Christology and the Renewal of Catholic Culture

  • Print

 

  Two Humanisms in Conflict

What defines Christian belief is the Creed, at the centre of which is Jesus Christ. As the 1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent relates: “At the heart of Catechesis we find, in essence, a Person…the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the only son of the Father” (Catechism of Trent 5; quoted in CCC 426).  As the third of the traditional Advent “O Antiphons” proclaims, Christ is the clavis David.  Christ is the key of David because he opens the door of prisoners who sit, as the prayer continues, “in darkness and the shadow of death.”[1] Christology matters because without Christ for mankind there is no marvelous exchange.  No Christ and there is no mediation; no Christ, no mercy.  Forget the sun of righteousness, and the shadows crawl back.

But must the shadows return? We have long been testing that hypothesis.  St. Augustine famously divided the ages of the world into six periods, according to the progress of salvation history.  The first age began with Adam and ended with Noah; the second was from Noah to Abraham; the third from Abraham to David; the fourth age ends with the Babylonian captivity, and the fifth with the birth of Christ; the sixth and final age, the age of the Church, awaits only the coming of our Lord before the close of all time (enchiridion, 18, 29-24, 45).  Augustine’s division of history held the Western historical imagination for about one thousand years.   The challenge of his division coincided with a protracted battle over the right use of symbols in the interpretation of time.  The side which sought to invert the Christian symbolism of light and darkness has generally held the upper hand.  Consider the term: the “Dark Ages.”  As a description of the period between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D. you are no longer likely to find the tag applied, except for in high-school textbooks and on Television.  But it was only yesterday that this title served as short hand for the history of the West from the fall of Rome to the rise of the Reformers.   The name “Dark Ages” was first suggested by Petrarch (1304-1374), and then applied by later Renaissance humanist scholars as an act of cultural self-definition.[2] By imitating the models of classical Greece and Rome some humanists saw their age literally as a moment of re-birth (hence: the French naissance, from the Latin natus, birth).  For Petrarch, the Christian centuries marked a time of ignorance, of decay, and of poor Latin style; for the first time since St. Augustine scholars began to hold up pagan antiquity as an age of “light.”  The cultural achievements of the pagans, these humanists argued, far surpassed the “darkness” that followed.  Consider another name, this one originating in the 18th century, the self-described age of “Enlightenment.”  This time it was not so much the language and art of Christian centuries but their philosophy and politics that was the subject of derision.  Against faith and authority, the age of revolutions announced the triumph of reason and of liberty.  When in 1784 (five years before the French Revolution) Kant penned the manifesto of his age Was ist Äufklarung? (What is Enlightenment?), he promised that “For this Enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom…”  Hegel (1770-1883), then Mill (1806-1875), then Marx (1818-1883) all agreed that historical progress must henceforth be defined according to the wider reign of freedom.  Progress required emancipation from authority, most of all, from the authority of religion.  What the leading 18th and 19th century social philosophers attempted to construct was a society founded, in short, without reference to the authority of the God of Jesus Christ.  This was the dream and great gamble of the modern project.

In respect to social philosophy, ours is a time for reaping; and reap we have.  In his work Perpetual Peace Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed that a state could be ordered “even by a nation of devils”, by which he meant that peace could be achieved apart from virtue with appeal only to enlightened self-interest.[3] On this view, statecraft requires only that the mechanisms of human nature be properly understood and then applied.  The secular, therefore, achieves for Kant and for modernity a position of autonomy.  The price of a purely secular politics is what the 20th century Jewish political philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) called “oblivion of eternity.” Estrangement from our deepest desire was the high cost that we had to pay for attempting to be absolutely sovereign over nature.[4] If only the natural laws that govern pleasure and pain can be directed, argued Kant, self-interested and otherwise antagonistic individuals could be compelled to submit to the coercive force of law.  Even without good will Kant promised peace among men.  The United Nations is quite literally Immanuel Kant’s fantasy come alive.

