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Conservative Austrian intellectual played key role in lectionary group

NCR Staff

Though most of America’s 60 million Catholics have probably never heard of him, Michael Waldstein will soon touch their lives every time they go to Mass. Beginning in Advent, when the word of God is proclaimed from American pulpits, it will be a version of the word strongly influenced by the 43-year-old Austrian intellectual.

As the only scripture scholar in the special Vatican working group that brokered the final version of the American lectionary, or the collection of Bible readings for Mass, sources told NCR that Waldstein’s contributions were critical.

Although Waldstein told NCR, “I cannot remember a single instance where my own suggestion was adopted without examination,” as the only man in the group capable of understanding what the original language meant in many cases, those suggestions carried extraordinary weight.

Volume One of the new lectionary is projected to be in use by the Advent season.

It’s probably not the last time that Catholics, American or otherwise, will hear from Waldstein. A friend of both Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, and president of a theological institute that enjoys strong ties to the American Catholic right, Waldstein is illustrative of the type of Catholic who walks the corridors of power in the church today.

Over and over, people who know Waldstein and were willing to speak to NCR on the condition they not be identified offered the same assessment: Keenly intelligent, hardworking, personally gracious and deeply conservative in his Catholicism, sharing (and some believe surpassing) Pope John Paul II’s dim view of much of Western culture.

“He’s an excellent scholar, no problem with his work,” said one Bible scholar who knew Waldstein as a graduate student at Harvard. “But he’s also one of the most rigid guys I know when you get him on theology -- really, really right-wing.”

Born in 1954, Waldstein grew up in Austria under the strong influence of his father, Wolfgang, a well-known scholar of ancient law at the theological institute in Salzburg. The elder Waldstein is a champion of the Latin Mass. He attends a parish run by the Society of St. Peter where the Tridentine rite is celebrated. He has also written a book defending the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, reputed by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus.

Candid and affable in conversation, Waldstein says that although he doesn’t share his father’s passion for liturgy in Latin, most Catholics would probably see the two as basically alike. Speaking of his father’s “pattern of preference for what is hallowed by tradition,” Waldstein told NCR, “I, like everyone else I know, have the tendency to see such patterns in people I don’t agree with. As for myself, I tend to think any particular position I take is not due to some such pattern but to a careful and reasonable consideration of the issue. I realize there are plenty of folk who would consider me just about as traditionalist as I do my father.”

That penchant for traditionalism showed up early. At age 19, Waldstein came to the United States to enroll at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif. It was a natural fit, given the college’s reputation for fierce devotion to what it sees as Catholic orthodoxy. In the late 1980s, Waldstein moved on to pursue a doctorate in philosophy at the similarly conservative University of Dallas. He wrote his dissertation on the aesthetics of Hans Urs van Balthasar, a favorite thinker among Catholic conservatives. Next Waldstein went to Rome to obtain a license in sacred scripture at the Biblicum, or institute for Bible studies, which he completed in 1984.

‘Pope’s Rambos’

While there, Waldstein joined Communion and Liberation, an international Catholic movement born in 1950s Italy. “When I was in Rome at the Biblicum, I met some people who were in C/L. When a few of them came over to America, my wife and I helped them to find apartments, and we got more involved,” Waldstein said.

The group’s founder, Luigi Guissani, has frequently lauded the medieval era as an ideal period of unity between faith and life. Across Europe the group has pushed for measures like bans on abortion, birth control and artificial fertilization. This demand that Catholic moral teaching be the basis for public policy has led many to call the group “integralist.”

Its fierce devotion to the pontiff has earned members nicknames such as “the new Jesuits” and “the pope’s Rambos.” While prelates such as Milan’s Cardinal Maria Montini have criticized it as “fundamentalist,” Communion and Liberation has repeatedly been favored by John Paul. Most recently, Guissani had a privileged place at a congress of new lay movements in Rome. Waldstein authored a defense of Communion and Liberation that appeared in NCR’s Feb. 20, 1987 issue.

From Rome, Waldstein returned to the United States to enroll in the highly selective Th.D. program in New Testament and Christian Origins at Harvard University. He began his studies under Catholic exegete George MacRae but ironically finished under Helmut Köster, among the last doctoral students of famed German Lutheran scholar Rudolf Bultmann, whose approach of “demythologizing” the Bible was denounced by Catholic hierarchs in the early 20th century. Köster is today seen as a standardbearer for liberal Protestant Biblical scholarship in the United States.

Waldstein clearly did not imbibe Bultmann’s theology. In fact, in a 1992 article for Lay Witness, the magazine of the conservative Catholic activist group Catholics United for the Faith, Waldstein called Bultmann’s ideas “uncannily reminiscent of the nightmares of ancient gnosticism.”

His studies at Harvard led, however, to his only major scholarly publication, a synopsis of the four different versions of a gnostic text called “The Apocryphon of John.” (A “synopsis” is a line-by-line comparison of different versions of the same document.)

“He’s just a marvelous scholar,” said John Turner of the University of Nebraska, who watched Waldstein’s progress on the synopsis. “It is really quite an extensive work.” Turner said that Waldstein developed a computer font for ancient Coptic, the Egyptian language in which the text was written, in order to publish the different versions of the Apocryphon. Today the font is available over the Internet and is widely used in scholarly circles.

After finishing at Harvard, Waldstein took a job in 1988 in Notre Dame’s Liberal Studies program, regarded by some as the most conservative academic unit in the university. He led undergraduates through a “great books” sequence.

