The Language of Doctrine


It is stating the obvious to say that the Catholic Church has lost a great deal of its credibility, particularly here in this country. There are some very obvious reasons for that, the clerical sex abuse revelations, clerical control and the side-lining of women in decision making and ministry, various teachings on sexuality and relationships, a serious failure of leadership, and many others.

But I believe there is a deeper, and more fundamental, problem than any of the above. Some of the very basic doctrines of the Church no longer make sense to the modern mind, and are being quietly rejected even by people who still attend church. Some of these doctrines are not Scripture based, but came out of the early centuries of the Church, a time when there was a very different understanding of the world and of humanity, and, probably most significant of all, a very different language which is still used to proclaim these doctrines. (And here I am not only referring to ‘consubstantial’!) Our understanding of the universe and of the human person, through science, has greatly influenced the way we look at ourselves and the universe, and Church doctrine has not adapted to this. So it become increasingly meaningless to the modern mind. I will give some examples of doctrines that are no longer credible.

The traditional understanding of God in Catholic teaching is of a male individual, resident in the heavenly realm in the skies, a dwelling we are told we will attain to if we live well and keep the commandments. There is a whole range of problems with this understanding of God and his relationship with us, not least being the notion of God as male. Modern science, and maybe especially quantum physics, has opened up for us the wonder and mystery of the universe, and how creation was not just an event of ancient history, but is an ongoing reality. In this context it makes more sense to many to view God as the spirit/energy/consciousness/presence in the whole of creation, a being that is in and with all aspects of creation including all humanity. This understanding opens us up to wonder and mystery in a way that the traditional understanding never could. And it also helps us to realise that all of creation is bound together in a wonderful unity, and that we must learn to live in harmony with all life.

Church doctrine has told us that the sin of our first parents broke the connection between humans and God, that God was angry with humanity, and that the gates of heaven were closed against them. Then eventually he sent his son, Jesus, whom he decreed would have to die a horrible death in order to appease his anger and open the gates of heaven again. The main problem with this teaching is that it paints a picture of a horrible God, vindictive and tyrannical. We now know that humans inhabited this earth for many thousands of years before Jesus. Are we to believe that all those people were shut off from any relationship with God and denied heaven, and that they had to wait in some limbo state for Jesus to come and rescue them?

There is no indication in the Gospels that this was Jesus’ understanding of his mission. He clearly saw his task as attempting to build what he called the ‘Kingdom of God’, a way of living and relating that would create a world of peace and love, not just in a heavenly existence, but here and now in this world. The manner of his death was an inevitable result of his life and teaching, in that he challenged both the civil and religious ruling classes, and they needed to get rid of him. Equally it is clear that Jesus didn’t see the people of his time as being shut out from God; quite the opposite, God, he told them, was as close to them as a parent.

We are burdened with doctrine from the past that has tried to explain the nature and existence of God in a way that we now know is impossible. We are told to believe in a three person God dwelling in heaven, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, predominantly if not exclusively male. Along with being a futile exercise, trying to explain God, and worse still, making it a doctrine of the Church, was a big mistake. The wonder and mystery of the universe, that we are now beginning to glimpse, is only a small insight into the far greater wonder and mystery of the creator. It should have been left at that, and leave us free to gaze in awe at the mystery in the many ways in which it reveals itself to us in our lives and in the world.

Maybe the most problematic area of all Catholic doctrine is the teaching on Mary. I wonder how many of us really believe in the nativity stories and the virgin birth, and that Mary remained a virgin all her life and had no other children? And what exactly does the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception mean in today’s understanding? The Gospel of Mark, the first of the gospel accounts to be written, gives a very different idea of Mary, and the difficulties she experienced in dealing with this son she clearly could not understand.

I know that theologians and Scripture scholars, reading something like this, will immediately talk about the importance of story and myth, and how they can be understood as opening up deeper truths. I fully accept that. But the problem is that theologians and Scripture scholars have mainly spoken to each other and have not engaged with the ordinary believers, who were left with the understanding that these stories and myths were historical fact. Church authorities, by imposing strict discipline on teachers of the faith, did not allow them to enter into the type of discussion necessary to help people to understand the difference between myth and historical fact. It was easier to leave people with their stories, which uneducated generations accepted. That no longer works, and people are rejecting these doctrines as childish fantasies, and walking away from it all.

Unfortunately all of this doctrine, much of it embedded in ancient language that makes it even more inaccessible, is presented in the Code of Canon Law and the recently revised Catechism of the Catholic Church, as something that must be accepted and believed by all Catholics. Many of the accretions of history are now installed as unchangeable doctrines, and are an obstacle in trying to get to the real person of Jesus and his teaching.

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  1. I think that Tony hit a raw nerve with many people with his blog post. One point which I believe I differ with Tony is when he says that the Holy Spirit was nearly always presented as a male. When I was a theology student, a good few years ago now, the Holy Spirit, the breath of God was presented to us and we were encouraged to see her as feminine.
    The times they are a changing!

  2. Kevin Walters says:

    “Many of the accretions of history are now installed as unchangeable doctrines, and are an obstacle in trying to get to the real person of Jesus and his teaching”.————————————————

    Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin told reporters that the pope’s letter shows the clear, central role families have in the pope’s great dream of renewal of the church and society.

    But the church, Martin said, also must be “a place where those who have failed can experience not harsh judgment, but the strong embrace of the Lord which can lift them up to begin again to realize their own dream even if only imperfectly.” See Link

    The statement by Archbishop Martin gives me hope in that the True image of Divine Mercy a fragment distorted imperfect image of ourselves before God, that has been given by our Lord Himself to the Church, will now be propagated within men’s hearts, reflecting the real person of Jesus Christ and His teaching of Divine Mercy for the salvation of all mankind.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. So when Jesus asks us to pray ‘Our Father..’. He is wrong ??