In the culture wars of our time there are fundamentally two humanisms in conflict: between those who accept and those who reject Kant’s proposal.  What distinguishes late modernity, however, is that the terms of the conflict have altered.  Now, even those who agree with Kant (those who agree, in other words, that politics should be founded without God) no longer accept the Christian ethic that he presumed.  Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the founder of postmodernism, very perceptively called Kant “the great delayer.” He did this because the consequence of Kant’s genius was to fool Europeans into accepting the terms of Enlightenment modernity without acknowledging the bloodless sacrifice that they had performed.  In the course of the French, Russian, German, and then eugenic revolutions that would follow, that blade would turn on man himself; the high cost that freedom would exact was not at first obvious.   To be specific: the conflict between Christian and secular humanisms was mitigated by relegating religion to the sphere of private morality.  But religion’s retreat, like the receding of some mighty tide, left exposed the economy, the law, the hospital, the regiment – in short, all those institutions through which we regulate temporal affairs – bare before the hot sun of self interest.  This retreat granted to the secular a naked isolation, a bare autonomy.  The terms of this fragile peace could last, at least in North America, so long as the precepts of that morality remained.  These precepts are no longer shared.  In case this is not plain, the steady roll of anti-Christian legislation in the name of human rights that pours forth from our courts from Strasbourg to Canada’s Human Rights Commissions should be enough to convince even the most credulous among us.[5]

Indeed, from the vantage of the 21st century the most articulate proponents of both sides of the divide now equally wonder how we could have accepted the compromise for so long.  To draw on another of Nietzsche’s images: upon both secular and Christian humanists it has dawned that, without God, even the horizon of our moral judgments is wiped out.  The terms of good and evil are no longer fixed.  Man sails upon a sea without a sky above.  But, oddly, even this emancipation has not freed us from the tyranny of morality.  The modern world is full of crusades; it seemingly cannot launch enough of them to satisfy its own vengeance.  Let no one imagine that liberating ourselves from public religion has freed us from the old impulse to prejudice, from bigotry, in a word, from being “judgmental.”  We have abandoned morality without ceasing to be moralists.  The steady stream of campaigners for everything from tree rights to turkey rights never permits us to forget this oppressive tax required of citizens of a global, enlightened age.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is Yeats (1865-1939) in The Second Coming on the anarchy of the First World War.  Even as the Second World War ground to a halt there were many who worried about the order that would follow the peace.  In arms we prevailed but in moral courage we have floundered.  Against Germany twice the West succeeded but it remains unclear as to whether we will win the more important battle of ideas.  After the fall of Berlin’s walls in 1989 there were left standing no serious military threats to democracy.  Even today, neither China nor the Middle East poses as credible challengers to NATO.  What threatens the West more than falling bombs or collapsing markets is the failure of our own courage.  We are losing a war of ideas because we have lost the will to believe that most elementary of creeds: the wild and mystical faith that the world is real and that truth exists.

So far does our tolerance extend that even the mere assertion of facts can be offensive, often with comic results.  The trouble is when this elementary faith fails, faith in the mind, you do not thereby make yourself freer.  The public school student who is abandoned to believe that 4 x 4 = 8 is not liberated from the multiplication table, but merely a slave to the calculations of every dishonest employer.  The teen-age girl who is free to believe that her chastity is no longer sacred does not liberate herself from parents, but enslaves herself to the lusts of adolescent boys.  It is likewise with the citizen: to believe that values are merely the product of culture does not make you free from prejudice, but only removes you as one less obstacle to the tyrant.

In all these cases the flight from authority, even the authority of the mind, leads not to enlightenment but to a brutal conformity.  This is what Pope Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism.”[6] What threatens the private lives and public institutions of the West are not external dangers but internal collapse.  In our time proponents of abortion, of euthanasia, of homosexual recognition, appeal for legal changes on the basis of universal human rights.  As Nietzsche well recognized, the roots of the new humanism spring not even from the 18th century liberal tradition but from the sandy soils of relativism.  Young activists often forget this.  This is true partially because our universities no longer require that students learn the past.  But Nietzsche also offers a psychological explanation.  He calls the West’s new humanists “the last men.”  This is Nietzsche’s euphemism for secular liberal democrats.  The last men are people who have retained the language of science and morality but fail to recognize the consequences of their position.  Without God the language of objective science and universal values turns into a fiction.  With no first cause and no final end science and morality are merely willed projections.  The last men have killed God but do not have legs sturdy enough to stand while the tremors follow.  Philosophers calmly explain to their classes that truth is a fiction and then wonder why students cheat.  Sociologists tell men that they should be just like women and wonder why children have no fathers.  Parents raise their children to make up their own minds and wonder why their off-spring conduct themselves like slaves, obsessed with fashion, manipulated by advertising, and bored with their lives.  Such enlightened progressives literally are “the last men” because they enjoy a liberty founded upon a social order that they have labored to dismantle.  And so, the philosophy of license and unlimited tolerance is defended, laughably, in the old language of justice and right.

