Why Francis is more likable than the preceding popes.

Sunday, 1/25/15

(In place of a homily I will here print an article I am just finished writing.)

Thirty years ago when Pope John Paul II visited Manila there were four million at the gathering to greet him. He had an impact on people that one theologian at Vatican II described: “Wojtyla makes a great impression. He has an imposing personality that radiates power. He has a prophetic force that is both calm and incontestable.”

John Paul’s personality made him a tough act to follow, but now, Francis, while totally different from John Paul II, is keeping pace with him. On his visit to Manila last weekend, six million people crowded in to see him.

Here in America, we hear people saying things like, “I just like him.” And when pushed for a reason, they might say, “Well, that other one had those scarlet papal slippers, but Francis, he just wears shoes.”

Let’s go all the way back to Pope John XXIII. In 1959, feeling that the Roman Catholic Church had become very Roman, but not very catholic, he tried making it catholic by calling in twenty-four hundred bishops from a hundred different countries. Asking them to give time to prayerful deliberations, he asked them to bring the church into line with what it would be if Jesus were in charge.

 Working in daily sessions from September to December, in 1962 through 1965, those bishops composed sixteen documents that spelled out what they thought should be God’s approach to education, to the Bible, to non-Christian religions, and to a dozen other major matters.

The last of the sixteen documents was to be on the Church’s proper relationship to the modern world, and when the draft document was circulated in the summer of 1965, the bishops from Latin America, Africa and Asia favored it, while most of the European bishops did not.

The future popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, each published articles objecting to it on the grounds that it departed from the Council of Trent’s teaching that we are initially estranged from God by our being born with Original Sin on our souls. The new document’s difference from Trent was clearly the case with a sentence in its paragraph 19.

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God, and this invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being.” 

Now, although most of the European churchmen shared the objections of the two future popes, it was three Europeans theologians who had most clearly differed from Trent on the matter of Original Sin. The three had the very French first names of Maurice, Henri, and Yves. Let me first introduce Maurice Blondel.

At nineteen, in 1880, Maurice was accepted for graduate work at the Sorbonne where he did research in the Philosophy of Action. (That is the field that tries to identify the impulses that move one from inertia to action.) Publishing his “L’Action” in 1890, Maurice successively defended its contention that every human action is initiated by one's automatically reaching for the Creator. However, the Sorbonne’s faculty, while granting him the top grade for scholarship, denied him a teaching certificate on the grounds that his thesis was “too Catholic.”

That left Maurice and his young wife Rose close to starvation for four years before the small college at Aix, north of Marseilles, gave him a teaching position. He was there in 1910 when by a sad quirk the Church he had stood up for came to judge his scholarly books to be guilty of Modernism. Pope Pius X put them on the Index.

We turn next to Henri de Lubac. Born in 1896, he was just finishing college in 1914, when he was inducted into the infantry. There, in 1917, he had a German bullet graze his skull, leaving him with recurrent pains until his death in 1991.

In 1919 Henri was accepted at the Jesuit seminary that a secular France had caused to be relocated to England. There, he came upon a hand-written copy of “L’Action,” Maurice Blondel’s thesis about humans automatically reaching up for God. 
Then, when his head pains interrupted his third year of studies, and his superiors sent him to Marseilles for a rest cure, Henri took a day trip up to Aix, where the seventy-year-old Maurice Blondel had recently completed a survey of early Christian writings.

The two scholars hit it off immediately, discovering that no writings from the time of the Apostles spoke of us as being born in sin. From his collaboration with Blondel, Henri de Lubac began theorizing that while humans from the beginning of their existence reach up to God, it was actually in response to God reaching down to them.

We turn now to Yves Congar, the third of our Frenchmen. Yves was born in the Ardennes in 1904. Then, in 1914 when troops of the Kaiser carried off his father, his mother set a ten-year-old Yves to writing a daily account of life under the German occupation. The journal he completed at the Armistice in 1918 set the pattern for the thousand-page Vatican II journal he would write between 1960 and 1965.

Yves, ordained a Dominican priest in 1930, and set to teaching Theology, took every opportunity to attend group meetings with Protestants, and that led to his publishing “Divided Christendom, a Catholic Study.” As well, independently of Blondel and Lubac, Congar took to writing French translations of early Christian writings; and that led to his questioning the importance Trent gave to Original Sin.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, Yves, serving as a chaplain, was taken to a Nazi prison camp from which he led four dramatic, but unsuccessful escape attempts. His bravery won him France’s Cross de Guerre. (Henri de Lubac, who published an underground newspaper during the Nazi occupation, received the same decoration.)

