Jonathan Petre profiles Fr Edward Schillebeeckx and hears some of the thought of a man who still must explain some of his theological positions to Rome.
ER EDWARD Schillebeeckx is one of the most revered and misunderstood theologians writing today. Ever since the publication of his two major works Jesus, An Experiment in Chrisrology and Christ, The Christian Experience in the Modern World, Fr Schillebeeckx. a Dominican and professor of theology at the University of Nymegen in Holland, has been variously accused of questioning Christ's divinity and of not believing in the objective reality of the resurrection.
Things came to a head in December 1979 when he was summoned to Rome to explain some of his theological positions to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. He has been cleared of deviation trom orthodox teaching in nine points, but the congregation has now requested clarification on four more issues,
For a man resigned to a continuing debate with the Vatican over the nature of his theological position, Fr Schillebeeckx seemed, when I met him, to be confident that his approach to theology was the right one. "I am only a theologian reflecting upon the situation of the Church," he said, "and evidently that implies criticism of the Church, but quiet theological reflection — that is my standpoint."
Fr Schillebeeckx's air of mild-mannered sagacity is underlined — in his voice and gestures — by genuine enthusiasm. But however quietly reflective he claims to be, he had some strong words of warning for the Church, stressing that the crisis of authority will become more acute and that peopie, including
intellectuals, will start leaving the Church. "It is impossible,he said, "to have, in a pluralistic society, one monolithic Church," The Pope, he argued. has a model of a strong Church to counter the strength of the communist state, but this model would not work in the western world.
He agreed with Hans Kung's analysis of the "credibility gap" and described it as "the gulf between the Church and the institution personalised in the Pope, whose teachings, on the level of moral doctines, go against what Catholics in a majority think." This situation is critical in the sense that "it is now impossible to hold the Catholic community together. when their experiences are totally different. But the problem was not rooted in the doctrine of papal infallibility. "In Rome all that the Pope says, in his audiences and encyclicals — which have nothing to do with infallibility — is that you must act as if they are infallible. Even though the encyclical Ilumanoe Vitae is not infallible, and this was officially said by the Vatican Press at that time, you must act as if that encyclical is infallible. I think that is the credibility gap, not infallibility as such. But when the Pope appears that there is some infallible person working through him it is crazy, and it is • not the sense of' the dogmas.
Of the nine points of doctine on which Fr Schillebeeckx has been cleared, one of the most important was his agnosticism on the matter of the objective
reality of the resurrection. He makes a basic distinction between the resurrection of the body and the resurrection of the corpse: "I accept the corporal resurrection, but not the resurrection of the corpse." For Fr Schillebeeckx the original "Easter experience" was, first of all. one of grace and forgiveness from a Jesus known to have died, and this experience provided the basis for the reunion of the disciples. Then came their common pneumatic experiences and the growth of the 'appearance' tradition.
"Jesus's resurrection is 'physical but not an earthly physical form. And I cannot explain,he added. "what the heavenly, celestial way is of being human and corporal,"
But at the very core of his
theology is an existential choice; not surprising for someone who, while in Paris, knew both Albert Camus and Maurice Merlean-Ponty. He portrays this choice as "hanging in a void or emptiness. the absolute limit surrounding us. Are we held by the person of God? ... There are two interpretations of the same experience and therefore you have grounds to say there must ae a God who is creator, who holds all things which -out of themselves could not exist ... It is only one interpretation and people can say 'I don't accept that' but the 'consequence is hat. M the last resort, life has no meaning.
then asked why it was necessary to attach any meaning to life at all. His reply took the form of a plea: "When there is a war and a whole city is abolished people restart. Why? When there is no meaning, why restart and rebuild the world anew? There must be a ground. otherwise they are just crazy people."
Once the positive decision to believe has been taken it is a matter of integrating the life of Christ and the Jewish-Christian tradition with contemporary experience, Fr Schillebeeckx displayed a deep sensitivity towards the problematic relationship between Jesus, God and man: "We are seeking always from a relative historical standpoint to the truth, but the truth we obtain is always formulated in
the concepts and images of our time.Contemporary man is searching far Jesus and the salvation God offers through him, a spiritual salvation reached through political and social restructuring: "When this restructuring, perhaps sometimes through a revolution, is in fact bringing hope into the world, and not only for one class of people, then I think we must accept this perhaps violent revolution . . In Nicaragua, for example, evidently there was violence but the violence was a self-defence against violent structures, and there is a big difference between doing violence as a kind of selfdefence, and doing violence by dictatorship."
It is, then, the duty of Christians to support revolution — at arms length, Fr Schillebeeckx sees his particular role as a theologian as the decoding of events in the wdrld in terms of the eschatological framework of salvation. This. when combined with the broader background of the hermeneutical tradition of Christology, is the essence of Fr Schillebeeckx's thought.
His third book on Jesus, which he is now writing, will trace the metamorphosis of religious consciousness into Christian consciousners, and then into the life of the Church. He affirmed his faith in this tradition when I asked him, finally, if there were any circumstances in which he would consider leaving the Church. His reply was emphatic: "No. I am convinced that the christian churches are the legitimate prologation of what began in Christ.-