A Response to Robert Sungenis on “Works of the Law”
by Art Sippo
In the continuing spiral of Robert Sungenis out of the Catholic Church, he attacks virtually every Catholic scholar and apologist he can find trying to justify his own infidelity to the Papal Magisterium and Vatican Council II. I have become the target of numerous long winded and misleading assaults including some accusing me of holding positions that Mr. Sungenis knows I do not support. We have discussed these matters in detail over the years, but in his procrustean way, it is easier to attack what he wants me to have said than to oppose what I really said. The vast majority of his objections are trivial and mean spirited requiring nothing more than a sigh and rejoicing to God that I am being persecuted unjustly for His Name’s sake. But there are some issues that I think are quite critical to Catholic apologetics in our day and which deserves to be addressed seriously: What did St. Paul mean by the phrase “works of the law”? When he used this phrase was he referring to what would later be known as the Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian heresies or “works righteousness”? Can St. Paul’s writings be used to oppose Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and “works righteousness”? Did St. Paul condemn all of the Jews – including himself before his conversion – as purveyors of “works righteousness”? After his conversion did St. Paul require that Jews stop being observant of the Mosaic Law?
In the Sungenisist screed, “works of the law” as used in the Pauline Corpus allegedly means “all works as having any part at all in justification.” Now as a Catholic I thoroughly agree with Sungenis that no works that we do prior to justification contribute in any way to justification except in those cases where good works are a preparation for the reception of it. In some cases – like that of St. Paul on the Damascus Road – there were no good works that preceded and prepared the person for justification.
But in the context of Romans 3:28, St. Paul was not talking about goods works in general. He was talking particularly about the works required by the Mosaic Law and whether or not it was necessary for a Christian to perform them after conversion in order to be saved. This is absolutely clear from the context and can be seen by quoting the relevant section of the epistle:
Romans 3: 28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
This quotation makes it clear that the view opposite to the one St. Paul espoused in verse 28 was not that one could earn salvation by trying to do good works, but rather that one did not have to bean observant Jew in order to benefit from faith in Jesus. In fact, St. Paul even showed that there were two different principles of justification operative in his day: one for the circumcised and one for the uncircumcised. (This is a point made recently by John Gager in his book Reinventing Paul.) Yet in both cases faith is the first principle from which justification proceeds. The circumcised who kept the Jewish Law were justified because their observance of the Law was grounded in faith in God and his Messiah. The uncircumcised (i.e., Gentiles who were not observant Jews) who followed the law in their hearts were justified directly through faith in God and his Son which was the necessary presupposition for the good works they performed thereafter. This was precisely what St. Paul had taught in the previous chapter of Romans:
Romans 2:1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who do such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.6 For he will render to every man according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. 12 All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
St. Paul made it clear that it was only good works performed in faith — not works performed before faith or apaart from faith – that were necessary for receiving the reward of eternal life. He made it clear that only those who do what the law required would be justified, not those who merely heard it proclaimed to them or who paid lip service to it while not obeying it.
St. Paul also made a distinction in Romans 2 between the Jewish Law and the law of the Gentiles, which was “written on their hearts.” Clearly, his intention in Romans 2 was to show that the Gentiles do not need to observe the Law of Moses to be considered righteous before God. But rather they must respond in faith to the grace they had received in their hearts as believing Christians and members of the new covenant wrought by Christ. This is not something new but a theme found in several Old Testament passages:
2 Chronicles 31:21 And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did [it] with all his heart, and prospered.
Ezra 7:10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do [it], and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
Job 22:22 Receive, I pray thee, the law from his mouth, and lay up his words in thine heart.
Psalm 37:31 The law of his God [is] in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.
Psalm 40:8 I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law [is] within my heart.
Psalm 119:34 Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with [my] whole heart.
Proverbs 3:1 My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:
Isaiah 51:7 Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart [is] my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings.
