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Reinhold Niebuhr and Catholicism

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Few men since the turn of the century and no American in the past generation have made a greater impact on the Protestant mind than Reinhold Niebuhr. Until his retirement in 1960 - to a still active life on the faculty - he was for more than thirty years professor of Christian Ethics, then dean and finally vice-president of Union Theological Seminary. Last summer a Reinhold Niebuhr professorship of Social Ethics was created at Union Theological. The list of sponsors of this recognition for nearly fifty years of leadership in social, political and religious thought reads like a national Who’s Who, spanning almost every cultural and institutional life in the United States.

George Keenan spoke for the sponsors when he said that “Niebuhr is the father of us all.” Paul Ramsey of Princeton wrote a panegyric, to the effect that just when theology had ceased to be in any sense of the word the capstone of human knowledge, it became, through the life and work of this one man, in a very real way the queen of the practical sciences. “God seems to have had this in mind when He created Reinhold Niebuhr and let him loose on this planet.”

A shelf of sixteen books, including the monumental Nature and Destiny of Man, and over five hundred signed articles are a witness of the man’s energy. They also suggest some of his influence in shaping what critics have called a system of theological pragmatism, but which others insist is a blessed amalgam of religious ultimacy and vigor in dealing with social problems.

Our interest here is to examine Niebuhr’s thought against the background of Catholic principles, not critically but rather descriptively, and in the light of his own frequent analysis of Roman Catholicism. It is symptomatic of a grave need that, for all our apparent nearness to one another, Catholics should be largely unaware of how incisively the leading spokesman for American Protestantism has written about their own religious culture.

Centrality of Sin

More than one commentator believes that the central, overwhelming idea for Reinhold Niebuhr is sin. He is even said to have “faith in sin.” Perhaps the general impression was best stated by a friendly critic that in spite of Niebuhr’s “profound sense of the comprehensiveness of Christianity,” he has been guilty of overemphasizing sin in his reaction to modern sentimental versions of the Christian faith. Concerned over the neglect of man’s fallen nature, he is so busy rehabilitating this fact that other and equally important aspects of Christianity suffer from under-emphasis.

In existential terms he defines sin as the unwarranted human claim to finality. “Man is mortal. That is his fate. Man pretends to be not mortal. That is his sin.” The variety of forms which this pretence assumes is myriad. Will to power and lust of the flesh are only generic names for a malady that infects even the noblest of man’s actions.

Pride, he explains, may be individual or collective. On the individual level it may be a thirst for domination exhibited in those who already enjoy social security and those who wish they did. When social forms persuade men they are secure, an incredible blindness to their finite nature overcomes them. Tyrants and dictators fondly imagine they are exempt from the common laws of suffering and death. Those who are socially insecure show their lust for power under the guise of a laudable search for security. It is the sin of those who, knowing themselves to be insecure, seek sufficient power to guarantee their security, inevitably at the expense of other life.

Less obvious but equally sinful is pride of intellect, found in those who pretend they are in possession of the final insight into truth. “Intellectual pride is thus the pride of reason which forgets that it is involved in a temporal process and imagines itself in complete transcendence over history.” The mind begins innocently enough, in the pursuit of knowledge. But, soon it goes beyond this modest aim and ends by saying that a final system of truth has been reached.

Moral pride is the pretension of finite man that his highly conditioned and imperfect virtue is the final righteousness, and that his very relative moral standards are absolute. The conflict which Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees is a classic example. They refused to submit to the test of divine law, preferring to set their own moral security independently. Being most subtle, the pride of morality is also the most vicious. Self-criticism and tolerance are unknown. “The whole history of racial, national, religious and other social struggles is a commentary on the objective wickedness and social miseries which result from self-righteousness.”

At the acme of wickedness stands spiritual pride, which not only claims to possess final truth and virtue, but identifies these possessions with the will of God. Other prides are only means which lead to this quintessential form, when the individual leaps out of himself and brazenly claims self-deification. The zenith is reached when “our partial standards and relative attainments are explicitly related to the unconditioned good, and claim divine sanction.”

