By Tom Bethell
The Cardinal started out promisingly, by addressing the questions, "Where do I come from? Where am I going?" But soon enough he had quoted Marcus Aurelius, mentioned Kant, commented on Comte, cited Heidegger, and alluded to Wittgenstein. He brought up something called the "aporetic" dilemma, a word that is not in my dictionary. Maybe it was a misprint.
"There is no point in avoiding the question of the primordial relationship between God and the human person, but we do need to formulate it in realistic terms," Cardinal Scola said. "This involves the re-thinking of the mutual interrelationship between the world and the human person." We sat there, maybe 300 of us in the audience, reading along with him: "...A world that is not situated on the side of the subject is not sufficiently worldly for us."
What did that mean? It was hard to focus and I found myself simply noting the places where he departed from the printed text. It surely would have been better if he had thrown it away and spoken from the heart. Where was that famous bluntness? On he went (and I am quoting only from the parts that he read out, not those that he skipped):We shall limit ourselves to presenting a synthesis of the Christian answer to the question raised in full awareness both of the cultural context and of the comparative dimension essential to interreligious dialogue on this crucial question.... To affirm that the permanent intratrinitarian event explains all the difference including the full distinction between God and created reality is to provide in synthesis an explanation of the ultimate root of the newness of the Christian notion of Creation.
He used such words as imago, immundum, monistic, gnosis. Footnotes came in five languages. Sorry to carp, but I don't think it is a good idea to address a large audience in this fashion. Sometimes I suspect that those who do may want to impress us even more than they want to instruct us. Obscurity doesn't necessarily connote profundity, either. Nor does simplicity, of course, but at least it will be understood.
My wife thinks I am being unfair and that the Cardinal was speaking in an academic style because he was addressing an academic audience. Fine. But why does academic discourse have to be so deadening and lifeless? That itself is a recent development.
The National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen interviewed Cardinal Scola the next day, and I was glad to see that he drew attention to the problem: "Like many intellectuals," Allen wrote, "he sometimes struggles to speak in simple declarative sentences. Consider this example, from my interview with him: ‘In order to make sense of an object, to "intentionalize" it, I have to step outside of myself and direct myself to "being," to something that calls me and asks something of me.'"
In his talk, the Cardinal did come around to fundamental things, as when he mentioned "the primacy of Jesus Christ in creation, which derives from His role as mediator of creation." He backed this up with quotations from St. Paul and St. John. No argument there. I wonder, though, if he was concerned that just quoting the Epistles and the Gospels would leave the academics feeling a little left out.
It's vanity on my part even to think about instructing a cardinal, but I will say it anyway: The senior Catholic hierarchy must somehow recover the art of rhetoric; must learn to preach simply; must aim for an audience wider than the theology departments; must realize that the substance of a speech, however meritorious, is smothered and lost when it is poorly expressed.
We have had two professor Popes in a row, and maybe we will get a third. Actually, I had not a bad feeling about Scola. He probably is capable of being blunt. I am sure he is better without a script, and if his comments on entering Venice were as reported, he is not a fearful man. These are much needed virtues. It may also be that, at a time when undiluted Catholic teaching is increasingly at odds with the world, a conservative prelate is only being prudent when he veils his orthodoxy behind philosophical abstractions. I felt at times that Scola was doing just that. The Communion and Liberation movement does have that inclination.
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Plainly, everything comes down to the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Cardinal knows that perfectly well, of course, and his speech acknowledged it. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he said, "represents the sole possibility for us to attain to our full realization -- eternal life." There were several such moments of clarity and truth. Jesus is "not only the redeemer but also the head of creation." But these were fleeting, and buried. His speech was orthodox, but way too convoluted. Style and substance cannot be entirely separated.
Theological discourse is mostly framed by academics these days, and perhaps it is time for the amateurs to get back into the game. Most of the saints can be thought of as amateurs, including SS Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (The Pharisees were the pros.) I think the continuing appeal of Catholic writers such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton is that they were not professors and never tried to sound as though they were.
Spiritual writers throughout the ages have shown that profound thoughts can be expressed simply. Thomas à Kempis is one who did so to perfection; in our day, so has St. Josémaría Escrivá. But above all, the model is Jesus Christ, whose words continue to penetrate our hearts as none others have ever done.
When I reflect on the Scola style -- his name itself suggests a seminar -- a passage from St. Mark's Gospel comes to mind: "take no thought beforehand what you shall speak; but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye. For it is not you that speak, but the Holy Ghost" (13:11).