Jeremiah 31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Even with regard to the Mosaic Law, the righteous man of the Old Testament was he who internalized its requirements and observed them “from the heart” not merely by externally going through the motions. We can see that what St. Paul recommended for the Gentiles in Romans 2 was precisely what the Old Testament recognized as normative for Jews under the Mosaic Covenant with the only difference being that the Gentiles’ good works would proceed purely from faith while in the Old Testament, Jews were expected to have faith in God’s revelation in the Torah and to internalize the principles taught in the Mosaic Law. St. Paul’s entire argument in Romans and Galatians was precisely that the position he was expounding was nothing new but actually part of Jewish teaching. He made this clear in Galatians:
Galatians 2: 15 We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
St. Paul taught that as a practicing Jew he knew that no one would be justified by works of the law but rather through faith in the Messiah. He does not treat justification by faith as something new but as part of the Jewish religious heritage. It is this theme of continuity between the Old and New Covenants that St. Paul sees a bridging the gap between the two testaments. What was foreshadowed in the old would be made real in the new.
That quotation noted above from Jeremiah 31 is critical because it has been seen in classical Christian apologetics as a reference to the new covenant in Christ. Here, Jeremiah clearly recognized that there would be a new covenant with Israel that would not require adherence to an external law but rather one that proceeded directly from divine action on the heart. It predicted that in the covenant that would supersede that of Moses, the old requirement to be an observant Jew would no longer be necessary but conscientious moral action would still be required. Jeremiah did not see this as a discontinuity between the covenants but as the next logical next step in God’s dealings with men. The Law in its spirit would not be abolished but internalized placing Jews in a more intimate relationship with God. This was already anticipated in the Old Covenant. The expectation was that there would be a new and greater covenant which would move beyond the mere observance of the Mosaic Law.
This is made most explicit in the NT in Hebrews 8 where this section of Jeremiah is quoted:
Hebrews 8: 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second. 8 For He finds fault with them when He says: “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; 9 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they didn’t continue in my covenant, and so I paid no heed to them, says the Lord. 10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” 13 In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
The NT confirmed that the old covenant would become obsolete, but it did not predict its immediate demise. Rather it said that the old covenant would “fade away.” There was an ambivalence there that saw Judaism as a continuing reality in the Christian era that would be of eschatological significance. St. Paul tells us:
Romans 11: 25 Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, 26 and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; 27 “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.” 28 As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.29 For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.30 Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,31 so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. 32 For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.
St. Paul saw that in his day God was not done with the Jews even though they had rejected Jesus as a whole. He predicted that when the Gentile world had been fully evangelized, the Jews themselves would begin to convert en masse. This would be a sign of the end times and bring to completion the work of Christ so that God might have mercy on all mankind. God would save all of Israel from both the old and the new covenants. But it would all be based on faith in Jesus Christ – Yeshua Meshiach—the the Lord and Savior of all men, the Gentiles first and then the Jews.
In summary, St. Paul in Romans 3:28ff made it clear that by “works of the law” he was referring to the practices of observant Jews based upon the Mosaic Law – moral, ritual, political, economic, dietary, etc. – the observance of which he taught were not necessary for the justification of Gentile Christians. He was thereby condemning the practice of Judaizing – the claim that Gentiles had to become observant Jews in order to be Christians. St. Paul did not say that observance of the Mosaic Law was optional for the circumcised Christian Jew, but rather that it needed to be grounded in faith in Jesus in order to justify him. He reaffirmed this position in Acts 21.
Acts 21: 17 When we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly.18 On the following day Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present.19 After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.20 And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law,21 and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.22 What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.23 Do therefore what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow;24 take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law.25 But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter with our judgment that they should abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.”26 Then Paul took the men, and the next day he purified himself with them and went into the temple, to give notice when the days of purification would be fulfilled and the offering presented for every one of them.
Implicit in both the OT and NT was an expectation that the new covenant which would supersede that of Moses and render it obsolete. Yet in the NT itself we do not see the old covenant completely eliminated. Christian Jews remained observant of the Mosaic Law in the Apostolic Church and the real question at that time was not whether they should stop observing the Law but whether the Gentiles should start to do so. At no time was the practice of observing “works of the law” by Jewish Christians equated to or condemned as “works righteousness.” Rather circumcision was seen as a pledge to God to obey the whole Law of Moses and any Christian who received circumcision either before or after his conversion to Christ was expected to carry out the obligations thereof.
