Restructuring The Church Into Their Own Image: RENEW Bible Studies

This article originally appeared in the Wanderer Forum Foundation’s Quarterly in 1992. We find that the analysis herein is worth revisting today:

  • When Mr. Morriss spoke of “restructuring” the Church then, do you see it around you today?
  • What about his treatment of bible studies — was he right?
  • Have you encountered this today?

This article may have been first published 21 years ago, but it has a lot to offer for today. Put your answers in the comments below.

The Link Between RENEW and
the New Biblical Scholarship

Wars, some experts say, are decided ultimately at one place and by one tactic that succeeds or fails. Thus, Pickett’s repulse at Gettysburg, the entrapment of British forces between the Americans on land and the French fleet at sea, the delay of Napoleon’s supporting generals at Waterloo, the successful defense of Stalingrad against Hitler’s armies, and so forth.

It is clear, as I shall show, that the tactic of dissidents. reformers, and “renewalists” within the Catholic Church today is to destroy the structure of the Catholic Church as it was established and “restructure” that Church in their own image. (The term “restructure” is a clever one giving the impression that what is sought is merely remodeling, a modernization as it were of an outdated style of architecture; actually complete demolition and total rebuilding is what these revolutionists plan.)


Any true ontologist (ontology – the science of ultimate being, i.e., of essential realities) will hold that structure reflects a being’s nature. It makes possible the fulfillment of a being’s purpose. Government is the structure of nationhood, senses are the structure of living creatures, members the structure of corporations, and so forth. Some structures may be superficially different within a species, but there is always structure that is dictated by nature. The study of DNA and genetics is making that clear in regard to biological structures, with the frightening possibility that the functioning of created nature may be purposely altered or thwarted by genetic manipulation, just as such functioning is sometimes interfered with by genetic accident.


Vatican II upholds the relationship of the nature of the Church to its structure.

In the Old Testament the revelation of the kingdom had often been conveyed by figures of speech. In the same way the inner nature of the Church was now to be made known to us through various images (Lumen Gentium I, 6).

The Council then presents the images of the sheep fold, the field of God (the vineyard), the edifice of God, the spotless spouse of Christ, the Mystical Body of Christ. Chapter II brings from the most ancient times the image of a People who have God as their monarch.

The immediately following chapter (III) becomes more concrete in this study of the Church’s nature by presenting what is titled “The Hierarchical Structure of the Church, With Special Reference to the Episcopate.” The Council here reaffirms the divine origin of the Episcopacy as taught by Vatican I and the divinely intended continuity of that Episcopacy (Lumen Gentium III, 18).

In the same passage Vatican II accepted and represented all that Vatican I taught about the primacy and infallibility of the Popes as Vicars of Christ, who, together with Bishops, “govern the house of the living God.” All of this will be looked at more closely and its significance pointed out later in this essay.


The insistence on restructuring the Church was present almost from the first moment after the Second Vatican Council, and indeed was attempted within the Council itself, but failed when brought to the attention of Pope Paul VI. (See the Forum Newsletter, vol. II, no. I, “A Papal ‘Nota Bene’ Invites Us to Historic Role.”)

The dissidents recognized that a structure that would reflect a shift of authority from the Hierarchy, and particularly from the Pope. would better serve their purposes than the structure as it was divinely established. These purposes are often disguised as the need to better present “the gospel message” (as interpreted, of course, by the dissidents themselves) or to make the Church “more authentic” or to gain concessions the dissidents feel necessary for personal integrity or human “liberation.”

In 1966, Fr. Charles Davis forsook the Church and the practice of his priesthood, later calling his desertion “creative disaffiliation.”

It was my purpose in leaving the Roman Church publicly and advocating a policy to proclaim loud and clear that it was not enough to ignore the institutional church, its teaching, policies and action, desiring various clever ways of circumventing its authority. If there is to be any lasting reform, the hierarchical structure must be brought to the ground. George Tyrrell remarked, ‘if the Roman church can not be reformed, she will be a standing men ace to civilization and religion’ (Address to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, 1992).

The erstwhile British Jesuit and theologian goes on to comment:

It is my contention that no effectual reform will be achieved until a Christian consensus is established for the rejection of the hierarchical concept of authority and for the acceptance of a new concept of church as based upon freedom, equality and mutual sharing (National Catholic Reporter, 2792).

Davis cites recent examples of “creative disaffiliation,” though not carrying that name: “… the emergence of base communities, the creation of WomenChurch or alternative feminist ecciesial communities, the open rejection of the papal teaching on contraception.” (Loyal Catholics are some times faulted for recognizing the heresy of Modern ism in this dissent. Note, however, that the George Tyrrell quoted above by Davis was a British Jesuit excommunicated in the original outbreak of Modernism.)