    Sorry Fr Tony – I believe you have strayed into heresy here which is beneath your calling as a priest and pastor

  4. ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light,’ said Jesus. Yet what a cartload of theological, doctrinal and canonical straw has been added to our burden over the centuries. Can we believe that this does not need periodic sifting – to see what needless straw could now be removed? (For example, the Father’s alleged need for ‘satisfaction’ for sin, and for a ‘substitute’ victim for punishment.)

    Looking at a stack of Catholic Catechisms in school one day it occurred to me that, dropped down the stairwell from the third floor, just one of these could cause a fatal concussion to a first year pupil. What impact on faith might this have in the same school? Fearful of this, might the first teacher to arrive think of substituting a heavy science textbook, or a Collected Shakespeare, for the offending CCC?

    And if they didn’t, and the truth of tragedy made its way into evening news, how might the Irish bishops respond? Might they set out to calculate how light the CCC needed to be to prevent a recurrence – and then decree that the print size and paper weight be reduced, and that magnifying glasses be supplied separately if necessary? Or might they insist that the Catechism be consulted in future in schools only in digital form?

    Or might some brave soul suggest that in light of the teaching that all truth is connected by a central core of essentials, this essential summit of the truth hierarchy be clarified and committed to a few pages of print, in the ongoing cause of child safeguarding? What ructions, schisms and cappa magnad apoplexy would then break out over defining this childsafe core?

    (There is surely a script ready for a winner’s place at the Cannes film festival in this. Feel free, anyone who cares to try.)

    To stop my head going bananas over such scenarios I pray, among other prayers, the Apostles Creed. That works a miracle of solace that the collected works of the new atheists, and the whole of modern science, could not match.

    So does a small chunk of Romans I have now committed to memory: Paul’s certainty that nothing can come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. If all Catholic children left schooling with just that faith, and no catechism, would they not be as light as Jesus intended?

  5. declan cooney says:

    My brother Jesus told us to pray the Our Father.
    I love that prayer.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    The Ransom:
    Don’t look back don’t worry about tomorrow.
    We will be there, wait and see.
    Innocence, a bounty paid by loving the good in others
    and enemies.
    The ransom for your welfare will be paid.
    This policy, a creed, can be staid.
    There are so many things we’d like to say to you,
    but won’t because that won’t do.

    November of 2009 – 6 months behind schedule.
    That’s my guitar playing there and arrangement – I hope you enjoy the shortest song I’ve ever written.

  7. My favourite prayer is The Lord’s Prayer, the traditional translation and the one translated by Mark Hathaway from the Aramaic which Jesus spoke “O Cosmic Birther of all radiance and vibration! Soften the ground of our being and carve out a space within us where your Presence can abide.”
    It’s a bit different from the traditional translation but Aramaic being a more pictorial language like Irish paints a lot with words.

  8. Joe O'Leary says:

    There is something called theology, which presents doctrine in a far more attractive form that what journalists and new atheists make of it.

    “Some of the very basic doctrines of the Church no longer make sense to the modern mind, and are being quietly rejected even by people who still attend church. Some of these doctrines are not Scripture based, but came out of the early centuries of the Church”.

    The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are the two main doctrines formulated in the early centuries, and theology shows how they relate to Scripture and how they can make sense to the modern mind.

    “The traditional understanding of God in Catholic teaching is of a male individual, resident in the heavenly realm in the skies, a dwelling we are told we will attain to if we live well and keep the commandments.”

    Well, Vatican I sums up that teaching as follows:

    1. The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church believes and acknowledges that there is one true and living God, creator and lord of heaven and earth, almighty, eternal, immeasurable, incomprehensible, infinite in will, understanding and every perfection.

    2. Since he is one, singular, completely simple and unchangeable spiritual substance, he must be declared to be in reality and in essence, distinct from the world, supremely happy in himself and from himself, and inexpressibly loftier than anything besides himself which either exists or can be imagined.

    3. This one true God, by his goodness and almighty power, not with the intention of increasing his happiness, nor indeed of obtaining happiness, but in order to manifest his perfection by the good things which he bestows on what he creates, by an absolutely free plan, together from the beginning of time brought into being from nothing the twofold created order, that is the spiritual and the bodily, the angelic and the earthly, and thereafter the human which is, in a way, common to both since it is composed of spirit and body.

    4. Everything that God has brought into being he protects and governs by his providence, which reaches from one end of the earth to the other and orders all things well. All things are open and laid bare to his eyes, even those which will be brought about by the free activity of creatures.

    The Latin text does not indicated that God is of male gender!

    “Creation was not just an event of ancient history, but is an ongoing reality.”

    Creation is thought of as the utter dependence of all beings on God as the source of their being. Several Popes assure us that this vision is perfectly compatible with evolution and modern cosmology.

    “In this context it makes more sense to many to view God as the spirit/energy/consciousness/presence in the whole of creation, a being that is in and with all aspects of creation including all humanity.”

    The immanence of God in creation is basic Catholic doctrine, but so is God’s transcendence; the two go together.

    “There is no indication in the Gospels that this was Jesus’ understanding of his mission.” Actually, the statement in Mark, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many”, as well as the Eucharistic words over the cup, are quite an indication that Jesus thought of his death as an atoning sacrifice.

    ” we now know is impossible. We are told to believe in a three person God dwelling in heaven, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, predominantly if not exclusively male. Along with being a futile exercise, trying to explain God, and worse still, making it a doctrine of the Church, was a big mistake.”

