Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Turns out I'm an Incense-Loving Prophetic Radical

I'm a relative newcomer to the United States, having moved here five years ago, and so a newcomer to the Roman Catholic Church as it exists in this country.  Since moving here from Canada, I've endeavoured to figure out American Catholicism, in no small part in order to understand my place within it as a theologian.  This has not been an easy task.  Roman Catholicism incarnates itself somewhat differently in different cultures, and for one who has not grown up within American culture, it is difficult to map out and navigate the ecclesial terrain of American Catholicism.

I've been reading books and essays by Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. a great deal lately.  I've found his forthright, yet irenic, tone to be refreshing, and I've benefited tremendously from his writings on ecclesiology as well as his essays on the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium.  I'm currently making my way through his collection of lectures in Church and Society: The Laurence J. McGinley Lectures, 1988-2007, and came across an essay there called "Catholicism and American Culture: The Uneasy Dialogue" that I found helpful for understanding American Catholicism (this essay was also published in America 162 (January 27, 1990): 54-59).

After outlining some of the characteristic features of American culture, Dulles describes with broad strokes four major strategies of American Catholicism that developed in response to American culture.  It was this aspect of the essay that I found most interesting, as it helped me make some sense of the diversity of theological and political expressions down here.  Most of this is likely going to be old hat to a large number of you.  Dulles describes the four strategies as follows (keep in mind that the representatives Dulles cites are somewhat dated):
  1. Traditionalism
    • Highly critical of American culture
    • Want restoration of a more centralized and authoritarian Catholicism
    • Church needs to be a 'sign of contradiction' and the church must run the risk of being considered a ghetto.
    • Emphasis on the Latin mass and time-honoured devotions as a way to pass on an experience of living faith
    • Doctrine must be clearly taught and moral norms, particularly in the area of sexuality, must be maintained
    • Representatives: James F. Hitchcock, Ralph Martin
  2. Neo-conservatism
    • Understand the American experiment to have roots in Catholic natural-law tradition
    • While recognizing that the church's first task is to proclaim and embody the gospel, proponents of this view focus attention especially on the second task, the removal of American democracy.
    • Believe that the church, with its long tradition of moral reflection on the proper ordering of human society, has unique resources for the renewal of the American experiment
    • Representatives: Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel
  3. Liberalism
    • "Not satisfied to concentrate on what the Catholic tradition can contribute to the American experiment, Catholic liberals are primarily intent on showing how Americanism can help modernize the Church" (32).
    • Particularly focuses on democratizing the church
    • Representatives: Richard P. McBrien, Charles E. Curran, Daniel Maguire, Jay Dolan
  4. Prophetic Radicalism
    • Calls for total conversion of church and society, frequently invoking historical precedent for their positions
    • Focused on the church being a 'sign of contradiction'.
    • Counter-cultural
    • Verges on the 'sectarian' (according to Dulles)
    • Representatives: Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan
Dulles' descriptions could undoubtedly be more nuanced, and as he himself notes, very few people slot into only one of these groups.  But his depictions ring true to me, and certainly help me to understand better the foundational ideas that lie behind the perspectives articulated on various political and theological issues in the U.S. today.

His descriptions also helped me understand more clearly where, perhaps, I fit within contemporary American Catholicism.  First, it is clear to me that there is almost nothing within Neo-conservativism and Liberalism, as Dulles describes them, with which I sympathize theologically or politically.  Second, there is a great deal within Traditionalism that I find compelling.  For example, I'm deeply attracted to beautiful liturgy and to the 'time-honoured devotions' of the faithful, and I do believe that each has the capability to transform individuals and communities through the 'beautiful.'  And while I don't sympathize with the Traditionalist emphasis on hierarchical authority and centralization, I do take seriously the teaching Magisterium within the church.  As a theologian, I'm generally inclined to support the Magisterium, with the understanding that the Magisterium permits dissent that is presented humbly, prayerfully, and carefully (a viewpoint that Dulles himself promotes).

Third, I am perhaps most strongly drawn to Prophetic Radicalism.  This is due in part to my study of Mennonite history and political theology, particularly the writing of John Howard Yoder.  But my viewpoint is also heavily influenced by my study of pre-Constantinian patristic political theology.

Both Traditionalism and Prophetic Radicalism have as their foundation a fundamental distrust of American culture, and propose that the church needs to be a 'sign of contradiction,' though each differs about what that looks like concretely.  To a certain degree I share that distrust, though my sense of distrust more closely approximates that articulated by such figures as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  That is, it's a fundamental distrust of the political and socio-economic structures of the United States and elsewhere, and an understanding that the church is a 'sign of contradiction' to the degree that it rejects those structures in order to instantiate a society structured around the generous love proclaimed and incarnated by Jesus Christ.  This is an understanding of the church as a sign of contradiction that is moral, but not moralistic.  In other words, I am not nearly as concerned by issues of sexuality (pace Traditionalists and so many American Catholics) as I am by issues of injustice caused by prevailing structures and modes of thinking.

But precisely because the church is to become a society of love shaped by the sacrament of love - the Eucharist - I take seriously the Traditionalist exhortation to celebrate the Liturgy beautifully and with dignity.

So, I guess in the end, on the basis of Dulles' essay I can perhaps classify myself as a prophetic radical who likes incense.  Anyone else out there like me?

