As recently as 1950, the Roman Catholic Church seemed a tightly organized, monolithic structure confident of its strength and of its unique calling and ministry. On November 1 of that year, Pope Pius XII promulgated the bull Munificentissimus Deus, elevating the long-standing tradition of the bodily assumption of Mary to heaven at her death to a binding dogma, one that has to be accepted for salvation (“Mariam … fuisse corpore et anima ad caelestem gloriam assumptam”). This reinforcement of traditional Catholic Mariology threw up a roadblock to fellowship with the Protestant denominations whose ecumenical enthusiasm had led to the establishment of the World Council of Churches only two years earlier. In addition, it was also an affront to the Eastern Orthodox, who had been celebrating the feast of Mary’s assumption for many centuries, but who steadfastly hold that no new doctrines beyond those approved by the seven ecumenical councils of the undivided ancient church may ever be made obligatory for believers.
Yet within a few years’ time, Pius XII had passed from the scene, to be replaced by the affable John XXIII (1958–63). The new pope convened the Second Vatican Council, and even before its work was finished, it was evident that the ancient, monolithic Roman church was being shaken to its foundations.
John XXIII had announced in his first encyclical, Ad Petri cathedram (July 2, 1959), that the chief goal of Vatican II was the growth of the Catholic Church. Aggiornamiento (“bringing up to date”), which involved liturgical reform, celebration of the Mass and other services in national languages rather than medieval Latin, the easing of many traditional rules, and the giving of more authority to the bishops than the monarchical papacy had previously allowed, was expected to reduce some of the traditional obstacles to Roman Catholic expansion and bring many “separated brethren” and perhaps even separated denominations “to Peter’s see.”
But the opposite happened. For example, theologian Hans Küng, whose timely interest in the theology of Karl Barth earned him a full professorship at Tübingen university, became so involved with Protestant thought that in the eyes of many he has ceased to be a Catholic. Gregory Baum, a Jew whose conversion to Roman Catholicism seemed to involve recognition of the unique claims of Jesus Christ, has now moved, and led others, in the direction of universalism and syncretism. The replacement of the old Latin Mass with modern-language translations, often of questionable quality, has confused and troubled countless faithful Catholics, leading to the establishment of rebellious “traditionalist” congregations. Some priests have advocated and practiced a “theology of revolution” that apparently owes more to Marx than to Aquinas or Jesus. Defection of priests and nuns has become almost a mass movement, and the number of “vocations”—decisions to enter the priesthood or a religious order—has dropped drastically. Previously vigorous Catholic evangelistic organizations such as the Paulist Fathers (established by a converted Unitarian with the goal of winning Protestants to Rome) have become little more than clubs for discussion of comparative religions.
Twenty-three years after Munificentissimus Deus, it is very hard to tell where the Roman church is going. It is evident that there is a tremendous evangelical stirring among Roman Catholicism’s world-wide constituency. Bible reading is encouraged. A kind of charismatic revival reminiscent of a genteel Protestant Pentecostalism has made great headway in Catholic parishes, often among precisely those Catholic people most interested in the spiritual reality and truth on which the papacy used to claim a rather strict monopoly. Attendance at Protestant services and evangelistic campaigns, formerly prohibited or severely limited, is not merely tolerated but often encouraged. At the same time, traditional Catholic leadership figures are either bogged down in doctrinal and disciplinary wrangles—such as the entanglement of the present pope in birth control and priestly celibacy disputes—and hence unable to give real leadership, or moving into such far-out “theologies” that they are no longer acceptable to the masses.
Evangelicals are finding that nominal Roman Catholics are increasingly sympathetic to the biblical Gospel proclaiming salvation by faith and the need for a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. What are the reasons for this? Perhaps a primary one is the fact that the Roman church has accustomed its adherents to think in terms of absolute truth and binding principles. They expect something more from religion than mere optimistic philosophizing or social altruism. Roman Catholicism in the past may not have given them a confidence-inspiring, satisfying personal faith, but it has conditioned them to look for one. They know about commandments that are meant to be obeyed, and they understand something of the seriousness of sin and of God’s judgment. Hence, unlike nominal Protestants accustomed to thinking in relativistic terms, they can understand it when they hear that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). At evangelistic rallies, members of Catholic parishes are frequently disproportionately numerous among those coming forward.
