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Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Priests Are Not Theological Vending Machines"

From Catholic Exchange
By Mark Shea

When I was a kid I believed my family knew everything. My brother Mike, after all, could work wonders by turning me invisible with a mere “Abracadabra!” I’d run around the house waving at everybody and making faces and they would all stare right through me saying, “I hear you, Mark, but I can’t see you! Where are you?”

More than that, my parents knew everything there was to know about anything from ancient history like World War II to all the names of airplanes to dinosaurs. My oldest brother, Rick, was a fountain of information on any subject that came to hand. They were gods—until the day I asked “Who invented shoes?” and was flummoxed to discover none of them knew.

And as time wore on, I discovered that this strange new experience only increased in frequency. I found there were more and more questions my parents and brothers couldn’t answer at the drop of a hat. I discovered, in short, that they were human beings.

I sometimes think that many people still have not discovered this important fact when it comes to our priests. Here, for instance, is a letter I got recently from somebody who was greatly exercised because priests were not addressing an issue very close to my correspondent’s heart. My correspondent wrote:

What would you say if someone asked you when did Jesus know he was God? Trust me, not everyone agrees on the answer, especially not Catholic priests. When we start talking about Jesus, I think it is very important at this time to immediately say God is Jesus and Jesus is present in the Eucharist. I sure wish one priest would get up on the altar and say Jesus is God and Jesus knew he was God from the incarnation.

Now I’m fairly well-educated theologically. I get lots of questions along these lines from readers and listeners on radio programs. Indeed, I’ve gotten questions that were real lulus (“What is the official Church teaching on how much body mass you can lose before you lose your soul?” stands as the current champion lulu). But, that said, I can tell you that if someone suddenly demanded “When did Jesus know he was God?” my immediate answer would be “Beats me.” So I can well understand how someone might get a variety of answers to that question from a variety of Catholics, including priests. Jesus has, as we recall, a divine and human nature. We know from divine revelation that He “increased in wisdom and in stature” (Luke 2:52). In short, He learned things like all humans do. In His deity, He is omniscient. In His humanity, He asks questions because He doesn’t know things. He freely confesses “Of that day and that hour, no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). So I don’t know that it’s a slam dunk to say with absolute confidence that Jesus knew He was God from the moment of His Incarnation in Mary’s womb.

Now, I’m just giving you my completely uninformed gerblat of a response based on what happens to spring to mind at the moment. That and five bucks will get you a cup of St. Arbuck’s coffee. I’m willing to bet good money that somewhere in the Church’s tradition this question has been given an exhaustive going-over by somebody (probably several somebodies) and there is probably even magisterial teaching on the question. If there is, then pay attention to that and not to my ignorant ramblings.

However, that said, my point is this: the failure of a busy, harried priest to be a theological vending machine on every abstruse question of theology–and that at the drop of a hat–is not really an indication of something sinister or substandard going on in the pulpit. Nor is it quite fair to relate the sudden question “When did Jesus know he was God?” to either the preaching of the Real Presence or the general question “Is Jesus God?” and suggest that failure to have sudden universal competence in the first question means neglect or denial of the other two questions. I go to a Dominican parish with a very strong Eucharistic devotion and very clear preaching on the deity of Christ and the Real Presence. Yet I have never heard a homily preached on the consciousness of Christ and the question of when He knew he was God. That’s largely because the question just hasn’t come up, not because there is a denial of His deity or of the Real Presence.

Moral: Don’t borrow trouble by assuming a priest who can’t give snappy answers to sudden and difficult questions is an apostate in the pulpit. Chances are he’s just human.

1 comment:

William E. Grogan said...

Thanks for this bit. I appreciate the concession implicit here -- we priests are indeed human. Personally, I consider "Just human" or "merely human" insufficient most days; the struggle to be authenically and fully human is much more important to me; and the public witness to the struggle may be important, too.

I'm constantly reminded of a saying by an old teacher of mine (more notable for his good humor and kindness than for his wisdom): "People have a right to competent ministry." To the extent that "competent ministry" is reflected in the habit of studious pursuit of answers to reasonable difficult questions, I think we priests have a responsibility to model that pursuit. Busy and harried go with the territory, and are the privilege of most professionally educated and employed people. If we priests are as human as everyone else, we can welcome the opportunity to be measured by the same professional standards.

Certainly there are many broadly speculative questions that will not submit to a simple answer. Millennia of prayerful, thoughtful, faithful, disciplined exploration (aka "faith seeking understanding") has not been in vain. We can, by our own studious pursuit, break open for sincere believing people some of that treasury of wisdom -- but not if we haven't come to know or understand or appreciate the treasure ourselves.

What's your take on this?