Dr. Gregory Baum
Gregory Baum, the internationally renowned progressive Christian theologian, recently sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic world by resigning from the priesthood. Baum, a member of the Augustinian order for 30 years, had made frequent and hard-hitting attacks on the Vatican’s unwillingness to make reforms in such areas as birth control, married priests, the ordination of women, sexual relations between unmarried couples and between homosexuals. More broadly, he called for a “democratization” of the Church, which he believes has become rigidly overcentralized. Born in Berlin in 1 923 of Jewish parents, Baum came to Canada in 1940, converted to Catholicism, joined the Augustinians in 1947 and studied Catholic theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, between 1950-56. Since 1960, he has served as professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. He is the author of eight books, including Man Becoming and Religion And Alienation. When the late Pope John XXIII calledthe Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1962, Baum was one of the theologians assigned to prepare ¡ major working documents for the conclave.
When, last year, Rome reaffirmed its traditional teachings on sexual morality, Baum wrote that “the loving, interpersonal context that makes sexuality fully human cannot be simply equated with the institution of marriage.” Philip Pocock, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, replied that Baum’s views were “contrary to official Catholic doctrine and may not be followed as either the teaching or the practice of the Catholic Church.” Subsequently, Baum petitioned Pope Paul VI for “laicization”—meaning that he will remain always a priest technically, but will lose the right to exercise such priestly functions as celebrating the mass. James Paupst, aToronto physician and writer, talked to Baum in the theologian’s small, book-filled office at St. Michael’s College.
Maclean’s: Do you think your effectiveness as a theologian has been diminished by leaving the priesthood?
Baum: No, I don’t think so. When I resigned from the priesthood, I announced that my dedication to Catholic theology and renewal would remain unchanged and the movement within the Church, with which I am identified, continues to regard me as one of its spokesmen.
Maclean’s: Which movement is that? Baum: The Catholic left, I suppose. Maclean’s: How was your decision to leave the priesthood influenced by your own theological reflection and understanding? Baum: I left on my own free will, because I thought I could do my work and exercise my ministry more easily without the bureaucratic arguments (of the Church hierarchy).
Maclean’s: Was your resignation sym-
The Church has little wisdom in regard to sexuality—but so has the modern world
bolic? Are you the martyr to a reprisal by the Church establishment?
Baum: I don’t think so. If my resignation is symbolic it signifies that over the past 10 years priests have been less willing to be pushed around by ecclesiastical superiors. Maclean’s: Is it realistic to wonder if there can be a community of the faithful among Catholics when reports indicate that only 42% believe that Jesus handed over the leadership of his Church to Peter and the Popes, when, reportedly, weekly attendance at mass is down by 50% and when 35 % of those Catholics under 30 who attended college left the Church between 1967 and 1973?
Baum: I am not that much impressed by statistics. I think that the conflict in the
Church today is between Catholics, the majority, who are willing to accept society as it is and use the Christian Gospel to make their way in it, and other Catholics who regard the Christian Gospel as a judgment on present society, who are at odds with the world, and who wish to join other critical minorities in an effort to reconstruct society. This is where I see the significant conflict in the Church today. Maclean’s: The early Christians were persecuted by Rome. Now the Church continues to persecute Christians in their handling of sexual ethics, especially birth control, refusing the sacraments to those who are divorced and by refusing to allow the ordination of women. Why is this?
Baum: There is an old joke that the Church was persecuted in the first generation, and has revenged herself ever since. It is true that the Church has often been harsh with dissidents. I agree that the Church’s present teaching on sexual morality pushes many people into great anxiety and prevents them from living life as humanely, as fully, as joyfully as they might. In my own writings, I have criticized the traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality. At the same time, in modern society, sexuality has become a way of making money. We habituate people to pay money for amusement that is sexually tinged, and we try to expand the market by means of sexually tinged advertising. While the Church has little wisdom in regard to sexuality, I personally think that the modem world also has little wisdom in regard to it.
