National Congress on the Word of God: A Two-Edged Sword


National Congress On The Word Of God: A Two-Edged Sword


The Wanderer
September 21, 1972

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Rome was informed that a national effort would be made in Washington this September to produce a renewal in preaching, Cardinal Villot dispatched a letter to Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle expressing the Holy Father’s delight at the idea and his blessing upon the enterprise. One sentence in that letter sums up the advice Rome wanted to give to the American sponsors and participants: “In short, preaching must proceed,” Villot said, “from deep conviction, serious learning, and loving compassion.”

If the announcement of a National Congress of the Word of God drew cheers and high hopes among Catholic laity and clergy, there can be little doubt that the reason for this enthusiasm was a thorough dissatisfaction with the way things are going in Catholic pulpits. As one newsman said- on the opening day of the Congress, “I sure hope this works. I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon that could have changed anybody’s life.” Some of us have trouble remembering the last sermon we could sit through. In any case, no one disputes that our preaching is very seldom informed by deep conviction, serious learning, or real compassion.

The organizer of the Congress, Fr. John Burke, O.P., spoke openly of a crisis of faith that is emasculating the American homily. At a press conference on September 5th, he spoke movingly of the need for preachers who can convince through the persuasiveness of their own personal Faith. Only such men, he said, can make the message of salvation live in our bones, at the. core of out being, “where the sin is.”

Fr. Burke some months ago must have faced a question which is still largely unanswered in the mind of this reporter. How in fact does one go about organizing a “Congress” whose effect will be to renew the spiritual sources that make powerful preaching possible? Does one gather people together and preach to them?

Would that sort of thing can fire them up and at the same time give them models of how-to-do-it? Or rather would one gather people around the altar and pray down the Holy Spirit? (There are precedents.) Should one, perhaps, gather together top experts in a series of fields relating to priestly work and have them give workshops on how preaching bears on their particular field or how preaching can be enriched by their particular competence? Moreover, how can those few hundred who attend such a Congress have a pebble-in-the-pool effect with the thousands of priests who stay at home? Would it help in this context to involve somehow in the Congress as many as possible of the existing structures in the American Church — USCC agencies, and so forth — that are currently shaping priestly ministry?

These rhetorical questions insinuate plausible ideas, or at least they must have seemed plausible to Fr. Burke, because he tried almost all of them. The Congress consisted of a mixture of liturgies to invoke the Spirit, plenary sessions to hear sermons, and workshops presided over by experts — mostly USCC-based — to discuss particular areas such as preaching and the liturgy, preaching and religious education, preaching and ecumenism, preaching and the Bible, etc.

But as I said above, the basic question still remains unanswered in the mind of this reporter, because, in my judgment the mixture did not work. And the key element in the failure, the element that did not mesh with the rest, was the expert-dominated workshops. Everything else served its purpose. The liturgies were a bit frowsy, but the bishops who preached at them, preached like angels.

I’m going to talk about two workshops or “concurrent conferences,” as they were called in the Congress program. I cannot be certain that these two were representative, since they all ran simultaneously on one afternoon. Only a long-necked hydra could have covered them all. I chose to divide my time between these two because I knew something about the speakers and, quite frankly, I expected trouble. One was on the liturgy, and the other was on religious education.

To set up the liturgy workshop —as nearly as I can reconstruct the chain of events — Fr. Burke secured the aid of Bishop Malone of the Youngstown Diocese, who is chairman of the Bishop’s Committee on the Sacred Liturgy. Bishop Malone, in turn, recommended the selection of Fr. Rollins E. Lambert, of the Diocese of Chicago to serve as “executive director” of the workshop. Lambert has been a member of the Chicago Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission since its inception and, more significantly, a board member of the notorious Liturgical Conference, which blew its brains out a few years back at a convention featuring “circus Masses.” Fr. Lambert has since left the board of the Conference, though not, he told me, for any doctrinal or policy reasons.

