instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My struggle with Girzone

A fan of the writer Fr. Joseph F. Girzone once gave me a copy of his bestselling book Joshua. I made it through four or five chapters before I had to stop.

The title character (there are at least seven books in the series) is Jesus Himself, living an ordinary life in contemporary America. Based on the first few chapters of the first book, Jesus has returned to preach a Gospel of Nondenominational Niceness.

Not for me.

In fact, most fictionalized accounts of Jesus aren't for me. He was surprising enough to those who knew Him best in the true accounts we have of Him that I just don't trust people who claim to know what He'd do here and now (or even in Narnia, whenever). One exception: In the Don Camillo stories I've read, Christ is believable (perhaps because He's crucified and risen).

So I was not excited to see a review copy of Fr. Girzone's My Struggle with Faith arrive in the mail. (As Julie Davis suggested, I'm not sure Doubleday did him any favors by publishing the trade paperback edition on practically the same day the book of Mother Teresa's writings came out.)

Nevertheless, I thought I'd take the broad and flexible outlook and give it a shot, just to see what the fellow had to say, fully prepared to give it up as soon as it became unbearable. (Also, I'd misplaced my copy of the Mother Teresa book.)

My Struggle With Faith never did become unbearable, though, so I wound up finishing it. It's a quick and light read, the theme of which is, "Find a reason for your faith." And as it happens, Fr. Girzone's is (essentially) the Catholic Faith, and his reasons are (for the most part) the traditional Catholic ones. He particularly stresses the early Church Fathers, who as the immediate spiritual descendants of the Apostles ought to know best what it is to believe in Jesus.

This isn't to say Fr. Girzone isn't a typically liberal Catholic. He doesn't like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or the Vatican generally), he's for optional celibacy for Roman Catholic priests, he thinks maybe laypeople ought to be able to annul their own marriages, he regrets the temporal power Constantine and St. Gregory the Great gave the Church, he's for opening Communion to those Christians who believe in the Real Presence, he's worried about a possible fundamentalist theocracy, he speaks more of the therapeutic benefits of Confession than of its spiritual benefits, and so forth. I'm not sure I much agree with his take on Jesus (he doesn't go too deeply into this -- or anything else, really -- in this book).

For the most part, though (and reserving especially his opinions on marriage and annulment), these are matters of doctrine and practice rather than dogma. I see nothing wrong with favoring optional celibacy, for example, as long as those who lack the authority don't act on their opinion. And as far as I could tell, in this book at least, Fr. Girzone accepts the authority of the Church.

He does, though, suggest that the Roman Curia has no business ordering the Bishops of the Church about. But I happen to agree with him there.

Overall, I think his idea of Jesus is too fluffy and his take on the institutional Church is too downbeat. Both encourage indifferentism among Christians, although he stresses his faith in the Eucharist, the papacy, and the importance of Mamma Mary, among other distinctly Catholic doctrines. Still, the overall effect is, "I believe the Catholic Church is the one founded by Jesus, but you don't have to, since what matters is Jesus, not doctrine." That strikes me as too either-or.

As the title suggests, the book is mostly about the questions Fr. Girzone has had about the Faith, but the autobiographical context is so sketchy it's hard to tell exactly when he was asking himself many of these questions. In many instances, both the question and the answer that ultimately satisfies him are extremely basic. Is he just thorough in recording what he learned as a young seminary student, or did he really not figure these things out for decades? It's not always clear.

What is clear is that, in his writing and ministry, Fr. Girzone has focused on Jesus as he finds Him in the Gospels. Not all priests do, of course; he writes:
Only in my later years did I come to the shocking realization that Jesus can be quite irrelevant in the life of the churches.... This was first driven home to me one day when an old priest, who had been a friend all my life, said to me, "How can you talk about Jesus for an hour and a half?"

I was stunned. I asked him what he meant by that. His response was, "We were not taught about Jesus in the seminary. We had good scripture courses, and excellent courses in moral and dogmatic theology and in Christology... but we weren't taught anything about the personal aspect of Jesus' life. I don't think I could talk about Him for more than five minutes."
Fr. Girzone, of course, thinks seminarians should be taught about the personal aspect of Jesus' life. I think seminarians ought to be taught to know Jesus Himself, and that priests can hardly blame their seminary syllabus if they grow old without ever knowing Him. Still:
As an elderly lady in Elyria, Ohio, said to me one night, "Father, the way I size up Christianity is like this: The Catholics worship the Church, the Protestants worship the Bible, and there are darn few who ever get to know Jesus Christ." She was right, and it is tragic.
He is right, and it is tragic.

I came away from this book with the impression that Fr. Girzone may have a mission to those who, for whatever reason, cannot be reached by more traditional Catholic preaching. I'm more doubtful his influence on those who simply choose not to be reached by more traditional Catholic teaching is for the good.