Diverse Ecclesiologies

I read Christopher Ruddy’s review of volume two of my Christian Community in History with some surprise (8/1). The whole two-volume work is a history, not of the church, but of ecclesiology, the understanding of the church. Thus I was pleased when he wrote of the author’s largely evenhanded expositions of diverse ecclesiologies and recommended it as a text and reference work for graduate and advanced undergraduate students. This was the goal of the work. The surprise came with the harsh criticism which followed, and I sought an explanation.

I have formulated a theory. I wonder whether Mr. Ruddy thinks that Volume Two of C.C.H. is the systematic theology that I promised when I indicated that the two-volume work C.C.H. was itself the first part of a two-part ecclesiology from below which I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay. As a theory it accounts for several things about his review: first, he seems to want a history from above, something that is at least paradoxical. In this historical ecclesiology, the transcendent dimensions of the church, especially the roles of Christ and the Spirit, appear in all the examples that are analyzed, thereby suggesting historically a normative, ecclesiological constant. Second, he asks many questions that can be answered only in a systematics. And third, his review reads as though he thinks my lack of a long conclusion means that Volume Two of C.C.H. is the end of my ecclesiology. Actually, the promised concluding systematic volume which, will address many of his questions, is under construction. It will draw out in an explicit way the transcendent dimensions that appear in the comparison of ecclesiologies among themselves and with the sources of Christian theology.


I do not know whether this theory is true, but it accounts for much if not all of the data. I think that my long sentences may be due to the early influence of Karl Rahner! In any case, if it is true, it would mean that Ruddy did not recognize the difference between the history of ecclesiology and a systematic ecclesiology, something that would subtract from the value of his judgments.

Roger Haight, S.J.
New York, N.Y.

Full Weight

I am responding to the very last sentence in Of Many Things by George M Anderson, S.J., (8/1): As individual states continue to abolish the use of capital punishment, one can hope that grim scenes like the one at Sing Sing in 1953 will never be repeated. I ask what states are you talking about. New Mexico made an attempt to abolish the death penalty within the last few months. It would have been the first state to have done so in decades. It failed to do so.

I would also like to point out this campaign to end the use of the death penalty that is well under way was not very vocal here. I live in New Mexico and did not hear or read anything from the bishops during the time the repeal was being considered. If that was an example of the the bishops putting their full weight into emphasizing the documents’ abolition message, then they need to learn to use their weight better.

David Richards
Hobbs, N.M.

Too Negative?

James Youniss’s portrait of Germany (I Know It When I See It, 7/4) as a country where Christian principles are distinctive enough and the ethical compass for future direction is still intact stuns me. He tries to make the case that despite low church attendance and growing discomfort with Catholic teachings, Germany, in some subtle way, remains a Christian country, where people perhaps miss Sunday Mass but continue to appreciate Christian values like family and social justice. It’s a flattering, rosy picture of modern Germany. I like it. I wish it were true. But it is not.

In many ways, it seems to me, Youniss isn’t actually talking about Germany but rather about the United States. Many of the German policies he is praising are apparently meant to contrast with those of the United States: no support for capital punishment; publicly funded schools and universities; highly subsidized operas, theaters and orchestras; an efficient public transportation system; restrained capitalism; and the willingness of both the government and the people to acknowledge Germany’s role in international institutions without nationalistic reservation. These things might, indeed, attest to certain shortcomings in American policies and mentalities. That is for others to judge. But none of the examples that he points to can support the bold assessment that Germany remains a Christian country.

I am afraid I belong to those who believe that Germany, and most of Western Europe for that matter, is indeed experiencing something like de-Christianization. And here are the facts: 11 percent of all Germans and 15 percent of registered Catholics attend church every Sunday, down from 22 percent in 1990 and 50 percent in 1950. Fewer than half of all children are baptized in a Christian denomination; in the urban centers of Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin, only one in 10 children is baptized. The church is scoring only with funerals: 92 percent of Catholics who died in 2003 had a Catholic funeral.

To be sure, Germans are not exactly atheists. According to a poll in April 2005, some 65 percent of Germans believe in some kind of God, and 59 percent believe that they can directly talk to God through prayer. But most Germans see faith as a private matter that has little or nothing to do with the church. Only 7 percent say that faith needs to be experienced in the community of the church. Sixty-one percent say that they do not believe in the church’s teachings.

