Review and overview of Michael Morwood’s new book “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith”


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I thank Malcolm Martindale for this link.

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I’m reading this book now. Yes, it challenges the Catholic faith, where ” Catholic faith” is defined as what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says it is.


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The editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne, today offers a review and overview of Michael Morwood’s new book “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith”. The reviewer concludes: “if this book doesn’t make you think about what you truly believe nothing will. It’s a book to challenge, and paradixocially strengthen, the very foundations of your faith!”

A book to challenge the very foundations of your faith!

My old boss, retired Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey, was reported in The West Australian newspaper and on CathNews yesterday saying he was disappointed by what he saw as growing hostility towards the Church but did not believe historical abuse scandals were to blame as much as shifting societal attitudes.

“There’ll always be scandals in the Church,” he said. “We’ve had saints and sinners and we’ll continue to have saints and sinners because we’re dealing with people as they are.

Click the image above or HERE to read the full story in The West Australian.

“It’s hurtful to see all the negativity that comes from the sins of Church people but it’s not the real problem. The real problem is that what I think of as good news is not always seen or received as good news by society.

“Let me take one little matter. I think the Christian vision of marriage is good news in that it produces strong family life, it is based on love, it is based on fidelity and it is a basic cell of stability in society. Now that has become a bit of a minority opinion.”

The 77-year-old said it was not an option for the Church to adopt a more popular position on issues.

Instead, he said, members of the Church should live according to the Gospel and “hope it’s attractive enough for people to say ‘yes, this is what I want’”. “We can’t force it down anyone’s throat, we can simply proclaim it,” he said.

I’ve been mulling on his words while reflecting on the very different perspective offered by Michael Morwoodin his latest book “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith”. Barry Hickey is still blaming society for the problems the Church is facing where, across the face of the Western world, nearly 90% of the educated, adult baptized have absented themselves from the pews and listening to what bishops might have to say about anything much.

Morwood, like myself, is intrigued by the massive loss of faith of ordinary people in the authority that was once accorded to bishops and the institutional church over our lifetimes. The retired Archbishop is obviously still wondering why have so many people have given up listening to this wonderful, enlivening deposit of faith the Church has so carefully discerned over the course of millennia. Michael Morwood, in the introduction to his book asks, “What if the doctrine being safeguarded by the CDF [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] is flawed or is simply not believed anymore by many in the Church, including its own scholars?”

About the only common ground between the perspectives of Barry Hickey and Michael Morwood is that the Catholic Church is facing a crisis. Even at the starting point of trying to answer the question why this crisis exists there is no common ground: one is blaming society and one has his focus on what might be flawed with the church’s own beliefs and ways of communicating its beliefs.

That is probably over simplistic. I know both men and I’m pretty sure both of them would accept that there have been changes in society as well as failings within the institution that can be cited as causes of the crisis in belief and participation. Nevertheless, I do believe they are still poles apart in the relative blame each would sheet home to society at large, and to failings in the institution, as to which was most responsible for the crisis.

Let me not disguise my enthusiasm for Michael Morwood’s book: Morwood places firmly on the table for public debate questions that for many up until now they would have been too afraid to ask in Church — or even suggest if they were within hearing of an archbishop who had taken an oath to defend “the Doctrine of the Faith” even at the cost of their own life. This relatively slim book is a breakthrough for anyone wanting to get a handle on why their own confidence in their church is failing, or trying to understand why their own children might have ceased listening or participating.

An overview of the book and its argument…

Let me try and outline for you an overview of the argument Michael Morwood advances through the pages of his book. The book is divided into fifteen chapters following an introduction:

1.         Doctrine and Faith

In this Chapter the author outlines Church teaching on matters of Doctrine and particularly as they relate to the critical question of the nature of God, and the natures (human and divine) of Jesus.

2.         The Divine Presence

At the foundation of Michael Morwood’s entire argument is the observation that people’s perception of God is changing. They no longer believe “the institutional line” as to who God is and where God resides. The ironic thing, which constantly resurfaces throughout the book, is that Morwood is not actually advancing any “radical theology”. A lot of what he says can be found in the beliefs we and our parents were taught in the Penny Catechism 60, 70 or a hundred years ago. God is everywhere, for instance. Somehow though some have bricked him up in heaven — imprisoned him from us and us from him.

3.         The Divine Presence and Judaism

Michael Morwood’s new book is available in Kindle & Paperback editions from Amazon in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace HERE.

