Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Do you have a personal relationship with God? V2 and the phenomena of regression

There is currently a conference on in Sydney entitled Vatican II: The Great Grace, and while I kind of choke on the subtitle, there are a number of speakers who I would have loved to be able to hear in person.

Fortunately, podcasts and transcripts of some of the key ones are starting to appear, and you can find them over at the ever excellent Xt3.

A new Pentecost?

The elephant in the room at such a Conference, of course, is what Cardinal Ouellet (Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops) called the 'phenomena of regression' (before quickly moving on!), viz the collapse of the Church in the West in recent decades.

Is the collapse, as Pope Benedict XVI suggested, due to a misreading of the Council, or is it, as most traditionalists, schismatic and otherwise would argue, a direct product of it?

Does the Council, as Cardinal Ouellet argued in his talk, lay the foundations for a newly reinvigorated missionary effort, or does some of the theology it propagates positively undermine such this orientation?

A nice illustration of the issue, in my view, is provided by the concept of 'having a personal relationship with Christ', which Cardinal Ouellet mentioned in his address on ecclesiology.

Do you have a personal relationship with God?

The concept of having a 'personal relationship' with Christ is being pushed heavily at the moment, and I can see the value of it in the context of apologetics, in responding to the Pentecostal critique of Catholicism.  

I have real doubts about its value, though, in teaching Catholics how to grow in their spiritual lives.

On the one hand, the idea that a Catholic must have a 'personal relationship' with Christ is a statement of the obvious: the essence of our faith is surely that God calls us, and we respond, accepting the gift that he has offered and reflecting that in our thoughts and actions.  

We respond, for example, by keeping the commandments, as he instructed us to; through our participation in the liturgy; through the worthy reception of the sacraments; through our prayerful reading of Scripture; and through our prayer life; and through our charitable actions.

Maybe the concept has some utility in getting us to focus a little more on the daily challenges of Christian living: on responding to the prompts of the Spirit; focusing on discerning between movements of the Spirit, ourselves and the devil; and on the mechanics of the daily spiritual warfare.

Yet somehow this concept of a personal relationship seems too often to mean something entirely different to all of that, something somehow detached from the Church itself, even at odds with it.  That's not entirely surprising since the concept is essentially one imported from protestant theology.

The protestant notion, which is essentially an eighteenth century invention, simply does not have an ecclesial dimension: it refers to an emotional experience of conversion, rather than to our ongoing struggle for holiness and the gradual realization of our baptismal grace, nurtured through the sacraments of Confirmation, Confession and Eucharist; it attests to to the ability of each Christian to discern for themselves what the Bible means, without the need for the guidance of a Magisterium; it affirms that we can decide for ourselves what God is telling us to do, without the need for any external guidance or ecclesial affirmation in the form of the sacrament of marriage, holy orders or vows of religious profession.  

The concept can of course be put in a Catholic context, and Pope Benedict XVI arguably made a good fist of doing just that.

But is this really a positive theological development compared to the previous emphasis on the truths of the faith?  

Scholasticism vs personalism

Cardinal Ouellet argues that it is:

"In fact, the Council not only renews the theology of revelation in the light of Christ, “who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation” (DV, 2); it also renews our manner of presenting the faith. Faith means adhering personally to Someone who invites us to enter into His communion. This is significant progress with respect to the preceding Scholastic approach, which expressed itself in terms of intellectual assent to abstract truths. The Council’s Christocentric and Trinitarian perspective on revelation, enriched by a more personalist language, represents a turning point that confers on the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum pride of place as the foundation of conciliar ecclesiology."

But my problem is this: can we truly separate out the notion of Christ inviting us to enter communion, and adherence to the truths of the faith?

The Compendium of the Catechism actually captures the link between the two quite nicely I think, in this question:

"What does it mean in practice for a person to believe in God?  It means to adhere to God himself, entrusting oneself to him and giving assent to all the truths which God has revealed because God is Truth. It means to believe in one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."(27)

The point is that while we can, through reason alone, know God, in practice the only way we can know him with certainty and without error, the only way, as the Compendium puts it, that 'we can enter the intimacy of the divine mystery' is through Revelation, which has been entrusted to the Church (Qu 3).

