By Charlie Johnston
Mark Mallett often has profound insights into the human condition – and his work has done much to give many people heart. That is why I was never much bothered by his minority and somewhat dissenting position on eschatology. I figured that, with his good will, it ultimately might provide a new insight into such matters that was valuable to us all.
Our previously warm friendship took on a bit of a chill a few years back when he wrote an article, acknowledging what a nice fellow I am, but went on to explain how my eschatology was completely out of step with the Church Fathers and Church teaching. It condescendingly made me out to be a bit of an ill-informed bumbler. I was not offended that his take differed from mine, but I was downright angry that he failed to note that my bumbling, ill-informed position was the constant, consistent teaching of the Church for the last 1,500 years, a teaching derived from St. Augustine, both a Saint AND a Doctor of the Church – and that it was his position that was a very small, minority take. That was so lacking in candor as to be downright misleading. To his credit, after I publicly complained of it, he conceded that his is a minority position and that my take is consonant with the Church’s take on the matter.
We certainly had a lively private exchange on the matter for a while. But while this was a fundamental disagreement, I still believed he did some very useful work in heartening the faithful, so I left it alone, enjoying some of the links readers here put up to some of his better pieces. I was troubled when, on occasion, he would quote snippets from Pope Benedict or Pope St. John Paul that would leave the impression that their teaching was in agreement with his minority take – when they both were firm advocates of the Augustinian view of eschatology. But I figured it was just a bit of a hobby horse for him in an otherwise good body of work.
Mallett wrote an article a few weeks back, “Re-Thinking the End Times,” which was a response to three critics of his. One of those critics, Desmond Birch, has become a very good friend of mine over the last four years. I did not see the original Facebook argument which inspired this piece and I am glad of it – for my objection has little to do with the substance of whatever the argument was. Mallett suggested that Birch was just trying to defend a book he had written on the subject. Again, what annoyed me was that Mallett did not tell readers that Birch is one of the foremost living eschatologists in the world. He made it sound like the man is a minor crank. Mallett did not note that the little book Birch was supposedly defending, Trial, Tribulation and Triumph, was published over two decades ago and has often been used as a text on eschatology at more than a few seminaries in this country. Well it should be, for it is deeply grounded in his exhaustive knowledge of the Church Fathers. He does not shrink from prominent historical figures whose take diverges from his. Though he has a definitive slant, he acknowledges them candidly and carefully explains why he disagrees. He never cuts a quote from one who disagrees with him to make it seem they support his point. If you want to know what the Church teaches on eschatology – probably the subject most frequently talked about without reference to the Magisterium, this book is indispensable. Later in his article, Mallett asserted the absurd notion that not even St. Augustine was really an advocate of the Augustinian eschatological interpretation that the Church teaches.
Now Birch is no starry-eyed enthusiast for my work. His take is like that of another prominent friend in the Denver Archdiocese: “I’m not sure about Charlie’s prophecies – but he’s not nuts!” He is harshly critical of most modern-day prophetic voices, arguing that most make their bones by peddling the Apocalypse. We first got to know each other when some Church authorities outside my Archdiocese asked him to give an informal assessment on me. He was startled to find that, whatever misgivings he might have on the details of what I said, my eschatology was fundamentally sound – that I was most emphatically NOT in the business of peddling the Apocalypse. We hit it off and became friends, often challenging each other, arguing, refining, and enjoying each other’s company. He is intellectually honest, as am I – which makes for very fruitful discussions and, even, disputes. He has the most exhaustive and deep knowledge of the Church Fathers of anyone I know. Once, at his house, he wanted to quote something from one to me. He could only find a text in the original language – but he found the quote he wanted and translated it on the spot for my edification.
Again, it does not bother me at all when Mallett takes a dissenting minority position on a matter while not venturing into defiance of defined doctrine. Such intellectual ferment, even when mistaken, sometimes leads to a valuable refining of doctrine. I respect and am grateful for the good work of exhortation to hope and fidelity to faith in most of his work. But I resent it when he tries to portray a very serious man, respected throughout the hierarchy, as a minor crank. It is deceptive and beneath the good work Mallett otherwise does.