As published in the third edition of Serra Connects, available digitally here and physically here, I have placed my piece below:
The Faith That Can Move Mountains
As the Church goes, so goes Serra. In the west, Serra’s population is aging and fewer young are interested in our work, though there are still many. We can find all kinds of places to put the blame, but in the end I think we need to look on a more fundamental level rather than simply “Our communities aren’t promoting themselves well with such and such a program.” The problem is a problem of faith, the purpose of any Catholic group’s existence in the first place. In the United States for example, since the end of the Second Vatican Council (1965) the number of ordinations has gone from 1,575 to 450, seminarians from 49,000 to 4,700, regular mass attendance 65% to 25%.
It’s fair to stand back and ask, what happened to the much spoken of renewal?
On the day of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II’s opening, Pope Benedict XVI opened the Year of Faith lasting from 11 October 2012 until 24 November 2013 which was preluded by a document called Porta Fidei. This is also the year of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Fr. Serra. I do not wish to force any connection between the two, but there actually is quite a significant similarity present in the direction and drive of both men’s missions and context of faith. I hope that, by the analogy of what we know about Fr. Serra’s mission, we can learn about three main purposes of this Year of Faith. First, we will look at the similarities between Pope Benedict and Fr. Serra to gain context and see the overall purpose as a response to a “profound crisis of faith.”
The second major purpose is to encourage the faithful and people in general to reflect on what they believe and understand that a worldview that takes modern science as its only reference point will strangle knowledge of God. The third major purpose of the year is recognizing the need for a correct interpretation, or hermeneutic as our Holy Father calls it, of the Church’s perennial doctrine which is more needed than ever. Lastly, we will consider given the cause of this crisis, the solution that he recommends.
Need for Renewal
It is no accident that Pope Benedict would write his papal encyclicals on each of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, but then save faith, which is traditionally mentioned first, as his last encyclical for the date of this anniversary. Cardinal Ratzinger’s choice of the name “Benedict” is also not without significance, as it is a sign of renewal, just as St. Benedict fled the debauchery of urban life to create a band of brothers who would reconquer an already supposedly Christian land for Christ all over again. Pope Benedict has called together a Synod of Bishops who are meeting in Rome as I write this sentence. The opening speech, which was given by Cardinal Wuerl of Washington DC, stated the following:
The current cultural landscape calls the Church to re-propose the Catholic faith, to re-propose the Gospel message, to re-propose the teaching of Christ...A Tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape.
In the time of Fr. Serra, many Christians felt they were equally under assault and battling for the soul of the world. The protestant reformation and counter-reformation seemed to be tearing Christendom apart. Wonder and awe seeming to rival God was now found in the technological accomplishments of man through the application of the modern scientific method, which for many acted as a retroactive justification for the metaphysical reduction of all things to mere physical parts. It no longer seemed necessary to see things from ‘spiritual perspective’ but only a mechanical one. The earth and humanity no longer seemed to be the center of the solar system when it was found that the sun actually is, making humanity less important--particularly when man seemed to pop into existence because of the successful ‘coincidences’ of genetic evolution. The ‘new world’ had just been discovered which seemed to contain other human beings with no geographical connection Adam’s bloodline. These issues were presented as an attack on faith and continue to advance secularism in the hearts and minds of many today and were surely not at all unfamiliar to the Blessed Junipero Serra. From the year 1744 Blessed Serra was a philosophy professor in Mallorca where he held the chair, or professorship of Blessed Duns Scotus. Though we have very few of his philosophical writings, it would be very odd if he did not address the philosophical issues of his day. He left the position to go to the new world in 1749 to teach the newly discovered natives who had no faith in Christ because they did not know of Him. They knew of God, but not God himself and after working with the natives it became clear that every day events, such as the rising of the sun, were seen with a unique hermeneutic-a spiritual one. In 1966, Father Ratzinger was appointed to a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen and later moved to be a professor at the University of Regensberg, often focusing in hermeneutics, or the “method of interpretation,” which will become important in the third point. The similarities extend beyond professors seeking to renew a culture.
