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The New Jesuit Mission

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 25, 2008

I have tried mightily to avoid a third column in a row which serves primarily to critique the ideas of others. But I have also followed the election of Adolfo Nicolás as the new Superior General of the Society of Jesus. I have speculated on how well he can be expected to respond to concerns expressed by Pope Benedict XVI. And now, may God forgive me, I have spent valuable time reading some of his written work.

In the third issue of the international Catholic journal Concilium for 2005, Fr. Nicolás wrote an article entitled “Christianity in Crisis: Asia”. At the risk of immediately prejudicing my audience, I feel bound to report that Concilium is one of those journals which was founded by dissident theologians in the secularist euphoria following the Second Vatican Council (hence the name). The editors’ stock in trade is to undermine settled Catholic teaching and to defend theologians who are rebuked by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (e.g., Jan Sobrino just last year). If you read last week’s column, think of Concilium as Commonweal gone international and based in Holland. In any case, this journal was bad enough from the first that a group of faithful theologians—including Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), de Lubac, and von Balthasar—founded an alternative journal in the early 1970’s called Communio.

The Pope and the Jesuits

You have to be a certain age to remember these things, but even my youngest readers may remember Benedict XVI’s admonition a few days ago to the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, just before they elected their new Superior. Benedict said “it could prove extremely useful that the general congregation reaffirm…its own total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular…the relationship between Christ and religions…” (see Emphasizing the Black in “Black Pope” and Benedict XVI’s Letter). As we will see, one might almost believe the Holy Father was asking the Jesuits not to elect somebody like Fr. Adolfo Nicolás.

But elect him they did, and according to Fr. Nicolás, Christianity is in crisis in Asia “because our message is not made visible in our life.” If this referred to the hypocrisy of Christians who undermine the gospel by their sins, it would be wholly unobjectionable. But unfortunately Fr. Nicolás defines the Christian message as “compassion and service” (which “unknown thousands” already exemplify in “Other Religions”) and “forgiveness and service” (which in the Church has “given way to a complicated system of controls”). A key sentence reads as follows:

The natural field for this crisis is the Pastoral field, where, to our own shame and consternation, norms and obligations seem to occupy much more space in preaching and directives from the Pastors than joy, hope and freedom; where learning (often less than intelligible and seldom interesting) doctrines occupies more space than communion, service and hospitality.

Forgetting the Good News

This passage captures the quintessential loss of faith characteristic of modernist theologians. The message of Christianity is here reduced to an amorphous blend of service and compassion directed toward a worldly salvation from unfortunate social conditions. This notion of salvation is often called “liberation” (Benedict also asked the Jesuits to adhere to Catholic doctrine regarding “some aspects of the theology of liberation”). Fr. Nicolás argues that Catholic theology “has failed to integrate serious knowledge with the more liberating ways of religious wisdom.” He asserts that “the real spiritual Masters of all ages are more keen in teaching the way to God than in giving answers to questions about God,” and claims that Asia “has produced an incredible wealth of such ‘Ways’.” Religion is, apparently, all about praxis and not at all about truth.

But Christianity is a message about God before it is anything else. It is the Good News before it is a way of life, a source of compassion, or a pattern of service. Its central point—without which it has no redeeming value whatsoever—is that God became man in Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins on the Cross, and that Jesus Christ has conquered death and won everlasting joy for us with the Father in Heaven. This is information about God, information that defines what salvation means and what compassion and service are for. This colossal information must be communicated as truth—as doctrine—before anything else can happen. It precedes the question “what must I do to be saved.” Indeed, unless this doctrine of salvation comes first, the question about what to do has no answer.

This, of course, is the problem with all the Asian “ways”. Admirable as it is to practice material detachment, honor others, and perceive wisdom in the transcendence of our own limitations, even the richest “ways” of Asian spirituality have no power to save because they have no power to affirm any specific, concrete reality or relationship beyond ourselves. Asian spirituality starts with negation and denial, which are often healthy beginnings for all of us who are so full of ourselves, but it also ends in negation and denial. Asian spirituality may rightly point out that much of what we value is really nothing, but it has nothing to say about Something. It has not received the Good News.

