Back to Basics

1 April 2013

Part 1 

          During the month of February my autistic daughter kept having me play and sing “Clementine”1, the old song about the coal miner’s daughter who “hits her foot against a splinter” and slips into the foaming brine.  With the breaking news about Ratzinger’s impending slide from office, it seemed oddly apropos, especially when we later heard how his Holiness gave a final farewell to the cardinals in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican.  Also strange were later reports of Cardinal George Pell’s reaction to the crisis.  The Australian prelate said: “If we go under, we surrender to the tides that are breaking up families, decreasing the birth rate, the challenges of alcoholism and drugs and pornography.  If we collapse or we wobble disastrously, it won’t be for the good of the western world at all.”

          Responding to this in an online letter for March 2, Robert Moynihan said the cardinal electors at the upcoming conclave would be looking for a pope who would “build a strong protective wall” against the tides of destruction described by Pell and “guide the barque of Peter with steadiness and courage through these unprecedented times.”  Hmmm…  Was he suggesting the vessel might sink, if it had not already done so?  Or was it simply lost in lots of fog?  This, of course, would obscure our view of the man at the wheel.  Was it really ever Josef Ratzinger?  A pope, after all, is bishop of Rome and must be validly consecrated a bishop.  Ratzinger, however, was consecrated in the new rite, which most traditionalists consider invalid.  This fact alone makes his papal claim extremely wobbly . . .

          As for Cardinal Pell, his concern for the current state of morals seems odd, given his own theological twists and turns.  About a year ago he made news over words spoken during a discussion on TV with evolutionary biologist and atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins.  According to an online story from The Australian, his eminence said humans probably evolved from Neanderthals but did not think we could say exactly when.  As for the existence of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, this “was not a matter of science,” but, rather, a “beautiful mythological account.”

          “It’s a very sophisticated mythology to try to explain the evil and the suffering in the world,” the cardinal said.  “It’s certainly not scientific truth.  And it’s a religious story told for religious purposes.”

          To be sure, his words violate some of the ground rules of the Catholic faith.  For do not the dogmas relating to God’s creating the world and Adam and Eve in the Garden relate to the very basis of our beliefs?  That is when and where and how it all began.  Or so we used to be told.  Given current trends, I suppose you could excuse Pell on the grounds that he was only following his boss’s lead.  Not that Ratzinger denies the existence of Adam and Eve per se, just the traditional spin on their sin.  He is much more subtle, and devious, than Pell.  In his book “In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall,” he actually has the gall to challenge — and redefine –– the orthodox definition of original sin.  Referring to the Genesis “story,” he says:

          . . . The account tells us that sin begets sin, and that therefore all the sins of history are interlinked.  Theology refers to this state of affairs by the certainly misleading and imprecise term ‘original sin.’  What does this mean?  Nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon original sin, since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal, and since God does not run a concentration camp, in which one’s relatives are imprisoned, because he is a liberating God of love, who calls each one by name.  What does original sin mean, then, when we interpret it correctly?

          Rejecting the traditional doctrine that original sin has been passed down through the ages by generation, Ratzinger insists instead that, beginning with Adam, sin has resulted from damaged relationships, since human beings are “relational” and possess their lives “only by way of relationship.”  Thus he says:

          . . . I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself.  To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for.  But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality.  Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god.  Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual.  When I destroy a relationship, then this event — sin — touches the other person involved in the relationship.  Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it.  To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage.  At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he is confronted by a sin-damaged world.  Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. (pp. 71-73)

          While he goes on in this mode ad nauseum, we have enough here to get the gist of his thinking.  Take the statement that “sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god.”  Do we detect here an echo of what the serpent said to Eve back in Eden?  Tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit, the evil one said her eyes, and those of Adam, would be opened, and they would be “as gods, knowing good and evil.”  How their sin was “relational” is not at all clear, but Ratzinger’s tendency to circumvent the doctrinal details in this regard is not confined to one particular work.  In a later book, Many Religions, One Covenant, the sin of Adam emerges again, in a different context.  Take the following:

          It belongs to God’s nature to love what he has created; so it belongs to his nature to bind himself and, in doing so, to go all the way to the Cross.  Thus, as the Bible sees it, the unconditional nature of God’s action results in a genuine two-sidedness: the testament becomes a covenant.  The Church Fathers described this novel two-sidedness, which arises from faith in Christ as the Fulfiller of the promises, as the “incarnation of God” and the “divinization of man.”  God binds himself by giving Scripture as the binding word of promise, but he goes beyond this by binding himself, in his own existence to the human creature by assuming human nature.  Conversely, this means that man’s primal dream comes true, and man becomes “like God”: in this exchange of natures, which gives us the fundamental theme of Christology, the unconditional nature of the divine covenant has become a definitively two-sided relationship. (pp. 73-74)

          Rather than attempt to comprehend all of this, let us focus on what the author calls the “divinization of man” in relation to what he calls “man’s primal dream” to become “like God.”  The latter words sound familiar, since they harken back to Adam and Eve.  But what does “divinization of man” mean, especially in connection with man’s “primal dream”?  Does it mean becoming like God — or, as the Bible says, “like gods, knowing good and evil?”  This was, after all, the serpent’s bait.  Some speak of “divinization” in connection with sanctifying grace, which catechisms say is a sharing of Divine life, an indwelling of the Holy Ghost.  Ratzinger, however, is not clear on this.  He makes no mention of grace — sanctifying or actual.  His tendency not to use the traditional terms, nor define his own, only adds to the confusion, as does his suggesting the “primal dream,” as opposed to temptation, is a worthy desire that has been fulfilled in Christ.  Note also how he has seen fit to modify this from becoming “like gods” to “like God.”  This alters the basic meaning in a subtle way, making it sound less pagan.  But how can Ratzinger do this?  How does he dare?  The original biblical version of the temptation to be “like gods, knowing good and evil,” after all, still stands.  Not even he has the authority to change that!

