March/April 2015

Michael A. Hayes

Pope Francis established a special Year of Consecrated Life to run from Advent 2014 to the Feast of the Presentation on 2 February 2016. In his letter1 establishing this special year he outlined three aims: to look at the past with gratitude, a call to live the present with passion, and to embrace the future with hope.

In this context a relevant chapter in the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is chapter five: ‘The Call to Holiness’. Here we have the universal call to all the faithful to be holy, taking the impetus from St Paul’s declaration: ‘for this is the will of God, your sanctification’ (1Th. 4.3). ‘This holiness of the Church is constantly shown forth in the fruits of grace which the Spirit produces in the faithful and so it must be; it is expressed in many ways by individuals who, each in his own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others; it appears in a certain way of its own in the practice of the counsels which have been usually called “evangelical”’ (LG. 39). These evangelical counsels are traditionally, in the Christian tradition, identified as poverty, chastity, and obedience. In reflecting on poverty, the counsel is to be understood not in terms of simply of not having possessions, but rather as a deliberate and radical renunciation of them to challenge how possessions stand in the way of equitable sharing.

In vowed religious communities, poverty is the renunciation of ownership of material goods for personal use, and the holding of all goods in common. While that in itself is a laudable witness, it must be understood in the context of a modelling on the life of Christ. Evangelical poverty is a deliberate choice to enter into solidarity with the poor precisely in order to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying: ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich’ (2 Cor.8.9) and again ‘but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men’ (2 Phil. 2.7). Understood in this way poverty is not perceived as something negative but rather as a positive disposition. It is a positive because it aims at following Jesus more closely, of adopting his options and identifying with him in his identification with the poor, as in the striking parable of the sheep and goats: ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Mt. 25.40). That statement of Jesus is unqualified, and as such demands to be taken seriously – the choice of living that out through the evangelical counsels is a strong witness to the power of that call.

The decision for poverty on the part of some is a choice of solidarity with the poor, and a challenge to the wider Church for what is called ‘the preferential option for the poor’. The deliberate witness of the religious expresses therefore a call which is not just for the few but a requirement of all who follow Christ.

Since the beginning of his ministry Pope Francis has repeatedly given voice to those who suffer the plight of poverty:

‘Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ, is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor.’2 ‘Poverty’, he states elsewhere, ‘calls us to sow hope…. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures.’3 Furthermore poverty he states is unacceptable in today’s world: ‘the times talk to us of so much poverty in the world and this is a scandal. Poverty in the world is a scandal. In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons. Poverty today is a cry.’4
The call of Pope Francis to attend to the poor is the call of the gospel; in today’s world of mass communication it is clearer than ever because the reality of poverty alongside great wealth is so apparent. It is also a call which is not just spoken but which is made incarnate by the choice of women and men to identify with Jesus’ message and their brothers and sisters through the choice of living out the choice of poverty in an affluent world.   

1     Pope Francis, Letter for the Year of Consecrated Life, 21st November 2014
2     Pope Francis, Address to the Archbishop of Canterbury, 6/14/13
3     Pope Francis, Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools – Q&A, 6/7/13
4     Pope Francis, Meeting with Students of Jesuit Schools – Q&A, 6/7/13

March/April 2015

Gerald O’Collins SJ

In response to Pope Francis’ call for better preaching, we continue a series taking examples from all four gospels. Gerald O’Collins SJ is adjunct professor of Australia Catholic University.

Pope Francis expects homilies to be ‘an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with the word of God, a constant source of renewal and growth’ (The Joy of the Gospel (135)). Let us select passages from John’s Gospel and see how it can trigger such an experience, produce such an encounter, and prove such a source for spiritual renewal and growth.

God so loved the world
In a striking statement John says: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3.16). Years ago someone sent me a card which commented on that verse: ‘God cared enough to send the best.’

We might also comment on that verse by saying: ‘As far as God is concerned, nothing but the very best is good enough for us.’

Yes, God truly cared enough to send the best. As far as God is concerned, nothing but the very best is good enough for us.


Jesus takes the place
The only miracle worked by Jesus that all our Gospels report is the feeding of the five thousand (John 6.1–15). Many of you perhaps know that. But what you might not have noticed are one or two small, significant differences in the way John tells the story.

It is only John who mentions that the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. This means that the crowd of five thousand went to Jesus in Galilee for the Passover, instead of going to the Temple in Jerusalem. For them, Jesus had replaced the Passover. For them, he had already taken the place of the great, central feast that Jews treasured deeply.

For us, may Jesus take the place of our feasts and of all those things that we treasure deeply. Like the five thousand, may we too experience what Jesus will do for us if we let him take the place of all the things that we prize greatly. He will feed us and satisfy us.

All we can do is pray: ‘Jesus, help us to let you take the place of everything we profoundly treasure. Jesus, make us trust that you will always feed us and satisfy us more richly than anything else we may treasure deeply.’

‘Do not be afraid. It’s me.’
At times the Gospel of John plays on double meanings. Something is said that has not only an ordinary, ‘surface’ meaning but also a deeper, more awesome meaning. We find an example of such a double meaning, when the disciples are in a boat out on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus draws near to them walking on the water. Quite naturally they become afraid. But he says to them: ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s me’ (John 6.20). ‘It’s me, the Jesus whom you know very well and with whom you have been travelling around Galilee.’

But what Jesus says, ego- eimi, can also be translated simply as ‘I am.’ That translation takes us back to Moses meeting God at the burning bush and God presenting himself as ‘I am’ or ‘I am who I am.’ When Jesus says, ‘I am,’ he is also presenting himself in an awesome, divine way.