Gregory Baum – before he left the practice of priesthood and married (as did Davis) – saw the Church broadened to embrace every person in the world (the whole “human family”) regardless of belief:
This will eventually demand an adaptation of the Church’s sacramental and collegial! structure (The Credibility of the Church Today, Herder & Herder, N.Y., 1968. p. 210).

Baum sees this as coming about through “structural development,” and claims the Canon Law Society of America is working on legal credentials for such development. He cites various IDOC papers on “Structures of the Church of Tomorrow.” (References to IDOC appear in the Foruin Documentation “An Unholy Alliance,” vol. IV, nos. 34, 1990.)

In 1967 an early malcontent, James Colaianni, interviewed Fr. James Schallert, S.J., at the University of San Francisco. Here is what the Jesuit had to say about the hierarchical structure in direct contradiction to Vatican 11’s teaching that such structure is divinely created and given the Church at its beginning:

… the Catholic Church is that event which has grown and developed in the family of man, under the direction of God, and which still grows and develops from within itself out to ward the world around it. In the history of this event, or this presence, there have been many organizational forms, some of which have been democratic. We didn’t have hierarchies in the early Church at all. Hierarchies came much later, in the seventh or eighth century. So, to say that the Catholic Church, which we know as a historical phenomenon, is a hierarchically constructed Church is to make a big mistake. Only a piece of it has been that way (The Catholic Left, Chilton, Philadelphia, 1968, p. 105).

Colaianni, by the way, went on to become executive director of the Liturgical Conference in Washington, D.C., where he could strike a blow against the practice of “building oneself up to some sort of spiritual orgasm by looking at the altar and whispering sweet nothings into Jesus’ ear,” in favor of a liturgy “educating” people, presumably to accept Schallert’s idea that Church is an event. (See Colaianni,ibid., p. 26.)

These are only a few examples of the lactic used by dissenters, malcontents, dissidents, “reformers” and assorted neo-modernists – the demand for restructuring the Church into an organization that welcomes all views, all “lifestyles,” without dogmatism or any judgmental code of morality, into essentially what most Protestant denominations have become. Such organizations serve egotism, exhibitionism, and self-validating brashness.

Use of the term “structure” spoken with contempt and the term “restructure” as a great note of progress and spiritual discernment are on every side. Hardly any issue of the National Catholic Reporter, Concilium, and various other “progressive” publications is without promotion of this tactic. In an issue of the Reporter following its publication of Davis’ address (2792) letters picked up the theme:

(In favor of base communities) – Now that the conversion of Russia is well on the way, let us pray for the conversion of the last, great totalitarian holdout in the world today – Rome – that it may not be a ‘stumbling block’ to the people of God.

And another:

It is to this end (structural reform) that ARCC (Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church) sponsored in the spring of 1991 the first of a series of governance within the church, including the idea of a constitution for the church. …

And another:

Structures, such as patriarchal hierarchies, are not means of dealing with sin, as some of our brothers and sisters would like to believe, but are themselves part of our sinfulness. . . .

Obviously these opinions have derived from the opinions of the new theologians. Sometimes they are presented either as actual teaching by Vatican II or a legitimate derivation therefrom. A Franciscan sister (recognizable as such only by selfidentiftcation) at a meeting of other directors of religious education in the Denver Archdiocese recently spoke to the point that Vatican II has “turned the pyramid (representing hierarchical structure in the Church) upside down.” Sister was making the point that now the laity are in the position once granted the Pope, and the Pope and his fellow bishops were beneath. Challenged to cite where in Vatican II she found this revolutionary idea. Sister replied, “Well, I’m not a theologian.” Apparently she had imbibed this error from those who are held out to be theologians – the. Schailerts, Baums, Davises, etc.


There has been, however, some post-conciliar appreciation for hierarchical structure, though it is rare and receives little attention, understandably because it flouts the neo-modernist ethos so prominent to day. In contrast to his fellow Jesuit Schallert, Fr. Otto Semmelroth, S.J., has this to say:

The Church as institution and structure is the sign that the Church does not originate from an arbitrary and self-willed congregation of men, as if all those individuals who as such had been spoken to by God had subsequently formed themselves into a union called Church. No, the Church is institution because it is from above. It is the recipient, established by Jesus, of the word of God’s revelation, which is directed to it as the ‘bride of Christ,’ whose children, individual men and women, then experience this revelation as ‘children’ of this bride. The Church does not exist because men believe and associate with one another as believers. Rather, because there is such a thing as the structured Church founded by Christ, men know where they can encounter the God who reveals Him self in Jesus Christ. Only that man is a true believer who accepts this Church of Jesus Christ and is willing to accept in it and through its preaching that which God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ (In Toward a Theology of Christian Faith – Readings in Theology, P. J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1968. p. 124).