The ecclesial dimension

The Cardinal does, of course, draw out the ecclesial context for what he is saying, and sets this emphasis on the personal relationship between a believer and God within the context of the concept of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation to the world.

All the same, there is, I think, a genuine difficulty in reconciling the inherent tension between the concept of a 'personal relationship' with God and the traditional way of experiencing that relationship, namely in and through the Church.

Bishop Hollohan of Bunbury for example, in his Easter note in the Diocesan Newsletter The Vineyard this year, used the concept of the personal relationship with Christ as a means of explaining why Christianity is superior to other faiths.  And he does a good job of this.  

The problem is, he doesn't then make the case for Catholicism over other forms of Christianity.

He wrote:

"There are those today who say ‘one religion is much the same as another’. 
Easter reminds us of how wrong this is...  

There are many differences between Christianity and other religions. One is that Jesus Christ is alive, not dead. Mohammed, Buddha and all other great historical religious figures, on the other hand, are dead.

Second, another distinguishing feature of christianity is that Jesus Christ calls all into personal relationships with himself. Without this personal relationship, one cannot be a Christian in the sense that Jesus meant.

Third, all who enter into personal relationship with the Risen Christ find growing personal blessings in their lives – guidance, inner strengthening and healing and freedom from temptations to do wrong...

The problem, I think, is that he fails to mention just how those blessings flow, namely from the fount that is the Church.

Now one can argue that a short article of this kind can't cover everything and that is true, but I do think it is actually genuinely hard to link the two concepts.  And indeed, I think the overemphasis on the notion of a personal relationship with God without enough emphasis on the ecclesial context for it explains just why we have essentially given up, as a Church, on attempting to convert protestants to the faith.
There are a number of good critiques of the concept around, the most important being that the emphasis on the 'personal' nature of our relationship with God can quickly degenerate to a kind of consumerism that may be nothing more than a projection of our own desires, culture, values, goals and dreams.  It can become all about us, and the quest for self-validation, rather than being about service and carrying our cross.  Above all, it can be all too easy to lose importance of attending Mass and paying attention to the other objective dimensions that ground the practice of our faith.

A lot of the rhetoric around this concept suggests that we need to 'know Christ' rather than 'know about Christ'.

I would argue, though, that in fact we learn to know Christ by learning about Christ.  Some of that learning about Christ starts from the intellect: learning the catechism and studying Scripture for example.  But it is made living, transformed into knowledge of Christ through the theological gift of faith given to us at our baptism.  Some of that learning about Christ is ideally gained in experiential ways: praying with our family; and when we are led to a sense of awe through the liturgy.

The reality is that much of what has happened since the Council has positively undermined this, most obviously in the emphasis on emotion and experience over the content of the faith in schools; and by emphasising external, rather than internal, action in the liturgy.

The liturgy problem

When it comes to the liturgy, Cardinal Ouellet acknowledges this, but talks up Pope Benedict XVI's take on the subject:

He confirmed this criticism by observing that the first document promulgated by the Council was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. In the architecture of the Council, this order had a precise sense: “Adoration comes first. Therefore God comes first…. In the history of the post-Conciliar period, the Constitution on the Liturgy was certainly no longer understood from the viewpoint of the basic primacy of adoration, but rather as a recipe book of what we can do with the Liturgy.”

We have to recognize the truth of this criticism, at least in certain milieus in which forgetfulness of God encouraged a tendency to change everything that could be changed in the liturgy, without much concern for pedagogy. Consequently, the sacred meaning of the liturgy and its theandric character were more or less lost, replaced by the activity of the community and its ministers..."

