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By John Navone, S.J.

Editor's note: This article recently appeared as "Theological pitfalls and their consequences" in the December 2004 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, edited by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J. © 2004.

Almost thirty years ago (February 10, 1975, 33), Time magazine published its report "The Hartford Heresies," that is no less relevant for today's pressing theological issues. A group of 18 Christian thinkers of nine denominations, after a weekend at the Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut, joined in a dramatic warning that American theology had strayed dangerously far afield.

Their "Appeal for Theological Affirmation" condemned 13 pervasive ideas, all of which undermine "transcendence," the essential truth that God and his kingdom have a real, autonomous existence apart from the thoughts and efforts of mankind.

Among the signers who were able to agree on the protest with surprising alacrity were Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles, Eastern Orthodox Seminary dean Alexander Schmemann, Lutheran theologians George Forell and George Lindbeck, Yale Chaplain William Sloan Coffin Jr., a Presbyterian, and Evangelical theologian Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary.

In 1,150 words, their statement took issue with some of the most popular liberal fashions of the past decade that have carried over into ours, including secular Christian, political eschatology and the human potential movement. The specific theses that the churchmen condemned as "false and debilitating":

1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.

2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.

3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity's noblest creation.

4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.

5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.

6.To realize one's potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.

7.Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.

8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.

9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.

10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church's mission in the world.

11. An emphasis on God's transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.

12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.

13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at least marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment.
After each of these assertions the statement added a qualifying paragraph explaining why the idea is wrong, even though it might sound beguiling and contain an element of truth. The statement nowhere mentions the people who have promulgated these false theses, but the discussions at Hartford included references to Harvey Cox (The Secular City), Situation Ethicist Joseph Fletcher and Britain's Bishop John Robinson (Honest to God). As for the pervasiveness of the thinking exemplified in the theses, Jesuit Dulles, now Cardinal, affirmed that the ideas were widespread in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly among popularizers of the late Teilhard de Chardin and liberation theologians who give the Bible a Marxist interpretation. A professor from Manhattan's Union Theological Seminary, an influential Protestant school, said that these theses summarized general belief there.

Rev. Richard Neuhaus, now editor of First Things, asserted that even the World Council of Churches had become "a gargantuan exercise in such cultural capitulation." Neuhaus and Lutheran Peter Berger, author and sociologist at Rutgers, were the originators of the Hartford protest. Exasperated by what they considered a church sellout to such man-made ideologies as scientific rationalism and socialism, they wrote the original draft of the statement in 1974, mailed it to 50 churchmen for their reactions and summoned the Hartford meeting to prepare the final declaration.

Though the Hartford discussions brought forward many theological differences, conservatives and liberals alike agreed on the necessity of Christian social involvement. However, a paradox was noted. The declaration insisted that politically based theologies, which were created to foster social impact, had done just the opposite. Even political activist Coffin joined the group in condemning an idea on which he had often preached, that "the world must set the agenda for the Church." The view from Hartford was that Christianity will be too weak for sustained attack on social evils–or for anything else–unless it first seeks the transcendence, power and will of God. After all, the Hartford Eighteen declare, "We did not invent God; God invented us."

Theological malaise and its effects

Richard Ostling's article, "The Battle for Latin America's Soul" (Time, Jan. 21, 1991, pp. 46-47) describes the religious shift that is steadily gaining momentum throughout traditionally Roman Catholic Latin America. Evangelicals, as Protestants of all types are called, had increased in 1991 from 15 million to at least 40 million since the late 1960s. Catholicism, says the Rev. Paulo Romeiro, Protestant director of an interdenominational research institute in Sao Paulo, is facing "a serious crisis." As the Evangelical movement grows stronger by the day, the Catholic Church is getting weaker and weaker."

Two U.S. books describe this dramatic trend. Is Latin America Turning Protestant? is the provocative title of a volume by Stanford graduate student David Stoll, who argues that Evangelism's spiritual appeal "calls into question the claims made for its great rival," the Marxist-tinged liberation theology that was the hope of the Catholic left. By all appearances, says Stoll, "born-again religion has the upper hand." In Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America, David Martin of the London School of Economics asserts that the growth of conservative Protestantism in Latin America, Asia and Africa is as significant as the rise of revolutionary Islam.

During Pope John Paul's 1990 tour of Mexico, designed in part to counter the inroads of Evangelicalism, the Pontiff directed clergy to abandon "timidity and diffidence" in combating their rivals.

The Vatican is especially concerned about Brazil, supposedly the world's No. 1 Roman Catholic nation, with 126 million on church rolls in l99l. Barely a tenth of those registered Catholics are regular churchgoers. That means that, astonishingly, there are almost certainly more Brazilian Protestants in church on Sundays than Catholics. Protestants in l991 boasted a minimum of 20 million churchgoers and were expanding twice as fast as the overall population.

While there is much talk about their political meddling and impact, most Evangelicals appear to succeed because they usually preach a purely spiritual message. Henrique Mafra Caldeir de Andrada, head of the Protestant program at Rio's Institution of Religious Studies, thinks Catholic advocates of the social gospel failed to realize that "these people are hungry for more than just food. The Evangelicals met the peoples' emotional and spiritual needs better. Or, as Brazil's top Baptist, the Rev. Nilson Fanini, puts the paradox, "The Catholic Church opted for the poor, but the poor opted for the Evangelicals."

Papal concern for solid doctrine in dialogue

John Paul II, at the audience of January 19, 2001, in the light of theological problems in dialogue with world religions, confirmed the Notification from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, January 24, 2001, and ordered its publication.