    But the Fathers did not see the Trinity as an explanation of God. The dogma is more attractive when one gives it a chance to breathe, for instance, by Newman in “The Grammar of Assent”:

    “”There is a God,” when really apprehended, is the object of a strong energetic adhesion, which works a revolution in the mind; but when held merely as a notion, it requires but a cold and ineffective acceptance, though it be held ever so unconditionally. Such in its character is the assent of thousands, whose imaginations are not at all kindled, nor their hearts inflamed, nor their conduct affected, by the most august of all conceivable truths. I ask, then, as concerns the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, such as I have drawn it out to be, is it capable of being apprehended otherwise than notionally? Is it a theory, undeniable indeed, but addressed to the student, and to no one else? Is it the elaborate, subtle, triumphant exhibition of a truth, completely developed, and happily adjusted, and accurately balanced on its centre, and impregnable on every side, as a scientific view, “totus, teres, atque rotundus,” challenging all assailants, or, on the other hand, does it come to the unlearned, the young, the busy, and the afflicted, as a fact which is to arrest them, penetrate them, and to support and animate them in their passage through life? That is, does it admit of being held in the imagination, and being embraced with a real assent? I maintain it does, and that it is the normal faith which every Christian has, on which he is stayed, which is his spiritual life, there being nothing in the exposition of the dogma, as I have given it above, which does not address the imagination, as well as the intellect.”

  9. The Resurrection and the Consecration.

    MAR 31
    As a result of my recent piece about certain Church doctrines I have had a lot of correspondence, most of it very interesting and informative. One person wrote to me with the following question:

    I would be very interested in your views of the consecration which is the bedrock of a lot of catholic teaching and the resurrection. Is the resurrection like the virgin birth another Myth?.

    Below is my attempt at an answer:

    Myths are important in helping us to define who we are. For instance, we in Ireland have our historical myths. — Cuchullain, Ferdia, the swans of Coole, many stories about Brigid and Patrick,etc., etc. They are not meant to be historically accurate, but to tell us something basic about ourselves.
    The resurrection of Jesus is fundamental to our faith, but that does not mean it happened exactly as it is described in the various biblical accounts. What it does tell us is that, after the desolation of Jesus followers as a result of his death, they gradually began to realise that in a mysterious, but very real, way he was still with them. In other words, maybe their experience of the reality of Jesus in their lives wasn’t that different to how we can also experience him in our own lives, and in our communities when we gather to pray and celebrate. The detail of how this happened doesn’t really matter very much. What matters is that they knew Jesus was with them, and that changed everything. For me, that is all I need to know about the reality of the resurrection.

    The Consecration: I don’t think all the efforts (and battles) down through the centuries about how exactly Jesus is present in the Eucharist have been very helpful. The doctrine tells us that when the priest speaks the words of consecration (This is my body; this is my blood) that Jesus becomes present in the bread and wine. This is where the word ‘transubstantiation’ comes in, and it is a good example of old language failing to communicate much of anything to many people today.
    I believe that Jesus is with us when we celebrate the Eucharist together, and there have been times when I have experienced his presence strongly – the latest being at the Mass I celebrated in my local village hall for my seventieth birthday. I believe that his presence is much more wonderful and powerful than the traditional teaching indicates. I believe he is not just present in the signs (bread and wine), but also in the gathered community, and in fact in each of us individually. So not only do we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, but we bring him with us to the gathering. We give and we take, and Jesus is in the giving and the taking.

    As a general rule, I think that both life and faith are deep mysteries, and we should try to enter into them with an open mind and heart, rather than try to explain and control them. The big mistake the Church has made down through the centuries is that it has tried to tie down and explain for all time realities that are deeply mysterious and profound. Too much doctrine kills mystery.

  10. #8. Mark, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.”

    A ransom is paid to a captor or slave-owner, for the purpose of liberation. As the Father gave us the Son for that purpose, how can the Father have been the captor or slave-owner also? How could that make any sense?

    Surely the implication of ‘ransom’ in Mark is that mankind was held captive by evil, or ‘Satan’, until Jesus self-sacrifice – not in danger of the wrath of God or held captive by Him? And that the Father should not be implicitly scapegoated for the crucifixion, as medieval theology, and then Lutheran / Calvinist theology tended to do?

    Only if God the Father is seen unambiguously as liberator rather than captor can he be freely loved. Why should we not think of ‘atonement’ in that way – as the Father ‘seeing us a Long way off’ and running towards us to free us, just as he had freed the Israelites in Egypt, and just as the father of the Prodigal Son behaved towards the returned and shame-faced reprobate?

    This is a critically important issue. Atonement theology has never been stable, and remains a barrier to love of the Father if we retain a notion of his wrath needing to be assuaged by a ransom payable to Him. That notion is also surely a contradiction of Jesus’ insistence that ‘the Father and I are one’.

  11. Joe O'Leary says:

    Luther saw condemnation as God’s alien work, mercy as his proper work. We are sinners under the Law’s judgment, but saints when we look to Xt and are clothed with his righteousness. Christ took the condemnation on himself andgave us his righteousness in a joyous exchange. Pope Francis loves this.

  12. #9 Resurrection – care is needed here to avoid the conclusion that the early Christians developed this belief simply because they needed it. That something quite unexpected happened here, as recounted in the Emmaus story – to replace dejection with the deepest conviction that Jesus had overcome death itself – is central to the rise of Christianity. I do not believe the Gospels and the Pauline texts could have emerged out of anything other than an experience that went way beyond mere grief-stricken remembrance. Paul, for one, had no such need. He too was taken completely by surprise – into an entirely new reality.

  13. The high number of comments on this topic and on a number of other issues has highlighted for me the need/desire for more theological reflection on the ACP web-site.
    For example I am left wondering how to interpret Amoris Laetitia with reference to communion for divorced/remarried in the absence of any guidelines for the Bishop’s Conference.
    I believe Tony and a number of other pastoral theologians have a lot to offer on this topic.

  14. Joe O'Leary says:

    Harnack diagnosed that dogma is a product of the Greek mind on the soil of the Gospel. This applies well to two statements of Vatican I as quoted earlier, namely, the doctrines of divine self-sufficiency which recalla Aristotle and the doctrine of divine simplicity which recalls Plotinus. So we try to overcome this metaphysical language by stepping back to the phenomena or events of scripture and experience. But this is not a matter of just tossing dogma aside.