Attacks upon the hierarchical authority of the Catholic Church, particularly in the office of the Supreme Pontiff, are nothing new. An attack upon the Papal primacy and Papal infallibility by Dr. F. N. Oxenham in 1902 had the happy result of eliciting a brilliant reply by Rafael Merry del Val, then titular Archbishop of Nicaea. Part of his rebuttal to the English chaplain in Rome is pertinent for us now, for it goes to the indispensability of Papal primacy and infallibility especially in the light of images that would be employed by Vatican II 60 years later:

Now with these texts (Matt. xvi, John xxi, Luke xxii) before us, we hold, in union with the Vatican Council (Vatican 1), that the Church, typified by Christ as an EDIFICE, as a KINGDOM, as a FOLD, rests upon S. Peter, to whom ‘the keys of the kingdom’ were given, that it is led and provided with proper food by S. Peter, to whom the care of the whole flock was committed; a care which, our Lord says, was to be extended to the sheep as well as the lambs, to the chief members of the flock, therefore, as well as to those who are dependent upon them. If the metaphors chosen by Christ Himself mean anything – and will Dr. Oxenham dare to assert that they mean little or nothing? – they must signify what we have just explained, and accordingly, as we shall have occasion to point out, all the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have held this doctrine of S. Peter’s supremacy, which, let us remember is the matter at issue. . . .

First then, if Christ, the Divine Founder of the Church, the Cornerstone and Rock of the EDIFICE, the Divine Head and Ruler of the KINGDOM of heaven, the Divine Shepherd of the FLOCK, bestows separately and individually upon one of His disciples His own title, and calls him the ROCK of the EDIFICE here on earth; if He grants to that disciple the special powers of the RULER, by handing to him the Keys; if He, as the Divine Shepherd, on the eve of His Ascension, commits the care of His whole FLOCK to that particular disciple, with the powers of ruling and of feeding – what. I ask, can be more evident than that Christ is here constituting an Office which is part of the very constitution of His Church, the necessary condition of Its stability and of Its strength, and of Its unity? (The Truth of Papal Claims, Sands and Co., London, 1902, pp. 12-13).

Later, discussing infallibility of the Pope, the future Cardinal Merry del Val, wrote:

Nor is it admissible that the supremacy and infallibility of S. Peter depend upon the acceptance or approval of those who were committed to his care to be sustained, to be governed, and to be fed. For the Church was not established after the manner of a Parliament, and if the Rock, the Ruler, and the Shepherd were to be dependent upon the votes or the approval of those who are committed to his care, the whole principle and constitution of the Church established by Christ would be overturned, and the Rock would rest on the edifice, not the edifice upon the Rock; the Keys would be in the hands of the subjects and not under the control of the Ruler; the flock would feed the Shepherd, in stead of the Shepherd feeding the flock (Ibid., pp. 20-21).

None of this leaves room for laity who wish to claim they are the Church, or for dismissing priests as unnecessary for the purposes of “priestless communities.” Nowhere in this explication is elevation of the laity over the ordained, or an up-turning of the hierarchical pyramid so that the laity are on the top where traditionally the Pope is conceived as presiding.

Not even the notoriously “updated” so-called Dutch Catechism gives any comfort to considering the People of God an escape from the hierarchical structure:

These last words (‘whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’) show very clearly the great authority given to the Apostles. The terms bind and loose mean both to declare something permissible or forbidden, and to ban (excommunicate) someone or to admit him once more to fellowship. Thus the authority in question is that which is essential in a community – to be able to say what may or may not be done, and who belongs to it and who does not.

The word ‘whatever’ shows how wide are these powers. In Matthew, the word ‘heaven’ is a substitute for ‘God.’ Hence anything that the Apostles bind or loose is bound or loosed in the reality of the divine sphere (A New Catechism, Herder & Herder. N.Y., 1967. p. 139).


If structure is the battlefield chosen by the dissenters and malcontents for victory over what they see as totalitarianism, “The People of God” is their battle cry, meaning for them and many influenced by them that the Church must be just what Merry del Val said it cannot become – a self-governing, self-teaching, self-sustaining, and restructured community of equals.

