Monday, February 18, 2008

On the "Celebrity" Status of Scott Hahn / Sharing the Catholic Faith in Terms that Are Understood

By Dave Armstrong (2-18-08)

In a thread on the CHN board where I moderate, a new Catholic was complaining about how Catholics (especially new converts) view Dr. Scott Hahn. To her, they seem to be idolizing him or turning him into a super-hero, and she detests the fact that this looks to be a mirror image of what goes on so often in Protestantism. I had a number of things to say in reply.

* * * * *

I hear ya. Scott is certainly extremely influential in modern Catholic apologetics and American Catholic life, period. No question about it. Generally, if two names come up as key figures in the modern revival it is Scott and Karl Keating. And I think it is a fair assessment.

Is this a bad thing? Well, it could be. Like anything, it comes down to the person who is doing all the admiring and adulating. Just because they may put him too high on a pedestal doesn't necessarily reflect on Scott. He is just doing what he has been called and gifted to do, and God has made it fruitful. He himself is a very humble, gentle soul: one of the nicest people I have ever met. I don't think we can chalk this up to him.

What do we do about this? If Scott is put up too high and practically idolized by some (and the literal meaning of that is idolatry), what should he do? Disappear? I don't think he is doing anything bad! If God has blessed his efforts and everyone is talking about them and learning their faith more and becoming more confident Catholics, then praise God that apologetics and Bible study and the other theological issues he has written about are being exercised and appreciated more widely. I think we should be thankful, first and foremost.

So your husband says, "Catholics are no different than Protestants--just look at this." My reply to him would be, "why is it that you would assume that Catholics are any different in the first place?" We're fallen human beings with all the same faults that Protestants exhibit. If "hero worship" or what have you is a problem in Protestant circles, surely we will also see it in Catholic circles.

One might argue that some of this is more of an "American" thing. We're always going crazy over big heroes in music and TV and movies. Look at American Idol or the stupid magazines in checkout lines or even the Obama phenomenon right now . . . It seems to give meaning and purpose to people's lives.

The Catholic Church has many saints who ought to be our heroes, if anyone is. If we want to admire or emulate someone, let it be them, not a theology professor or apologist or radio or TV talk show host or a priest or nun in the Catholic world. Let the pope be a personal hero. He is worthy of that. Scott Hahn doesn't want to be a "hero". He wants to share the Catholic faith.

That said, I would, however, contend that Catholics are, overall, far less "man-centered" than Protestants. I've been in both camps. I know this to be a fact. Protestants have "civil wars" simply because a pastor leaves and another comes in. I personally witnessed this in three different congregations I was a part of (and I didn't participate in the slightest; I utterly despised it as the devil's diversion).

Why should a congregation be in crisis simply because one man left and another took up the pastor's role? Protestants have actually split over dumb things like the color of a carpet in church, or whether buttons indicate excessive luxury and self-preoccupation (Mennonites and Amish have actually had that dispute).

Catholics usually don't do this. Many times I have heard Catholics complain about their own priest but I don't see them considering leaving their parish. They stay (almost to a fault, I think, at times). They don't just leave because they don't like the priest's personality or his homilies, or the fact that he may not be an overly friendly or sociable type.

Protestants often do do that. So you'll hear things like, "I'm just not getting anything out of Pastor Doe's sermons. I'm gonna go somewhere where I'll be fed." Or, the famous, notorious, "I'm not getting enough fellowship here."

One might also argue, concerning Scott Hahn, that his very enthusiasm and knowledge and zeal was such a novelty when he first appeared some 20 years ago, that the very unusualness and oddity of it made him a widely admired figure. He stood out, because it was so different from what Catholics were used to. It's not like enthusiasm is the sole province of Protestants. Look at Fulton Sheen, for example.

But it had become rare, because Catholics had a crisis of confidence in the years after Vatican II. Scott comes along and he inspired confidence, and so people liked and admired him. They wish they were more like he is. He is inspiring; he makes them feel good about being a Catholic, and no longer ashamed or second-class. Is that such a bad thing? No; only if it becomes truly excessive and obsessive. A person can be admired and inspiring without being an idol. It can be a fine line, but there is a difference.