  15. #11. The crucial question is whether we are punished by our sins, or for our sins. Not to be able confidently to preach that sin is self harm, and that this is the reason for the Father’s intervention, both via the law and the Incarnation, is the greatest affliction of the church at present.

    I am certain that it is this contradictory God – of whom it is possible to think at one moment that he is as violent as we are, and the next moment that he loves us unconditionally – that is the root source of that priestly ‘phobia’ of theology you once diagnosed as the reason for the non-participation of so many priests in theological discussion on this site.

    Here we are again coming to the ‘suffering servant’ passages in Isaiah, interpreted by the Catechism as prophetic proof of the Father’s need for someone to suffer, when Girard’s reading is far more persuasive and edifying: that all of the all-against-one episodes in scripture (including two-thirds of the Psalms) are revelations of the injustice of scapegoating, a divine protest AGAINST making any individual bear the sins of all.

    It’s high time we caught the extraordinary theological potential of Girard’s insight on this. Anselmian satisfactionism and Reformation substitutionalism should be left to the fundamentalists. It is now possible to believe that the Father was never violent or ambivalent, and that all readings to the contrary are mistaken and even unwittingly blasphemous. There are theologians who teach this (following Raymund Schwager). Luther doesn’t cut it any more on this question.

  16. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, I chatted with Girard in 1978 and urged a dialectical approach to sacrifice. Luther overcomes the appearance of contradiction in Paul and the confusion of most Christians by his deep grasp of how we move from our sense of guilt and fear to standing confidently before God. He “did not err” but “made a medicine for the Church” and named”the essence of human existence before God” says Pope Francis.

  17. Kevin Walters says:

    Sean O’Conaill@10

    “Only if God the Father is seen unambiguously as liberator rather than captor can he be freely loved”.——————–

    Sean my own personal understanding of atonement, our Father gave of Himself in the incarnation to save that which was lost (Prisoners of sin/evil) All of us, the essence of His love is Truth or put another way Truth and Love are one and the same.
    The Truth embraces Itself in that ‘the Father and I are one’ it can do no other, the Prodigal son acknowledges in Truth/humility the reality of his heart and it is this reality “Truth” that is embraced by love/Truth our Fathers own essence.

    “There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not receive My words: The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it.”…

    Those who reject His Word have no Truth living within them (our Fathers essence) and cannot be embraced like the Prodigal son was.
    We retain a notion of His wrath (Punishment/Separation) if we reject His Inviolate Word/Will/Truth we have to live in obedience to His Will and this can only be done in humility (St Bernard-Humility a virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is abases himself) before our Father in heaven and in this knowing and acknowledging in Truth our own limitations and sinfulness retain the dignity of a human being striving to fulfil the Commandments and teachings of Gods holy church.

    Repetitive sin (which we all carry in our fallen nature) can only be nullified by living in a state of humility which is continual contrition. And it is in this state one of self-knowledge due to His exemplified (Sinless) atonement that our Father can be freely loved in confidence in that we are acceptable and embraced when we acknowledge Him/Truth in humility (our fallen state).

    Do we not partake of the eternal sacrifice/atonement (obedience unto death) at every mass?
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  18. #17 Here is Luther on atonement:

    “But now, if God’s wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made.

    “This our dear Lord and only Saviour and Mediator before God, Jesus Christ, did for us by his blood and death, in which he became a sacrifice for us; and with his purity, innocence, and righteousness, which was divine and eternal, he outweighed all sin and wrath he was compelled to bear on our account; yea, he entirely engulfed and swallowed it up, and his merit is so great that God is now satisfied and says, ‘If he wills thereby to save, then there will be a salvation.'”

    (Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2, p. 344)

    The fact is, Joe, that most people simply cannot get past this image of a wrathful God demanding violent sacrifice – to ‘stand confidently’ anywhere.

    A ‘dialectical approach to sacrifice’? In 1978 Girard’s ‘Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World’ was published, including what Girard was to call his ‘greatest mistake’. That was his conclusion that the Gospel account of the death of Jesus was NOT describing a sacrifice but exposing the scapegoating mechanism that lay behind all sacrificial religion.

    It was the Swiss theologian, Raymund Schwager SJ, who subsequently persuaded Girard that the idea of sacrifice is undergoing a complete 180 degree revolution in scripture, from murder to self-giving. Jesus’ gift of himself is the culmination of that process.

    Luther quite obviously could not see that: God is wrathful (i.e. violent) until appeased by Jesus’s self-sacrifice.

    The implication of the Girard-Schwager synthesis is that if we must think in terms of the Father’s ‘wrath’ we must see it as encompassing any deflection of the punishment we ourselves deserve onto another. The only sacrifice that pleases God is the gift of ourselves.

    I have NEVER yet heard an Irish priest going anywhere near an evolutionary account of ‘sacrifice’ in scripture. The reason is obvious. We have been raised on the wrathful God who wills a violent sacrifice, and simply can’t get past that. Your proferring of Luther as the last word on atonement, when Schwager is available, is part of the same problem.

  19. #18 “Do we not partake of the eternal sacrifice/atonement (obedience unto death) at every mass?”

    Of course we do, Kevin – but there is a critical need to understand that the ‘sacrifice’ that atones is NOT what Jesus’ crucifiers are doing, but what JESUS is doing. The first is murder: the second is entirely non-violent self-giving, the complete reverse of the first.

    The Father did NOT will the first of these, ‘in wrath’: as murder it broke the fifth commandment. He permitted it, to reveal not just the injustice of that single event but the injustice of all similar events in history, including e.g. the attempted murder of Susanna in today’s first reading, the blaming and attempted murder of ‘the woman taken in adultery’, the throwing overboard of Jonah, the murder of Naboth by Jezebel and Ahab, the conspiracy of Joseph’s brothers, the blaming of Job for his sufferings by his friends – and all of the scapegoating events that are lamented in the Psalms.

