Friday, February 01, 2008

Lecture Notes: Why Are We Catholics?

Rev. J. Bryan Hehir: Reasons, Questions, Reflections



My parish has been very blessed to have had the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir in residence for the past few years. My older kids have often had the privilige of serving at his Masses. He’s a distinguished moral theologian, who has served as an advisor to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (specifically, their letters on the economy and on war & peace), back in the days when the USCCB was still writing pastoral letters, that is… He has been the president of Catholic Charities for the Archdicose of Boston, the president of Catholic Charities USA, and he was the first Catholic to serve as the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School. He has also served as an advisor to Cardinal Sean O'Malley and as Secretary for Social Services for the Archdiocese of Boston.

From his Harvard Profile:

Bryan Hehir is the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life. … His research and writing focus on ethics and foreign policy and the role of religion in world politics and in American society. He served on the faculty of Georgetown University (1984 to 1992) and the Harvard Divinity School (1993 to 2001). His writings include: The Moral Measurement of War: A Tradition of Continuity and Change; Military Intervention and National Sovereignty; Catholicism and Democracy; and Social Values and Public Policy: A Contribution from a Religious Tradition.

See more in the Boston College Advisory Board Profile.

Every year for the past few years, he’s been kind enough to take time out of his busy travel schedule to present lectures at the parish during the Advent and Lenten seasons. He has delivered talks on:

- The Second Vatican Council to the Millenium
- Moral Theology (War & Peace, Bio-Ethics, Death and Dying, Capital Punishment)
- The Theme of the Kingdom, the Church, and the World
- Four Gospels: Explaining the Moral Vision

I’ve got a notebook full of lecture notes from all of them, and I asked him once if it would be OK if I put some of them up. I don’t know if he was thrilled about the idea, but he didn’t say no. :-) One that I’d like to start with is a series of talks that he delivered in March of 2006 – “Why Are We Catholics? Reasons, Questions, Reflections.” It was broken up into the following topics:

I. The Church
II. Christ as the Center of Our Prayer
III. Faith and Morality
IV. Catholics, Country, and Culture (Catholics and American Pluralism)

I was trying to write fast to keep up. Any errors in here are my own, not Father Hehir’s…

Part I. The Church

The first item to consider is the Church itself. How do we look at the Church within the Catholic faith? There are 3 levels of faith.

1) Faith as Belief (theistic faith - faith in God). We share that , of course, with other religions of the world. It stands over systematic doubt or outright atheism.

2) Christological Faith. Faith in Christ. We affirm our conviction that God has appeared to us in the human form. The Incarnation is fundamental to Christianity. Christ behind us, with us, yet ahead of us. Christ will come again. The living Christ who has triumphed over death and is available to us.

3) Ecclesial Faith. Faith in the Church. We invest more in the Church than other Christians. It is weightier for us. At times we can be illuminated by it, surprised by it, discouraged by it... We think of the Church as the extension of the Incarnation in time.

The Trinity and the Incarnation... God is above us, before us (with us), and within us. The Trinity leads to the Incarnation, which leads to the Church.

The Father sent the Son, the Son sent the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. The circle is complete.

Where does the Church fit in our faith? It is an object of our faith. Another way to look at it... “Christ, Our Lady, and the Church” (Yves Congar).

In 1954 Pius XII proclaimed the Doctrine of the Assumption. The doctrine was well-received within Catholicism, but not in the rest of the Christian world. It was considered a setback for the fledgling ecumenical movement.

Yves Congar OP wanted to explain it to Protestants, and wrote a book on it, outlining the following:


- God’s plan for divine human cooperation (Doctrine of Mediation). God comes to us mediated throught the human. Each is an expression of God working through the human.
- Christ is a divine person who has taken to himself a human nature. His purpose was to be the new mediator. God uses human nature to bring about our redemption.
- Mary is not divine. We venerate, but do not worship her. She was a human person with unique status. The key to this was Mary’s faith. Mary said yes freely, and brought God’s plan to fruition.

As put earlier by Bernard of Clairvaux - “Mary, we are all waiting to find out what you are going to say. Say ‘Yes ‘and move on, because we are all waiting for you.”

The Church is another example of divine human cooperation. It is not divine, but it carries divine power. It is human, but it is not purely human. It is a human community carrying divine gifts. This human community is marked by sin. Mary’s role in the Incarnation is central, and the Church’s role in continuing the Incarnation is central.

Church Eras:

Apostolic Church (from the Resurrection to the 2nd Century)

Early Church (2nd Century to 5th Century)
- Augustine
- The Great Councils

Medieval Church (two eras)
- 6th Century to 10th Century
- 11th Centruy to 16th Century

Modern Era (16th Century to 20th Century)

From the time of the Apostolic Church through the Middle Ages, there was no separate section of theology called “The Church”. The Church was simply taken as a given.

After the Protestant Reformation came the first systematic study of the Church. The question was - "What is specifically Catholic?"

- It was counter-point theology. It wanted to stress that we were not Protestants.
- It resulted in hierarchology. It presented the image of the Church as a pyramid. The lay person had two positions - on his knees, and with his hands in his pocket. Everything flowed from the top down.
- This image held from the 16th century to the middle of the 20th.
- It was an immigrant Church in the USA. The laity was largely without much education in a strange and often hostile culture. The Church was their protector. The priests provided strong leadership and had education.

