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Friday, January 30, 2004

Weapons of Mass Deconstruction: Nuking the New Apologists, Part II.

Let me be clear about one point before I continue: I don't think the New Apologists are making a hash of it. Unlike Bill, I've read a good many of them. My personal experience is that these men and women are doing good work. I lead our parish bible study. I use the Ignatius Catholic Bible Study written in part by Scott Hahn (eek!--and make sure to ignore the imprimatur). What else would an ex-Methodist dupe of fringe Reformed fundamentalists use, anyway? As can be expected, questions about Catholicism and Catholic responses to challenges are a frequent topic for the 10 or so of us who gather every Monday. I've sent people to materials by the New Apologists, and lent them on occasion (as well as works by C.S. Lewis--apparently triumphalism works slowly like arsenic, or something). One case in particular stands out--a baby boom generation member who admitted to be holding on to the faith by the fingernails. The Catholic religious education the member had been given was a nullity, and no help in challenges posed by other Christians. I lent a book that offered a Catholic answer on a particularly troubling subject. The result? Finished and returned two weeks later, the relief almost palpable. Why? Because one of the NAs provided a coherent Catholic response, that's why. By now, I really wish I had a buck for every time I heard "I had no idea there was a Catholic teaching on" issue XYZ.

Feel free to ignore this anecdote, and resume shooting the wounded unsophisticates.

2. Bill's Second Defense of Gaillardetz.

Some bloggers (and the denizens of their comments boxes) have been quite eager to trash Rick Gaillardetz's "America" article, mostly in knee-jerk defense of their favorite Super Hero Apologists; in doing so, it is clear that most haven't read what he wrote, nor do most acknowledge the validity of any of his criticisms.

"Some bloggers" would be Amy Welborn and Mark Shea, if you're keeping track at home. I qualify as a "denizen." While I appreciate a lot of what Bill writes, he quickly flips the switch into Dismissive Mode in this post, and never turns it off. "Super Hero Apologist" is a nice turn of phrase--it certainly helps caricature those who fail to acknowledge the irrefutable brilliance of the Professor's Exsurge Domine as pimply fanboys--but it doesn't do much to advance the discussion. I wonder how he'd react to a characterization of those Catholic scholars criticizing the Gibson film as "Super Hero Theologians"?

I suspect I wouldn't have to wonder long.

As it turns out, Bill has his own "Super Hero Apologist," too, and I admit to having mine. Unfortunately for Bill, Captain Marvel can beat up Superman.

But there are problems with the so-called "New" Apologists. I mention these frequently, citing their combativeness, proof-texting use of Scripture in a fundamentalist fashion, triumphalism, and the creation of a personality cult around these folks.

He does mention them frequently, but he doesn't do much other than repeat the formulas, I'm afraid. "Combativeness" is another Emily Post complaint, and is largely in the eye of the beholder. I'll admit it applies to some of the NAs, who can clamp on like a terrier on a hambone. But across the board--to, say, Fr. Pacwa? Profs. Kreeft and Hahn? Not by my reading, listening, or viewing.

"Proof-texting" is another ambiguous gripe. Frankly, any discussion with people sharing common scriptures (i.e., other Christians and Jews) is going to involve a discussion of differing scriptures which the varying traditions tend to emphasize, and different interpretations of those scriptures. Frankly, you're not going to get very far in any discussion, regardless of how "eschatologically modest" you are, without offering up the "Catholic" verses. It's the tone that determines whether it's productive or an exercise in one-upsmanship. Not all the cited (or uncited) NAs are guilty of this--not by a longshot. This indiscriminate broad-brush approach is one of the fatal flaws of the America article. It also strongly hints at a Cliff-Notes familiarity with the work of those being criticized.

Then there's that word again--"Fundamentalist."

Elk. Lasix. Time to put on a poncho.

It's a substitute for thought, and a particularly parochial one at that. It could mean "preferring the 'four senses' medieval exegesis to use of the historical critical method," or "insufficient genuflecting to the Catholic exegetes du jour who employ historical criticism," then it's unbelievably parochial. Fortunately, Catholics are allowed a much greater amount of freedom in interpretation and interpretation methods than Bill allows.

