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By John Navone, S.J.
Editor's note: This article recently appeared
as "Theological pitfalls and their consequences"
in the December 2004 issue of Homiletic
& Pastoral Review, edited by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. ©
thirty years ago (February 10, 1975, 33), Time magazine published
its report "The Hartford Heresies," that is no less relevant for today's
pressing theological issues. A group of 18 Christian thinkers of nine
denominations, after a weekend at the Hartford Seminary Foundation in
Connecticut, joined in a dramatic warning that American theology had strayed
dangerously far afield.
Their "Appeal for Theological Affirmation" condemned 13 pervasive ideas,
all of which undermine "transcendence," the essential truth that God and
his kingdom have a real, autonomous existence apart from the thoughts
and efforts of mankind.
Among the signers who were able to agree on the protest with surprising
alacrity were Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, Eastern Orthodox Seminary
dean Alexander Schmemann, Lutheran theologians George Forell and George
Lindbeck, Yale Chaplain William Sloan Coffin Jr., a Presbyterian, and
Evangelical theologian Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary.
In 1,150 words, their statement took issue with some of the most popular
liberal fashions of the past decade that have carried over into ours,
including secular Christian, political eschatology and the human potential
movement. The specific theses that the churchmen condemned as "false and
1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding
reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.
After each of these assertions the statement added a qualifying paragraph
explaining why the idea is wrong, even though it might sound beguiling and
contain an element of truth. The statement nowhere mentions the people who
have promulgated these false theses, but the discussions at Hartford included
references to Harvey Cox (The Secular City), Situation Ethicist Joseph
Fletcher and Britain's Bishop John Robinson (Honest to God). As for
the pervasiveness of the thinking exemplified in the theses, Jesuit Dulles,
now Cardinal, affirmed that the ideas were widespread in the Roman Catholic
Church, particularly among popularizers of the late Teilhard de Chardin
and liberation theologians who give the Bible a Marxist interpretation.
A professor from Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, an influential
Protestant school, said that these theses summarized general belief there.
2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.
3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God
being humanity's noblest creation.
4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.
5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter
of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.
6.To realize one's potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning
7.Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure
to realize human potential.
8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization
and human community.
9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical
to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic
existence and authentic religion.
10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and
economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative
for the Church's mission in the world.
11. An emphasis on God's transcendence is at least a hindrance
to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.
12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of
13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at least marginal
to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment.
Rev. Richard Neuhaus, now editor of First Things, asserted that even
the World Council of Churches had become "a gargantuan exercise in such
cultural capitulation." Neuhaus and Lutheran Peter Berger, author and sociologist
at Rutgers, were the originators of the Hartford protest. Exasperated by
what they considered a church sellout to such man-made ideologies as scientific
rationalism and socialism, they wrote the original draft of the statement
in 1974, mailed it to 50 churchmen for their reactions and summoned the
Hartford meeting to prepare the final declaration.
Though the Hartford discussions brought forward many theological differences,
conservatives and liberals alike agreed on the necessity of Christian social
involvement. However, a paradox was noted. The declaration insisted that
politically based theologies, which were created to foster social impact,
had done just the opposite. Even political activist Coffin joined the group
in condemning an idea on which he had often preached, that "the world must
set the agenda for the Church." The view from Hartford was that Christianity
will be too weak for sustained attack on social evilsor for anything
elseunless it first seeks the transcendence, power and will of God.
After all, the Hartford Eighteen declare, "We did not invent God; God invented
Theological malaise and its effects
Richard Ostling's article, "The Battle for Latin America's Soul" (Time,
Jan. 21, 1991, pp. 46-47) describes the religious shift that is steadily
gaining momentum throughout traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America.
