Monika Hellwig visits Australia

Monika Hellwig visits Australia

Michael Gilchrist

The prominent feminist Dr Monika Hellwig's visit to Australia is scheduled for this July (1992). In the light of her published writings and public stances her visit raises the question of a need for tighter accreditation procedures in each diocese when such people are invited to use Catholic facilities to speak on the faith. Since Vatican II, with increased emphasis on adult religious education, more Catholics than ever have come under the influence of scholars and academics - many from overseas - representing a wide variety of theological disciplines and stances. The results have varied, depending on the calibre and the orthodoxy of the experts concerned.

A brochure circulated by the Sisters of St Joseph indicates that Dr Monika Hellwig will be speaking at various Catholic venues on such topics as "Eucharist and Community", "Sacraments in Today's Church" and "What Church for the 90s?". According to the brochure: "Monika Hellwig is a Sacramental Theologian who will be working with our Sisters throughout Australia and New Zealand helping us to depth our understanding and appreciation of EUCHARIST - a challenge we set ourselves in Provincial and General Chapters." Dr Hellwig will also address general gatherings in some dioceses.

Dr Hellwig has been a professor of theology at Jesuit Georgetown University, Washington D.C., since 1967 and has written numerous books, including What are the Theologians Saying?, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, Whose Experience Counts in Theological Reflection? and Jesus the Compassion of God.

Is a chair at Georgetown University a credential for a Catholic theologian? Those in Australia who justify the invitation of such overseas scholars as Dr Hellwig tend to point out that they hail from some "reputable" Catholic university or other as if that were enough to silence further questioning or criticism.

The sad reality is that many such universities - Notre Dame, Fordham, Catholic University of America and Georgetown - despite their justly distinguished histories, may be Catholic in little more than name. Georgetown, for example, allowed its Law School to provide a financial subsidy for an on-campus Lesbian and Gay Association in 1988, while in 1991 a pro-abortion student group "Georgetown University Choice" was declared eligible for campus benefits. Criticism of this move by the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal James Hickey, brought a patronising response from Georgetown's professor of moral theology, Fr David Hollenbach, S.J.: "A university is not simply in the business of teaching catechism as it would to young children."

During 1990, the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University became the hub of opposition in the United States to the planned Catechism for the Universal Church, a project which Pope John Paul 11 recently called "a further gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church", (L’Osservatore Romano, April 1, 1992).

It is in this context that one should view the credentials of visiting scholars, although, needless to say, there are many orthodox scholars still working (sometimes under extreme difficulty) within such universities.

This writer has read two of Monika Hellwig's major works as well as many of her articles and statements in such liberal publications as Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter. There is no sign as far as he is aware that her views on any doctrinal topic have modified significantly over the past 20 years - although one lives in hope.

As Catholic author and editor, Paul H. Hallett, wrote in the National Catholic Register (February 29, 1976) the "faith of no one could survive the acceptance of even a minor part of What are the Theologians Saying?", a book, which he later remarked had "been used in hundreds of adult education classes in parishes and in other Catholic centres [in the U.S.] (August 30, 1981). This book bears no imprimatur while its author, in the manner of Fr Richard McBrien's Catholicism - a book which the Australian Bishops warned against in 1980 - presents approvingly the speculations of numbers of modern theologians and urges acceptance of theories which deny, for instance, the authority and infallibility of the Church, the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, that revelation was completed with the Apostles, the doctrine of original sin, Church teachings on grace and the person of Jesus Christ in his divine and human natures, while some traditional norms of morality are to be considered only as guidelines to be disregarded according to the demands of a particular situation.

Defender of Charles Curran

When in 1985 the Vatican finally took action to silence dissenting moral theologian, Fr Charles Curran, (who had taught that in some circumstances adultery, premarital sex, homosexual acts and other such activities could be justified, and who had organised American theologians against Pope Paul's encyclical, Humanae Vitae in 1968), Monika Hellwig signed a joint letter defending Curran's standing as a Catholic theologian.

In What are the Theologians Saying?, she wrote of revelation, (pp. 46-47): "Did revelation stop when the Apostles died and the next generation took over? ... This testimony would have very little significance today, if it were only the account of the past event ... The life of Christ, the constant struggle to live a life of love and trust, the celebration of life in this liturgy ... all this is our participation in revelation. It is revelation itself." (My emphasis).

In the same book, Hellwig questioned the "personal judgment" of Pope Paul VI in his 1965 encyclical Mysterium Fidei on "the full spiritual meaning of the Eucharist". This conflicted, she said, with the consensus thinking of 'top' theologians. In fact, the Pope's teaching, far from being his "personal judgment (about the concept of transubstantiation), was, as he himself put it, that of the "unchanging teachings of the Ecumenical Councils of Lateran, Constance, Florence, and finally Trent, in their explanation of the Church's doctrine, or their condemnation of errors."

In this context, and typical of Hellwig's obscure writing style, we read (pp. 41-42): "What is especially helpful about the Dutch theologians' explanation [of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence] is that you cannot understand it in any way that does not draw the community right into the action and right into the change. You cannot make the explanation into a more or less magical one in which people might expect grace and salvation to happen to them and in them without their getting in any way personally involved!" She added that she hoped the term Transubstantiation would be dispensed with as it was "so offensive to devout Protestant Christians" and "confused" younger Catholics.