Since the social unit is formed of many individuals, the nature of collective pride remains the same. However, it becomes more intense. “The group is more arrogant, hypocritical, self-centered and more ruthless in the pursuit of its ends than the individual.” For one thing, the collectivity can more easily mask individual pretensions; it also tends to favor the outlook of the most aggressive and dominant members of society who, by definition, are the most proud.

Pretensions of Roman Catholicism

Niebuhr applies these norms of sinfulness with merciless logic to existing personalities and institutions. Collective pride especially merits condemnation. He calls it man’s last, and in some respects most pathetic, effort to deny the determinate and contingent character of his existence. The very essence of human sin is in it.

Yet if other collectivities, like the family and nation, deserve stricture for their pretensions, one institution stands more guilty than all the rest. The Catholic Church is the worst offender. Every major writing of Niebuhr touches on this theme or implies it, that Catholicism has “usurped the majesty of God” and should be judged accordingly. Less clear and explicit in his earlier publications, it was the backbone of his Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh University in the spring of 1939, and the closing message to the Evanston Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1954.

At Evanston, Niebuhr began by stating his general theme, that the facts of history and the injunctions of Scripture warn us it is the business of the Christian Church to bear witness not to the righteousness of Christians, but to the righteousness of God, in accordance with the Reformation principle of man’s depravity. Stated more simply, the important lesson for Christianity to teach is the reliability of God and the unreliability of men, even in their wisest and most virtuous moments. It is a lesson we are slow to learn, in spite of the manifest evidence of the centuries, as taught by the “historic movements which destroyed the unity of the church for the sake of restoring the purity of the gospel,” in the Eastern Schism and the Protestant exodus from Rome.

Unless we learn this truth, Niebuhr affirmed, we shall make the mistake of assuming that the majesty and unity of the church as the body of Christ is necessary to His glory. It is not and cannot be, because even where the shell of ecclesiastical unity is most apparent, it hides an inner core of sin as inevitable as the unreliable human beings of which the church is composed. “The unity of the Roman Church is indeed impressive, and in some respects enviable, in comparison with our unhappy divisions.” But the Church maintained this unity and a part of the substance of the Gospel truth at the price of building two great heresies into the Christian message. Both are manifestations of spiritual pride.

The one heresy was to exalt the Church as the “Extension of the Incarnation,” as essentially divine, as the mediator of God’s judgment, rather than as the locus in human history where the judgments of God can be heard, whether upon the righteous or the unrighteous. This heresy was to obscure the chasm between the human and the divine, which the prophets of Israel understood so well; to pretend that there were priests who were privy to God’s counsels, were in control of God’s redemptive powers and purposes; and were in possession of the “keys of heaven.”

The other heresy was either consequent or ancillary to the previous one. Since the Church claimed to be divine, it assumed authority to dictate to men how they must work out their salvation. In place of the simple message of God’s mercy it constructed an elaborate structure of human bureaucracy.

It changed the Gospel of forgiveness to contrite souls into a great scheme for assuring men of their salvation if they would climb the “ladder of merit,” chiefly by castigating the passions of the body. This ladder of merit, these ascetic disciplines, did not however guarantee that the self in the pretensions of its self-esteem would be shattered by the “severity” of the divine judgment that a new self would arise from the crucifixion of the old self.

At Evanston, Niebuhr spared his audience the burden of hearing how these heresies not only changed the message of redemption in Christ, but also constructed a very imposing institution and a very vexatious and pretentious priesthood, pretending to have dominion over all the nations in the name of Christ. He was satisfied with pointing out that “justice and freedom could not be established on earth, even as the Gospel could not be truly preached until these pretensions were challenged.” This the Reformation did for all time, and he was now calling it to Protestant attention.

Hellenism and Christology

Given this image of Catholicism, certain implications that follow touch on every phase of the Christian religion. The Catholic Church believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Echoing the thesis of Harnack that Christology was born when the early councils mated Greek philosophy with the Gospels, Niebuhr goes a step further. Nicea and Chalcedon borrowed Hellenistic terminology to encase in “wooden orthodoxy” the broad Christian affirmation that in some mysterious way God makes Himself known in history through the person of Christ.