    It is Jesus ‘obedient and forgiving sacrifice’ that allows us to see this pattern – but to see the Father as in any way abetting the crucifixion out of a wrathful need for appeasement has to be a mistake.

    Luther never saw the pogroms against the Jews as a repetition of the crucifixion, and his anti-Semitism became one of the influences on the Holocaust. He too ‘saw through a glass darkly’. After Girard and Schwager we have no such excuse.

  20. Kevin Walters says:

    Sean O’Conaill @20
    “It is Jesus ‘obedient and forgiving sacrifice’ that allows us to see this pattern – but to see the Father as in any way abetting the crucifixion out of a wrathful need for appeasement has to be a mistake”. ———————————-

    Thank you for your comment Sean
    Taken from one of my previous post Feb 2014

    “We are taught that God is Love but the essence of Love is Truth.
    Our Father gave of himself in his Son to reconcile mankind to Him. The essence of love in His Son is Truth, and he bears witness to it, Jesus teaches us not to resist the evil doer and is true to His own Word, he can do no other but submits to His own essence which is Truth and bearing witness to the Truth permits the evil in man to murder him, He is lifted up by mankind for mankind’s redemption, we see a reflection of the evil within ourselves (own actions) as He submits to the Will of our Father bearing witness to the Truth (their own essence).
    The Truth knows (embraces) itself, it can do no other, those who refuse to acknowledge the living Word of God, once they have heard (understood) it within their hearts, are destined to eternal separation from God, as our Father is restrained by His own essence, as His essence (Truth) is not within them”.

    What I was trying to say is that the essence of love is Truth and in obedience to the Truth Jesus fulfils these words

    “But a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such as these to worship Him”.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  21. Joe O'Leary says:

    For millions Luther is the one who showed the Gospel to be a liberating message of a gracious God. Yes, we are condemned by God’s holy Law and quake in terror of Hell. but Luther shows that this is overturned by the Gospel word, “your sins are forgiven.” His theology is Romans 3:23-5 writ large. Lutherans know the bad side of the reformer as well as Catholics do, but they rightly focus on his one great insight, now joyfully celebrated by our church too.

    Just as I am, without one plea,
    Save that Thy Blood was shed for me…

    Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
    Wilt welcome, pardon, bless, relieve,
    For in Thy Promise I believe…

  22. Joe O'Leary says:

    When primitive humanity got the notion of gods they shivered with fear, as Lucretius tells us (his answer was that the gods have no interest in us, so just enjoy life). Religion, he says, added a new dimension to the cares of existence.

    Luther knew that most Catholics were stuck in such a relationship of fear, so he addressed it adroitly and dialectically, showing how Christ allows us to win freedom from “the wrath of God” and to discover a God who is gracious through and through. That is the nub of the Justification-doctrine.

    Of course Luther has other less commendable dimensions (De servo arbitrio contains huge mistakes about God and humanity), and he was a very medieval man in much of his inherited thinking. All the more reason to seek out what consoles and edifies and inspires in his writings, just as we do in reading Scripture (which contains quite a lot of unstomachable stuff; Luther would say Scripture is its own best interpreter, by which I presume he also means its own best critic).

  23. #22 Accepted, Joe.

    Yet can Lutherans today more easily believe that:

    a) Jesus came to change the Father’s wrathful mind about us, or

    b) Jesus came to change our mind about the Father, who was always loving?

    Isn’t Paul’s belief in the eternal cosmic Christ entirely compatible with the latter view? And isn’t it the natural consequences of our culpable mistakes (‘sins’) that bring retribution, rather than the ‘wrath’ of God at our ‘rebellion’.

    I come back always to the story of the Prodigal here. When was the father of the Prodigal ‘wrathful’, at either son?

    For Schwager the parable of the murderous tenants poses for us the question of how the Father will react to the murder of his own Son by Pilate, Herod et al. Both versions of this parable lead us to expect a ‘smiting’ response, as cosmically dramatic as e.g. the slaughter of the first born of the Egyptians at the Passover.

    Yet there is no such response. Instead the Father acts to convince the disciples that Jesus is fully alive and has won! He ‘stays his hand’. And then, through the Spirit, and the Eucharist, the Father and the Son come to ‘make their home with us’.

    Marcion could not believe that this God and the God of the Old Testament were the same. We can surely only reconcile the two by coming to believe in an evolutionary revelation through scripture, and a gradual clarifying of the human vision of God, who has never changed. It has always been a mistake to attribute either natural disasters, or the natural consequences of sin, to the Father. These latter ‘rules of the road’ are there for our sake, not for his – and we are never forsaken.

    Isn’t this how we ‘come to the Father’?

  24. An excellent piece. The most complex organism in the universe is probably the human brain. An everyone has one. So why not use it?

  25. Joe O'Leary says:

    the tenants is the most disturbing parable because of antisemitic potential, so I am happy to hear of Schwager’s interpretation

  26. Rory O'Connor says:

    It is so refreshing to read Tony Flannery’s analysis on the issues faced today by Irish Catholics.

    Personally I am totally in agreement with his analysis. I was at a mass last Sunday and the homily was “baby talk”. Very frustrating.
    One of the fundamental points Tony makes is the failure to really talk to an educated population on matters of faith , doctrine and scripture. Scripture scholars and Theologians talk to themselves only and omit to talk to the people. This practice was policy by the Catholic hierarchy in my opinion. In fact any attempt to question the old fixed view of the world was suppressed. This is why theologians like Sean Fagan and many others were “silenced ” and “threatened with censure “. They were presenting new insights to the people and of course that challenged the status quo. (Strange as it may be this is the very threat that Jesus himself presented to the “holy men” of his day . He threatened their vested interests in religion.) . The second point is that the distinction was never made to explain the significance of story/myth . It was never made clear that these stories were not historical fact but a method by which these earlier societies attempted to explain great truth about creation, the place of humankind in the world. WE cannot ignore the new insights which science ,psychology , psychiatry and other disciplines are continually revealing to us . This process will continue and are in harmony with scripture (which itself is a story of gradual revelation ).

