No one can read Fr Jack Mahoney SJ’s remodelled scenario of salvation history without the respect owed to a learned and distinguished theologian. Nevertheless, I regret the premature publication of his Gresham lecture which was given in December. A theme which breaks the spine of salvation history as taught by the Church offends against the Vincentian canon of “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. It is premature because such radical treatment requires more digestion and explanation at a professional level if its appearance is not to risk it either causing scandal or being rejected out of hand. Neither is appropriate.
If I describe it as a theology which fundamentally questions Original Sin, the “fall” from divine friendship, our fallen nature, human concupiscence, as well as the doctrine that Jesus atoned for humanity’s disobedience by offering himself as a propitiatory sacrifice to God, I am just putting down markers – largely in Fr Mahoney’s own words. Below, I provide you with a link to the lecture; this will give you context within which to judge his argument. I will just comment on some of the issues which he raises.
His approach is founded on our new evolutionary understanding of altruism. We now recognise the apotheosis of this altruism as it is shown to us in the mutual generosity of the Trinity. This is orthodox, though we should bear in mind that altruism at the base evolutionary level is morally neutral, even in humans, and explicable in terms of species survival. While we may experience it as a beneficial instinct towards our own group, it is also the source of conflict with “outsider” groups. We are bred to be hostile to strangers. As an ex-Catholic friend of mine once remarked: “It is unique to Christianity to require us to love our enemies.” And “love” seems to me the more precise word than “altruism”, at the supernatural level.
That death should be seen as a punishment for Adam’s sin, is, Fr Mahoney tells us, a primitive explanation. Evolution has taught us that, far from death being caused by humanity’s own fault, it is in fact “recognised as part of the process of ongoing creation through the survival of the fittest”. Interpreted in this way, we see Christ’s death not as a propitiation for sin but as a means of freeing death from its finality and drawing us into a new existence of divine altruism which is the “evolutionary destiny of human existence”.
On his way to this conclusion he examines the doctrines of Original Sin and its redemption by Christ. He notes the inherent difficulties of the traditional doctrine which have given rise to tortuous and unsatisfactory solutions over the centuries. And necessarily he adverts to the notorious mistranslation of Romans 5:12, which resulted in the false interpretation that we have all sinned in Adam. It is unfortunate that Trent makes much of the mistranslation but I do not think that the mistake nullifies the essentials of the doctrine.
I cannot find a better solution to this doctrine which is consistent with either Trent or the 1994 Catechism. But I am confident that our own inherent tendency to sin, sadly so often confirmed by our choices, is evidence of our imperfect nature and provides sufficient matter for Christ’s redeeming actions to be necessary. Why else does Matthew tell us of his blood shed for many “for the forgiveness of sins”? But, although Fr Mahoney argues that we have had a tendency to sinfulness from the beginning, he holds that Christ’s death is not atonement for sin but simply undergone to save humanity from individual death and meaninglessness.
Nor does he shy from the doctrinal consequences of his interpretation. Out goes the Mass as sacrifice; his reading of Scripture finds it to be “an inspiring, community ritual” celebration, and not the propitiatory sacrifice “as the Council of Trent maintained against the Reformers”. But this change would release us from the constriction of the priest acting as alter Christus at Mass – thus removing an obstacle to women providing the leadership within the community. All this would contribute to ecumenical co-operation. Indeed, it would.
He tells us that this evolutionary approach could change our moral understanding, and cites the area of sexual relationships beyond marriage. This ignores the fact that human beings evolve rather slowly while circumstances continually change. And human flourishing, to which natural law points, results from an interplay between the two. For example, low infant mortality has changed the benefit equation between reproduction and the expression of conjugal love. Our society’s experience with sexual relationships beyond marriage does not suggest to me an evolutionary advantage or a greater flourishing.
I value Fr Mahoney’s concept that Christ’s death defeats death and opens the way to a fuller and eternal life of generous love – though I do not follow why an evolutionary approach is required; I have believed this from my mother’s knee. But I continue to see the deep fissure in human nature between the lower appetites and the higher aspiration. And this defect has been inherited from Adam, possibly literally, but certainly rooted in all human nature since, ultimately, by species we are ensouled apes, and all genetically related. I accept that Christ atones for our sins and makes us holy by proxy through his sacrifice – for “making holy” is what the word “sacrifice” means.
I have tried to be fair to Fr Mahoney within a brief space. But I would suggest that you listen to the complete lecture. You will find a link at Secondsightblog.net where I will be reproducing my column. On the blog we will have unlimited opportunity for discussion and debate.
Cut and paste this link to listen to the lecture or to download the text:
Jack Mahoney SJ is the author of Christianity in Evolution: an exploration, Georgetown University Press.