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The Gospel and Living Catholic Tradition

The Second Vatican Council asks us to read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel. In seeking to do that, we have been trying to make sense of the divisions in our country and our Church, of so much violence, of threats to our climate and the earth, and the destructive attitudes towards the least among us, even among some people of faith. We have wondered how we can deepen our understanding of the life and death and teachings of Jesus, of the Eucharist, the centuries of rich tradition of the Church, and the good perspective that this faith can bring to what is happening today.

The suffering of the people in the wake of a year of the Coronavirus and the effect on the economy from efforts to contain the virus have exacerbated the already existing poverty of too many and created economic hardship for many more. Responses to the virus became politicized and divisive and continue to cause anxiety and anger at people perceived as enemies. The desperate economic realities of unemployment or underemployment have reminded us of the Great Depression, at the same time as some enormous corporations have profited.

The divisions and the political crisis after the assault on the Capitol and the attempt to overthrow the election have brought the threat of violence more and more to our awareness. A recent survey from the Survey Center on American Life found that even after the disturbing event at the Capitol nearly three in 10 Americans agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.”

Incredibly, interviews in the press have shown that supporters of violence in the U. S. who have not accepted the loss of their candidate are using as a positive example what happened in Myanmar when a military coup took over the government.

It is disheartening to see that these division are echoed in the Catholic Church amid almost bitter conflict over Tradition and interpretations of Tradition. Old conflicts in the Church, which had included questionable political alliances and which had been resolved, have re-emerged. Some Catholic groups have endorsed conspiracy theories with no basis in fact or faith.

Catholic traditionalist Jonathan V. Last has described what he called a recent fawning interview with Marjorie Taylor Greene on EWTN. Ms. Greene is a defender of bizarre conspiracy theories who has not only advocated the overthrow of our national election, but has also made death threats against our political leaders. Ms. Greene is not Catholic. Presenting Ms. Greene in a positive way, according to Jonathan Last, is an indication of how EWTN has changed since the death of Mother Angelica. During her lifetime Mother Angelica made fun of liberal Catholics, but she also spent time listening to people’s calls about their suffering and counseling them. The programming featured traditional piety like the Rosary. In recent years the “news” programs have become more and more political and divisive. We ourselves have seen shows on that network where people who organize to help the poor have been depicted as the devil himself.

The author of the article on the site called Bulwark recently broke with other traditionalists whom he perceives as having lost their way. Last wrote there that “the culture war has broken the Catholic Church in America.” He stated that this kind of conflation of the Catholic faith with politics and extreme nationalism is “more dangerous to Catholicism, in the long run, than even the abuse coverups.” He goes so far as to say that where Catholics in other times and other contexts and countries “have viewed their oppression through the lens of Christ’s suffering, the American Church views its situation through the lens of grievance politics.”

What is the way of Jesus? How can Catholics who follow the One who gave us the Sermon on the Mount and who founded our great Tradition become more and more a source of peace and defense of those who suffer in these difficult times? Surely not in Catholic support for a return to royalty and dictatorship, to an integralism which has the danger of putting the Church together with a politics which tolerates Nazism, and the violence which always exists on its fringes.

This Has Happened Before

The Church has faced this kind of crisis and the mistaken alliances that have emerged from it in other times and circumstances. A notable example  took place in France after the turmoil and anti-clericalism of the Revolution, followed by Napoleon. Complicating matters further, the winds of change in the world of philosophy challenged philosophy and theology in the Church.

At the time, some sought the answer in a return to the monarchy as many Catholics joined a movement known as L’Action française (led by the atheist Charles Maurras). This political “proto-fascist” idea became popular and led to disagreements and divisions not only in politics, but also within Catholic theology. Those aligned with L’Action française appealed to Catholic authorities for condemnation of those who differed with them theologically. This was at the height of the conflict over what was called Modernism, a term which is again being thrown around in this time of division.

The Gospel, Theology, Living Catholic Tradition and Maurice Blondel

The work of a French philosopher named Maurice Blondel, who a century or so ago at a time of great upheaval wrote philosophy in the light of his faith, may help shed some light on how not only the Sermon on the Mount, but also the best of Catholic Tradition, can guide us during this time. He did not accept integralism and the restoration of the monarchy as the solution.

Blondel’s insights into the bond between history and dogma, faith and reason, the natural and the supernatural can help us to overcome the split between the Gospel and our culture, a split that Pope Paul VI famously pointed out: “The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 21).

The split that Pope Paul was speaking of reflects the very profound difference between the Gospel and Catholic Tradition in its fullness and the superficial, consumeristic aspects of culture, the seeking of wealth and privilege for oneself and one’s group, the violent defense of one’s possessions or way of life, the manipulation of those who have unwittingly suffered from corporate greed.