    It is so frustrating to see organisations like the Vatican attempting to prevent people from using their own intelligence to attempt to understand the world around them. Thankfully people are beginning more and more to take responsibility for their own lives .

  27. Con Devree says:

    Could Sean and Joe cut to the chase?

    Is eschatology, in the new evolved awakening, now a matter of two last things – death and heaven?

  28. Joe O'Leary says:

    Eschatology, according to Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, part II, is about living here and now today, because Eternal Life just means Life, and Life is so great it can face down death! I think it was St Catherine of Siena who said that he way to heaven is itself heaven. Suspending our love of this present life as a sort of insurance tax to ensure a happy postmortem outcome is just a wrong way of thinking. Let’s say that a saintly Christian life is a sacrifice, but a sacrifice is a joyful, festive thing. Quote a hymn again: “Still let me prove thy perfect will, My acts of faith and love repeat, Till death thine endless mercies seal, And make the sacrifice complete.”

    Another thing to overcome is the individualistic focus on my own selfish salvation — as Charles Péguy says, it is together that we go to heaven or to hell.

    “Marcion could not believe that this God and the God of the Old Testament were the same. We can surely only reconcile the two by coming to believe in an evolutionary revelation through scripture, and a gradual clarifying of the human vision of God, who has never changed.”

    The God of Mercy is there in the Hebrew Scriptures as well: quoniam confirmata est super nos misericordia eius. The chapter in Exodus about the Golden Calf contains both the horror of a God commanding the Levites to slay their relatives and friends tainted by idolatry AND the spectacle of God forgiving the idolators at the very moment they still dance around the calf. The Japanese distinguish tatemae and honne (the mask and the true intention) and I heard one Japanese priest say that the bits where God is cruel and angry are just pedagogic tatemae — or as Luther would say the “opus alienum dei” as opposed to “opus proprium,” the proper work of God. The Anglican liturgy says “Thou art the same God, whose property is always to have mercy.”

    Of course evolution in understanding is involved, but also the intervention of the Holy Spirit, and the crowning event of the Incarnation. That is, as Rahner says so often, divine grace is knocking on our hearts and minds from the beginning, and the Incarnation is the culmination of this.

  29. # 28. Not for me anyway, Con. ‘Perfect love casts out all fear’, so in the Resurrection God’s love is proven and death itself is cast out. ‘Tribulation’ is promised also, of course, but as ‘the world’ has been overcome, especially its power to judge, ‘the tomb’ is merely ‘graduation’. In faith, heaven is already here. Jesus’ declaration of the Kingdom of God / heaven was never rescinded. We don’t have to wait for it to come again.

  30. Con Devree says:

    Thank you Joe and Sean. It’s good to know that together with all the other bad thieves, I can now anticipate the joys of playing my harp, no questions asked. Salvation guaranteed.

  31. Joe O'Leary says:

    Yes, one of the nice things about heaven is that one gets to play a musical instrument!

    But let’s reach out and embrace heaven here and now. “Be still, and know that I am God.”

    “It’s easy if you try.”

  32. # 31. Did you miss the words ‘in faith’ Con? That involves discipleship also, the following of the Lord. Salvation is certainly not ‘guaranteed’ for those who either presume it is, or those so turned off by the God of wrath that they cannot have faith of any kind.

    You have had ample opportunity to weigh in here yourself on the questions raised, so why not do so? What is your own understanding of the atonement?

  33. Con Devree says:

    Answer (dubia style) “yes.”

    My questions, I admit, were put to move things in a definite direction. The following is at your invitation!

    As I recall it, Joseph Ratzinger in his book “Eschatology” (1988) insisted that the “four last things” are part of any Catholic eschatology. Yesterday I re-read his Jesus of Nazareth II which does not deny this.

    He once described the views of Peguy and Von Baltizar (spelling?) to wit, there is a Hell but it is possible no one goes there, as optimistic. Who knows? I’m open to that. But then there are visionaries like St Faustina who lead one to reconsider.

    I look at the monstrance during adoration, I see a number of things going on. The Christ present is absolutely full of concern for my welfare. (Divine Love). He is in permanent conversation with the Father, among other things constantly making intercession for me. He wants to break into my life and is glad of my company.

    St John of the Cross advises against regarding positive feelings as experiences of God. The latter he says are present to us in our conscious efforts at prayer including saying prayers.

    I’m not the type who gets direct messages but at adoration ideas seem to become planted in my mind about things that need doing. Serious requirements! I’m challenged and the “trying” is not always easy.

    As Cardinal Sarah in his book “The Power of Silence” says these challenges are a sign of the greatness God has imbued in the human being. And (I think) with that greatness comes responsibility, one aspect of which is to take into account ALL of the aspects of Jesus’ behaviour related in the Gospels.

    So one sees Him absolutely self-giving for people’s wellbeing in two ways. There is the “prodigal” image combined with the “depart from me you cursed” image. Since He can only act mercifully, all His acts and utterances are acts of mercy. In relation to the second image, Archbishop Chaput concludes that anyone who ignores the needs of the poor will go to Hell!

    Are these warnings divine life management aids to enable contented living or are they acts of mercy pertaining to salvation? Contented living in the life of grace is never without the Cross. Always easy?

    Two stories will help me here.

    Fr Diego Ignaz Cantacuzeno, currently an adviser to the recently formed Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life, commenting recently on the “uncompromising sentiments” in Mark 10: 2-12, claimed that Mark was in effect bullied by what Paul had taught in 1 Cor 7:10-11 twenty years earlier.

    Dr Frank O’Brien, former lecturer in Accounting in UCD once defined an accountant thus: “if you want to add two and two go an accountant, he will give you any answer you want and it will be right.”

    I take the standard accountancy conservative view. (Be careful as to when you record income).