Maclean’s: In terms of human sexuality is there a serious division within the Church? Baum: There is a division. There are many Catholics who fully accept the Church’s official teaching that sexual intercourse is moral only within marriage and only if open to procreation. Yet there are other Catholics who in varying degrees differ from the official teaching. I think they experience guilt in varying degrees. I think that over the past 10 years, through the public controversy over the Papal encyclical, on birth control, vast numbers of Catholics have made themselves emotionally free of this particular Church teaching. I am personally unhappy that the Church, as promoter of human life in this embattled world, does not provide more wisdom for the Christian people. What happens often today is that Christians who don’t live up to the strict standards of the Church have no principles by which they can distinguish between constructive and destructive sexual behavior; thus they easily fall into sex-
ual chaos. Either you follow all the rules, or else you abandon all responsibility. What we need are more moral principles that will enable Christian people to discern the exploitive dimension in their sexual drive, resist it, and make sexuality a means of communication, of sharing and mutuality. Maclean’s: Rome has recently decreed that women cannot be ordained. It has refused to accept from one of its own committees scriptural evidence that women may be ordained.
Baum: This particular Vatican document is one of the less felicitous ones; it will not enhance the authority of the Holy See. Maclean’s: What are your views on women’s lib?
Baum: The Woman’s Movement to me is perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of our century, because it reveals a master-slave relationship at the very heart of the formation of consciousness. In our society (the achievement of) order has been the subjugation of the many under the authority of one—a phallic imagination of order. The Woman’s Movement challenges the entire imagination of order in society and proposes a new concept of community life which is based on mutuality and sharing.
Maclsan’s: What is a theologian?
Baum: I suppose a Christian theologian is a Christian who reflects on the meaning of the Gospel, who studies the Scriptures and the Church’s tradition, and who attempts to formulate what the Christian message means for the people of his own time, and therefore the theologian is engaged in a task of reinterpretation. He takes seriously the ancient texts, but he doesn’t simply repeat them, he tries to interpret them, so that they become meaningful and powerful for the Christian community of his day.
Maclean’s: Is a theologian one of God’s spies?
Baum: There is something to this. One aspect of theology is critical. In the Bible, the witness of the prophets offer God’s critique of institutions and societies, and Christian theology perpetuates this critical task. The theologian is a critic of society, of Church and state. In this sense he is God’s spy. Maclean’s: What has determined the Catholic attitude toward Protestants? I am especially interested in the rather paranoid behavior of the Roman Catholic establishment toward dissidents.
Baum: The essence of religion is reconciliation and universal solidarity. Still, the Christian religion has produced sharp division, hostility between groups, and often paranoid behavior. The Catholiç Church, challenged by the Reformation, Renaissance and Enlightenment, began to look upon itself as a fortress of divine truth surrounded by enemies, and in this situation it looked upon the other Christian churches as false churches. The Church sought to protect its members from Protestant influence. In England and English-speaking North America, where Catholics were in a
minority—and usually lower class—despised, surrounded by bigotry and prejudice, Catholic intransigence was an instrument to defend the ongoing existence of the Catholic community in Protestant lands.
Maclean’s: How would you describe the transition that took place in the Church brought about by the Vatican II Ecumenical Council?
Baum: The ecumenical movement, started by Anglicans and Protestants, was at first
Women’s lib? Perhaps the most important cultural phenomenon of our century
rejected by the Catholic Church. In the Twenties, Thirties and even Forties, the Catholic Church remained aloof from the ecumenical movement. However, some theologians were identified with it and they were censured for this by the Church hierarchy. Ecumenism was acknowledged officially only with the coming of Pope John and the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.
Maclean’s: What are the cardinal features of the transition that has taken place within the Church?