This is a remarkable example of a double meaning in John’s Gospel. Jesus says something that can be translated in two ways: ‘It’s me; it’s just me.’ Or: ‘I am. I am the One whom Moses met at the burning bush.’

This double meaning, both surface and deeper, suggests the way God meets us and speaks to us both as the everyday God and as the awesome God. God says: ‘It’s me, only me, the God with whom you live every day.’ But God also says: ‘I am. I am the mysterious God who comes to you in awesome moments, as I came to Moses at the burning bush.’

Jesus is just that, our everyday God and our awesome God. He is the One who says to us not only ‘It’s me, only me,’ but also presents himself mysteriously: ‘I am. I am who I am.’

‘Peace I give you’
In the Gospels we find the message of peace at the beginning and at the end of the story of Jesus. When Jesus is born, angels sing the praises of God: ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth.’ At the end, before he dies, Jesus comforts his disciples: ‘Peace I leave you, my peace I give you’ (John 14.27). When he is raised from the dead and appears to his followers, he says to them: ‘Peace be with you.’

The message of peace embraces and enfolds the whole story of Jesus. It is no wonder that when Paul starts a letter, he regularly comes up with the greeting: ‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’

Human beings naturally hunger for peace: peace in their own hearts, peace in their families, peace in the life of their nations, and peace between nations. Human beings agree about the beauty and value of peace.

But down through history they have constantly disagreed about how peace comes. Not far from where I lived for thirty-three years in Rome stood the Ara Pacis, the altar of peace erected by the ancient Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar. The Roman armies had brought peace to their part of the ancient world, but they did so at the cost of innumerable human lives. One historian has calculated that, when Julius Caesar conquered Gaul (modern France), nearly one million people were killed or taken off into slavery. One can appreciate the sentiments of the Roman writer Tacitus: ‘they make a solitude and they call it peace (solitudinem faciunt, pacemque appellant).’

We can sum up what John and the whole of the New Testament want to say about peace: it is a marvellous gift from God. Peace is not what we achieve but what we receive. Peace is the gift of Christ as he moves towards death; it is his gift to us when he rises from the dead. Let us thank him for the wonderful gift and grace of peace. Let us pray even more sincerely before we receive Holy Communion: ‘Give us peace (dona nobis pacem).’

‘I am the vine; you are the branches’
In the month of May, if we were out in the countryside of France, Italy, or the Holy Land, something beautiful would catch our eyes. We would see vineyards growing away furiously in the spring sunshine. In the spring, it is marvellous to wander along rows of vines and see them full of life, with fresh green leaves sprouting everywhere. In the winter time the vines are cut back and look miserable and even dead. But in the spring time they put out fresh shoots and leaves, and become masses of green life.

When he was growing up, Jesus saw the vineyards in the spring time, and that yearly miracle of fresh, green life. In John’s Gospel (15.1–11) he speaks about our relationship to him as being like branches growing out of a vine. When we live with Jesus and in Jesus, we will be like those fresh shoots on vines, like those masses of green leaves that are so full of life.

Jesus wants us to enjoy wonderful, fresh life in him. With him and in him, it is always spring time. Let us draw our life from him and be just like those fresh, green leaves that sprout everywhere on the vines when spring comes.

Giving birth to a baby
Jesus was not a woman, and so he never had the chance of giving birth to a child. But from growing up in Nazareth, he knew what women went through in giving birth to a baby. He knew the pain and joy of women at child birth: ‘When a woman is in labour, she has pain because her hour is come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a child into the world’ (John 16.21).

Jesus thinks of his disciples as going through a similar experience at his death and resurrection. They will first suffer pain, but then they will have joy: ‘your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’ (John 16.22).

Women having babies is something that happens all the time in our world. It might seem a very ordinary, normal experience. But Jesus knew that it was always a marvellous, extraordinary experience, as a woman passes from pain to great joy.

He also knew that something like this would be the experience of all his faithful disciples. First, they would have pain and suffering. But then they will know a unique joy, a joy that no one can ever, ever take from them.

‘That they may be one, as we are one’
‘Holy Father, protect them…so that they may be one even as we are one’ (John 17.11). With these words Jesus sets a very high standard for the way his followers should be united with one another. Their union with one another should imitate the very way in which Jesus himself is united with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In the life of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit live united with one another in an infinite ecstasy of love. The divine persons live with each other and for each other, but never at the expense of each other. The three divine persons show what our life should be like: living with each other, living for each other, but never living at the expense of each other.

Jesus prays to his Father: ‘that they may be one even as we are one.’ These words set the bar very high. Jesus wants his followers to imitate the very life of God and find in the Trinity their primary role model. Jesus wants us to do nothing less than imitate the infinitely loving union that keeps the three divine persons together in an ecstasy of infinite love.

Let us pray that we may be one, as Jesus, his Father, and the Holy Spirit are one. Let us pray for such unity to come in our families, our parishes, and the Church in our country, and then such peace might come to the wider world.

What was St Thomas’ problem?
What picture of Thomas the apostle does John’s Gospel offer? Most people find the picture of a sceptic, someone who shrugs his shoulders and is reluctant to believe. He wants clear proof before he believes in Jesus risen from the dead. That is one picture we might have of Thomas— as a sceptic who wants hard evidence before he is ready to accept the resurrection.