This was the real issue. The Jewish Rabbis at the time of Christ actively discouraged the circumcision of Gentiles because they thought that it would not be possible for them to learn to keep the law. This sentiment was echoed in the NT:
Acts 15:7 And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith. Act 15:10 Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the [GENTILE] disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?
Act 15:11 But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
St. Peter made a distinction between the Jewish and Gentile Christians and showed no sign that the situation was going to change. At no time did he imply that the Jewish Christians would become non-observant while he clearly said that the Gentile Christians would not be expected to be circumcised. Being an observant Jew was the standard for Jewish Christians and so they were expected to pursue “works of the law” in accordance with their commitment to circumcision, but St. Peter made it clear that both Jewish and Gentile Christians were to be saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. “Works of the law” in that context followed from the ground of faith and were not opposed to the Gospel but proceeded from being a Jewish Christian.
So it is incorrect to state as Sungenis has on numerous occasions that the phrase “works of the law” equates to “works righteousness.” Neither St. Paul nor St. Peter understood that to be the case and the Catholic Tradition likewise does not make such an identification. Sungenis’ approach to this issue is quite Protestant because he equates the Mosaic Law with “works righteousness” and acts as if St. Paul’s main concern in Romans 3 was to oppose any practice of any type of law either before or after justification, especially the Jewish law. The traditional Catholic understanding was that a response to the Gospel was required of the justified person. Thus good works were necessary for salvation after one had joined the Church and that St. Paul expected Jewish Christians to keep the Mosaic Law while Gentile Christians were to practice the moral law after conversion. It is Protestants who have traditionally tried to equate all good works with “works righteousness,” even those pursued after justification. As we have seen, the NT did not support this idea and neither did the Catholic Tradition. It is true that the Catholic Tradition has opposed the idea that good works done before justification have any part in justification itself, but it has never officially identified “works righteousness” with the term “works of the law.”
I am afraid that Sungenis is equivocating on the use of these terms in order to support a form of theological anti-Semitism.. He takes a negative view of the phrase “works of the law” because he wants to label all Jews before, during, and after Christ as being guilty of “works righteousness.” This is ludicrous because prior to the coming of Jesus, Judaism was the true religion revealed by God and it is clear from the teaching of both the OT and the NT that there were righteous men in the OT. The quotations given above show that the OT ideal of a heartfelt faithful observance of the Mosaic Law was itself a foreshadowing of the later teaching of Jesus and St. Paul. St. Paul showed that, as a Jew, he knew that it was not works but the faith underlying them that was the real ground of justification. He did not see justification by faith as opposed to the Mosaic Law but rather as upholding it. As such, St. Paul remained an observant Jew all of his life and did not try to stop other Jewish Christians from keeping the law. St. Paul’s diatribes opposing the observance of the Jewish Law were directed towards the Judaizers, not towards Christian Jews.
Now Sungenis claims that Dr. Scott Hahn, myself, and other Catholic apologists limit the meaning of “works of the law” strictly to the ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic Law while insisting that the moral aspects of the Law must still be kept prior to justification in order for a person to be justified. This is a lie and he knows it. I have discussed this matter with him in detail several times. The “works of the law” that St. Paul referred to in Romans 3:28 and elsewhere represented the entire Law with all of its parts. As Christians, we are not obliged to keep any of the Mosaic Law as if we were practicing Jews. But we are obliged by our faith in Jesus to accept and live according to the moral principles inherent in the Mosaic Law (e.g., the 10 Commandments). Observance of the moral law is not strictly speaking a requirement before becoming a Christian (though it is recommended from a practical viewpoint that the putative convert recognize the obligation to be moral) but it is a requirement once one is a Christian.