Given that background, it is not surprising that Fr. Lambert proceeded to pick an extraordinary array of speakers for his workshop. At the top of the list, to give the major address, was Fr. Frederick R. McManus, chief liturgical bureaucrat of the USCC and bane of all who happen to love the old Mass. Then as “responders” to McManus came three people who were supposed to represent the maximum variety of angles on the liturgy: a Bishop, a Black Sister, and a layman. I need hardly add that the “maximum variety” included no one who would challenge McManus’ most basic assumptions, i.e., a spokesman for the Layman’s Commission on the English Liturgy or Una Voce.

Frederick McManus gave a long and boring speech. As one listened, to the monotony of his prose, punctuated here and there by the rustle of clichés, one felt that one understood where ICEL got its sense of style. The monotone proposed many things: Fr. McManus called them a “shopping list,” which was not a bad comparison. Or like the market memos of Mrs. Joe Doaks, the shopping list was much the same this year as it was last year and the year before that and the year before that: meat, potatoes, cereal, milk, butter, and eggs. That is: dialogue homilies, more readings, electronic props, parish committees, and Bible services. Fr. McManus had the same list in 1967, except then it was longer. Now it is shorter because we have already bought their first half: the third reading, the vernacular, the new canons, the banal hymns, the handshake of peace.

The incomprehensible thing is that to Fred McManus it is still 1967, and so far as I could tell, to his audience as well. Here is a roomful of grown-up, intelligent men and women who are still pretending that going on out there somewhere is a “liturgical renewal!” Years after every intelligent layman in America, across the whole spectrum from left to right, has declared that the English of the New Mass is a bore and a disaster; years after Mass attendance began its sharp and still continuing decline, I am sitting in a crowded room in Washington, D.C., listening to the chief architects of the whole fiasco talk on and on about the same old ideas as if the last five years had never happened, as if the whole bag of tricks were still as fresh as toys on Christmas — and nobody is laughing. It’s absurd.

So what did Fr. McManus have to say about preaching? Well, it’s curious, but he was quite insistent that preaching ought not to teach anything nor explain anything. Its function, rather, is to proclaim (whatever that means), and of course, there is a problem about what the preaching is to proclaim. Fr. McManus said that since young people are turned off by the old “articulations” of the Faith, it is impossible to go back to “obsolete theology.” The answer, however, is not new theology either. Apparently, there should be no theology. I quote: “We are much better off if we are forced to start anew. We can speak with plain and evangelical simplicity.” Now what, I ask, is “evangelical simplicity?” Is it perhaps the “simplicity” of those parables by which Jesus preached — and which usually His own disciples couldn’t understand? Or is it perhaps the “simplicity” of St. John’s prologue, with its Logos-theology? Is it anything like the “simplicity” of St. Paul’s teaching on grace and predestination? Perhaps the greatest preacher in Christian history was St. John Chrysostom. But his sermons, eminently evangelical, were neither plain nor simple. St. John Chrysostom certainly didn’t think that the Gospel was simple, which is the reason, no doubt, why he never mastered the trick of “proclaiming” them without patient exposition and elaborate teaching.

Let there be no mistake about the real import of McManus’ apparently trivial remarks. He rejects, in effect, the entire patristic heritage. His root assumption is that the Good News was originally something “plain and simple,” something that only became obscure or technical when generations of “hellenized” minds got to work on it. Besides being theological nonsense, proximate to heresy, McManus’ position is scientifically and sociologically incompetent.

Scientifically, it has been demonstrated that even the oldest strata of the synoptic tradition presupposed the theological kerygma. The New Testament fairly bristles with difficult and technical terminology. There is no possibility of getting behind it to a “simple” message, just as there is no possibility of distinguishing the faith from its classical “articulations.”

Sociologically, it is nonsense to say that young people are alienated by traditional language and theology. The whole, dense jargon of King James fundamentalism is turning them on in droves. It is precisely the attempt to somehow express Christianity without technical and traditional terminology that leaves them cold. The “religionless” Christianity fiasco was an attempt to deal with a late-fifties, early-sixties crowd to whom God was “dead.” But God is not the least dead to the newer youth. One does wish that these experts would keep up to date.

Fr. McManus was succeeded on the podium by Bishop Vath of Birmingham, Ala., whose remarks were unexceptionable and brief. The Bishop sat down and was replaced by the Afro-nun.