At Notre Dame, Waldstein again earned a reputation as bright, courteous and deeply conservative. “He was the kind of guy who took Communion kneeling down,” one source at the university said. “He thought Catholicism was all about surviving in an evil culture. But he was not abrasive,” the source said. “He had a real Old World kind of charm about him.” Waldstein earned tenure at Notre Dame in 1996.

Waldstein and his American wife, Susie Burnham, home-schooled their seven children. “We had friends who were about 10 years older, and they had found it does a lot for the family,” he said. “The kids and parents get to know one another much, much better. It wasn’t that we didn’t have confidence in the schools. There are really good schools in South Bend, both the Catholic and the public.”

Julie Fogassy, a leading Catholic homeschooler from Seattle, has approached Waldstein about taking part in an international homeschooling network. She told NCR that she is encouraging home schooling families in America to send students to Waldstein’s institute.

It was while teaching at Notre Dame that Waldstein became the scripture specialist for the lectionary working group. Privately, many observers say Waldstein was an improbable choice for the role. Among the Bible scholars, liturgists and bishops who worked on the underlying texts, he is largely unknown. Yet one phone call from Ratzinger made Waldstein -- for two weeks anyway -- the most important Catholic Bible scholar in the English-speaking world.

“It was his [Ratzinger’s] suggestion that I play this role,” Waldstein said. “I represented the languages and literature of the Bible.”

Ratzinger had spent time with Waldstein when the latter was a student at the Biblicum. Both Waldstein’s intelligence and his deep devotion to the magisterium impressed the church’s chief doctrinal officer, sources say.

Strong views

Ratzinger would certainly have known Waldstein’s strong views on inclusive language -- which he did not hide, even around the Harvard Divinity School’s feminist stalwarts Bernadette Brooten and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. At a meeting of the school’s ongoing doctoral seminar attended by both Brooten and Schüssler Fiorenza, Waldstein delivered a paper on “androcentric God-language” in which he advocated the use of masculine vocabulary, especially “Father,” for God.

In creating the world, Waldstein wrote, God gives of himself but does not receive -- like the male in sexual reproduction. “The absence of ... ‘receiving’ allows the term ‘father’ to be extended and to be used of God as a true analogy,” he argued. In another place in the paper, he accused Schüssler Fiorenza of foisting a social agenda on scripture and thus creating a “new orthodoxy.”

“It was not,” Waldstein said looking back, “a peaceful discussion.”

In addition to the Ratzinger connection, Waldstein is also a protege of Schönborn, who likewise got to know him as a student in Rome. Two years ago Schönborn recruited Waldstein to head up a new theological institute in Gaming, Austria. A doctrinal conservative whom John Paul II tapped to be the driving force behind the new universal catechism, Schönborn is widely mentioned as papabile -- a candidate for pope.

The International Theological Institute -- housed in an old Carthusian monastery in Gaming, at the base of the Austrian Alps -- is a “daughter” institution of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, one of America’s most conservative Catholic colleges. Steubenville runs a satellite campus on the same site. Some of the institute’s funding comes from the U.S. bishops’ program of aid to the church in Eastern Europe.

Waldstein’s institute carries an endorsement from Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, who wrote a fund-raising letter on its behalf in 1997. Fessio, part of a three-member executive committee for the conservative liturgical group Adoremus, has been linked to both the lectionary turmoil and to the decision to expunge inclusive language from the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (NCR, Nov. 4, 1994).

In his letter, Fessio said the purpose of the institute was to produce “young men and women, trained at the same academic level as their deconstructionist and feminist counterparts ... equipped to become a leaven in universities that had become centers of dissent and opposition to Rome.”

Fessio knew Waldstein from the latter’s student days at Thomas Aquinas College. Fessio and Schönborn both studied under Ratzinger in Germany in the early 1970s.

In Austria, the institute has generated controversy. Many see it as part of a conservative counteroffensive in the wake of the “We Are Church” petition drive of 1995, which garnered a half-million signatures demanding church reform. It is a successor to a facility in the Netherlands sponsored by an archconservative bishop there, Johannes Gijsen. That school folded in the mid-1990s when Gijsen was forced to resign.

The institute’s full name is the International Theological Institute on Marriage and the Family, themes chosen specifically for it, Waldstein said, by the pope. It is located in the Austrian diocese of St. Pölten under Bishop Kurt Krenn, another archconservative, who sits on its board of trustees. According to Waldstein, Krenn wanted to be chancellor but lost that role to Schönborn.

“Conservative is probably an accurate assessment [of the institute], if one means by that a love for the church’s tradition,” Waldstein told NCR. In a statement to the Austrian press in February of 1996, Waldstein suggested that it was time for a “theology of marriage” to enter the field of gender studies, long dominated by “feminist theology.”

Waldstein cautioned against a “positivism in relation to the magisterium” and a tendency to romanticize the past in his 1997 opening address, but added, “It goes without saying that here in Gaming we attempt to be faithful to the faith and the pastoral office of the church.”

The institute follows a great books sequence with an admixture of papal documents. This year it has 50 students from 17 countries. The language of instruction is English, and Waldstein said he hopes the institute will be a sort of meeting place between East and West.

“It was a decision between two kinds of lives, one of specialized scholarship and another of administration and service to the church,” Waldstein said of his choice to go back to Austria. “I hope to continue serving the church in whatever ways I can the rest of my career.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998