Fourteen years ago today, a seminarian sat before an ad hoc “board of inquiry” in a conference room at the seminary.
The board consisted of the seminary rector, the vocation director of the diocese, and two professors of Sacred Scripture. The question at hand: Should this young man be ordained?
In fact, the young man had already been ordained—a transitional deacon. The normal review process for ordination had already occurred. This was the young man’s penultimate semester; he had passed his comps; he was in the homestretch. But then two professors (not the ones in the room) had written to the Archbishop: This seminarian is a fundamentalist!
A course evaluation, naively signed by the seminarian, had led to the writing of the letter. The professor called the seminarian to argue about the evaluation. In the course of the conversation, the seminarian said, “I don’t see how you can say that the Flood certainly didn’t happen.”
One of the questions posed at the inquest was: “Was there a real Abraham?”
An older priest had coached the seminarian for this moment. “Just say you don’t know. Just say you don’t see how anyone could claim to know that there wasn’t.” That there wasn’t an Abraham, or an Adam, or an Eve. That there wasn’t a Noah who built an ark. That there wasn’t a miracle of loaves and fishes.
(The coach is now a titular Archbishop serving in the Roman Curia.)
The inquiry of St. Andrew’s Day, 2001, ended amicably enough, with no clear conclusions. The seminarian was neither cleared of holding the ostensible heresy of “fundamentalism,” nor found guilty.
A local parish priest had promised to take the deacon and his friends to supper after the meeting was over. The deacon drove to the pizzeria, in his trusty ’83 Cutlass Ciera. On the way he regaled his friends with the details of the inquisition. One of them had to ask him to pull over, because listening to the story had nauseated him, and he vomited into a gutter storm drain.
A week later the rector told the deacon that he was no longer welcome at the seminary. But, eighteen months after that, the deacon was ordained a priest anyway. Now, because God has His own ineffable sense of humor, the priest serves as the pastor of a beautiful parish under the patronage of his old friend from that fateful day, the Holy Apostle to whom he prayed on bended knee that the Lord’s will would be done—St. Andrew.
I don’t mean to paint myself as some kind of martyr. God knows I was ten times more willful and difficult in 2001 than I am now, and everyone knows that I am a serious pain in the neck.
As the years pass, I have more sympathy for the other men in the room that day—and I had a fair amount of sympathy for them even then.
They knew perfectly well that the Catechism said one thing—when it comes to Adam and Eve, the Flood, Abraham, and the miracles of Christ (not to mention the Ten Commandments and the prophecies of the major and minor prophets)—while the seminary professors who wrote to the Archbishop tended to say another. The board of inquiry probably wondered if I had managed to get myself in trouble because, fundamentally, I am an arrogant SOB. (Which of course I am.)
I readily concede that only a numbskull could claim that the questions on the table that day have obvious answers. Abraham walked the earth over a thousand years before Socrates, and some reasonable people wonder if Socrates really existed. And when the Scripture says that the Creator worked for six “days,” the word day can’t possibly mean the amount of time between one sunset and the next. Because God didn’t create the sun until the fourth day.
If we try to read the Bible, but do not keep in mind the fact that human beings wrote these words, and they expressed themselves with poetical flourishes and idiosyncratic romanticism, just like we do—if we forget the human dimension of the Scriptures, then we effectively deny the central point of the whole thing, namely that God can—and has—united Himself personally with our incorrigible race.
For me, the joy of preaching homilies comes from the endlessly fascinating human dimension of the Scriptures. Without historical research to supplement the text of the Bible itself, it’s hard—at least for me—to capture that human dimension evocatively. If I had never read Creation, by Gore Vidal, for instance, I would have had one fewer paragraph in my homily yesterday. And Gore Vidal was hardly a fundamentalist.
But, IMHO, the questions that really lay on the table fourteen years ago were these: How much confidence can we put in our historical theses about the ancient world? (The au currant theories about the “Johannine community” that held sway in 2001 have long since been displaced by other theories.) Don’t we have to concede that, in fact, the books of the Bible themselves serve as our primary source of historical information about all the events they narrate? And, as historical sources go, aren’t the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the New Testament letters all about as solid as you’re going to get in the inexact science of history?
Let me put it like this: I was willing to get thrown out of the seminary, with my whole future hanging in the balance, for this idea (which maybe is a typical Generation-X type of idea): God’s revelation of Himself to the human race does not ultimately depend on the ingenuity (or lack thereof) of our generation. Sacred Tradition has delivered the truth to us. The Creed expresses it; the Holy Mass and the sacraments celebrate it; the Pope infallibly preserves it. Our job is to believe, and then take it from there.
Happy Feast of St. Andrew, dear reader! Somehow the Holy Apostle managed to keep me on the path, when other seminarians were reaching for their barf bags. I, for one, rejoice that things have worked out the way they have.