But there is another picture of Thomas we might draw from John’s Gospel. Back in Chapter 11 of John, we read of Lazarus falling ill and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, sending word to Jesus. They lived in Bethany, close to Jerusalem where the authorities had already shown themselves dangerously hostile to Jesus. The disciples of Jesus warned him against risking another trip into that neighbourhood. ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you. Are you going there again?’ (John 11.8). The other disciples were afraid, but not Thomas. He said: ‘let us also go so that we might die with him [Jesus]’ (John 11.16).

Then after the resurrection we read in John’s Gospel about the other disciples hiding away in a house and locking the doors. They were afraid of the Jewish authorities and would not show themselves on the streets in Jerusalem (John 20.19). But Thomas didn’t hide away with them behind locked doors. He was out and about town. That is why he was missing when Jesus first appeared to the others (John 20.24).

Thomas was ready to walk the streets of Jerusalem and face enemies, even death itself. But he couldn’t believe in the life, the new life of Jesus risen from the dead. Thomas could courageously face death, but he could not believe in the new life into which Jesus had now risen. I have known people like that, people who have the courage to risk death but who don’t have the courage to accept life.

Let’s pray for ourselves that we might have find the courage to face danger and even death with Jesus. But let us pray also for the grace to accept the wonderful new life which Jesus now lives and to which he calls each one of us.

March/April 2015

Paul Keane

This article tells the story of the Vatican II document Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, and explores its repercussions. Paul Keane is Vice Rector of St Mary’s College, Oscott, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.

Consider Switzerland. In 2009, the Swiss held a referendum which proposed that no new planning permission should be given for the building of minarets. The Swiss Catholic Bishops’ Conference opposed the motion and supported the right of Muslims to build minarets as part of freely practising their faith. The bishops were guided by the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae – the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty – which was promulgated only on the very last day of the Council and after much vocal opposition. Its core teaching is that ‘the human person has a right to religious freedom,’ which it defines as immunity ‘from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power so that, within limits, nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in associations with others’ (art. 2)

Some Catholic voices, however, spoke up for the ban. Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre, a Father of the Council, became so appalled by Dignitatis Humanae – among other developments – and what it suggested to him regarding the state of the orthodoxy of the Church that in 1988, without permission from the Holy See, he ordained four priests as bishops to continue the work of his group, the Society of St Pius X.


In the build up to the referendum, this Society criticised the Swiss Bishops’ Conference stance as the ‘confusion maintained by certain Vatican II Council authorities between tolerating a person, whatever his religion, and tolerating an ideology that is incompatible with Christian tradition.’ The result of the Swiss referendum was a clear majority supporting the ban of new minarets. The ban remains in place today. The formal Catholic understanding of religious freedom was rejected; the need of Dignitatis Humanae made more apparent.

The concerns of Archbishop Lefèbvre and the Society of St Pius X should not be casually dismissed. The Church’s commitment to religious freedom could be seen to be a novelty. Until the mid-twentieth century, the Church, in its everyday life, had long been shaped by the maxim that ‘error has no rights’. The argument went like this and was repeated a number of times at the Council in opposition to the declaration: only truth has a right to freedom, while error should at most be tolerated and only to avoid greater evils. From this it follows that only the Catholic Church, which is by definition the sole repository of truth, and its faithful have the right to claim and enjoy complete freedom. A corollary of this was that the Catholic state was considered to be the ideal model of civic organisation. Its duty was to guide and govern society in the light of Church teaching and prevent the spread of false teachings that could endanger the eternal salvation of its citizens. The Church was to be completely free to act so that she could carry out her divine mission to save souls unhindered. In the Catholic state, other forms of worship could at best be tolerated; that is, individuals were not to be forced to embrace the true faith and were free to follow their own beliefs but, at the same time, they were to be prevented from harming others by the spread of their errors. Yet, the traditional argument continued, where Catholicism is a minority faith within a state, the civic authorities of that state should accord it all freedoms, including the complete freedom to evangelize. This understanding of the ideal of a Catholic state and what should be a proper Catholic response to other religions was not formally part of magisterial teaching but it was held by many in the Church and informed the Holy See’s diplomatic relations with other countries. And, seemingly in support of this understanding, Pope Pius IX formally condemned in his Syllabus of Errors (1864) the notion that ‘every man is free to embrace and profess that religion, which, guided by the light of reason, he shall believe true.’

However, from the preparatory stages of the Second Vatican Council, a proposed decree on ecumenism included a section promoting the defence of the universal right of religious freedom. By the autumn of 1964, at the request of many Council Fathers, this section had developed into a separate declaration. Those who opposed it attacked it for seemingly giving error rights, undermining the confessional Catholic State, and for perhaps suggesting that there are a variety of ways to truth and salvation.

In response, the supporters of the proposed declaration claimed to find in the teaching of the recent popes, beginning with Leo XIII, defences of religious freedom, culminating in John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, published during the Council in 1963. The pope had written, ‘Among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience.’ However, he had given no philosophical or theological reasons in support of this right. Further arguments, apart from citing recent papal writings, were that Catholics should preach the Gospel and be Church without relying on the exercise of power or privileges; the doctrine was increasingly alien to the direction taken by contemporary culture; and the Church will always be distrusted if it is thought that Catholics in power will always attempt to bring about a Catholic state. None of this, however, added up to a teaching which was systematic and grounded in Catholic Tradition.
Then the Americans awoke from their slumber. The US bishops had so far not been a great presence at the Council; they did not seem to be thrilled by reform. But with religious freedom they found a cause that would not disturb the traditional faith and practice of their faithful, for their country was founded on religious freedom. As the first article of the Bill of Rights states, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…’ But as had become apparent in Kennedy’s presidential election campaign, Catholics were held in great suspicion of wishing to subvert the state. The Americans were also blessed by a theologian who was passionate about religious freedom: the Jesuit, John Courtney Murray.

