Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Why early Church debates were more exciting

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 03, 2021

When I was editor of an archdiocesan newspaper, my critics among the clergy sometimes complained that I devoted too much editorial attention to public affairs rather than internal church news. While I concentrated on the public struggle to protect life and family and marriage in an increasingly hostile environment, they said, I was missing the good news about the life of the Church and (as one auxiliary bishop memorably put it) “the exciting new developments in theology.” I disagreed—and soon I was no longer the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper.

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In one sense my critics were undoubtedly right. The sacramental life of the Church is far more important than the workaday stories I featured in the weekly headlines. Every time the Eucharistic liturgy is celebrated, every time a baby is baptized, every time a repentant sinner receives absolution—these events are infinitely more significant than social and political controversies. However, I argued, they are not the proper material for a weekly newspaper. The transcendent importance of the sacraments should be explained in different forums. (More on that topic soon.)

Regarding theology, on the other hand, I saw very little merit in my critics’ argument. Frankly, I did not see “exciting new developments” in Catholic theology. I realize that everything is exciting to those who are intimately involved. But I was editing a newspaper for lay readers, not professional theologians. And the latest discussions among Catholic theologians were not, as a rule, likely to appeal to that general audience.

There have been times, in the life of the Church, when theological debates would have made for lively newspaper headlines: times when prelates and scholars would hurl anathemas and sometimes throw punches. Now those were “exciting developments;” those were stories that I could sell to readers. But contemporary theological disputes are more measured, more abstract. The disagreements may be every bit as profound, but theologians today generally shy away from open verbal warfare.

More generally speaking, discourse within the Church these days is far more irenic than the robust debates of the early ecumenical councils. Bishops do their best to minimize their differences, at least for public appearances. Only very rarely does one prominent Church leader say, in unmistakably clear language, that the thinks a colleague is dead wrong.

So it takes a certain degree of familiarity with the issues, and with the habits of clerical discourse, to understand the fundamental differences that lurk behind the diplomatic facades. As a matter of fact, since leaving that archdiocesan newspaper, I have spent years trying to help Catholic readers interpret statements by Church leaders, to read between the lines, to understand what is really at issue. Even now, with decades of experience to call upon, I don’t think I could keep a broad newspaper readership interested in “exciting new developments in theology”—unless I reduced them to the simple blunt terms that roiled debate within the early Church.

Are we better off today, now that internal Church debates are conducted in a more genteel fashion? I wonder. The vigor with which the early Church fathers defended their views, and attacked their opponents, showed that they cared very deeply about the truth. They would not compromise on essentials; they would not tolerate ambiguity. The laity may sometimes have been frightened by their ferocity, but they would not have been confused, and they would not have been apathetic. Some Christians stormed out of the Church after the Council of Chalcedon. Today people drift out, by the tens of thousands, and still we hesitate to recognize a crisis of faith.

Reading the works of the early Church fathers, one can readily recognize that their “developments in theology” really were exciting. But the excitement was not confined to abstract debate. It showed, too, in their very direct, immediate approach to evangelization. They did not expect potential converts to appreciate the subtleties of the faith (although they were capable of great subtlety and sophistication when speaking among themselves). They hit new audiences broadside with a simple, stunning message—the same message that successful Christian evangelists have always emphasized—the astonishing news that mortal men can obtain eternal life.

And that’s the message, I submit, that Catholics (and non-Catholics, too) need to hear today. It is not, ordinarily, a message to be conveyed by a newspaper, because it is not a new development; the Good News is old news. But it is certainly appropriate material for any homily. As I said above, every celebration of the sacraments—and especially of the Mass—is a momentous event. We need constant reminders of why these events are so important, of the high stakes involved, of the incredible gifts we receive.

If we could ever arrive at a proper understanding of these mysteries—if we could even just mirror the enthusiasm of the early Church fathers—I have no doubt that theological developments would be more exciting, and diocesan newspaper editors more likely to cover them.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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