Now this woman is a winner. I warn the reader in advance that what I am about to say will strike some as beyond the pale of charity. But in the republic of manners, must truth always remain a second-class citizen? Are there no times when a performance is so outrageous that charity itself demands rough censure? I think there are such times.

Meanwhile, Sister was clad in a chic, dark green, double-knit midi, with an off-white and black silk print blouse, saffron scarf, rings and things, coiffure au nature! She had the stage manner of one who, long ago, was encouraged to think of herself as articulate. She announced that she would speak sharp things and oracles flowing from the depths of her otherness. We are all on tippy-toe.

Then she said, “I am a rather traditionalist kind of Catholic” (gasps, uncertain laughter, and a long pause), “with my own kind of tradition” ( sighs of relief and relaxed guffaws).

The Wanderer, September 28, 1972

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sr. Shawn Copeland is Black. She spoke at the workshop “Preaching and the Liturgy,” which was part of the National Congress on the Word of God, held early in September in Washington, D.C. Sr. Shawn’s participation was arranged by Fr. Rollins E. Lambert, a board member for many years of the notorious Liturgical Conference. As noted in the first installment of this report (in the Wanderer of September 21st), Sr. Shawn was dressed like a model for Ebony. Moreover, she had just finished telling us that she has her own brand of “tradition,” a brand not to be confused with that of “traditional” Catholics. She is certainly correct.

Fresh ideas about preaching and liturgy were scarce at this workshop, but Sr. Copeland had a few. She thinks, for example, that the liturgies she attends ought to be minus White priests, who are, she said, “a symbol of oppression.” Moreover, looking straight at poor Bishop Malone, who was nominally presiding, she said, “White bishops have responsibilities to White people,” whose souls are evidently sufficiently vicious to require a separate hierarchy. Freed of such oppressors as Bishop Malone, Black liturgy would be able to express Black theology. What is Black theology? It is “Black cultural experience.” And what is this experience? Well, here Sister became vague, but it seemed to be compounded of “some Africanisms,” along with “new values.” Anyway, the compound must lead to “politicization.” The pre-condition of politicization, she said, is “liberation of the spirit.” And what is this liberation? Stupid question. It is “revolution.”

Revolution is what it always comes down to, isn’t it? Of course, one doesn’t want to be unfair. Maybe when Sister chants, “Burn, baby, burn,” she is talking about the incense. But then again, maybe not.

The key word in Sr. Copeland’s vocabulary is “culture.” It means a pattern of insights and conventions by which people organize reality. Neither theology nor backscratching is outside the “pattern.” Nothing is too high or too low for it, nothing too grand or trivial. “Culture” embraces and organizes everything. With this idea in mind, Sister is able to juxtapose two interesting sentences. “All theology is just an expression of man’s relation to God. Black theology is Black cultural experience.” No great logician is needed to catch the implication that White cultural experience was responsible for the theology we have had up till now. That is why “her people” need a new theology and a new liturgy that will be organically African (e.g., ritual dancing).

Sister’s position is Modernism jazzed up with racism. Modernism was not first and foremost an indisposition to believe. Rather, it was a theory of “culture.” Specifically, Modernism tried to relate theology to the romantic, cultural and historical theories of Herder, Humboldt, Hegel and Treitschke. For these men the key word was “organic.” Everything in a culture was supposed to be “organically related” to everything else. Thus for Treitschke, German spirituality, German food, German music, and Kantian philosophy all formed an “organic whole” which sprang from the unity and particularity of the German soul. Similar ideas percolated in Russian Pan-Slavism and all the romantic nationalisms of the last century.

Modernism, instead of applying these theories to national aggrandizement, applied them to the Scripture. Thus, since Jesus and His first disciples were Jews, it was thought necessary to recover the “organically” Semitic contours of the original Gospel. All ideas suspected of being Greek were thrown out, or rather, were relegated to a later phase of “development.” This kind of historical research was not the main show, however. Modernism was not trying to recover the most “primitive” Gospel in order to return to it. Rather, the aim was to use the alleged Semitic proto- Gospel as a weapon against all classical theology. If the latter could be shown to be a pure invention of the Graeco-Latin “mind,” if it could be shown to be a “cultural adaptation” of the older Gospel, then all the Church’s classical dogmatic formulas would be instantly relativized. As soon as that happened, Modernism would have a free hand to pursue its pet projects: to “restate” the Gospel in terms drawn “organically” from modern culture. Substitute “Black” for “Modern” and you have Sr. Copeland.

