Rorate Caeli

The Neo-Modernist Theology of Eberhard Schockenhoff

The Rev. Fr. Eberhard Schockenhoff

According to Edward Pentin, “the ‘mastermind’ behind much of the challenge to settled Church teachings among the German episcopate,” and “the leading adviser of the German bishops in the run-up to the synod” is Fr. Eberhard  Schockenhoff, professor of moral theology at the University of Freiburg, about whom we have had occasion to report in the past. It is a sign of the state of theology in the German speaking world that Fr. Schockenhoff is considered a theological “moderate.” He is careful to quote the Fathers and Doctors of the Church to support his positions, and always makes a show of respect for magisterial teaching. This is probably the reason why the German bishops have chosen him, and not one of his more extreme colleagues to help them make the case for changing the unchangeable teachings of the Church on sexual morality.

Fr. Schockenhoff’s moderation is, of course, only a matter of style; an examination of his work shows him to be a dedicated neo-modernist. He lays out the fundamental principles of his theology in a remarkably clear and short book, Erlöste Freiheit [Redeemed Freedom], to which we refer in the page and section numbers below.

The fundamental principle of Schockenhoff’s theology is a certain understanding of revelation. According to Schockenhoff’s tendentious reading of Dei Verbum (which follows that of Max Seckler), Vatican II abandoned the traditional understanding of revelation as divine instruction and adopted a new understanding of revelation as “dialogical-communication” between God and man. This dialogical communication is a personal encounter with God, in which God communicates not truths that could be expressed in propositions, but rather simply His love. This entails a clear rejection of the definition of faith in Pope St. Pius X’s Oath Against Modernism: “a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source.” For Schockenhoff, faith is not assent to propositional truths proposed from without, but rather a personal encounter with God’s love

From this basic principle Schockenhoff draws some rather astonishing consequences. He argues that God’s dialogue of love with creatures implies a limitation of God’s omnipotence. God in creating free creatures to share His love allows Himself to be determined by human freedom (p. 54). This frankly blasphemous conclusion is part of a complete reworking of the relation between three terms that Schockenhoff takes to be the “fundamental values of Christianity”: freedom, truth, and love. He argues that abandoning the traditional understanding of revelation as divine instruction means that one can abandon the traditional idea that freedom and love both depend on truth (p.42). Instead, freedom and truth have to accompany each other:

The interior relation to the freedom of the subject follows necessarily from the epistemic presuppositions of revelation theory. Religious truth exists only concretely as the freely grasped subjective conviction of individual persons, and not as an abstract quantity, toward which the human person could have moral duties such as assent, acknowledgement, and obedience. (p. 44).

Thus religious truth takes on a particular personal form for each believer (p. 45).

The moral life on this account does not consists in ordering everything to God as final end, and thus in conforming to God’s will. Rather the moral life is a free dialogue of love with God, in which human persons freely cooperate in building up His creation (p.97). It is obvious that this approach can do away with the whole structure of traditional Christian morality. Moreover, Schockenhoff is quite clear that it excludes the traditional understanding of a great many doctrines of faith as well. Thus Schockenhoff explicitly states that his theology is not compatible with the teaching that Our Lord died in satisfaction for our sins (p. 58).

The case of Schockenhoff shows that present crisis  is only superficially about sexual morality. The real issue is the nature of revelation and of faith. The fundamental problem with theologians such as Schockenhoff is a neo-modernist understanding of revelation. We are thus in full agreement with the insightful analysis recently offered at the traditionalist blog Laodicea:

Most of the particular controversies that have devastated the vineyard over the last hundred years are corollaries of the basic dispute, proxy wars for the real conflict. The basic question is this: is faith “a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality” or is faith “a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source”?

As a kind of test to see how someone understands faith Laodicea offers the question as to whether explicit faith is necessary for salvation:

“can someone be justified after the age of reason without explicit faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation?” If you answer ‘yes’ to that question you are ultimately forced into accepting Modernism, if ‘no’ into rejecting it.

If one applies this test to Schockenhoff the result is entirely clear. In his discussion of eschatology, Schockenhoff argues that universal salvation is possible, but that God will make it depend on whether the victims of injustice freely choose to forgive those who harmed them. Only if the victims forgive will all men be saved (section 14.3). He makes no attempt to square this bizarre fantasy with the words of our Lord in Mark 16:16: “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.”