Schooled by him, the American bishops emphasised that religious freedom was not a break with the most authentic Christian tradition because such a right is a necessary member of the set of rights inherent in the human person. This was the essential point; for as England’s Cardinal Heenan would declare, ‘To say that error has no rights is to speak of an abstraction. Only persons possess rights.’ The Americans insisted, however, that the intention was not to give permission ‘to do anything whatsoever under the appearance or in the name of religion,’ but rather to assert an immunity ‘from all compulsion or coercion in religious matters.’
Cardinal Heenan was able to draw from our own country’s history in his support of the American bishops. He recalled the mutual persecution of Protestants and Catholics that stained sixteenth-century England ‘in the cause of religion.’ He pointed out that since the last century, even though the Anglican Church was the state Church, Catholics had enjoyed a complete freedom; Catholic schools profited from the same rights and privileges as the Anglican schools. Heenan said, ‘everyone in England, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, is convinced that such a system of equality and freedom is the only one that can foster peace among citizens.’ He noted that freedom can undoubtedly bring dangers, but who could put restrictions on it? Only the state has the material means of doing so, but experience shows that the interference of the state in religious matters has often been disastrous. ‘For this reason,’ the cardinal said, ‘we are convinced that all religions ought to be equal before the law and not subject to any restrictions that are not absolutely necessary for safeguarding public order. This at least is certain: many outside the Church think Catholics do not sincerely defend religious freedom. Let us tell the world, once and for all, that from the depths of our hearts we preach complete freedom for all the children of God.’

After all the speeches in the autumn of 1964, Pope Paul VI decided not to hold a vote on the declaration. It was feared that even though the opposition might be in the minority, it was still too large for such an important development. In fact, the opposition was probably not as great as feared but the extra year that was given to re-drafting the declaration only improved it. The concern that it was a seeming break with Church Tradition and its possible consequences would be answered, if not always directly, in the final draft, and the basis of the right, which would become the declaration’s corner stone was clarified: the personal dignity of every human person, which, therefore, forbade coercion in religious matters. This was not a break with traditional Church teaching but a re-framing of it.

It is striking that in the eventual final document – which received 2,308 votes for; 70 against – what scripture can teach us about religious freedom only comes at the end. It is clear that Christ never forced faith or good actions upon anyone but continually encouraged, taught and gave good example; and as for Christ, so, we could presume, for the Church, his body. The French bishops wanted this section to come first, as it would have appealed to other Christians and since the bible is the source of all theological endeavours. But it was Paul VI who proposed that general principles should open the declaration. Some were uncomfortable that it may seem that bible passages were being pressed into service when they had not been drawn upon before to explain religious freedom (which is also striking!).

Dignitatis Humanae – perhaps the boldest of all the Vatican II documents – allowed at least two new developments in Church life. First, the Church now knew with confidence that she was doing the right thing by the human race: she was defending the necessarily timeless and universal right of all people not to be coerced in religious matters and its corollary that faith must be allowed to be freely and openly practised. In doing so the Church was echoing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 18). These defences of religious freedom are needed more than ever because religious freedom is under attack throughout the world, especially in countries which particularly fear Islam (e.g. Switzerland); which particularly fear Islam but increasingly disdain all religions (e.g. UK); which are intolerantly secularist (e.g. France); in the Islamic world; and in India, where a coercive Hinduism seems to be on the rise.

Second, the Catholic Church can be a credible defender of religious freedom, such as during the Swiss referendum, because of the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae. And her credibility only increases by appropriately acknowledging the failures of her children in the past. Pope Francis received much attention for his comments responding to the murder of those who worked for the magazine Charlie Hebdo, which included how he would act if someone insulted his mother. What received less attention were his almost first words: ‘Let us always think of our history: how many wars of religion have we known! Think only of the Night of Saint Bartholomew. How can we understand that? We also have had our sinners regarding this, but we cannot murder in the name of God, it’s an aberration. To murder in the name of God is an aberration. I believe that is the main thing on religious liberty: we must practice it in liberty, without causing offense, but without imposing or murdering.’ It is remarkable that when everyone else was thinking of Islamic terrorism in Paris, Pope Francis reminded us of Catholic ‘terrorism’ in the same city four hundred and fifty years before when thousands of Protestants were murdered in the name of religion. This ability to see our past differently because of Dignitatis Humanae will only help the Church (and the world) in the future.

What is not a legitimate development of the Church’s commitment to religious freedom is any cooling of her evangelization fervour. The declaration does not suggest that any other religions are equal to Christianity or the Church, or that they save in themselves. Rather, ‘the disciple is bound by a grave obligation toward Christ, his Master, ever more fully to understand the truth received from Him, faithfully to proclaim it, and vigorously to defend it.’ But this should never be done by ‘means that are incompatible with the spirit of the Gospel’ (art. 14). This reminder is necessary. The Dominican theologian and great proponent of the Declaration, Yves Congar, noted the possible danger of indifference among Catholics as the Church renounced social dominance.

Catholics can be proud of the promulgation of the Declaration Dignitatis Humanae. It has become a prophetic document. But there is a great deal of work still to be done within the Church and a long-presumed principle is under attack outside the Church. Both involve the same matter: our moral conscience.