A final and convincing proof of Sister’s racist Modernism came near the end of her remarks. She was talking about different ways of understanding the Eucharist; and to illustrate how different these ways could be, she told a curious story. One time she was talking to a Protestant visitor at a Catholic Mass. She invited the Protestant to share in the Communion. He declined, saying he could never do that, since he didn’t believe that Christ’s Body was really there. Sister was shocked. Here was somebody who took this dogmatic language seriously. “I myself,” she said, “had been drinking wine and chewing bread symbolically for years.”

At this utterance, I must say, a tangible shock ran through the entire audience. Evidently Sister had gone too far. Yet one asks oneself why only the last deduction or the final application is felt to be horrible. Sister had said everything already when she said that theology is cultural experience.

As Sr. Shawn stepped down to light and embarrassed applause, I wandered over to the workshop on “Preaching and Religious Education.” And what do you know? The discussion was devoted to the Archdiocese of Detroit’s strange new program called, Church, World, Kingdom. This program and its incredible defects are well-known to readers of the Wanderer. K.D. Whitehead gave a brilliant analysis in the May 18th issue of the paper. More, of course, remains to be said on the subject, but I shall forego that pleasure here. Suffice it to say, that Church, World, Kingdom was being discussed in this workshop (presided over, incidentally, by Fr. William Tobin, whose opposition to the General Catechetical Directory has become household knowledge, thanks to CUF News Service) because the Detroit program involves the use of Sunday sermons as part of the educational package. Participating parishes (Bishop Gumbleton wields a big stick to ensure participation) are required to have sermons on a certain topic on a given Sunday, outlines and liturgy kits having been supplied by the Archdiocese.

Everybody in the religious-education discussion thought that this sort of sermonizing was fine, but back in the liturgy workshop, the same thing had been denounced by Fr. McManus. Sermons, he thought, were not supposed to teach doctrine; and least of all was it advisable for the bishop to impose topics and outlines. Perhaps, however the liturgists and the educationists will be able to reconcile their differences by imposing sermons that teach no doctrine.

Fr. Tobin’s main theme, in a summary he made of this workshop on the following day, was that preaching, like catechetics, has to find new ways of expressing religious truths. One has to get rid of the old jargon. Words like “salvation” have no concrete meaning that people can grasp. Here, in a slightly different form, we are back to Sr. Shawn’s brand of thinking. Religious language must be of a piece with people’s ordinary language. This is indeed possible if religion is just one more “expression” of their culture. But what if we take the Catholic assumption? What if our religion comes from the revelation of something not naturally knowable? What, too, if the specification of this revealed content is the object of a science? Does anyone object if physics and chemistry have specialized technical language? In fact, doesn’t every serious study of reality give rise to technical terminology? How then, can faith and theology fail to have their own vocabulary? The only ways to avoid so-called “religious jargon” are to become a modernist or a vegetable.

One has no difficulty reaching a conclusion about these two workshops. And hence about the cause for the Congress’ failure. As far as the hoped-for, prayed-for renewal of preaching is concerned, the workshops were worthless. Their whole tone and content was a throwback to the “liberalism” of the Sixties — that cluster of theological and pastoral pseudo-solutions which lies behind the present crisis of faith. In organizing a National Congress on the Word of God, Fr. Burke was looking for a way out of that crisis. He was looking for a path through the Seventies, a decade which cries out for approaches unrelated to those that made the Sixties a disaster. In this quest, he was well- served by the bishops who came to his Congress: Manning, Sheen, Quinn, Whealon, and others. These are the men of Rome and hence of the future. But the workshop experts are still the old crowd, dreaming the dreams whose ruin less somnolent men have already seen. Not until the agencies of Catholic ministry have been put into more realistic, more imaginative hands, will Fr. Burke and the clergy of America get the advice they deserve.

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