Baum: Vatican II, in a document called On Ecumenism, spelled out: firstly, that other Christians are Christians—that is, those who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ are Christians, and therefore our brothers and sisters. Secondly, that other churches are churches—that is, other Christian churches are communities where salvation is preached, shared and celebrated. Thirdly, that the ecumenical movement involves all the churches in conversation and cooperation to expand the
common ground between them, so that ultimately they meet together in Christ. While this document is remarkably progressive, it has not been translated into action by the subsequent events in the Catholic Church. The ecumenical movement today often turns out to be conservative because it protects the institutional and ecclesiastical interests of the ecclesiastical bodies involved instead of taking seriously the concerns of the world, which the churches are meant to serve. (As a result) the ecumenical movement at the highest level has become a bureaucratic undertaking. I call this “committee ecumenism.” Could I add, though, that in addition to committee ecumenism there is today a remarkable pastoral ecumenism, a new cooperative spirit between Catholics, Anglicans and other Protestants. In Canada, the major churches over the past seven years have set up inter-church committees that have dealt with the social and economic problems of the nation and formulated the social policies of the churches. On paper, we look very nice. But we don’t do enough. The Canadian Bishops, in their Labor Day statement last year, recognized that only a minority of Catholics are involved in translating into action the social ideals of the Church.
Maclean’s: It has been said that Catholics are fine, but their only problem is that they are not Christian.
Baum: I suppose the meaning of this sentence is that Catholics are so preoccupied with protecting their self-identity, defending their views and promoting their cause, that they are indifferent to the wider meaning of the Gospel in terms of faith, hope and love. I don’t think that this is a just accusation.
Maclean’s: What about the anti-Jewish tendencies in the New Testament? After 2,000years of Christian teaching, is an undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment still prevalent in the Church?
Baum: This is a vast topic that has interested me very much. After the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War, the Christian churches examined their own past and asked themselves whether and to what extent their own teachings have produced anti-Jewish feelings. While Nazi anti-Semitism was pagan and anti-Christian, one must still question whether the extermination of the Jews was aided by the centuries-old mythology depicting the Jews as inferior, as apart from salvation, as enemies of God. The New Testament draws a caricature of Jewish religion. The New Testament denounced Jewish religion in a polemical way: this was handed on in liturgy, sermons and catechisms and contributed to what has been called “the teachings of contempt.” In order to glorify the New Testament, Christian authors, including St. Paul, at certain times belittled or denigrated what they called the Old Testament. To elevate the new religion of Jesus, there was an attempt to discredit the religion that preceded him.
We even have the view proposed that the Christian Church replaces the old people of Israel and that therefore the Jews have no longer any place before God. Curiously enough, even the atheists and socialists of the 19th century, who repudiated Christianity altogether, retained this anti-Jewish heritage. While they regarded Christianity as wrong, they regarded Judaism as even worse because it represented for them an earlier stage of human development . . . Only recently have Christian authors attempted to rectify (anti-Semitic elements in the Church). Pope John XXIII asked the Vatican II to produce a document on Jewish-Christian relations which was to correct the distortions and false judgments on Jewish religion contained in Christian catechisms and religious educational texts. Maclean’s: Christian ideology has at times affected relations among other groups. For example, relations between black and white and the various power and elitist groups. Baum: The colonial expansion of the European nations, their invasion of other continents and the conquest of peoples and tribes, and the creation of economic and political institutions bringing into dependency these peoples and tribes, was legitimatized and made acceptable to European people through a “Christian” understanding of the world. The salvation in Christ was made available to the world through the Church’s mission. This made the colonial movement appear providential. Missionaries accompanied the conquerors and made Christians out of other peoples and tribes. Today, Christian missionaries in the Third World have changed. They have identified themselves with the interests of the people among whom they live, especially the poor; and in many instances they have become witnesses of social justice, have wrestled against colonial powers and monopoly capitalism. (As a result) they have suffered persecution like Archbishop Janani Luwum in Rhodesia.
Maclean’s: You have written in your book Journeys that “there is not much difference between Christians and non-Christians. The same inner and outer dramas seem to go in all the people you meet, the same fears, the same hopes, the same struggles, and same loves." Why then have you remained a Christian?
