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An Apparent Contradiction in Catholic Theology

December 4th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: At today’s mass (12/4/06), the priest stated, “We no longer await the historical Incarnation” of Jesus. I was disturbed by this remark, because we also prayed, “In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ.” Further, the “mystery of faith” is “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” Similar references also are found in the Nicene Creed (“He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there shall be no end”); the Apostle’s Creed (“He will come again to judge the living and the dead”); and even the much earlier Pauline Creed.

It might be possible to interpret the priest’s remarks as referring to Jesus’ original appearance on earth, but in that sense, they’re trivial; obviously, “we no longer await” something that previously has occurred.

With due respect for his eminence and stature, I think the priest was confusing three different concepts (he also thought it was the First Sunday of Lent, not the First Sunday of Advent). These are: the Incarnation; the Resurrection; and the Second Coming.

The “Incarnation” is “the fact that the Son of God assumed a human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it,” Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) §461. The “Resurrection” is an historical event, which is, Jesus rising from the dead. “Christ’s Resurrection was not a return to earthly life . . . [rather,] [i]n his risen body he passes from the state of death to another life beyond time and space,” CCC §646. “Christ’s death was a real death in that it put an end to his earthly human existence. But because of the union which the person of the Son retained with his body, his was not a mortal corpse like others,” CCC §627.

Then, there is the “Second Coming,” when Jesus returns to earth. The term “parousia,” which is Greek for “appearance and subsequent presence with,” also is used to describe this event. “Though already present in his Church, Christ’s reign is nevertheless yet to be fulfilled ‘with power and great glory’ by the King’s return to earth,” CCC §671. “Since the Ascension Christ’s coming in glory has been imminent, even though ‘it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.’ This eschatological coming could be accomplished at any moment, even if both it and the final trial that will precede it are ‘delayed,’” CCC §673.

CCC §673 seems flat-out contradictory. The words “imminent” and “delayed” are not synonymous. Unfortunately, the CCC offers no further explanation of this puzzling statement. It would appear some considerable vigilance is called for, almost like a sentry on duty at a fortification. This tends to skew towards imminence. Mark 13:33, 35 – 37 says we must:

“‘Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. … Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’’”

But then there’s the Declaration “Dominus Iesus” on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, propounded by the Congregation or the Doctrine of the Faith (the successor to the Inquisition), and most likely authored by Pope Benedict XVI himself. Citing 1 Timothy 6:14 and Titus 2:13, it states:

“The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The words “and we now await no further new public revelation” tends to suggest we might as well not hold our breath. Which is quite unlike the passage from Mark quoted above. Rather, it’s more like Matthew 24:36, which states, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

It’s also important to distinguish between what might be called an “existential” standpoint, versus an “external” standpoint. From the former, for each of us, the particular judgment occurring at our individual deaths, at an hour and place we do not know, is a “second coming of Christ,” as we meet Him in particular judgment of our lives. St. Paul used the Greek phrase “soma psuchicon” to describe this, combining “soma” (body) with “psuchicon” (psu(y)che) (soul). Confirming this distinction, 1 Corinthians 15:44 elaborates, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” At 15:50, Paul continues: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”

However, I think people who talk about the second coming typically are referring more to a “general” kind of judgment, when Christ will come again at the consummation of the world, and the dead will rise again. Both the Christian Old Testament, and the New Testament, describe this event in apocalyptic terms. First of all, we get rid of our “vile” bodies, Philippians 3:20 – 21. At 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul tells us what happens next, as follows: “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:1 – 3 goes on to describe this as “a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Indeed, Jesus himself says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36.

Yikes! I’m not sure if this is gonna be fun, or not; I wonder how Paul would describe it if he’d been on like the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland. The transition from an existential point-of-view, to the final judgment, is murky. As is the time when it will occur.

So what should we do in the meanwhile? There always are “good works,” of course, and, in addition, the wringing of hands. But it would be nice if the Catholic Church would eschew this kind of depleted eschatology, which does not help one little bit in, discerning the purpose of life, itself.