Article 8 of Dignitatis Humanae questions whether many of us are truly able to exercise religious freedom in all conscience? That is, how many of us have fully formed and mature consciences which are necessary to make informed religious decisions? Therefore, ‘this Vatican Council urges everyone, especially those responsible for educating others, to try to form men with a respect for the moral order who will obey lawful authority and be lovers of true freedom – men, that is, who will form their own judgements in the light of truth, direct their activities with a sense of responsibility, and strive for what is true and just in willing cooperation with others.’ The right of religious freedom, therefore, is real but how often is it really exercised? The need to educate and form our consciences is no less today than fifty years ago. Where this has not happened, subjectivism cannot but flourish.

And then there is the long-presumed principle that is under attack – freedom of conscience – which is a necessary part of religious liberty. If in all conscience we are not able to act informed by our religious beliefs then the right of religious liberty itself is being denied. The curtailing of freedom of conscience has become increasingly common in the United Kingdom. Courts and industrial tribunals have judged that troubled consciences will not excuse midwives from any involvement in abortions, registrars from officiating at same-sex marriages or employees from being contractually obliged to work on Sundays. Is it possible to successfully defend freedom of conscience on rational grounds and in law or, will it be always trumped by other rights or dismissed as cover for religious bigotry? In fifty years will religious freedom exist anywhere except in the Church?

March/April 2015

Adrian Graffy

This year marks five hundred years since Martin Luther wrote his Commentary on Romans. In two articles, Adrian Graffy explores the doctrinal teaching in the first twelve chapters of Romans. The author is Director of the Commission for Evangelisation and Formation in the Diocese of Brentwood, and was recently appointed by Pope Francis as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

I must begin with a confession. The title given to these articles is not my own. In 1979 the New Testament scholar John A.T. Robinson, who was most famous for his 1965 book Honest to God, published a short commentary on Romans under this title.

But why ‘wrestling’? Anyone who approaches Romans does so tentatively. When we think of Romans, verbs like ‘grappling’, ‘struggling’, and so even ‘wrestling’ are appropriate. For most people, Romans is confusing and even intimidating.

Clever minds have wrestled with Romans. Spanning the centuries, some of those great wrestlers were St Augustine of Hippo, and numerous other Fathers of the Christian church; Martin Luther, for whom the interpretation of God’s ‘justice’ was critical; John Calvin, with his ideas of predestination; John Wesley, convinced of the immensity of God’s love; and the great twentieth-century theologian, Karl Barth.

John Robinson writes: ‘I do not promise only blood, sweat and tears. On the contrary, the Epistle to the Romans offers what Winston Churchill also called the sunlit uplands, indeed the very heights of Christian experience and theology.’1 It is worth the trouble wrestling with Romans.

Difficulty with Paul’s writing is not a new phenomenon. In 2 Peter we read: ‘There are some things in Paul’s letters which are hard to understand; these are the points that the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.’ (2 Pt 3.16)


Did the author of 2 Peter have Romans in mind?
My own journey into Romans took a long time, and is really one of the fruits of the Year of St Paul (2008-9), Pope Benedict’s initiative to celebrate two thousand years since the apostle’s birth. I have been both encouraged and daunted by the comments of modern Catholic scholars on Romans. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, great Dominican scholar and founder in 1890 of the École Biblique in Jerusalem, said in his 1916 commentary ‘The first contact with Romans was overwhelming.’2 Decades later the great Jesuit scholar, Joseph Fitzmyer, recalled Lagrange’s words and himself wrote: ‘Any contact with this letter is overwhelming.’3

The beginning
How does Paul begin? He begins, as always, with a self-presentation and with a greeting. This takes up the first seven verses of the letter. It is important to appreciate the tone of Paul’s approach to the Romans. Paul is writing to people he does not know, and has never visited before. Paul usually writes to Christian communities he has founded, like the community of Corinth. So how does Paul approach these people of the empire’s capital?

He begins by presenting himself. This is how ancient letters began, with the name of the writer, which we customarily put at the end of a letter. But Paul does not simply write ‘Paul of Tarsus’, or ‘Paul, formerly known as Saul’. He gives a description of how he sees himself. He affirms his calling. He writes: ‘Paul, slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God’. The description of himself as slave (Greek doulos) is not unique to Romans, but found also in the letters to the Philippians and to Titus. One should think perhaps of the poems of the Servant in Second Isaiah. Is Paul identifying himself (and Timothy alongside him in Philippians) as a ‘servant of the Lord’, but of the new Lord, Christ Jesus?

Paul is adamant that he is an apostle, despite not being one of the twelve. At the beginning of Galatians he expands on this. He is an apostle not through any human commissioning but ‘through Jesus Christ and God the Father’. Then he describes himself as ‘set apart for the gospel of God’. He will declare the good news from God, the good news about Jesus Christ, but his particular calling is to bring it to the nations. In Acts 13.2 Barnabas and Paul are similarly described as ‘set apart’ by the Holy Spirit to begin the first missionary journey.

Having expanded this self-presentation, Paul cannot now resist saying more about this ‘gospel of God’ for which he is set apart. It is a gospel prepared for long ago. It is a gospel about Jesus, whom Paul describes as descended from David in his humanity, and revealed in his divinity through the resurrection from the dead. It is this Jesus who has given Paul the task of apostleship. Paul finally concludes this seven-verse-long greeting with the words ‘Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ’.

