Speaking of suffering; waxing on bees


Thank you for Peter Manseau’s penetrating critique of Christian theodicies that too facilely appropriate the suffering of others (“Catholics & the Shoah,” March 13), and Matthew Boudway’s careful rejoinder (“Suffering, Silence & Holy Week,” April 10), one of the best exchanges on the subject I have read in a very long time. Citing Pope Benedict’s claim (which gave me a shudder) that the Nazis, by destroying Israel, “ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of Christian faith,” Manseau justly asks, “Who becomes the victim in this kind of remembrance?” Yet something in me resisted his sweeping conclusions: “it does little good to treat Auschwitz as another stage in an endless Passion Play. To do so subjects brutal realities to the theological imagination, where meaning holds sway over facts.”

For some weeks I tried, and failed, to conceive a half-credible response to Manseau’s empathetic logic that would vindicate, if not the unfortunate revisionism of the pope, then theologians like Jon Sobrino and contemplatives like Thomas Merton, who do not hesitate to identify Christ crucified with the crucified peoples of history, not least the Jews. Enter Boudway, who insists that for Christians to cleanly divorce the darkest moments of history from the (historical) fact and (theological) meaning of the Cross would be like “closing our eyes and rocking ourselves back and forth” as the brute facts of history swirl relentlessly around us. Yet as Manseau makes clear, everything hinges on precisely what kind of “meaning” Christians ascribe to the Cross.

In the spirit of Sobrino, Merton, Reinhold Niebuhr, and many others, it seems to me that linking the Cross with the victims of history, including those of the Shoah, is potentially redemptive to the degree Christians remember the Cross first and foremost as an irruption of violence that should never have been, and should not be—that is, as an accusation. Whether by what we have done or what we have failed to do, Christ is still being crucified in the world. This is, for the theological imagination that Manseau too easily dismisses, something in which we are all complicit. It is not incidental that during the liturgical remembrance of Jesus’ death, the whole assembly, from the youngest child to the most revered elder, is meant to shout in one voice, “Crucify him!” From this dangerous locus “inside” the paschal narrative, Catholics should realize their own complicity in the world’s violence, thus our radical need for conversion, mercy, forgiveness.

With deepest respect for the silence that must hover over Auschwitz—not least from Christian theologians, including the pope—the Cross presses us toward a realization that “does change the meaning of history, and not only Christian history,” as Boudway argues. Is God with us in the valley of death’s shadow (see Psalms 22 and 23) or not? Is God with us even in our guilt? Is ours a faith that alternates wildly between the breezy affirmation of God’s presence in all things and the mute aporia of God’s absence? Here, indeed, Christianity stands or falls on the Resurrection, a truth-in-faith that reaches from within history to embrace and transform the silence and loneliness of hell itself. Christian theology is not about decorous words or desperate stabs at meaning; it is about realities approached, and spoken of, only in fear and trembling.

Christopher Pramuk
Cincinnati, Ohio


As a beekeeper and candle-maker, I was delighted to read Rita Ferrone’s good tidings that the new English translation of the Roman Missal restores the missing bees to the ode to the paschal candle in the Easter Proclamation (“Virgil & the Vigil,” April 10). The question Ferrone does not address is why the International Committee for English in the Liturgy decided to remove the bee-related passages in the first place. My theory: In their zeal to eliminate from the liturgy “existing elements [that] have grown less functional” (Constitution on the Liturgy), they thought all that bee stuff a bit too quaint and mythological for the discerning modern mind.

Roger F. Repohl
Bronx, N.Y.

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

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