Evangelicals, as Protestants of all types are called, had increased in 1991
from 15 million to at least 40 million since the late 1960s. Catholicism,
says the Rev. Paulo Romeiro, Protestant director of an interdenominational
research institute in Sao Paulo, is facing "a serious crisis." As the Evangelical
movement grows stronger by the day, the Catholic Church is getting weaker
Two U.S. books describe this dramatic trend. Is Latin America Turning
Protestant? is the provocative title of a volume by Stanford graduate
student David Stoll, who argues that Evangelism's spiritual appeal "calls
into question the claims made for its great rival," the Marxist-tinged liberation
theology that was the hope of the Catholic left. By all appearances, says
Stoll, "born-again religion has the upper hand." In Tongues of Fire:
The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, David Martin of the
London School of Economics asserts that the growth of conservative Protestantism
in Latin America, Asia and Africa is as significant as the rise of revolutionary
During Pope John Paul's 1990 tour of Mexico, designed in part to counter
the inroads of Evangelicalism, the Pontiff directed clergy to abandon "timidity
and diffidence" in combating their rivals.
The Vatican is especially concerned about Brazil, supposedly the world's
No. 1 Roman Catholic nation, with 126 million on church rolls in l99l. Barely
a tenth of those registered Catholics are regular churchgoers. That means
that, astonishingly, there are almost certainly more Brazilian Protestants
in church on Sundays than Catholics. Protestants in l991 boasted a minimum
of 20 million churchgoers and were expanding twice as fast as the overall
While there is much talk about their political meddling and impact, most
Evangelicals appear to succeed because they usually preach a purely spiritual
message. Henrique Mafra Caldeir de Andrada, head of the Protestant program
at Rio's Institution of Religious Studies, thinks Catholic advocates of
the social gospel failed to realize that "these people are hungry for more
than just food. The Evangelicals met the peoples' emotional and spiritual
needs better. Or, as Brazil's top Baptist, the Rev. Nilson Fanini, puts
the paradox, "The Catholic Church opted for the poor, but the poor opted
for the Evangelicals."
Papal concern for solid doctrine in dialogue
John Paul II, at the audience of January 19, 2001, in the light of theological
problems in dialogue with world religions, confirmed the Notification
from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, January
24, 2001, and ordered its publication.
I. On the sole and universal salvific mediation of Jesus Christ.
1. It must be firmly believed that Jesus Christ, the Son of
God made man, crucified and risen, is the sole and universal mediator
of salvation for all humanity.
II. On the unicity and completeness of revelation of Jesus Christ.
2. It must be firmly believed that Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and only
Savior of the world, is the Son and Word of the Father. For the unity
of the divine plan of salvation centered in Jesus Christ, it must also
be held that the salvific action of the Word is accomplished in and through
Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of the Father, as mediator of salvation
for all humanity. It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith not only
to posit a separation between the Word and Jesus, or between the Word's
salvific activity and that of Jesus, but also to maintain that there is
a salvific activity of the Word as such in his divinity, independent of
the humanity of the Incarnate Word.
3. It must be firmly believed that Jesus Christ is the mediator
and fulfillment and the completeness of revelation. It is therefore contrary
to the Catholic faith to maintain that revelation in Jesus Christ (or
the revelation of Jesus Christ) is limited, incomplete or imperfect. Moreover,
although full knowledge of divine revelation will be had only on the day
of the Lord's coming in glory, the historical revelation of Jesus Christ
offers everything necessary for man's salvation and has no need of completion
by other religions.
IV. On the orientation of all human beings to the Church.
4. It is consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that the seeds of truth
and goodness that exist in other religions are a certain participation
in truths contained in the revelation of or in Jesus Christ. However,
it is erroneous to hold that such elements of truth and goodness, or some
of them, do not derive ultimately from the source-mediation of Jesus Christ.
5. The Church's faith teaches that the Holy Spirit, working after the
resurrection of Jesus Christ, is always the Spirit of Christ sent by the
Father, who works in a salvific way in Christians as well as non-Christians.
It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to hold that the salvific
action of the Holy Spirit extends beyond the one universal salvific economy
of the Incarnate Word.
6.It must be firmly believed that the Church is sign and instrument
of salvation for all people. It is contrary to the Catholic faith to consider
the different religions of the world as ways of salvation complementary
to the Church.
