US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Get your faith off the shelf

By Lawrence Cunningham | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

What have been the most influential books published in the Catholic world in the past generation? I expanded the scope of that question to include the three decades which have passed since the closing of the Second Vatican Council. I narrowed the question by thinking only of books available in English. As a second step, I proposed the same question to a number of my colleagues who gather for lunch each day in the faculty building here at the University of Notre Dame. I was a bit taken aback by the paucity of their suggestions.

My own reflections and the suggestions of my colleagues have helped me to develop a few ground rules for what follows in these reflections. First of all, I will not cite the published documents of the Second Vatican Council even though they have been more studied, cited, and fought over than any other set of Vatican documents that I know of.

Nor will I discuss post-conciliar papal documents even though it could be argued that the 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae on contraception is the watershed Catholic document of the century. Some thoughtful persons have argued that the publication of that encyclical was more responsible for church decline than any other single event of the contemporary period. Adherence to the teaching of Humanae vitae is clearly one of the major tests used by Rome to determine who and who will not be named to the episcopate.

The second ground rule is to distinguish popular books from those that are really groundbreaking. Hans Kung's On Being A Christian (1974) was an international best-seller, but there is little evidence that it has had a lasting influence on the way Catholics think or act.

More recently, The Catechism of the Catholic Church sold at a phenomenal rate when it first appeared (600,000 copies in France alone; more than that in the English-language version), but its long-range impact on Catholic thinking is yet to be determined. Its vast bulk and somewhat bloodless style will demand "translation" into an intelligible idiom and a more manageable size before it will prove itself a useful catechetical tool, especially for young people.

We need to remember that the catechism is meant to be a template for bishops to use to supervise the productions of catechetical materials just as the old Catechismus Romanus, published in the 16th century, was meant to be a handbook for parish priests as part of the reforms of the Council of Trent.e works that appeared in English after the council. The 14-volume mation, but is now rather dated despite a series of supplemental volumes. The six-volume theological encyclopedia Sacramentum mundi (translated from the German in 1970) as well as the five- volume Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (1968) can still be consulted, but both show their age and must be supplemented with later materials.

Likewise, the second edition of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) represents the apex of a certain period in North American Catholic biblical scholarship, but newer trends may soon make it a period piece.

What, then, constitutes the list of truly seminal works published in the last generation or so?

Liberation theology by the book

At the head of my list I would have to put Gustavo Gutierrez's A Theology of Liberation (1971; English translation, 1973). While Gutierrez's book, again, represents a certain historical moment in Latin America, the long-range impact of his insights is truly revolutionary.

Gutierrez argues that theology must be contextualized in terms of where it was done and by whom. Theology cannot be done in the abstract without reference to history, circumstance, and a close bond between the here and now and the ultimate triumph of salvation history. While many of the particulars of liberation theology may be faulted (and have been the subject of much critical response), there is no doubt that the direction of how to do theology first indicated by Gutierrez has had enormous repercussions in Christianity.

Theologies done from particular angles and out of precise cultural situations (whether they be Asian or Hispanic or from the experience of women or oppressed minorities) would be unthinkable without the work of Gutierrez. He made a correction to his earlier work in his 1983 We Drink from Our Own Wells by insisting that any liberation theology worthy of its name should also be capable of articulating a deep spirituality that would add life and depth to theology while protecting it from becoming mere social analysis. Furthermore, liberation theology was revolutionary enough to provoke some of its opponents into becoming people who eventually supported it. That fact, in a truly ironical way, is perhaps the greatest testimony to its radically new and challenging approach.

Guterriez's emphasis on the importance of spirituality reminds us that in the past generation there has been a significant turn toward spirituality. Spirituality is a hot topic today, but its enormous popularity (witness the books of Scott Peck, Thomas Moore, Matthew Fox, and other vulgarizers) is no guarantee of quality. Much of this writing falls under the rubric of what some wittily call "McSpirituality" or "Spirituality Lite."

At the same time, however, one of the most important trends in Catholic publishing has been the wide availability of spiritual classics. The retrieval of Christian (and non-Christian!) spiritual classics is a hallmark of the past three decades.

Books that speak volumes

In this vein I would have to single out not a book, but a book series. Beginning in 1978, Paulist Press has published a series of books (now over 60 volumes) of classical spiritual books, newly translated and introduced by serious scholars, in an inexpensive format. Not all of the volumes have been of uniform quality, but most have been more than satisfactory. Some of the volumes (for example Julian of Norwich's Showings) have become best-sellers in their own right. Hardly a college or retreat house library is without these books today. Many of them are used in classrooms, conferences, and for personal use. New volumes continue to appear on a regular basis.

While the Paulist Classics of Western Spirituality is the best-known resource for spirituality, it is by no means the only one. The Institute of Carmelite Studies publishes excellent works at very inexpensive prices; its exemplary edition of The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, for instance, would get my vote as one of the best theological buys of all time.

Likewise, Cistercian Publications (the late Thomas Merton was one of the spirits behind this enterprise) issues classic works in monastic spirituality; one of its perennial best-sellers is a translation of the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers but its catalogue ranges from the patristic sources right down to contemporary monastic writers of both East and West.

These and similar presses, under the aegis of religious communities for the most part, also underscore how important the computer and desktop publishing have become for the dissemination of good (and, alas, bad!) books.