What does all this mean for the evangelical trying to witness to Roman Catholics? He must be aware of the tremendous vacuum created by the virtual collapse of traditional Roman authority, and recognize the great opportunity offered by the hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics who have been led to expect something true and authoritative from God, but who have not yet heard the Gospel presented in personal and understandable terms. At the same time, he should be aware not only of the extreme disarray in Protestant churches, but also of the tenacity of the ties with which many Roman Catholics, even fallen-away ones, are bound to their church. He should not press a converted Roman Catholic to forsake all his Catholic traditions, especially if he cannot help him to find an adequate evangelical congregation where the sense of worship and of the majesty of God is strong. But, recognizing that authentic Bible teaching and biblical fellowship are rare within Roman Catholic circles, he should do his best to bring the evangelically inclined Catholic into a parallel fellowship, such as a Bible-study or prayer cell, where the Word is taught and believed.
Whether a world-wide breakdown of Roman Catholicism is imminent, and whether in view of Catholicism’s. tremendous role in Christian civilization our culture could survive one, is not clear. But it is clear that there is a tremendous hunger among tens of millions of Catholics today, and a corresponding opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them in simplicity and in power (see also News, page 46).
Willa Cather: Understanding God’S Ways
Attitudes toward Christianity play a major part in some of Willa Cather’s finest novels. Whether writing of Catholicism or Protestant fundamentalism, she explores the matter of hypocrisy and sincerity in those who profess Christianity. The novelist herself, born December 9, 1873, was raised a Baptist and later became an Episcopalian.
In One of Ours, which was written in 1922 and which won a Pulitzer Prize, Claude Wheeler’s mother is a member of an unidentified “fundamentalist” church. (To Willa Cather all denominations stressing personal conversion blend together; theological distinctions are ignored. Her characters are either Protestant fundamentalists or Catholics.) Claude knows “that nothing could happen in the world which would give her so much pleasure as to see him reconciled to Christ.” But sending him to a denominational school did not help:
Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it.… Though he wanted little to do with theology and theologians, Claude would have said that he was a Christian.
Claude’s mother is a sympathetic character. Her Christianity does not keep her from concern for others. Cather juxtaposes that form of evangelical faith with that of Claude’s future wife, Enid, whose only desire is to become a missionary to China like her sister. Instead she marries Claude, neglects him for her faith, and eventually leaves him to nurse her sick missionary sister. She loves impersonally, out of duty.
The novels centering on Catholicism also explore appearance and reality. In Death Comes For the Archbishop, perhaps her most famous novel, Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant willingly sacrifice comfort for mission, and travel from France to Arizona to preach to the Indians. While the two men struggle to civilize the land and Christianize the natives, another priest robs his parishioners and lives in sinful gluttony. Father Vaillant is this priest’s antagonist; he is a man dedicated to God. Yet these dedicated Catholics love the world enough to spend time ordering it. Cather’s sincere Protestant Christians for the most part ignore order and concentrate on piety. This other-worldly element in fundamentalism disturbed the novelist, who found in trees and rocks and other earthly things beauty to be cherished. She resisted categorizing God’s ways and boxing his purposes and rebuked those who encouraged religious conformity. Perhaps her attitude toward Christianity may be summed up in Mrs. Wheeler’s later and less fundamentalist position: “As I get older, I leave a good deal more to God. I believe He wants to save whatever is noble in this world, and that He knows more ways of doing it than I.” While Willa Cather may not have understood God’s ways, her sensitive portrayal of characters who thought they did provides the reader with a firm reminder of the fallibility of man.
