Ronald Rolheiser offers a rose-tinted view of the faith, argues Fr Sean Finnegan
Against the Infinite Horizon by Ronald Rolheiser, Hodder & Stoughton, £6.99
SEVERAL PEOPLE IN the various parishes I have served have told me how helpful they find Fr Rolheiser's writings. A young Catholic doctor spoke with great enthusiasm of this writer, so I took this book on retreat with me recently. I read it with great interest and enjoyment, but also puzzlement. This book is a collection of bite-sized chunks of assorted wisdom, collected into themes: death, social justice, sin, sex and so forth. I have dipped into Fr Rolheiser's articles before, but never read him en masse, as it were.
The experience was interesting. He is obviously an intelligent and thoughtful man, and I have enjoyed this trip through his concerns with him, but one must not read the book expecting any sort of systematic treatment of any subject. This is a collection of animadversions which seem to be simply expansions on whatever happens to be filling his mind at any moment. One must not look for a complete guide to "what the Church teaches" on any particular subject.
This, although it would be unfair to expect anything too systematic in something that is not a work of theology, is a weakness. I found myself irritated that when dealing with the subject of death (the meditations are generally wholesome and quite thought-provoking), he never cares to even mention the unpopular ideas of Hell or purgatory, or praying for the dead. He writes sensitively and movingly on the recent death of some close family members. Now, I'm not for one moment suggesting that he ought to be considering Hell, or even purgatory, for his family coping with a bereavement can be quite difficult enough but these doctrines are very much part of our consciousness, not to speak of the consciousness of the recently-bereaved Catholic, or the Catholic preparing to die.
My experience as a priest shows me this, and I am surprised that Fr Rolheiser has not regularly encountered the same thing. Pastorally they need addressing, nut ignoring. These things are also teachings of the Church: we commonly regard them as the truth. One assumes that the subject simply did not occur to him when he was writing the articles. Later in the book he writes very sensibly indeed on the subject of Hell: "Hell is not full of people spending eternity regretting their mistakes on earth... but looking with disdain and pity at those poor naïve folk who have been duped into heaven."
At other times, he can be over-simplistic. For someone who reminds us several times in the book that he is a Professor of Theology, he makes some surprising and quite unwarranted jumps. In the meditation following that about Hell, he seems to assert that nobody will go to Hell if somebody has loved them on earth. "If we love someone, he or she cannot go to Hell because Christ is loving him or her. If we forgive someone, he or she is forgiven because Christ is forgiving him or her". This, he admits, was regarded as a "wild doctrine", "from Augustine through Pius XII." He puts his idea all down to being in the body of Christ, as St Paul says. Christ forgives in the person of any member of his body.
But if you carry on along those lines, one would have to say that if one sins against someone else, Christ sins against someone else in us: we are not just members of the Mystical Body when we are good. Or it is like saying that the United States is communist because one citizen is communist. One cannot argue from the particular to the universal. And if he is going to disapprove of the teachings of the Church "from Augustine through Pius XII", I begin to wonder whether he and I are in the same religion.
Fr Rolheiser, when he comes to good, down to earth human wisdom, is in his element. I have written many things from his book into my journal for chewing over at leisure. I love his pithy comments like "I have always resented interruptions to my work until I realised that those interruptions were my real work." Now that's useful, and every time the doorbell or telephone rings (as both have several times since I began writing this), I try and remind myself of it and suppress unworthy thoughts of irritation. And I like his stress on marriage being far more than merely sexual expression. How many couples have rushed into marriage on the strength of physical attraction without pausing to ask whether they were even friends?
I suppose, if I may presume to try and enter the author's mind, that he wants to bring spiritual realities down to earth. He gently shies away from most notions of the supernatural or metaphysical. This seems to be Christianity with all the difficult bits left out. He manages to put a rosy glow on some of the most disturbing and difficult facts of life: not an easy feat by any means. It is not surprising that many find this a most palatable spiritual diet. It feels like something new which has evolved out of what we knew as Catholicism: many familiar features, but much that is new and challenging. Me? I'll stay in the dark ages.