Reform rollback or emerging ‘sane modernity’ – Evangelical Catholicism triumphant, Vatican watcher states
Two other illustrations, drawn from a potentially long list, make the point.
When Brazilian Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff was censured in 1985, it was seen as a blow against liberation theology, the controversial movement that took hold in Latin America beginning in the late 1960s and sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Sometimes forgotten is that it wasn’t Father Boff’s entire oeuvre that got him into trouble, but one 1981 book: Church: Charism and Power. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, led by Ratzinger, objected that the book put too much stress on a “church from below,” undercutting the “church from above,” meaning the hierarchy.
Concern for authority was also behind one of John Paul II’s most controversial documents, “Ad Tuendam Fidem,” issued in July 1998. It created penalties for dissent from “definitive teachings,” meaning teachings not part of divine revelation but seen as linked to revealed doctrines by logical necessity, and which have been taught consistently by the church over the centuries. At the time, Ratzinger offered several examples: the ban on women priests, the ban on euthanasia, and the immorality of prostitution and fornication.
To be clear, evangelical Catholicism isn’t fundamentalism. Benedict, after all, recently jettisoned limbo – understood as the eternal resting place of unbaptized babies – as a theological hypothesis that had outlived its usefulness. Yet just as Protestant evangelicals stay closely tethered to the Bible, evangelical Catholics strongly affirm the magisterium, meaning the church’s teaching authority.
Patrolling doctrinal borders
The day before his election as pope, Ratzinger asserted that the core challenge for the church today is a “dictatorship of relativism” in Western culture. Like their Protestant counterparts, Catholic evangelicals see the frontlines of this battle in terms of defending traditional teachings about the person and the saving significance of Jesus Christ.
A Magna Carta of this conviction came with a September 2000 document from the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation titled “Dominus Iesus.” It insisted that apart from any parallels to other prophets or religious sages, Jesus is the unique and lone savior of the world. Non-Christians are, objectively speaking, in a “gravely deficient situation.”
Recent Vatican censures all have involved writers on Christology. Three were Jesuits prominent in theological circles: Fathers Jacques Dupuis, a Belgian who spent almost three decades in India; Roger Haight, an American; and Jon Sobrino, a Basque who lives and writes in El Salvador. In each case, the Vatican wanted to limit claims that Christ and the Holy Spirit are active in non-Christian religions, or that the proof of doctrines about Christ is their capacity to build a better world rather than coherence with traditional formula. Concern for traditional Christology was also the motive for Benedict XVI’s first book as pope, Jesus of Nazareth, released in April 2007.
Catholics have long held to the adage lex ordandi, lex credendi, or “the rule of worship is the rule of faith,” so it’s no surprise that concern for doctrine has also translated into concern for traditional ways of worship. The “liturgy wars” that erupted in the mid-1990s, leading to translations of texts closer to the Latin originals, are an expression of the impulse; so, too, is recent approval for wider use of the pre-Vatican II Mass.
In a pluralistic age, faith has to be preached because most people no longer imbibe it from neighborhoods, schools or even families. John Paul II said he wanted to be the successor of Paul, the evangelist par excellence, as well as Peter, and his 104 foreign trips were proof of the point. Benedict’s willingness to put his views in a mass market book is, in a sense, an equally evangelical act.
An exclusive path
While evangelical Catholics believe in dialogue, they insist it can’t come at the expense of strong Catholic identity. The bottom line is unambiguous assertion that the visible, institutional Catholic church alone possesses the fullness of the church willed by Christ. That’s why Protestant bodies are called “ecclesial communities” rather than churches, and why the Orthodox churches can be “sisters” of local Catholic churches, but not of the universal Catholic church as such.
The Vatican’s declaration on the church in early July is a classic expression of this conviction, and like other elements of the evangelical Catholic outlook, it didn’t just drop from the sky. Nor does it reflect merely the personal musings of the current pope. Rather, it’s the product of a long incubation of evangelical thinking.
In 2005, German Jesuit Father Karl Becker, an influential consulter to the doctrinal congregation, published a front-page article in L’Osservatore ...
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