Letters | A debate on Christian flesh, a story about Fr. Hesburgh

 

BODY LANGUAGE

I’m grateful to John Cavadini for his characteristically thoughtful reading of my book Christian Flesh (“Wounds & Caresses,” June 1). Some brief responses:

First, about patterns of action that comport with Jesus-cleaved flesh and those that don’t. This is always a matter of degree, of more and less. “Comporting with” is a spectrum-concept rather than a toggle-concept. Cavadini seems to prefer the toggle: that some patterns of action just don’t, in any respect, comport. That’s a mistake, I think. The only (kind of) action that wouldn’t comport at all would be purely evil; that, given the axiom that evil is privation, would have to be a non-action. This is one of the problems in speaking of actions as malum in se. (There are deep waters here, the waters of the chaos-flood.)

As to natural law. It’s not a phrase I like, being redolent of an unconsidered paganism, as is evident in the tendency of its apologists to assimilate merely local mores to its content; it’s also implicated with excessively rigid nature/grace distinctions. But I agree with Cavadini, of course, that there are commonalities between Christian and non-Christian flesh. Christians don’t cease to be human, and there are patterns of action that comport well (and badly) with being human, just as there are those that comport well (and badly) with being Christian. There’s overlap, but non-identity; and the analysis of flesh-as-such with which the book begins, and which Cavadini summarizes adequately, shows what some of the overlaps are. 

As to sacramental theology. Cavadini’s thought is too dichotomous here. It’s not that either we are incorporated into the Body of Christ by baptism, or that we have our flesh transfigured by it; both are true, and it’s part of the point of the book to pay attention to the second. To ignore that second is, inter alia, to make it difficult to give sense to the difference, honored scripturally and in canon law, that baptism makes to marriage. And (I hope) to attend to the second is to make possible some genuine advances in moral theology, which I detail in the parts of the book addressed to clothing, eating, and caressing.

As to the Eucharist (and cannibalism). Scripture and tradition do make it possible to speak of the consecrated host as Christ’s flesh. I do think that I’m eating Jesus when I eat the host, Jesus fully and really present in the flesh. Perhaps Cavadini doesn’t think this? If I didn’t think that, and act as if I thought it, I wouldn’t bother with it for a moment. Neither would I think, as I do, that some things I can do with and in my flesh makes such eating improper for me. The Eucharist is the making-present of flesh for eating. It can also be spoken of, and is typically spoken of, as the making-present of body for eating. Does any of this amount to cannibalism? I find myself unable to care about that question: it’s a matter of stipulative definitions only. Again, it’s part of the point of the book to explore what flesh-talk gives us on this topic, not to erase body-talk. Again, there’s a tendency toward the either/or in Cavadini’s comments on this. Why?

And on Christology. To say that Jesus is “a double-natured person, a divine-human person,” as I do, just is Catholic orthodoxy: one person, two natures. Cavadini’s way of putting things (human flesh belonging to a divine person) tends to divorce the personhood of Jesus Christ from what he is, which is “two natures which undergo no confusion (&c),” as Chalcedon says. Brief Christological formulations, mine and Cavadini’s both, can always and easily enough be called into question if they don’t serve the theological interests of the questioner. I could wish that Cavadini, as questioner, had shown more awareness of the wide and beautiful possibilities of speculative theology within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Is Christianity a sect? Yes, if that means that not everyone’s flesh is cleaved to Jesus’ in baptism. Yes, if that means that there are patterns of action proper to Christian flesh that aren’t proper to pagan flesh (I discuss, inter alia, celibacy and fasting under this rubric in the book). No, if that means that Christian flesh isn’t human flesh (but the book is explicit in its rejection of that view). From a Christian point of view, I think, there are three sub-kinds of human flesh: pagan, Jewish, and Christian, each with its own proprieties and intimacies. No Gnosticism there, no elitism; just a sober statement of the state of things. Does Cavadini think otherwise? It’d be hard, I think, to give a properly Christian defense of thinking otherwise.

Addressing and elucidating disagreements such as these is among the things theology is for; I’m grateful to Cavadini for doing theology with me. Providing space for disagreements such as these is among the things Commonweal is for; I’m grateful to the magazine and its editorial staff for doing its part.