Image from


  1. Stephen BlakemanJuly 25, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    I appreciate and agree with much of what you write here. But, as a Catholic with a general distrust in any “ism” or ideology, I do not subscribe to or identify with any of the ones distinguished by Dulles, whom I highly esteem. (Because our faith is not founded on an idea or set of ideas, but on a Person, Catholic-ism is in no sense an ideology.)

    I would like to respond to two of your observations:

    (1) You write that “I am not nearly as concerned by issues of sexuality (pace Traditionalists and so many American Catholics) as I am by issues of injustice caused by prevailing structures and modes of thinking.”

    The “prevailing structures and modes of thinking” with respect to sexuality, however, have worked an enormous injustice with respect to areas of fundamental concern: the family, the child, they very nature of the human person. I am as concerned about these injustices as I am about economic matters, for example, and I frankly do not see how or why a Catholic (American or not) can think differently. The Church’s teachings with respect to sexuality, economics, politics, in fact each of its moral teachings, are a seamless garment. To downplay concern over sexuality is to downplay sexuality itself, and any Catholic who thinks sexuality is a matter of remote or contingent concern is either ignorant of what the Church teaches or does not care what she teaches. (Moreover, what is more counter-cultural, indeed a more powerful sign of contradiction, than the Church’s teachings with respect to human sexuality?)

    As you identify yourself with “prophetic radicalism,” have you ever read Dorothy Day’s 1972 open letter to Fr. Dan Berrigan? She pulled no punches in observing that birth control and abortion are tantamount to “genocide” -- her word.

    (2) Which brings me to my second point, that you are “generally inclined to support the Magisterium.”

    Dei Verbum teaches that “The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”

    I would think that a Catholic’s commitment (whether a theologian or not) to the teaching office of the Church, vested with the authority of Jesus Christ, should amount to something more than a general inclination. I mean, shouldn’t it be at least as strong as your devotion to incense or the Blue Jays? :)

    Given your inclination, I would commend to you and your readers Donum Veritas (“On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian”), promulgated by the CDF, approved by Bl. John Paul II.

    Finally, while I didn’t think it becoming to make this comment on your previous post, I will say so here: the use of the word “Godself” is not only irksome as theological term of art, it ends up undermining a proper understanding of the relational nature of the Trinity (both immanently and economically).

    That’s all for now. And as it appears I’ve been hogging up the comment sections of your posts, I’ll go silent for awhile.

    1. Dear Stephen:

      Please don't go silent! I always appreciate your insights and challenges.

      Let me address each of your comments:

      1) I tend to dislike and distrust labels as much as you do, and don't see a need to identify with any of them. However, Dulles' essay was very helpful for me to understand perhaps how others might view me and to understand where it is I might fit in a landscape that is unfamiliar to me.

      2) I'm not entirely sure how to respond to your comments on sexuality. I think the problem is that I'm not being specific enough about what "issues of sexuality" to which I'm referring. And I'll be honest and say that I'm intentionally vague here, which is, admittedly, not very helpful at all. I am *not* referring to abortion, which is clearly a justice issue. What I am referring to, however, is the obsession of some in the U.S. Catholic church with a very narrow interpretation of Catholic teaching on sexuality to the virtual exclusion of everything else that is part of the seamless garment.

      3) You appear interpret 'general inclination' much more negatively than I do. I have read Donum Veritas and have been shaped by it, and it seems to me that what I articulated is quite in line with what the CDF (and Ratzinger, in particular) wrote in that document. Both that document and Avery Dulles take it as a foregone conclusion that the Magisterium and theologians are, at times, going to be butt heads, and that a theologian should support the Magisterium but also has the responsibility to express dissent in a humble and prayerful manner should the theologian's conscience require him/her to do so. Yves Congar instantiates this idea very clearly in his writings and in his own life. Dulles' essays on the task and purpose of theology, as well as on the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium have been formative for me as I've contemplated my place within the church as a theologian. Rest assured that I take the teaching office of the church with the utmost seriousness. That said, I do not understand my role as a theologian to be to parrot proclamations of the Magisterium. Rather, I understand that it is central to my role as a theologian to ask questions and raise concerns, neither of which compromise my support of the teaching office. Given the way the Jays have been playing this year, my support for them is not nearly so strong :)

      4) With reference to 'Godself', I'm not myself a fan of this term for 'theologizing' as it is clumsy, but I was in an ecumenical context, and specifically within a context that has raised legitimate questions about the use of male-only pronouns for God. Their questions, however, do not appear to me at all to undermine a proper understanding of the relationship nature of the Trinity, though I understand how that might be a concern. Nor did my use of the term undermine such an understanding, at least in my opinion. I absolutely value and affirm traditional Trinitarian language as being central to our understanding of God. But many have raised concerns that refusing to countenance other ways to refer to God's existence as Trinity places limitations on our understanding of God, limitations that do little justice to the profundity and otherness, as well as relationality, of God. There's an article I like by Elizabeth Johnson on this topic called "To Let the Symbol Sing Again" (Theology Today October 1997 vol. 54 no. 3, 299-311).

      Don't know if that answers your concerns. Thanks again for your push back. You're an interesting conversation partner, though at some point I'd like it if you told me a bit more about yourself, even if just through email. You don't have to do so, of course, but it would help me know a bit more about where you're coming from. Forgive any typos. I wrote this quickly.