The 20th century can be divided in two periods
- 1900 through 1940
- 1940 through 2000

Henri de Lubac - Stated that the 20th century would be the Century of the Church.
- In the Early Church, the focus was on God
- After Trent , it was the Church in counter-point
- The 20th century was a time to rethink it (the Church)

In the 1950s, there was a lot of ferment in the Church. Some of it was from the top down, some of it was from the bottom up. There was not much ferment in the US Church. The hierarchical setup fit the USA well.

In Europe... The style of Pius XII was top down, but he also put out the encyclicals:
- Mystici Corporis Christi
- Mediator Dei


In these, there was a bit of opening up shown on liturgical movements and biblical scholarship.

There was also a series of movements from below.
- Monastaries (liturgical movement)
- Ecumenism
- Lay congresses
- Social movments

Vatican II
- The discussion blows open
- The bishops build a dynamic council about the Church

The great council document was the Document on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The order of the chapters is key.

I. The Church as Mystery (something of God, rooted in God)

II. There was a big fight on Chapter II... The Church as the People of God. The Curia had wanted the 2nd chapter to be on the Hierarchy, not the "People of God"...


Each of us are called to be like:
- Christ as priest
- Christ as teacher
- Christ as servant


We are a community of equals marked by Baptism.

III. The Hierarchy. It describes the offices, roles, and functions for the good of the order of the Church. The transmission of faith, worship, and order as a way of life, and these offices guide them.


- The bishops are successors of the apostles (not branch managers).
- The Pope is the successor to Peter. The college of bishops cannot act without the Pope.

IV. The Laity. The basis of our status is our Baptism, complemented by Confirmation. It calls everyone to full participation, and recognizes that laypeople have unique charisms. The purpose of the charisms we hold are not to benefit ourselves, but to benefit others. To make Christ present in the wider world.

In addition, LG made references to..
- The Universal Call to Holiness
- The Pilgrim Church (rather than the Perfect Society)
- The Blessed Mother

The issue of Collegiality: How effectively are bishops drawn into the Church?

John Paul II was a centralizing pope. Probably the most centralizing since the High Middle Ages.

As for the laity, we were no longer an immigrant church at the edges of society. Catholics are now at the center of American society. The council invites the laity to take a new role.... There have been enormous struggles. The Church is universal, but the churches are also local (St. Paul). The culture of these places gets imbued in the local churches. This particular society is very democratic.

Vatican II flipped the pyramid. First, there is the People of God, then there are the offices.

What kinds of issues came up as a result? What kind of institutions can you build in the Church?

In the last 20 years, there has been an enormous movement of laypeople into decision-making positions in the Church.
- Ministry (more lay than priests)
- Institutions, like Catholic schools
- Health Care institutions
- Social service organizations
- Colleges and universities
- Lay theologians

Lay people had different expectations about how things should run.

The question of the conscience of Catholics, and the role of freedom and authority in the Church... Is lay experience a resource for what the Church teaches?

Theologians said... "Teach the teaching, but also, teach the teachers."

In the Middle Ages, there was the Magisterium of the Chair (the bishop), but also the Magisterium of the School (the theologians), where we looked for:
- Innovation
- Creativity
- Insight
- Transition

This idea came up again at the council. After the council, however, the theologians and the bishops grew apart.

The role of women was hardly brought up at the council.

To be Catholic is to experience the Church at times as a blessing and a burden. A gift, and yet sometimes something we struggle with.

Next, Part II. Christ as the Center of our Prayer

4 comments:

Garpu the Fork said...

You know, I"m not so sure I agree with his comment that Catholics are mainstream, that is aren't an immigrant population. Among Latin Americans, most are Catholic. I think I"d go so far to say that they are to our generation what the Irish were for my grandparents'. And the religious culture in the US is still predominantly Protestant, with a vocal presence among the evangelicals.

But it sounds like it was an interesting talk, nonetheless.

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

You know, I happened to be watching Lou Dobbs a few weeks ago, and he was off on one of his rants about Cardinal Mahoney and the Church's stance on immigration. Then he had one of his reporters on, Casey Wian...

Wian said that the reason the Church holds the policy that it does on illegal imigration is because the pews are emptying out in the United States and the Church thinks that allowing illegals in from Latin America will be a good way to fill them back up again. I couldn't believe my ears.

Try reading the scriptures, Casey and Lou.

What a shame. What Dobbs points out in terms of the assault on the middle class, corporate domination of government, the undue influence of money and lobbyists, the gutting of the manufacturing sector from offshoring, and bad trade policy, is pretty much right on the money, but why do so-called populists so often need to discredit themselves by bringing xenophobic bigotry into the mix?

Garpu the Fork said...

Oh I know. A friend posted an article this morning about a man in Boston (illegal immigrant from Europe) who died of pneumonia because he was afraid to go to a doctor. That stuns me that people die of pneumonia in our country, both legal and illegal residents.

crystal said...

You guys are lucky to have such a scholar at your church.

I have to read more about Yves Congar - he sounds like an interesting guy.

On our knees with our hands in our pockets :-)

Is lay experience a resource for what the Church teaches?

That's one of the things William Barry SJ mentioned in his chapter on women's ordination. He thought that it should be.

Thanks for posting this. I look forward to reading the rest of what he said.