There is not, however, anything in the image of God’s people, historically, doctrinally, or by explication of Vatican II that would justify that populist, egalitarian, and revolutionary vision of Christ’s Church. Indeed, what Vatican II does say in this regard indicates that the People of God exist in the totally hierarchical structure, and not as a revision of that structure or an overturning of it. This messianic People is united in a covenant of Christ’s Blood. Christ is its Head and has purchased it with His Blood. This People is Christ’s Bride. It is made up of Christ’s disciples, who present themselves as a living sacrifice holy and pleasing to God. It has a ministerial and hierarchical priesthood different from but interrelated with, a priesthood of all who make it up. This People is fed by those consecrated in holy orders. It has different peoples and various internal ranks. The Chair of Peter presides over all, even those divisions within the Church that are called Churches. Within this People’s ranks are priests who alone “can complete the building up of the body in the Eucharistic Sacrifice.”

If more of today’s “People of God” would read explanations of that term by Fr. Charles W. Paris and less about it by the McBriens, Schillebeeckxs, and Kungs, the antinomian and anarchistic under standings (or rather misunderstandings) of what Vatican II mean would be greatly overcome:

If the spirit of the new catechetics is to refind salvation within the solidarity of community – a ‘People of God,’ as was the concept in the Israel of old and the major part of the Christian era – emphasis on organization and objectivity in religious existence is proper, for these qualities are not contrary to community but are of its essence; an ordered social structure requires the authority of law and demands obedience to law as necessities of its life. for the absence of law and obedience is disorder, anarchy. A thriving People of God therefore supposes a legal base and a fidelity to lawful authority by all members. Abrogation of law is the introduction of lawlessness, and law is expressed in recognizable authority.

An appeal to objective community (the God centered, peaceful assembly of the pre-sin Eden) and at the same time a demand for a subjective moral judgment which overrides both objective law and transcending authority (the self-centered turbulence of the Babel tower) is contradictory and self-defeating (Biblical Catechetics After Vatican II, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1971, p. 150).


Those hoping for the restructuring of the Church into their own image have already moved to deploy ing the People of God into cadres for this purpose, with the explanation that since Vatican II every baptized person is “Church,” so that “you are Church, I am Church,” etc.

Programs are conceived for such cadres and given catchy names, and often are marketed at considerable price. To be remembered is Genesis II, and present with us now is the “Renew” program which its innovators have stereotyped by using capital letters, hence RENEW. These are all presented in benign terms and definitions, and in fact some could have either desirable or even salutary effect, if used properly. However, evidence shows that they often undermine both the divinely ordained structure of the Catholic Church and the operations of that structure, becoming vehicles for misidentification of the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man. They are complementary in the Catholic Church with movements in the Protestant denominations such as Harvey Cox’s The Secular City, movements that have left little of religion and much of empty communitarianism, humanism, and socialization in place of religions once founded on doctrinal and religious positions. It is to be considered that in the Catholic Church such movements will tend to have a similar result, not increasing spirituality or doctrinal significance, not preserving meaningful Catholic reality, but draining Catholic reality of its health and effectiveness.

RENEW was begun more than a decade ago in the Newark Archdiocese with the original stated purpose of making participation in parish operations and purposes broader and more effective. This purpose soon broadened to formation of small groups for study, operation, and influence within the parish. Restructuring was thus under way. Circumstances might allow an individual pastor or an individual RE NEW leader to put the operation at the service of the Church and its traditional authority. But the blue print could just as well allow for interposing a claimed “authority” of the participants as over and against Hierarchical authority, and for the explanation of the Catholic faith distant from or even at odds with traditional definition and acceptance by the true Magisterium. Such groups become a platform and forum for ideology that could never Find acceptance and voice in the traditional parish.

This is quite clear from an amazing report some months ago in the From the Mail department of the Wanderer newspaper (Jan. 30th, 1992). A Detroit priest, Fr. Art Baranowski, member of the national RENEW office, gave a two-day workshop in Helena, Mont., on how to “vision” small faith communities and to “process” them into existence. An eyewitness at the workshop said Fr. Baranowski presented this process as having been “developed for restructuring parishes.”

The First step is to present the purpose as having to do with living, not religion. The second phase is to form an I 1week “prayer module” that will there after become biweekly faith community gatherings, and then “churches in miniature.” One member trains to be liaison with the pastor, who presumably will have kept aloof from all this restructuring of “his” parish. Those leading this effort are “visionaries.”

What should these visionaries do if, by chance, the pastor objects to this appearance of “mini churches” in his parish? Being visionaries, they should, says the RENEW official, do what they want regardless of what Father pastor thinks:

Even if your pastor and staff aren’t for this, do something. Everybody can start one small group. You don’t need anybody’s permission. You’re just bringing people together to share faith. Anybody can do that.

