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Theology for teachers.

Fr. Knox taught religious education to future Catholic teachers at the Faculty of Theology, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, from 1976 to 1990, at which point he retired. His book has some good features, such as the description of a Catholic school and the chapter on social justice. On the whole, however, it should never have been given an Imprimatur, and this Imprimatur should be withdrawn. Though an introductory page claims that the "Nihil obstat and the Imprimatur are a declaration that this book is free from doctrinal and moral error," it in fact abounds in erroneous Catholic teaching, using the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) as the norm of this. Also, many of the book's arguments are against straw men; many are non sequiturs; many statements are half-truths. There are so many of these faults that a review cannot expose them all. It will therefore be necessary to single out some of the worst ones.

General errors

1. The author says that "in this book the masculine pronoun is used for God but purely for the sake of convenience" (p. 18), and that, "if Jesus had lived at a different time," he might have "made his revelation about God differently" (50). Comment: This contradicts CCC #238-40.

2. The author claims that faith "in and of itself has no entitative existence," that is, it is not a habit; it consists solely of "a certain set of behaviours" (21). Comment: This contradicts #1813.

3. Nowhere in the book is it said that Jesus knew everything, even though He was a divine person with a divine nature as well as a human one. Statements are made about limitations in His knowledge without indicating that reference is being made to his human knowledge. And the book has sentences such as this: "Some people. . . keep insisting that, because Jesus was God he knew everything, foresaw everything, and with his almighty power could do anything."

Comment: Knowledge belongs, strictly speaking, not to a nature but to a person. All Jesus' human knowledge belonged, properly speaking, to a divine person, who knew everything. A reader might easily get from this book the notion that Jesus was a human person only. The book states elsewhere that Jesus is divine, but the damage would have already been done.

4. In addition to this general fault, several particular mistakes are made about Jesus' knowledge. It is said that in his human knowledge he knew Joseph as his foster-father before he knew God the Father as his Father. Comment: This contradicts #472-74.

Scripture undone

5. The book is quite liberal in Scripture interpretation. It teaches the following:

(a) God has never spoken to us directly: "There is no unmediated revelation of God in the sense of words spoken directly by God" (81). Comment: This is an implicit denial of the divinity of Jesus, who is God and who certainly spoke a lot of words to us (#76).

(b) Scripture tells us nothing about God that we could not have known on our own: "Revelation is not factual information about God that we otherwise could not have known" (88).

Comment: Revelation certainly tells us a great deal about God which we would otherwise not have known. This book has a strange attitude to Catholic truth, saying that it is not primarily "statements about God and Jesus" but a way of life, as if there were a problem in it being both of these (88).

(c) The Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are not to be taken literally (138). No comment necessary.

(d) The Infancy Narratives are "little preoccupied with historical fact" (163); they were "never intended to be biographical; . . . it is almost impossible to separate fact from fantasy" (164); "the annunciation need not be understood as anything more than a deep internal conviction (that is, Mary understanding that she was to be the mother of God)" (165).

Comment: The Infancy Narratives follow hard upon St. Luke's statement that:

"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to draw up a narrative concerning the things that have been fulfilled among us, even as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I also have determined, after following up all things carefully from the very first, to write for thee, most excellent Theophilus, an orderly account, that thou mayest understand the certainty of the words in which thou hast been instructed" (Lk 1:1-4).

The book therefore contradicts #525-34.

(e) Though the Infancy Narratives, the author says, are not an account of what happened, "down through the centuries they have been a key element in helping Christians come to a realization of who Jesus is, and an appreciation of his person and his message" (165).

Comment: This is because Christians have believed them to be historical.

(f) Some of Jesus' "miracles" can be explained naturally (175). Comment: Fr. Knox thinks that Jesus perhaps cured such diseases as epilepsy by natural means. There is no evidence for this, of course; and even an instantaneous cure of epilepsy today would be considered miraculous.

6. The book frequently calls biblical teachings "myths" or "stories." Comment: Since both words can refer to fictional events, they should not be used of Biblical accounts of events when speaking to children or their teachers.

7. The book, though accepting Church teaching on these matters, teaches that "it may seem more fitting that Jesus should have been conceived and born in the normal way [not of a virgin] and that Mary and Joseph should have had other children" (219).

Comment: To a believer the opposite seems much more fitting. There are excellent reasons for Mary's virginal conception of Christ and for her perpetual virginity.

8. The book prefers a definition of a sacrament that does not say that it is instituted by Christ to one that does (248-49). No comment necessary.

Moral theology undermined

9. The book makes frequent favourable reference to well-known dissenters such as Monika Helwig (the author calls her "everyone's favourite theological writer"), Haring (called "one of the outstanding Catholic moral theologians of our time"), McBrien, Westley, and Kung. Comment: It is easy to see where the author gets much of his dissent from the teaching of the Church.