Paul continues with the thanksgiving usual in his letters. He thanks God for the exemplary faith of the Romans, Jews and Gentiles of Rome who have embraced the Christian faith. He speaks of his longing to visit them. He wishes to share the gospel with them. Paul carefully keeps in mind that he did not bring the gospel to Rome. The full reason for his visit will become clear at the end of the letter. He wishes to call on them before he continues to the western Mediterranean and to Spain (15.23-24 and 15.28-29).

The theme is announced
The customary structure of Paul’s letters is that the initial greeting is followed by a doctrinal section, and then some pastoral instructions and encouragement. The doctrinal section of Romans begins in the sixteenth and seventeenth verses of the first chapter, which contain some momentous concepts and statements, and deserve careful examination.

‘I am not ashamed of the gospel’, begins Paul. Why would he be ashamed? Here we begin to touch on the heart of the teaching of Paul in Romans, and indeed Galatians. The opening chapters of Galatians illustrate the problem. Paul has the undeserved reputation of preaching a gospel which is against Judaism, which dispenses with the Law, and is in opposition to all that his ancestors held dear. For Paul, however, the good news of Jesus was already intimated in law and prophets, and is now clearly revealed. The salvation promised of old is realised through faith in Jesus Christ.

Paul goes on to define the gospel: ‘it is the power of God for salvation’. ‘Salvation’ is one of those theological terms which is not easy to define. We should bear in mind that its first meaning was about freedom from oppression. It is seen clearly in the release from slavery in Egypt. It goes on to mean freedom from sin and freedom from death. The gospel is that important. It is liberating and life-giving.

This gospel, continues Paul, brings salvation to all those who believe, both Jew and Greek. Notice that the gospel is firstly for Paul’s fellow Jews. His practice backs this up. Acts makes abundantly clear that wherever he travels Paul first visits the local synagogue, and only then speaks to the Gentiles. A fine example of this is found in Acts 13, which narrates the visit to Antioch in Pisidia. After rejection by the Jews Paul and Barnabas turn to the pagans.

Another familiar term eludes easy definition. What does it mean to ‘believe’, to ‘have faith’? The primary meaning, apparent from Hebrew texts such as Isaiah 7, is to trust in God. This is the classical fides qua creditur, the practice of faith, as opposed to the fides quae creditur, the items of faith which are believed.

Verse 17 brings us to a climax. In the gospel the justice, or righteousness, of God (Greek dikaiosune) is revealed. This is the new thing of the New Testament. This is what is revealed by Christ: God’s justice. But what is God’s justice?

This phrase ‘the justice of God’ or ‘the righteousness of God’ is found seven times in Romans, and elsewhere in Paul only in 2 Corinthians 5.21. But what does it mean? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches that our ‘justice’ must go further than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5.20). This is a different kind of justice from that commonly practised by practitioners of the law. God’s way of exercising justice is not our way, but must become our way.

God’s kind of justice has already been alluded to in the prophets and even in the law. The God of Exodus 34 is ‘slow to anger, rich in mercy’. The God of Isaiah 46.13 brings justice and salvation. In Psalm 40.11 God’s justice is mentioned alongside faithfulness and salvation. There is a kind of salvific justice, a justice which saves. We are not dealing here with the justice of retribution, with giving people what we judge to be their just deserts, but God’s justice, an expression of God’s faithful love which brings with it forgiveness. God’s offer of mercy in Jesus Christ is a free gift. Paul ends with an appropriate quotation, from the prophet Habakkuk: ‘the righteous person will live by faith’. The person of faith welcomes the saving justice of God.

It was this new understanding of the justice of God which enlightened Luther in his ‘tower experience’ in 1515. Luther considered this understanding of justice to be entirely new. In fact it was held by many of the Fathers. For Luther the realisation was liberating.4

The dominance of sin
Having proclaimed his main point, to which he will return subsequently in great detail, Paul digresses somewhat. He speaks of the situation of the world without the gospel, and of ‘the anger of God’ being revealed at the wickedness of the pagans, and then shocks his readers by saying that the Jews have also incurred such anger. Despite having the Law, they have behaved no better than the Gentiles. In 2.9 we read: ‘There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.’

Although no explicit connection is drawn here Paul may well have in mind the opening chapters of Genesis. After the sin of Adam, the significance of which Paul will consider in chapter 5 of Romans, sin spreads throughout the world, eventually provoking God’s regret at having created the human race and the decision to unleash the Flood. One might also anticipate what Paul writes in Romans 8.20, that the whole of creation was ‘subjected to futility’ so that it might be released for the glory of the new creation. Paul’s emphasis on sin in these early chapters serves to underline his main point, which is the gratuitous kindness of God’s justice which brings forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

The working of God’s justice
After this digression he returns to the doctrinal exploration of faith and the justice of God. This will take us from 3.21 to the end of chapter 4. These verses are arguably the most significant in the letter, and the most difficult.

‘Now, outside the law, the justice of God has been displayed!’ Paul’s ‘now’ in 3.21 is very significant. The time has now come. This is the kairos of God’s mercy. He goes on to give further descriptions of the justice of God. It was, as we saw above, ‘attested by the law and the prophets’. It comes ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ ‘for all who believe’. This justice, this justification, is a free gift to all who believe, whether Jew or Greek. It is the reward of faith.

How does this come about? asks Paul. It comes about ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’ (3.24). At this point Paul introduces a rather complex explanation. Jesus Christ has brought about this salvation, this justification, this receiving of God’s justice, by ‘redeeming’ us. The concept of redemption is that of buying freedom for slaves, buying them out of slavery and into freedom. In the second part of Isaiah God is in fact described as ‘redeemer’ (Hebrew go’el). God is the one who brings about freedom from exile for the people deported to Babylon and now about to return (41.14- 44.24).