Morwood goes back to the origins of Christian beliefs, Judaism:”Our contemporary appreciation of the Divine Presence provides a new context in which to understand the origins, development and central message of the Jewish religion.” Quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures Morwood argues: “The time has come for Christianity to honour and admire this ‘call’ within Judaism and to restore it to its rightful place when Christianity explains what inspired Jesus of Nazareth, and what it thinks Jesus was trying to do in his public ministry. The obvious lesson from Jesus’ Jewish background is that the Divine Presence at work in the human community was, is and always will be primarily concerned with life on earth.” [Morwood’s emphasis]

4.         Jesus – Human Expression of the Divine Presence

Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. Morwood begins the chapter: “There is no evidence that Jesus ever renounced his Jewish religion or asked any of his followers to renounce Judaism. He did not start a new religion.” We’re beginning to head into the central argument of Michael’s thesis: then how did Christianity emerge? How did it’s overview of questions likethe nature of God change to the overview the Jewish people, and Jesus himself would have had? Analysing Jesus’ own words in New Testament scripture, Michael attempts to get a handle on what Jesus himself meant when he used expressions like “building the kingdom” or the various terms used to name this Mystery we try to compress into words and phrases like”God” or “The Divine”.

5.         Paul’s Christology

Michael Morwood argues Paul is the culprit. He’s the one who “bent” the ideas so that they would be comfortable for a wider audience in the Greeks and Gentiles. (Tomorrow I’ll publish another view from Brian Pitts — a great fan of Isaiah, and Jesus — who offers another perspective on these middle chapters of Michael’s book.) Michael meanwhile argues: “Paul led Christian theology into literalizing the Adam and Eve story and into the belief that after Adam every person on this planet was born and died into a state of separation from God. With this theological foundation, it was inevitable that Christianity became a religion focused on ‘the Christ’ who changed God’s mind and attitude towards humanity.” He argues that Paul’semphasis on Jesus as “the Christ” “is a monumental leap from anything Jesus taught. It is a construct of Paul’s visionary imagination.”

6.         The Break with Judaism

In this chapter Michael argues how the Christology of Paul became gradually transformed into the Doctrine of Catholicism. Jesus is no longer presented as the way into the Divine Presence but becomes transformed into the gatekeeper barring the unworthy from the presence of God. He ends the Chapter with these two arguments from which his book derives its name:

It is time to question doctrine and its place in the Church and the protection given it by men who use it as a control mechanism to ensure they are answerable to no one.

It is time to recognize and name what doctrine really is. It is “institutional theology”. It is theology geared to give the institution special status, identity and power.

7.         It’s Time

There are eight paragraphs (out of 35 total) in this central chapter outlining the argument of the book that begin with the words “It is time”. I’ll only quote two of them:

It is time to rescue Jesus from this distracting issue about getting people into heaven.

It is time to rescue Jesus from the Pauline “Christ” theology, the doctrines, the prayer forms and institutional claims to absolute power and authority that go with it. It is time to stop using “Christ” as Jesus’ name. “Christ” does not elevate Jesus. It distorts his role, distracts from the urgency of his message, and most unfortunately, inflicts on Christians the mistaken belief that Jesus was really not like the rest of us in his humanity.

8.         The Baptism of Jesus. Choice

The next five chapters (8-12) are essentially a re-examination of the life and scriptural story of Jesus that is our legacy when it is shorn of the doctrine and dogma that has been plastered onto the raw nature of the human Jesus who attracted enough attention to be eventually outcast by the religious and political authorities of his day and executed. Trying to understandJesus through his perception of what his mission was. What was the meaning of the Baptism of Jesus? What does Baptism mean for us today?

9.         Jesus and Powerlessness

This chapter is essentially an examination of our beliefs regarding the tension between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Was or is Jesus some powerful miracle worker in heaven or do we better relate to Jesus in his powerlessness against the authorities, the yelling of the mob calling for his execution, and the social forces around him? Michael outlines, through the pain of his own confrontation with religious authorities, our identification with “the powerlessness” of Jesus:

This is the Jesus we need to know as we articulate what we really believe.

This is the Jesus we want to know whenever we find ourselves having to stand up and be counted for what we believe.

This is the Jesus we as “Church” should be gathering around.

10.         Holy Thursday. Commitment

We are accustomed to understand the events of Holy Thursday through the lens of doctrinal formulations about Jesus as “the Christ” who had a divine nature, a divine will and divine knowledge. We were taught to believe that at the last Supper Jesus set up a new religion with its own cultic priesthood, that he instituted the Eucharist and that he bestowed on his male apostles the power to bring his Presence to the consecrated bread. The reality is that none of this would have been known to the Jewish followers of Jesus in the twenty or so years after his death and before Paul. They knew Jesus died a Jew.

