Sungenis’ critique of Pope John Paul II
Yes, I am forced to write another post against Robert Sungenis, this time because of his recently (re-)published article against His Holiness John Paul II and his holiness;) Despite the argument, I still wish to express and maintain my respect and friendship toward Mr. Sungenis. The Church needs honest, good debates, it’s a sign of the love of Truth.
Again a couple of introductory words about my personal spiritual journey. The first time I wrote against Sungenis I was in crisis, the second time I was more at peace, now I am doing even better, loving the Church and trying to think with it and spread its message in fresh ways. The prayers of Sungenis and his friends might well have been heard:)
1000 against 10
Some general comments about why I disagree with Sungenis and where I think his mistakes lie. First, I have spent the last 6 months in Cracow, the city where John Paul II (henceforth JP2) studied, was ordained and ruled as Bishop and Archbishop. This was his home, this is what he left behind him, here you find his legacy, one feels it.
As a theologian I’ve been digging deep into JP2 and his pupils, read 4 biographies, seen 2, heard 1. Most recently I went to the movies to see the new documentary film about him, “Szukałem Was…” I attended Mass in his private chapel, where he also received Orders, and met people who knew him. The overwhelming overall impression one gets from everything and everyone is that of holiness.
Sungenis has some valid concerns, but his 10 pages (actually 9) of argumentation pale in comparison with the 1000 pages of biographies that show the true face of the saintly Pope, his everyday life, conduct and faith. Of course everyone should find out and judge for themselves, but there are some good reasons why Sungenis is in the tiny minority.
I don’t know how many biographies of JP2 Mr. Sungenis has read, but I feel one of his problems is a lack of honest research – instead of the authentic sources he repeats the arguments of traditionalist Catholics. I will illustrate this later on. Another problem seems to be Sungenis’ hyper-Tridentine Catholicism. What is wrong with this, I will also illustrate below.
A third problem, connected to the second, is a lack of consistency in thinking with the Church. A fourth problem, connected to the third, is a negative attitude, not giving JP2 a charitable interpretation or the benefit of a doubt. All of this leads to the fifth problem which is Sungenis’ inconsistency in his own apologetics.
Lack of honest research
What caught my attention here at first was Sungenis’ treatment of Islam. He claims the Koran says in “Article 2: ‘He who believes in the Trinity is impure, just like excrement and urine.’” First of all, there are no “Articles” in the Koran, but Surahs and Ayahs, sometimes called chapters and verses.
I looked into Surah 2 but found no such verse there. In fact, when I copy-pasted and googled the sentence, all I found was traditional Catholic apologetics sites with the same argument. This is when I started doubting the quality of Sungenis’ research. I recall he has been “caught” before for having copied incorrect materials from other websites.
I have been following both serious debates between Christians and Muslims as well as the interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Islam. This (as it seems) made-up verse has never come up in any of these debates, but more importantly, Sungenis is out of touch with what these religions have achieved in their common dialogue and how one should deal with the differences in them.
I would recommend Pope Benedict’s interview The Light of the World on this topic as well as his recent Good Friday response to a Muslim woman inquiring about Jesus and peace. This is a perfect example of how the Church should interact with Islam. Pope Benedict doesn’t start by condemning Islam for its denial of Christ but starts with a prayer for God’s blessing and a recognition of Islam’s faith in Jesus as prophet.
But then the most important part: the Pope doesn’t leave it there, but goes on to explain how the Incarnate God in Christ Crucified reveals that violence can never come from God. The Pope calls this the “true” message of Jesus. Similarly, Pope John Paul II was invited to address about 100 000 young Muslims in Casablanca by King Hassan II, and he spoke to them about his Christian faith.
Let’s deal with the Tridentinism of Sungenis’ approach. I understand it. Been there. One sees the problems in Sola Scriptura, one embraces the “infallible” Magisterium and especially Trent and Vatican I, since they deal with the issues we too face: Protestantism and the Enlightenment. Vatican II, however, is a bit suspect, because its approach is so different from the two previous councils, which supposedly represent the perennial Faith, the changeless Truth.
