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Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

The theologian Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J., died on December 6 at the age of 65. An expert on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Oakes was an immensely learned man. He could also write, as longtime readers of Commonweal will know. Among the many things he wrote for the magazine: this 2004 review of George M. Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards, this 2006 review of Reason and the Reasons of Faith (a collection of essays edited by Paul J. Griffiths and Reinhold Hütter), and this short response to a piece by Christopher Ruddy about the challenges facing young Catholic theologians. Oakes also wrote for Commonweal about Gnosticism, the Book of Genesis, Hamlet, and the philosophy of religion. Here he is on St. Augustine:

Nowadays most Christians labor under the impression that Saint Augustine was a rigorist. No doubt this was partly due to his strict sexual ethics, which arm-chair psychoanalysts too easily ascribe to an alleged “reaction formation” following his own mistress-filled past. But there is also his apparently harsh view of predestination and free will, with grace being absolutely necessary to salvation, yet restricted to the Christian dispensation—such an ironic and stingy position, it would seem, for the theologian who later became known as the Doctor of Grace.

But this is not how matters were perceived in Augustine’s own time: it was his opponent Pelagius who was seen as the rigorist, including by himself. In a famous letter to Demetrias, a wealthy Roman matron who had decided to forsake her wealth and become a nun, Pelagius said that “since perfection is possible for humanity, it is obligatory.” Frailty, then, is no excuse.

Augustine knew better. He saw (in his own life, to be sure, but also in the lives of the members of his diocese of Hippo) how much sin has infected the human soul, impairing our very ability to fulfill the moral law. Indeed, in his polemics against Pelagius he even compared the church to a hospital, where fallen humanity could recover its strength and find healing for its failings by growing in holiness through grace.

Requiescat in pace.

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Thanks for this, Matthew.   Father Oakes was a man for all seasons.

I had a lot of respect for Fr Oakes. My first St Ignatius Day was hosted by him at the Jes res in South Bend. Martinis and Mass. He liked me despite my liberal leanings because I knew lots of Latin chant. He was a mensch.

I am very sorry to hear this news.  Ed and I were the only two American Jesuits making tertianship in Berlin in 1994-95.  We were both on opposite sides of the spectrum, but we spent a lot of time together, and I grew to respect him for his honesty and integrity. I marvelled that we could be such good friends given the great divide we had on almost every issue.  I benefitted from the way he sttretched me to consider other possibilities. He was a deep thinker and a polymath, the kind of Jesuit who was disappearing in those years. I could not but respect him for being Old Soc. May he rest in peace.

I am very sorry to hear this news.  Ed and I were the only two American Jesuits making tertianship in Berlin in 1994-95.  We were both on opposite sides of the spectrum, but we spent a lot of time together, and I grew to respect him for his honesty and integrity. I marvelled that we could be such good friends given the great divide we had on almost every issue.  I benefitted from the way he sttretched me to consider other possibilities. He was a deep thinker and a polymath, the kind of Jesuit who was disappearing in those years. I could not but respect him for being Old Soc. May he rest in peace.

Sorry for the double post.  Matthew can tou remove one.  I got a wierd message that I have never receoved about having to be human to pot on this site.  How was I perceived to be non-human.  Is thre NSA controlling the dotCommonweal site?

Edward Oakes was one of the foremost interpreters of the theology of von Balthasar. But, as Matthew indicates in his post, and as Alan Mitchell corroborates, the scope of his knowledge was wide and profound. I always learned from him – not least from his fine book on Christology: Infinity Dwindled to Infancy (which I recommended on this site two years back). If you are looking for substantive reading for the Christmas season, I recommend it highly. After his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer, Ed shared with his fellow Jesuits and friends some thoughts, culminating in this passage from Saint Paul:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).

 

He was a man of erudition.  I had hoped to hear him lecture someday.  My mother's maiden name was Oakes, and I have always wondered if we might be related.  His work on Christology will be on my 2014 reading list.