John Rist: ‘You can’t pick and choose in Catholic moral teaching’

From CNS, something from an old prof of mine. I have written about Prof. Rist before.

‘You can’t pick and choose in Catholic moral teaching’
Posted on December 19, 2012 by Carol Glatz

By Greg Watry

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The church must evolve with the times, and the clergy must stand by their faith in the face of animosity from the secular world, a Catholic philosopher said.

John Rist, a philosopher and professor at The Catholic University of America, [And more importantly also the Augustinianum in Rome] said in the latest edition of Vatican Voices that in order for Catholicism to flourish the clergy “have got to be visible, they have to be unpopular in many cases. If they don’t, they’ll be failing their job.”

Rist recognizes the risks the clergy take when promoting Catholic philosophy. “If you say you’re opposed to abortion you don’t get your head cut off, but you get abused. You might be called a pedophile or something like that.”

But young people, who are idealistic, are drawn to morally brave behavior, he said. Priests set a good example for the laity by defending their faith.

In order to defend the faith, Rist said, one must learn what secular culture says and why. By not engaging with the secular world, the church alienates itself and “the outside world gets further and further away, and you get less and less chance to have contact with it or even understand what it’s doing.”

The church addressed the issue of secularism during the Second Vatican Council. However the council fathers didn’t understand “the problem they were trying to solve,” Rist said. “They knew somehow the church was out of sync with the modern world,” he said, but not why.

During Vatican II and still today, he said, the problem of disconnection with the modern world lies in stagnant thinking. [OORAH!]

Theologians don’t understand that the church is allowed to evolve, Rist said. “They think that if we open the door to thinking and considering change, we’re going to lose everything.”

The truth is the church is always in a state of flux, Rist said. Dramatic changes, as those that occurred during Vatican II, have happened throughout the history of the church.

In the New Testament, Rist said, Jesus claims, “’I will lead you to all truth,’ not I’ll give it to you right now on a plate.”

To anyone who studies Augustine, Rist’s book is necessary.  Just buy it.

US – Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized


And this is a hard book, but very rewarding.

US – Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality

US Kindle – HERE


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liberals, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Priests and Priesthood and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. The Masked Chicken says:

    “During Vatican II and still today, he said, the problem of disconnection with the modern world lies in stagnant thinking.”

    I have no idea what this means. Vatican II didn’t look very static, to me.

    The Chicken

  2. rtjl says:

    “During Vatican II and still today, he said, the problem of disconnection with the modern world lies in stagnant thinking.”
    I am not sure what this means either. A bit of elaboration would be nice.

  3. mamajen says:

    I could be completely off, but I think the “stagnant thinking” (insofar as Vatican II) is the same kind of thing we read about in the “What young Catholics want” article the other day. Many in the Church think that the only way to get through to modern society is to mimic it in some way…and the problem is that often times they are decades behind the curve and completely misunderstanding what people really want and need. That, and I think there is a tendency to assume that lay Catholics (and heck, even priests) are catechized much better than they actually are, and can be trusted to correctly interpret and implement Church directives (such as Vatican II). Basically, many of our Church leaders are out of touch and don’t even realize it.

    I really liked this article! We need more people who think this way.

  4. Athelstan says:

    The full audio of Rist’s interview can be found here, for those interested:

    I haven’t listened to all of it yet, but perhaps he expands on what he means by “stagnant thinking.”

  5. LisaP. says:

    I think that’s right.
    When I was teaching junior high school I noticed what seemed to be a trend to “MTV” (it was a loooong time ago) the classroom — make it so up to date and trendy and modern. The problem was, a classroom teacher could not compete with MTV, or anything else, in coolness. So it just came off as very, very lame. Some of the most derisive terms out there are “poser” and “wannabe”.

    Do what you do well the way you do it well, each place and time has its own goodness, trying to deal on someone else’s cache just makes you the middle class suburban boy who goes to school trying to look like Tupac. . . . (o.k., my references are well out of date, but you see what I mean).

  6. Athelstan says:

    Oh, wait: I think I get what he’s saying now.

    He starts out talking about John XXIII calling the Council:

    “The difficulty was that [the Council Fathers] didn’t really understand the problem they were trying to solve. I mean, they knew that somehow the Church was out of sync with the modern world. They weren’t sure in what areas they *should* have been out of sync and which areas they shouldn’t. And that was largely because in the period from roughly speaking the Council of Trent…well, certainly down to Vatican II – with a number of exceptions, and not many exceptions really – Catholic thinking had stagnated. Nothing really was going on. So that the people who were teaching Catholic things in theology departments and even philosophy departments…they really didn’t know what the arguments were in the outside world, and they still don’t in many cases…they don’t understand what the arguments are about. They don’t understand that we don’t know Catholic theology fully *now*. It’s an ongoing process.”

    I have tremendous respect for Prof. Rist. But I’m not sure I fully agree with him here. [Imagine my surprise!] There’s a real danger in caricaturing Catholic theology and philosophy in the pre-conciliar period. There was, in fact, a rich tapestry of development in Catholic thinking emerging out of Leo XIII’s retrieval of Thomistic thinking in the late 19th century, much of which was quite engaged with current developments in modern philosophy, such as Blondel, Marachel, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Maritain, Gilson, de Lubac . . . and some problematic figures. There may be something to the notion that seminary formation had become rather sterile in many places, of course. What it got replaced with after the Council, on the other hand…

    At any rate, that’s the fuller treatment of what he said.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    Ah, I think I know what he means by, “stagnant.” Two quotes from the black-and-white Outer Limits episode, The Sixth Finger, spoken by an artificially evoked man (I highly recommend it – the old Outer Limits had some excellent snapshots of early 1960’s Catholicism):

    Gwylim: (playing classical music) “Amazing, isn’t it, the things that endure the ravages of time and taste? This simple prelude, for instance. Bach will quite probably outlive us all… Man produces little that is lasting–truly lasting. It’s understandable. Fear, conformity, immorality; these are heavy burdens. Great drainers of creative energy. And when we are drained of creative energy we do not create. We procreate; we do not create.”

    Gwylim: “The human race has a gift, professor. A gift that sets it above all the other creatures that abound upon this earth. The gift of thought, reasoning, understanding. The highly developed brain. But the human race has ceased to develop. It struggles for petty comfort and false security. There is no time for thought. Soon there will be no time for reasoning and man will lose sight of the truth.”

    The Chicken

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    Should be, “artificially evolved man'”..oh, go watch the episode…

    The Chicken

  9. The Cobbler says:

    I dunno about evolving and flux.

    We’ve got people on one side of us who think man and/or the truth has got to change its shape.

    We’ve got people on the other side who think that, since Truth is eternal and has come to us, nothing about our relationship with and understanding of the Truth should grow or anything like that — it must already be complete. (It’s a basic logical error and fairly apparent when stated that way.)

    But as G.K. Chesterton put it, “The Cross is the only thing that can grow without changing Its shape.” We have to be the Cross — or at least on the Cross. It’s not a mere matter of flux and evolution, or at least not just any change — we have to grow precisely because the Truth does not, is eternal and bigger than our understanding, even though our understanding of Him is valid insofar as it goes; and since the Truth has given us some basic valid understanding of Himself, our growth should follow His unchanging shape.

    In my limited experience studying theology, whenever an issue comes up for further clarification and definition, a major factor is what the theologians, doctors and fathers of the Church have taught on the matter all along — we don’t just come up with replies to new ideas out of thin air, nor does development of doctrine merely respond to the situation on the ground, but it simultaneously clarifies and reiterates the teaching that’s always been there because it comes from the Truth Who has always been there.

    Not that I doubt the people we’re reading here know that, I just think we have to be careful the terms with which we describe it, ’cause there are folks out there just itching to accuse us of being epistomological relativists unless we hold to their particular bizarre private interpretation that attempts to boil all Catholicism down to a sort of short list of contextless, simplistic reactions against the time and place said accusers grew up in.

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