Summer 1989, Vol.41 No. 2, pp. 160-165.

Daniel A. Helminiak:
      Colloquy: A Response to Sister Kathleen McDonagh

Rev. Daniel A. Helminiak, professor of theology at the Oblate School of Theology San Antonio, Texas, is completing work on a second doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. His recent book, Spiritual Development, was published by Loyola University Press in 1987.

SISTER Kathleen McDonagh's response to my "Catholicism's Spiritual Limbo" usefully broadens the historical picture of Jeanne de Matel. Especially valuable are the references that show Mere de Matel's attention to Jesus as human, indeed, as a loving friend, and her awareness of encountering the Incarnate Word in ways other than eucharistic. Only attention to Mere de Matel's whole corpus could highlight such rich wealth. McDonagh rightly points out that my presentation relied entirely on two secondary sources, though those two are the best available, as I was advised when I began that study and as McDonagh herself confirms. My forte is not history but ideas, their unifying power, their consolidation, and their contrast. My article was precisely a study in contrasts, in differing ways of understanding the Incarnation. For such an enterprise, good secondary sources usually suffice. Nonetheless, one does need to be accurate in any presentation. So McDonagh's supplementary research is welcome.

Still, it is not surprising that detailed research would uncover in Mere de Matel aspects of piety that seem more typical of today's sensitivities. As I stated, "In its own way every culture finds a way to include all that is part of the complete religious picture" (p. 345). This is particularly true in the case of major figures, among whom I presume Mere de Matel stands. But the emphases differ. That was my point. Perhaps in places I overstated it. But that point, I think, remains valid.

What would be surprising is to find some past figure expressing the insights and emphases proper to our own times, a figure transcending history and perfect in all things. I am uncomfortable to think that McDonagh might believe Mere de Matel must be shown to be exactly like that if she is to qualify for canonization. I am even more distressed to think that McDonagh, familiar with the canonization process, might just be right. The what is the cost, meaning, and value of a canonization process?

I want to insist that I presented no criticism of a spirituality, neither that of the seventeenth century nor especially that of the contemporary Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament. In no way did I point to those sisters as "a community which must change its spirituality to meet twentieth-century needs." My explicit intention was only to contrast centuries and spiritualities and to let people draw their own conclusions.

Now, let me address some specifics. First, I am baffled by McDonagh's statement that my documentation is too meager. Supposedly, I cite only four pages of Fr. John M. Lozano's book. Yet 18 footnotes point my readers to 25 pages of Lozano's brief, 87 page text. I relied heavily on Lozano, and I documented the fact. Moreover, I reported him faithfully. If there is historical oversight, it must lie with the historian Lozano, not with the theologian Helminiak. And there is no suggestion that Lozano is mistaken.

For example, my statement, "For Jeanne, 'Incarnate Word...' did not imply a fellow human being like ourselves but rather God, and God precisely as present to us" (p. 338), is but a restatement of Lozano's own account, quoted verbatim and documented in the very next line of my text: "...what stands out by far in the spiritual life and experience of the Servant of God is the Incarnation as the gift of the Word to his creature, rather than the human countenance with which the Only-begotten Son appeared among us" (p. 42).

Again, my documented statement, "For Jeanne, the Blessed Sacrament offers the way of encountering the incarnate Word" (p. 341), merely echoes Lozano. Speaking of the place of the Eucharist in Mere de Matel's Institute, Lozano uses terms like "central position" (p. 76), "in a particular way," "above all" (p. 77), and, quoting the seventeenth-century Duchess of Rocheguyon, "principal object of devotion" (p. 78). Surely, this primacy of the Eucharist does not preclude other accesses to the Incarnate Word, as already granted and usefully documented by McDonagh. Still, this primacy seems indisputable.

Or again, use of the word "charisma" (p. 338) rather than "charism" occurs in a direct quote from Lozano (p. 72).

Second, a more substantive issue is whether the object of Christian concern should be an event or a person. My statement, "In the seventeenth century, the concern was the Incarnate Word; today the concern is the Incarnation" (p. 333), is an introductory summary remark. Its meaning is determined by the whole argument of the article. That meaning is a contrast emphasis on divinity versus emphasis on humanity. Obviously, then, the term "Incarnation," used in contrast to "Incarnate Word," is not intended to refer to an event rather than to a person but attempts to highlight Jesus' becoming flesh in contrast to his being divine. Obviously, too, in either case the object of devotion must be Somebody, namely, the Eternally-begotten, the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. There is no question of choosing between an event and a person. Rather, the option is to emphasize either the humanity or the divinity of the One in question.