People of my grandparents’ generation remember how the new ethic first made its appearances in law.  Recall that the legislation that opened the door to Canada’s cultural revolution was Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s omnibus bill of 1968-69.  At a stroke, contraception, abortion, and gambling became tolerable all as the fruit of Trudeau’s vision of the so-named Just Society.  When in 2005 Canada became the third nation in the world to extend the privilege of marriage to gay couples it was, again, a Roman Catholic politician who made it happen.  Paul Martin knew, as everyone knew, that if taken to a national referendum, the law would not pass.  And no vote was taken.  But note this: his stated reason for refusal of a vote was because, strangely, the justice of the recognition of gay marriage was a matter of natural justice in that the bill represented a defense of universal human rights. How did the Prime Minister know that the right to such unions was natural?  Gay marriage is certainly not “natural” under biological descriptions (since it is by design infertile); nor is it “natural” in the sense of belonging to custom (since no religious tradition has ever countenanced it).  If you read the parliamentary transcript you discover that the Prime Minister appeals to nature in no ordinary sense, but rather to a very complex philosophical construct.  Natural justice for him is the sum of abstract equality plus absolute tolerance.  The layperson might be forgiven if he wonders what’s next?  The content of Justice defined in this way turns out to be inscribed upon a blank cheque that no real bank would accept, because it is of the sort that can be continually re-presented with new sums.  Of course it is not only Catholic politicians, but many others in our society who fail to see that when the substance of natural law disappears, when good and evil vanish as fixed reference points, it is no longer justice that is being debated in Houses of Parliament but the law of the jungle.

Over one hundred years ago Nietzsche made sport of the contradictions inherent within the ideas of contemporary humanists.  What he helps us to see is that the radical left’s appeal to the language of rights only obfuscates their true philosophical position.  Such language will be dropped when it no longer serves their purposes.   What is at stake in the West’s cultural crisis is not, for instance, the correct balance between a mother’s right to privacy and her child’s right to life.  What is at stake, rather, is whether man must take into account God in the ordering of society or not.  This is the only fundamental question for the social philosophy of the future.  Our answer will determine whether our civilization will sink into hell or merely suffer through a long purgatory.  I say all of this by way of preface.  Here is my claim: If Catholic culture is the outgrowth of Christian humanism, and if that humanism is founded upon the doctrine of Christ, once you remove Christ the edifice crashes.  Remove Christ and all the towering cathedrals, soaring polyphony, and sturdy statues of David, come tumbling down into one vast glittering mound of rubble.  Humanism without Christ descends into an inhuman humanism (cf. Caritas in Veritate, 78).

The sane man acknowledges that most of the time he must, in order to keep his sanity, rely upon other people.  Because of revelation it is not a requirement that we all become professional philosophers: from our first communion we can get down to the business of becoming saints.  The Christian argument for faith is no argument against philosophy, but it is an argument for faith.  It is worth touching briefly on the relation between faith and reason, as it offers a useful approach to Christology.

The God of Faith and Reason

The Catechism teaches as an article of faith that we can prove God’s existence by reason alone.  As we mentioned, alongside the Enlightenment tradition now reigns its negative image, the rule of anti-reason, of the post-modern.  This is particularly true in the university, and most especially within the humanities.  This is the reason why it is common to hear the Church criticized from opposite points of view.  Professional eastern gurus and otherwise spiritual people are forever calling Catholicism too rational, while the more run-of-the-mill agnostic complains that the Church is not reasonable enough.  And there is just enough truth in the critics’ claims to make the bystander wonder.  For, the amazing thing is that, at one moment the Church does appear the champion of universal reason (so suggesting the possibility of humanism without Christ); and then at the next she declares her poverty apart from grace (so rendering such a possibility void).  In any given week, the Pope is likely to address the United Nations on Monday and then pray with pilgrims at Lourdes on Friday.  You can almost watch the disjunction form under some people’s furrowed brows: is the Church for or against reason?  Obviously, this way of putting the matter is backwards from the start.  Just because Richard Dawkins is a declared enemy does not make Deepak Chopra your friend.

