Views, Opinions and Insight from The Catholic Transcript's Columnists and Guests.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Johann Sebastian Bach’s immortal Magnificat was the centerpiece of a Concert for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (8 Dec.) at the Cathedral of St. Joseph this past year, and it was repeated prior to the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In the words of one of the soloists, it can change one’s life for the better. The Magnificat, also known in English as “Mary’s Hymn” or “The Canticle of Mary,” is the inspired poem of thanksgiving and joy which the Evangelist St. Luke places on the lips of Our Lady at the time of the Visitation. (Lk. 1:46-55) In The New American Bible, it begins: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord/My spirit rejoices in God my Savior …” In Latin, the first word is Magnificat.
“Mary’s Hymn” echoes several themes intoned by heroines of Old Testament times, charismatic leaders who unreservedly placed themselves in the hands of the Lord; e.g., Sarah (Gen. 18:9-15), Rebecca (Gen. 25:21-22), Rachel (Gen. 29:31; 30:22-24), the mother of Samson (Jg 13:2-7), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:11, 19-20). These women, explains exegete Father Ignace de la Potterie, mysteriously foreshadow Mary, “who was blessed by God in her virginity, the mother of the Savior.” (Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, Alba House, 1992)
The footnotes in The New American Bible comment that Mary stresses her servant role before the Lord with major Biblical themes; the lowly are singled out for the divine favor; the reversal of human fortunes is recounted; the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies occurs.
Johann Sebastian Bach tried to capture these Biblical themes in incomparable music.
As I listened to the Concert on 8 Dec., I could not help but recall how certain modern day proponents of extreme “Liberation Theology” have usurped and reinterpreted the Magnificat. As a result of seriously flawed theologizing (e.g., basing fundamentals on praxis rather than doxis), together with an “essentially political re-reading of the Scriptures,” as well as an opening (almost an invitation) to Marxist, even Communistic, ideologies (e.g., the postulated necessity of class warfare, the nonrelevancy of the Church, etc.) a crudely political version of the Magnificat has been proposed. “The mistake here,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith observed in 1984, “is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component. This leads to a reductionist reading of the Bible.” (“Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation,’” Sec. X, 5.)
In a sense, the Magnificat has been artificially converted into a marching song in what is theorized as an inevitable class struggle demanding settlement, by violent means, if needed.
I was first introduced in depth to this ideology during the mid-1970’s, while taking a course toward a doctorate at a University here on the East Coast. I can still recall reading book after book on Liberation Theology, from Father Gustavo Gutierrez’s seminal A Theology of Liberation (originally issued in 1971) through to the Methodist Jose Miguez Bonino’s Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Fortress, 1975), and even My Life for My Friends, the Guerilla Journal of Néstor Paz, Christian. (1972; Trans. 1975) (Father Gutierrez is often credited with coining the phrase, “Liberation Theology.” Néstor Paz, a seminarian turned guerrilla, died of starvation the day before his 25th birthday, on 8 Oct., 1970).
The academic course I took was led by a non-Roman Christian minister who had once served in Latin America while “Liberation Theology” emerged. As I became more and more immersed in the literature, I questioned whether there was anyone on the world scene who single-handedly could blunt the movement before it spread everywhere.
Such a person did exist in God’s plans, one whom the world did not really know until late in 1978, when he was named to Peter’s Chair. And one of his very first acts was traveling to Puebla, Mexico, to address the subject on 28 Jan., 1979, at the third general conference of Latin American Bishops – CELAM III (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano III).
Single-handedly, with the obvious help of the Holy Spirit, together with a surpassing intellect steeped in philosophical discourse and an unprecedented personal experience of Marxist ideology and “atheistic humanism” (really a contradiction in terms), John Paul II effectively put an end to those “theologies of liberation” which ridiculed Vatican Council II, drew upon Marxist analysis, espoused class struggle to re-create society, defended recourse to violence if needed, and established a “people’s Church” against the “hierarchical Church.” John Paul’s famed address at that moment (which The New York Times and the American press misunderstood, causing them to return to the subject days later) had the effect of securing the future for more than half the population of worldwide Catholicism.
True liberation rests on Christian humanism. It is not founded on Christ as a political figure, a “subversive revolutionary from Nazareth.” It does not accept the premiss of class struggle and violence. True liberation is to be sought in the saving word offered by Jesus, a “transforming, peacemaking, pardoning, and reconciling love.” (CELAM III)
The Magnificat, therefore, is not a revolutionary marching song. On the contrary, it is a hymn of hope, which is unquestionably challenged by a world in which Satan is still at work.
As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, put it in the “Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” issued in 1986 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
“The loving Virgin of the Magnificat, who enfolds the Church and humanity in her prayer, is the firm support of hope. For in her we contemplate the victory of divine love which no obstacle can hold back, and we discover to what sublime freedom God raises up the lowly…”
Johann Sebastian Bach’s composition beautifully strives to rehearse this truth.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.