Robert Sungenis and the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults

Robert Sungenis and his supporters have created a narrative about a change that the U.S. bishops made to one sentence regarding the Mosaic covenant on page 131 of the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA). This narrative paints our bishops in the worst possible light while portraying Sungenis as a lone hero who was attacked for single-handedly saving the Church in America from what he has characterized as one of the most pernicious doctrinal errors in history. For example, he has claimed:

By June 2008 the bishops of the United Stated voted 231 to 14 to eliminate the heretical sentence about the Mosaic covenant from the US Catechism that I, and only I, had pointed out to them.” (Discover Magazine Blog, Geocentrism?  Seriously?, October 12, 2010, comments section) 

And

I was the one who single-handedly pressured the USCCB to remove the heretical sentence on page 131 of the Unites States Catholic Catechism for Adults, since no other Catholic apologist, priest or other lay person even noticed the error, much less sought to have it corrected…I was also the one who spearheaded the critique of the Reflections on Covenant and Missions document in 2002. (Bellarmine Forum, Q & A 173, “Is There a Conspiracy Against You?”, August 2009.)

Sungenis also just recently claimed, “In 2008 [when the US Bishops voted to change the USCCA], my view of supersessionism appears to have been vindicated.” 1

Sungenis’s narrative of events was addressed some years ago. But it was recently given new life by a Catholic video blogger named Michael Voris (ChurchMilitant.tv) who uncritically accepted and propagated it to his audience. As this narrative paints an extremely negative picture of our bishops, it’s worth examining again in some detail. In the process, it will also be necessary to bring to light some of the problematic things Sungenis said and did in regard to Jewish issues, although those will be kept to a minimum.

So, with that said, let’s examine a number of relevant issues and claims.

1) How did Sungenis become aware of and concerned about the one problematic sentence related to the Mosaic covenant on page 131 of the USCCA?

Some people appear to be under the impression that Sungenis was examining the USCCA to ensure its orthodoxy for the sake of his patrons and U.S. Catholics in general when he happened upon this particular sentence and subsequently decided to mount a campaign against it. This is inaccurate. Sungenis first became aware of and concerned about this particular sentence when he was denied an imprimatur on one of his Scripture commentaries (The Apocalypse of St. John – CASB2). 2

Dr. Carol Houghton, chancellor of the Diocese of Harrisburg, reviewed CASB2 and wrote the denial letter in December 2006. In that letter, Houghton focused on two areas: Sungenis’s treatment of “Outside the Church there is no salvation” and “Judaism and the Church’s relationship to Judaism.”  She referenced two documents from Vatican II, five sections of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, two pages of the USCCA (in which the one problematic sentence occurred), speeches of John Paul II and several additional Vatican documents. Sungenis’s bishop signed off on Dr. Houghton’s denial.

Sungenis virtually ignored the numerous other references given by Houghton and focused his and everyone else’s attention almost exclusively on a single, problematic sentence found in the two pages she referenced from the USCCA. He never publicly divulged the numerous other references given by Houghton in the rejection letter, thus making it appear as though this sentence alone was the “real reason” for the denial.3 However, several years later, his friend Rick DeLano inexplicably brought to light at his blog the rest of the many references in Dr. Houghton’s denial letter (which you can read by clicking here). 

Regardless, Sungenis became aware of and interested in this sentence in the USCCA because he believed it affected him personally and professionally. In late December 2006/early January 2007, he wrote to the USCCB in order to complain about this sentence. 

2) Was Sungenis the first and only one to even notice this sentence or to voice concerns about it, as he has publicly claimed? 

No. Sungenis was neither alone nor was he the first. A number of Catholics were in contact with the USCCB about this sentence before the USCCA was made available to the public in July 2006, which was six months or more before Sungenis even became aware of it. Some continued to stay in touch with the USCCB privately until the change was actually effected. However, unlike Sungenis, none of those individuals did so publicly and in a self-aggrandizing manner that denigrated and condemned our bishops. For example, Leon Suprenant, former president of Catholics United for the Faith, stated that he reviewed the USCCA before it was made available to the public and expressed concerns about this sentence. He also indicated that a number of others privately raised similar concerns well before Sungenis did and that their interactions continued thereafter. These facts can be verified in a comment that Suprenant left to a Religion News Service story that also appeared in the Washington Post:

My difficulty with this particular story is that it makes it sound like Robert Sungenis “led the charge” in pushing for a change in the Catechism, and that he was the first person to criticize the Catechism...In reality, responsible Catholics have been interacting with Church authorities since the Catechism’s draft stage regarding the problematic wording of this sentence. From my own experience as a Catholic leader, the recent grandstanding of Robert Sungenis--done to save face given other problems he’s had with his bishop--had no effect on the process. If anything, it would have served as a deterrent to the bishops, who would not want to give credibility to an apologist with a reputation for disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda.”  (Leon Suprenant, Jews Perplexed by Change to Catholic Catechism, Religion News Service, 11 Sept. 2008; my emphasis)

Among others, Jacob Michael and Michael Forrest each separately contacted the USCCB in January 2007 and raised questions and concerns about this one sentence on page 131 of the USCCA (some of that correspondence can be read here). When the Diocese of Harrisburg and the USCCB were contacted, both offices indicated that this issue was already known to them because a number of other individuals working in various dioceses had voiced concerns about it and that they expected it to be addressed at a future meeting of the U.S. bishops – which, in fact, it was.