V. On the value and salvific function of the religious traditions.
7. According to Catholic doctrine, the followers of other religions are
oriented to the Church and are all called to become part of her.
8. In accordance with Catholic doctrine, it must be held that
"whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of
peoples, in cultures and religions, serves as a preparation for the Gospel"
(cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 16). It is therefore
legitimate to maintain that the Holy Spirit accomplishes salvation in
non-Christians also through those elements of truth and goodness present
in the various religions; however to hold that these religions, considered
as such, are ways of salvation, has no foundation in Catholic theology,
also because they contain omissions, insufficiencies and errors regarding
fundamental truths about God, man and the world.
A call for a new apologetics for a new evangelization
Furthermore, the fact that elements of truth and goodness present in the
various world religions may prepare peoples and cultures to receive the
saving event of Jesus Christ does not imply that the sacred texts of these
religions can be considered as complementary to the Old Testament, which
is the immediate preparation for the Christ event.
Salvation has a specific content for Christians: It entails an interpersonal
communion, made possible by Christ, between human persons and the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit.
Human beings are called to nothing less than communion with the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit, and with each other in them. The community of Christian
faith affirms that the triune God could not bring about a more intimate
union with created persons than that which has already been initiated in
baptism and will be fulfilled for us in Christ. Ultimately communion involves
nothing less than becoming part of the Trinitarian family. The principle
and agent of this communion is for us Christ. Just as Christ is Son by naturea
member of the divine family of the Trinity in virtue of his being the Son
of the Fatherso human persons are called to be sons and daughters
by adoption. Our fellowship with Christ and with each other in him brings
us into the divine Trinitarian family.
The Christian community of faith believes and teaches that the ultimate
aim of life is a communion of life with the Father, through the Son, and
in the Holy Spirit. This is a truth proclaimed by Christ and a destiny made
possible for us by his passion, death, and resurrection. This is what Christians
mean by salvation: the term embraces both the goal of ultimate communion
and the empowerment to attain and enjoy it.
As a communion formed by preserving and sharing Christ's gifts, the Church
best fulfills her mission of apologetics and evangelization when she ministers
with Our Lord's combination of respect for persons and for the truth that
fulfills them. In other words the Church is both Catholic and apostolic.
As Catholic, she reaches out to everyone. But as apostolic, the Church also
reaches out with faith that comes to us from the apostles, without compromises
that would contravene the dignity and vocation of beings made in the image
of a self-giving God.
The liberal-conservative rift that undermines the Church's unity and mission
can, at least in part, be explained by the failure to integrate the apostolic
and the Catholic aspects of our ecclesial identity and the objective and
subjective aspects of the human person. Political labels often prevent us
from understanding the Church as she understands herself. Although labels
do point to real and important problems, they can leave us divided and paralyzed
unless we go beyond them to see the Church as a mystery of faith and love.
A new apologetics in a new evangelization will, following Christ's example,
combine truth with charity. Apologists need both clear minds and open hearts.
Since only the truth transforms and unites, much work needs to be done to
understand and articulate the Magisterium's moral and doctrinal positions,
with particular attention paid to cultivating an authentic understanding
of conscience and religious freedom, as taught by Vatican II. Much of this
work of telling the truth should take place in homilies, youth and adult
catechetical programs, seminaries, diaconate formation programs, and Catholic
schools and universities. The implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae is
a necessary first step toward a renewed understanding of how our faith supports
and sustains in truth the institutions of Catholic higher education.
However, given our fallen human nature, the call to conversion at the heart
of the Gospel will only be heard if it is made with love for the one who
has not yet adequately accepted the faith. Since no Christian evangelizer
preaches himself or herself, the call to conversion must be made with humility,
and to all. And given our modern appreciation for the uniquely subjective
dimension of any human act and of human freedom, the call must presuppose
the goodwill and respect the dignity of those in need of conversion.
Read part two of "The Consequences
of Bad Theology".
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