And yet, the Church always addresses herself to man as a bearer of reason.  With regard to God’s existence, from St. Paul (cf. Rom. 1:19) forward Catholics have been struck by man’s irresistibly intuitive, even primal, awareness of the creator.  Ethnographers tell us that every indigenous nation has embedded within its mythology the belief in a supreme Creator, as our own Native Americans have; studies done by child psychologists too suggest that theism is the pre-reflective, or default, position of young children.  Psalm 119 tells that the heavens declare the glory of God, and there are these sweet lines by the New England poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) that capture something of this innocence:

I never saw a moor,

I never saw the sea,

Yet know I how the heather looks,

And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,

Nor visited in heaven;

Yet certain am I of the spot

As if a chart were given.

Even though natural theology is regarded as naïve by many professional academics, in virtually all periods except our own, the reverse was true.  Ancient Greek, and Roman, Medieval Arabic and European, and even early modern philosophers nearly all regarded God’s existence as rationally demonstrable.  Since Vatican I (1870) this conviction has been also a point of Catholic dogma.  Reflecting this, the Catechism proposes for belief certain articles that, by its own admission, can be the subject either of faith or of reason.

What does this tell us about the nature of our Creed?  It is worth pausing over the distinction between (but not separation of) faith and reason because it gives us some insight into the Church’s teaching about Christ.  One implication is that the objects of faith and reason may be distinguished though not, finally, separated.  There is union without confusion.  According to the old formula, grace perfects nature (gratia praesupponit naturum) (cf. Summa Theologiae 1. q.2 a.2) but does not destroy it.  The Church affirms that reason alone can tell us that God’s exists, if we will listen.  The trouble is we often do not listen.  Even the little that we might know needs to be purified.  Natural knowledge of God, then, is neither complete nor sufficient for what we need that knowledge for.  As St. Thomas Aquinas says at the opening of his Summa Theologiae (1 q.1. a.1), apart from revelation knowledge of God would have been grasped “by only a few, after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors” (a paucis, per longum tempus, et cum admixtione multorum errorum).  For Aquinas there are, indeed, three ascending degrees of knowledge of God.  The first is the natural knowledge we can achieve by reflection upon the world; the second is what we know through revelation; the third is the vision of heaven, “when the mind will be elevated to gaze perfectly upon the things revealed” (Summa Contra Gentiles, 4.1).

When the Catechism speaks of our natural knowledge of God (or of the moral law for that matter) it does not extend to reason and nature a sphere of absolute independence.  There is distinction not separation.  The Church, unlike postmodern philosophers, affirms the integrity of our natural knowledge.  Unlike characteristically modern philosophers, the Church denies that this is sufficient.  Though Thomists and masters of the nouvelle théologie (the two contemporary schools of Catholic thought that support the conclusions of the Magisterium on disputed moral questions) divide over other matters, they are united on this one: if in one moment the Church concedes the natural knowledge of God (CCC 31), at the next she firmly rebukes nature’s inadequacies (CCC 37); if in another moment she celebrates man’s religiosity (CCC 28), at the next she warns that he is always forgetting about God because of sin, or even just because the Olympics happen to be on television (CCC 29).  It takes so little to distract us.  Here is a rough analogy.  Desire and knowledge for God are natural in the same way that desire and knowledge for calculus are natural: anyone can learn it.  Left to our own devices, however, and without the help of a gifted teacher, few people take a dedicated interest in logarithms, and fewer still are capable to grasp their proofs.  How far, precisely, the nature/grace distinction should be pressed would become highly contested in the last decades before the Second Vatican Council.  To a limited extent the range of possible answers to that question is even reflected in the Council documents.  Whether nature, and correspondingly the sphere of the secular (that is, those matters which pertain to this age), could be intelligibly understood and ordered without explicit reference to Christ, bore heavily upon the interpretations of the Council texts in the years during its immediate reception, which we look to next.

