A "Roamin' Catholic" and the Cultural Crisis | Interview with Gil Bailie, Cornerstone Forum | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2009
A "Roamin' Catholic" and the Cultural Crisis | Interview with Gil Bailie, Cornerstone Forum | Ignatius Insight | February 25, 2009
Ignatius Insight: For those who don't know: What is The Cornerstone Forum and the Emmaus
Road Initiative? Why were they founded and what are some of the activities and projects of your
Gil Bailie: The Cornerstone Forum is the outgrowth and
institutionalization of work that I have been doing for thirty years. The Forum
is a non-profit organization concerned with today's cultural crisis and with
rediscovering the Christian moral, intellectual, and spiritual resources with
which to assess the crisis, meet its challenge, and address its religious
significance. Emphasizing the anthropological uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian
tradition and the unparalleled historical significance of the Christian Gospel,
the Forum works to foster an intellectually compelling and theologically
orthodox Christian response to the ideological secularism that is today at war with
the Judeo-Christian moral bedrock of our civilization, on which, ironically,
depends a healthy cultural pluralism.
Though we receive help from
many, many people around the country, there are only two of us who work at the
Forum's mission every day: myself and my friend and colleague, Randy
Coleman-Riese, who is the Executive Director of the Forum. I'm sometimes called
a "Roamin' Catholic" and "Road Scholar," but nothing I do could happen without
the incredible work that Randy does in the background. Though we live on
separate coasts—he in California and I in Massachusetts—we are in
In pursuit of our mission,
it has been our privilege over the years to work with people of other faiths
and with fellow Christians from many different denominational and theological
traditions, each committed to its own moral and social priorities and ecclesial
vision. Collaboration of this kind has been an important source of inspiration
for us, and we welcome the opportunity to work with those who are engaged, as
we are, in what can broadly be termed the "re-evangelization" of Western
culture. What we bring to this collaboration, however—the source of our
hope, the bedrock of our faith, and the touchstone of our apostolate—is
the theological richness, anthropological depth, and moral realism of the Roman
Catholic tradition. The British historian Christopher Dawson, writing in 1938,
aptly expressed the enduring role of this tradition, not only for Catholics,
but for anyone who is both grateful for the moral, material, and political
achievements of Western culture and concerned about the perils that beset it
Christianity is necessary to Europe, the Catholic Church is no less necessary
to Christianity, for without it the latter would become no more than a mass of
divergent opinions dissolving under the pressure of rationalist criticism and
secularist culture. It was by virtue of the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity
that the social unity of European culture emerged from the welter of barbarism,
and the modern world stands no less in need of such an ideal if it is to
realize in the future the wider unity of a world civilization.
Many of Christianity's
enemies and most of its friends—whatever their creedal
affiliation—have today begun to recognize the point Dawson was making. To
appreciate the role "the Catholic ideal of spiritual unity" has played and
continues to play in Western cultural life—fully aware of how
inadequately this ideal has sometimes been expressed—is to be more, not
less, committed to ecumenical cooperation with non-Catholic fellow Christians
and to meaningful interreligious dialogue with non-Christians and
non-believers. We welcome, as we always have, the opportunity to collaborate
with others in bringing Christianity's theological, cultural and moral
resources to bear on the cultural confusions of our time.
As we work to explore both
cultural and theological matters as creatively as we can, we seek to clarify,
never to challenge, the deposit of faith preserved through the centuries in the
teachings of the Church. The work of RenŽ Girard, on which we continue to draw
heavily, is especially suited to the task as we see it of bringing the truths
of Christian faith to bear on the great questions of our day, and to show those
who have been taught to dismiss these truths how supremely pertinent to our
present predicament they are.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—wrote of the need "to reinvest with
some concrete and particular meaning theological statements about the uniqueness
and the absolute value of Christianity." Christianity has always affirmed its
uniqueness and absolute value, but it has only recently had to do so in the
presence of countless people, cultures, and religious traditions, to many of
whom Christian truth-claims seem both absurd and offensive. Embarrassed by this
new situation, some Christians have chosen the line of least resistance,
embracing a sentimental multiculturalism which is a very poor substitute
for—and often a parody of—Christian catholicity.
are not the kind that can be proven by argumentation. The most convincing
evidence of their validity is the presence among us of humble and holy
Christian saints. Even an imperfectly sanctified life, however, can foster a
respect for Christianity by exercising the intelligence which faith awakens and
by summoning the theological, cultural, moral, and anthropological arguments
that render Christian faith intelligible. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger pointed the
way to accomplishing this by suggesting that collaboration between theology and
anthropology can lead to "the truly most exciting part of Christian faith."