Regression, dead ends and the prospect of revival

Is another approach genuinely possible though the directions set by Vatican II? The Cardinal tried to argue that it was, saying:

When we look back at the event of the Council and everything that followed it, we are still struck by its newness, as well as its effects in the Church’s life and mission. Though we cannot ignore the problems in interpretation or the phenomena of regression, we must greet the Council as a new Pentecost that reawakened the Church’s missionary consciousness. It granted her a vision and doctrinal orientation that allowed for a renewal of her structures and pastoral activity.

It may be, as the Cardinal argues, that the 'great grace' of the Council is something still present only in potential yet to be realised.

Right at the moment though, any objective analysis would surely suggest that Vatican II is looking much more like a Council of Florence, which ultimately proved to be pretty much a dead-end: it issued an invitation (to the Orthodox Churches to reconcile) that was rejected.


A Canberra Observer said...

A priest friend argued when the new Catechism came out that it provided the key to some of the dilemmas of interpretation/reconsiliation of Vatican II in the light of prior Church teaching.

A shame that most of the springtime of Vatican IIers hold the Catechism in the same high (!!) regard as they do the other councils.

Kate Edwards said...

Yes I was certainly excited when the Catechism came out and we started going through it in depth, and it does go some way to helping on at least some points.

And you are right that it is just rejected outright by the springtime brigade (didn't you just love David Timbs' piece the other day over at Cath Blog arguing that the papal magisterium on what the Council meant should be rejected in favour of the whims of individual bishops:

But in the end, the more times I've read and studied it, the more I've been forced to conclude that there are problems that remain, mainly due to the fact that so much of the Council documents are rooted in the dead-end that is 20th century theology viz Congar, Rahner, Balthasar et al.

And on a lot of the really crunchy issues, the Catechism avoids or outright contradicts the previous one, rather than resolves.

That said, it and the Compendium are certainly a better starting point than the anything goes individualism of the 'spirit of V2ers'.

Christopher said...

Great post!

I just began reading Ralph Martin's latest book, which is really just the publsihed version of his doctoral dissertation, entitled, Will Many Be Saved?: What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. I am only about 30 or so pages into it, but what Martin does is concentrate his efforts on looking at the Vatican II Constitution, Lumen Gentium, specifically section #16.

His concern is that the Council Fathers appears to be that the Council Fathers may have emoloyed language which detracts from the biblical mandate to "make disciples of all nations." Specifically, if the possibility of salvation is available to all, regardless of the "ecclesial community" they belong to, then why bother evangelizing? What benefit is there in being Catholic?

Anonymous said...

The Church is the means through which we grow in a personal relationship with Christ, and it is through Christ and His Sacraments that we enter into the Trinitarian Life for which we are destined. To separate a personal relationship with Christ from the Church,or to separate the Church from a personal relationship with Christ is to destroy the very purpose of the Church. The Church is the means, and union with Christ is the end for which the means exists.

Therese said...

I would argue that a personal relationship with Christi s fundamentally, originally, and authentically Catholic. Christ patented it! Christ gave to His Church the most fundamental and personal relationship we can have with Him: His very self in the Eucharist and the sacraments of the Church. His indwelling in us with Baptism and Confirmation. His forgiveness in Reconciliation. His blessing and sharing in the Creative Love of the father in Matrimony. HIs healing in Anointing of the Sick. His abiding care in Ordination.

Our saints all had profound and personal relationships with Him! The entire story of the Bible is that of God Loving us with His never ending generosity and giving. The entire story is that of His asking us to imitate Him so that we go from children who are more focused on what we need from Him to children who grow up to be like Him. Indeed to become his adopted sons and daughters. A child who understands the deep love his parent has for him will be much more likely to not only observe the "rules of the house" but to not even need them as he will naturally embrace them and go beyond them to enter into a deep and abiding relationship of love with his parent and indeed to grow up to be like his parent. There won't be teenage rebellion. There won't be a struggle to be other than the parent. He "gets" that the parent is not only "good for Him" but his greatest good and end. To be other than parent is to be other than self.

