Maryknoll’s Failed Revolution

It used to be a commonplace observation that most religious thinkers were slightly out of touch with reality. Steeped in idealism and isolated from the rough and tumble of everyday life, pious souls saw the world as simpler and better than it really was. There were plenty of exceptions to the rule, to be sure, religious people with a profound understanding of man and the world. But the vast majority would never be as wise as serpents. The gentleness of doves was their part. And who could blame them? They were doing the best they knew. Their otherworldliness was an occupational hazard.

Today it is a commonplace to think that all this somehow changed after the Second Vatican Council. Suddenly thousands of priests, nuns, and the piously disposed discovered politics. They became activists, adepts at reading the signs of the times. They entered the world with a vengeance and boldly proclaimed the need to work for social justice and to think in an entirely new way about war and peace. Recognizing their own former naivete and wishful thinking, they began schooling themselves in the hard reality that is the world.

Or did they? This question came to mind as I was looking over the Spring book list from Orbis Press, run by Maryknoll, which is probably the throbbing heart of the new religious social awareness in the United States and other parts of the world. Words like “revolutionary,” “innovative,” and “challenging” are applied to the new titles on the list. But for anyone who is not recovering from a case of arrested clerical development better descriptions of these books are “retrograde,” “hackneyed,” and “dull.”

Orbis would doubtless say that it is reading the signs of the times. Alas, it seems only to be reading the signs of the New York Times (and the Times of fifteen years ago at that).

Take the featured book on the list. In No Other Name? Paul F. Knitter speculates on the likelihood that Christ is the only way to salvation in% world of diverse religions. The author, we are told, proposes a “theocentric, non-normative” understanding of Christ. Theologians will find it “very enlightening, if not downright revolutionary.”

Now this conjures up a very interesting image of the theologian who in this day and age would find such a proposal revolutionary. Presumably, in the narrow round of his life, which alternates between drowsing over dusty Latin volumes and imposing arcane dogmas on his students, he has never seriously come face to face with this idea. The anarchy of Catholic thought since Vatican II and the entire modern world are alike terra incognita to him. Arianism and other heresies similar to the thesis of Orbis’s book are for him merely historical curiosities. He would never have dreamed that anyone could hold such a view anno Domini 1985. Somehow, though, this volume finds its way onto his desk and, with a start of surprise, he recognizes what a truly revolutionary idea it is that Christ may not be the unique, only-begotten Son of God.

It may be that this volume is less syncretistic than Orbis’s advertising suggests. My purpose is not to criticize the book or its author. But if we are truly looking for a revolutionary book on Christology in the modern world its title is more likely to be, with Saint Paul, No Other Name!, not Knitter’s question mark. Orbis probably thinks that such books are revolutionary because Catholics normally do not want to talk about the possibility that Christ was not who the Church has always said He was. It is quite true that we avoid the question, but not for the reason Orbis might think. It’s so much a part of the world in which most of us live that we’re simply tired of hearing about it. Far from being revolutionary, it’s the most boring argument of all.

Admittedly it used to be revolutionary when Catholic publishing houses began issuing such books, but over the past decade even that novelty has worn off. For Orbis, however, this kind of Christology is an important intellectual underpinning for most of its publishing program. A definite, normative conception of Christ as some sort of discernible “way” would be imperialistic toward native cultures and even non-Christian religions. Like the Roman emperor who would have liked to house in the Pantheon all the gods of all the peoples in the Empire, Yahweh and Christ included, Orbis seems eager to admit strange gods into the Church.

You will look in vain on this list for any title in the mainstream of Western theology. Orbis apparently regards such work as culturally conditioned and provincial. In Christ, there may no longer be Jew and Greek, but Orbis is doggedly determined that there shall still be African and Latin American. In the West we seem only to have made ourselves idols for destruction. The cultures of underdeveloped areas, even when these are full of practices that would have been termed idolatry in the Scriptures, are for Orbis today’s oracles.

One volume purports to give advice on Constructing Local Theologies. Now there is a sense in which such an endeavor might be authentic. The general tone of all the books listed, however, does not give much reason for optimism that such local theologies would be Catholic. Western theology in general and theology done from a certain Polish perspective in particular seem to be dismissed as “bourgeois” (one book on African theology tries to show how to replace this with “a more living faith”); local theology only seems valid when it is done in “the southern hemisphere and among the marginalized peoples of Europe and North America.”

Of course, such theologies occasionally run into problems with the Vatican. Another new Orbis title documents the life of Emmanuel Milango, formerly Archbishop of Lusaka, Zambia, currently special delegate to the Pontifical Commission on Migration, Refugees, and Tourism. Some readers may remember that the Archbishop’s name suddenly appeared in major national newspapers a short while ago after a Vatican investigation turned up evidence that he was using traditional African witch-doctor practices in a ministry of “Christian healing.” As a result he was reassigned to the Pontifical Commission; it was not a promotion.

On occasion the Vatican has mishandled Catholics with special healing charisms and may have done so in the Archbishop’s case. Church discipline is currently so lax, though, that it must take an especially flagrant case for the Vatican, with all its other worries, to move vigorously.

Here, however, as elsewhere the central importance of the book is not its precise intellectual content, but its ideological overtones. An African bishop/witch doctor has more of a radical cachet than, say, the orthodox faith healer in the First World, like Padre Pio, or even in the Third World, like that agreeable Peruvian mulatto Saint Martin de Porres. Orbis steers clear of such subjects, one assumes, because they do not confront Western cultural imperialism.

The overall message seems to be that if we would only take a moment from our political oppression, economic exploitation, and cultural hegemony to listen to what is coming out of the revolutionary Third World, we might have some revelations. God does reveal things to the humble to bring down the proud, but it is difficult to say where the pride lies, in Western arrogance or in Orbis’s assumption that it knows the religious and political needs of the world.

