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Irenaeus' doppelgänger takes aim at relativism

What delicious irony it would be if Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, turned out to be a reincarnation of an earlier doctrinal watchdog, the second century Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons.

Why delicious? Because reincarnation is among Eastern beliefs gaining some currency among New Age types in the West of late. It's the sort of "relativism" on which Cardinal Ratzinger is reportedly training his condemnatory sights (NCR, Oct. 18).

We have no intention here of making a case for reincarnation or even for "relativism," whatever that might be, but rather to point out some similarities between two high church scolds of eras some 18 centuries apart and to note some cautions that might apply.

Irenaeus, like Ratzinger, was seemingly obsessive in his campaign against heresy -- heresy as Irenaeus and a few other nervous bishops defined it. In Irenaeus' day, there was no Vatican, no Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith such as the one Ratzinger heads today. There was no code of canon law in the fledgling Christian church, which admitted of variant beliefs and styles. Nor was there a body of writings defined as authoritative, although there were certainly a lot of gospels floating around.

Some of those gospels were written by diverse groups of people who came to be known as gnostics (from the Greek work gnosis, meaning knowledge). Irenaeus and other heresy-hunters, the Ratzingers of their day, thundered against them, finally defining them and their writings out of the church. Irenaeus cleverly parodied their teachings, excoriated them as "emissaries of Satan," compared their "multitudes" to "mushrooms from the ground" and denounced their various teachings "as from the Lernaean Hydra, a many-headed wild beast." The result: Boundaries were drawn, an authoritative scriptural canon was defined and bishops gained power as arbiters of truth.

While there are many reasons to be glad that gnosticism did not prevail (for example, gnostics considered the material world to be evil, and teachings of some gnostics were, by reasonable standards, bizarre), a fair number of historians today regard the demonization of gnostics by Irenaeus and other like-minded bishops as one-sided and the subsequent centralization of authority in the church as a dubious development. Gnostics have been assessed more fairly since the 1945 discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi texts, the centuries-old, long-buried body of Christian writings, 52 texts in all, several labeled as gospels (Gospel of Thomas; Gospel of Mary; Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip, and so on). Many of those texts -- thought to have been hidden sometime after the fourth century when Christianity became aligned with the state and heresy became a criminal offense -- show that gnostics often were fascinated with Jesus although they often didn't adhere to mainstream meanings.

Gnostics, like many Christians today, had restlessly inquiring minds. They grappled with the great riddles of human existence -- riddles that yet today trouble many thinking people who feel that orthodox theology sometimes too easily glosses over complexity. Whatever their flaws, gnostics struggled to reconcile inconsistencies between the Hebrew Bible and the words of Jesus, between the evil they saw all around them and biblical teachings about a Creator who called all things good. The story of the Fall notwithstanding, how was it, they wondered, that God's plan could go so badly awry? They also believed that to know oneself in one's depths is to know God.

But the greatest threat as perceived by the church fathers may have been the audacity of those gnostics who regarded their spiritual wisdom as superior to mainstream teachings. Bishops found the gnostics frightening because they couldn't be controlled. Church leaders sought unity of belief; gnostics threatened disunity. They were people who, like the Quakers, looked inside themselves to their own inner experience and truth for answers, rather than to outside authority -- to bishops claiming apostolic authority, to canonical writings, to creeds.

While the orthodox theology that developed, partly in reaction to gnostics, is both both biblical and comforting in its assertions -- that God acts in history, that certain core teachings are incontrovertible, that the material world, although subject to misuse, is the source of many rich blessings -- some Christian theologians feel that the Catholic tradition was impoverished when gnosticism was forced outside. Gnostics advanced some symbols that are found in the Bible, yet are not tolerated in the church: feminine imagery for God, to name just one.

Gnosticism didn't end because Irenaeus defined it as heresy anymore than other variant forms of Christianity died out when forced outside the church. Gnosticism has resurfaced many times, most recently in certain New Age teachings. Arians, Monophysites, Lutherans, proponents of feminine imagery are still with us. For that matter, Roman Catholics, some of whose teachings were deemed heretical by the Eastern Orthodox, are still around.

So when we hear that Ratzinger is targeting "relativism," we wonder: Does the umbrella really have to be so small, the lines around truth so sharply drawn?

Apparently so. Ratzinger, the powerful German cardinal who has summoned a good many theologians before his office in recent years to clarify their views and has corrected or silenced not a few, has been dubbed the "Panzer-Kardinal" by the Italian press. The name is intended to suggest his likeness to the German army tank. The number two man in the Vatican, who meets weekly with the pope and apparently enjoys his full support, Ratzinger has alternately been dubbed the "Grand Inquisitor."

As the reporter for Catholic News Service stated in the story that appeared in NCR on Oct. 18, "When Cardinal Ratzinger draws a new target into his sights, there are often serious consequences."

Ratzinger defines relativism, the "dark cloud" he sees on the horizon, as the opposite of absolutism. Subjective claims to truth certainly should be challenged. But are "relativists" really more to be feared than church leaders who, in heavy-handed efforts to preserve unity of faith (this truth and no other), breed disunity -- actual schisms -- in the church?

Absolutism is equally out of place. Truth emerges from the lived experience of the whole church, and historical perspective -- which includes the variant forms of belief found in the New Testament -- suggests that unity is best served when the tent tends to be large, the boundaries to be flexible, the tradition to be rich. It is strange to note in this ecumenical era, when churches are struggling to overcome the tragic effects of so many historical schisms, that powerful figures in the hierarchy seem bent on squeezing out variants in search of some obscure "purity" of truth.

Meanwhile, among Catholics, we hear talk of schism. Let's hope that Cardinal Ratzinger, as he trains his sights on "relativists," doesn't bring on another.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 1996