Drawing on the rich
theological tradition for which Benedict XVI is the preeminent contemporary
exponent as well as on RenŽ Girard's extraordinary insights into the
anthropological and cultural uniqueness of Christianity, the Emmaus Road
Initiative is an effort to bring "the truly most exciting part of Christian
faith" to bear on the challenges facing the Christian vocation in our time.
Ignatius Insight: When
did you first begin reading and studying the works of ressourcement theologians
such as Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and
Henri de Lubac?
Gil Bailie: Commenting on Kierkegaard's observation that it is
easier for somebody who is not a Christian to become a Christian than it is for
someone who is a Christian to become a Christian, the liberal journalist Leon
Wieseltier suggested that the proper attitude toward one's tradition is to be
like an actor who has played his part in a scene poorly: "The best thing to do
is simply go out and come in again."
I don't believe that for one
minute, and I have the moral scars to prove that it's bad advice, but, alas,
it's what happened to me.
My early adulthood was a
mirror image of all that was foolish in the culture to which I had been
inadequately inoculated by my Catholic upbringing. I mean no criticism by this,
nor do I intend to shift responsibility from myself to the good nuns who taught
me in grammar school and high school. How could they have seen the Sixties
No, I was an all too willing
causality of the fated convergence of a flawed interpretation of Vatican II and
the upheavals of the 1960s and beyond. When I should have been filling my mind
with wisdom from our great tradition I was busily opening it to the spirit of
the age. As G. K. Chesterton would put it, the more open-minded I became, the more my
brains fell out.
God is good, however, and
the result was that I am both a cradle Catholic and an adult convert. I came by
my orthodoxy honestly, which is to say the hard way.
So, now: the ressourcement theologians: I began reading them like a drowning
man looking for a life raft, which is the best possible way to do so. I can't
remember whether I started with von Balthasar or de Lubac, but one led to the
other pretty quickly. I might have started with Ratzinger, but—like so
many American Catholics—I had regularly been warned away from his
masterful theology by the sundry members of the clergy who took every opportunity
to steer their flocks away from him.
To alter slightly Ezekiel's
dictum about the shift from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, I could say
that, having followed a few of the pied pipers of the age, I suddenly
discovered that the contact with certain voices of confident clarity—von
Balthasar, de Lubac, Girard, Ratzinger and others—transformed my tin ear
into a listening and learning one.
After de Lubac and von
Balthasar disabused me of these prejudices, I began to read Ratzinger—at
first in small doses, in Communio, for instance—but then more
systematically. (I use the word systematically loosely, for I am anything but a
systematic reader of theology, or anything else for that matter.)
All in all these theologians
opened the door for me to the great treasure trove of Catholic thought and
Catholic fidelity. Hardly a day goes by that I do not read something from at
least one of them.
Ignatius Insight: What
attracted you their writings and thought?
Gil Bailie: That's easy: their great creativity combined with
their aversion for originality, a fantastic and indispensible combination.
Paraphrasing what Cardinal
Ratzinger has written about the liturgy—namely that its greatness
"depends on its unspontaneity"—we could say that the greatness of Catholic
theological reflection depends on its unoriginality. Sometimes when I lecture
or speak at conferences, the person introducing me will indulge in the
conventional, and in my case unwarranted, superlatives regarding the speaker's
intellectual gifts. Whenever this occurs, I usually begin by saying that I'm
not all that smart, and, if pressed on it, I can prove it. The point being that
if you let the Gospel do a lot of your thinking—if you think with the
mind of the Church—you look a lot smarter than you really are.
I think it was Cardinal Dulles who used Michael Polanyi's term "postcritical" to describe de Lubac's
thought, which seems to me to be true as well of von Balthasar, Ratzinger,
I have not always had the
theological or exegetical equipment for fully comprehending everything he
wrote, but I have found Henri de Lubac to be an impeccable compass needle, not
only of Catholic teaching, but of the Catholic sensibility. Given the profound
confusions of our time, the proper metaphor might be a gyroscope more than a
compass. But in any event the same could be said with equal justice of von
Balthasar and Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Insight: What
are, in your opinion, some of the most important contributions made by these
Gil Bailie: If you mean which books of theirs I have found
useful, the list is long. It might start with these:
Von Balthasar: Prayer,
Mysterium Paschale, Love
Alone is Credible, etc.