Baum: First of all, the discovery I made at a certain point in my life that there wasn’t much difference between Christians and other people was not at odds with the ancient Christian teaching that human life, wherever, is a conflict between two forces, the forces of sin and self-destruction and the forces of divine grace operative in people’s lives. I remain a Christian because to me the Christian message is the key for understanding human life, not only in the Church but everywhere in humanity. I believe that the invisible divine dynamics operative in the lives of all people is made visible and concrete in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maclean’s: Why is Christ unique?
Baum: This is not how I ask the question. In the Christian tradition, Christ has always been regarded as the pivotal point of history. What theologians today ask about Jesus is, rather, how is it possible to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus and at the same time leave room for other religions? How can we offer Christ as the unique selfmanifestation of God and at the same recognize religious pluralism as a good thing? Maclean’ siYou have commented that there
The social policies of the churches look very nice on paper, but we don’t do enough
is a psychic phenomenon among intellectuals that may be termed a “flight into intelligence. ” What does this mean exactly? Baum: I think that in the academic world, in the faculty and graduate schools, men and women engaged in intellectual pursuits have to ask themselves to what extent their drive is “a defense,” a way of protecting them from life and from instinctual problems they can’t handle. To what extent is the drive to study nourished by arrogance? If it is based purely and simply on a flight from reality, then the intellectual work will be an exercise in rationalization; but if the quest for the intellectual life is based on vision, concern and curiosity, it is more likely to be of service to the community.
Maclean’s: Does Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau have a well integrated mind? Baum: I have admiration for Trudeau. I disagree, as a socialist, as a member of the New Democratic Party, with Trudeau’s policies. But I have admiration for his person. He is one of the most interesting
politicians Canada has produced. Maclean’s: If you had heard ex-President Richard Nixon ’s confession, what would his penance have been?
Baum: This is a good question. I feel that Americans think they can blame it (Watergate) all on Nixon—without having to examine more carefully the system, the political and economic system that is theirs. Maclean’s: How do you view the separatist movement in Quebec?
Baum: The separatist movement in Quebec is first of all a movement that expresses the self-identity of the Quebec people, the extraordinary evolution that took place over the past 17 years, the intensity with which life is lived there. If you go to a party in Toronto, people talk about the weather and sports and the decoration of their homes. If you go to a party in Montreal, the Québécois talk about issues, and examine their collective life. This enormous vitality is different from ours. It results in their wish to be the masters of their own destiny and assure their survival in North America by political means. I personally hope that Quebec will be satisfied within a changed Confederation, if it receives the power to regulate its survival as a French culture. Maclean’s: What is the principal source of evil in society?
Baum: According to the New Testament, the sources of evil are present in the most respectable sections of society. Jesus was persecuted, aftvr all, by the pillars of his society and by institutions that were honored by everyone. Therefore, we do have to raise questions about the institutions in which we live. This was done by the Canadian bishops in a brief to the government last year questioning the present economic system. The bishops say that the present economic system leads to an unjust distribution of wealth and a growing gap between the rich and poor, and will ultimately push a major section of humanity into starvation and death. They ask for a new economic order.
Maclean’s: The three thinkers who have most influenced the 20th century have all been Jews and have all gained recognition by their proof of destructive processes. Sigmund Freud brought out clinically destructive patterns of behavior that we unconsciously adhere to; Karl Marx underlined the generation of ideas that protect an elitist group and Albert Einstein, in his mathematical genius, unlocked the dangerous secret of atomic energy. Will Gregory Baum be the Western theologian who is divisive and therefore destructive, or will he be a synthesizing force?
Baum: I am a follower of another Jew, a man by the name of Jesus. I think it is a task of a Christian witness to unmask the evil in society, but also to proclaim the good news that new life is available, that we are not alone in the struggle against darkness, that there is a power operative in us, summoning us and enabling us, making us capable of leaving a destructive past behind and moving creatively into the future.