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John Jay HughesMay 23, 2005

Amazing Churchby Gregory Baum

Orbis Books. 159p $19 (paperback)

Born in Berlin in 1923 to affluent Jewish parents, Gregory Baum was sent for safety to England as a young teenager. With the outbreak of war, the refugee became an enemy alien and was interned in Canada. Befriended there by a Catholic family, he discovered Augustine’s Confessions. Like Edith Stein, who read St. Teresa’s Autobiography in a single night and declared the next morning, That is the truth, Baum was led by the writings of a major saint to baptism. Discerning a priestly vocation, he joined the Augustinians, who sent him to Fribourg, Switzerland, for theological studies culminating in 1956 in the theological doctorate. One day Baum’s religious superior told him that a man claiming to be Baum’s stepfather was seeking a reunion. At the meeting the stepfather offered Baum, now a priest, a golden future if he would join the booming family business. When Baum declined, his stepfather showed flexibility by proposing an alternative: How much does it cost to become a bishop?

Readers will find none of this remarkable story in these pages. He wrote the book, Baum says, to express my amazement at the extraordinary evolution of the Church’s official teaching. I have always paid attention to the ecclesiastical magisterium, Baum writes. In a rare personal disclosure he tells how shocked he was in the late 1950’s to hear a young woman in the Fribourg office of Pax Romana, an organization of Catholic intellectuals, say that the popes were wrong to condemn the principle of religious liberty. About the same time, he awoke one night in a cold sweat out of fear that something he had written in a projected book on biblical themes was at odds with the official Roman teaching.

It is a merit of this modest book that Baum characterizes the changes he describes in magisterial teaching as the result of organic development, not as a radical break with the past. As the Church entered a new ethical horizon, he writes, it had to review its official teaching. Baum describes change in five areas.

His chapter on religious liberty and human rights traces a shift from the condemnation by Mirari Vos (1832) of that absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone to the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of freedom, equality and participation as values sustained by divine revelation.

The chapter God’s Redemptive Presence in History traces the magisterium’s abandonment of the neo-scholastic separation of nature and grace in favor of the ancient Logos Christology [which] acknowledges God’s creative and redemptive presence in the whole of human history.

In The Preferential Option for the Poor, Baum describes how magisterial documents have replaced Leo XIII’s organic view of societycomposed of different social classes called to cooperatewith a more conflicted view, recognizing unjust structures of social domination that victimize the poor.

In a chapter entitled The Culture of Peace, Baum reminds readers that popes from John XXIII on have dropped appeals to the ancient just war doctrine, which sought to tame something regarded as a permanent and inevitable part of history. Instead we hear papal appeals for human solidarity, embodied in the cry, Never again war! As a corollary, the church now recognizes the right, previously denied, of conscientious objection to participation in war. Baum concedes, however, that the magisterium continues to maintain the right of self-defense. And though he does not mention this, the just war doctrine is still in the catechism (No. 2309).

The book’s chapter on religious pluralism deals with ecumenism, both within the Christian family and with other religions, starting with Judaism. In regard to the Jews, Baum writes, the Catholic Church made a 180-degree turn! He warns, however, that despite the many magisterial statements he cites, many Catholics, including members of the hierarchy, are unwilling to embrace the new teaching. This should not cause surprise. Organic change requires time.

Baum describes the half-century of change referred to in his subtitle as amazing. No less amazing, surely, would be his still-untold personal story. Personal witness to faith, rightly handled, has unequaled spiritual power. One hopes that Baum, whose own journey of faith was decisively shaped by the testimony of St. Augustine, will be moved to give us his own witness before the Lord calls him home.

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