Were it not for these borrowings, two distinct aspects of the Savior would have stayed apart: Jesus’ human character and His significance as the revelation of the divine. What did the councils under papal suasion do? They ventured to state this double facet of Christ in “ontic” terms, and “what can be expressed only symbolically (was) transmuted into a truth of speculative reason.” Christ thus became, according to these statements of faith, what He objectively is not, both God and man. Not satisfied with the identification, the councils went on to assert that Christ’s humanity does not derogate from His divinity. This is indefensible.

All definitions of Christ which affirm both his divinity and humanity in the sense that they ascribe both finite and historically conditioned and eternal and unconditioned qualities to his nature must verge on logical nonsense. It is possible for a character, event or fact of history to point symbolically beyond history and to become a source of disclosure of an eternal meaning, purpose and power which bears history. But it is not possible for any person to be historical and unconditioned at the same time.

All that Niebuhr will grant is that the symbol of a God-man provides a framework which makes “the doctrine that Jesus was both human and divine religiously and morally meaningful, and dispenses with the necessity of making the doctrine metaphysically plausible.” The great error of the Church was to assert the objectivity of what is only mythically valid.

Catholic Conception of Grace

Parallel with the unwarranted intrusion of Hellenism into Christology, Niebuhr traces the baneful influence of neo-Platonic philosophy, through St. Augustine, into the Catholic concept of grace. For all his genius, Augustine’s doctrine of grace “blunts and obscures the complex relation between grace as power and grace as pardon.” According to his theory, the divine mercy, mediated through Christ, destroys the sinful contradiction between man and God, and turns the soul from self-love to obedience. It may then grow in grace and achieve constantly higher stages of sanctification. “This subordination of justification to sanctification becomes definitive for the whole Catholic conception of life and history. It contains the roots of a new self-righteousness and a new pretension that man is able to complete life and history.”

Niebuhr admits a basic difference between this and Hellenistic conceptions in that the Catholic position expresses man’s inability to realize the good by his own power. But it wrongly assumes that such can be accomplished with the help of God.

The important point at issue in the Augustinian conception is whether the destruction of sin “in principle” means that the power of inordinate self-love is broken in fact. It is the thesis of both Augustine and all the Catholic ages that this is the case; and that residual sin represents the eruption of vagrant desires and impulses which have not yet been brought completely under the control of the central will. The thesis is plausible enough; for if destruction of self-love “in principle” does not also mean “in fact” in some basic sense, what does it mean? Certainly there must be some facts which reveal the new principle by which the soul lives. Surely there must be “fruits meet for repentance!”

Augustine and Catholic theology are charged with oversimplifying the complexities of moral life. Their theory of sanctifying grace, canonized by Trent, postulates complete sinlessness in those who have been baptized; they are “made innocent, without stain, pure, no longer hateful, but beloved sons of God, heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ.” In reality, says Niebuhr, no such transformation takes place. If baptism and justification mean the reception of grace, which he transmits, they do not mean the renewal of man’s inherently sin-laden nature.

Unlike other Protestant writers, Niebuhr is not confused in terminology nor does he misunderstand Catholic teaching. He sees the difference between formal sin and concupiscence, and is quite aware that Augustine and especially Trent recognize that concupiscence remains in those who are justified. His quarrel is with Catholic insistence that justification actually changes a man intrinsically from sinner to a friend of God. Remarkably Lutheran in his analysis, he demands a sinful condition for all men, whether justified or not, as something so inherent in their nature that active self-love (or formal sin) is present in everything they do.

This tragic quality of the spiritual life, he explains, was never clearly appreciated until the Reformation. Its apprehension gives the Reformation its particular and unique place in the history of the Christian life. Augustine’s failure to understand it had the consequence of making him the father of Catholicism in his doctrine of grace. It also paved the way for the Catholic notion of merit which the Reformation was the first to challenge and expose on a large scale.

The question of merit may seem academic to the casual student. “It may even appear to the critical as a case of that futile theological hairsplitting, which seems to make theological debate so fatuous.” But all important issues, whether in philosophy or theology, are finally defined in very precise distinctions which may hide from the unwary while they reveal to the initiated the importance of the issues at stake. The issue at stake here is whether man’s historical existence is such that he can ever, by any discipline of reason or by any merit of grace, confront a divine judgment upon his life with an easy conscience. “If he can, it means that it is possible for a will centered in an individual ego to be brought into essential conformity with the will and power which governs all things. On this question the Catholic answer is a constantly affirmative one.”