Now many heresies have functioned this way – particularly that of Wycliffe, and his charismatic Lollards. The original Methodist break with Anglicanism happened thus. Though there is no reason people may not form groups to practice their faith, when such groups substitute for a parish and substitute other leadership for the pastor, interposing themselves between the pastor’s authority, then clearly a schism and most likely a heresy is underway. It is not a question of superficial remodeling of structure; it is demolition of a traditional authoritative structure and replacement of it with an unauthorized and alien structure. Any “community’ must conform to the will of Christ, and we know that will through the Church He formed and left . Good News to preach, commissioning authorities to guide it.

The laity (and clergy, for that matter) must operate within the vision, guidance, and instruction o that authority, or Magisterium. There can be no private Catholic or autonomous Catholic, nor can then be acceptable communities of private and autonomous Catholics. There can be no charismatic bestowal of authority and leadership that is not con firmed by the officially chosen and recognized Catholic authority.

The late Henri de Lubac, S.J., wrote about the temptation to reject or accept the Catholic Church on one’s own terms, and not on the basis of what the Catholic Church is. He did not place under this temptation all criticism of the human failings that deform, or better, besmirch, the Church militant. But he might have been writing about some RENEW “visionaries” and substitute pastors in this passage:

As far as the superior type of man can see, everything in the Church is low-grade. But ‘power sorts well with this poor quality’ – in fact it sorts well with it alone. The idealized forms in which that kind of man finds such satisfaction seem higher and purer to him only because they are the product of his own thought. It does not matter whether he is seeking in them an instrument for the fashioning of a rich personality which is both integrated and forceful; or a reference frame for interpreting the universe with; or a springboard from which to project himself beyond the limits which enclose the human condition. In each and every case they are equally powerless; they cannot even begin to change his own heart. For all its apparent sublimity the thought of the superior man is no more than a mirror in which he admires himself and which in consequence holds him hypnotized in vanity (“Our Temptations Concerning the Church,” in Contemporary Catholic Thought: Sheed & Ward. New York, 1963, p. 272 – Originally in de Lubac’s The Splendor of the Church).

De Lubac points out that Newman found the Catholic Church unattractive in many ways even at the moment of his reception into it. “… To Newman, Catholicism had everywhere the appearance of a thing beaten by life, and all the sorrier a Figure because it trailed after it so many ironic relics of a recent splendor. It could have no human attraction whatsoever for the onetime Fellow of Oriel. . . Yet Newman was never to regret for a moment his conversion to this Church to which he was so ill tuned, even when he found within it the thorns of a journey through a wilderness, where he found him self an outcast. For it is only there he could become as much as possible what Christ was – an unattractive, beaten, and bloodied criminal who was executed by those who should have loved Him.”

De Lubac also reminds of the Victorious of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Victorinus was a proud and successful Roman senator who thought himself a Christian, until he was rebuked by Simplicianus for remaining “outside the wails.” Victorinus wanted to be a Christian on his own terms, terms that would not alienate him from his peers, nor bring any opprobrium upon him. It was a long time until he understood what Simplicianus urged upon him, and lost himself among the humble flock of the faithful. Thus he is remembered as a “Catholic.” and not merely a brilliant philosopher.

The fact is many are attracted to RENEW because they Find the Catholic Church as it is, unattractive. They won’t follow the example of Newman or Victorinus. They don’t mind being a RENEW Catholic, but they don’t want to be simply a Catholic. The Church does not hold out enough for them and their thoughts and ambitions. They need something richer. Thus, always, the hunger of the gnostics and the ambitions of the Pentecostalists. Traditional Revelation is not enough; they must have the very latest “revelation,” the very newest explanation. They feel Christ must perform the miracle of New Wine at every gathering they choose to lead or to attend.

Thus RENEWalists consider themselves “Church.” The Church is too judgmental, rigid. They must be among those who understand there is no sure course of duty or doctrine that binds. They do not wish to be bothered by common thought or reason, but to be led by personal sense or feeling, making tor them every step they take significant and secure. As Carol Jackson Robinson wrote about it, “We must all dance to their fiddling while Rome burns and the country collapses. (“RENEW: On Site Training for Becoming the American Church.” Wanderer, March 15th, 1984.)

RENEW is practice for a Church in which the laity run their own religious affairs, and priests. Bishops and Pope exist to ratify their decisions and approve of their self-direction.


A body of literature is growing up around RE NEW, as it has always done around similar movements. This literature has two benefits – it propagandizes and it also brings considerable wealth into the coffers of the restructionists, if such a word exists or I may coin it. Sometimes, however, such literature reveals more than it should for the movement’s good.

