Monday, April 5, 2010

John McNeill's "Spiritual Transformation" Blog: Another Absolutely Necessary Voice

In the past several days, I’ve been noting voices that are absolutely necessary for us to hear at this moment in which many members of the people of God are calling for reformation and for a new ecumenical council that will be truly ecumenical, in that it will bring all voices—at last—into the conversation about what it means to be Catholic.

Today, I’d like to remind readers of one of those absolutely necessary voices about which I’ve written in the past on this blog.  I’m speaking of Jesuit theologian John McNeill, who, when the church robbed him of his official ministerial position as he insisted on speaking truth about his sexual orientation, has continued to exercise extremely valuable ministry in the church as a theologian, therapist, and spiritual guide. 

As I’ve noted before, when I think of John McNeill’s significance to the church at this point in history, I think of someone who made a path for the rest of us when no path was there—even for himself.  Through his courage, through his faithful life, through his powerful testimony in theological writings, he has cleared a path along which many of us now walk, as gay Catholics and as Catholics in solidarity with their gay brothers and sisters.  We who are gay and Catholic and who have claimed our God-given nature owe a debt of incalculable gratitude to John McNeill. 

In this posting, I want to point readers to a blog that John began a month ago called “Spiritual Transformation.”  I’ve added a link to John’s blog to my list of blogs I now follow regularly. 

“Spiritual Transformation” offers readers rich resources from John’s theological and therapeutic ministry, as well as his work as a spiritual director.  Recently, John has been blogging about conscience and discernment. 

What I find noteworthy in the series on conscience is John’s masterful explanation of the turn to the subject that Catholic systematic theology took through the great 20th-century German theologian Karl Rahner.  Perhaps more than any other Catholic theologian of the 20th century, Rahner thought through—systematically and carefully—the implications of the “turn to the subject” that had occurred with personalist philosphers like Maurice Blondel at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Even when personalists such as Blondel weren’t writing directly about faith or theology, their philosophy has an extremely important significance for believers, in that it critiques epistemological extrinsicism.  Personalist philosophy demonstrates that, in the act of knowing, we internalize and appropriate for ourselves the object of our knowledge, which no longer remains at a remove from us, outside and extrinsic to our depths as a person. 

To know at a level that is authentic is to take what we know inside and make it our own.  It is to be moved, shaped, and changed by what we know.  It is not merely to gaze at what we know.  It is to become what we know.

For the life of faith, these epistemological insights are of crucial consequence.  They radically critique the heavily intellectualized notions of faith that developed in Catholic theology and dogma from the Reformation to the modern period—notions of faith in reaction to outside currents of thought considered threatening, to the Reformation, the rise of the modern nation state and democracy, and finally, in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, to the whole modern world itself.

The reactionary, intellectualized understanding of what it means to be a believer that grew up in response to currents of thought that the Catholic church considered inimical in the period of early modernity gave an exorbitant amount of attention to the “form” of belief.  To a certain extent, they equated believing with saying, with making verbal gestures of intellectual assent to formulas of faith.  They equated being a believer with parroting dogmatic formulas rather than with—the biblical notion of faith—giving one’s mind, heart, and soul completely to God and setting forth on a journey into the unknown as a result.

What is in danger of being lost sight of in such defensive, intellectualized understandings of faith is that faith has meaning for persons only insofar as it takes root within a person—within a person in her entirety, and not merely in her head.  These understandings of faith in reaction to modernity make the life of faith extrinsic to the person, and therefore threaten to rob faith of its transformative potential in the depths of the human person.

As John McNeill’s current series on conscience and discernment notes,Blondel’s and Rahner’s turn to the subject transforms our understanding of these traditional theological concepts, and points our understanding back to powerful traditional theological insights that disappeared from the dessicated heavily intellectualized theology developed in reaction to the Reformation and modernity.   As with fundamentalist Protestantism, one of the grand ironies of fundamentalist Catholicism is that it is not traditional at all, though it seeks to lay exclusive claim to the term “traditional” and to rule out all others as enemies of the tradition.

As the influential 20th-century Protestant theologian Karl Barth noted, fundamentalism is a quintessentially modern response to a quintessentially modern phenomenon—to the historical-critical study of scripture.  In reaction to the perceived threats of that method of reading scripture, Protestant fundamentalism creates a doctrine unprecedented in Christian history, with no deep roots in the tradition itself: the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Mirroring the Protestant response, Catholic fundamentalism elevates papal pronouncements (and the papacy itself) to a realm of quasi-infallibility.  As James Carroll notes in an insightful interview with Ian Masters recently, the real task of Vatican III will be to complete what Vatican II sought unsuccessfully to do—unsuccessfully, because the current pope and his predecessor deliberately tried to reverse the most fundamental ecclesiological insights of that council.  The real task of Vatican II, which remains unfinished, is a return to the sources that retrieves vibrant concepts about faith and the church that have been lost sight of in our long period of fundamentalist reaction to modernity, which tries to set into stone (and therefore ossifies) the fundamentals of faith, and which links those fundamentals to a papolatry that has little at all to do with Catholic tradition.

These are some of the issues you’ll find John McNeill discussing at his new blog site—and many more besides.  I highly recommend John’s site.  When Vatican III finally arrives, his will be one of the voices many participants will be quoting as they talk about what it means to be authentically Catholic in the 21st century.

(For my previous postings about John McNeill and his theology, please click the label “John McNeill” following this piece.)