Rational Foundations of Faith
A primary purpose of the Year of Faith is to cause people to reflect on what they believe, particularly if they claim to be Catholic. Are they Catholic, or even religious, only because their parents were? Are they being honest with themselves about their belief or not? Early in his pontificate Pope Benedict tried to call attention to the issue in his lecture at Regensberg--which became famous for criticizing Islam rather than the subject of the paper: faith and reason. Now in the initiating document, Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict has stated:
“To a greater extent than in the past, faith is now being subjected to a series of questions arising from a changed mentality which, especially today, limits the field of rational certainties to that of scientific and technological discoveries. Nevertheless, the Church has never been afraid of demonstrating that there cannot be any conflict between faith and genuine science, because both, albeit via different routes, tend towards the truth.”
Many, if not all of the issues mentioned in Fr. Serra’s time in the previous paragraph continue to cause “a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people,”
because it is accepted that knowledge beyond modern science is not possible, though St. Thomas would be very disappointed in their understanding of Aristotle. There is so much that I want to say on this topic, but I would be overlapping with content that a regularly write on my blog at battleforthecore.com. Instead, let’s ask, how did Fr. Serra deal with this? His faith carried him on. He did not choose to ignore the scientific issues of the day that were ‘pressing in’ upon Christianity. He did not choose to remain a pure academic dealing with concepts like univocity of being, for his whole life where he never brought what was in his head down to his heart. He did neither. Rather, he learned what he needed to learn, reached the conclusions he needed to reach, went on to teach what he needed to teach in the new world and set the example he needed to set to be a follower of Christ--because it was reasonable, and reasonable to have faith. Dare I say it--Pope Benedict thinks each of us needs to take a similar journey. He recommends, and even grants an indulgence to those who, during this year read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. How much do you know of what it means to be a Catholic Christian? Do you have an answer for those who claim modern science is reasonability itself? In the West, we are no longer dealing with natives who are religious but not Christian, we are dealing with a post-Christian secularism. As St. Paul states, are you ready to give an account of your faith, particularly insofar as it is accessible to human reason for the sake of other souls? Hint: take a look at Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. In the next section, Pope Benedict goes beyond human reason and asks us, what does the Catholic faith as a whole look like, and do we believe it?
Another purpose for the Year of Faith is to reduce recent misunderstandings of what the Church teaches and promote authentic doctrine in what has been called “the New Evangelization”. Since the time of Vatican II, number of participants in the Church weren’t the only thing that plummeted. Suddenly 77% of Catholics believe they don’t have to attend Mass on Sunday, 65% believe Catholics can divorce and remarry, 53% say that Catholics can have an abortion, 10% accept the Church’s teaching on birth control and 70% believe the Eucharist is a mere “symbolic reminder” of Our Lord.
Cardinal Wuerl in the same opening speech in Latin to the opening of the synod stated the following:
This current situation is rooted in the upheavals of the 1970s and 80s, decades in which there was manifest poor catechesis or miscatechesis at so many levels of education. We faced the hermeneutic of discontinuity that permeated so much of the milieu of centers of higher education and was also reflected in aberrational liturgical practice," he said. "Entire generations have become disassociated from the support systems that facilitated the transmission of faith...
The hermeneutic of discontinuity, a phrase originally coined by Pope Benedict refers to the view that the Second Vatican Council supports new or different theology than, and replaced the understanding of, the Catholic faith which came before it. The hermeneutic of continuity which Pope Benedict is asking us to take on is one which views the Councils of Nicea, Trent, Vatican I as the already solid foundation of interpretation (hermeneutic) through which we should understand Vatican II, which in no way negates the statements of these prior Councils. The Second Vatican Council should only be an attempt to present the same content in a different way relevant to contemporary man.
