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By Diogenes ( articles ) | Nov 11, 2006

Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba, Rembert Weakland's gift to Southeastern Wisconsin, is one of those persons who, in the words of T.B. Reed, "seldom open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." In his Herald of Hope columns, Sklba typically uses the plastic Playskool wrench from his depleted theological tool-kit to loosen some of the hex nuts at the junctural points of Catholic doctrine, then never quite gets around to snugging them up again in the space of his essay. This week he's telling us about his participation in a Lutheran/Catholic dialogue session, from which he returned scratching his scalp over the usual junior high paradoxes about the efficacy of impetrative prayer:

So what do we really pray for when we pray for the dead? Those in heaven don't need our prayers and anyone condemned (may they be few if any!) by his/her own free will can't benefit from them. We Catholics and Lutherans agreed in the fact that most Christians still require some cleansing of selfishness before being fully and finally embraced by God.

Supported by the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030-32), we agreed that this is a process, not a place. We also agreed that the image of fire is a metaphor for the way God removes the useless stubble of our lives (I Cor 3:10-15). We agreed that we don't really know very much about that movement from life on this side of the great divide, and shouldn't pretend to know more than we do!

Do we pray to change God's mind about those folks "in between?" It's inconceivable that we should love anyone more than God does. So for what do we pray? That was the subject of an extended and fascinating discussion when the dialogue met last month in Baltimore. I found it intriguing that Luther warned against praying for the dead too much, lest we slip over into doubting God's mercy!

The questions Sklba raises point to perfectly kosher theological problems. But they have perfectly kosher doctrinal answers, and these are not forthcoming. Reading his remarks from the viewpoint of the Catholic faithful, do you feel you've been given something, or do you feel you've had something taken away?

Sklba's use of the Catechism is of a piece with his catalytic enthusiasms. The paragraphs he cites -- contrary to what he would have us believe -- say nothing for or against the notion that Purgatory is a place, but they anchor themselves by reference to a decree of the Council of Trent on Purgatory that speaks of "the souls there detained" (animas ibi detentas, DS 1820). He also quotes an earlier speculation of Ratzinger that, in the context he provides, suggests (though it doesn't demand) a departure from the received teaching. See the move? You use authority, subtly, to weaken trust in authority.

Again, it's a good thing that real theologians wrestle with the real paradoxes contained in Christian doctrine, but it's hard to find a positive pastoral advantage in a bishop's surfacing doubts in such an amateurish manner, only to pelt them with nerf balls and leave the doubts rather than the doctrine intact. At the conclusion of a Sklba column, the teaching Church usually comes across as an edifice slightly shakier than she was before. Weakland's worthy disciple.

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