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May 1988

Vice-President of "Catholics United for the Faith" (C.U.F.) and a well-known Catholic journalist in his own right, takes up the point that RENEW'S heterodox Christology demeans and trivialises the Divine Person of Christ Our Lord.

Trivialising Christ Our Lord


I believe I express the sentiments of the members of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) in thanking the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine for their much-needed evaluation of the Paulist Press' RENEW process.

The Bishops' report was generous in noting "the overall value of this renewal effort for our people" and commended certain of its goals. However, there can be no question that the elements of critique contained in their report correspond remarkably to the views of RENEW's most responsable critics which have included priests, Religious, and laity in various countries. Members of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) were early involved in the debate over RENEW, and its Green Bay Chapter (Our Lady of Good Help Chapter) was among the first to review RENEW materials and to make some serious reservations, especially with regard to their grievous lack of doctrinal content. As the Bishops' Committee emphasized: "It is our conviction that any process or program of renewal and formation in the Church must have a well-articulated doctrinal base which is both comprehensive and balanced". Exactly, but when the absence of a sound catechetical approach in RENEW was pointed out by Green Bay CUF members as well as many other Catholics these last few years, scorn and abuse were heaped upon those who would dare question the lack of doctrinal content in RENEW. Now that the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine has exposed RENEW's doctrinal lapses, it is to be profoundly hoped that RENEW's shortcomings will be remedied along the lines the Bishops suggested.

It is interesting to observe the reporting of the Bishops' evaluation in many diocesan newspapers. Only too often, the latter failed to do justice to the full range of the very serious criticisms of RENEW contained in the Bishops' evaluation. Let us recall some of the key passages in the evaluation:

1) "Basic Christian themes are presented without sufficiently relating them to their specific forms as experienced in Roman Catholic tradition and practice. The literature does not identify, to the extent that we think it should, what is distinctively Catholic in our faith process. It . . . does not indicate the teaching of the Church that gives meaning to the living tradition which forms the basis for authentic Catholic renewal. We find the dimension lacking in much of the material of RENEW".
2) "The RENEW process ... results in an unbalance which can be doctrinally misleading.
3) (The RENEW process needs) "a clearer presentation of the distinctive nature of the Catholic Church, not merely as a community of faith but as a structural community bound together in a tradition that includes Scripture as a font of faith but also the authoritative development and interpretation of the doctrines of the Faith by the Magisterium of the Church; a more balanced presentation of the models of the Church which broadens considerably the sole emphasis on community; the insistence that God's Revelation, and not just personal experience, is the norm for deeper understanding and appreciation of authentic faith".
4) "The emphasis of RENEW on personal and shared ‘experience as the locus of revelation' can lead to fundamentalism and the privatisation of religions truth".
5) RENEW materials "can lead to confusion about the essential nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice ... and a trivialization of the Eucharist".

Yet other defects are pointed out by the Bishops' Committee. However, the above criticisms alone constant a devastating indictment of RENEW's doctrinal shortcomings and well explain RENEW's failure to "form vibrant faith communities". The latter simply cannot bc forthcoming from RENEW's largely doctrineless catechesis.

A heterodox Christology

In a fascinating little work, The Church’s Problem with Bible Scholars (Francisan Herald Press, 1985), Msgr. George A. Kelly (famed for his The Battle for the American Church) had already observed the tendency of liberal Protestants to retain traditional rituals while ignoring the doctrines their intellectuals or clergy no longer accept as true. He observed that:

"Today a similar phenomenon is noticeable among Catholics who are directed by diocesan officials to programs like RENEW that have high emotional content but almost no doctrinal structure".

Msgr. Kelly's observation has certainly been strikingly confirmed by the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

It is unfortunate, however, that one of the most serious doctrinal objections that has been made to the RENEW process does not appear to have warranted specific mention in the Bishops' report. I refer to the charge of RENEW's furthering an essentially heterodox Christology. Various passages in the Paulist Press RENEW materials demean and trivialize the adorable Person of Our Lord, reducing Him, in effect, to a mere human person who manifests ignorance of His divine identity and messianic mission. It would have been well if special attention had been paid to RENEW's presentation of an essentially modernized Jesus who didn't know His identity or mission until "empowered by the Spirit". Certainly, the spiritual renewal of Catholics can hardly result from reflecting on a Jesus who is curiously portrayed as a floundering, bewildered, indecisive, frustrated, and ignorant person - just like us. Can it be truly said that the following passages from RENEW represent an orthodox Christology:

"Jesus shows us what fully humanness really is. He became fully human by the choices and decisions He made in His life. In His imagination, His mind, His heart, His words and deeds, He grew into a person of wisdom. Wisdom is the highest gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift by which we are enabled to see things as God sees them.

"… Jesus grew to see everyone and everything as God sees them. In that wisdom He loved all things as a reflection of His Father. He grew to understand that He was deeply connected to everything and was therefore responsible for the well-being of all. Jesus became a totally just person who stood in truthful relatedness to everything. He struggled to uncover the sources of sin and suffering.

"... He is the firstborn, our elder brother who has experienced the same kinds of frustrations in His own time and place in history.

"… All our life the Holy Spirit has been gentry prodding us to respond to the Father's call. As in the case of Jesus, so in each of us, the Spirit leads us to know who we are and to discern what is the will of God in our life" (RENEW's Empowerment by the Spirit: Home Book, pp. 28-29 ; 31; and Empowerment by the Spirit: Small Group Sharing Option, p. 10; copyrighted by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Newark - emphases added, J. L.).

