Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Flashback: Back to McCarthy and the Powerful New Theology That Made Him…What Was Once the Church Static Becomes the Doctrine of the Imperial Self….Social Justice, Democratization in the Church, all Enunciated by Godfrey Diekmann OSB.


[Fifty plus years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

The Quiet Catholic Theological Insurrection.

While Hubert was scaling the political heights with minimum interest in formal religion…born Lutheran, adapted to Methodism but practically religiously unaffiliated…dying an intensely long-suffering cancer victim as convert to Crystal Cathedral of Rev. Robert Schuller of Grove City, California, funded by the TV evangelist’s “Hour of Power” (fitting for Hubert)…Gene McCarthy was continually being influenced—and influencing others--by what “the quiet Catholic insurrection” waged at a supposedly conservative Benedictine abbey by theologian Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB (1909-2002).

Dieckmann’s theological reasoning, an offshoot of the late Dom Virgil Michel OSB (1890-1938) who worked with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin of the Catholic Workers, electrified McCarthy before he joined the Benedictine order as a novice with the name Frater Conan…and continued until McCarthy’s death in his sleep at age 89 in December, 2005. Gene not only was influenced by Diekmann and Michel, he actively participated in the insurrection’s philosophical underpinning. That insurrection has had enormous influence on Catholic liberalism and molds many to this day. The theocratic view has never sufficiently been defined in political terms although it is profoundly political and has been adopted—in far less intellectual application than by McCarthy—as rationale for most modern liberal Catholics from Edward Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd and John Kerry (including a host of lesser lights like Richard M. Daley)…except that, uninterested generally in theological ideas, they merely mouth the words and apply the teaching to their own partisan ends. Not so McCarthy

All the while Hubert, a dynamic man of practical action with no speculative gifts or insights, rose to Minneapolis mayor, purging the Communists from the Farmer-Laborites and unifying them with the Democrats…fighting for adoption of a minority civil rights plank at the 1948 convention…getting elected to the Senate…overcoming the Harry Byrd-led boycott of his fellow senators…becoming somewhat accepted in the senatorial establishment…helping get Luther Youngdahl named a federal judge thus guaranteeing his own 1954 reelection to the Senate…a charismatic theologian Diekmann was building a rationale to nullify the hierarchical doctrines of the Church in favor of individual liberal political action.

Without describing his reformulation as a revolution but specifying that it was, in fact, a return to the original Church, Diekmann’s emphasis was on the individual and politics—a schema that was continuing to form the views of McCarthy and whole generations of Catholic thinkers, his influence powerfully dominating almost all major “progressive” Catholic thinkers and publications even today, including “The National Catholic Reporter,” “Commonweal” magazine, “America,” the Jesuit periodical and a host of others…the disciples ranging from the openly heretical Fr. Hans Kung through a wide range of academics and popularizers, including the Fr. Richard McBrien of Notre Dame, the prestigious Catholic Theological Union at the University of Chicago, Dr. Garry Wills, Fr. Andrew Greeley and countless others. In fact the dynamic teaching is now so ingrained in the Church that it is not even regarded as a variant of theology…much as the teaching of Hans Kelsen in legal positivism is accepted without much comment in law schools.

In fact only until the prior decade has authentic Catholic theological thought found some powerful adherents, the most influential being Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the exceedingly influential “First Things”—called “conservative” but which is in fact continuation of scholarship based on Aquinas, Augustine and the Desert Fathers.

It is almost impossible to overestimate the role Godfrey Diekmann has had—far more than his original tutor Virgil Michel-- on contemporary Catholic social thought. He was a man I knew well (as well as his less brilliant brother but gifted artistic brother, Fr. Conrad Diekmann OSB). He had enormous influence on not just McCarthy but progressive Catholic intellectuals prior to—but certainly well beyond—Vatican II…including the writer John Cogley who wrote JFK’s brilliant address to the Houston ministers (but who himself left the Church later in dissatisfaction with its “top-down authoritarianism” as he put it. In fact, while Godfrey never met Chicago’s legendary civil activist John McDermott (a good friend of mine) he had enormous indirect influence on him. McDermott’s theology until the final years of his life were drunk to the dregs from the cup poured by Godfrey. Probably the nearest contemporary to Godfrey is my good friend Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, a Benedictine monk of St. John’s who fully understands Godfrey’s quiet insurrection in the Abbey.

As for me, it was my inestimable good fortune not to be assigned to his Introduction to Theology class in 1946-50 because at 17 fresh from public (not Catholic) high school in Chicago, I was regarded as an improbable convert for Godfrey’s teaching. (Godfrey’s eulogistic talents were reserved for the priesthood-aspirants and the highest academic performers of whom Gene was foremost: known as “the gold ones.”). With my dross fellows, I was fortunately passed over to Fr. Ernest Kilzer OSB, holder of two doctorates (philosophy and theology) who was stolid and regarded as authenticist Church (for which I have always been thankful).