    So as regards atonement, I try to take account of my greatness as a human being (Christ who lives in me etc). I am responsible for my actions. Like everyone else in the world my understanding of evil as it is known to God is minimal. Calvary gives me some insight into the seriousness of all sin. My limited insight is itself a Divine Mercy call to faith. I am unable to seek out who bullied whom in the formation of the New Testament, and relying on the answers that suit me is a fool’s gambit. Confusion is not one of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Christ, through the Church, has supplied me with the means to repent (responsibly own up to evil) sacramentally and do penance.

    St John of the Cross summarised the Catholic life as one of Faith, Hope and Charity. I find that each involves the other two. I hopefully expect a visit to Purgatory when moving from this current state of beating my drum/blowing my trumpet to that of “playing my harp.” It is truly right and just always and everywhere to give thanks to God for all three virtues, for everything, including the hope offered by the ways He supplies to reduce the duration of Purgatory.

  34. I think we owe a great debt of thanks to Tony for initiating this excellent conversation on the language of doctrine. I greatly admire the knowledge and erudition of Sean and Joe who have made such a wonderful contribution to the discussion and Kevin too, for his contributions  and now Con, as well, tonight. However, as someone who has a real problem with the doctrine of atonement, I am a bit surprised that nobody has mentioned the Letter to the Hebrews, or perhaps to Hebrews–no definite article – who ever they were and whoever wrote it and was it really a letter.? These are all still matters of  uncertainty and conjecture, I gather. Before we even get to Hebrews, however, did Jesus not say in Matthew 9:13 that he did not come for sacrifice but rather to bring mercy. As I understand it, there was no mention in the New Terstament (NT) of  Jesus being a priest– Jesus in not of Levi’s family ,so how could he be– and it was only when our still unidentified author of Hebrews magnified the importance of a minor figure from Genesis, Melchizedek, whose main claim to fame is greeting Abraham when he was on his way home from sorting out his nephew. Lots, enemies, that  the idea of Jesus’ priesthood was first mooted, a priesthood of the line of Melchizedek. The word sacrifice is mentioned 15 in Hebrews, more than in all the rest of the New Testament (NT)put together where it is used for Jewish sacrifices and not that of Jesus. In only one other part of NT, apart from Hebrews, does it say that Jesus was sacrificed and that is in the supposedly Pauline Letter to the Ephesians which is one of, apparently, many reasons for thinking that Ephesians was not written by Paul. This is what the late, great Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer SJ     –who sadly passed away in December –had to say : ” Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake. That notion enters the late theological tradition, but it is not the one that can be traced directly to Paul ….The notion of Christ’s death as a sacrifice is more tributary to Hebrews and to the Deutero-Pauline Ephesians 5.2 than to the uncontested Pauline letters.”
    So, and then there is Augustine, perhaps our greatest ever scholar-bishop and what he had to say about atonement and then Fr. Henri de Lubac SJ  who, more recently, agreed with Augustine but was quickly stamped on by the Vatican.
    Of course, for most of my faith life I never had a problem with atonement because I never thought about it –just accepted what I had been told which was not very much. So, is ignorance,  perhaps,  bliss after all. I don’t think so. John once said on this site that “we were moulded in immaturity”  You know I think it is more than that. It is more like a straitjacket of infantilisation that we are so reluctant to break out of.

  35. Joe O'Leary says:

    It is true that twentieth century has discreetly downplayed hell. JP 2 says faith obliges us to believe it but hope urges us hope it is empty. Balthasar was a favorite of three popes and did a lot to make universal salvation accepted, as Barth did before him. Rahner existentializes hell as the possibility of final loss.

    This leaves us in the lurch when we have to read hellfire gospels such as Mt 25.

    Luther says very little about hell. He focuses instead on the Law which convicts us of sin, and which he finds not only in Moses but in the Sermon on the mount.

    We are saved from this condemnation by one thing only: our justification as a free gift through faith in Christ the atoner and in his word of pardon. At the last judgment this is our only plea.

    Good works and sanctification are distinct from and second to this. Here we find the second use of the Law, as moral guide and strengthener.

    There is also a third use of the Law in building up the earthly society according to God’s will.

    Luther’s thought on all this is deep, rich, and lucid, and many catholic theologians have been nourished by it in the halfcentury of ecumenism behind us. A lot of imagination and goodwill is needed not to get hung up on contradictions between Augsburg and Trent but to chew on the matter until healing insight dawns.

  36. Thanks to Con for that reference to the “four last things”, and to Paddy for the compliment.

    Re ‘priesthood’, am I correct in thinking that the generic notion here is one of ‘bridging’ between heaven and earth, the human and the divine? The aversion to the terms ‘priest’ and ‘sacrifice’ that comes often nowadays has to do surely with their archaic association with both deflection and blood shedding: God’s anger is deflected, bloodily, by the priest onto a separate victim.

    I can only ’embrace’ these terms by thinking of Jesus as redefining both ‘priest’ and ‘sacrifice’ while becoming the greatest ‘bridge’ between us and the Father. There is neither deflection nor bloodshedding in what HE does, yet the generic meaning of priesthood is retained. Through that lens I don’t have a problem with Hebrews either.

    And of course all of us are called to exercise a priesthood of peace and self-sacrifice, in discipleship.

  37. Joe O'Leary says:

    What does Fitzmyer make of Rom 3:25 and 8:3, of Jesus’s probably historical words about being a ransom and his words over the cup, and of the image of the lamb who takes away sin?

    Curiously, atonement is an untranslatable English word, its etymology being simply at-one-ment. Paul talks of God reconciling the world with himself.

  38. Joe O'Leary says:

    I should add 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our passover is sacrificed.”