I. On the sole and universal salvific mediation of Jesus Christ.
1. It must be firmly believed that Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, crucified and risen, is the sole and universal mediator of salvation for all humanity.

2. It must be firmly believed that Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and only Savior of the world, is the Son and Word of the Father. For the unity of the divine plan of salvation centered in Jesus Christ, it must also be held that the salvific action of the Word is accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of the Father, as mediator of salvation for all humanity. It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith not only to posit a separation between the Word and Jesus, or between the Word's salvific activity and that of Jesus, but also to maintain that there is a salvific activity of the Word as such in his divinity, independent of the humanity of the Incarnate Word.
II. On the unicity and completeness of revelation of Jesus Christ.
3. It must be firmly believed that Jesus Christ is the mediator and fulfillment and the completeness of revelation. It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to maintain that revelation in Jesus Christ (or the revelation of Jesus Christ) is limited, incomplete or imperfect. Moreover, although full knowledge of divine revelation will be had only on the day of the Lord's coming in glory, the historical revelation of Jesus Christ offers everything necessary for man's salvation and has no need of completion by other religions.

4. It is consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that the seeds of truth and goodness that exist in other religions are a certain participation in truths contained in the revelation of or in Jesus Christ. However, it is erroneous to hold that such elements of truth and goodness, or some of them, do not derive ultimately from the source-mediation of Jesus Christ.

5. The Church's faith teaches that the Holy Spirit, working after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is always the Spirit of Christ sent by the Father, who works in a salvific way in Christians as well as non-Christians. It is therefore contrary to the Catholic faith to hold that the salvific action of the Holy Spirit extends beyond the one universal salvific economy of the Incarnate Word.
IV. On the orientation of all human beings to the Church.
6.It must be firmly believed that the Church is sign and instrument of salvation for all people. It is contrary to the Catholic faith to consider the different religions of the world as ways of salvation complementary to the Church.

7. According to Catholic doctrine, the followers of other religions are oriented to the Church and are all called to become part of her.
V. On the value and salvific function of the religious traditions.
8. In accordance with Catholic doctrine, it must be held that "whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions, serves as a preparation for the Gospel" (cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, 16). It is therefore legitimate to maintain that the Holy Spirit accomplishes salvation in non-Christians also through those elements of truth and goodness present in the various religions; however to hold that these religions, considered as such, are ways of salvation, has no foundation in Catholic theology, also because they contain omissions, insufficiencies and errors regarding fundamental truths about God, man and the world.

Furthermore, the fact that elements of truth and goodness present in the various world religions may prepare peoples and cultures to receive the saving event of Jesus Christ does not imply that the sacred texts of these religions can be considered as complementary to the Old Testament, which is the immediate preparation for the Christ event.
A call for a new apologetics for a new evangelization

Salvation has a specific content for Christians: It entails an interpersonal communion, made possible by Christ, between human persons and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Human beings are called to nothing less than communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with each other in them. The community of Christian faith affirms that the triune God could not bring about a more intimate union with created persons than that which has already been initiated in baptism and will be fulfilled for us in Christ. Ultimately communion involves nothing less than becoming part of the Trinitarian family. The principle and agent of this communion is for us Christ. Just as Christ is Son by nature–a member of the divine family of the Trinity in virtue of his being the Son of the Father–so human persons are called to be sons and daughters by adoption. Our fellowship with Christ and with each other in him brings us into the divine Trinitarian family.

The Christian community of faith believes and teaches that the ultimate aim of life is a communion of life with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. This is a truth proclaimed by Christ and a destiny made possible for us by his passion, death, and resurrection. This is what Christians mean by salvation: the term embraces both the goal of ultimate communion and the empowerment to attain and enjoy it.

As a communion formed by preserving and sharing Christ's gifts, the Church best fulfills her mission of apologetics and evangelization when she ministers with Our Lord's combination of respect for persons and for the truth that fulfills them. In other words the Church is both Catholic and apostolic. As Catholic, she reaches out to everyone. But as apostolic, the Church also reaches out with faith that comes to us from the apostles, without compromises that would contravene the dignity and vocation of beings made in the image of a self-giving God.

The liberal-conservative rift that undermines the Church's unity and mission can, at least in part, be explained by the failure to integrate the apostolic and the Catholic aspects of our ecclesial identity and the objective and subjective aspects of the human person. Political labels often prevent us from understanding the Church as she understands herself. Although labels do point to real and important problems, they can leave us divided and paralyzed unless we go beyond them to see the Church as a mystery of faith and love.

A new apologetics in a new evangelization will, following Christ's example, combine truth with charity. Apologists need both clear minds and open hearts. Since only the truth transforms and unites, much work needs to be done to understand and articulate the Magisterium's moral and doctrinal positions, with particular attention paid to cultivating an authentic understanding of conscience and religious freedom, as taught by Vatican II. Much of this work of telling the truth should take place in homilies, youth and adult catechetical programs, seminaries, diaconate formation programs, and Catholic schools and universities. The implementation of Ex corde Ecclesiae is a necessary first step toward a renewed understanding of how our faith supports and sustains in truth the institutions of Catholic higher education.

However, given our fallen human nature, the call to conversion at the heart of the Gospel will only be heard if it is made with love for the one who has not yet adequately accepted the faith. Since no Christian evangelizer preaches himself or herself, the call to conversion must be made with humility, and to all. And given our modern appreciation for the uniquely subjective dimension of any human act and of human freedom, the call must presuppose the goodwill and respect the dignity of those in need of conversion.

Read part two of "The Consequences of Bad Theology".


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