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 . . . .