My interest in Blondel came through Mark Zwick, who brought me into the Church (years later we were married). Mark read the theologian who prepared the groundwork and theology of the Second Vatican Council and he shared their books with me. Mark was friends with priests known as Hugo-ites for their appreciation of and friendship with Fr. John Hugo. These friends read and shared the books of the great theologians of the Council such as Henri de Lubac even before the Council took place. Mark knew and shared with me also that before these theologians came the groundbreaking work of Maurice Blondel. He had told me about his seminary training in dry manuals in Latin that did not seem so related to living the Gospel in daily life. Fr John Hugo also wrote about this, declaring that when he first attended the famous retreat that he gave so many times at the Catholic Worker that it was like hearing the Gospel for the first time, in contrast to the old manuals in the seminary. Life changing.

A recent book, Robert C. Koerpel’s Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition (Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology), University of Notre Dame Press, 2019, demonstrates how in the aftermath of devastating times in his country and amid controversies within the Church, a Catholic philosopher/theologian was able to set forth an innovative vision. He went beyond the rigid dogmatic manuals of his time as he engaged the new secular philosophies.  And he worked to disentangle the Church from politics and the integralism of L’Action française. As the new philosophical ideas (Descartes and others) challenged neo-Thomist philosophy. Blondel recognized and presented the bonds uniting concepts that had been for some centuries presented as separate. His writings led to the blossoming of what became known as the nouvelle theologie, so present at the Second Vatican Council.

Blondel’s philosophy related to life and history and action, not only more dogmatic or juridical concepts. According to Koerpel he “provides modern and contemporary Catholicism with a notion of tradition that vivifies Christ’s sacramental presence by discerning and drawing the incarnational and spiritual dimensions of history into the concrete life of the Church.” Blondel applied his philosophy of action to the “pressing problem of theology in relation to history.” He grappled with questions which still challenge Catholic philosophers and theologians, such as how Tradition represents the Word of God in human history, as well as the important life questions for everyone: Does human life make sense, and do we have a destiny?

Faith and Reason and Action

Blondel wrote as a phenomenologist at a time when there were strict separations in Catholic thought between philosophy and theology, the natural and the supernatural, history and dogma, faith and reason.

Because I had taken courses in neo-scholastic philosophy while in college before the Council. I was aware of the old separations of the natural and the supernatural, of faith and reason, philosophy and theology, There was a strong emphasis in those classes on how one could never bring together philosophy and theology. (Until John Paul II later made his historic argument for faith and reason together in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio.)

As new theories of knowledge became well-known among philosophers, Blondel wrote about knowledge and action together. Koerpel tells us that “For Blondel, we act in order to know, we do not act because we know…” Blondel’s reflections on actions find echoes in Pope John Paul II’s book, The Acting Person. John Paul II (also a phenomenologist) confirmed the importance of Blondel’s thought when he addressed the participants at a colloquium on Blondel’s thought in the year 2000: “At the root of Maurice Blondel’s philosophy is a keen perception of the drama of the separation of faith and reason and an intrepid desire to overcome this separation, which is contrary to the nature of things.”

Koerpel’s book was written for scholars and not everyone will want to read it. But the themes he presents from Blondel on the living Tradition of the Faith can help us respond to the crises we face today.

As William Portier said of Blondel in an article in Communio in Spring 2011, “’I propose to study action,’ Blondel wrote in 1886, ‘because it seems to me that the Gospel attributes to action alone the power to manifest love and to attain God! Action is the abundance of the heart.’” For Blondel, philosophy was not only the study of ideas, but practical action, flowing from the liturgy. By this he did not mean action tied to politics and autocracy. As Koerpel summarizes Blondel, “As the true image of the invisible and universal bond of all reality, Christ invites us to enter into his perfection through the life of action made whole through liturgical practice of the Church” (p. 115).

Grim Reality of Trying to Tie Catholicism to Autocracy

Those who followed Blondel, such as Henri de Lubac, not only received criticism from others who disagreed with them, but faced real danger when others tried to tie Catholic theology to autocratic political movements. De Lubac, unlike some others who supported the Vichy regime that Hitler had installed in France, did not support the Vichy government, but wrote in an underground publication criticizing the regime and asking for spiritual renewal. One of his friends and collaborators was captured and executed by the Gestapo. William Portier quotes John Milbank about that time under the Nazis in France: “And it is vital to grasp,” writes John Milbank, “that de Lubac’s and de Montcheuil’s political opponents—Catholic Rightists supporting the Vichy regime and collaborating with the occupying Germans—were also their theological opponents.”

We hope we have not again come to this.

