More on Nirenberg's Article in TNR
Last Friday, I called attention to the very fine article by Professor David Nirenberg in the current issue of The New Republic in which he reviews Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. And, I posted a link to my initial response to Nirenberg which has itself garnered some interesting responses, so I would like to revisit the issues Nirenberg raises, or more accurately, the critical issue of how the Church can properly function in the public realm.
One thoughtful reply, from someone whose judgment I value, suggested that Nirenberg and I do not disagree: "He has no quarrel with your insistence that Catholics be Catholics, that is, that they recover the dogmatic base, as you nicely put it, of their social and political views, and not water them down. And you agree with him when you write that Catholics must find ways to engage the larger citizenry etc -- which is to say, must not think that their dogmatic base will be sufficient for the persuasion of their non-Catholic fellow citizens in the society that we all share. Catholicism should take itself seriously, and we must speak to each other in a vocabulary that we can both understand: those propositions go together, they are addressed to different audiences, and you and David both agree on this."
I am not so sure. I worry that Nirenberg may still see religion in utilitarian terms when he writes "Religions offer one of the few reservoirs of moral values still deep enough to nourish popular visions of a more ‘common good’ (as the Obama campaign realized when it adopted the scriptural tag ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’)." And when he writes of Pope Benedict that "His ‘love’ is narrowed by his ‘truth,’" I know that we are at odds. For Nirenberg, religion is a set of propositions and for Benedict religion is about an experience. This difference distinguishes Benedict not only from Professor Nirenberg, but from most mainstream American Catholic theologians who, following Rahner, see the Incarnation in terms of theological categories while Benedict and the Communio school sees the Incarnation primarily as an event, even as the beginning of a drama. (I apologize to the reader for the gross simplifications of complicated theological issues but this is a blog.)
This difference in perspective always comes up in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the process by which adult converts become Catholics). Some adults come to the Church because they are seeking answers to their problems. Or, at least, that is how they put it. But, every year, at some point in the proceedings I tell our class of incoming Catholics this: "If you have come to the Church for answers, you have come to the wrong place. The Church is not an encyclopedia and the Virgin Mary did not give birth to a Summa. The Church is where all of us together try to find out the answers to our human questions, where we console each other when our answers prove wrong, and where we challenge each other when our answers become self-satisfying." Or words to that effect.
Here is another example to highlight the difference Benedict introduces, which perhaps sheds some light on his ecclesiological project. At a retreat sponsored by Communione e Liberazione, someone asked Father Julian Carron for help. The questioner was trying to figure out "Who Jesus Christ is for me." Father Carron replied, "No. We must first ask, ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ period." One of the ecclesiological projects of the ressourcement theology that informed the Council and gave birth to Communio was to refocus the Church on her most basic doctrinal teachings. These teachings were not in doubt but they were no longer in focus. Being Catholic meant not eating meat on Friday. Every religion must, from time to time, cut through the cultural encrustations of the faith and get back to the core. Benedict is a pastor, and he sees the empty pews, and he must figure out how to go after the lost sheep. He knows that moralism inhibits evangelization, that for the Christian, the commitment to radical love goes well beyond morality. Read the parable of the Prodigal: The complaint of the loyal son is the voice of justice and the father’s actions are manifestly unjust.
In Gaudium et Spes #22, we read these words which are undoubtedly deLubac’s: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear." That adverb "only" is the crux of the issue, yes? I have never understood how Benedict, or John Paul II before him, reconciled that adverb with their continued commitment to natural law as the primary vehicle for Christian ethics, but that is why I am not a theologian.
What I do know is that Nirenberg’s article sheds important, and sympathetic, light on an issue that undergirds many contemporary issues in our nation’s public life: Should faith-based organizations that receive federal funds be able to give preferential treatment in hiring to members of their own sect? What should a conscience clause for religious medical personnel look like? It will be curious to see what kind of response non-Catholic liberals (and conservative Catholics) make to Nirenberg’s provocative article. He is more right than wrong. I only wish the Pope’s writings got such thoughtful treatment always.