Sungenis further claims that Dr, Hahn and I do not believe that “works righteousness” is condemned by St. Paul or that his epistles can be used to condemn it and similar errors like Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism. Again, Sungenis is lying. As believing Catholics, Scott Hahn and I reject Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and all other forms of “works righteousness.” We are happy to do so using the authority of St. Paul’s epistles. There is plenty of grist for the anti-Pelagian mill throughout the Pauline Corpus. Sungenis points out a number of quotations that show this. But Sungenis insists that the Fathers and Councils of the Church defined the phrase “works of the law” where it is used by St. Paul as referring to all works of any kind whether based on the Law of Moses or not. He provides not a single reference to support this claim. Instead he refers to the universal condemnation of justification by works throughout Christian history and claims that this of necessity requires us to equate the biblical phrase “works of the law” with “works righteousness.” This is not biblical exegesis but the retrojection and eisegesis of dogmatic and systematic theology from later centuries into the biblical text. Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were problems during and after the 4th Century AD. The fact that the Church Fathers in those centuries quoted St. Paul against these heresies does not mean that St. Paul was consciously writing against these errors. He was writing against similar errors in his own day, but we should not jump to conclusions that make St. Paul out to be “anti-Pelagian” so that he can champion our modern dogmatic positions.
There were people in the 1st Century AD who apparently thought that their works made them deserving of justification and the Pauline Corpus contains criticisms of them. For example:
Rom 9:31 but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone,
Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– 9 not because of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The people St. Paul was opposing in these quotations either externalized the Jewish Law while ignoring the promise made to Abraham or assumed that God has chosen them for salvation because of good works done before their conversion. But notice that St. Paul is not really opposing Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. Pelagianism taught that after conversion, the Christian could be saved by his own effort with the help of actual grace. It implicitly denied the existence of sanctifying grace and original sin. Semi-Pelagianism taught that after conversion, man and God contributed different yet indispensable parts to justification, which worked together additively to achieve salvation. Indeed these later heresies were variations on the theme of “works righteousness” and were incompatible with the teaching of St. Paul, but technically they were not explicitly condemned in Scripture. They were condemned by abstracting principles from Scripture and applying them in a new context.
When the Scriptures were used to refute these errors, the Fathers and Councils did not refer to Romans 3:28 or to any of the other places in the Pauline Corpus (i.e., Romans 9:32, Galatians 2:16, 3:2, 3:5, or 3:10) where the phrase “works of the law” occurred. For example, in Sungenis’ enumeration of the biblical quotations from the Council of Orange which condemned Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism, the Council never once referred to any of those passages. Neither has Sungenis quoted the Magisterium as having done so in any documents. As such, Sungenis has not shown that the meaning of the phrase “works of the law” has been defined for Catholics as necessarily referring to “works righteousness.” He has instead inferred it because he wants that to be true.
Now it is possible that Sungenis could come up with some references among the Fathers and theologians in which such an identification was made, but that would prove nothing. The non-infallible opinions of isolated theologians no matter how venerable do not compel our assent. We remain free to disagree with their views for academic reasons. That is why there are no definitive biblical commentaries published by the Magisterium. Except in a few notable instances (e.g., John 3:5, & Matthew 16:18), the Church has rarely given an official exegesis for most biblical passages. And even when she did so, it did not preclude additional meanings being found there.
Unfortunately, Sungenisism does not recognize this. According to Sungenis, unless your biblical exegesis is found in the opinions of earlier “approved sources” it is not Catholic. There can be no new insights or benefits derived from modern scholarship in such a system and it explicitly denies the possibility of development of doctrine. In doing this, Sungenis espouses an error that enemies of the faith such have James White have unjustly accused the Catholic Church of professing: Sola Traditio (Tradition Alone).
The Sacred Scriptures are a direct source of Divine Revelation and do not need to be filtered through Sacred Tradition in order to be interpreted. This was confirmed at Vatican Council II in Dei Verbum (The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation):
11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20,3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred, writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).
As Catholics we give pride of place to the exegesis of the Church Fathers especially when it developed a consensus in teaching such as with John 6:53ff on the Eucharist. But, the Scriptures themselves are Divine Revelation and are materially sufficient to confirm Catholic doctrine on their own. Catholics can and should immerse themselves in the study of the Biblical text in order to learn and defend the faith. I have always found that a devout reading of the Bible confirms Catholic teaching especially against Protestant claims and I have used readings from Scripture as primary sources for teaching catechetics.