The Spirit Of St. Louis
Missouri’s largest city was named after King Louis IX of France (1214–70), who had a morally memorable reign. He was named a saint undoubtedly because of his participation in the crusades, but his conduct on the throne was marked by exemplary integrity. He was strong, able, wise, and above all, honest and compassionate. He kept very close tabs over his officials, gave personal attention to grievances of his subjects, and through it all went a long way toward achieving order at home and peace abroad.
The city of St. Louis also has a great reputation to live up to in its association with Charles Lindbergh. Billy Graham, in a sermon during his crusade in St. Louis last month, recalled how the famous aviator turned down a million dollars from a company that wanted him to endorse its product. Lindbergh maintained that his solo flight across the Atlantic in the Ryan monoplane “Spirit of St. Louis” was conceived as an investment in the cause of aviation, not to make money.
Key 73, headquartered in St. Louis, is a symbol of integrity in evangelism. Concessions could have been made to this or that group with some worthy ax to grind, but to its credit it has maintained a truly independent character with primary loyalty only to Christ. It didn’t sacrifice the best on the altar of the good.
Surely this is a day when people should be more sensitive to the need for integrity. When Graham’s St. Louis crusade is televised from coast to coast in the weeks ahead, we hope it will have this salutary effect.
To promote a more responsible celebration of Christmas, a Washington, D. C., group called Alternatives, founded by Bob Kochtitsky, has published an Alternate Christmas Catalogue. The catalogue is “about a simpler lifestyle which does not violate or oppress other humans or the environment; a lifestyle which creates, nurtures and protects life instead of destroying it; a lifestyle rooted in the great traditions of our religions and nation and cultures and therefore responsive to all the earth’s inhabitants.” It suggests that people purchase no Christmas gifts, that they make whatever gifts they give, and that they give the money saved to organizations “helping people and the earth.” The goal is $5 million diverted from consumer products in five years.
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We like the basic idea, though we wonder if the publishers understand that the basic motivations of people must be changed if their inclinations to buy up so many goods and services are to be reversed. Evangelicals, moreover, may prefer to make their own choices of groups to donate their Christmas money to. Many of the thirty-one organizations described in the catalogue, while claiming a religious affiliation, do not specifically proclaim the message of salvation through the one who came to earth on that first Christmas.
We would like to go beyond Alternatives’ Christmas idea to suggest that North American Christians think about an alternative New Year’s Eve this year. Let’s forgo the revelry (there’s little to cheer about, anyway), and instead gather in churches and homes in a spirit of repentance and confession. Pass up the parties and make Watchnight services a special time of quiet commitment, a new turning to God. If we mean business about the things that really matter, we can also forget about football and parades on New Year’s Day and use the time for spiritual meditation.
Such an observance could literally turn our continent around and give it a new beginning. A major reordering of personal and social priorities could result. The only question left is whether the God of judgment has brought us low enough to give us the motivation to do it.
If you have any say in determining a particular minister’s salary, or if you are helping to support a missionary or other type of church worker, you will want to keep in mind as you project your 1974 giving that inflation has taken a heavy toll this year. Rises in the cost of living hit particularly hard at those with small salaries from which a high proportion must go for food and other necessities. Many in full-time Christian vocations fall into this category. They need substantial increases simply to keep up.
Back To The ‘Old Ways’?
According to a survey of 26,000 high school leaders, recently released by Who’s Who Among American High School Students, there is a resurgence of traditional values in the religious and moral realms. For example, 77 per cent of those responding feel that religion is relevant in today’s society (84 per cent of the Protestants, 79 per cent of the Roman Catholics, 58 per cent of the Jews), while 66 per cent claim to attend religious services regularly (70, 83, and 16 per cent for Protestants, Catholics, and Jews). Sixty-eight per cent intend to raise their children in the same general way that they were raised. On the other hand, only 41 per cent say that they discuss problems with their parents, and a miniscule 1 per cent consult a minister about them (see also News, page 49).