Third, regarding "The Ends of the Institute," I find no difference between what I wrote (pp. 341-42) and what McDonagh so strongly emphasizes. Nor is there contradiction in my statement. To realize this, one need only read the whole paragraph, rather than isolate three sentences, though even those alone stand correct. Mere de Matel founded a contemplative order, not an apostolic one, yet she made an educational ministry integral to her order. How remarkable! Indeed, I concluded, "Despite the pervasive influence of the seventeenth century on Jeanne's piety, this holy woman maintained a remarkable sense of balanced Christianity. She insisted on an aspect of religious life that has become a main focus in the twentieth century." What more could one want said?

Finally, I highlighted a "theological inadequacy" in Jeanne de Matel's trinitarian devotion. A perduring concern of mine is to clarify the essence of Christianity. This task became more and more urgent as Christianity encounters other world religions on a shrinking planet. Critical to this enterprise is the doctrine of the Trinity -- and its significance for ultimate human salvation, "divinization." When the issue is the role of the Trinity in our divinization, it is not enough to acknowledge the Three in God, to profess that Each is God, and to grasp that each One is perforce in every other One (perichoresis). Stop here and the Trinity remains but a doctrinal curiosity. So one needs also to account for the work specific to Each of the Three; one needs to understand Their respective roles in salvation history.

McDonagh's statement, "In all else except in this relative opposition, everything is held in common by Father and Son," envisages only the inner-trinitarian life and so, while correct as such, is insufficient in the present discussion. For only the Eternal Offspring was also born of Mary, lived in Israel, died on a cross, and rose from the dead -- not the Parent nor the Holy Spirit. Through a human nature which those Two do not hold in common with Him, He did things that They did not do. To continue insisting that the Parent and the Spirit were nonetheless always in Christ in a unique way or to insist that through Christ one cannot help but be brought to the other Two, is only to emphasize the fact that Christ, like Them, is God while ignoring the fact that Christ alone among the Three is also human. The difference between such an emphasis and the one I indicate is precisely the "Shift in Incarnational Spirituality" that my article attempted to expose. Awareness of that shift provokes awareness of the theological inadequacy that is in question here. McDonagh's valiant attempt to refute the charge of theological inadequacy not only misses the point. It also conflates systematic theology (Rahner and Vorgrimler), pastoral conciliar teaching (Lumen Gentium), and New Testament kerygma (Leon-Dufour) and so sheds no light on the matter.

The present juncture in history calls us to more accuracy in our treatment of human salvation. Such accuracy, though present at times in Christian history, has been generally obscured. An excessive christocentism overshadows the trinitarian core of Christianity. Devotion to Christ becomes but a variant way of relating to God. And the Holy Spirit tends to fall completely out of the picture. So in practice, Christians often follow only a complex and confusing form of monotheism, devoid of any real trinitarian sensitivity. This state of affairs is no longer tolerable. Of course, the extreme version of watered-down trinitarianism that I just sketched is rare among thoughtful Christians. But the tendency toward it, the emphasis, may be there. Please note that this is a matter of unconsidered emphasis, not of deliberate judgment. Aware of these things, I consider it important to point them out whenever an apt occasion arises, so I highlighted a "theological inadequacy" in Mere de Matel's devotion.

A theological inadequacy is not a doctrinal error. It is not heresy. It is not sin. It is merely lack of understanding about some theological matter. That Mere de Matel should exhibit a theological inadequacy here and there is hardly surprising. We all do, and she, like us, was only human. Such inadequacy does not necessarily disqualify her from canonized sanctity. Even that she should exhibit that particular theological inadequacy is not surprising. Excessive christocentrism has colored Christianity for centuries.

Evidently, McDonagh feels the need to defend Mere de matel's theology and to show that there is a legitimate interpretation of her piety. Beyond doubt, her piety did have its legitimacy. But a defense of her every theological idea seems hardly required. As our century redresses imbalances (not errors!) inherited from former times, understandably our position will differ from earlier ones. Hopefully, progress is being made, and doctrinal development is advancing. So people of former ages are not discredited because they were conditioned by their own history. According to the current understanding of the matter, even Jesus was so conditioned. All the more, then, it is not helpful to defend and even adopt a seventeenth-century formulation because a saintly person advanced it. Yet his is what McDonagh's concluding sentences do.

The path of Christian salvation, instigated by the gift of the Holy Spirit and lived in Christ, terminates in the life of the Eternal Parent. However one's piety might get one there -- for example, by devotion to the Incarnate Word -- the conclusion, whether known and articulated as such or not, is the same: participation in the life of the Unsourced Source. I do not believe that this point of Christian understanding is open to debate. Nor do I doubt this subtle but important point is often obscured in Christian devotion -- even as the present exchange evinces.