I'd argue that some people have a problem with this terminology of personal relationship because they either do not want to be challenged to grow up or they want to act grown up without actually being grown up. They want house rules that they can observe that are simple and transactional. I observe the big rules and I get what I want from Dad. I break them, I say, I'm sorry and I get what I want from Dad again. They are happy to stay in a perpetual state of childhood. They are spiritual Peter Pans. They do not want to grow up. Or, in the other case, they act grown up. They do what Dad does but they don't see the reason for it. They just know it works.

These are like the Apostles before Pentecost. Some naturally followed the house rules, some got to the point of acting like Christ by going out two by two and healing the sick, etc. But they didn't really become disciples of Christ, disciples who could go out to the ends of the world and spread the good news, until their imitation of Christ included laying down their lives out of love, following Him, and carrying His cross.

Therese said...

cont'd There are people in both Protestant and Catholic churches that are at all stages of spiritual growth and relationship with Christ. It's easy to take a slice of people and state, "see they are only children." The reality is that there is a mix throughout Christendom.

The greater reality though, is that, for those who are Catholic, they have the opportunity for the fullest possible relationship with Christ through the sacraments of the Church. But to fully realize this potential one must be a mature Catholic Christian. One cannot just show up. One has to be engaged in a deep and personal relationship with Christ, with the God who is Love. Otherwise the gifts God wishes to give and the greatest gift He gives -- His very self in the Eucharist -- remain received but unopened. Some are unopened because the receiver mistakenly thinks keeping the gift in it's original gift wrap is the best way to honor the giver. Some are unopened out of ignorance, the receiver does not know how. Some are unopened out of fear (what's in the this box, how will it change my life?). Some are tossed aside because the receiver ultimately really doesn't want what's in the box. And what is in the box? When we are young in faith, it's candy and toys and then things to dress up and make believe we are like Pop. But as we grow, we start finding the things of adulthood. The things that will allow us to inherit the kingdom. And when we are really grown up we find and accept the Cross, our bar mitzvah as it were. Accepting this milestone of adulthood in faith means that we can embrace Dad's gift of love "my child, you understand the nature of my love, you are ready to enter into a deep and abiding love with me. More than that you are ready to be a sign of contradiction to the world. This cross is heavy. You cannot carry it by yourself. We will carry it together. Stay close to me all your days and I will help you carry it"

I think like salvation itself, we Catholics cannot claim to be the only ones who will enter into this deep and abiding relationship. We cannot constrain God. Other paths can lead into this deep and abiding relationship, the difference with our path is that it we have HIS PROMISE that it NECESSARILY WILL lead into a deep and abiding and MOST personal relationship -- if only we resist the temptation to be Peter Pans who refuse to unwrap the gift and instead we embrace adulthood and we unwrap the gift that is generosity itself: the Cross.

Kate Edwards said...

Therese - It seems to me a pretty big leap between objecting to the terminology (which is not biblical or rooted in our tradition) and claiming our objection is because we like having rules to follow!

What we are debating here is terminology and its usefulness, not the underlying concept it describes as I tried to make clear in the post.

I agree that many of the lives of the saints provide wonderful examples of what it means to have a 'personal relationship' with God.

I'm not quite sure what I said in the post to suggest that I'm advocating peter panism, but for what it is worth, it seems to me that the saints embraced the structures the Church provides. Not always in comfortable ways to be sure, but they were typically calling the hierarchy and laity back to fidelity to fundamentals rather than advocating that it all be tossed out!

Indeed, a classic statement of the process of growth in life in Christ (or deification if you prefer the Eastern Churches terminology) I think is St Benedict's Rule where he explains that at first we have to accept discipline and rules out of fear of hell, but as we grow spiritually, our obedience comes from 'love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue' (RB 7).

As for other paths, as the Cardinal's speech did emphasize, the Church is the sacrament of salvation for the world: outside it there is no salvation. As I've suggested in other posts, Catholics can legitimately debate what constitutes being inside and outside the church to some extent, but we can't count on salvation without visible membership of it: that is precisely why Christ instructed the apostles to go out and make disciples of all!