Thus, the RENEW copyrighted book Small Christian Communities (Paulist Press, Mahwah, N.J.) though professing such communities serve traditional authority, reveals that what they would do is take over direction of parishes. RENEWalists, though perhaps a minority and not having majority agreement, would set the direction and practice of their faith by parishioners. Join what is said below in Small Christian Communities and what Fr. Baranowski so injudicially admitted in Helena (see above) and it is evident the pastor, the true authority and teacher of parishioners, will either be brought to agreement or be swept aside by the movement and its “visionaries”:

Any pastoral direction flows from a long term, ideal vision which inspires and motivates people to strive for its realization. A pastoral direction clarifies the vision by giving a sense of direction and energizes those carrying it out by giving a sense of purpose. It does not define the total picture but gives a desired goal toward which to move. . . .

While not every parishioner will participate in a small community, the pastoral direction will serve everyone. Ultimately the richness of faith lived in the small community setting will spread to every aspect of parish life and beyond (p. 49).

We are told elsewhere in the same RENEW manual what some of this vision to be given parishioners by the small communities concerns:

. .. Greater sensitivity to women and to the feminine dimension of God and life . . . a spirituality that includes ecological sensitivity (p. 43).

Father Thomas Berry. C.P., is cited as a guide for the latter concern:

He claims that it is now time for the most significant change that Christian spirituality has yet experienced. This change is part of a much more comprehensive change in human consciousness brought about by the discovery of the evolutionary story of the universe. In speaking about a new cosmology he reminds us that we are the earth come to consciousness and, therefore, we are connected to the whole living community – that is, all people, animals, plants and the living organism of planet earth itself (p. 43).

It is evident that the small community approach with its seizure of direction from the authority of the teaching Church itself can – and in this case shall – make of parishes cells of Matthew Fox’s creation, cosmic Christ religion and lend sympathy to the most radical ideas of the Gaia and Green movements. All of this is part of what the RENEW manual calls “going beyond privatized spirituality,” presumably the spirituality that marked parishes be fore the coming of the RENEW, small communities “visionaries.”

Though we have a Catholic magisterium to issue challenges that we can trust flow from Christ’s doc trine, small Catholic communities will ask us to accept the vision and interpretation of self-appointed teachers, often influenced by this or that theologian or guru, be it Thomas Berry, Matthew Fox, Harvey Cox, Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan, Karl Marx, Jean Jacques Rousseau, or whomever.

The RENEWalists. however, face one problem – the existence of a Church whose foundation and authority are explained by a revealed tradition and written Scripture. This revelation, both spoken and written, ascribes the Church and ail its authority to Christ Himself, as discussed above concerning the commissioning of Peter as Rock, as pastor of lambs and sheep, and holder of the Keys.

Thus the RENEW movement is sympathetic to, and symbiotic with. modern Biblical “scholarship” and some of its pretensions:

As we look at the concept of story in relation ship to small Christian communities, we note certain elements:

  • When we tell our faith stories we are telling how God is acting in our lives. . . . It is often in the telling itself that we experience the Spirit’s presence. . . .
  • As we listen to one another we have a sense of the Spirit acting in the community.

In other words, the small RENEW communities have an ongoing revelation recounted in “story,” just as the Gospels were supposed to be. In separating the Gospels of the Evangelists from those contemporaries, and in the case of John and Matthew eyewitnesses of Christ’s career, and sinking the to later “faith communities,” the literalness and integrity of the Gospel accounts are called into question. They become stories of Christ’s own stories.

Fortunately for the restructionists, and perhaps intentionally, what is accepted today as Biblical scholarship is lending support to this revision Catholic acceptance of the Evangelists as authors the Scripture’s New Testament, and of the inerrancy of that Scripture as taught by the Church.


The New American Bible is a product of this scholarship. Literature accompanying this translation and provided by its publisher. Harper & Row (San Francisco) supports both the small communities promoting liberation theology but also the small communities of activist ‘ ‘visionaries” who promote social justice as the Church’s principal business:

A Liberation Model in Jesus’ Ministry

… The link between ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ salvation has already been seen in the ministry of Jesus….

By healing the (paralytic man’s) body and spirit Jesus clearly reflects the Hebrew under standing of the unitary nature of human life; body and spirit are not to be treated in isolation from one another. …(New American Bible Study Program – Resource Book, 1990, P. 39).

Even more “pro-liberation” is the same resource book’s view of the incident in Nazareth when Jesus in the synagogue read the passage about Isaiah pertaining to the Messiah.