They are the opening words of this chapter. Michael goes on in this chapter to outline an alternative understanding of what Jesus means for us today.

11.         Good Friday. Faith

What is the meaning of Good Friday and the death of Jesus? Michael Morwood argues that after Paul the meaning of the death of Jesus came to be interpreted in a different way to how Jesus and his earliest followers would have interpreted it. Paul’s interpretation eventually became “doctrine never to be questioned” — even today. Morwood argues we need to re-visit our understanding of Jesus’ self-understanding of his nature and purpose and what we take from the meaning of his crucifixion.

12.         Resurrection. Transformation

Morwood opens the chapter on the Resurrection with: “On the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the CDF, … effectively obliged Catholic scripture scholars to stay within doctrine based on scripture’s understanding of a heavenly interventionist deity….” Morwood then goes on to quote Cardinal Ratzinger’s words. He then goes on to argue that there is a better way to interpret this ultimate event in the entire Jesus’ story rather than interpreting it as some kind of literalist resuscitation. Morwood concludes the chapter:

It is time to bring to these stories our contemporary understanding of the universe, our searching questions about consciousness and energy, and our belief in an all-pervasive Divine Presence. In this context the stories can have profound meaning, whereas interpreted literally and encased in doctrinal certitude, they will be rejected as pre-scientific make-believe, with no wisdom and insight to offer.

13.         The Unreality of Doctrine. Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

If you are worried enough by any of the foregoing wait until you get to Chapter 13 whereMichael brings his forensic skills to stripping away the mythology of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whom we have been given scant information about in the scriptural record. He concludes the chapter arguing:

A challenge facing the Catholic Church is to address the unreality of doctrine and the excesses of Marian devotion. … It can do this by acknowledging that Jesus and Mary and each one of us share the same wonderful story – we give human expression to the Divine Presence. Jesus and Mary are more like us than institutional Christianity would ever have us imagine.

14.         Questions about the Cosmic Christ

And if by now you only thought Michael Morwood was serving up something to make the traditionalists and orthodox think twice, in Chapter 14 he offers an alternative view on the modernists who have adopted the “Cosmic Christ” vision of the French Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Michael opens the chapter arguing:

There is a stream of progressive Christian thought based on Paul, and often following Teilhard de Chardin, that frees itself from the fall-redemption story of salvation and promotes an understanding of a “cosmic Christ”. Yet, in some ways, this progressive thought is akin to putting new wine into old wineskins. Its proponents often articulate an understanding of “the Christ” within the framework of a “new story” about the universe and its origins and evolutionary development on earth but at the same time remain rooted, as de Chardin did, in classical, traditional Christological foundations.

At the end of the Chapter, Michael goes on to articulate and summarize in one paragraph the central argument of the entire book:

A much better way would be to rescue Jesus from Paul’s Christology altogether and to see him, as expressed throughout this book, as a human expression of the Divine Presence at work in the universe. We should engage him as friend and companion who reveals the Divine in each of us. This engagement would lead to rightful focus on his teaching about establishing the influence of of the Divine Presence in all human interactions. It is this personal knowing of Jesus that will lead people to move beyond the constraints of doctrine and make Christianity relevant to the modern world.

15.         The Way Ahead

The story isn’t all negative. Hundreds of millions might be streaming out of the doors of the institutional Church across the Western world because the institution no longer speaks their language. There is discernable now in the world a growing movement of people beginning to meet in small communities, perhaps much like in the earliest times of Christianity — and perhaps with similar uncertainty as those people had — trying to make sense of the story of thisJesus fellow who has had such an impact on the lives of so many. As in the early Church these groups find challenges and conflicts. This final chapter of Michael’s book draws on his experience conversing with these groups, and the people who lead them, to outline some of the pitfalls in establishing an ecclesia — not “a church” but a gathering of like-minded people who are enamoured of what this “son of man” and “son of God” has to offer each of us for our life journey.

I can only highly recommend this book. You won’t necessarily agree with all the arguments in it — and I hope to prove that tomorrow by bringing you Brian Pitt’s alternative reading, especially of the middle chapters and the criticism of Paul’s Christology — but if this book doesn’t make you think about what you truly believe nothing will. It’s a book to challenge, and paradixocially strengthen, the very foundations of your faith! The book is not recommended reading for hierarchs and fttms who believe it is faithfulness to the magisterium rather than faithfulness to Jesus and the Divine which he manifests which leads to salvation and the fulfilment of this life.

Brian Coyne, 07 May 2013


Brian Coyne is the editor and publisher of Catholica.

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©2013Brian Coyne


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