Left, Right or Rome?

Book cover
Finding the Voice of the Churchby George Dennis O’Brien

Univ. of Notre Dame Press 256p $25


The aim of this book is to rephrase Christian doctrine in nonstandard ways with the hope that these variants will either hit the target or, if wayward, illuminate how traditional language really works and why it is most appropriate.

The author is George Dennis OBrien, emeritus president of the University of Rochester. A philosopher by training and a cradle Catholic, OBrien has a deep commitment to his religious tradition and strong opinions about how it is being handed on. Reading this in the preface, I was buoyed by the hope that Finding the Voice of the Churchwould be a book nurtured by a mature faith sufficiently critical to cut deep and sufficiently grace-filled to offer healingminus academic jargon. I think the author succeeds.

Musing about the possibility that what he proposes may be heretical, OBrien says that he is willing to risk itsince the sermons he has heard in his lifetime often offer either sheer banality or formal heresy or both. He cites this example from an Ash Wednesday sermon.


Being as it was the spring of the year, we were told that we should all look to our spiritual garden and pluck out the weeds (sins). Would that sin could be dug out like dandelions. Sin is not the dandelion in the garden of our goodness, it is a blight on the whole field. It is a bland form of Pelagian heresy to think that with a bit of effort and holy Weed-B-Gon we can clear up our blighted soul.


The title of OBriens book is not accidental. He believes that what is being said theologically should determine how it is said. He cites Wittgensteins comment about a street evangelist: If he really meant what he was shouting, he wouldnt be speaking in that tone of voice. OBriens Christologythe whatestablishes the divinity and humanity of Jesus by looking at the worshipping voice of the liturgybaptism, Gospel and Eucharist. These three activities demonstrate what Christians believe: lex orandi, lex credendi. In doing this, he reworks salvation history, with God not as a first cause but as divine author of the World-Play. Jesus role makes history la divina commedia. Again he quotes Wittgenstein: Within Christianity its as though God says to men: Dont act a tragedy.

Part 1 is far more creative than my brief description conveys. In hunting for the proper voice of the church, OBrien takes on both the conservative organization Faithful Voice and the liberal Voice of the Faithful (with whom he has more sympathy). He rejects the didactic voice, as well as the voice of condemnation or the pitting of the theological voice against the missionary voice. The voice for which the church must strive is the listening and forgiving voice. He uses the word forgiving in two senses: certainly it means the forgiving of sin; but it also refers to the sense in which wood is forgiving, as opposed to tile. OBrien speaks of this sense as the ability to maintain integrity while open to stress.

He ties listening to forgiving through faith:


A person who is convinced can afford to be forgiving. She is not afraid to listen to criticism and contradiction; she believes that her views are wide, deep, and capacious enough to understand and encompass critical questions. Speaking from conviction, the speaker continually seeks new modes of expression, a different formula for a truth that she knows is deeper than any formula can quite capture. One must be suspicious when religious discourse simply repeats stock phrases from some catechism. The more one falls back on pat phrases, the more one falls into religious chatter.


Between Part 1 and Part 2 is a 20-page Philosophical Intermission. It is well-named, since it is a tightly reasoned exposition of subjectivity, objectivity, sanity and the religious persona in the service of explicating Iris Murdochs Religion is having an intense attitude and no time off. OBrien shows uswith rigor and humorthat it is the work of the church to form us in sanity/saintliness by contact with Christ, the Word of God. This interlude lays out the skills that we need if we are to succeed as Christians.

It also sets us up to understand Part 2, wherein the author argues for the pope as a symbol of the sacramental family and for the interpretation of patriarchy and hierarchy using the analogy of family that can be close and intimate [as] the relation of grandparent to grandchild. OBrien adds parenthetically, Maybe what the Church needs is a Holy Grandfather. At the risk of oversimplifying, I hear OBrien saying that the church as a sacramental family must be both hierarchic (implying greater and lesser experience, for example) and infallible (faith forging unbreakable family bonds), since its role is to send all peoples to the school of Jesus, because he is the truth in person and, thereby, the way to be human (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance). In essence, the what (teaching Jesus) determines the how (the voice found within the family).

Before closing his book with some specific suggestions, OBrien takes on the possibility of infallible morality. Chapter 8, Saving Morality, stresses that Catholic moral teaching offers much that OBrien thinks is good and useful; it cannot, however, offer infallible moral teaching. Historically, moral teachings change (as, for example, on slavery and usury). Logically, moral judgments are synthetic, dependent on practical judgment and ethical discernment. Most impressive of all is OBriens Christological critique. Faith tells us that a) original sin compromises all positions and all peoples; b) Christs salvific love and forgiveness make morality possible; and, c) living imitatio Christi (requiring discipline and self-reflection) frees us for comedic morality.

If the church believes this, then it must speak with the voice of deep and forgiving listening. The church is not known as a good listenerperhaps this is why even papal statements that are intended as prophetic are heard as moralistic nagging. To tune the papal ear, OBrien would have more frequent councils and synods structured by three practices: wide participation (of women, theologians and especially contrary voices), public information (both agendas and results) and patience (manifested in a willingness to take the time needed to clarify policies and procedures).

Finding the Voice of the Church is not theology-lite; neither are its rewards. For careful readers, it can nourish hope, strengthen faith and maybe complicate the intent of Matt 23:9.


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