My dear mom has undergone numerous examinations and medical procedures this past fortnight. The good news of today is: Cardioversion has restored her heart to “sinus rhythm.” (Most of us take sinus rhythm for granted.) Mom thanks you for your prayers for her.
Meanwhile, I have haunted hospital rooms and doctors’ offices, with a lot of time to read. So I read Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man.
Niebuhr unfolds the “Christian distinction”–between Creator and created–with a relentless penetration. He offers an exposition of Christianity capable of withstanding every attack launched since the first Rationalist was born. Niebuhr manages to find the truth in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, while simultaneously cutting them to the quick.
Niebuhr shares an intellectual quality with my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas. He patiently endures the vast expanse of the unknown. Niebuhr, like St. Thomas, clarifies admirable yet deceptive half-truths, by affirming only the simplest, clearest facts. And the simplest, clearest fact of all is, of course: We do not know what God knows.
All this said: For all the similarities of method a reader can find in Niebuhr’s Gifford lectures and St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, one fundamental dissimilarity struck me. And comforted me.
The dissimilarity involves what St. Thomas’ Summa Theo. shares with the Catechisms of Sts. Pius V and John Paul II, and with all other definitive manuals for Christian teaching. Namely this: they start from the rough-and-tumble on-going life of Holy Mother Church.
Christ gave the Apostles a mission, and we Catholics have been at it ever since. In doing our thing, we have a distinctive vocabulary that we use. For instance, words like: God, creation, angels, heaven, Christ, Incarnation, Resurrection, Holy Spirit, Trinity, baptism, Eucharist/Mass, priest, pope, bishop, sacraments, faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, Father, Virgin, prophet, gospel, hell, incense, etc.
The Church uses these words in the course of the life She leads in obedience to Her Lord. A good teacher of Her faith knows what all these words mean, and knows how to use them well. St. Thomas wrote his Summa Theo. to help educate teachers of Christianity. So the Summa is fundamentally a dictionary, in which the Angelic Doctor gives crystal-clear definitions of the words we students of Christ use. Sts. Pius V’s and John Paul II’s catechisms offer the same.
The fact that the Church will live Her life; that She will continue to do so until the end of time; that She will use Her distinctive words, bandying them around at countless parish Masses, baby baptisms, weddings, episcopal consecrations, funerals, Bible-studies over coffee, CCD classes, Roman Synods and papal conclaves, prayers at the bedside of dying grandparents, etc., etc., etc.–this fact we do not doubt. Mother Church will live and breathe, give birth, march into the future. She cannot die or be destroyed. We know this, because it’s part of the Christian faith, which we hold, by God’s grace, as truth revealed from on high.
So that’s a comfort, at least for me.
Niebuhr valiantly undertook to meet Mr. 20th-century Existentialist on his own terms. And Niebuhr worked and prayed as a churchman. But The Nature and Destiny of Man does not involve the kind of living celebration of the truth of Christ’s resurrection that occurs at every Mass. In fact, the book amazingly does not touch on Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday at all.
Now, do we Christians face challenges, maybe even persecutions, perhaps martyrdoms in this age? May God give us the strength to endure whatever may come. I, for one, can’t quite conceive of myself as some kind of potential hero. I prefer to rest with some comfort in the certainty that the Lord will keep His Church in business, even with priests as feckless as me holding great responsibilities.