Christology and Anthropology at Vatican II

At the heart of the Second Vatican Council was the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, and at the core of that document was paragraph number twenty-two: “In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear.”  As has often been observed, the problem with Vatican II has been that its texts provide the basis for multiple interpretations.  Unlike the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, or Trent in the sixteenth, by focusing upon questions of pastoral mission and evangelization Vatican II provided no obvious key to its own interpretation.  “Aggiornamento,” updating, was the term many used to capture the spirit of the great event.  With some 2,500 bishops and religious superiors from all over the globe, with virtually every aspect of the Church’s life on the table, it is not unfair to characterize the Council as a singular event in Catholic history.  Pope John XXIII said that he wished the Church to open her windows to the modern world.  Instead of meeting heresies, of deepening matters of fundamental theology, good Pope John wished this council to be pastoral.  Along this line in his opening remarks he addressed the bishops in words that fifty years hence could be taken as unreasonably optimistic.  There he suggested that in the past the Church had too often the medicine discipline and too little the medicine of mercy in her approach to heretics; unlike the previous twenty ecumenical councils this one would initiate a dialogue with “the modern world.”  Nowhere is that ambition fulfilled as directly as in Gaudium et spes.[7] 

It seems that no sooner had the Council closed than controversy over its meaning erupted.  The reception of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae was emblematic.  When the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I heard that Paul VI had reaffirmed the Church’s unbroken teaching on artificial contraception the Patriarch congratulated the Pontiff acknowledging that the Holy Father “could not have spoken in any other way”.  Not everyone agreed.  Canadian, Dutch, and German bishops responded that individuals’ consciences should rule.  As with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop’s infamous 1968 Winnipeg Statement, the Bishops assured couples that as long as one “honestly chooses” to disregard the moral teaching of the Church on sexual questions they may do so “in good conscience.”[8] In this statement, which has never been retracted, the Bishops supplied no criteria according to which the faithful should judge when they have chosen “honestly” as opposed to – we must presume – “dishonestly”; nor was there offered any indication as to which other precepts may be disregarded “in good conscience.” Among academics, theologians in Europe and America began to speak of an “alternative magisterium,” and of the need for “loyal dissent”.  Also in 1968, a young peritus, the Canadian theologian (and then Augustinian priest) Gregory Baum, likewise described the Council as “the beginning of the beginning of a profound doctrinal reform.”  With reference particularly to moral theology, and pointing to Gaudium et spes, Baum offered some indication as to where this reform would likely lead:

The entire moral teaching of the Church…is inadequate. The present crisis in regard to birth control is just one instance of this inadequacy.  None of the official positions, based on a fixed natura humana, which are so rigidly defended at this time – be they concerned with marriage, sex, war, and so forth – will remain with us for long.  In essence they have been overcome in the doctrinal development at Vatican II.[9]

Similarly, at a conference in Cambridge in 1979 Karl Rahner said that the break between the pre-councilar and the post-councilar Church had been as decisive as was the transition from Jewish to Gentile Christianity.  By this he meant that the consequence of the break in 1965 would be as far reaching for the Church as was the decision, taken at the Council of Jerusalem in 49 A.D., to allow Gentile Christians.[10] Through the 1960s and 1970s the leading interpretation of the Council was that the importance of its documents lies not primarily in their letter but in their spirit – in other words, what was thought key to know was not what the texts literally commend but what they one day might allow.   In the years after the Council there was growth in the Church throughout parts of the world, but decline in Europe and North America.  In the United States the number of religious sisters fell from 179, 954 in 1965 to 115, 386 in 1985 (as of 2009 there were 59, 601);[11] in English-speaking Canada between 1968 and 1983 the number of Catholic colleges and universities outside of Quebec dropped from fifty-seven to seventeen.[12] Religious observance in countries like Holland virtually disappeared, and Quebec, which in the 1950s was likely the most devout region in the Western world, through the 1960s and 1970s underwent its quiet revolution.