Niebuhr rejects the affirmation on two counts: in the sense that a person in the state of grace is able to merit “in justice” before God through the good works he performs; and in the more subtle sense that in virtue of his supernatural life a man can so far rise above nature as to conform his will to the divine in all the essentials of Christian morality. He admits the radical error on which this doctrine is built may elude discovery, as happened until the Reformation. It is nothing less than seeking “a place in history where sin is transcended.” In seeking for that place, the Catholic Church has fallen prey to the sin of spiritual pride. Indeed, “all Catholic errors in overestimating the sinlessness of the redeemed reach their culmination, or at least their most vivid and striking expression, in ‘the doctrine of the church.”

Here the reservations of St. Augustine are forgotten. The Catholic Church is accused of simply identifying itself with the Kingdom of God. It is the sole dispenser of grace for the benefit of a humanity that is encouraged to strive after holiness under the aegis of a religion which is supposed to have overcome human pretension in principle. “Its visible head assumes the title, ‘Vicar of Christ,’ which appears blasphemous from the perspective of a prophetic view of history. The title and the claim of papal infallibility reach such heights of human pretension that the Reformation indictment of the Pope as ‘Anti-Christ’ may be regarded as something of an historical inevitability.”

What judgment should be passed on a society which claims to represent the divine will with infallible surety? “It commits the same sin which the prophets recognized so clearly as the sin of Israel.” This sin, moreover, becomes particularly grave when churchmen combine political power with their assertion of divine approval, and it is hardly mitigated by “the achievements of universality which the historic church and papacy have to their credit.” The achievements serve only to emphasize what kind of means were used in the process.

Critique of the Natural Law

Niebuhr is not professedly a dogmatic theologian. His main concern has been to reinterpret the existing social structures in the light of what he considers Christian principles. Applied to human conduct, these principles become ethical norms which Niebuhr never precisely defines, but which he is at pains to clarify are Christian indeed without being Catholic.

He singles out for special criticism the Catholic idea of natural law. The purpose of the natural law, as he sees it, is to define for the free individual the proper performance of his functions, the normal harmony of his impulses and the normal social relation between himself and his fellows within the limits of the natural order. Yet there is no easy way to decide what, if anything should be included in natural law. There are too many possibilities of man’s involvement in a limitless number of circumstances. Niebuhr makes no effort to catalogue what the law of nature prescribes, or even to state its basic elements.

Instead he castigates all forms of finality on the content of the moral law, with stress on the Catholic pretension to fix the limits of man’s duties to God. The roots of this fixation, he says, reach back into the medieval theory of the fall and its tenuous distinction between pure nature and the additional gifts of grace. “The primary mistake of Catholic theory is precisely the sharp and absolute distinction which it makes between the two. It speaks of an original righteousness which was lost in the fall and a natural justice which remains essentially uncorrupted by the fall.”

At this crucial point, Niebuhr reveals the Kantianism which forces him to deny the power of reason sufficiently to understand nature in order to recognize an objective natural law, and at the same time causes him so to exalt the capacity of human freedom as to construct a set of moral values that finally depend only on the dictates of every man’s will.

His distrust of reason makes him impatient with any system of ethics which pretends to be fundamentally rational.

The sin of man perennially insinuates contingent and relative elements into the supposedly absolute standards of human reason. Undue confidence in human reason, as the seat and source of natural law, makes this very concept of law into a vehicle of human sin. It gives to the peculiar conditions and unique circumstances in which reason operates in a particular historical moment the sanctity of universality. The confidence of medieval Catholicism in the ability of an unspoiled reason to arrive at definitive standards of natural justice thus became the very vehicle of the sinful pretensions of the age. The social ethics of Thomas Aquinas embody the peculiarities and the contingent factors of a feudal-agrarian economy into a system of fixed socio-ethical principles.

Niebuhr believes that all so-called natural or rational standards of morality are involved in sin. “There is no uncorrupted natural law,” and the only effect of claiming the contrary is to raise “ideology” to a higher degree of unreality, while it illustrates the force of sin in the pretence of sinlessness.