The precise merit of these various publishing enterprises is that an interested person can establish a personal library of high level books, at relatively little cost, representing the best resources of the Christian Catholic spiritual tradition. The importance of this tradition is not only restricted to interest by Catholics; one of the more important signs of both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is that the best of these exchanges in dialogue is being accomplished at a deep spiritual level; the availability of resources to understand the Christian spiritual tradition is crucial for the success of this enterprise.

Have a talk with the classics

How does one read a "spiritual classic" that is distant from us in time and culture? How does a person in the late 20th century make sense, say, of a Teresa of Avila, who was a 16th-century nun? What was it about her that could lead a 20th-century philosopher like Edith Stein to read her autobiography and say "This is the truth!" with such conviction that Stein would go on to become a Catholic and a nun only to die in a Nazi death camp?

The Catholic theologian, Father David Tracy of the University of Chicago (perhaps the most distinguished Catholic theologian writing in English today) gives us some help in his classic work The Analogical Imagination (1981). This is not a book for the faint of heart; it is a dense and very demanding work but an absolutely seminal work. At the risk of oversimplification, Tracy's argument can be stated in this fashion: the theologian must take into account two things and attempt to correlate them into a whole. First the theologian must inquire into the human situation both actually and philosophically. Second the human situation (understood, perhaps, as a question) must be put in contact with what Tracy calls the "Christian classic."

The classic, in Tracy's view, is the reality that possesses a "surplus of meaning." Jesus Christ is the classic par excellence. Jesus was a person who lived in a specific place and time but the "meaning" of Jesus overflows as an inexhaustible source for Christian life. Christ as classic "answers" the question of human existence.

Tracy then goes on to consider other classics which embed themselves in tradition giving new resonances to the Great Classic that is Jesus. In that sense, Tracy argues, Saint Francis of Assisi or a Bach cantata or a statue by Michelangelo are classics-realities that provide a surplus of meaning for those who bring their questions to them.

Thus when we read the classics of our tradition, we enter into a dialogue: What do we ask of the text, and how does the text (and the person behind the text) respond? Obviously not every text will respond in the same way or for the same persons. Tracy's study, in debt to powerful modern thinkers like Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and Bernard Lonergan uses these resources to bring forth a new way of doing theology while not abstracting oneself either from reflections on the human condition or the past culture of the Christian tradition. By urging us to focus on the classic, he brings into the theological discussion a wide range of resources (of persons, art works, books) that help us deepen our knowledge of Christ as he is understood by our common witness in the tradition.

 A quick history lesson

If I were to single out the most influential work of a Catholic in the last three decades, it would not be a book but a rather slight essay (with very few footnotes) written by the late Karl Rahner, which appeared first in the Jesuit edited journal Theological Studies (1979) and was reprinted in his Theological Investigations. Entitled "A Theological Interpretation of Vatican II," Rahner sketches out a bold overview of Catholic history. The first part of that history is already present as a problem in the New Testament: How was the Christian movement bound to its parent faith, Judaism?

By Paul's insistence that the Christians did not have to accept Jewish law, Christianity broke free of its parent and engaged the gentile world. The second watershed moment occurred when, in the fourth century, Christianity became first tolerated and then fully supported by the Roman empire. This made Christianity the heir to Roman law, organization, thought patterns, cultural forms, art, and language. That marriage of Christian faith and Western culture perdured rightdown to our day. Roman Catholicism was very much a Western enterprise.

Rahner then argues that Vatican II was a watershed event because for the first time we had episcopal representation at an ecumenical council that represented Asia, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and the countries of the Pacific rim. Vatican II, in short, was the first assembly representing what Rahner called the World Church (Weltkirche).

It is the long-term implications of this description of the Weltkirche that makes Rahner's observations so seminal. If, as he argues, much of our theology and polity is rooted in Western culture, what will the church of the future look like if we think in terms, say, of Asian philosophy or African legal codes or a truly Filipino liturgy? In other words, what Rahner pushes us to imagine and study is a Catholic Church that is not bound to Western idioms. Another way of saying this is to ask if there is not something contradictory about Catholicism (catholic means "universal") if it can only be packaged in Western wraps? This is a crucially important issue since Catholicism's largest growth is in Africa, India, and Asia.

Ironically enough Rahner's short essay touches implicitly on all of the works that I have mentioned as important in these reflections. After all, when Guterriez writes theology from the vantage point of the poor of Peru he is, in effect, trying to talk about the gospel from a new perspective.

Using Guterriez's perspective we have subsequently seen theologians writing works from the Korean, Japanese, Indian, and Native American experience. Whatever the long-lasting merits of their reflections, it does seem obvious that they are adding to the thickness of the Catholic experience. The entire enterprise of feminist criticism says similarly: Here is how the gospel looks to us from our perspective and given our history.

If we think of spirituality as life in the spirit of God, in the following of Jesus, then it is also helpful to study the tradition of Christian spirituality to see how the deep experiences of God provide us language and approaches to reach out to the great spiritual seekers of other faiths. Part of being a member of the world church also means that many people are going to be living as a minority within the culture of say an Islamic or Hindu majority. With what face do we interact with these cultures?

The most fundamental point that Rahner urges is that we take very seriously our claim to be catholic-universal. His essay points to the gigantic task that faces the church as we edge ever closer to the new millennium.