But if hundreds and thousands of Catholics had already been doing the sort of things that Scott does, and in the way he does it, then he wouldn't be such a novelty, would he? So one might argue that part of the excess you see is due to the extreme lack of others like Scott in the last forty years. We ened to look at ourselves and the overall situation, not at Scott.

We don't need less of Scott Hahn. We need 5000 or 10,000 or more "Scott Hahns" out there sharing with his zeal and enthusiasm and knowledge. Then the spotlight won't be so much on him, no? It's like Elvis or the Beatles or something (even Frank Sinatra in the 40s). They were so unique when they came onto the scene that everybody was going crazy over them. But then others came along that picked up where they left off, and they weren't quite so unique.

* * *

Vatican II urges Catholics to speak in terms that Protestants can understand (when talking to them):

We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background. Most valuable for this purpose are meetings of the two sides-especially for discussion of theological problems-where each can treat with the other on an equal footing-provided that those who take part in them are truly competent and have the approval of the bishops. From such dialogue will emerge still more clearly what the situation of the Catholic Church really is. In this way too the outlook of our separated brethren will be better understood, and our own belief more aptly explained.

. . . The way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded.

At the same time, the Catholic faith must be explained more profoundly and precisely, in such a way and in such terms as our separated brethren can also really understand.

(Decree on Ecumenism, Chapter II, sections 9, 11; my emphasis)

67. This most Holy Synod deliberately teaches this Catholic doctrine and at the same time admonishes all the sons of the Church that the cult, especially the liturgical cult, of the Blessed Virgin, be generously fostered, and the practices and exercises of piety, recommended by the magisterium of the Church toward her in the course of centuries be made of great moment, and those decrees, which have been given in the early days regarding the cult of images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, be religiously observed.(22*) But it exhorts theologians and preachers of the divine word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God.(23*) Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church's magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always look to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity and piety. Let them assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church. Let the faithful remember moreover that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues.

(Dogmatic Constitution on the Church / Lumen Gentium, Chapter VIII, IV, section 67; my emphasis)
This very much follows a biblical, Pauline theme as well:
1 Corinthians 9:19-23

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law -- though not being myself under the law -- that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law -- not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ -- that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
So, let's be proud to be Catholics, and to talk and act like Catholics, not being ashamed at all. But let's also keep in mind that it is okay -- indeed, urged by St. Paul and the Church in the Second Vatican Council -- to speak in terms that our separated, highly esteemed Protestant brethren can understand and relate to. It doesn't mean we have to water down Catholic teaching or present "Catholic Lite"; it means simply that we express the Faith in terms that are more understandable. We try to speak "Protestantese."

Let's not be uncharitable to our Protestant brethren simply because we are excited about new Catholic truths and may be trying to distance ourselves from our past. Let's not forget, as converts, where we once were, and how sincere we were before; just misinformed and undereducated about Catholicism.

I don't think it is so much the case that someone like Scott Hahn can't get rid of his old habits of speech, and will always "talk Protestant." No. It is a conscious attempt on his part to speak in ways that Protestants can comprehend. That's one huge reason why he has been so successful as a vessel of God to help obtain more conversions to Catholicism.

Heaven forbid that we don't try to reach people in this fashion. If we truly are excited about the Catholic faith, and want to help bring more people into it, then we had better learn this, or we will fail in our task, or at least not do as well as we could do.

I thank God that two lifelong Catholic friends of mine took the urgings of Vatican II seriously and patiently shared the faith with me in ways that I could understand. If they hadn't done that, I may not have ever converted, or might have years later than I did. And these were not converts. They were cradle Catholics who were following the advice of the council; sharing their faith (just as Pat Madrid and Karl Keating are cradle Catholics who have understood and come to apply this approach).

I was then privileged to be able to study under the late Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. for months. He was as Catholic (and as holy) as they come. He was no convert, either. Yet when I wrote A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, which is precisely intended to speak in a language that Protestants can relate to, by utilizing much biblical support, he wrote the Foreword. He once told me that my writings were "very Catholic." I consider this the greatest compliment on my apologetics that I have ever received.