The Liturgy Can Help to Transform Us

Listening to the Word of God proclaimed at Mass as a living reality for today should not bring us to concentrate on our own grievances. The liturgy can bring us to an awareness of the suffering of many and enable us to reach out as a healing presence, following the  teaching of the parables that the Lord gave us. Who can hear the story of the Good Samaritan, the healing of lepers or Matthew 25 or the exhortation to turn the other cheek and not know that Jesus did not mean for each to seek only more wealth and comfort for oneself or encourage others to do the same? The Old Testament, including the readings we hear at Mass, is also filled with commands to care for those most in need, widows and orphans and the strangers among us – and even in Jubilee Years return property taken from others. Hopefully, even after the pandemic, we can all rejoice at Mass and have our lives and our world made more whole through our participation in the liturgy without resorting to or encouraging violence.

We may not think of what we are living each day as history. But it is. Christ is the center of history, even though we may not be so aware of this reality on an ordinary day. The Mass helps us to deepen a life of faith imbued with this reality. As followers of the Nazarene, we have the opportunity to participate in a positive way what happens in history. It is our destiny.

Peter Maurin, Emnanuel Mounier and Destiny

Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, studied and shared much of the best of Catholic tradition with everyone who was willing to listen. He taught us a way to live out the tradition through Works of Mercy, voluntary poverty (as distinguished from involuntary poverty) worship and communitarian personalism. Peter brought the thought of Emmanuel Mounier to the Catholic Worker. The themes that Peter shared from Mounier’s writings echo some of Blondel’s ideas.

Mounier articulated a philosophy of Christian personalism, of human persons whose responsibility it is to take an active role in history even while their ultimate goal is beyond the temporal and beyond human history. Mounier expressed it as “a philosophy of engagement…inseparable from a philosophy of the Absolute or of the transcendence of the human model.”

Mounier emphasized engagement in the world for the Christian; he always spoke of communitarian personalism as opposed to individualism.  This engagement in the world makes life unpredictable.  Mounier reminded his readers: “Availability is as essential as loyalty, the test of history as much as intellectual analysis.”  Anyone who has ever been a Catholic Worker or worked in the service of the poor knows how demanding availability can be. Mounier wrote even about sin in this perspective, emphasizing that sin is not just an individual affair, but includes taking personal responsibility and creative thought and action.

Peter Maurin taught us that as communitarian personalists we can understand Tradition as we participate in the liturgy, read the prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church, and perform the Works of Mercy.

Loving Our Enemies

Saint Telemachus, Peacemaker
by Ade Bethune

Pope Francis recently said, “While the power, the glory and the vanity of the world pass away, love remains…To live a life shaped by the Beatitudes, then, is to make passing things eternal, to bring heaven to earth. The world is changed: not by power and might, but by the Beatitudes.” And not by violence or false conspiracy theories.

In his Message for World Mission Day 2021 Pope Francis addressed the difficult situation we find ourselves in but encouraged us to find hope in the Resurrection:  “The pandemic has brought to the fore and amplified the pain, the solitude, the poverty and the injustices experienced by so many people. It has unmasked our false sense of security and revealed the brokenness and polarization quietly growing in our midst. Those who are most frail and vulnerable have come to feel even more so….

For our part, however, “we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5). As a result, in our communities and in our families, we can hear the powerful message of life that echoes in our hearts and proclaims: ‘He is not here but has risen’ (Lk 24:6)!”

Offer the Sermon on the Mount to an Aggrieved and Tormented Public

During the Vietnam War, as he gave many talks and protested against U.S. involvement in the war, Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan said, “As a priest who is attempting to be faithful to the Gospel, I think that Christians, according to our testament, are not allowed to kill. It is boldly stated in the Sermon on the Mount and in the behavior of Jesus before his execution. I proceed on that assumption, love your enemies and do good to those who do bad to you. That’s a political gift that the church can offer to an aggrieved and tormented public.” [from an interview in the Block Island Times]

We have again what Daniel Berrigan called an aggrieved and tormented public to whom the Church can offer the Sermon on the Mount and the best of Catholic Tradition.

May we take comfort from Berrigan’s words: “For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth…. In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly the fate of the unborn and of convicted criminals. It is all one.”


For further reading:

Peter J. Bernardi, SJ, Maurice Blondel, Social Catholicism, and Action Francaise: The Clash over the Church’s Role in Society during the Modernist Era. Catholic University of America, 2008.

Robert C. Koerpel, Maurice Blondel: Transforming Catholic Tradition (Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology). University of Notre Dame, 2019.

Jonathan V. Last, “The Culture War and the Catholic Church,” https://thebulwark.com/newsletter-issue/the-culture-war-and-the-catholic-church/

William L. Portier, “Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology and the Triumph of Maurice Blondel,” Communio, Spring 2011.