In 1985, at the 40th anniversary of the Council’s close, John Paul II convened an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops.  On the agenda was the review of Vatican II’s implementation.  In the months leading up to the Synod the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori published a lengthy interview with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled The Ratzinger Report.  That report, which became widely known in Rome and elsewhere, made plain the Cardinal’s mind on some of the causes that led to the present crisis.  Open dissent, failing vocations, widespread liturgical abuses had become the norm.  What precipitated the crises?  Perhaps most importantly, within the interview Ratzinger openly questioned whether the Council, or more specifically its implementation, were not itself partly to blame.  The public revelation of the Cardinal’s mind seemed to set the tone for the Synod.  Mistakes had been made.  The entire question of the interpretation and implementation of the Council had to be recast.  Unlike certain Traditionalists, and particularly those who followed into schism the French Archbishop Lefebvre (1905-1991), John Paul II remained firmly convinced that the Council had been a work of the Holy Spirit.  A deepened reflection as to the authentic meaning of the Council was called for, certainly, but so was its celebration. 

In their addresses to the Synod both John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized Gaudium et spes 22 as the lens through which to understand the document, and as a key theme of the Council.  As the early sentences of this section read: in revealing the mystery of the Father and his love, Christ “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”.  In its dialogue with modernity, therefore, the Church offered to the modern world the clue to its own best questions.  Affirming all that is noble in the strivings of modern men and women, and the value of sincere dialogue, she nonetheless never ceases to proclaim Christ.  Despite humanity’s tremendous progress in technology, communications, and even social development, “everyman remains a question to himself” (GS 21).  By offering Christ to the world the Church reveals to man what he truly is, and so defines the terms of true humanism.  Where some within the Church expected the Council to open the way for secular and Christian humanisms to bleed together, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed that the texts had to be read in the light of the Church’s abiding Christology.  As the Australian theologian Tracy Rowland has observed, by emphasizing in their presentations to the Synod Gaudium et spes paragraph 22 “both John Paul II and Ratzinger attempted to undercut any secularising potential in the document.” [13] If anthropology requires Christology, secular humanism is always inadequate.   The Bishops of the Synod made this plain.  In their Final Report, as a means of reining in secularizing readings of the Council, the Bishops emphasized the need to interpret the texts of the Vatican Council in the light of Church’s entire tradition:

It is not licit to separate the pastoral character from the doctrinal vigor of the documents. In the same way, it is not legitimate to separate the spirit and the letter of the Council. Moreover, the Council must be understood in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, and at the same time we must receive light from the Council's own doctrine for today's Church and the men of our time. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils. (§5)

1985 marked a point of no return for the culture wars within the post-counciliar Church.  If there was any doubt before it became clear from that time on that the fantasy some had nurtured of a Church remade in their own images was not going to be fulfilled.  Increasingly, like the disappearance of main line Protestant Christianity from its once exalted position of influence within North American religion and culture, the old guard of the avant garde would disappear or become disillusioned as they saw that the revolution which they longed to welcome failed to appear.

Christology and Culture

Why does Christology matter? Without Christ the shadows do indeed return.  Man loses both God and himself.  As at the Second Vatican Council, as at the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, as throughout her history, the Church has guarded her creed because it is the pearl of great price.  Like some massive Cathedral, the foundation of Catholic belief and practice rests on her confession of Jesus Christ, as St. Paul says, “the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20).  Indeed, the first seven Ecumenical Councils from Nicaea I in 325 to Nicaea II in 787 were each called primarily to settle Christological debates.  With ever sharpening precision the Church like a good teacher explained, defended, and explored the claim that Christ “became truly man while remaining truly God” (CCC 464).  Both sides of the equation need to hold.  Lose either and the world falls apart, man becomes either a ghost or an ape.  As the Catechism notes:

Because ‘human nature was assumed, not absorbed,’ in the mysterious union of the incarnation, the Church was led over the course of centuries to confess the full reality of Christ’s human soul, with its operations of intellect and will, and of his human body.  In parallel fashion, she had to recall on each occasion that Christ’s human nature belongs, as his own, to the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it. (CCC 470; quoting Gaudium et spes 22).

