To be both a defender of the faith and an advocate of church reform is not easy. King Henry VIII failed spectacularly in that mission, but in his new book George Dennis O’Brien succeeds wonderfully. O’Brien not only draws on deep reservoirs of learning but displays impressive rhetorical skills (perhaps developed when he was president of Bucknell and, later, the University of Rochester). O’Brien, also the author of The Idea of a Catholic University, makes no bones about calling himself a “Commonweal Catholic.” In fact, he has served for many years on the magazine’s board, and is currently its chair. (Full disclosure: I am also on the Commonweal board.)
Commonweal readers will admire and be stimulated by O’Brien’s reflections on Christianity and the church. He argues that the “what and the how” of the church’s voice are necessarily entwined with each other. The good news of Christianity can no longer be voiced effectively in rote denunciations of the modern world or with the fixed didactic style employed by many neoscholastics. As the epigraph to this book, a quotation from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, puts it: “If he really meant what he was shouting, he wouldn’t be speaking in that tone of voice.” Nor does the modern model of scientific demonstration offer an appropriate way to explain the truths of religion.
Employing a masterly command of philosophy, theology, literature, drama, and art, O’Brien proposes another theological approach. His arguments for the rationality of Christianity are largely immune from the kind of objections raised by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. O’Brien’s book will help committed believers understand the solid ground on which they stand without flattening that ground or pretending to map it completely. Ordinary Catholics need to know how and why they differ from the agnostics or “quasi-religious” on their left, and the Protestant and papal fundamentalists on their right.
At the same time, only those Catholics who acknowledge that something is amiss in the church will be open to O’Brien’s way of reexamining basic perspectives. He thinks “there is something quite wrong” in our conflict-ridden, discredited church, where the leadership is “fumbling” as their influence declines. The trouble is not simply the inevitability of sin or the disjuncture between word and deed revealed once again by the recent sexual-abuse scandal. The more basic problem is that the way the Good News is being expressed is inadequate to its “unsurpassable truth.”
O’Brien contends that the church is today retreating from the open and largely positive stance it took toward the secular world at Vatican II. A symptom of that retreat is the increasingly judgmental style with which members of the hierarchy often speak. A voice that constantly warns, judges, condemns, forbids, while dismissing the fact-or even the possibility-of change, will be ignored by many of those it is meant to reach. To be authentically Catholic, the voice of the official church must adopt John Paul II’s motto, “Be not afraid”-and put it into practice. Church leadership must learn to listen, both to those outside the church and to its own members. And when it speaks, it must do so in a voice that is patient, familial, and above all forgiving.
I was especially taken with O’Brien’s proposal that non-Catholics be invited to formal “papal dialogues” modeled on the tradition of medieval disputations. Such dialogues need not result in judgmental edicts or the resolution of the issues debated. Rather, discussion with those of other faiths or no faith would demonstrate the church’s respect for the fact of pluralism, as well as its recognition that many of the world’s most serious problems must be solved by believers and nonbelievers working together. As O’Brien reminds his readers, Christianity has always had a missionary and outward-moving dynamic, as well as a responsibility to conserve and witness to its received tradition. What have been described as “kingdom Catholics” and “communion Catholics” can live in unity, complementing one another with their different intuitions. Both the reforming “voice of the faithful” and a conserving “faithful voice” are necessary.
To ground his proposals for church reform, O’Brien provides an in-depth analy¬sis of the “what” of Christian faith. It is impossible to summarize this extended, complex, and nuanced treatment of Christian truth claims in a brief review. The feast is too rich, and the courses too varied. Some of the philosophical argument is dense and demanding. The chapter on “Exorcizing the Subjective Voice” and the analyses of the logic and grammar of belief and of what Wittgenstein called “language games” require concentration, patience, and a willingness to read the most difficult passages more than once. The chapter on the relation of sin to morality is also challenging, and especially provocative in its discussion of the sexual-abuse crisis. Happily, wherever the terrain becomes steep or rocky, the author’s wit and the felicity of his style carry the reader along.
One of the most attractive and accessible features of Finding the Voice of the Church is the connection O’Brien makes between the dynamics of theatrical drama and how we understand God’s nature and actions. O’Brien convincingly demonstrates that art, literature, and drama are profound ways to communicate the paradoxical nature of Christian truth, often superior to the propositional language of traditional Catholic apologetics with its handbook proofs of God’s existence. Better by far, O’Brien proposes, to imagine God as the “Supreme Shakespeare,” the “Dynamic Creator and Author of the World Play.” As an author, God loves his characters and allows them to flourish in freedom. Yet, unlike any human author, God also saves the play and the players from futility and death. This he accomplishes by becoming human and entering the drama himself. Since Christ is both human and divine, his coming does not overwhelm or devalue the integrity of the play or the players he has created. Instead, by overcoming all enmity with his Resurrection, the forgiving Christ ensures the players life. Sinful humans are saved by accepting the good news that their author-creator has already come to save, forgive, and love them.
I am not convinced by all of O’Brien’s arguments. How different “language games” relate to one another, if at all, remains for me a question. My own intellectual instincts draw me toward the objective and universalizing truth claims made possible by modern science. I am happy to call myself a critical realist with a deep affinity for a natural-law approach to moral questions. It is not easy to reconcile this way of thinking with some of the Wittgensteinian insights O’Brien relies on in this book.
I’m also skeptical about O’Brien’s efforts to rehabilitate the idea of patriarchy as an expression of loving, unbreakable (and therefore infallible) familial authority. I too accept the need for differentiated roles in the church. And yes, the papal office can serve as a center, as a “keeper of the creed” and as a transmitter of “the persona Christi as the voice of forgiveness.” But I think gendered images of leadership distort the fullness of Christian truth. Along with the papal tiara, the title “Holy Father” should be retired forthwith. Remember Jesus says, “Call no man father,” and again, “I have called you friends.” When the Spirit begets its discipleship of equals, the church reflects the Triune God’s communion in difference. Since I know O’Brien to be a supporter of women’s equality who also believes in an ineffable God beyond gender, I can see that our differences about using gendered language to describe the church or God are mostly over the history and coherence of the church’s symbols.
Overall, I find O’Brien’s book to be original, astute, and praiseworthy.