Gregory Baum, theologian
Wednesday, 25 October 2017
Born on June 20, 1923, in Berlin
Died on October 18, 2017, in Montreal
Gregory Baum, theologian who suggested reforms to the bishops at Vatican II.
The Second Vatican Council recommended a host of reforms which so upset conservative Catholics that the hierarchy in Scotland is said to have pretended it never happened. Journalists reporting on events in Rome between 1962 and 1965 were told even ten years later by some Scottish bishops: “Our people are not ready for this yet.” The principal Catholic newspaper was banned from sale in churches from Daliburgh to Dumfries and the editor unceremoniously fired. The editor went to his work one morning to find he was out of a job. The man chosen to replace him was sitting at his desk. The bishops were reacting to changes such as the shelving of Latin and promotion of Mass in the vernacular; turning the altar round so that priests would no longer preside with their back to the congregation, and the reception of the Eucharist in the form of both bread and wine.
These changes were small beer however compared with some of the reforms suggested by the renowned theologian Gregory Baum, who has died in Montreal, Canada, at the age of 94. Baum was the author of the first draft of Nostra Aetate, a conciliar document on ecumenism, which repudiated anti-Semitism. He also contributed to Unitatis Redintegratio, the Decree on Ecumenism, which launched the ecumenical movement after Vatican II. He was one of few remaining theological experts, who accompanied and advised their local bishops, from that time.
Baum is remembered as one of the most influential — and sometimes controversial — theologians in North America. A former Augustinian priest, Baum was a theologian, sociologist, professor, author, journalist and advocate for interreligious dialogue, liberation theology and more progressive sexual ethics. He later embraced many social movements supporting the marginalised, including people of colour, Palestinians and French-speaking Canadians. “He was a champion of Catholic social teaching,” said Sister Mary Ann Hinsdale, associate professor of theology at the Jesuit-run Boston College. “He not only wrote about Catholic social teaching, but actually lived the corporal works of mercy.”
However, Baum’s progressive views on contraception, celibacy, same-sex marriage and other issues prompted criticism, as did his disclosure of his first homosexual experience at the age of 40 in his recently published 2016 autobiography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry. In his book, Baum details his homosexual experiences. “I was 40 years old when I had my first sexual encounter with a man. I met him in a restaurant in London. This was exciting and at the same time disappointing, for I knew what love was and what I really wanted was to share my life with a partner.”
He wrote that he considered resigning from the priesthood but did not go through with the formality. He later married a divorced ex-nun who he says “did not mind that, when we moved to Montreal in 1986, I met Normand, a former priest, with whom I fell in love.” Normand, he wrote, “is gay and welcomed my sexual embrace.”
“We cannot deny the significant contribution he made at the time of the council and subsequently.
Any challenges his lifestyle proposed should not overshadow the great contribution he made to the Church,”
said Basilian theologian, Father. Thomas Rosica, who remembered Baum as “someone who made people think.”
Baum came to Scotland in 1974 at the invitation of James Armstrong, of the Scottish Catholic Renewal Movement, and spoke at meetings in Glasgow and Stirling. He took part in debates with Professor William Barclay, the noted Church of Scotland theologian, and Professor Enda McDonagh from Ireland. He wrote a column for the Scottish ecumenical magazine Open House. Baum went on to speak in Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol as part of a programme of events in which Europe’s most distinguished theologians, including Karl Rahner, Hans Hung and Edward Schillebeeckx, took part.
Periti, the Latin word for advisers such as Baum, were often at the centre of Vatican II debates with some of the more traditional scholars, said Sister Mary Ann, whose dissertation he directed at St Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in the 1980s. It was the subject of a collection of honorary essays she co-edited. She called him “prophetic” and “a wisdom figure.”
Born to a Jewish mother and Protestant father in 1923 in Berlin, Baum went aboard the kinder train to Canada to escape the Nazis at the age of 17. His contributions to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, especially during the council, helped change the Church’s relationship to Judaism. Baum, in an interview, said: “Pope John XXIII wanted a document on the Jews because he was profoundly scandalised by the anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Christian tradition. When volunteers were asked to write the first draft, I came forward after everyone left and said I had some experience in this area.”
He maintained the Council was “the most powerful spiritual experience I’ve had in all my life,” and that bishops and theologians “were open to new ideas, and that people were anxious to make Christianity and the Gospel understandable to people today. Great things happened. The whole Catholic community was in dialogue with another. Therefore, there was a kind of openness.”
Baum attended all three sessions of the council and, in addition to contributing to Nostra Aetate, consulted on Unitatis Redintegratio and Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Inspired by St. Augustine’s Confessions, Baum became a Catholic in 1946, joined the Augustinians in 1947 and was ordained a priest in 1954. Before his theological studies, Baum had earned a bachelor’s degree mathematics and physics from McMaster University in Canada 1946 and a master’s in mathematics at Ohio State University in 1947. He taught theology and sociology at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto until 1995. He then studied sociology at the New School for Social Theory in New York and joined the religious studies faculty at McGill University in Montreal. After his retirement from teaching, Baum joined the Jesuit Centre Justice et Foi (Centre of Justice and Faith) in Montreal, where he served as an associate researcher and contributor to its magazine, Relation. “He was very sensitive to all kinds of injustice,” said Élisabeth Garant, director of the centre. “He always thought that his life ought to be dedicated to those who were suffering.”
Baum was the author of more than 20 books, including That They May Be One (1958), Religion and Alienation (1975), Theology and Society (1986) and Signs of the Times: Religious Pluralism and Economic Injustice (2008). In 1962, he founded the journal The Ecumenist; he edited it until 2004.
Baum once described the post-Vatican II years as a “kairos time” full of optimism. “But this period seems to be over,” he said at a talk in 1992 in which he opposed the Gulf War. “I argue we no longer live in this kairos; we live in the wilderness — a time of moaning and sadness yet hope that God has not deserted us.”
By 2011, Baum said he was worried that Vatican II had been “put in a deep freeze,” having written a paper in 2010 titled, “The Forgotten Promises of Vatican II.” He had called for a “rethinking of the role of sexuality and the role of sex in the context of marriage” by the church in a talk to New Ways Ministry in 2002.
Baum had been a supporter of Pope John II’s social justice teaching, including his concept of “structural sin,” but was ambivalent about other aspects of his papacy, including his leadership style. He disagreed with Pope Benedict XVI on many issues but still praised him as “a great theologian with imagination.”
Baum was said to have been optimistic about Pope Francis and praised his 2013 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. “The church has to first of all preach the good news, this is at the core,” he said. “The other issues, though they may be important, have to be secondary.”
Despite often strident public criticism, Baum did not take the attacks personally. His “authentically sunny generosity” explains why Baum found it difficult to believe people disliked him – “”He was the most charitable and optimistic person I’ve ever known,” said Sister Mary Ann.