Times: Should Popes be Saints? and Schillebeeckx's Obit
Two good pieces on Catholicism in the New York Times today. First, David Gibson's provocative piece on whether making saints of all popes (which seems to be the current trend, after all, with Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II on track). Gibson, who quotes Christopher Bellitto and Richard McBrien in his piece, not to mention Karl Rahner, writes:
This trend, by some accounts, is creating several problems. One is that it can dilute the meaning of sainthood; all who die and go to heaven are saints, but those officially recognized as such by the church are exalted as worthy of veneration and imitation. Is every pope such an exemplar? Moreover, by canonizing predecessors a reigning pope elevates the throne he himself occupies and practically ensures that his successor one day will declare him a saint as well — as if sanctity were an award for becoming pope.
This overlooks the reality that the cardinals in a conclave are electing a leader to govern the church. As the German theologian Karl Rahner put it, if a pope turns out to be a wonderful Christian, that’s “a happy coincidence,” just as when the president of the chess club is also a great player. It is not necessarily relevant, however, to the health of the chess club — or the church. --Gibson
The last line of that first graf is especially important. In the future, if someone is not proposed for canonization will it seem as a kind of insult? I'm reminded of the line from Alice in Wonderland, when one character exclaims at the conclusion of a race, "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."
Also--finally!--the Times has run an excellent obituary of the theological giant, Edward Schillebeeckx, whose death in late December was largely overlooked in the U.S. press, despite his towering influence on Vatican II. By contrast, Mary Daly's death prompted an obituary within days, and the paper also found sufficient space for the inventor of the Pez dispenser. Happily, Peter Steinfels does a (typically) fine job of summing up Schillebeeckx's complex legacy. Only someone with the breadth of Steinfels' learning could sum up the Belgian theologian's life with such clarity:
Like many Catholic theologians who influenced the council, Father Schillebeeckx had reacted against the neo-scholastic theology that the church adopted in the 19th century as a bulwark against hostile modern ideas. Distilled from the thought of Thomas Aquinas but frequently handed on without any examination of Aquinas’s writings or their medieval context, this neo-scholasticism articulated the faith in series of abstract concepts and propositions presented as absolute, ahistorical and immutable.
Father Schillebeeckx found alternative intellectual resources in modern phenomenology, with its meticulous attention to the actual experience of consciousness. And by studying Aquinas in his medieval context, he recovered a Thomism that expounded the presence and mystery of God in far less rationalistic and conceptual ways than did its neo-scholastic versions.
Strong emphases on human experience and on the importance of examining church teaching in historical context became hallmarks of Father Schillebeeckx’s work.
His early writing on the sacraments, for example, portrayed them as personal encounters with God rather than mechanisms for the distribution of grace. In two books — “Jesus: An Experiment in Christology” (1974) and “Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World” (1977) — he recast classical Catholic teachings about Christ around the experiences that gave rise to his followers’ faith in Jesus as messiah and the son of God.
These were groundbreaking attempts at rethinking church doctrine in light of the scholarly research about the historical Jesus that had accumulated in previous decades. But the fact that Father Schillebeeckx did not begin with Christianity’s great creedal statements about Jesus and the Trinity but instead focused on the subjective experience of the first generations of believers, as expressed in the New Testament accounts, stirred considerable controversy and a Vatican investigation.
Read Steinfels' appreciation, which was worth waiting for, here.
James Martin, SJ