De Lubac: The Splendor of the Church, The Drama
of Atheistic Humanism, Paradoxes of Faith, The Christian Faith,
Ratzinger: Eschatology, Principles of Catholic Theology, The
Spirit of the Liturgy, Truth and Tolerance,
Called to Communion, etc.
To these, dozens of others could be added.
Ignatius Insight: What are some qualities of their work that are helpful to ordinary Catholics who
aren't trained or well-versed in theology or philosophy?
Gil Bailie: One might say their creative obedience. Or perhaps I
could just reiterate what I said in response to the question about what
attracted me to them, namely, the combination of their creativity and their
disinterest in originality. Or, perhaps more subtly, their writings are
suffused with something that it isn't always easy to put your finger on,
namely, a Catholic and sacramental sensibility.
In the case of Benedict,
there is a personal footnote to my admiration for him. I spoke at a conference
in Rome just three weeks before John Paul II's death, accompanied by my wife
who had just been diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor. While there, we
attended a small private Mass that Cardinal Ratzinger said, and after Mass I
asked him if he would give Liz a personal blessing, which he did with such
gentleness and kindness that it left an immense impression on both of us. It
was one of the things that sustained Liz in her last months.
Ignatius Insight: Who is
RenŽ Girard and how has he influenced your thinking and work?(I changed
the sentence from past to present tense, for Girard is still alive.)
Gil Bailie: The best short answer—and it's not that
short—is to tell you a story, which I recently recounted in a soon to be
published tribute to Girard.
I first encountered Girard's
thought in his seminal book Violence and the Sacred. I bought the book without knowing what to expect, but
in the first few pages I was convinced that I was in the presence of one of the
world's most penetrating minds. (I have now known Girard for 25 years and I
have had the privilege to take part in hundreds of seminars with him, and that
first assessment has only been confirmed over the years.)
At the time of my first
encounter with his thought, however, I knew nothing about him. My days of
theological and exegetical dalliance were winding down, but during them I had
attended a few of the conferences of the Westar Institute, out of which
eventually evolved the infamous Jesus Seminar. The institute was having a
conference in Sonoma, California, where I lived for many years. The founder of
Westar, Robert Funk, knew of my interest in Girard, so he called me one day to
say that a dozen or so of the biblical scholars who were coming to the
conference had persuaded RenŽ Girard come up from Stanford University (where he
held the Chair of French Culture and Civilization) to join them for a day to
discuss the implications of his work for biblical studies. Bob said that he did
not have a place to hold this meeting and asked if my office might be
available. I was flabbergasted. To this day, I marvel at how providential that
phone call was. At the time, I was completely out of the loop. I was not an
academic. I did not move in such circles. I don't think I knew whether Girard
lived in this country or in France, or even whether he was dead or alive. All I
knew was that if someone had asked me for the name of the individual I would
most like to meet and from whom I would like to learn, I would have instantly
said RenŽ Girard. Literally out of the blue, he was coming to my office to
spend the day in conversation with biblical scholars about his work.
There were two moments
during the day of our meeting that I have often shared in order to give those
who are new to Girard's work some sense of RenŽ Girard himself. The first
incident came early in the day of the meeting with the biblical scholars. RenŽ
began the day with an informal presentation that lasted, as I recall, about an
hour. Though most of those in the room had some familiarity with his work, most
were hearing RenŽ himself for the first time. His presentation was a typically
marvelous combination of personal humility, intellectual audacity, and a
healthy disregard for the ideological pieties afflicting the academy. After his
remarks, the dialogue began, and the first question—as accurately as I
can recall it—went something like the following: "Professor Girard, what you've
been saying is quite extraordinary. It almost appears, however, that you are
suggesting that the revelatory power of biblical literature is categorically
superior to that of all other literature. You are, after all, a Stanford
professor; you're not saying that are you?" RenŽ's one-word response was all
the more striking for the momentary pause that preceded it: "Categorically," he
replied. The impression one had was that Girard was the only person in this
room full of biblical scholars willing to say such a thing.
I learned two things at that
moment which I was to learn again and again over the years in personal
conversations with RenŽ. First, there is a huge difference between attention to
nuance and equivocation, and the explication of nuances begins in earnest only
when the principle to be nuanced has been unequivocally affirmed. Second, truth
is transmitted through personal witness rather than rational discourse. There
was never any doubt that Girard's "categorically" was intellectually well founded
and that he was perfectly capable, if challenged, to give a rational account of
it. But it was not the implicit presence of a rational defense that made his
statement both startling and convincing. It was his personal conviction, made
all the more impressive because of his indifference to how his expression of it
might be construed by others.
