By Fr John Zuhlsdorf
Last week we started to look at the usual Profession of Faith or Creed we say during Mass. We continue our drilling into a controversial change in its new, corrected translation which will enter into use in September.
A bit more history. The Council of Nicea (325) produced a Creed expressing an orthodox Faith to which the Fathers adhered. That first Nicene Creed, with its article that Christ was homoousios to patri (Latin: consubstantialis Patri) was expanded at the Council of Constantinople I (381) to account for other heresies dealt with during the intervening years. Both creeds were recited during the Council of Chalcedon (451), which defined that Christ had two perfect natures, divine and human. Amazingly, the official minutes of the Council of Chalcedon survived. That is how we have the text of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Let us now grapple again with the controversial decision in our time to translate the Latin consubstantialis Patri with the Latinate and literal “consubstantial with the Father”, rather than “one in being” (in America) or somewhat better “of one being” (in Britain), or “of one substance” (as some Eastern Catholics say).
Critics of the new translation think that “consubstantial” is too hard for you. I disagree. The difficult bits are why Holy Church has teachers.
Fr Aidan Nichols OP, in his Criticising the Critics (2010), offers succinct refutations of arguments used by different groups of rationalistic modernists who negatively criticise the Church and Catholic Christianity. The book is a logical continuation of The Realm: an Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England (2008), in which he argues that if a rapidly secularising English society is going to survive, society – not just individuals must re-discover and reconvert to the traditional Catholic faith.
In his section on feminism in Criticising the Critics Fr Nichols argues that the Creed shows how “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” are, as it were, proper names for the Persons of the Trinity. He explodes the feminist proposition that God the Father’s divine fatherhood is merely a culturally conditioned metaphor, and therefore dispensable. This obviously cut the legs from under feminists and other liturgical emasculators who spurn male pronouns. God the Father generates. God the Son is generated. God the Son is Theos ek Theou, Deus de Deo, God from God. Our belief in how we are saved (soteriology) depends on who the true God-made-man Christ is and what He did.
Fr Nichols offers something about our present question of “consubstantial” (my emphases): “The ... question [ie, Jesus of Nazareth was hypostatically united to the Godhead] when put in the soteriological fashion characteristic of the Church’s Creeds is charged with existential and practical import for human life and destiny. It is the question, Do the deeds of Jesus Christ as wrought for our salvation have, in the last analysis, only exemplary and morally inspirational value? Or have they actually changed the terms on which the gift of human life is received from God since in those deeds one who was himself personally divine was active precisely so as to re-order the origin, life-resources and final destiny of human beings? The second alternative is the correct one – and why it is vital for the Church to maintain that the incarnate Son has all the prerogatives of God, letting her discourse be controlled by that key word homoousion, introduced by the bishops of Nicea. It is an indispensable term, carrying as it does the twofold affirmation that, first, the Son is of identically the same being as the Father (without which he could not save us), and second, the Son is eternally distinct from the Father (without which the divine being could not be known to be endlessly fruitful in itself, and, by dependence on its inherent nature, endlessly fruitful in the free act of our creation.” Fr Nichols wrote, “of identically the same being as the Father”, which is a teacher’s explanation, not a liturgically appropriate translation.
When Catholics fall into a fuzzy view of who Christ is there is a greater risk that they will slide into errors about how we are saved, with detrimental effects down the line for their ecclesial identity, moral choices and subsequent Judgment.
Our beliefs condition our choices in life. How we pray conditions our beliefs.
We, as Catholics, know that Christ is not merely the enfleshed mode or expression of an indivisible godhead. Jesus is a distinct divine Person who has also “identically the same being as the Father”. The precise and attention-grabbing English “consubstantial” is closer to the way the Latin Church has always rendered homoousios. It is not in Joe and Mary Bagofdoughnuts’s common word inventory. It provides an advantageous entrée to our work of catechising about this article of our Faith. It’s hard, but not too hard.