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Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009): An Appreciation, Part 1

Edward Schillebeeckx

Shortly before Christmas, the Catholic church lost one its most eminent 20th-century theologians.  Belgian-born Edward Schillebeeckx, OP, a leading theologian of the Second Vatican Council, died on 23 December.  Schillebeeckx’s long and distinguished career as a theologian resulted in the publication of numerous studies in the fields of Christology and ecclesiology that have already become classics.  These include Christ, the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1959; English translation, 1963); Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974; English translation, 1979); Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World (1977; English translation, 1980); The Church with a Human Face (1985); and Church: The Human Story of God (1989; English translation, 1990).

As I’ve been thinking of Schillebeeckx’s influence on me—and I do want to write this brief memoir as a personal appreciation of his work—I keep returning to the latter part of the 1960s, when I made a life-altering decision to leave my childhood Southern Baptist church and become Catholic.  I’ve shared aspects of that journey on my Bilgrimage blog.

As I’ve noted there, two primary factors motivated my decision (two discernible historical factors, that is,  in addition to the grace running hidden underneath the experience).  The first was the struggle of my family’s church to come to terms with the Civil Rights movement and the integration process of the 1960s.

We were not merely slow to come to terms with integration.  As a white church whose roots ran back to the slave period, when we had separated from Northern Baptists over the question of the morality of slavery, we actively resisted integration.

So when my church finally integrated reluctantly and after a bitter, divisive debate about this step, and when my pastor defended that reluctance to me by saying that churches have to be slow to respond to such movements of dramatic social change, I looked around for churches that provided an alternative (and prophetic) witness re: racial issues.  In my small Deep South town, that happened to be the Catholic church, which had long since integrated its black and white parishes without any fanfare.

My decision to become Catholic was also influenced by my reading of John Henry Newman’s Apologia.  I’m sure that at the tender (and callow) age of 16, I understood little of Newman.  What I did glimpse in his work, however, and what compelled me towards the Catholic church, was an argument about the deep historical roots of the Christian movement and the institutions it spawned.  In Newman, I found an alluring narrative about an “idea” of Christianity that necessarily adapts itself to ever-shifting cultural contexts, but which nonetheless remains rooted in an originating event and originating narratives that norm and correct this necessary process of development.

And so my choice to become Catholic and my initial encounter with Schillebeeckx—or, I should say more precisely, with some key themes he was developing in Dutch theology, which were, just at the moment of my conversion, taking center stage in global Catholicism through Vatican II.

I have long since forgotten the title of the catechism my local parish priest used to instruct me in the Catholic faith.  It wasn’t a particularly catchy title—perhaps something as pedantic as Our Catholic Faith.  I suspect that the book was an updated version of the Baltimore catechism, with pictures galore, many of them in lurid, eye-catching colors designed to appeal to a child’s eye.

I loved the catechism.  I memorized it avidly, religiously.  At the drop of a hat, I could recite lists of saints, of corporal and spiritual works of mercy, of capital sins.  And prayers aplenty: to guardian angels, the Mother of God, prayers in Latin, prayers in English, prayers for morning, midday, and night.

And then along came a curious book my pastor didn’t recommend, but which I ordered through the mail, because it was being featured in publications I had begun to admire, like America and Commonweal.  It was an alternative catechism, popularly called the Dutch catechism. It came out in the year in which I was taking instruction in Catholicism.

I hated it.  And I didn’t understand it.  It was the antithesis of the detailed, fetchingly illustrated answer book—answers for everything!—that I had been memorizing.  It purported not to deliver the Truth, in easily digested doses, but to introduce its readers to something much more difficult: it claimed to lead those being catechized into a lifelong process of dialogic pursuit of a truth that can never be perfectly formulated (those lists! those prayers in Latin and English!), but which is sought after by believers united in their communal journey towards an eschatological truth transcending any one of us.  And transcending (and norming and critiquing) the church itself.