Like Christopher, I'm enjoying the Martin book on this subject!

Anonymous said...

The only authority on truth is God word the bible .Bible says the heart of human kind is wicked and there is no good in it .That doing good will not take on to heaven nor will it bring forgiveness.That no one can erase their crimes of sins.That only God himself can do that.That God himself poured Himself into flesh and bone . God Jesus lived perfect without sin to offer Himself as the sacrifice punishment for your and mine crimes of sin.Now if anyone will humble themselves and ask Jesus to forgive their sins .Jesus will remove the judgement and sentence of hell from them.They will gain heaven,There is no other way by Jesus and His forgiveness.Do much of anything catholicsm says does not bring one anything but more falseness.Don't follow what they says open your bible and hear from God Himself .Let the holy spirit teach you in all things .Remember your the one Jesus died and arose to save from hell.So don't be fooled into a lie.

Kate Edwards said...

Please - if you wish to post a comment, include your name (or a pseudonym) to make it easy for others to respond.

Kate Edwards said...

Fundamentalist above - where do you think your bible came from? Let me tell you that it was the Catholic Church that decided which books should be included in Scripture, which rejected. Though you've probably excluded a few of those because Luther chopped them out as part of his rebellion, because they contradicted his beliefs.

Christ does indeed save us by forgiving our sins - which is why we have the sacrament of confession using the power of the keys Christ entrusted to Peter.

ace said...

What Therese said was beautiful - and well articulated - Bravo!!! (Especially the part about Eucharist - the fount and apex [or source and summit - I'll take either] of our life with Jesus and the unity he so desires to bring us into - with each other and in His Church)

To anonymous above:
What do you make of 2 Thes 2: 15, and Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John? Where does it say in the Bible "only Scripture"? Please ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you and then take out your concordance (or use one on-line) and look up all the references to Peter in the NT. Next, look up the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6: 9-13 and Lk 11: 1-4). Notice that "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory" is not part of the Our Father. Want to know where it comes from? Look for the Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [ca. A.D.140] on-line. You will discover how the early church celebrated worship - the Catholic Church - which continues to this day. Also, you might want to research and find out when the NT books were finally put all together as a permanent part of fixed revelation for all time. May God bless and deepen your faith

ace said...

May the graces of faith, hope, and love penetrate both hearts AND minds. The Bible says both [using NIV, but check what translation you prefer]:

"Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you." (Lk 9:50)


"Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Lk 11:23)

Anonymous said...

The growing recourse to the programme "making Jesus real' in our Catholic schools seems to be an indication of a move away from a Catholic understanding of our relationship to Jesus.

Christian LeBlanc said...

God made us a fusion of body and soul. Jesus was fully human, and people encountered him physically and spiritually. He set up a physical/ spiritual Church and Sacraments so we could maintain both links with Him. The Church and Sacraments still provide the fullest encounter with Jesus. But accessing that fullness depends on how fully each person responds, body and soul, to His call to follow Him.

JenB said...

You have proposed a straw argument Esp when you say that Bishop Holohan "doesn't then make the case for Catholicism over other forms of Christianity." I think when a Bishop speaks, he assumes people take him to mean that he speaks about and for the Catholic faith.

Is Pope John Paul II a protestant? “Sometimes even Catholics have lost or never had the chance to experience Christ per­sonal­ly: not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value’, but as the living Lord, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life’ (Jn 14:6).” Pope John Paul II, L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition of the Vatican Newspaper), March 24, 1993, p.3.

“It is necessary to awaken again in believers a full relationship with Christ, mankind’s only Savior. Only from a personal relationship with Jesus can an effective evangeli­zation develop.” Pope John Paul II, speech to bishops of Southern Germany, Dec. 4, 1992. L’Osservatore Romano (English ed.), Dec. 23/30, 1992, pp. 5-6.