The reasoning becomes even more complex in 3.25 when Paul affirms that God put Jesus forward as hilasterion. This Greek word refers to the ‘mercy seat’, the cover or lid of the ark of the covenant constructed by Moses in the desert according to Exodus 25.17. God has made Jesus the mercy seat. In other words, he has made Jesus the place or the means for receiving the mercy of God. The verse is translated in a bewildering variety of ways. The New Revised Standard Version has ‘God has put him forward as a sacrifice of atonement’. It is through Jesus and through faith in him, not through the observances of the Law, that mercy can be received. This is how God reveals the surprising justice of God. God disregards the sins committed, showing in Jesus that divine justice brings forgiveness and justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Christians therefore have no reason to boast. Their salvation comes not from the works of the law but from the free gift of Christ. But Paul is adamant that the Law is not thereby belittled. On the contrary it is upheld! (3.31) What the Law was intended to achieve, and largely failed to achieve, is now brought about through faith in Christ.

He goes on to cite Abraham as an example. Abraham was justified by faith, as Genesis 15.6 clearly states, well before any law was given (4.10). Abraham is father in faith for both the circumcised Jew and the uncircumcised Gentile, for he was justified before receiving circumcision as a sign of the covenant as narrated in Genesis 17. Furthermore, the promise of ‘inheriting the world’ was made to Abraham not because of obedience to the Law but from the justice of faith (4.13).

Adam and Christ
How does it come about that Christ changes everything? How can the actions of Christ have such a profound effect on all humanity? Paul’s answer in chapter 5 of Romans is to look at Adam. The chapter repeatedly compares the negative effect of Adam’s actions with the positive effect of the actions of Christ. It is amid the complexities of these repetitions that verse 12 appears, which has had such complicated repercussions on Christian faith.

A short explanation is needed, even though Paul would have been surprised that a short clause in the middle of his argument about Christ and Adam should have given rise to such debate. ‘Just as through one man sin came into the world and through sin, death. And consequently death spread to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.’ This is clearly a restatement of the negative consequences of the sin of Adam. Paul is in fact reiterating what the opening chapters of Genesis make clear, that after the sin of Adam evil spread throughout the world. Later Jewish belief, as in Wisdom 2.24, maintained that death too entered the world as a consequence of sin.

The problem is this. The Latin translation of the final phrase ‘inasmuch as all sinned’ gave rise to an interpretation of the sin of Adam not intended by Paul. The Greek words eph’ho, which are properly rendered ‘inasmuch as’ or even simply ‘because’ are translated in the Latin versions ‘in whom’, implying that all individuals sinned in Adam. The rather obscure Greek eph’ho has been understood as equivalent to the Latin in quo. Paul’s phrase is thus misunderstood as ‘in whom all people sinned’. In other words, all people sinned in Adam.

An appreciation of how the ancients understood human reproduction, that the male contains the seed of all his descendants, clarifies how many Christians writers and most significantly St Augustine of Hippo, could reach such a view. All men and women sinned in Adam, for they were all contained in Adam’s seed. This is not Paul’s meaning. Paul simply means that after the sin of the first man sin and death proliferated. As a consequence, human beings inherit not the guilt of Adam’s sin, but his tendency to sin.5 Paul’s emphasis in this chapter is not on Adam, but on Christ. The consequences of Adam’s sin were dire and devastating. The consequences of Jesus’ actions are liberating and life-giving. The gift far outweighed the trespass.

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote in The Dream of Gerontius: ‘O loving wisdom of our God, when all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight, and to the rescue came.’ Our wrestling with Romans so far has hopefully made a similar point.   

1    Robinson, J.A.T., Wrestling with Romans, London, SCM, 1979, page ix
2    Lagrange OP, M-J., L’Epitre aux Romains, Études Bibliques, Paris, Gabalda, 1916, p.iii
3    Fitzmyer SJ, J., The Letter to the Romans, Anchor Bible, London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1993, p. xiii)
4    Fitzmyer, pp. 260-261
5    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 405

March/April 2015

John M. Samaha SM

St Thomas More, patron of statesmen and politicians, serves as a model of charity, courage, and fidelity for all seasons. Like many today, he was challenged in 16th century England to rise to the defence of his faith and the liberty of the Church. John M. Samaha SM is a member of the Marianist community in Cupertino, California.

In the play and film, A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt, Thomas More is deftly portrayed as a martyr of conscience. He is unyielding in his stance against King Henry VIII’s move to divorce Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. Ours is a season in which Christians face the challenge of remaining true to the faith despite political pressure, the threat of sanctions, and the stigma of social ostracism. Secularism is rampant.

King Henry VIII weakens
The reign of King Henry VIII began with much hope for England. In fact More had called Henry ‘the everlasting glory of our time’. But gradually the situation deteriorated, and after 17 years on the throne and 17 years of marriage to Katherine, Henry began an affair with Anne Boleyn. Nor was it his first affair. Determined to put Katherine aside and marry Anne, he asked the pope to declare his marriage invalid.

The 16th century was a tumultuous time for the Catholic Church in Europe. England had experienced occasional conflicts between the Church and the crown, but now the Reformation was in full swing. Martin Luther had already separated much of Germany from Rome.