I preferred the Truth.  I preferred my lists.  I preferred memorizing to thinking.  Memorizing was, after all, easier, as was the kind of thinking—narrow, deductive logic towards predetermined “truths”—encouraged by my picture-laden catechism.

The Dutch catechism required thinking.  It required hard thought, the kind that engages mind, soul, and even body (since religious ideas have to issue in real-life commitments, if they are true).  It required the humility to admit I didn’t and would never own the Truth.  It required the humility to link my faith journey to that of others who were on a similar journey.  It talked about reading the signs of the times, relating an ancient faith to a contemporary cultural context, using conscience and making discernment.  Using conscience and discerning in union with others in the Body of Christ, it goes without saying.  But also all on my own, since conscience is the deepest core of oneself, a shrine in which God speaks uniquely to one’s depths.

I didn’t want this.  I wanted authority figures to tell me the Truth.  I wanted right and wrong, black and white, clear-cut answers.  I had, after all, just left a church whose inability to confront a profound cultural crisis with clear-cut answers perturbed me.

It would take many years of study of theology, and life experience, to show me why the church had taken the necessary turn of Vatican II during the period in which I became Catholic, and why Schillebeeckx—whose ideas were everywhere in the Dutch catechism that I hated—was well worth reading.  In fact, necessary to read, if I wanted to understand what was happening in the church in the latter decades of the 20th century.

And in my next posting, I’ll explain what I found when I turned to Schillebeeckx . . . .

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10 Responses

  1. I know very little about formal theology, but I love your description of why you joined the Catholic Church. I was a cradle Catholic, so never had to make a conscious decision to join, but the issues you raise are most certainly those that keep me in the Church today.

    Like you, I grew up against a background of harsh racial injustice – and the example of the church in speaking out publicly, and in more specific actions on the ground, is one of the lesser told stories of the decades long struggle to bring real democracy to South Africa.

    Similarly, the long tradition of the church over 200 year was to me inspirational – to which I would add its global reach and inclusiveness.

    Sadly, I never did get to read the Dutch Catechism or Edward Schillebeeckx himself – but I look forward to reading your account of his writing in your next instalment.

    • Terry, thank you. I’m fascinated by the ways in which similar experiences with the end of legal segregation and apartheid have shaped our two journeys in very different parts of the world and very different cultures. I hope what I say about Schillebeeckx will be helpful. He has certainly influenced me profoundly–particularly his insistence (retrieving patristic and biblical insights lost sight of by the Tridentine and Vatican I church) that Christ is the sacrament of God, and the church is the sacramental sign of Christ in the world. That will be the focus of my next piece.

      P.S. I think you know a great deal about formal theology.

  2. It’s interesting to me how we all have different views of the same events. I was growing up in Detroit at the same time and can’t say my suburban parish was integrated by any means, nor was the prevailing thinking, of which my own parents were prime examples.

    It wasn’t until we city slickers moved to the family ranch in Montana and I experienced the shoe being on the other foot that I re evaluated the whole concept of enculturated racism and sexism. I was also fortunate that in my last two years of high school my English teacher really challenged us to look at our knee jerk responses to social issues. Not something any of us initially appreciated.

    Later, I learned there were very distinct neurologic developmental reasons I preferred memorizing answers to conceptualizing and analyzing on my own. By the time I was in my ealy twenties that was the only way I wanted to learn and memorizing wasn’t even on the radar.

    The Dutch Catechism was not written for the typical teen age neurological state of affairs. The Baltimore Catechism was.

    • Colleen, you pack so much that’s worth noting into this response, I’m not sure where to begin.

      First, it strikes me that it would be interesting, sometime down the road, to have a site-wide conversation about some issue like racial change in our society, and share our different cultural experiences–and cross-generational experiences, since some of us on the site are from different generations.

      Second, what you say about your family’s move from Detroit to Montana and how that shifted your awareness of racial issues is fascinating. You’re right, I think: our ability to see and understand issues has everything to do with our cultural context and life experiences.