Your argument about emotion is insufficient as well, as emotions are a part of how God made us, they are given to us by God. Does this mean they rule us? No, as they are given to us they are to be used as a gift from God to experience Him, and others and life. The problem does not come in our use of them, it comes in our disordered use of them. When Sin comes in. But this does not preclude that we cannot know Christ through our emotions as we experience a friendship with other people.

Speaking of friendship, wasn't it Christ himself who said "I call you my friends"

Nothing about our created order precludes us from having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is not only not "protestant" it is thoroughly Catholic-that is God made us with all our human parts to experience him. Is friendship not a part of our human experience? If a personal relationship with Christ were antithetical to "our tradition" then wouldn't all relationships be antithetical to "our tradition" since Christ is the fulfillment of everything that we experience?

Lastly, as Christian points out, Christ came as a human. He wept (John 11:35). He got angry (tossed the money changers out). He was like us in all things but sin-and the disciples had a personal relationship with him! And that is what they preached!

I can't believe that this post exists. I mean, I just see such a failure to see this as essential to Catholicism. So MUCH of our Catholic faith points to a personal relationship with Christ is the very heart of being a Catholic and there is no other way to truly live for him.

Kate Edwards said...

Jen B -

Let me repeat once again that this is a post about the problem with the terminology, not about the underlying concept of having a deep spiritual life to which we are invited by Christ.

I don't agree that Bishop Holohan's piece is straw man case at all. The reality is that the Church in Australia and elsewhere has utterly given up attempting to convert protestants to the fullness of the truth, and instead seems to hope, rightly or wrongly that their baptised status will be enough to get them to heaven. Well, personally I'm rather less than confident of that, because very few of us can manage the perfect contrition needed to wipe out mortal sins without the aid of the sacrament of confession.

Nor am I accusing Pope John Paul II of being a protestant. My point was rather that he and other modern popes have imported protestant terminology into their discourse in order to explain something that it is perfectly possible to discuss in traditional Catholic terms, and without the individualist, consumerist protestant baggage and confusion that seems inevitably to come with the terminology.

JenB said...

Kate, you cannot be serious. I am beginning to think you cannot be intellectually honest.

Was Jesus a protestant by saying this:

"No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father." John 15: 13-15

What is love if not for a close relationship? What is marriage but an image of the Trinity and how God loves his bride the Church? Are a bride and a groom not in a personal relationship?

You cannot keep repeating that the phrase "personal relationship" is either proteatant or anti Catholic in language. At some point you have to see it is authentically rooted in Catholic theology, nay rooted in Christ.

Your explanation of the Bishop did not add to your argument either. If Bishops and priests and even we the lay are not calling people to a personal relationship with Christ then we will have a lot to answer for when we are before the Lord in judgement. As for the Protestant, we are prosyletize them.

Kate Edwards said...

Jennifer - It is pretty evident that you are not a theologian and we aren't going to be able to resolve this one since you don't seem to be able to grasp that what I'm talking about is what the best way of describing or presenting an idea or concept.

Accordingly I think we should leave it here.

But for the record, let me try once again to summarise what I'm saying. You keep repeating assorted biblical quotes. But none of which use the words 'personal relationship'. You then assert that the concept must therefore be Catholic. You've jumped a step in the logical argument: for the concept to actually be Catholic, you need to show how it has developed through the teaching of the fathers, theologians and magisterium.

But in fact it clearly wasn't originally a Catholic concept - the term was an eighteenth century protestant invention. Recent popes have though attempted to use it giving it a slightly different meaning to that original protestant one. Has it proved an effective means of explaining things to people or not?

I argue not.

My point is that catholicism got on perfectly well without using the term 'personal relationship' for many centuries. That doesn't mean anyone rejected concepts like friendship, spousal relationships (in mystical theology) and so forth: just that they found different ways of talking about it.

As for your claim that we are indeed trying to convert people, in the end it is perhaps results that count: in Australia's largest diocese this year only 44 protestants converted. Have a read of this post: