Have we reached the nadir in the institutional Catholic church or is T.S. Eliot correct: “The sickness must grow worse?”
Here I refer to the report from Colombia that Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J. a much respected Jesuit scrivener had been silenced for daring to criticize the writings of Joseph Razinger the present pope. Fr Escobar had been a popular commentator for thirty years in the newspaper El Tiempo. No longer. His career is over. His superior, ever faithful to Rome, has immediately pulled the rug on the popular priest. He was sworn to absolute silence.Immediately.
What heinous crime has Fr.Escobar committed?
He dared, in a most gentle and pastoral way, to challenge Ratzinger’s new book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. In particular this in Escobar’s words:
The Infancy of Jesus. That’s the title of the third volume of the trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth by theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. It has been published in nine languages, including Spanish, and will be published in a first global edition of one million copies. With a series of articles in the press and interviews on radio and television, I would like to guide readers of this book by the Pope, which offers a special difficulty — the virginity of Mary — which will give theologians and the media a lot to talk about.
To begin with, the latter are wondering why the Pope is going back to a point that seems now passé, namely, Mary’s virginity
And so Fr.Escobar goes on. Or did until the anti-intellectual curial thought police brutally descended upon him as they have on so many others in the decades of the reactionary Woytyla/Ratzinger papacies. There is no other words to use other than: This is a scandal. This is an egregious assault on scriptural scholarship and a terrible blow to the great intellectual traditions of the Church.It is a fearful rearguard action which uses crude hierarchical power to bludgeon priests and academics into outdated theological positions.
The virgin birth story is a theologoumenon, a theological fact.It is not history as much of the New Testament is not pure history. Most Catholic scholars know this but for fear of absolute maginalization and silencing can not state it.
While this is no place to delve into this “entrance myth”, the infancy narratives a brief synopsis must do here.
The earliest scriptural writer Paul never spoke of the story. The myth had not yet been created. Paul states that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and “according to the flesh” he was “descended from the House of David” (Romans 1:3).Mark follows about twenty years later and begins with Jesus’ baptism. As the significance of Jesus grew, Matthew did what many writers of antiquity did.He acknowledges Jesus special status and his uniqueness is retrojected back to his birth. Virgin births and special births are common in antiquity (Buddha, Horus, Romulus and Remus, Alexander etc).
Writing for a Jewish audience Matthew searches the scripture for clues and he finds it not in the Hebrew original but in the popular Septuagint where the Hebrew almah which does not mean virgin but “young maiden” is found. This now becomes parthenos (virgin) in Matthew’s Greek text. This is classic haggadah midrash, a uniquely Jewish way of studying scripture. And so the myth begins to grow.The story has shaped the Catholic world. After the Council of Trent (1545 CE) and with a celibate clergy needing a female figure, Catholicism promoted the Virgin cult. We ended up not with a healthy Mariology but a Mariolatry.
The Virgin Birth is a story about Jesus not Mary.
Christianity is about Easter, not Christmas. As one of my high school students phrased it, “Jesus had to be raised before he was born”. The special birth only comes when we look through the prism of Easter and work backwards. It is only when one realizes that the life is significant that “birth” narratives begin. It took over fifty years for this story to germinate and flower in its Christmas magnificence-stars, angels, heavenly choruses, magi etc.. These are the tools of powerful story tellers.They still thrill us but as adults we need to move beyond the “first level of naiveté” Ricoeur) which is fundamentalist to a more mystical. metaphorical level .
The brief excursus above merely touches the beauty and the power of the Christmas story and the Virgin Birth.
And now Fr.Escobar becomes the latest victim of Vatican censorship.
Our great Canadian biologist and non-believer David Suzuki mused about this years ago. Had there been o human father, if Jesus like the mythical legends of old been really conceived with no male in the picture, if he had truly been born of a virgin he would have been female, since he would lack the Y chromosome the contribution of a male donor.
We will not go there. This is not what scripture is about. The message apparently has not reached the Vatican. Sadly we can look forward to more failed attempts to put the fundamentalist genie back into the bottle.