From the Publisher: Crisis Theology

The fashionable topic these days is American decline. The topic seems to recur generationally. In 1934, Reinhold Niebuhr published Reflections on the End of an Era, and throughout the early part of that decade Niebuhr was preoccupied with the descent of the capitalist West and the ascent of Adolf Hitler. For more than forty years, indeed, he and Paul Tillich were the chief articulators in the United States of “crisis theology.” In Germany such profound and beautifully balanced Catholic writers as Romano Guardini were also writing under such titles as The End of the Modern World.

Yet there were always two themes in “crisis theology.” The first was the impending struggle for the very life of Western culture, for its soul, against the threat of a “failure of nerve.” The second was recollection that the Greek root of the word “crisis” means “decision.” Crisis theology, therefore, was “existential,” in the sense that it called for decision. It called for acts of responsibility. It said that drift will no longer suffice, that one can no longer count upon being carried along effortlessly by the river of tradition. Rather, the living must relive the tradition, reconstitute it by their own judgments and actions, and give it new life.

Indeed, some years ago Crisis reprinted a passage from Richard P. McBrien’s first chapter of Catholicism, called (as we then called our journal) “Catholicism in Crisis.” Times of crisis, he wrote, occur in every life and in every generation of the Church, since a living body of free persons is continually called upon to make decisions of life or death. “A crisis, therefore, may be not only a time for worry in the face of perceived peril, but a time for exhilaration in the face of perceived opportunity.”

Nearly all our popes during the modern era since Leo XIII have had a profound sense of “crisis,” both of imminent peril and of new opportunities for renewed vitality. Indeed, to compare the state of the Catholic Church in the Latin America of 1891 with its vitality of 1988 is to see something of a miracle of renewed vitality. To compare the Catholic Church of North America in 1891 and in 1988 is also to see an enormous transformation.

The peril ahead is all too real. Soviet power and Soviet purposes are highly visible to Pope John Paul II, as are Western hedonism and weakness of will. Even more profound are the opportunities. Although Marxist military power remains both enormous and growing (a recurrent clue to which is another wave of Soviet emphasis upon “disarmament”), Marxist doctrine lies everywhere exposed as bogus “science.” Economically, it doesn’t work. Spiritually, it doesn’t satisfy. (“Marxism,” a Chinese diplomat said in Washington recently, “is very old and very dead.” Deng Xiaoping’s motto sounds almost Thomistic, or if you wish, empirical: “Seek truth through facts.”)

In the “dialogue” between Marxism and Christianity, the future vitality belongs to Christianity. It does so, at least, if the latter can retain its inner purity and strength, and not be sold for a mess of pottage.

In this respect, Pope John Paul II has highlighted the crisis of Catholic orthodoxy. The faith has no strength except what comes from Jesus Christ. Fidelity to that living source is fire in the ingot. Apart from that fire is only cold clanking metal. In particular, Pope John Paul II has all around the world stressed the dignity of the human person whose defense, he insists with relentless emphasis, begins in the act of marital love. He has drawn the line of the slippery slope at the act of conception, and made resistance to contraception a major focus of his universal teaching.

This emphasis obliges all of us who care about orthodoxy to rethink carefully our position on marital love and natural conception. The powerful study by Professor Janet Smith of the University of Notre Dame, portions of which we are privileged to publish in this and the following issue of Crisis, helps us to begin this reconsideration, and suitably to honor the twentieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, issued on July 25, 1968.


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