It is therefore not necessary to merely repeat the biblical exegesis of past generations. We can approach the Scriptures in each generation with new perspectives and – under the guidance of the Magisterium – develop new and deeper insights into the Biblical Revelation. Again Dei Verbum says:
12. However, since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to “literary forms.” For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the same spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.
When Sungenis tries to limit biblical exegesis to only those sources that he favors, he reverts to a reductive and Protestant methodology which fails to achieve the goal of true “catholicity” which is not theological uniformity, but unity in diversity. It is perfectly legitimate for Catholic scholars to disagree on particular points of biblical exegesis while remaining Catholics in good standing. They must always defer in the end to the judgment of the Magisterium and resist the temptation to replace the teaching authority of the Church with their own opinions and methodologies no matter how scholarly they may think they are. The real problem comes when one party or another strikes out on their own and ignores the direction in which the Pope and the bishops are leading the Church. Sungenis’ own attacks on Vatican Council II and on Pope John Paul II show how little he really understands about Catholic theology and how far he has strayed from this ideal.
I have often defended Sungenis’ right to hold unpopular – even somewhat extreme – positions on biblical exegesis (e.g., magical creationism and geocentricism) which did not contradict previous Magisterial teaching. In return I had only asked of him that he respect my right to disagree with him. Up until recently, this truce held between us and was a sign of mutual respect.
In recent times, Sungenis had wandered off into dangerous territory openly espousing Anti-Semitic opinions that were lacking both in veracity and charity. It was also clear that he held both Vatican II and Pope John Paul II in contempt and specifically condemned the positive direction that the Church was taking with regard to inter-religious dialogue, especially with the Jews. Despite heroic efforts on my part to dissuade him from such an unwise path opposing the direction in which the Magisteirum was leading the Church, his statements became more reckless, vituperative, and personally insulting. After a particularly nasty response to me in which he listed a catena of Anti-Semitic slurs allegedly derived for the writings of several saints, I could no longer tolerate his attitude. It is always the Catholic way to think better of others than we do of ourselves and to defend every person’s right to a good reputation until necessity demands otherwise. Blanket statements condemning whole classes of living people which are based on unfounded allegations made imprudently in the past are unworthy of the followers of Christ. It doesn’t matter who made such statements.
The Holy Spirit is leading the Church in our day to a more positive appreciation of non-Catholics and their belief systems. This has been long overdue and we should welcome it as the Catholic Church’s “coming of age” in a pluralistic world. The temptation is to see Catholicism as just another religion separate and distinct from all others. But that is not what we are called to be. We are to be the leaven in the loaf; the salt that gives savor to the human condition; a shining city on a hill. We must integrate Christ into the life of mankind and share the Gospel in new ways so that faith in Christ is not seen as a kind of religious or cultural imperialism. The Catholic Church cannot and must not become just another denomination; one choice among many on the smorgasbord of available religions. We must be seen as indispensable to mankind as the embassy of Christ to the world. We cannot retreat into a nostalgic, anti-Magisterial triumphalism and claim to be truly Catholic.
St. Paul recognized this very problem in the position of the Judaizers of his day. They would have reduced Christianity to just another Jewish sect and abolished all distinctive differences between Jews and Gentiles. For him, the problem was “works of the law” and the Jewish attachment to the status quo which did not recognize the primacy of a common inner faith over a diversity of external customs. Maybe this is the real reason why Sungenis opposes the viewpoints on “works of the law” which Dr. Hahn and I support. He wants to stay in a Catholic ghetto as much as the Judaizers had wanted to remain in a Jewish one.
I remain hopeful that Mr. Sungenis will eventually see the error of his ways and return to full fellowship in the Catholic Church and submission to her Magisterium. I also hope that he will once again appreciate the diversity that is central to catholicity. He has a lot of friends who have been praying and fretting over the recent change in the direction of his work away from the Catholic mainstream. I hope this paper will help to explain what I think are some important issues in this controversy and help lead Bob Sungenis back home with us where he belongs.
The Catholic Legate
September 1, 2004