Catholic Common Sense

Fr. Nicolás accuses “Catholic common sense” of being a “language in tension, in conflict, in disharmony with other religious languages, images, perceptions, symbols and expression that have given direction, as well as sense and hope to millions.” Direction and sense, perhaps, but hope? Hope as understood by the Christian? I very much fear that Fr. Nicolás and much of the Order he represents no longer share that hope, a hope so recently and effectively portrayed in Pope Benedict's recent encyclical on this very subject. Indeed, anything like Christian hope seems to have gone out of fashion, dare I say it again, with the false spirit of Vatican II. Therefore, one is hardly surprised at what comes next: “The Church has been very awkward,” writes Fr. Nicolás, “in opening its gates and changing its structures in obedience to the Spirit of Christ speaking to it in Vatican II.”

Awkward or not, we should be thankful that Catholic common sense is in conflict and disharmony with other religious traditions. Catholic common sense represents the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God, which is unlike anything else the world has ever dreamed, let alone ever known. It may be a fact that “Asia can never understand how a ‘humble’ Church can so easily dismiss ‘other ways of salvation’ or put them down as ‘lesser than ours’,” but if so it is a singularly unfortunate fact. And if Asia “will never comprehend how a Church born out of the Gospel and led by the Spirit of Jesus Christ can practically ignore the religious wealth of other Religions and the real and actual salvation they brought to a thousand generations,” then we must despair of the salvation of Asia as surely as last week’s heroes despaired of the salvation of Milwaukee.

But backtrack for just a moment to the most troubling phrase in that last quotation: "real and actual salvation" to a thousand generations. Real and actual? Without Christ? If Fr. Nicolás and the Jesuits believe that, they have lost their faith without any need for further analysis or comment. St. Paul warned against preaching “another Jesus than the one we preached” or receiving “a different spirit” or “a different gospel” from the one we originally accepted (2 Cor 11, esp. vv. 1-4, 12-15). And what of this Jesus, this Spirit, this Gospel? Consider Peter in Jerusalem, standing before the rulers, the scribes and the priests of Israel, as they demanded to know “by what power or by what name” he healed a cripple. “Filled by the Holy Spirit” (for so Scripture attests), Peter replied:

Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:10-12)

A False Program

I happen to like Scriptural arguments, but one must presume that they do not impress modernists, who believe Scripture’s specific forms of expression are merely the cultural trappings of the apostolic age. The goal of Scriptural interpretation therefore is to get at the underlying (and very vague and very comfortable) spiritual truth. So Fr. Nicolás and the Jesuits who elected him can now, with faces straight and degrees in hand, require a new gospel of “self-emptying”, a self-emptying of the Gospel itself, a self-emptying which includes “our concepts, theologies, institutions, theoretical or devotional worlds” and welcomes “a new Baptism in Asian Religiosity and the Cross of Asian poverty.” Unless Fr. Nicolás has undergone a conversion in the past two and a half years, his program is clear: “The sooner we welcome the crisis and move ahead with the ‘Creator Spirit’, the better.”

Is Christianity, then, to be reduced to immersion in Asian religiosity and the triumph of a generalized “Creator Spirit”? This sounds uncannily like New Age Gnosticism. One wonders if, when Fr. Nicolás moves on to “reconsider our Christian practices, from simple devotions to Sacramental celebrations”, he will replace the Crucifix with a large and powerful crystal. Thus do all false spiritualities merge and meld into the same theme, a theme as common and as treacherous as it is tired and old. For all the saving ideas of both men and Satan are ever the same old vanities. The only new thing under the sun is Christ.

St. Paul provides the lesson:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:16-17)

St. Paul also provides the remedy, exlaiming that “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved”:

But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?...So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ. (Rom. 10:13-17)

A New Mission

“Behold, I make all things new” says the Son of God in glory on His throne (Rev. 21:5). And the same glorious Son while still on earth commanded: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). Is this not a worthy mission for Fr. Adolfo Nicolás and his Jesuits? Did Our Lord overlook Asian spirituality? Is there to be a Newer Covenant with a baptism more potent than the Blood of Christ? One seeks in vain for the signs and wonders in Fr. Nicolás’ account that should so deceive even the elect.

Compassion and service are very good things, properly understood. But without Christ’s initial compassion and service to those He has redeemed, all other compassion and service are vain and powerless. That is why Christianity is not in the first place a way of compassion and service; it is first of all a message—that is, a doctrine—about Jesus Christ, about Christ who offers not just another way but the only way, because He is the Way. If this astonishing doctrine is “often less than intelligible and seldom interesting,” the only possible explanation is that Fr. Nicolás and those who elected him find it so. Are we surprised that the Asian world cannot understand them and finds them dull? But no man is truly boring, no matter how hard he may try. One may therefore hope—in Christ alone—that even Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, along with his Jesuit confreres, will be made new.

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