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For Too Many Catholics, “Jesus Was Just a Great Teacher…”

September 28, 2020


The recent “State of Theology” survey alarmingly demonstrates that US Catholics are far from uniform in believing in the divinity of Christ. In fact, many tend not to believe in his divinity. When confronting the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” a shocking  30% of Catholics “agree,” 27% “somewhat agree,” 9% are “not sure,” 12% “somewhat disagree,” and 22% “disagree.” 

When a majority of Catholics in the United States agree or somewhat agree that Jesus of Nazareth was just a great teacher but not God, we have a crisis on our hands. 

The tendency to see Christ as merely human likely stems from the same worldview that informed the findings of last year’s Pew Report on transubstantiation, wherein only 31% of responding Catholics expressed belief in the Real Presence. 

Understanding this worldview and its theological origins is the first step toward a renewal of orthodoxy. One of the best analyses I have read on the difficulties currently confronting the faith, which should shed some light on the survey results, is Cardinal Ratzinger’s address at the meeting with the Doctrinal Commission of Europe in 1989. Like most of his addresses, it is still relevant today and worth reading to understand the implicit worldview showing up in these studies, which dominates the cultural West.

In the beginning of the address, he presents a litany of postmodern objections to the practice and teaching of the Church (the usual: contraception, ordination of women to the priesthood, understanding conscience as an individual self-determination, etc.). But Ratzinger discerns that behind these difficulties and struggles to assent to the Magisterium of the Church there are “three areas within the worldview of the Faith which have witnessed a certain kind of reduction in the last centuries, a reduction which has been gradually preparing the way for another ‘paradigm.’” I will look at the two that I see as contributing to the results of the latest survey. 

The first is the “almost complete disappearance of the doctrine of creation from theology.” With this arises the inability to “discern the spiritual message in the material world.” Indeed, there is no message to be heard. Rather, nature is to be acted upon. Ancient cosmologies understood the world to be mystical or symbolic—that is, pointing beyond itself to a transcendent order of meaning. As such, the cosmos was a natural sacrament. While the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo made a radical distinction between creation and Creator (freeing God to be understood as both transcendent and immanent), its “basic and primordial intuition” of the world was still close to the ancient intuition that the world is an “epiphany of God.” Such an intuition disappeared with the advent of secularism. The new view of reality—which, according to Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, is above all a negation of worship—made the central dogma of the Incarnation (the divine Son become flesh) nonsensical, in that the world was no longer epiphanic. One could say that secularism is a denial of the world as sacrament. Reality no longer includes the mystical and symbolic. It is no longer understood as a gift, which inherently points to the Giver while having its own integrity. In short, the disappearance of the doctrine of creation created a world that lacks metaphysical depth. Ratzinger includes within this a decline of metaphysics, which leads to “man’s imprisonment in the empirical.” 

Ratzinger says that when these things occur, there is “also of necessity a weakening of Christology.” His development of this point is directly relevant to the survey. He writes: 

The Word who was in the beginning quite disappears. Creative wisdom is no longer a theme for reflection. Inevitably the figure of Jesus Christ, deprived of its metaphysical dimension, is reduced to a purely historical Jesus, to an “empirical” Jesus, who, like every empirical fact, contains only what is capable of happening. The central title of his dignity, “Son,” becomes void where the path to the metaphysical is cut off. Even this title becomes meaningless since there is no longer a theology of being sons of God, for it is replaced by the notion of autonomy.

This denial of Jesus of Nazareth as the divine Son enfleshed laid the groundwork for all the “historical Jesus” reconstructions that are standard within popular media, which has done so good a job of communicating its dubious catechism that many people think what they’re hearing is similar to what the Church teaches. But it is not. 

Belief in Jesus as the divine Son incarnate is the hinge upon which the whole faith turns. Ratzinger says, “The unmistakable symptom of the present decline of Christology is the disappearance of the Cross and, consequently, the meaninglessness of the Resurrection, of the Paschal Mystery”; and, “With such a basic reinterpretation all the rest of Christianity is likewise altered—the understanding of what the Church is, the liturgy, spirituality, etc.” Weak Christology is a house built on sand, and we now see how quickly it falls. But most of us in the West prefer this type of Christ because he is less threatening to our spiritual complacency.

No one saw this clearer than Flannery O’Connor. In his new book Pivotal Players, Bishop Barron writes that when spiritual complacency “is internalized, Jesus necessarily devolves to the level of teacher or inspiring hero and ceases to be Savior.” He sees O’Connor’s writing as all about the breakthrough of grace—God’s revelation. To understand how O’Connor sees revelation as shaking the foundations of our sin-sick soul, I encourage you to read Bishop Barron’s section on O’Connor’s short story called “Revelation.” Like Mrs. Turpin, many of us need to get hit by grace so as to see rightly. We need to see our need for a Savior who has come to us in the flesh in Jesus Christ. Everyone is shocked out of their complacency in different ways, and Christians should not be afraid of shocking others out of theirs, helping them to realize their need for grace. 

The survey results are alarming but no cause for despair. Like Flannery O’Connor, who understood her art to be epiphanic, Pope Benedict made every effort to retrieve Christian epiphany by retrieving the theology of creation and the centrality of Christology. By proclaiming Jesus Christ as the divine Savior and explaining the epiphanic nature of the world, Christians can help call back their brothers and sisters to faith in the true Lord. We have been called to give witness, so let’s do it.

As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger made every effort to better announce Christ again to contemporary man. His masterpiece Jesus of Nazareth was his personal search “for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 27:8), helping many people look upon Jesus as Christ. Heeding Pope Benedict XVI, catechists need to give the theology of creation and orthodox Christology a central place when teaching the faith. Otherwise, nothing in Christianity will make sense, or it will become, in the minds of too many Catholics, something other than the faith, as this latest survey has shown.