"Certainly heretical"

She appears to believe, if one interprets the above statement correctly, that the occurrence of Transubstantiation is dependent as much on the 'correct' dispositions of communicants or of the worshipping community generally, as on the words of consecration pronounced by a validly ordained priest. If so, this is quite contrary to traditional Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.

Jesus The Compassion of God was first published in 1983, and reprinted subsequently. Its "Christology" was described by New Zealand author and theologian, Fr George Duggan, S.M., as "certainly heretical" (Zealandia, October 19,1986). Yet this book (minus imprimatur) has been prescribed in recent years as a text for all Catholic student teachers undertaking a religion unit on at least one campus of Australian Catholic University, a practice difficult to reconcile with Canon Law, (Can. 827 ¤2): "Books dealing with matters concerning sacred Scripture, theology, canon law, church history, or religious or moral subjects may not be used as textbooks on which the instruction is based, in elementary, intermediate or higher schools, [i.e., tertiary level], unless they were published with the approbation of the competent ecclesiastical authority or were subsequently approved by that authority."

Monika Hellwig, writes Fr Duggan, "rejects the New Testament teaching that the Word existed from eternity before the Incarnation, which implies a denial of the divinity of Christ. According to Hellwig (p.112): "Even in John's Gospel the imagination of the devout reader is not really required to project into eternity a personal preexistence of the Son beside the Father." She describes (pp. 61-62) the "Christological explanations of [the Council of] Chalcedon" as "simply not adequate ... in the light of the questions that have been raised in our times, especially by the liberation theologians." Chalcedon, she adds, was not even a "beginning" but "a marker along the way which serves as one, though not the only, criterion of orthodoxy."

Hellwig further describes as, repugnant" (pp. 97-98) the traditional idea of "the suffering of Jesus as compensation paid to God for the offence to God's majesty expressed in human sinning - a compensation that re-establishes amicable relationships between the divine and human parties."

Another facet of Hellwig's writings was evident in an article in the Brisbane Catholic Leader (23 February 1986) with the title "What makes Catholic schools Catholic?", an abbreviated version of what was previously published in the U.S.

As Frank Mobbs pointed out in the July 1989 AD2000, "What makes Catholic schools Catholic?" exemplifies the process of "substitution" carried out by certain theologians since Vatican II. If the words familiar to Catholics were retained, their familiar, orthodox meanings were replaced by others bearing little resemblance to the originals. Thus in examining what makes a Catholic school 'Catholic' Hellwig looks at the four marks of the Church, "one, holy, catholic and apostolic", and replaces their usual meanings with her own sets of trivialities.

(1) "One" (as the old catechism used to define it) means that all Catholics believe the same truths, offer the same Sacrifice of the Mass, share the same Sacraments and are united under one visible head on earth, the Pope. Hellwig, on the other hand, defines "one" as meaning to work for ecumenism and peace among nations.

(2) For the Church (and its schools) to be "holy" means not primarily to be founded by Jesus Christ, (a praying community and the household of saints), but to have "an attitude of reverence for human life and freedom, gratitude for the good things of creation and a sense of responsibility and focus in life."

(3) To be "catholic" means not so much to be universal, preaching the gospel to the whole world, but to witness "to social justice and peace by enrolling minority and immigrant students ... and to teach history, social studies and religious knowledge in ways that counteract inbuilt prejudices and hostilities." In short, to be abreast of the trends.

(4) Finally, the Church is "apostolic", not so much because bishops can trace their authority back in an unbroken line to Christ and the apostles, but rather whenever the Church reflects "an atmosphere of hope and courage and trust about the future of the human race and of the local society", inspires "humility and attention towards the cumulative wisdom of the past" and finds "reconciliation and wholeness."

In the wrong Church

Note how Hellwig has it both ways. She reassures anxious Catholics, for she says she believes in the "One", "Holy", "Catholic" and "Apostolic" Church of the Creed. At the same time, she offers comfort to all those right-minded people who long for a church that is seen to be in harmony with all the latest fashions in thought.

In truth, if the examples discussed in this article are really Catholic doctrines, or doctrines compatible with Catholic truth, many people in the pews at Sunday Mass are in the wrong Church.

On the positive side, 1992 will witness the visits of several overseas speakers of impeccable orthodoxy and scholarship - Fr Thomas Dubay S.M., Fr Stanley Jaki and Karl Keating of "Catholic Answers", the largest apologetics organisation in the U.S. Australian religious, seminarians, teachers, student teachers and others interested in adult education in the faith would derive far more spiritual benefit from the above speakers than the Monika Hellwigs.

Perhaps more Australian bishops might also consider the precedent set by at least one American bishop, Bishop John Myers of Peoria, Illinois, who during 1991 invited Dr Hellwig to "explain" her previously published views on women's ordination, before permitting her to speak in his diocese. She declined the invitation, effectively barring herself from the Peoria Diocese (Newsweek, August 5,1991).

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