The dialogue that followed
gave Girard an opportunity to show the interpretive power of his
anthropological theory. And then at the end of the day, another memorable
moment came, when someone asked a practical question. Clearly, the panorama
Girard had spread out before those assembled was astonishing, and against this
backdrop, RenŽ's sobering assessment of the contemporary historical and
cultural predicament stood out in bold relief. "Given all that you have said,"
someone asked Girard, "what is to be done?"
In response, RenŽ was
gracious and patient and humble. His answer, as I recall, was something like
this: "Well, it is of course an enormous problem, and it does not lend itself
to being easily 'fixed.' We are each called to different tasks, so perhaps we
should begin by striving for personal sanctity." I could hardly believe my
ears. Biblical scholars, whose discipline had been for decades currying favor
with the secular academy by renouncing a priori any distinctively religious
preconceptions, were being advised on the practical value of personal sanctity.
There are a lot of things
that can and should be said of Girard and his work, but this little anecdote tells
the real reason for my attraction to RenŽ Girard and his extraordinary work.
Ignatius Insight: What is
the role of the laity supposed to be within the Church? What are some ways that
lay people can be effective evangelists in a culture so opposed, in many ways,
to the Gospel?
Gil Bailie: Seventy-five years ago, T. S. Eliot announced that
culture was no longer passing from one generation to the next in the ideal and
natural way it had in the past, when one absorbed it with the mother's milk so
to speak. From now on, Eliot admonished, if you want a culture, you have to
work at it.
Alas things have only gotten
more challenging since then. I often say to audiences that the world is now
being turned over to those we failed to properly catechize. The citadels of
contemporary popular culture have fallen into the hands of those who have
either only the faintest notion of what Christianity is and how indispensable
it is to the survival of our civilization or who have only thinly disguised
contempt for our religious patrimony.
At an earlier stage of our
present crisis, Hans Urs von Balthasar, pointing to "the confusion of clerics
and theologians," insisted that lay Catholics "have the absolute duty to care
for the condition of Catholicity," adding with emphasis, "by protest if need
be." For a Catholic sensibility, of course, protest is always a last resort,
and there are today enough signs of episcopal and clerical revitalization to
make even less justified. But the lay Catholic's obligation—in proportion
to his or her respective gifts and competence—to "care for the condition
of Catholicity" remains.
As distressing as our
current situation can seem, we must keep before us the injunction we receive
from the First Letter of Peter, that we must always be prepared to account for
the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). We must realize how hopeless a
Christless world was and is and always will be. Christianity spread through the
ancient world precisely because of the hope it gave to a pagan world desperate
for it. At the very moment when civil order seemed to be dissolving,
Christians—St. Augustine prominent among them—awakened a hope
unlike anything the classical world had known. In the 21st century, under
similar circumstances, it will fall to Christianity to supply a hope capable of
filling the vacuum left by the na•ve optimism of the modern era and the hollow
nihilism of postmodern one.
Ignatius Insight: What
are some ways that people can support your work?
Gil Bailie: First, they can join us in it. We now have monthly
Emmaus Road Initiative sessions in twelve venues in nine cities. The locations
and times of these sessions are on our website. Those living close enough to these sessions are
welcome to join us.
Others can find on our
website free downloadable audio files of the E. R. I. sessions as well as
streaming audio and video files of many of the sessions. We give complimentary
CDs of each of the monthly sessions to those who attend them, and these CDs can
be ordered from our website for a small fee to cover postage and shipping. Our
website has a number of other offerings, so those who might be interested can
go there and browse the site. Our website address is: www.cornerstone-forum.org.
To keep our friends abreast
of what we're doing, we send out one or two email newsletters a month. So I
would especially urge those who visit our site or who might have an interest in
our work to sign up for our periodic newsletter. There is a newsletter link on
our website homepage.
I also have a weblog—Reflections on Faith and Culture. There is
also a link to it on our website. On the weblog I post periodic comments or
reflections on social and political events and sundry other matters that I feel
worthy of the attention of those interested passing on a robust faith in an
increasingly challenging social and political environment.
Of course we rely on
tax-deductible donations, and like all non-profits in hard economic times, we
are weathering a particularly difficult time now. So some who learn more about
our work will perhaps be interested in helping us financially. Again, that is
made easy enough on the website.
Many are having financial
difficulties of their own, and we certainly understand that, but if they find
our work useful they can pray for us and collaborate with us in whatever way
they may see fit.
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Ignatius Insight Author Page for Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Ignatius Insight Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar
Ignatius Insight Author Page for Henri de Lubac
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