Among my German friends and colleagues, I know very few who go to church. Most German intellectuals have an aggressive attitude toward the church in general and toward the Catholic Church in particular. A while ago there was a lot of laughter in our company about a co-worker who had admitted to praying with her kids at night. Almost everybody, it seemed, found that totally ridiculous. And when I got married in church a few years ago, many of my friends asked me: Why do you do that? Are you doing it for your parents? Or is it because you want to have a nice ceremony?

James Youniss wrote: Christian principles...ought to be recognizable when one sees them. I agree. But I do not see them very often any more in my native country.

Am I too negative? I pray that I am.

Markus Günther
Washington, D.C.

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11 years 11 months ago
In his letter to the editors (8/29), Roger Haight, S.J., writes that he is working on a systematic ecclesiology that will address the kinds of theological questions raised in my review of his Christian Community in History, Vol.2: Comparative Ecclesiology (8/1). It is unfortunate that this book and its predecessor were much less clear about his intention.

Father Haight’s letter says, “the two-volume work C.C.H. [Christian Community in History] was itself the first part of a two-part ecclesiology from below that I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay.” That sentence is clear about his future plans, but it is not what he wrote in Historical Ecclesiology. His original sentence instead reads, “Historical Ecclesiology is the first part of a two-part ecclesiology from below which I hope will be followed by a more systematic and constructive essay.” Haight’s letter thus changes his definition of the “first part” of his ecclesiology from Historical Ecclesiology to the entire Christian Community in History; this shift decisively alters his meaning. Moreover, the original sentence is ambiguous about whether Comparative Ecclesiology or a projected third volume is the promised “systematic and constructive essay.” In 1,000 pages, Haight nowhere else makes clear reference to his intent to write a third, systematic volume, not even where one would most logically expect it: at the end of Comparative Ecclesiology. That book ends merely with a subjunctive, not indicative, statement, “A fitting conclusion to this work would be a more fulsome development of a constructive ecclesiology....” It is unclear why he did not simply state there or elsewhere that a third volume was in preparation.

More important, the confusing language of Haight’s letter, like that of his two volumes, flows from his flawed conception of the relationship between historical-comparative theology and systematic theology. His letter claims that my systematic concerns are inapplicable to his historical ecclesiology. Yet his historical method already contains significant systematic components. In his introduction to Historical Ecclesiology, he writes that each chapter will conclude by “formulat[ing] a set of principles or axioms or distinctions.... These are depicted as ecclesiological constants that illumine the church across history. The constructive intention is to gather a certain number of formal theological and ecclesiological principles that will be useful for understanding the church at any given time and place.” I think that such an entwining of historical and systematic theology is unavoidable and desirable. Haight, however, should be more up front about the constructive entwining already at work in his books, rather than pretend to a historical ecclesiology unencumbered by such systematic commitments.

11 years 11 months ago
I would like to thank David Richards for his letter, “Full Weight” (8/29), about the recent effort to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico. It’s unfortunate that his local media did not cover the issue, because during the 2005 legislative session New Mexico’s bishops were leaders in our effort to pass House Bill 576, “Abolish the Death Penalty.”

Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan named repeal of the death penalty as the top issue for the church at the annual bishops’ breakfast with the governor and legislators. He hosted a press conference attended by all the bishops vigorously supporting the repeal legislation. They made the front page of the two lead newspapers in the state and were covered in smaller papers as well. The director of New Mexico’s Catholic Conference, Allen Sanchez, was a vital member of the repeal team working daily on our behalf. The bishops also communicated privately with Catholic legislators and Governor Richardson on the issue.

Every parish in the state received correspondence from Archbishop Sheehan, Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, C.S.B., or Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, S.S.S., regarding church teaching on the death penalty. It is unfortunate that these messages were not communicated to parishioners at Mr. Richards’s local church. In short, our bishops were an active and integral part of the success of H.B. 576—the first repeal bill in New Mexico’s history to pass either chamber of the state legislature. We never would have made it this far without them.

Oct. 21-24 is the Eighth Annual Weekend of Faith in Action Against the Death Penalty. It is the perfect opportunity for all faith communities to become more involved. Information is available at www.nmrepeal.org or www.amnesty-usa.org/faithinaction.

Helen Prejean, C.S.J., often says that “support for the death penalty is a mile wide but only an inch thick.” But scratching through that last inch—abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico and everywhere—is going to take more than the “full weight” of the bishops. It is going to take the weight of all of us.


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