quarantine will likely depend on getting one. In the meantime, I’ve noticed that in conversations about social gatherings, my family and friends now talk less about quarantining and more about whether they’ve been vaccinated. There’s less talk about testing sites and more about finding a vaccination site that might have leftover doses. We’re talking less about what we’re doing while stuck at home, and more about what we want and don’t want to do as restrictions continue to ease. But our most intimate conversations are about what we want our lives to be as we move forward. Solitude, anger, and loss have led many to discover who they are, who they want to be, and what they value most.

With every announcement of progress, our emotions range from excitement over the prospect of enjoying social settings again, to dread at the thought of returning to the pre-pandemic grind in which work seemed to consume us. While there’s an air of regret for not having enjoyed each other’s company when we had the chance, there’s also a feeling of resolve to make sure we don’t set ourselves up to regret things again. Social media posts have begun to reflect what seems like a premature nostalgia for what might be lost as social restrictions are lifted. A humorous viral TikTok says, “At this point in quarantine, I am 97.3 percent feral and will not be able to integrate back into society.” Other images proudly depict homes transformed into multipurpose spaces. With an end in sight, we’re questioning whether our pre-pandemic way of living was, indeed, the best way to live. Everyone seems to be thinking about the kind of life they’d like to lead post-COVID.

What do we do with the things we’ve learned and discovered about ourselves?

There are also shared experiences that have led to communal transformation, such as the use of facemasks. Masks have become such a staple in our lives that it can be confusing to see characters in TV shows not wearing them when they’re shopping or out in public. The use of masks alone has dramatically altered the practical ways in which we think about our human interdependence. They have also made us keenly aware of how difficult it is for many to see beyond their own needs and comfort. Just this week, among reports of the effort to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom, I saw an image of a face mask that bore the message: “This mask is as useless as my governor.” It was a message clearly intended for anti-maskers who continue to question the efficacy of mask-wearing.

So, what do we do with the things we’ve learned and discovered about ourselves?

On the fifth Sunday of Lent, the Gospel of John moves us closer to the passion and resurrection. The presence of the Greeks who have come to worship at the Passover feast, desiring to see Jesus, serve as a sign to him that his mission is coming to an end and that the crucifixion is near. After being made aware of their presence Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12: 23–24). As we get closer to the end of Lent, we are also invited to discern the grain or grains of wheat that must die in our lives. We think of sin so often in the Lenten season, and especially when we hear or read Scripture verses about death. While that’s important, sin in this case is not the grain of wheat that is planted, but the weeds that are cleared from the soil so that the grain may grow. While Lent may be about clearing the soil of sin, it is also about discerning the good grain of wheat to be planted, offered for the common good. As the pandemic begins to enter a new phase of hope, the Spirit questions us. What good and beautiful things have you discovered? What weeds are there to pull? What is there to cultivate? We might joke about having gone feral, but there is a spiritual truth in this experience. It is time to discern the difference between behavior that keeps us at arm’s length from the world, safe from discomforts—and between authentic liberation for the kingdom of God.