  39. Joe, of course I don’t know what Joseph Fitzmyer had to say on the particular verses that you refer to. However, given the calibre of the man — held to be one of the genuine giants of biblical scholarship –I expect he factored in everything Paul had to say on this topic before he would state that “Paul never says that Christ was sacrificed for our sake”
    But way before we get to what the experts have to say I simply have had a gut feeling that there is something really objectionable about  this image of God appeasing God, God the Son having to suffer this cruel, awful death to placate the wrath of God the Father. And, all because of our sins !! Tony sums it up really well in his original piece:

    “Church doctrine has told us that the sin of our first parents broke the connection between humans and God, that God was angry with humanity, and that the gates of heaven were closed against them. Then eventually he sent his son, Jesus, whom he decreed would have to die a horrible death in order to appease his anger and open the gates of heaven again. The main problem with this teaching is that it paints a picture of a horrible God, vindictive and tyrannical. We now know that humans inhabited this earth for many thousands of years before Jesus. Are we to believe that all those people were shut off from any relationship with God and denied heaven, and that they had to wait in some limbo state for Jesus to come and rescue them?”

    Infact, I had never even considered what Tony refers to in the those final couple of sentences. That makes it even more difficult to make any sense of it.

    I realise that this is a particularly delicate subject to discuss on a Catholic priests’ website and great credit, as always, to the ACP for this. Even greater credit to Tony for initiating this debate given what he has suffered over the last number of years.

    If we had to depend on the Doctrine of Atonement as one of the positive selling points of our faith,I don’t think any of us would feel very confident of selling that faith to non-believers.

  40. Joe O'Leary says:

    Fitzmyer in his 2008 Anchor Bible commentary on 1 Corinthians: “According to Jewish custom, one had to clean the dwelling of anything leavened in order to celebrate Passover; but Paul inverts the procedure, saying that Christ has already been sacrificed, and so unleavened Corinthian Christians must now clean out all corrupting material…. Sometimes it is said that “the Paschal victim was not a sin-offering…”… However, Num 28:22 uses… “to make expiation on your behalf” as part of the passover offering… In any case, the Pauline understanding of the feast associates with Passover the expiating character of Jesus’ death.”

  41. Joe O'Leary says:

    In “To Advance the Gospel”, 164, Fitzmyer says that the Pauline figures of redemption. were later “erected into propositions, with all sorts of baneful results.”

  42. Joe O'Leary says:

    on Romans 3:25 – “It is not that God’s anger has been appeased by Christ’s death. It is rather that all… have sinned… but by the favor of God, men”s sins are “expiated” (wiped out, remitted) because the Father graciously saw fit to display Christ on the cross as an instrument of expiation” (Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology, 1967, p. 45). F distinguishes “Christ’s blood shed in expiation”” as “a willing offering if his life” from the unPauline idea that “the Father willed the death of the Son to satisfy owed to God or to the devil by thee sins of man” (p. 47).

  43. #41 Joe will correct me, but my own inquiry on this, and Richard Rohr’s work also, strongly suggest that there is no single Catholic ‘doctrine of atonement’- merely remarkably different theological approaches to the issue, some of which are flatly opposed to the notion of ‘God appeasing God’ and ‘God wanting a blood sacrifice’.

    Vatican II’s insistence that ‘God is love’, and Pope Francis’ insistence on God’s infinite mercy seem to me to counter the version that Tony gives us as ‘Catholic teaching’. I take that not as what is *explicitly* taught but as what seems to be implied by the use of the words ‘sacrifice’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘substitution in the CCC. I append those articles below this.

    Notice that the expression ‘sacrifice of Christ’ allows us to understand the latter NOT as what is done TO Jesus, but as what is done BY Jesus. It should surely be more clearly emphasised that this is the OPPOSITE of TAKING life: it is the GIVING of one’s life, in direct refusal of the option of USING violence against another.

    So if it is the *refusal* of the option of using violence that ‘satisfies’ the Father, do we truly have a problem greater than an ambiguity that need not be there?

    ~*~ (CCC)

    Christ’s death is the unique and definitive sacrifice

    613 Christ’s death is both the Paschal sacrifice that accomplishes the definitive redemption of men, through “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”,439 and the sacrifice of the New Covenant, which restores man to communion with God by reconciling him to God through the “blood of the covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.440

    614 This sacrifice of Christ is unique; it completes and surpasses all other sacrifices.441 First, it is a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is the offering of the Son of God made man, who in freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience.442

    Jesus substitutes his obedience for our disobedience

    615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”443 By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”.444 Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.445

  44. Joe O'Leary says:

    Sean, the catechism quotes are standard Christian teaching. They are what massgoers have been hearing since the Council.

    my old ed. of Denzinger, ed. K. Rahner in 1957 lists dogmas on the redemptive work of Xt. We are saved only through his merits. He died to restore our fallen nature and free us from the devil’s yoke. His death was a true sacrifice. He made satisfaction for all humans and for the sins of all the world. This satisfaction is infinite.

    Nothing terribly awful here.

  45. Joe O'Leary says:

    satisfaction is an oldfashioned word in the Catechism, never heard in church. substitution is a dull word for the joyous exchange in which Christ becomes sin for our sake, undergoing the curse of the Law, so that we are freed to walk in newness of life.

  46. #46. The word ‘sacrifice’ will remain ambiguous until it is observed that there is a reversal of its meaning sequentially in scripture, from murder to self-giving. Tony’s ‘take’ on atonement is proof that for many that observation has not been made, and the phrase ‘sacrifice of Jesus’ in CCC 614 does not conclusively remove the ambiguity.

    The inability of Irish clergy to tackle this head-on coming up to Easter is further proof of a problem. It’s high time it got sorted.

  47. Joe O'Leary says:

    I heard a horrible Good Friday sermon in 1977 in which the ohysical details of the crucifixion were luridly exposed with no theological or spiritual comment. Schoolchildren were taken to Mel Gibson’s Passion movie. This primitivism has much less to do with Theology or Dogma than with ignorance of them.

  48. Kevin Walters says:

    Con Devree @35 also Sean O’Conaill @48

    A good point to finish on Sean, as was the point made by Con, as his hope is my hope also, to face the fire we all must face the completion of redeeming grace.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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