"Triumphalism?" Presumably closely related to "anti-ecumenical." It certainly would apply to Matatics, who's borderline Feeneyite, if not full-blown. The rest? In spots, perhaps, but hardly consistently, and some virtually never. In fact, for some it is grotesquely false to accuse them of being anti-ecumenical (e.g., Kreeft, Fr. Pacwa). Once again, the "argument by trowel" cuts the legs out from itself.
Unless a full-throated love of the Catholic faith is now somehow off-limits.

Let me underline one important point: Gaillardetz acknowledges the need for apologetics. So those who are spending their time defending "apologetics" as such are missing the boat completely. The issue is how to do it; most of the "New" Apologists have brought in a methodology from the fundamentalist edge of the Reformed tradition which is problematic.

The first two sentences are fine. The last needs to be answered. Of the apologists named in the article, three are cradle Catholics (Keating, Madrid, Fr. Pacwa) and only two could be accused of bringing in a "Reformed fundamentalist methodology" based on background alone--Hahn and Matatics. These days, Matatics sounds more like Frs. Rumble and Carty with a better grasp of koine Greek (not a bad thing, just not that winning), and whatever Reformed approach he brought with him, he's since dropped. Hahn certainly has used Reformed covenantalism in his work, but we have that troublesome "fundamentalist" word spattering down again. Finally, Dr. Kreeft was a convert from the Reformed tradition in 1957, but I challenge anyone to find Calvin in his methodology.

Frankly, this criticism sounds more like it's coming from one of those bloody Lutheran-Reformed knife fights--particularly the disdain of the former for the latter--than from any analysis of the NAs.

Apologetics is not about proof-text battles with Protestants. It is simply about explaining your faith. This, I suggest, is best done (whatever the context) by listening to the other person, learning what their deepest hopes and fears are, listening to their questions and objections, and framing a presentation of the Catholic faith which is not belligerent but which is attractive. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, did that in an admirable way.

See the above note about prooftexting. This is unobjectionable, and probably the first approach that should be employed, especially in individual witness.

But such a method does not exclude the possibility of offering examples from Scripture, Tradition, and so forth. Might I also offer up the counter-example of St. Francis de Sales, and The Catholic Controversy? I wonder how St. Francis' method would be regarded by Prof. Gaillardetz and those readers of America who agree with the article....

Moreover, there's an unacknowledged weakness to the softer Gaillardetz approach, too--it can devolve into a whole lot of good feelings, but not much Good News. Without substance, it's not going to get very far. And that substance will likely return to a discussion of the evidence found in scripture, alas.

I didn't read the works of these "New Apologists" before I became a Catholic--they wouldn't have attracted me if I did.

Many would regard this failure as a serious liability in attempting to reason with those who have read and profited from them. I happen to be one of them.

They seem to be most attractive to insecure Catholics and fundamentalists.

Maybe I should start wearing a tarpaulin.

Remember what I said about "dismissive"? We've reached the nadir. As the Aussies say: good on ya, mate! Glad you've grown beyond all that and can climb into the heads of your lesser brothers and sisters. I find it strange that you could do so without reading much of it, but when we insecure/fundy types grow up, we'll probably understand better.


I was impressed, however, by writers like Thomas Merton and John Henry Newman--and Richard McBrien.

Memo to self: Install sneeze guard on computer desk.

Merton and Newman both grace this insecuritate's bookshelf, although I tend to give the later Merton a wide berth. For his part, Newman was not averse to slinging the occasional verse around, and Apologia isn't the most "ecumenical" thing you'll ever read.

But....McBrien. Oooookay. Time for a little compare and contrast.

His Catholicism does do a remarkable job of explaining to theologically educated non-Catholics both magisterial teaching, how it developed, and where the discussion points are among theologians today.

I count myself a great admirer of Dr. Peter Kreeft, the philosophy professor at Boston College. I own several of his books. Not coincidentally, I own a copy of the Study Edition (1981) of McBrien's Catholicism.