      Third, I’m struck by what you say about the role your English teacher played in helping your class think about its knee-jerk reaction to social issues. I had the same experience. And it also involved an English teacher–which makes me begin to wonder if a lot of the values education and religious education that occurs in high school and middle school takes place in humanities classes outside of religion class.

      In my case, it was having a teacher who assigned To Kill a Mockingbird to my 9th-grade English class. As I look back, that was a courageous decision, in a small Southern town, right in the thick of the integration period.

      And reading and discussing this book in class, with the interaction of my classmates and the guidance of that wonderful teacher, shaped my awareness of racial issues profoundly–decisively

      • Bill, it may interest you to know that “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is now a routinely prescribed as a required text in South African schools – for much the same age range.

  3. Terry, that’s a fascinating cross-cultural reference.

    Part of what interests me in Colleen’s observations is that they confirm (for me) an insight about education and psychological development.

    Looking back at my early adolescence, I can see a growing recognition that the world around me was not me and my family writ large. It seems that in early adolescence, I began to “separate” from my family and the taken-for-granted views it provided me with, and became a person on my own.

    Who then began to grapple with questions about right-wrong, truth-falsehood, good-evil, without simply parroting what I had been told at home.

    For the racial question, that was crucial, since every institution around me–family, church, the media, school (for the most part)–told me that segregation was “natural,” ordained by God, and according to reason.

    When I recognized that the views instilled in me in my childhood weren’t the whole world, I then began to open my mind to the possibility that everything I had been taught about race and racial mores was just flat wrong.

    And at that point, enter that wonderful teacher, who insisted on having a group of 9th-graders grapple with To Kill a Mockingbird.

    This suggests to me (again keying off Colleen’s observation) that catechesis that’s all about memorization, imparting answers, learning “the” Truth, keeps people stuck (as Colleen says) in a very early adolescent stage of psychological development, when it comes to religion. I wonder if that’s where some church officials want people to remain stuck?!

  4. It’s not just psychological, it is also neurological. Certain aspects of the pre frontal lobe which are heavily involved in things like moral reasoning are just starting to develop, and this development usually continues into our mid twenties, but it might take years for us to really start to take advantage of these other cognitive capabilities–if ever.

    • Colleen, thanks for the clarification. This gives me more biological evidence for what seems to me to be going on in that key period of adolescent development.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing the impact that the late Fr. Schillebeeckx has had upon your life, especially your spiritual journey towards Catholicism.

    I can easily find many unique similiarites between your pilgrimage and mine.

    When I came from the Episcopalian Church I was conservative in my views and was naturally captivated all the flourishes of Catholicism which you mentioned; smells and bells of the liturgy, the veneration of the Saints, gaining an appreciation for Latin and the different cycles of the liturgy. All of these things I clung to, as well as seeing the Faith as something that was unchanging and that could only be interpreted by the bishops of the Church as the successors of the Apostles.

    However, as you did, I began exploring authors such as Kung, Rahner, Schillebeeckx, Richard McBrien and others who offered alternative interpretations of the Catholic faith. Ironically, coming from my Anglican background, for me also it was the Ven. Cardinal Newman who reinforced the idea of the Church as the People of God and how important the “sensus fidelium” was in establishing certain doctrines of the Faith. I think it will be interesting to see how Rome will paint these views of Newman, that seem to be in contrast with Pope Benedict’s criteria for what true “orthodoxy” is, once he has been beatified. Oh, well, once he has been we know we will have an ally among the altars who supported the idea that the laity and not just the clergy have a role to play in interpreting certain doctrinal questions!

    I look forward to hearing further of Fr. Schillebeeckx influence on your life and also hope to investigate the Dutch Catechism in the future as it seemed to be a wonderfully objective and forward-thinking document truly written in the recent spirit of the Council.

  6. […] In some significant ways, this present posting builds as well on the discussion that followed my recent Open Tabernacle postings about Edward Schillebeeckx, whose theology significantly influenced the Second Vatican […]

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