I'm not trying to puff myself up, believe me. I"m trying to illustrate my point, using an example from my own life. Anti-Catholics like Steve Hays do not understand this aspect at all, and so, in his confusion and distress over Scott Hahn's success in persuading people, he writes ridiculous, outrageously false accusations like the following (and I was honored to be thrown into the mix with Scott, too):
There are Catholic laymen who, because they're involved in group Bible studies with their Evangelical friends and coworkers, end up with a personal theology that is more Evangelical than their church.

3.Apropos (2), many Evangelical immigrants to Rome bring along a certain amount of contraband theology stashed away in their luggage.

As I've observed in the past, they are often far more conservative than cradle Catholics or the clergy. Indeed, they're often at odds with their adopted denomination.

So guys like Dave Armstrong and Scott Hahn present an artificially Evangelicalized version of Roman Catholicism.

Consider Hahn's use of covenant theology to defend and explicate Catholic dogma. This is clearly a carryover from his Presbyterian past.

He's grafting elements of one theological system onto elements of an opposing theological system.

So they end up with a sterile hybrid theology that isn't consistently Catholic or Protestant.

4.The reason that an apologist like Hahn is successful in bringing Evangelical fence-straddlers over to the Rome fold is precisely the because he has erected an Evangelicaloid bridge between the two traditions.

When Evangelicals read about his version of Catholicism, it looks uncannily familiar. A family resemblance. They've seen it before. The shock of recognition. A long lost son. Twins separated at birth. This is what we always believed!

5.When they present Catholicism, the outside surface of the door has a heavy coat of Evangelical paint, while the inside surface of the door has a Catholic coat of paint.

Kind of like the Gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel - with Evangelical icing, sprinkles, gum drops, M&Ms, marshmallows, and candy canes on the outside, along with a yummy aroma from the chimney.

Steve doesn't get it. And he doesn't because he assumes, in his anti-Catholic outlook, that the differences between Christians are much greater than they actually are (in fact, for him, we are not Christians at all, so there you go). He assumes that Scott Hahn and myself must be fudging the facts and trying to present a faith neither Catholic nor Protestant. This is his "argument." This is how desperate and out to sea some of our opponents are. But it is not so. We're merely presenting the Faith in terms that can be understood better by non-Catholics. He has never succeeded in proving a single instance where anything I wrote, or that Scott wrote, has contradicted official Catholic theology (nor has anyone else, in my case).

In another screed, Hays viciously attacked Scott, as essentially a liar and deceiver (and I defended him in my reply):
If there’s one word to summarize his method, it’s “equivocation.”

. . . Hahn has no excuse to mislead the reader this way.

. . . Hahn’s simplistic misrepresentation.

As a one-time evangelical himself, Hahn must know this, but he prefers to deceive the reader.

This is quite deceptive, for none of these local councils or synods qualify as ecumenical councils. Another one of Hahn’s studied equivocations.

A reader who relied on Hahn for his knowledge of Catholicism would have no idea what a skewed picture he’s getting. Hahn poses as a representative of Catholic dogma, but his exegetical argumentation is hardly representative of mainstream Catholicism.
Even in this pseudo-analysis, Hays is self-contradictory, because he faults Scott for supposedly mindlessly aping Catholic dogma, yet on the other hand he accuses him of misrepresenting same. Which is it? Or is it just that anything goes, no matter how ridiculous or incoherent and illogical, when an anti-Catholic criticizes a Catholic and Catholicism?

I've been falsely accused of utilizing sola Scriptura as a method to refute Protestant notions, simply because I cited a lot of Bible verses.

So there is a balance here, as always. We can remain thoroughly orthodox in our theology and practices, but vary in how we present and defend our beliefs to others, so that we will more effectively communicate glorious Catholic truths. Scott is doing this. We ought to admire him for it, and do more of what he does, ourselves, in order to be more so the sort of Catholics that our Church in an Ecumenical Council ratified by a pope, would desire us to be.

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