That Gaillardetz includes Kreeft on his hit list is proof of the fundamental silliness and inaccuracy of his analysis. Again, it suggests the Professor had a rather shaky grasp of the material he criticized. Consider Prof. Kreeft's own catechism-based survey of the Catholic Faith, entitled Catholic Christianity. Flipping through the early pages, one notices something striking. While Kreeft's book has both a nihil obstat and an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Catholicism contains a two-page statement by the then-bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend, William McManus, explaining his decision to withhold an imprimatur.

Remember, Kreeft's the wild card here.

Leaving aside Bill's caveat that Catholicism could be useful for theologically educated non-Catholics (not the most common specimen the average man in the pews is going to run across), let's address instead the contention that it does a "remarkable job of explaining magisterial teaching...and where the discussion points are among theologians today."

In 1996, after fifteen years of wrangling with Fr. McBrien over his book, the USCCB disagreed with this assessment (read footnote 1 for Fr. McBrien's attempted spin on the dispute).

The problems? Oh, just a couple/three/dozen areas where the Bishops' Committee found McBrien made inaccurate/misleading statements or employed otherwise problematic methodologies (be sure to read the footnotes, which are essential to the analysis):

1) The Impeccability of Jesus Christ;
2) The Virginal Conception of Jesus;
3) The Perpetual Virginity of Mary;
4) Overemphasis on Plurality Within the Catholic Theological Tradition;
5) Describes as mainstream what are truly "fringe" positions;
6) Insufficient Weight Given to Magisterial Teaching;
7) Doctrinal Minimalism ("reducing to an absolute minimum the church teachings and beliefs that are to be considered essential to the Catholic faith and to which one must adhere in order to consider oneself Catholic");
8) Overemphasis on Change and Development ("The text is at times quite harsh in its criticism of patristic and medieval thought. From the perspective of Catholicism, modern thought has definitively superseded ancient and medieval thought").

Rather surprising for one renowned as a defender of the bishops and their teaching authority, Bill shrugs off this criticism.

That's his prerogative. For my part, I'd recommend Catholicism only to non-Catholic friends in need of a doorstop. I'd have to issue too many caveats, make sure they read the Bishops' review first, explained the lengthy nature of the dispute, what the lack of an imprimatur means, McBrien's refusal to get a mandatum and what that means, etc. But if the friend's sofa is unbalanced, I've got just the thing.

Now, shifting gears, let us examine Prof. Kreeft in light of the complaints regarding ecumenism. Well, one counter-example will suffice: The Handbook of Christian Apologetics, co-written with Jesuit Father Ronald Tacelli for IVP, the evangelical publishing house. Written deliberately as an ecumenical, "mere Christian" work intended for a broader Christian audience, Kreeft also gives a surprising tip of the hat to Does God Exist? , by one Hans Kung (see p. 394), as a recommended book.

Oh, and he was a signatory to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project, too. That should be considered "ecumenical" by even the strictest of standards.

Unless, of course, ecumenical outreach to evangelicals, rather like the evangelicals themselves, doesn't count. Apparently not in Prof. Gaillardetz' world. This demonstrates once again that common Catholic malady: incomprehension of evangelicals. Sometimes, reading Catholics talking about evangelicals, I get the impression that lurking behind the analysis (or lack thereof) is a puzzlement: "Now, which group of snake-handlers does that guy belong to again?"

Again, Gaillardetz' handling of Kreeft suggests more reading about him than actually reading him. So much for the analysis.

Bill can have his Superman. But Captain Marvel wins by a knockout.

I'll omit the last paragraph, which reiterates the same objections, fanboy jibes, begs questions (e.g., just what is "mainstream biblical scholarship" anyway?) and proceed to his last point

We need apologetics--but not this kind.

Anathema sit, eh? I disagree: Catholicism is easily big enough to embrace most of it--especially in light of the flimsiness of the objections.

1 comment:

  1. I found your article very interesting, DP. I guess you sounded a bit skeptical while telling us about Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. I read it recently and I must say it is a beautiful work by Dr. Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch. Thanks for sharing your views.