The Holy Father pointed out an example of this in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate about which he commented on 12 October 2012:
"In the process of active reception, a weakness of this otherwise extraordinary text has gradually emerged: it speaks of religion solely in a positive way and it disregards the sick and distorted forms of religion which, from the historical and theological viewpoints, are of far-reaching importance; [because] for this reason the Christian faith, from the outset, adopted a critical stance towards religion, both internally and externally."
Now what is the significance of this seemingly negative statement? The significance is the same significance that Fr. Serra understood. The truth can be presented to convey a totally different message if it is given out of context, or in the Holy Father’s case, out of a hermeneutic of continuity with the past. He is saying that this document, though giving all valid statements, is weak in reiterating previous conciliar teachings and might give the impression that the Nostra Aetate’s recognition of what we have in common with other religions neutralizes their critical errors. In the new world at the time of Fr. Serra, the culture of the continent was dominated by pagan religion--whose beliefs ranged from belief in the earth as our eternal mother to placating the sun with thousands of bloody human infants. These religions, despite the modern day criticism he receives for it, is what Fr. Serra sought to renew for the natives. He sought to show them that the God after whom they were seeking and seeing in the hermeneutic of their daily lives is called Jesus Christ, thought they didn’t know it yet. He taught them Latin. He taught them Catechism. By teaching them many European practices he brought many good things alongside some bad, such as disease. Even after teaching them Catechism, some still tried to interpret Christianity in the hermeneutic of their prior religion which created various non-Christian practices within the Christian people. However, in the end, the effort of Fr. Serra paid off--California for one, owes to him much of its foundational documents and cities. He renewed the religion of the people there by carrying out the Great Commission
: not by only telling them that they were on the right track by looking for God in the first place, but by also telling them about where they “had things wrong,” summarily speaking. The sun for example is a reflection of God, but is not God himself. He was an example of faith.
This is not unlike what St. Benedict did in the 4th century nor unlike what the Holy Father is trying to do today. Europe has become a foreign land to Christianity in many ways, even within the Church. Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council a very large number of places in the Church had adopted a interpretation or hermeneutic which Popes prior to the council would never have dreamed of, which holds that our doctrine given throughout the ages must be adapted in every age to that age. Abortion may be wrong in one century, but given enough time, that may change and the same is true with the Assumption of Mary (1954), real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (John 6:53–56), Papal Infallibility (Vatican I), etc.
In the opening week of the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict also made statements which were quite sobering and helpful for our understanding of doctrine in a hermeneutic (or lens of interpretation) of continuity.
The Council Fathers wished to present the faith in a meaningful way; and if they opened themselves trustingly to dialogue with the modern world it is because they were certain of their faith, of the solid rock on which they stood. In the years following, however, many embraced uncritically the dominant mentality [a hermeneutic of discontinuity], placing in doubt the very foundations of the deposit of faith, which they sadly no longer felt able to accept as truths.
Lastly and in summary, the Holy Father requests that we learn the authentic interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, something which is nearly impossible without learning the doctrines of prior councils and events (including the life of Christ). In order to affirm and to have true faith in these things (assent to them) we must first know them--this even goes for our belief in God in the first place. This is why in Porta Fidei he states:
“Evidently, knowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent, that is to say for adhering fully with the intellect and will to what the church proposes...In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool. It is one of the most important fruits of the Second Vatican Council...It is in this sense that the Year of Faith will have to see a concerted effort to rediscover and study the fundamental content of the faith that receives its systematic and organic synthesis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
Now that you are all experts on hermeneutics, ask yourself, how much has my perspective been skewed by the secular or dissenting dominant mentality? Do I know the faith Christ’s Church proposes to me and believe for no other reason than I really do believe? It is important to read books not just created in the last 50 years but also to tap into the treasury knowledge and reflection of the saints and those who have gone before us. Only by knowing what we are getting ourselves into can we really stay and say that we are fully onboard.
Written by Jon Haines, Assistant Director