Paul Griffiths
Bryson City, N.C.

 

JOHN CAVADINI REPLIES:

Thanks for the response to my dubia. I will rely on the original review as my primary reply, for to my mind the issues I raised were deflected, rather than treated, in the response to my review. But here are a few observations in direct reply: To say that a given act (not “pattern of actions”) is malum in se or intrinsically evil is not the same as saying it is “purely evil.” This is a deflection. Rape (including rape of children) and the direct deliberate killing of the innocent, for example: Do these ever “comport” with “human flesh”? If not, are all things “licit” for “Christian flesh”? To dismiss natural law as a traditional element of Catholic moral theology without saying it is being dismissed or on what grounds, and to replace it with a reliance on two passages from 1 Corinthians which are themselves highly contested, seems questionable as theological method. To see the “wide and beautiful possibilities of speculative theology” is not the same as engaging in idiosyncratic reflection without accounting for foundations. And of course there is a place for “flesh” language in sacramental theology and ecclesiology, but my point was that the language that is dominant in the tradition and in the Bible is “body” language, and preserving the balance protects us from the thinning of sacramental language into an ambiguous physicalism (for the Eucharist) and an unduly sectarian theology (of the church, meaning one that emphasizes the church’s separation from the world rather than its “ordering toward” the world). It is the preservation of sacramental language as such that preserves us from the dichotomizing that Griffiths ascribes to my review—the charge of dichotomizing is a deflection. As for cannibalism, the early Christians were faced with this charge and they did not have the luxury of “not caring,” nor does a theology teacher facing questions from a first-year class have the luxury of deflecting the question. With regard to Christology, the language I used is not “Cavadini’s language” but drawn from authoritative tradition. The person of Christ is the divine person of the Word (reference given in review), who is intimately united with the flesh proper to His human nature, and thus the Incarnation is itself the foundation of all mediatorial (non-dichotomous) sacramental language. Jesus is not a “divine-human person,” as this language has no standing in the tradition. Nor is it correct to say that “what Jesus Christ is” “is two natures which undergo no confusion,” etc. He is “one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son to be acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion.” It is the imprecise use of language that tends to separate the “personhood” of Jesus from “what he is,” thus undercutting the sacramental theology derivative from Christology. Speculative theology is only as compelling as the distinctions it carries forward, without confusion, change, division, or separation. Well, at least without the first one!

 

A PERSON FULLY REALIZED

A year after Ken Woodward graduated from Notre Dame (“History or Hit Job?” June 1), Father Ted Hesburgh and I toured every African university south of the Sahara in the summer of 1958. I got to know him well and Woodward’s assessment of him rings true. Here is one telling story.

We met on campus shortly after graduation and I went first to New York City, carrying some of his luggage. When we met a few days later, he asked, “Where is the Mass kit?”  Entrusted with a small, indispensable suitcase containing his means for saying Mass, I had left it on the New York Central railroad.

He could have been furious but instead said simply, “Let’s go find it.” Sure enough, the attendant in Grand Central Terminal greeted us with a big grin and said, “I been waitin’ for ya, Father!”  

The Hesburgh I knew was fair and even-tempered, companionable and at ease, a talker fascinated by science, ready to explain space exploration or atomic energy in thirteen countries in five languages. He said Mass and his office faithfully but never seemed pious or preachy.

Hesburgh inspired some of us in student government to take seriously Monsignor John Tracy Ellis’s call to cast off the anti-intellectualism of American Catholics, as Woodward noted. Indeed, few of us were intellectuals. We nonetheless launched modest “intellectual discussion groups” in the dorms and began to rethink where we were going. Then barely forty, Hesburgh was setting Notre Dame on a fascinating and almost entirely favorable course upward. He did the same for me.  

Hesburgh was a good and faithful priest but I experienced him first as a man, with a big brain and spirit. “The glory of God is a human person fully realized,” Irenaeus wrote. That seems appropriate when considering Ted Hesburgh.   

Jerry Brady
Boise, Idaho

Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: 
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