The problem with this approach is its naivety. Trent is simply Trent, it’s 16th century. The Apostolic Christianity of the first two centuries was not Tridentine Catholicism, and the teaching of the Catholic Church today is not Tridentine Catholicism. There is no good reason to make Trent the ultimate standard.
A nice illustration occurs toward the beginning of Sungenis’ paper, where he calls the Tridentine Catechism (CR) “one of the purest publications of doctrine the Church has ever produced”. Judging by what? If “pure” means “Tridentine” as it seems to do for Sungenis, then it’s no surprise the Catechism of the Council of Trent is pure. But if your standard is, for example, the Apostolic Faith (see eg Irenaeus and the Apostolic Creed) or the latest ecumenical council, one thanks God one has the CCC instead.
To list three main problems with the CR: 1) Its ignorance of early liturgies and the development of doctrine. The CCC is much more patristic and liturgical. 2) Its scholastic method of Scripture interpretation, using naive proof-texting. The CCC is much more biblical, entering into the vision of the inspired authors. 3) Its naivety in proclaiming that the faith (its faith) is certain and cannot be at all doubted – which the CCC implicitly does by teaching many things very differently.
Examples of concrete doctrinal defects: The CR teaches the damnation of babies who die without baptism, it teaches all sorts of late baptismal liturgical ceremonies were “no doubt” instituted by the Apostles and that the words and chrism of Confirmation were ordained by Christ Himself.
The CR says Luke 13:3 refers to post-baptismal mortal sins and the sacrament of confession and contradicts Paul on whether all men will die. Also compare the CR and the CCC on the sacrament of orders and its stages – the CCC obviously being much more biblical and apostolic (deacon, priest/presbyter and bishop).
Think with the Church
I remember a conversation I personally had with Mr. Sungenis when I visited him in 2009. He complained that some of his traditionalist friends don’t want to accept Vatican II, and said that one must accept all the councils.
Vatican II did not proclaim its teaching infallible, but it is what the Church officially believes and teaches, and so a Catholic should wish to embrace it and think with it. The same goes for post-conciliar official teaching. Of course one is free to question some of these teachings, but one should also be self-critical.
There are many examples of where I think Sungenis uncritically sticks to the 16th century and thus fails to think along with the Church, guided and inspired by the Spirit of God. One such case is the issue of justification. With the Joint Declaration (JD), Sungenis exclaims, “The Council of Trent is overruled!” Again, Sungenis remarks: “Apparently the Council of Trent wasn’t good enough for John Paul II.”
Again one wonders whether Sungenis is at all up to date with Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. I happen to live in the most Lutheran country in the world, and I’m well aware of and grateful for the progress made in the ecumenical encounters on this topic. In Cracow also talked to a Polish priest and scholar who wrote his doctorate on this very topic.
So, how is one to assess Sungenis’ approach? First, he misrepresents the JD, which does not “overrule” the confessional documents of the dialogue partners, but achieves an understanding acceptable to both so that the condemnations do not apply to the Catholic&Lutheran views as formulated in this document.
I’d rather say that Trent was good, but not enough – the theologians at the council often worked on the basis of citations of Protestant doctrine taken out of context, not having the Protestants themselves present to explain their faith and have an honest dialogue with them.
“Trent’s anathemas didn’t much matter to the liberal Catholics” – well, look at Unitatis Redintegratio and ask who are the Catholics in line with the Church’s mind? If the Church views Protestants as brothers who have the Word of God, the Gospel, faith, hope and charity, the grace of the Spirit, baptized into the body of Christ, one is bound to question the weight of the disciplinary anathemas of times past, still characterized by the newness of the problem and predating the ecumenical conversion.