          Nor is he is the first to broach the subject.  Back in 1887, Fr. Isaac Hecker’s The Church and the Age appeared.  The author, a famous convert to the Faith, is also known for espousing so-called “Americanism,” but the scope of his writing goes beyond that  ––  all the way back to Eden, in fact.  Thus his chapter entitled “Promises, False and True:” in this, he writes:

          “You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” was Satan’s promise to our first parents.  This promise contained what was desirable for man; God had implanted in the human soul the aspiration for its fulfillment.  But what the enemy promised he had not the power to perform, and the road that he pointed out as leading to the fulfillment of the promise led in a wrong direction.

          The right answer of our first parents to Satan would have been: “We know that God has made our souls in His own image and likeness, and that we shall be made participators of His Divine Nature, and thereby deified; and as our Creator has endowed us with the gift of intelligence, we shall also gain the knowledge of good and evil — for this is its proper object.  And we know also with certitude that we shall gain these great rewards by following the paths which God has pointed out to us.”  Had they thus spoken, they would have, in the strength of the innocence and conscious rectitude, added: “Begone, tempter!  Thou art a liar; for what thou dost promise it is not thine to give; and instead of wishing our elevation, though seekest to accomplish our fall and utter ruin!”

          As in the beginning, so now, Satan seizes hold of the noblest aspirations of the soul, and by deceiving men under the guise of a real good, leads them quite astray. (pp. 165-166)

          What the heck!  Hecker confuses the issues even more than Ratzinger!  Though what can you expect from a convert who became a priest, started his own order — and wrote this book in which Cardinal Gibbons is praised to the skies.  If His Eminence ever objected to the above passage, he never let on publicly.  Not so far as we know.  But let’s back track.  Satan’s “promise” to Adam and Eve certainly did not contain what was “desirable” for man.  Hecker, however, says this was fine in itself; the wrong was in how they went about getting it!  As for our first parents aspiring to be “participators of His Divine Nature,” Hecker misses the point here as well.  For if by this he means the gift of sanctifying grace, this is not what Satan was promising them.  How do we know?  Because Catholic doctrine teaches that Adam and Eve already had that!  God had infused them with His grace in abundance.  What Satan offered, rather, was the temptation to be “like gods, knowing good and evil.”  The sin of succumbing to this was one of satanic pride.  Because they could only know evil by first doing it, the result was a loss of innocence — and of sanctifying grace –– for them and their posterity.

          And if you think it a bit much for me to repeat points of catechism learned in grade school, tell that to the man of our day who would be pope: Josef Ratzinger.  For him to say Christ’s incarnation resulted in the fulfillment of that “primal dream” to become “like God,” while ever so subtly misquoting scripture in a way that distorts the original temptation, I find to be downright scary.  Will he not admit that Adam and Eve did in fact have sanctifying grace until they succumbed to Satan, and that their original sin has been handed down to all of us?

          Isn’t that why we get baptized?

          How more basic can you get?  Unless, of course, you choose first to focus on the soul itself — its very existence, whether in, or apart from, the human body.  Isn’t the soul the basis for all our spiritual concern — for our fellow men, particularly our loved ones — and ourselves?  Don’t we all share a concern for what happens to us after death, and hope that our religious views will prevail?  Don’t we pray that when our bodies fail, our soul — that “I” in us — will somehow survive in another realm, in purgatory, if not in heaven right away?  Isn’t that why we strive to live in sanctifying grace, and have Masses offered for the departed?  We want to maintain that “I.”  For our real primal fear is of sinking into a void and losing it.  To be sure, just the thought is enough to trigger a primal scream:


          While faith in a hereafter for each one of us used to be the stuff of religious books and sermons, not so today in the Novus Ordo.  Some years ago I attended a local funeral “mass” said by an elderly priest who spoke in a strange way about where the departed might be.  There was no suggestion that her soul could be in purgatory, for instance, and no request for prayers.  When I asked him about it later, he said we could not say any so-called “soul” survived apart from its body; that this was a Greek idea now rejected by theologians.  Amazed, I said nothing more — and heard nothing, until encountering more recently a book by Josef Ratzinger called Introduction to Christianity. This also says the doctrine of the “immortality of the soul” is actually Greek, that it is “wrongly regarded as a Christian idea” (p. 347). In contrast, the true “biblical concept” is said to be of a “collective character,” since man is a “unity” that is “in fellowship with his fellowmen (sic).”  Consequently, where the “communion of saints” is an “article of faith,” the idea of the anima separata (the “separated soul”) of Scholastic theology” has “in the last analysis become obsolete.” (p. 351).  So Ratzinger concludes.  Because we cannot exist in isolation, it seems we must instead hope to merge ultimately in a kind of cosmic mix — or mush, depending on your viewpoint.  In the process, I guess, our “I” becomes part of a gigantic “We.”


1 Lyrics for Clementine

In a cavern, in a canyon,
Excavating for a mine,
Dwelt a miner, forty-niner
And his daughter Clementine


Oh, my darlin’, Oh my darlin’,
Oh my darlin’ Clementine,
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Light she was and like a fairy
And her shoes were number nine
Herring boxes without topses
Sandals were for Clementine.

Drove she ducklings, to the water
Every morning just at nine
Dashed her foot against a splinter,
Fell into the foaming brine.

Ruby lips above the water
Blowing bubbles soft and fine,
But, alas, I was no swimmer,
So I lost my Clementine.


(To be continued)


Copyright by Judith M. Gordon 2013