That little phrase “assumed, not absorbed,” is taken from the same paragraph of Gaudium et spes of which we spoke of above, number twenty-two.  But as we might expect, its origin is much older.  In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, for one, wrote that Christ “assumed our nature” so that he might make us gods (Opusculum 57:1-4; CCC 460); before that we might look to St. Athanasius in the 4th century, St. Irenaeus in the 2nd, and to 2 Peter 1:4 (cf. CCC 460).  When St. Athanasius wrote: “that which is not assumed is not healed,” he was insisting as much upon Christ’s divinity as his humanity.

In terms of official teaching, the Church’s Christology is probably more settled today than it ever has been in her long history.  But this alone has not limited confusion among the faithful.  And a weakness of contemporary Catholicism which will no doubt have to be redressed in the coming century is the failure of the transmission of the faith, a failure which ultimately goes back to catechesis.  This is why Cardinal Francis George, for one, has emphasized that it is not sufficient only to explain what is good about Catholicism: you also need to point out the errors that would distort the picture.  Apologetics, in other words, needs to be seen once again as an essential feature of catechesis.[14] Since our desire for dialogue has largely overwhelmed our desire to debate, unsurprisingly, our time heresies abound.  Interestingly, where modern heretics usually find it incredible that Christ could have been a god, ancients’ found it difficult to believe that Christ was truly a man,.

The 1st century Gnostics as much as the 8th century iconoclasts were united in the suspicion that, somehow, the God of light could not mix with a body of flesh, at least, not without either polluting the one or overwhelming the other.  Ancient Christological heresies, then, proceeded along two well-worn paths.  The one led people to compromise Christ’s humanity, the other his divinity.  These represent, as it were, the Platonic and Aristotelian forms that heresy has taken down the ages.  The Platonic, which tended to regard Christ exclusively as divine, is represented by the heretical 4th century Bishop of Laodicea, Apollinarius (c. 310- c.390).  Of Christ Apollinarius asserted “the divine Word had replaced the soul” (CCC 471).  Against this the Church reasoned that since Christ was true man, he too must have had a rational soul, like we do.  The problem with Apollinarius’ view, and other such over-Platonising tendencies, is that Christ ends up only appearing human, appearing to have taken on flesh as a kind of outer garment that clothed the god within.  But that would undermine everything.  If this were the case, as Gregory Nazianzus vigorously rebuffed, then there would be some part of our humanity that remained un-assumed and therefore unredeemed.[15] (In modern philosophy the tendency to disregard the goodness of embodied existence in favor of mind was carried forward by the idealist tradition in Descartes, Hegel and Berkeley.)  To the other side, the path of the Aristotelian heresies, has been the temptation to imagine Christ as an inspiring human being but one not in truth divine.  Of this view Arius (250-336) was the model spokesman.  Although Arius and his followers divided the Church and the Empire in the fourth century, his heresy would not resurface again as a serious threat for nearly a millennium and a half, in the 18th century.  Having lain dormant for all those ages in the 19th and 20th centuries it appeared suddenly and with all the ravenousness of a bear in spring awakened from its long slumber.  In philosophical anthropology, this opposite tendency to reduce man to his body is well represented in Hume, in Marx, and in your high-school biology teacher.

Today both habits of thought mingle and compete.  If the 19th century idealist philosophers and Romantic poets exalted in the immaterial in man, and the 20th century materialists triumphed in his brute animality, within contemporary culture these anthropologies are given vigorous and contradictory expression.  Thus, on the one hand, too many among the middle classes sacrifice all to the altar of low-grade desire satisfaction.  This is why Wal-Mart dominates.  This is the consumer seeking salvation from the gods of fashion, of commerce, of travel, in the temples of the mall, the bank, and the Mexican resort.  Health is his obsession (since pleasure is impossible without out); he fears the germs he cannot see in the way that older men feared the demons that they could not touch.  Everybody can see that the materialist sets the tonic note, but to this dominant key others have added a minor seventh.  Alongside this reductionism thrives a party of discord, attractive particularly to university students.  Here is the anthropology of a world-denying asceticism.  This is the antihumanism of the over-population gurus, and the trans-humanism of the bio-engineers.  Modern idealists will despise man – consuming, smelly, wrinkly man, who stomps along the earth leaving behind his fat carbon footprints.  These idealists despise that part of man, at least, which cannot transcend his mere earthly existence.  There are points of agreements between these two groups.  When freedom is ever at stake, the new pagans, like the old, have little trouble with leaving their unwanted young and their unwanted old to die.  C.S. Lewis once suggested that the apotheosis of the modern pagan would be neither a strict materialist nor a new age spiritualist but the fusion of the two: the materialist idealist, Lewis’ Dr. Weston in the second book of his space trilogy, The Voyage to Venus.