In the afternoons from 1946-50 , my brilliant roommate and others came trooping back to their rooms aflame with the exciting Godfrey Diekmann message. That message had earlier animated Gene McCarthy in the earlier generation from mine. While long gone from St. John’s, Gene kept in touch with it intimately and actively corresponded and talked with Godfrey and his disciples. I recall often seeing them drinking coffee together on occasional Saturdays when Gene was home from Washington. Gene’s fame at St. John’s came not just from his mastery of academics but for the many hours he soaking up insights from Godfrey—but also actively contributing to the discussions from his standpoint as a man of the world with learned progressive monks as well.

What was it that Godfrey taught that became so exciting to my roommate and others—and what did it ultimately come to be?

First, he called himself a theological conservative which is about as duplicitous a description as was possible to give. This is what he taught: In the early centuries of the Church, communities did not wait for hierarchal heaven to give them priests or bishops. They voted for their own priests who stayed with the communities that chose them. There were no candidates submitted by Rome. The signal mark of authority would come “when a community chose its priest.” You can imagine how liberating that sounded—and sounds to someone imbued with strong personal Individuality. How exciting! People choosing their own priests, their own bishops by vote! Let the people rule!

Example, said Godfrey: When St. Ambrose (AD 339-397) was elected bishop of Milan, Godfrey would say, Ambrose was not only a non-priest but not even baptized yet! True. Godfrey’s message was this: God’s grace transcends any hierarchical step-by-step process…the entire formulaic procedure within the Church is bureaucratic and suffocating. The story of Ambrose: How liberating! Would that we could return to it! As we are not likely to, God’s grace should be relied upon to inspire and motivate action…and don’t let the stuffy theocratic politics of the Vatican or anything else stultify you. All very, very nice and there’s something to be said about the stultifying nonsense of bureaucracy. But the case of Ambrose wasn’t exactly as Godfrey…his driving oratory compelling as it was…explained.

The Church that produced Ambrose and others was too early for a hierarchy--although, to be sure there were hidden, subliminal rules. Bishops then were created by intellectual battlefield promotions. Ambrose was no average guy pushed forward solely by God’s grace acting on his fellows. He had a pretty good hierarchal pedigree. . He was the son of the Pretorian prefect of Gaul, studied Greek rhetoric and poetry, was a successful advocate, rising to governor of Aemilla and Liguria, districts of Milan. On the convocation to elect a successor to the Arian bishop Auxentius there was a whole lot of raucous fighting. (Arianism, you will remember from your theology, was the heresy that taught instead of a Trinity, God the Father preceded, was superior to and created the Son). Ambrose got up and used his authority to counsel peace to the crowd. As he was speaking, a kid screamed out: “Ambrose for bishop!” The crowd took it as a sign from God and consecrated him. No one ever identified the kid; whether it was staged or not (here I am too cynical) it worked and the crowd elected Ambrose. But getting elected bishop with his background wasn’t as miraculous as Godfrey may have imagined. You send a guy with Ambrose’s purpose robed patrician heritage into a town meeting and he may very well get elected to anything.

Nor was it unusual for one in Ambrose’s pedigree not to be baptized. Constantine put it off until his death bed because he wanted to save up all his sins for one confession—believing wrongly that one cannot get absolution as a repeat offender. This was regarded commonly at the time. At any rate, Ambrose was baptized and consecrated within a single week. Undoubtedly the gift of grace was with him: he became the most influential protagonist of theological orthodoxy in the West, challenged the Arians, encouraging monasticism, boosting the idea of the Virgin Mary as the patron of all nuns, helped convert Augustine, led an excursion into politics where he reproved some rulers. He was a multifarious talent at a time when the Church was too young to have a fully developed hierarchy.

But you can imagine the model of Ambrose hoisted before a young assembly of students. Ambrose seemingly took orders from nobody; he didn’t have to since Ambrose was from the purple himself. He warned the young emperor Gratian against Arianism and got away with it. After Gratian’s murder, Ambrose convinced the new emperor Maximus to be content with the chunk of the empire he owned and allow Valentinian II to have his chunk. Gutsy, cheeky to the extreme, Ambrose meted out public penance to emperors. But it is important to recognize that before Ambrose died at age 60 he was already constructing hierarchal office, writing catechetical instructions and a commentary on Luke’s gospel. So gutsy Ambrose was; free-form? Not really. He was a pioneer and should not be held up by his free-form example for today; then nobody could really correspond with Rome except by writing and long months of waiting. But when Godfrey extolled Ambrose and cause students to shudder at the long, grinding processes of the Church, he got an audience. Also the fact that Ambrose applied politics was very, very heady.

Future thinkers and activists like Gene McCarthy lapped it up. Idealistic liberals of the Church still do. When Godfrey talked about Ambrose it seemed to the class…as he stalked around…that he himself was Ambrose. A good professor has that quality. But theological history was only a smattering of what Godfrey Diekmann was about. The rest…next.

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