A faction in England with a political and religious agenda saw an opportunity to sabotage the Church’s authority and encouraged Henry in that direction. But Henry needed little encouragement and was already moving to assert royal control over the Church and bypass Rome in his plan to marry Anne. Gradually a strategy unfolded to undermine the authority of the hierarchy by advocating parliamentary reform of clerical abuses.

The king tried to enlist the keen legal mind and impeccable reputation of Thomas More to support his divorce effort. But More declined and carefully presented his reasons. The unsatisfied Henry ordered More to re-examine the king’s position with advisors who sided with the king. More did so, and pointed out that the key question was not in the details of the marriage law, but in the king’s desire to dictate Church teaching and discipline, to define what it meant to be Catholic in England. That authority belonged to the bishops in union with the pope.

Lord Chancellor
The disappointed Henry still believed he could sway More to his side by appointing him lord chancellor. More did not want the position, but saw it as an opportunity to defend the Church’s liberty and possibly steer Henry away from a break with Rome. Besides, refusal was hardly an option.

Without ever speaking ill of Henry, More worked diligently to defend the Church’s liberty, and lobbied members of Parliament to reject unjust bills.  He was loyal to the monarch, but God’s servant first.

As the situation deteriorated Henry pressured the English bishops and levied enormous fines on them. In the name of correcting clerical abuses he asked the bishops to grant him authority to make rules concerning the Church. The bishops refused and issued a stern statement of refusal. Henry responded with open threats of imprisonment and veiled threats of death unless he be given full power of Church governance. When the bishops met again to formulate their reply, he gave them an ultimatum to capitulate to him that very day or suffer the consequence. In a close vote, the bishops succumbed.

Thomas More resigned the next day. Though he never criticized the king, all of England and other countries understood why he removed himself as chancellor. And the king’s ire was obvious.

Thomas More insisted that the spiritual authority and rightful liberty of the Church were given by God to be exercised by the bishops in union with the pope.  No secular power, no king, no parliament, nor any civil law has jurisdiction over one’s soul or the Church’s beliefs. No ruler has the right to determine Church teaching or to direct the bishops in governing Church life.

More’s resignation stung. It would have been easier for him to give in to the king, as many did, even priests and bishops. But his well formed conscience dictated otherwise. He obeyed every lawful directive of the king, but he was God’s servant first. He knew only too well that no human law contrary to God’s law was binding.
Parliament passed that Act of Supremacy, which declared Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church in England. To deny that title became a capital crime. Each subject was required to swear an oath affirming it, or face imprisonment.

Silence speaks louder
Henry very much wanted the agreement and support of Thomas More, so stellar was his reputation as a statesman. But More, an astute lawyer, knew he could not be executed for a simple refusal to swear an oath. He sought strength in silence and in prayer.

Soon Sir Thomas More was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London. His property was confiscated, and that impoverished his family. Repeatedly he was asked if he denied King Henry VIII’s new title. To reply honestly meant death, so More remained silent. After a year of imprisonment the crown charged him with treason for allegedly denying the king’s new title in a conversation with one of the king’s agents. More denied the charge.

Judgment
The trial of Thomas More is one of the most celebrated in English history. His masterful defence practically upset the carefully laid plot to condemn him. One account reports More arguing that just as the city of London lacked authority to annul an act of Parliament for the whole of England, so Parliament lacked authority to transfer governance of the Church to the monarch because the Church was entrusted by God to the bishops and the pope. He explained that this was embodied in the Magna Carta two centuries earlier and was recognized by all Christendom. The chief judge was stymied and hesitated, ‘loath to have the burden of that
judgment wholly to depend on him.’ After consulting with his colleagues he finally condemned More without ruling on his objection.

Hero, model, martyr
St Thomas More’s defence of the faith and his exceptional fidelity and courage were not the only lessons he leaves us. During his last days he radiated the transforming power of God’s grace, the divine gifts of faith and charity. He was never bitter. Daily he prayed for Henry and gave thanks for the spiritual gain he obtained from his imprisonment – ‘the very greatest’ of ‘all the great benefits’ the king ‘has heaped so thickly upon me.’

He wrote to his daughter that God would bring good from his death: ‘no matter how bad it seems, it will be the best.’

The king’s messenger wept when he brought the news to More that he would die that day, but the martyr-to-be encouraged him with these words: ‘Be not discomforted, for I trust that we shall, once in heaven, see each other full merrily, where we shall be sure to live and love together in joyful bliss eternally.’

His final words
When Thomas More mounted a scaffold on Tower Hill and his masked executioner stood at the ready with axe in hand, a crowd waited to hear his final statement. Contrary to custom, Henry ordered that he ‘not use many words,’ because More was a formidable advocate, and Henry’s assumption of supremacy over the Church was politically unpopular. The king had strongly pressured Parliament with unprecedented bribes and threats. He would take no chances now.

More’s case was already widely known. Only three years earlier Sir Thomas was lord chancellor, second only to the king himself in the entire realm. His integrity was impeccable. He had an international reputation as a humanist, scholar, writer, and jurist. He had been among Henry’s most loyal advisors. Now he stood alone at the executioner’s block.

Actually the king had nothing to fear from More’s last words from the scaffold, for an eyewitness account records that, ‘He spoke little before his execution. He asked only that those looking on would pray to God for him on this side, and he would pray for them on the other side. Then he begged them earnestly to pray to God for the king, that God would give him good counsel, protesting that he died the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’

For all seasons and for all peoples St Thomas More is a model of patriotism, citizenship, and faith in action; God’s servant first.


March/April 2015

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