"Right belief" and "right practice"

These and other passages in the RENEW materials present us with a miserable caricature of our Divine Saviour who, in effect, has been stripped of the hypostatic union, that is, that mysterious union whereby Christ's two natures remain truly themselves and yet are bound together in a single Divine Personality. Christ is and remains One Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Upon becoming man, He did not set aside His Divine Nature, and so was never ignorant of anything. Nor did He need to "struggle" to discover His identity or the "sources of sin and suffering". Possessing the fullness of divinity, our Lord was Eternal Wisdom Incarnate with perfect knowledge of all things and events. Moreover, possessing perfect self-mastery, He could never be "frustrated" as ordinary persons are. Smacking of the ancient Nestorian heresy (which posited, in effect, two persons in Christ, one human, the other divine), such RENEW passages offer a serious threat to orthodox Catholic belief in the genuine divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We hope that all such passages which fall short of the Church's Christology as defined in the ancient Ecumenical Councils (especially Chalcedon), wil be expunged from RENEW materials in accordance with the Committee on Doctrine's expressed concern for "the orthodoxy and orthopraxis of our people" (that is, their "right belief" and "right practice"). As early as 1967, the World Synod of Bishops had already protested the manner in which the "truths of the Faith are falsely understood or explained, and how in the developing process of understanding doctrine its essential continuity is neglected".

9The Synod Fathers especially: "deplore the fact that some actually call into doubt some truths of the Faith, among others those concerning the knowledge we have of God, the Person of Christ and His Resurrection, the Eucharist, the mystery of the original sin, the enduring objectivity of the moral law and the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For this reason, there is noted a state of unrest and anxiety in the Church, both among the faithful and among pastors, and therefore the spiritual life of the People of God suffers no little harm" (see Flannery, Vatican Council II, vol. 2; p. 664 - emphases added, J. L.).

A perennial temptation

This crucial matter of RENEW's Christology deserves the attention of those charged by the Bishops with revising and improving its doctrinal content. This is also especially urgent in view of the increased evidence of books and popular catechetical works containing assertions about Christ which are, incompatible with His divinity. For example, a previous- issue of The Wanderer (Jan. 16th, 1986) noted the defective and heretical Christology in Fr. Richard McBrien's Catholicism which alleged that our Divine Lord was quite capable of sin and which attributed to Him error and ignorance, as well.

As the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine observed, RENEW's overriding defect was its ignoring the need for sound Catholic catechesis as the necessary prerequisite for spiritual renewal and its substitution of subjective feelings and religious experience for the exact knowledge of Catholic doctrine. Needless to say, RENEW materials may be said to have reflected some of the key errors of Modernism. Interestingly, John Henry Cardinal Newman long ago war warned against this perennial temptation to reduce Catholic dogma to a codification of a questionable religions experience:

"I would say this then (wrote Newman) that a system of doctrine has risen up during the last three centuries, in which faith or spirtual-mindedness is contemplated and rested on as the end of religion instead of Christ. I do not mean to say that Christ is not mentioned as the Author of all good, but that stress is laid rather on the believing than on the Object of belief, on the comfort and persuasiveness of the doctrine rather than on the doctrine itself. And this way religion is made to consist in contemplating ourselves, instead of Christ; not simply in looking to Christ, but in seeing that we look to Christ, not in His Divinity and Atonement, but in conversation and faith in them ... The fault here spoken of is the putting the state of a believer as a more prominent subject of the Gospel than the nature, attributes, and work of Him who has given it ... The true preaching of the Gospel is to preach Christ. But the fashion of the day has been, instead of this, to attempt to convert by insisting on conversion ... And thus faith and (what is called) spiritual-mindedness are dwelt on as ends and obstruct the view of Christ, just as the Law was perverted by the Jews" (Lectures on Justification, 1838 edition, pp 172-173).

As a learned student of Newman's writings explained:

"One might say that the centrality of God and Christ in true Faith was not so much one of the root principles as the one root principle of Newman's spiritual teaching. He had diagnosed the modern malady, and all his life he sought to apply the remedy. It is significant of his own firm hold on the Faith that there is never the least hint of hesitation as to the Catholic soundness of this position. One has only to look through the titles of his sermons to realize that Newman was ever trying to turn men away from themselves, their own self-righteousness, their self complacency, their self-seeking, their self-interest, so as to teach them to contemplate God in Christ" (English Spiritual Writers, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961).

What Cardinal Newman was ever trying to turn men away from, the RENEW process unfortunately accelerated with its neglect of Catholic doctrine, its trivilazation of the adorable Person of our Lord as well as His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist, and its narcissistic and shallow "luv" ethic.

In conclusion, the U.S. Bishops' Committee on Doctrine is to be thanked for its welcome critique of some of RENEW's major doctrinal deficiencies. It has performed a real service to the faithful in calling for the correction of RENEW's substantive doctrinal omissions and inadequacies. Though their review does not treat all the objectionable features contained in RENEW materials (such as certain serious liturgical abuses - e.g., the invalid altar bread recipe found in one of its manuals which was used by RENEW groups for years), the Committee on Doctrine's report is a breath of fresh air in assessing RENEW's self-proclaimed "new vision of the Church". It is also realistic in grasping the manner in which RENEW has furthered "a distorted vision about the future of ministry" and a "confused ecclesiology" - two aberrations American Catholicism can do without.


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