If Orbis is out of focus when it deals with its proper subject, religion, what can we expect when we turn to the writings on politics? The answer is, I am afraid, even worse than we might imagine.

A common intellectual denominator for all the political books seems to be the contention of two Latin American Jesuits that in our divided world “God is to be found in solidarity with the oppressed.” Note the absoluteness of the statement. Solidarity with the oppressed is not one of the ways that God is to be found, not even the primary way. In a divided world it is the way God is to be found.

The vague Marxist odor that hangs about the phrase “solidarity with the oppressed” is probably all the better for those who publish and read Orbis books. An entire agenda for the world geopolitical struggle arises from the suggestiveness of these simple words. We can be sure that the phrase does not refer in any real sense to the oppressed in Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, or Siberia. This solidarity is clearly meant to fortify vaguely Marxist-tending revolutions.

The Latin American Bishops’ Conferences at Puebla and Medellin were careful to spell out the Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” The recent Vatican Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology spoke of the “disastrous confusion of the poor of the Gospel with the proletariat of Marx” and the unpleasant consequences Marxist revolutions have had for many of the “oppressed” people who were supposedly freed by them. For most Americans, the obvious tendentiousness of the phrase “solidarity with the oppressed” would be objectionable; for Orbis, to be sure, it is just what the doctor ordered.

Thus it comes as no surprise to find on the same list Solidarity with the People of Nicaragua by someone described as one of the authors of Parenting for Peace and Justice. “Each chapter illustrates some aspect of Nicaraguan life and the post-revolutionary process of reconstruction,” says the flyer. If we did not know better, we would not even suspect that in this context solidarity with the people of Nicaragua might run afoul of solidarity with the Sandinistas. And as for solidarity with the Nicaraguan Church and its besieged hierarchy, well, perhaps this was beyond the competence of the author who, we learn, has only been to Nicaragua twice.

Another volume explains how to use the Eucharist to “mobilize effective individual and community action to end world hunger.” The Eucharist, it is allowed, has both sacramental and symbolic meanings, but it is “at a more fundamental level, simply a sharing of food.” From this simple insight in only 128 pages the author is apparently able to circumvent all the manifold obstacles in the First and Third Worlds to abolishing hunger. Like many religious thinkers, the author seems to believe that the sole thing lacking is enough good will at our end.

Still another volume “examines the link between spirituality and justice in response to the dilemmas of two groups: social activists alienated by a traditional, individualistic spirituality, and people deeply concerned with spirituality but intimidated by the demands of an effective commitment to justice.” Note the rhetorical leanings of this description. The activist is alienated from a traditional spirituality which is assumed to have been “individualistic.” Alienation is rarely the fault of the person alienated. Even an unattractive figure like Sartre’s Roquentin can only with difficulty be called responsible for his alienation. We receive a not very subtle message that before Maryknoll and other groups in the Church discovered social justice, the Church consisted of sweet old ladies piously making novenas and unconcerned about the Democratic National Convention.

By way of rhetorical contrast, the deeply spiritual persons are “intimidated” by the demands of social justice. To work for social justice is, by its very nature, to do inconvenient things like read serious books and periodicals, demonstrate, perhaps go to jail.

Give the rhetorical weighting it is not hard to figure out the terminus ad quem of this exercise. Could Maryknoll have published a book about the Catholic “alienated” by an overpoliticized Church and the social activist “intimidated” by the serious call to personal piety? The Catholic third way which built all the hospitals and missions, which made the average Catholic take care of his immediate neighbor, and which led him to political action within a generally accepted system doesn’t even seem to be on the playing field.

Many may think that changing your focus from the poor to the politically oppressed is a widening of horizons. Not necessarily. When religious people enter the political sphere they must show evidence of more than good intentions. They must show political understanding. Maryknoll and Orbis are dangerous to the people they hope to help not because their message is a revolutionary threat, but because it is a failed vision. Most medieval theology texts are more relevant than the books on Orbis’s spring list. Such theology sought the eternally true. These books propound already. obsolete ephemera.

Fifteen years ago college students used to cut cane for Fidel on their vacations. Fifteen years ago it was possible to assume that social justice meant political confrontation with “bourgeois” America. Today carrying water for Nicaragua • and dabbling in the counterculture require blindness to many of the lessons we have learned since the idealism of the sixties came a cropper on reality.

When I was young, I used to leaf through Maryknoll magazine with great pride. The pictures were beautiful. I was also happy to know that the Catholic Church was not only a repository of great cultural, intellectual, and spiritual riches in the developed world, but also a humane and progressive presence in nearly every country on Earth. I admired, more than I can describe, the kinds of people who left family and friends and everything else for no other reason than to help the poor and spread the Gospel to the whole world.

To a great extent, the Maryknoll order is still involved in these wonderful corporal and spiritual works of mercy. But its political engagement in countries threatened with Communist enslavement does little that promotes the path to true freedom, and much that weakens vigilance against the most oppressive and ruthless form of government the world has ever seen. These books from Orbis show why.

Almost all ex-Maryknollers known to me tell a familiar story. In my youthful idealism I went out to preach the Gospel to all nations. Then I found out how much I had to learn. Fine. But when a touch of humility leads not to greater caution but to the naive and uncritical embracing of alien and political gospels how much change of heart has taken place?

A leopard cannot change his spots and we probably should not expect the otherworldly idealists to have a firm grip on the secular world. But when in the name of a more just politics they ruin both politics and religion it is time for us to ask them: for our sake as well as your own, and for the sake of the very poor and oppressed, please stop.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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