This was a message of release for oppressed people (Ibid., p. 37).

Jesus’ interpretative comments turned his hearers against him, and they ejected him from the village. . . . The passages told of salvation for gentiles, and this implication was unpopular with the listeners in Nazareth (Ibid., p. 37).

The traditional, pre-RENEW interpretation was that the Nazarenes heard Christ’s clear claim to be the Messiah and could not bring any faith to such a claim. Elsewhere the New Testament ascribes such a lack of faith in Him as the reason Jesus could not perform miracles in His home village.

In the same resource book’s first appendix we are told that the Gospels “do show the special function of Peter. They do not clearly indicate a continuing office of special authority based on Peter, but neither do they exclude the development of such an office.”

Notice if the latter is the case it is a “development.” That is precisely what the original Modernists, the neo-Modernists, and many of the Anglican and other schismatics insist. It removes one major obstacle to the development of small communities with an authority not dependent upon the Church’s hierarchical structure.

Another obstacle is removed when the leader’s guide of the New American Bible Study Program makes a gratuitous interpretation of a passage in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum:

‘Since, therefore, all that the inspired or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture. Firmly, faithfully, and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scripture.’

So the Catholic notion of inerrancy only applies to the essential message of salvation and does not mean that the human author is free from historical or scientific error (Leader’s Guide, Harper’s, San Francisco, Session 1).


No applicable rule of grammar can demand that interpretation of the Vatican document’s passage. In parsing or diagramming the passage, it is the books of Scripture that teach without error, and what they teach “without error,” is God’s salvational truth. The phrase “that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to sacred Scripture” is not necessarily restrictive of the verb “teach.” Simplified, the passage says that the books of Scripture teach truth given them by God for our salvation, and teach it without error. To gratuitously conclude there is other teaching therein, or material that is beyond and outside that purpose and may therefore be in error, is to conclude too much. That conclusion is made to fit in with modern scholarship.

But this interpretation suits some of the notes in the New American Bible itself, notes that “give a spin” on the Gospels, to borrow a very up-to-date idiom.

For example:

  • A note to the threefold profession of love by Peter in John 21 says that in Christ’s reply there is a “remarkable variety” of “synonyms.” But it refrains from giving the traditional meaning of the passage – Christ’s bestowal of complete jurisdiction of all in His flock to Peter and His successors. Instead, it simply attributes such an interpretation to Vatican I, which cited the pas sage, an interpretation accepted by Vatican II, incidentally.
  • A note on the Pentecostal incident which has Peter delivering a long and successful sermon to the throngs gathered at the house where the Apostles were staying dismisses the literalness of the account. “It is likely that the narrative telescopes events that took place over a period of time and on a less dramatic scale.” The effect of this “confirmation” of the Apostles is diminished when the note tells us, “The Twelve were not originally in a position to proclaim publicly the messianic office of Jesus without incurring immediate reprisal. …”
  • An introduction to John’s Gospel questions the authorship of it attributed by tradition to the “apostle” loved by Jesus. It suggests he might have been only one who preserved and preached “basic tradition” about Jesus. Thus the value of an eyewitness account is watered down.
  • The introduction to Peter’s first Epistle cites equally with the traditional insistence on Peter’s authorship a 19th century theory of “pseudonymous” authorship.
  • A note to Matthew’s account of Joseph’s decision to remain with Mary calls into question the literalness of the role ascribed to an angelic messenger who spoke to Joseph in a dream.
  • A note to Mark’s reporting of the words of Christ about the second coming explains that they indicate only the Father knows of the time of that event. This would ascribe ignorance to Christ, without taking into consideration the possibility Jesus was protecting a secret necessary for the welfare of His people. It is certain Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity knew and knows all things; it is an acceptable explanation that Jesus in His human intellect knew the time through the beatific vision. What He was saying was that it was not part of the knowledge given Him for His mission by the Father, and therefore not to be revealed.

The effect of all of this is to suggest “reason to divorce authority in Christ’s People, the Church, from the understanding of that authority through Tradition and Scripture. If the written Scripture cannot be taken historically, as telling literal truth about what Christ said and did, then the Church becomes the sum total of the experience of those claiming membership. They can receive commissions as the early Christians did from the Holy Spirit. Authority becomes a charism, totally, and its bestowal is not limited to the Apostolic succession. The Hierarchical structure becomes a human construct.

Thus it can be maintained that now is the time to restructure the Church in a democratic, populist direction, with “visionaries” commissioned by a feeling of having received the charism of leadership replacing the authoritative leadership as established by Christ – the priesthood – represented in its full ness by Bishops, and also in those ordained by Bishops.