Closely linked with the previous is the question of one’s attitude toward controversial issues. A prime example is the Prayer meeting in Assisi. I recall Sungenis telling me he asked other Catholic apologists why they didn’t stand up for the truth in this issue and speak out against the Pope. I ask Sungenis why he won’t give the Pope a charitable interpretation.
Sungenis’ critique of the Pope is very similar to the one presented by more radical traditionalists (Sedevacantists and the like). They immediately speak of syncretism and praying together with pagan religions, which is of course against what previous Popes have taught, and so condemn JP2.
Well, in Poland I got to read the Pope’s personal secretary’s telling of the story. So far I had only read about Assisi from its antagonists. What a fresh read it was, Stanislaw Dziwisz’s A Life with Karol. Here the Cardinal explains the political background for the Pope’s idea. The cold war was on and the Pope could sense further trouble (cf. the Balkan, the Gulf). As a world leader he was searching for a way to peace.
He was praying intensively and received a sudden inspiration that convinced him. A religious way to peace, which would bring religion back to the forefront in the face of secularism and atheism: let’s get as many people as possible to pray for peace! And now the most important part: Dziwisz says JP2 had to remind critics repeatedly that we are coming together to pray, not that we are coming to pray together.
These two facts, the political background and the distinction cited above, are never honestly presented by the traditionalist critics. They wish to hide them and make it look as bad as possible, as if the Pope was just looking for a way to show his religious indifference and relativism. On the contrary, the Pope expressly spoke out against syncretism and underlined the necessity of witness.
At the end of his paper Sungenis states that John Paul II’s canonization would settle the debate about the infallibility of canonizations for him. I take this to mean that Sungenis would then disagree with an official papal declaration, and perhaps even doubt that John Paul II, whom the whole Church would be venerating and praying to, is in heaven.
Again this goes against Sungenis’ apologetic goal to accept everything the Church says, and not pick and choose parts of it. In fact, he has strongly attacked the “it’s not infallible” -kind of argumentation when it suits him. A recent example is his response to Dave Armstrong on the Galileo case.
Sungenis grants the Church didn’t infallibly reject heliocentrism, but maintains that a Catholic shouldn’t infer that it’s not official or binding Church teaching that heliocentrism is wrong. In his book on Galileo he says it’s one thing to admit a teaching isn’t infallible (which goes for most teachings, anyway), another thing to say it’s in error. The latter is what Sungenis doesn’t want to allow, in order to rescue the Tridentine axiom “the Church cannot err”.
But now Sungenis is ready to give up and make his own apologetics much less credible: he is prepared to reject not only doctrinal documents approved by the Church (the JD, and indirectly the UR), not only to oppose the pastoral decisions of the Pope (Assisi, the approach to Islam), but to question an official declaration of the Pope, which is supposed to bind the whole Church. That’s something to ponder.
Gentile Christianity certainly seemed novel to some Jewish Christians in the 1st century. Augustine’s Christianity and his synthesis of Christianity with Platonism was novel in his time, and again Thomas’ Christianizing Aristotle was novel in his time. Why should all these be great, but John Paul II’s theology of the body, his great synthesis of Christianity with modern philosophical currents (personalism, phenomenology), be all bad?
So in closing I would like to say to my friend Mr. Sungenis, and to the Catholics that take these positions with him: get real! It’s not the 16th century any more, it’s the 21st, and if the Spirit is still at work in the Church, and it is (open your eyes to the amazing expansion of the Church in Africa and Asia, for instance…), then the Spirit is leading the way and you’re in need of the same conversion the Church has already experienced.
Praise God, I’ve had this conversion myself and it is a beautiful thing to be able to look at the world and the Church and see so much good, so much hope, so much joy. Jesus is present where two or three are gathered in His name, much more than in the lonely and bitter voices of the ultra-orthodox traditionalists. I now return the favor to Mr. Sungenis and ask my readers to pray for him. God bless!Robert Sungenis