10. The seriousness of sin is downplayed consistently.

(a) "Murder, adultery, abortion, passionate and unforgiving hatred, grave theft," are said not to be mortal sins (305). Mortal sin "is much less a single act than it is . . . a habit of introverted selfishness" (307). The book admits that it is possible to commit a mortal sin by a single act, but says that "it probably happens infrequently."

Comment: Of course a habit of mortal sin is worse than a mortal sin, but to deny that certain actions are mortal sins denies the teaching of CCC #1849, 1852, and 1857-58, and is extremely pernicious.

(b) A sin is said not to be mortal if one is "still trying to love and serve, albeit with weakness and failing."

Comment: This means that adultery or abortion are not mortal sins as long as you can tell God that you're really a good fellow deep down. This teaching could lead a lot of people to hell.

(c) This teaching (of b) comes from the basic position that between venial sin and mortal sin there is supposedly a third category: serious sin. This is said to be serious venial sin, such as murder, adultery, abortion, passionate and unforgiving hatred, grave theft. According to the author it becomes mortal only when we "consciously reject our relationship of love with God" (304).

Comment: This contradicts #2302, 2148, 1864, 2539, 2303, 1860, 2268, 2181, 2088-89, 2091, and 2094.

11. The teaching about the Church is weak. We are not told to obey the teaching of the Church's Magisterium but simply to "give it our full and loyal attention."

Comment: Such advice is to be expected from a dissenter.

12. One non sequitur says that, "if we must act in accordance with a correct conscience, then the obverse is also true: we must not follow a false or incorrect conscience."

Comment: The truth is that we must always follow our conscience, even when it is erroneous, though we must do our best to see that it is correct (#1790-91, 1793).

Faith and Sacraments undermined

13. A serious error throughout this book is that it never mentions a central doctrine of our faith: that we are called to live with the life of God himself. The book speaks of new life but does not say what it is. Comment: This contradicts # 1996-97.

14. This is tied in with another error. If there is no divine life, baptism does not confer it. According to Catholic teaching, Adam and Eve had divine life, but lost it by their sin, thus depriving us of it at our birth, which is one effect of original sin; baptism, however, restores it to us. This book denies the Catholic doctrine of original sin. It is not the deprivation of divine life chiefly, or at all. It is the "state of sinfulness of the world" (301).

Comment: This contradicts #397-405.

15. This teaching is connected with another: that the biblical account of Adam and Eve has only one meaning, namely that "God is not the author of evil" (301). Indeed, "we do not know how evil came into the world" (301). As a consequence, "the primary purpose and effect of baptism is to bring us into the Church, not, as was formerly taught, to rid us of original sin."

Comment: Since for Fr. Knox there is no mention of divine life, the bestowal of it cannot be the primary effect of baptism. For the Catechism, however, a child cannot come into the Church without receiving divine life (#1265). It is no wonder that Fr. Knox downplays the importance of infant baptism (251).

16. Serious mistakes are made concerning the Eucharist. The question of replacing the word "transubstantiation" by "transignification" or "transfinalization" is raised but not dealt with, thus casting doubt on #1376. And it is declared that "without community . . . there is no true Eucharist." And it is taught that, "unless we are conscious of complete separation from God by mortal sin, we should eat the bread of the Eucharist when we participate in the Mass" (267).

Comment: Fr. Knox's teaching that we should go to Communion unless we are aware of complete separation from God by mortal sin is a dangerous teaching, for three reasons. First, if a person has committed a mortal sin and has repented of it by an act of perfect contrition, and thus become again a friend of God, that person should still not, under penalty of grave sin, receive Communion without first having gone to Confession (#1415). Second, complete separation from God, according to Fr. Knox, is not normally effected by such acts as adultery, fornication, murder, or abortion, and thus he is advising Catholics to receive the Body and Blood of Christ with mortal sin on their soul, as the Church understands mortal sin. Third, reliable moralists tell us that, if we cannot resolve a doubt as to whether an action is a mortal sin, we should not go to Communion, unless, perhaps, we are scrupulous and a confessor has advised us to do so in our case. This book could be the cause of numerous sinful Communions.

Satan doesn't exist

17. There is no personal devil; the devil is said to be but a symbol: "It is the experience of evil in the world" (370). Presumably all the angels are merely symbols.

Comment: This teaching is in line with Fr. Knox's constant reduction of the supernatural. And he gives his students bad advice: "We don't need to fear the devil in order to live a good human life." But Jesus said: "Fear him who can cast both body and soul into hell" (Mt 10:20). And the Catechism teaches that Satan is a real person, a fallen angel (#391-92). And it also says that "the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn 3:8; #394).


We hear horror stories about the pitiful state of the teaching of the Catholic faith in our Catholic schools in Canada. Yet young people who are being specially prepared to teach the faith are given books like this to guide them. And we are told that this book is in accord with what they are taught in a course specially provided for them by the Catholic Church. To find such a book with an Imprimatur is a temptation to despair. How could the Censor deputatus ever have advised the Archbishop of Toronto to approve it?
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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