The written evidence for this establishment is in the accounts of the four Evangelists, which also tell the life of Christ from eyewitnesses, in two cases and from immediate investigators of His life, in two other cases. The new Biblical “scholarship,” how ever, calls into question the authenticity of those accounts, divorcing them both from immediate witnesses and from history as fact. Thus the structure of the Church as told in those accounts is shake the Hierarchy, even the priesthood, becomes a creation of history itself, of those who experience faith, rather than a creation of Christ acting as a matter of fact and doing so directly.


Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, member of the Catholic Biblical Society and sometime president of Society of Biblical Scholarship, discussed the direction of Biblical scholarship since World War II an address to a meeting of the Theological Institute at Villanova University, she discussed the contemporary historical-critical interpretation of the Bible. Whereas the historical method discusses “whether the miracles of the New Testament) could have happened or whether they happened as they are told, the historical-theological approach debates whether miracle-faith is a genuine Christian expression of faith or whether it shares too much in the magic beliefs of the times. …”

In sum, in reinterpreting their traditions, the Biblical writers do not follow the doctrinal or historicist paradigm but the paradigm of pastoral and practical theology, insofar as the concrete pastoral situation of the community is determinative for the selection, transmission, and creation of Biblical traditions. (Ms. Fiorenza cites her own essay “For the Sake of Our Salvation. Biblical Interpretation as a Theological Task,” in Sin, Salvation and the Spirit,Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn., 1979) – (Emphasis of the word creation added.)

She has this advice for “Biblical students,” which fits in exactly with the functioning of the small communities as given in RENEW materials discussed above:

Biblical students . . . should not be trained just in historical-critical analysis, but also learn to reflect methodologically on their own presuppositions, interests, prejudices, commitments as well as those of scholarly commentators or theological writers. . . .

Such methodology will lead to criteria of evaluation that will include “theoretical and practical commitment to the contemporary struggle for liberation.” Obviously, Biblical interpretation so based can be of immense reinforcement for the purposes of the RENEW communities as given above. The Bible is thus attached to the purposes of these communities and their socially advanced “visionaries.” This is made clear by this conclusion of Ms. Fiorenza:

>History and Biblical interpretation are not written today for people of past times, but for people of our time. The antiquarian, objectivist understanding of Biblical texts and history is not only epistemologically incorrect but also historically undesirable. What needs to be recovered is the understanding of history, not as artifact, but as historical consciousness for people of the present. (This and the other quotations from Ms. Fiorenza’s paper may be found in Modern Biblical Scholarship: Its impact on Theology and Proclamation, edited by Francis A. Eigo, O.S.A.)

lt is small wonder that Sr. Macrina Scott, director of the Catholic Biblical School in the Denver Archdiocese, can report: “Biblical study is the number one request almost all the time in small groups.” The reason is that it is exciting to learn that you are living out an extension of Biblical experience, and that even past Biblical experience can be brought to serve your own present conclusions. Thus Norbertine Fr. Alfred McBride can say:

RENEW has been a preliminary step in returning to Scripture. By the time the program ends in its third year, the idea of using Scripture to continue the work of renewal arises. . .

RENEW opened the door to deeper spirituality and a more active practice of the faith.

Whether this will be truly Catholic spirituality and Catholic faith is, however, doubtful. It will not be faith in the inerrancy of Scripture, or the factuality of Scriptural accounts of events in Christ’s life, particularly miracles. It would not be acceptance of«the Hierarchical structure of the Church as it is traditionally accepted. It won’t be an unswerving allegiance to Papal or even clerical direction.

The interaction between modern Biblical Scholarship and RENEW “restructuring” will have made sure of that. The start of the battle to dismantle the structure of the Church will have been won by the restructionists. The conclusion of the battle lies in the future, its outcome in the workings of the Third Person of the Trinity within Christ’s Mystical Body.

N.B. The very next year, in 1993, the first edition of this book was published — the plan for the restructurists.
Creating Small Faith Communities

This article, Restructuring The Church Into Their Own Image: RENEW Bible Studies is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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Frank J. Morriss, J.D.

Frank Morriss was a board member and frequent contributor to the Wanderer Forum Foundation. He was a well-known name in Catholic journalism. After obtaining his J.D. in 1948 from Georgetown University, he was an associate editor with the Register system of newspapers, 1949-1960, and 1963-1967. During that time he also taught English at Catholic colleges in the Denver area. He was a founding editor of Twin Circle in 1966. He has been a freelance writer since 1967 and a contributing editor to The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly newspaper for over 25 years.

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