The Gifford Lectures bristle with criticism of those who exclude the function of liberty to determine moral imperatives. Proponents of a natural law founded on reason obscure “the complex relation of human freedom to all of man’s natural functions.” Catholic moralists notwithstanding, “the freedom, which is the unique capacity of humankind, makes it difficult to set precise standards for all time for any kind of relationship,” whether between God and man, or society and the individual, or among members of any institution.

This is best illustrated, Niebuhr feels, in the much-publicized Catholic stand on artificial contraception, which ignores the dual purpose of sex - to serve mutual love as well as procreation. He defends the duality on the score that man is both a child of nature and a free spirit transcending nature.

He accepts procreation as the prime purpose of bisexuality in nature, but challenges the making of this “natural fact” into a universally valid “law of reason,” setting bounds for the free human personality.

In Catholic natural law all social relations, including family relations, are precisely defined. Inter alia it is maintained that the natural law prohibits birth control.
The prohibition of birth control assumes that the sexual function in human life must be limited to its function in nature, that of procreation. But it is the very character of human life that all animal functions are touched by freedom and released into more complex relationships. This freedom is the basis of both creativity and sin. Freedom in relation to sex may occasion licence, and it may also provide for a creative relation between the sex impulse and other more complex and refined spiritual impulses.

Thus a perfectly valid distinction between the primary and secondary ends of marriage is made to subserve a typically Kantian purpose. The generation of children is said to be primary if we take marriage as a purely “material” institution in which biological mating is necessary to bring human life into being. But on the higher “more refined spiritual” level, as should obtain among Christians, carnal generation may be subordinated to the promotion of marital love.

On the further question: whether mutual devotion justifies physical union even when conception is frustrated, Niebuhr would answer in the affirmative. The norm of morality in this case is not some artificial construct of reason, based on the objective order of reality, but the freely-entered agreement between husband and wife to enjoy the pleasures of marriage while excluding possible conception. Birth control, therefore, is a private matter over which no hierarchy has valid jurisdiction. The means which a married pair use to determine the number and spacing of births are a matter for them to decide. If after mature reflection they decide not to have a child now, they are at perfect liberty (not to say under obligation) to use the most effective method available.

Two Forms of Christianity

Niebuhr looks upon the growth of ecumenism among the “non-Roman churches” as proof that the confusion of liberty is being overcome and that it is possible to exercise liberty of faith within a very broad consensus. Of course, “this movement will not of itself prevent essential heresy from arising, by which I mean positions which challenge the very substance of the Gospel message,” like the existence of a supernatural order. However, the cost is not too high if ecumenical agreement removes “local and parochial corruptions which have been introduced into Christian history by particular events, partial emphases, and undue preoccupation with portions of the Gospel message.” He suggested that any lingering envy which many Protestants had for Catholic unity “has recently been dispelled by the consistent effort of the Church to change the very basis of the Gospel message and to exalt the Virgin Mary until she has become a virtual replacement for the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.” This was a commentary on the Catholic celebration of the Marian Year, and the earlier definition of the Assumption.

He anticipates no resolution of the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity.

From the standpoint of Catholicism, Protestantism is corrupted by anarchy, and the Gospel is endangered by all kinds of heresies at the fringes of its life. From the standpoint of Protestantism, the Catholic Church has an impressive transnational unity and preserves some of the essential affirmations of the Gospel. But the price of this unity is an assertion which we must regard as essentially heretical: it is the affirmation that the Church, a historical institution, is divine. The distance between God and man, of which the prophets were so conscious, is thus obscured.

Not the least benefit of reading Niebuhr is the clarity he brings to Catholic and Protestant relations. Conscious that religious unity is desirable and, in some ways, necessary for those out of communion with Rome, he actively promotes the ecumenical efforts of the World Council of Churches and for years has been one of its theological advisers. But whatever unity the Council achieves or the non-Catholic world aspires to, in Niebuhr’s opinion must involve no compromise with Rome. “Catholicism,” he knows, “is impelled by its whole history and by its peculiar doctrine of grace to claim unconditioned possession of the truth. It pretends to have as a simple possession, what cannot be so possessed.” With such intransigence no compromise is possible, but only a prophetic protest.

Homilitic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 62-#2, November 1961, pp. 129-137

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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