Evidently the “revolutionary” mood of the late sixties has faded, and the pendulum is swinging back toward more traditional values. But it is also clear that there is much ambiguity and uncertainty. The radically new is no longer so attractive, but the “old ways” and their concrete implications are only vaguely discerned. There appears to be a longing for something substantial but uncertainty as to where it can be found—a clear challenge to Christians to proclaim what Paul calls “the whole counsel of God.”
A Holiday Sky Show
The energy crisis will probably pull the plug on a lot of decorative Christmas lighting this year, but a natural display in the holiday sky will more than make up for the loss. The recently discovered Comet Kohoutek is now moving around the sun and is expected to emerge spectacularly during the latter part of December. The comet is very large, and its position in relation to the earth and sun is ideal for a dazzling show. Astronomers predict that the comet’s tail may extend across one-sixth of the sky. Skylab III astronauts have been planning spacewalks to observe Kohoutek, including one on Christmas Day that will, it is hoped, be relayed to the world via television.
South Americans will be treated to an even more awesome display: an annular eclipse (one in which the moon covers all but a bright ring around the circumference of the sun) on the day before Christmas.
Perhaps we’ll be privileged through these unusual events to experience some of the thrill felt by those who saw the Star of the Nativity.
Cold Winter Coming?
The fact that our lives have become darker, slower, and cooler in recent weeks should encourage us all to face up to the facts of the energy crisis. It no longer seems like an idle threat or scare story; it is a reality that affects us personally. And some of us may yet feel it much more; already there have been record low temperatures in the eastern and midwestern United States.
There is no present crisis in supplies of energy, though there may be such a crisis in the future if the world continues to use energy at the current rate. The crisis today is caused by the decision of the Arab oil-producing countries to try to get by extortion what they have been unable to obtain through war or through the United Nations. They apparently are willing and ready to stop the machinery of production around the world even if it leads to a great economic catastrophe.
One can hardly deny that both the Arabs and the Israelis have a case. Who can blame the Jews for refusing to return all the lands they secured by conquest when to do so might threaten their very existence? And who can blame the Arabs for wanting to get back what they lost in the 1967 war?
The problem cannot be solved until both sides make real concessions. And no one knows at this point whether this will happen. Meanwhile the Arab oil producers have the rest of the world at their mercy. Even if one were to grant the justice of their demands, is it possible to condone their strategy?
The situation today demonstrates the interdependence of the world in which we live. No nation lives or dies to itself anymore. It also teaches us that we must develop new sources of energy, perhaps fuels of which we have no present knowledge. Meanwhile the United States must reduce its demands for energy and help to work out a peace settlement that will unlock the flow of oil for the world.
The current crisis once more shows the Christian that neither men nor nations, not even the most powerful on earth, are fully masters of their own fate.
The Miracle, The Mystery
A miracle has in it elements of mystery, for it apparently defies the laws of nature and, since it is not repeated, is not subject to verification. The incarnation of Jesus Christ is both miracle and mystery.
In the incarnation: (1) God assumed human form, and existed in unique fashion as both man and God; this was a once-for-all event. (2) A Hebrew virgin conceived by the Holy Spirit (this was no parthenogenesis because the child would then have had to be female). (3) The birth occurred in Bethlehem of Judea in accordance with the prophetic predictions; for Jesus to have been born elsewhere would have either nullified his claim to be the Messiah or invalidated the prophetic Scripture. (4) The event occurred at a particular time in history and was marked by what the Wise Men described as “his star in the East”; for Jesus to have been born at any other time would have removed him from the epicenter of God’s eternal plan of salvation and have left man without a redeemer or any hope of one yet to come.
At Bethlehem’s manger, miracle and mystery merge to form a pattern that defies explanation from any other perspective than that of divine revelation. God indeed has spoken decisively, but the fashion in which he spoke has been “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” This is both the offense of the Gospel and its power to enlighten and save. In this Christmas season men must get behind the trees, the tinsel, and the toys to the cross that followed hard on the manger, and the miracle and mystery of the resurrection that far surpass the miracle and the mystery of his birth.
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