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Catholicism, “Updated”

Rich Leonardi


If you’ve spent time in an RCIA group, walked through your parish community center, or requested an explanation of some Church teaching, chances are you’ve come across a “Catholic Update.” Produced by Cincinnati’s St. Anthony Messenger Press with the imprimatur of the archdiocese, these short tracts have spread like kudzu in parishes throughout the US.

They cover a wide range of topics and are written at an accessible, Reader’s Digest level of sophistication. A quick survey of Catholic Update titles suggest they provide Catholic answers to the faithful’s questions: “We Believe in the Resurrection,” “Eucharist: Food for Mission,” and the “Scripture from Scratch” mini-Bible studies. Many of the tracts are good, featuring, for example, pastoral letters from Cardinal George or explanations of Church teachings on euthanasia by Bishop Gregory.

But all too often, what’s inside is more likely to sow confusion than provide clarity. And you can seldom go more than a few paragraphs without reading some forced contrast between a musty, preconciliar Church and the très moderne, spring-like Church brought about by Vatican II.

Take, for example, Fr. Stephen Doyle’s “Jesus Christ: Why the Word Became Flesh.” You’d expect Father Doyle to present the Catechism’s four-fold explanation that Christ came (1) to reconcile sinners to God; (2) to show the depth of God’s love; (3) to establish a pattern of holiness; and (4) to allow us to partake of the divine nature (CCC 456-460). Doyle touches lightly on the first two of these, but spends most of his time musing on the development of Pauline theology, ending, on a bizarre environmentalist note, with a call to “live the vision of Christ” by “treating the earth with reverence.” Given a simple task, he treats it like a creative writing assignment.

Fr. Lawrence Mick’s July 2005 update “Finding Jesus in the Eucharist: Four Ways He Is Present” gives equal footing to the “various modes” of Christ’s presence during the Mass while failing to note that only in the Eucharist is He substantially present. What difference does it make? The presence of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist is why the Catechism calls it the “source and summit of the Christian faith” and it is why Catholics are to make a “profound bow” of reverence at the head of the Communion line before receiving the Blessed Sacrament. At a time when various polls show clear majorities of Catholics doubting the Real Presence, Mick’s omission is all the more culpable.

Authors known for speculative, free-wheeling theology seem right at home in these publications. Cincinnati's Fr. Thomas Bokenkotter is one such contributor to “Catholic Updates.” His book A Concise History of the Catholic Church finds him lauding both the violent Sandinistas and discredited elements of Liberation Theology. In the Cincinnati Enquirer, Fr. Bokenkotter criticized Pope John Paul II by casting doubt on the Magisterium's teachings on contraception, accusing the late Holy Father of chilling theological "creativity," and smearing Opus Dei as purveyors of “cheap grace.”

Another contributor is the collarless priest-theologian Fr. Kenneth Overberg of Xavier University. In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Catholic Telegraph, he urged the Church to recognize freedom of “genital expression” among homosexuals. Citing the Vatican-disciplined Schillebeeckx and Rahner, Overberg also recently denied the Father’s redemptive plan at work in Christ’s suffering and death. His Catholic Update was a highly-opinionated piece about “the countercultural message” of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

”Catholic Updates” by writers like these too often present teachings that are in conflict with what the Church teaches. Consider Fr. William H. Shannon’s “The Resurrection: How We Know It’s True.” Here is an excerpt from the section called “The Resurrection: An experience of faith”:

The point which I am trying to lead up to is the realization that seeing the risen Jesus was not an experience of empirical data; it was an experience of faith. For the very best that empirical experience might have achieved was an experience of resuscitation, not resurrection. Think of Lazarus in John's Gospel (Jn 11:1-45). He was mortal and he died. He was resuscitated and therefore was living again, but even after his resuscitation he was still mortal. Hence people could see him before and after because in both cases he was mortal. Lazarus was as much a subject of empirical data after his resuscitation as before his death.

The mortal Jesus — the Jesus before His death — could, like the mortal Lazarus, have been experienced as a fact of empirical data; the risen Jesus, however, could only be experienced by faith. For resurrection is not returning from the dead. It is a leap beyond death to an entirely different kind of existence. Such a leap cannot be empirically verified.

Father Shannon’s speculations run counter to Pope John Paul II’s orthodox description of the Resurrection:

Christ's Resurrection is the strength, the secret of Christianity. It is not a question of mythology or of mere symbolism, but of a concrete event. It is confirmed by sure and convincing proofs. The acceptance of this truth, although the fruit of the Holy Spirit's grace, rests at the same time on a solid historical base. (From remarks given before praying the Regina Caeli on Sunday, April 21, 1996)

Thus, it simply isn’t consistent with Catholic teaching for Father Shannon to state that the Resurrection “was not an experience of empirical data” and that the risen Jesus “could only be experienced by faith.” Instead, in the pope’s words, it was a public, “concrete event” backed by “convincing proofs” and resting on “a solid historical base.” No later than 15 years after Christ’s earthly ministry, St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians that 500 “brethren” saw the risen Jesus “at one time.” He did not write, as Shannon would have it, that they just sensed Him spiritually. As the Vatican wrote just last winter, “the appearances of the Risen Lord and the empty tomb are the foundation of the faith of the disciples in the Resurrection of Christ, and not vice versa."

Am I making too much of a fuss about this? I don’t think so. Let’s remember who reads these Catholic Updates — RCIA candidates, participants in adult faith formation groups, perhaps someone shaky in his faith who wants to be certain of what the Church teaches. That they should be handed something like Father Shannon's wrong musings on the Resurrection is a shame. That his musings bear the imprimatur of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is, well, something worse.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Rich Leonardi, publisher of the blog
Ten Reasons, writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved