The Liberal Consensus

Most Catholics would simply stop being Catholics if they accepted the liberal consensus as true.

Thomas Sheehan takes the occasion of a review of Hans Kung’s Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical and Theological Problem in The New York Review of Books (June 14) to give a thumbnail sketch of how the Catholic Church looks from the perspective of what Sheehan calls the liberal consensus. The triumphalist tone of the piece recalls seminary manuals of yore which consigned alternative views and opponents to outer darkness. Oddly, however, Sheehan ends by acknowledging that the liberal consensus he touts amounts to something very much like the destruction of Christianity and Catholicism.

What does Sheehan mean by the liberal consensus? “The new approach that Catholic scholars are taking to Jesus and the scriptures I shall call, by way of shorthand, the `liberal consensus.’ By that I mean the scientific methods employed and the conclusions generated by Catholic exegetes and theologians internationally recognized in their fields, the ones who hold the chairs, get the grants, publish the books, and define the limits of scientific exegesis and theology in the Catholic Church today.” Now that sounds like a clean sweep of the field, so much so that it looks as if the class of theologians and the liberal consensus neatly coincide, such that to be a theologian or exegete is to be a member of the liberal consensus. The very gusto of Sheehan’s procedure makes his claim risible, since all one need do is enumerate chair holders, grant getters and book publishers who would find Sheehan’s liberal consensus abhorrent — and names Sheehan gives to illustrate his consensus might be included among them. On Sheehan’s assumptions, people like Ratzinger, von Balthazar, Lauren- tin, Fabro, Grisez, Roach, Smith, George Kelly and thousands of others simply do not exist.

The relationship of the liberal consensus to the Church is difficult to determine from Sheehan’s article. On the one hand, as in the foregoing quotation, they have quite simply taken over. On the other hand, the liberal consensus is op-posed to most practicing Catholics, their pastors and preeminently the Pope. “But the fact remains that a new and revolutionary approach dominates Catholic theology today, even if the folk religion of most practicing Catholics still lives on in the prerevolutionary fare that generally is served up from their local pulpits and especially from the one currently occupied by the conservative Pope John Paul II.” The jargon of this passage as well as its tendentiousness are a fair sample of Sheehan’s style. Revolutionary is contrasted with prerevolutionary, folk religion with scientific religion, pulpits whether local or papal with academic chairs, and of course liberal with conservative. Sheehan’s intended reader will feel his knee begin to jerk in the approved fashion. And, oh, the delicacy of that “currently occupied by.” A Catholicism which views the Pope as its enemy is one that those caught up in prerevolutionary folk religion will know how to judge.

So there is a tremolo in the triumphant tone. On the one hand, Sheehan purports to speak for the winners in a battle for the soul of the Church; on the other, he is profoundly worried about Popes and prelates and other folk who, strangely enough, make up the vast body of the Church.

A leitmotif of Sheehan’s review is that it will take a little time for this opposition to die off. Such an attitude is unfortunately common among liberals. There are never serious difficulties in the position embraced that must be answered; rather those who experience difficulties are conservative, prerevolutionary and inclined to slap wrists, so forget them. Still, the future Sheehan envisages seems assured given his description of what is being taught in seminaries. “In Roman Catholic seminaries, for example, it is now common teaching that Jesus of Nazareth did not assert any of the divine or messianic claims the Gospels attribute to him and that he died without believing he was Christ or the Son of God, not to mention the founder of a new religion.” Such teachings are manifestly in conflict with Catholic doctrine. If they do indeed provide the standard fare of future priests, Catholicism is in deep trouble. Sheehan concedes that the “hegemony” of the liberal consensus conflicts sharply with traditional Catholic doctrine. He does not, however, see the liberal consensus as a rationalist attack on traditional doctrine but rather simply the result of “scientific exegesis of the New Testament.” That is, what scholars now know with certainty about the New Testament texts is in flat contradiction with the interpretation the Church has put on them from time immemorial. This means that the Church has not known what She is talking about.

Or does it? There is always the contrast between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of belief to be brought in so as to put off the evil day. The historical Jesus was none of the things Christians believe he was, did or said. The Jesus who is the object of the Christian faith clothes that historical figure with accretions like Son of God, Messiah, Second Person of the Trinity, resurrected, ascended, and so forth. All the liberal consensus asks, on one interpretation, is that we agree that none of those latter claims comes from the original text or is true of the historical Jesus. It is difficult to see how any believer could be satisfied with this distinction so used.

It could mean that while scripture does not provide those specifically Christian beliefs, it does not deny or conflict with them either. History is one thing, faith is another. This was the Modernist assumption condemned by Pope St. Pius X. And it is of course incoherent. If I believe that Jesus rose again on the third day, my belief may not be reducible without remainder to an ordinary historical account, but it includes historical claims as essential components. If I believe that, when the women found an empty tomb, the tomb was empty because Jesus had risen from the dead as he said he would, my belief is not compatible with that tomb’s not being empty, Jesus’s body having corrupted and turned to dust in the usual way. The contrast proposed between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith is thus often one of contradiction and truth must lie on one side or the other. And I mean the truth about a historical event, the empty tomb.

So-called scientific exegesis has historically begun with the assumption that certain events narrated in the Gospels could not have happened. The miracles, for example. I mean, how can we in the __ century (fill in the blank) seriously hold that Jesus fed the multitudes with next to no food, that he raised dead people to life, that he rose from the dead and was seen by hundreds in his risen condition before ascending into heaven? An embarrassment about these claims is assumed and the question becomes: What can we make of these claims such that we can continue to recite the Creed and not be taken to assert them? This is the fons et origo of scientific criticism. The urge’ is to explain away, to demythologize, to reinterpret. Who is the addressee of this prodigious effort? That, I think, is the single most important question. So too one wonders who Thomas Sheehan had in mind when he wrote his review of Kung.

I shall waste no time on Hans Kung here. He is no longer to be considered a reliable teacher of Catholic doc-trine, something Sheehan is ambiguous about. Like many Protestant theologians before him, Kung has ceased to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that his resurrection is the guarantee of our own. If what Christians believe is thus dismissed as impossible and as absent from scripture and/or original beliefs of Christians, the member of the liberal consensus does not let it go at that. No, he wants to understand why Christians believe as true what the scientific exegete knows to be false: The psychoanalysis of the believer begins.

Most Catholics would simply stop being Catholics if they accepted the liberal consensus as true. As well they should, since the liberal consensus as sketched by Sheehan is not some minor or even major variation within the faith; it is a radical replacement of it. At Easter we would not contemplate the glorious truth of our risen Lord but rather the psyches of an early generation of Christians who, in order to express their sense that the influence of Jesus somehow persisted among them, began to tell a story of an empty tomb, a risen Christ, appearances and manifestations to hundreds, etc. Lies, all of it, of course, but Happy Easter and what did the bunny bring?

It is convenient to have as simplistic and triumphalist and vulgar a presentation of the liberal consensus as Thomas Sheehan has given us. No doubt it will cause embarrassment to many he wishes to commend. They are to be sympathized with. This is not the first libel against Catholic biblical criticism nor is it likely to be the last. But Sheehan’s breathless paean to the winning side raises a more fundamental question. To his credit, Sheehan, having followed the reduction to belief in immortality into depths of vagueness where it seems but another name for whistling in the dark and no longer distinctive of Christian belief, asks the obvious question. Why continue to call oneself a Christian at all? If this is all that is left of Catholicism, who except in times of heavy unemployment would want to be a Catholic theologian?

Perhaps because of its appearance in an influential secular paper, many exegetes and theologians will want to correct the impressions Sheehan’s review gives. It is to be hoped that they will pay particular attention to the link Sheehan draws between the liberal consensus — understood as Sheehan understands it with the denials of Christ’s divinity, resurrection, and so forth — and Vatican II, as if this undermining of the faith were simply a carrying out of a conciliar mandate. That is perhaps the most outrageous claim Sheehan makes.

The second most outrageous is that the Church has been tolerant of the “hegemony of the liberal consensus” because of a quiet and unannounced shift from orthodoxy to orthopraxis. That is, since the Church can no longer assert the truth of her teachings, she will turn to emphasizing right conduct or orthopraxis. “The Church’s gradual shift of concern away from theoretical questions toward social, political and moral issues like nuclear warfare, abortion, and liberation theology — whatever one thinks of the positions — is, I believe, one of the major consequences of the undoing of traditional theology.” Sheehan foresees shrinking pockets of conservative power, the vigorous advancement of liberal exegesis and theology in scholarly circles and the pushing of the social gospel. Alternatively, the whole thing could unravel.

The explanatory task Sheehan lays on those he would praise is this. How do they avoid the end Sheehan foresees once they have gone far down the path that leads to it? How except by honoring the Magisterium can one keep himself from being numbered among Sheehan’s liberal consensus?

Those who, like the founders of this journal, are convinced that there is a crisis, indeed crises, within Catholicism, welcome Thomas Sheehan’s account of the liberal consensus. It is most convenient to have what is wrong set forth in the blithe assurance that it is right. What Sheehan praises must appall all those simple believers enmeshed in their folk religion, aided and abetted by their pastors, not least by Pope John Paul II, who know when they are being offered a stone, having asked for bread. Sheehan did not invent the liberal consensus any more than Christians invented Jesus the Son of God. There are some who purport to be teachers of Catholicism who are engaged in dismantling it. Sheehan says they are in our universities and in our seminaries. That makes his piece required reading for every bishop.

It also underscores the fundamental need for such a journal as Catholicism in Crisis.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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