VOTF: Agenda and Method
Editor’s note: One year ago this month, Catholics in Connecticut mobilized against a proposed law that would severely restrict a pastor’s authority in his own parish — and the bishop’s as well.
In a four-part series continuing today, Deacon Thomas Davis, associate director of the Pope John Paul II Bioethics Center at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Conn., and a practicing attorney, demonstrates how such a law fits in with parish restructuring proposals of Voice of the Faithful, the national organization that sprang up in the wake of the clerical sexual-abuse revelations of 2002.
Deacon Davis also explores Voice of the Faithful’s connections to dissident theologians and its plans to spread doctrinal error among Catholics.
Yesterday’s installment in this series exposed VOTF’s link to Raised Bill 1098 and its structural reform agenda.
But R.B. 1098 was an amateurish blunder: too ambitious, too bold, too obvious an effort to remake the Church by compulsion. The last thing VOTF wanted was a reinvigorated local Church rallying around its bishop. But defeat has not vanquished these iconoclasts.
The national VOTF website maintains resources intended for “renewal” and “lay education” programs, its preferred method of grassroots indoctrination, that advocate flawed interpretations of Scripture and an alternative understanding of “church.”
A brief excursion into the sometimes arcane world of scriptural exegesis exposes VOTF’s continuing threat to ecclesial communion.
Vatican II’s Dei Verbum taught that interpretation of sacred Scripture must give “serious attention … to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture” as well as the “living tradition of the whole Church” and “the harmony which exists between elements of the faith.” But critical scholarship sometimes ignores these criteria. In a landmark 1988 lecture, Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger identified “a series of fundamental presuppositions common” in some lines of modern exegesis that prejudice findings about which passages are considered historical. They include a model favoring supposedly simpler, less theologically developed texts as nearer the “original” and promote the notion of discontinuity “between the pre-Easter Jesus and the formative period of the Church.” They dictate that Gospel narratives depicting events outside “common daily experience” are inventions. Into this category fall “dogma and Church doctrine” and thus the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople.
In A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (Crossroad, 1996), the future Pope Benedict XVI cautioned that immoderate use of the historical-critical method destroys faith in the divinity of Christ, the Church and the sacraments. His intervention at the 2008 Synod on the Word offered a dramatic example. “Today the exegetical ‘mainstream’ in Germany, for example, denies that the Lord instituted the holy Eucharist and says that Jesus’ corpse remained in the tomb,” the Pope said. “The Resurrection in this view would not have been a historical event but a theological view.”
Examination of VOTF’s study guide “The Origins of the Church” reveals a methodology that sunders Scripture from Tradition through excessive reliance on the faulty presuppositions identified by the Holy Father. What emerges is flawed theology joined to a political agenda modeled on class conflict and social insurgency theory attempting to wrest authority from the hierarchy.
“The Origins of the Church” reads: “Scholars say that the teachings about baptism were placed into the mouth of Jesus later, backwards in time, after baptism had become the sacrament of initiation into the Church (this was still early in the Christian communities). Further, aside from these mentions of baptism and the Eucharist, there is no evidence in the Scriptures that Jesus instituted any of the other sacraments.”
The claim that there is no scriptural evidence that Jesus instituted other sacraments ignores both the Tradition of the Church and the text itself. The sure norm of faith is the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Adhering to the teaching of the holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus … of the Fathers, we profess that the sacraments of the new law were ... all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord” (No. 1114).
The Catechism recognizes that “Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation” when he appeared to them in the Upper Room and cites John 20:23 as authority. And the Council of Trent was unmistakable: “The Lord instituted the sacrament of penance, principally when, after his resurrection, he breathed upon his disciples and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (John 20:22f).”
VOTF begins with an appeal to Scripture but discounts its unity and the Church’s living Tradition. It then proposes a distinction between Jesus and “the Christ” typical of the “historical Jesus” movement: “The title ‘Christ’ was not ascribed to Jesus until after the resurrection,” the group says. “Thus, although the Church and the sacraments were established mostly by those who came after the deaths of the apostles, Christians can claim justifiably that they were established by
(not the historical Jesus) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
VOTF thereby denies the historicity of Peter’s confession of Jesus as “Messiah” (Mark 8:29) or “the Christ” (Matthew 16:16), following the lead of the non-Catholic theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who sundered the connection between history and faith, declaring that “the scene of Peter’s confession is … an Easter-story projected backward into Jesus’ lifetime.”
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI dismantles this deconstruction: “The attempt to arrive at a historical reconstruction of Peter’s original words and then to attribute everything else to posterior developments, and possibly to post-Easter faith, is very much on the wrong track.” He shows how Jesus’ words and deeds laid “a clear foundation for Peter’s confession” at Caesarea Philippi: “From the Sermon on the Mount, from his mighty deeds and his authority to forgive sins, from the sovereign manner of his preaching and his way of handling the traditions of the Law — from all of this they were able to recognize that Jesus was more than one of the prophets. He is the prophet who, like Moses, speaks face-to-face with God as with a friend; he is Messiah, but in a different sense from that of a mere bearer of some commission from God.”
The Old Testament titles of “Messiah,” “the Anointed One,” “Son of God” and “Christ” realized in the confession narratives flow from the utter uniqueness of Jesus by which he explodes known categories, including those accessible to mere historical study, according to the Pope: “At certain key moments, the disciples came to the astonishing realization: This is God himself.”
But VOTF embraces Bultmann’s approach. In doing so, it undermines the authority of the Church and the ministerial priesthood. How this plays out in the study guide will follow in the next installment.