A Kneeling Theology

When theologians withhold their assent from all that the Church has consistently taught from the very beginning until now, they pretty much leave everything in ruins.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...
 “No one can lay any other foundation than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.”
(1 Corinthians 3:11)

In a little book written a couple of years after the 1992 release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recalled a postcard he had received from his great friend and mentor Hans Urs von Balthasar. The message on the card was both short and stark: 

Do not presuppose the faith but propose it.

What could possibly have prompted him to post it? Could it have been something Ratzinger himself had written? Perhaps back in the heady days when he was a bit of a hotshot theologian, immersed as so many bright fellows of his generation were in the shallows of postconciliar silliness? For which Balthasar, of course, evinced neither enthusiasm nor tolerance. And why on earth should he, his whole life and work having been rooted in, wedded, to the Incarnate Word?  

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

“Theology speaks of an event so unique, so extraordinary,” he had written years before, “that it is never permissible to abstract from it.” And yet, he went on to observe, it remains a tendency in human thought always to do so. Not even the Queen of the Sciences is immune, so many of her ministers having allowed themselves to be distracted by projects of pastoral renewal that they become tempted “to bracket the concrete and forget it.  

We are prone to look on historical revelation as a past event, as presupposed (emphasis mine), and not as something always happening, to be listened to and obeyed; and it is this that becomes a matter of theological reflection.

Here, then, is the cornerstone conviction of the Church’s faith, which is that God became man while still being God, finite but never ceasing to remain infinite. “Infinity dwindled to infancy” is how the poet Hopkins put it. It is this supremely necessary fact that the theologian is meant to reflect upon—the central and defining truth before which the only finally appropriate attitude is one of adoration, worship. From the beginning, even before one decides to become a theologian, “one approaches the word of God, the scripture, on one’s knees, prostrate, in the conviction that the written word has within it the spirit and power to bring about, in faith, contact with the infinity of the Word.”

It is neither a sitting nor a standing theology but a kneeling theology, one which lifts the mind and heart to God. That ought to have been the subject matter of whatever the young Ratzinger was writing. And, God be praised, the message hit home; for never again would he write a single swashbuckling piece of progressive theology.

And so, getting back to his little book, which carries the least progressive sounding title of all time, to wit, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism: Sidelights on the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, 1997), we read the following: “Wide-ranging exploration of new fields was good and necessary, but only so long as it issued from, and was sustained by, the central light of faith.” Which cannot be taken for granted, cannot be treated like some parenthetical aside in order to get on with the latest fad in cutting-edge theology. 

St. Paul certainly knew what he was talking about when, warning Timothy a second time, he inveighs against “itching ears” among the self-styled experts, “who will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

Let the truth of faith, says Ratzinger, be its own bulwark, against which the changing sophistries of the age will shatter like cheap glass. 

It follows that the chief points of faith—God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, grace and sin, sacraments and Church, death and eternal life—are never outmoded. They are always the issues that affect us most profoundly. They are always the permanent center of preaching and therefore of theological reflection.

That had surely been the insistence old Balthasar had in mind, which, in passing it along on the back of a postcard to his young friend, would remind him never to forget the importance of starting always from bedrock. Indeed, it would become the animating idea behind the Church’s decision to draft a new Catechism, one that would distill for the whole of the Catholic world the great work of the Second Vatican Council, at which he, Joseph Ratzinger, had been among the periti. And the result? “The symphony of the faith,” to quote Pope St. John Paul II—who, after all, had a hand in writing the documents of the Council and then later, as pope, in promulgating the Catechism itself—in which all the harmonies are gathered into a single unified voice of the Church.

“This is the purpose of the Catechism,” declared the then Cardinal-Prefect in his little book. “It aims to propose (italics mine) the faith in its fullness and wealth, but also in its unity and simplicity.” And whatever novelties of pastoral practice are put in play, “they have no solid basis unless they are irradiations and applications of the message of faith.” 

Should it surprise anyone that resistance to the Catechism of the Catholic Church has come almost exclusively from the chattering class, i.e., the theologians, most especially those of German persuasion who have taken a wrecking ball to so many faith-filled structures? Ratzinger himself made specific note of this fact, reminding the reader that even two years out from its initial release, and despite brisk sales everywhere else, “a significant portion of German-language theology still tends to ‘shut out’ the book and to declare it a fundamental mistake.” Should it surprise anyone that resistance to the Catechism has come almost exclusively from the chattering class—the theologians, most especially those of German persuasion who have taken a wrecking ball to so many faith-filled structures?Tweet This

Disaffection and disapproval have not abated since; the wise and the clever, it seems, will be the very last to sign on with orthodoxy. Why this should be so is a matter of acute and immediate importance in the current struggle to defend the Faith, indeed, to uphold the right of the Church to pronounce—even infallibly from time to time—on the meaning of that Faith. 

Thus, the most pressing need of the hour is simply to go ahead and dismantle, as it were, the wrecking ball that has left in its wake so many ruined lives. Not to efface the line so clearly drawn in the sand between those who remain docile before the self-revealing Word of God, who bears a unique and unsurpassed Name—Jesus the Christ—and those who are determined to dominate this Word, deconstructing all that testify to it. Which is not, heaven knows, the attitude of the slave but, rather, that of the loving servant, who humbly submits to the truth as revealed by God Himself, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. And certainly not to His own Bride and Body, on whom He has lavished all His gifts, including the Great Commission to go and carry all that He has entrusted her with out into the world.

Let us be very clear about this. Those who would reject the Word of God, along with the Office of Unity charged with its defense, are in fact turning their backs on a host of saints and scholars stretching all the way back to the first stirrings of the Church’s apostolic life, all of whom were of one mind on the matter of orthodoxy, that it is of first importance in the exercise of magisterial authority. That to deny or diminish the Church’s right and duty to interpret the Word, to remain faithful to an identity and mission given to her by God, amounts to a direct frontal assault upon the Teacher par excellence, who is Christ Himself.

When theologians withhold their assent from all that the Church has consistently taught from the very beginning until now, they pretty much leave everything in ruins. The breach they have caused in an otherwise solid and secure wall of faith will have done its worst. There can be no unity among Catholics, the People of God, where there is no connection to what has gone before us. When all the communion lines to the past have been cut, we will no longer be able to speak to one another. We shall sail in darkness, leaving nothing recognizably Catholic behind.   

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

tagged as: Catholic Living Church

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...