We conclude by recalling how G.K. Chesterton once quipped that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness.  “A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe.  A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs.”[16] If there is one lesson to draw from our survey of contemporary Christology it is this: Christology matters because without it, without that marvelous balance of contraries which is Catholic orthodoxy man loses God, man loses himself, and man even loses the right to walk upon the ground beneath his feet.  The resources of our age have not allowed modern man, it would seem, to be capable of using nature without abusing her, or of respecting Mother Earth without bowing down to worship at her dusty feet.



[1] Known since at least the 11th century, the O Antiphons are the antiphons to the Magnificat used during seven days prior to the vigil of Christmas.

[2] Cf. Theodore Mommsen, “Petrarch’s Conception of the Dark Ages” Speculum 17.2 (April 1942): 226-42.

[3] Kant, Perpetual Peace, first supplement, in Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. T. Humphrey (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1983).

[4] See his What is Political Philosophy? And Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 55.

[5] Some of the more bizarre rulings of the later are documented in Ezra Levant’s Shakedown: How our Government is Undermining Democracy in the Name of Human Rights (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999).

[6] From his homily at the Vatican Basilica, 18 April 2005: “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.”

[7] I have followed George Weigel’s account in Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), 153-55.

[8] The Canadian Conference of Bishops’ Winnipeg Statement offered that couples who dissent from Humanae Vitae “should not be considered, or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful” (17).  Most importantly, the document concluded of dissenters that: “if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience” (26).

[9] Gregory Baum, The Credibility of the Church Today: A Reply to Charles Davis (London: Burns and Oats, 1968), 12 and 15. 

[10] Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 30.

[11] These statistics are reported on the CARA website (the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate) at the University of Georgetown, http://cara.georgetown.edu, accessed on 7 October 2009.

[12] Including Quebec the number of Catholic colleges in 1968 was sixty-three.  See E. F. Sheffield, “The Universities of Canada,” Commonwealth Universities Yearbook, 1969, 1031-1057, cited in A Commitment to Higher Education in Canada: The Report of a Commission of Inquiry on Forty Catholic Colleges and Universities, February 1970 (Ottawa: National Education Office, 1970), 2.  For the decline in colleges between 1970-1983 see Hogan “‘The Word’ and the University World” 58-72 (particularly pp. 66-70) in Spiritual Roots: Historical Essays on the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto at 150 Years of Age, (eds.), John Duggan, SJ, and Terry Fay, SJ (Toronto: Our Lady of Lourdes, 1991).  The 2009 Canadian Catholic Church Directory (Montreal: Novalis Publishing, 2009), 54, lists nineteen institutions belonging to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada (ACCUC).  I note that this figure does not include two recent foundations, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, Barry’s Bay, ON, and Pacific Redeemer College, Langley, BC, which, as far as I am aware, have not sought association with ACCUC.  The count of Catholic institutions might also be adjusted when you take into account other juridical and institutional features.  For example, we might subtract Assumption University, transferred to the University of Windsor in 1962, which does not provide regular teaching nor does it have a permanent teaching staff; alternatively, we might add Laval University which retains some ecclesiastical connection through its faculty of theology.  On this see further R. Topping, “Catholic Studies in Canada: History and Prospects” in CCHA Historical Studies 76 (2010) (forthcoming).

[13] Rowalnd, Ratzinger’s Faith, 32-33.

[14] See Cardinal Francis George, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture (New York: Crossroads, 2010).

[15] Cf. S.W. Need, Truly Human and Truly Divine: The Story of Christology and the Seven Ecumenical Councils (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 71-72.

[16] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 107.