After 1945, Maurice Blondel, Congar and de Lubac got together, and they coined the word “ressourcement.” By it they stipulated that for any teaching to be truly Christian, it had to be rooted in Christianity’s Apostolic times. With their historical research leading them to challenge the belief that all humans are born with Adam’s sin, trouble lay ahead for them. Then, in 1946 Henri de Lubac challenged the  accepted teaching on Sanctifying Grace with the publication of his “Supernaturale.”

The Catholic Church from the time of Pope Leo XIII, had demanded that Philosophy faculties in Catholic institutions should follow the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. And, although Aquinas had not specifically taught that we are born with Original Sin, the professors of Aquinas’s Dominican Order maintained that it was clearly implied in his teachings. Such scholars were known as “Neo-Thomists,” and their theory was called Neo-Thomism.

(In my seminary course in 1950 we followed Neo-Thomism in philosophy and theology; and our professors spoke with awe when they mentioned its chief  exponent, the Reverend Garrigou-lagrange, Rector of Rome’s Angelicum.)

Maurice Blondel died in 1949, escaping Rome’s formal rejection of the theories of their “Ressourcement Trio.” That rejection came in 1950 when Pope Pius XII had Father Garrigou-Langange ghostwrite the encyclical “Humani Generis.” Here is some of what it said.

Some are presumptive enough to question seriously whether theology and theological methods, such as with the approval of ecclesiastical authority and are found in our schools, should not only be perfected, but also completely reformed.

Disregarding the Council of Trent, some pervert the very concept of original sin.

We charge the Bishops and the Superiors General of Religious Orders, binding them most seriously in conscience, to take most diligent care that such opinions be not advanced.”

The Holy Office instructed Rome’s Apostolic Delegate in France to have Congar and de Lubac’s superiors remove them from their teaching posts, while removing their offending books from the shelves. That sent Congar studying abroad, while de Lubac found a quiet room where he spent ten years doing research. When a friend asked him if he were bitter, this is what he wrote in reply.

While these shocks trouble my soul to its depths, they are powerless against the great and essential things that make up every moment of our lives. The Church is always there, in a motherly way, with her Sacraments and her prayers, with the Gospel that she hands down to us intact, with her Saints who surround us; in short, with Jesus Christ, present among us, whom she gives us ever more fully when we  suffer.  

Then, after the death of Pope Pius XII in October 1958, the new pope whom the cardinals elected was none other than Giuseppi Roncalli, the former Apostolic Delegate to France, the one who had delivered the ban on Congar and Lubac. This left the two of them wondering about how they stood now that Cardinal Giuseppe Roncalli was elected pope as John XXII.

Two months into his pontificate, John XXIII called for the opening of Vatican II. That set  Congar and Lubac to exchanging letters chasing down rumors about what was to come next. Then, out of the blue, each of them received an invitation to serve as a special theology consultant to the council.

Roncalli, in his years in Paris, had secretly admired the writings of Lubac and Congar, but he had felt bound to obey Rome’s Curia. Now, though, his sense of obedience went into reverse, binding him to do what God wanted.

 In the final years of Pius XII, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the Prefect of the Holy Office, had been the power behind the throne. He was the one who had banned Lubac and Congar from teaching and publishing. Then, in 1960 Pope John XXIII put Cardinal Ottaviani in charge of preparing a schema defining the nature and the scope of the Catholic Church. In that role, Ottaviani wrote to Lubac and Congar, asking each to write an account of what they had to contribute to the new document.

Henri de Lubac, having a bad time with his old head wound, asked Congar to make a full exposition of the theological views they shared. Then, after Yves had submitted his paper, Ottaviani invited him for a private talk. Congar described them sitting “knee to knee” expressing their views. Ottaviani praised Congar for his theological acumen, while adding that there were three heresies on every page Congar wrote.

Coming out from that interview, feeling thoroughly chastised, Congar had a chance meeting with a bishop from Chile. The man assured him that most Latin American bishops, ignoring the ban of Lubac and Congar’s books, were sharing their views.

That welcome assurance was a foretaste of four years of council sessions at which the views of the Curia were to be swamped by those of the world’s bishops. It ended with their demanding that both Congar and Lubac being named cardinals.

More than Maurice Blondel or Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar always had deep respect for Protestants, and even for those with no clear belief in God. For that reason he was uncomfortable with Catholics who felt that humans could only be close to God after a good Confession. During the Vatican II sessions, he met daily to solicit the views of the Observers.

Sadly, after Vatican II’s bishops were scattered, the Curia was free to again make our church more Roman than catholic. We saw that in 2011 when the beautiful English of our four Eucharistic Prayers was pushed aside, replaced by clumsy word-by-word translations of the texts used in Rome.

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