This fact was alluded to in an article posted back in February 2008, about six months before the U.S. bishops actually voted to revise the USCCA (August 2008):


As Bishop Rhoades has acknowledged, it is understandable that one might be confused by this particular sentence [in the USCCA]. It could certainly be improved. And it appears clear that the bishops are already aware of this fact and it would not be surprising to eventually see it modified for the sake of clarity… Catholics can trust that good, sober minds are already aware of this issue and it will be handled as the successors to the Apostles deem appropriate, with or without the contributions of those who approach them with deep suspicion (RSATJ, Response from the USCCB on Page 131 of the USCCA, Feb. 2008; emphasis in original). 

And shortly after the U.S. bishops voted to change the problematic sentence in the USCCA (August 2008), RSATJ made the following statement:

The positive change on page 131 of the USCCA affirms the efforts of many good, knowledgeable, orthodox Catholics who have been in touch with their bishops for some time about this particular issue. We're especially appreciative of those who did so without opting to make a public spectacle of themselves or positioning themselves as judges, juries, and enemies of the U.S. Catholic bishops. (RSATJ, U.S. Catechism for Adults Revised, 3 Sept. 2008; emphasis added.)

In this context, it’s also worth addressing a related claim that Sungenis made about himself, namely, “I was also the one who spearheaded the critique of the Reflections on Covenant and Missions [RCM] document in 2002.” Actually, several other Catholics wrote articles criticizing RCM at the same time, including Avery Cardinal Dulles, Karl Keating, Scott Hahn, David Moss and The Association of Hebrew Catholics.  But more importantly, Sungenis did not mention that unlike the other critiques of RCM, his critique only ended up creating a terrible uproar and embarrassment for him and the Church because, among many other problems, he took information without attribution from Nazi and white supremacist sources and also cast doubt upon the Holocaust by referring to the figure of six million Jews as “mere propaganda” (click here to read Dr. William Cork’s examination of Sungenis’s article). 

It’s also important to recall that more than a year prior to the U.S. bishops’ decision to change the problematic sentence in the USCCA, Sungenis had been publicly denouncing “the USCCB and other hierarchy for their capitulation to the Jews.”4 When you combine this with the fact that Sungenis had also already been publicly denounced by his own bishop for his “hostile, uncharitable and unchristian” attacks on the Jewish people and forced to remove the name “Catholic” from his apostolate, as well as being publicly singled out as “one of the most rabid and open anti-Semites in the entire radical traditionalist movement” by a U.S. hate monitor for supporting Holocaust denial and “anti-Semitic conspiracy mongering,” it defies logic to claim that the U.S. bishops then decided to turn to Sungenis as their “go to” person for anything involving Jewish issues.

Suprenant was exactly right. The U.S. bishops stay as far away from such controversial figures as possible. And, in fact, when reporter Daniel Burke contacted Monsignor Kutys of the USCCB about the fact that Sungenis was trying to take credit for the change in the USCCA, Kutys unequivocally denied Sungenis’s claim, stating, “It was changed, but not because of what [Sungenis] said.”5

This naturally leads to the next of Sungenis’s claims.

3) Did the U.S. bishops’ decision to change this sentence “vindicate” Sungenis’s personal views on “supersessionism,” as he has publicly claimed?

While there is little evidence that Sungenis played a significant role in directly causing the bishops to decide to change the problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA, his claim “my view of supersessionism appears to have been vindicated” is not only completely baseless but also illogical. None of the wording the bishops used in place of the old, problematic wording on page 131 of the USCCA bears any resemblance to the extreme theological positions Sungenis has personally and publicly insisted upon in regard to “supersessionism.” Neither the word “supersessionism” nor any of its variants appears in the new sentence on page 131 of the USCCA and even the concept is absent from it. The U.S. bishops basically replaced the problematic sentence regarding the Mosaic covenant with a quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

To the Jewish people, whom God first chose to hear his word, 'belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ.’    

In fact, Sungenis himself effectively rebutted his own claim that the bishops’ action “vindicated” his own idiosyncratic views. Almost immediately after the U.S. bishops voted to replace the problematic sentence with the above quote, Sungenis wrote an article entitled, “More Confusion on Page 131 of the USCCB Catechism.” In that article, he asserted that the change was insufficient and even went so far as to accuse the author of possible duplicity:

 

My suspicion is that the unidentified author of the USCCB catechism chose Romans 9:4-5 because, if the uninformed reader gives it a cursory reading from certain English translations, he may be unduly influenced to believe that the Jews still have possession of all the items listed in the verse, including, perhaps, the Mosaic covenant. (Confusion, p.5)

 

And

[This] may explain why everyone suddenly became so agreeable to make the change, for in the opinion of many of its ideologues, nothing doctrinal has really changed except that, by quoting a passage of Scripture (Romans 9:4-5), an impression of divine approval has now been stamped onto the previous belief about the Mosaic covenant remaining valid for the Jews.  (Confusion, p.13)           

 

As such, Sungenis cannot simultaneously claim that this very same change in the USCCA actually “vindicated” his personal views on “supersessionism.”

 

The fact is that Sungenis is an ardent proponent of what Cardinal Dulles referred to as “crude supersessionism” (aka “extreme supersessionism” – see also our article in Lay Witness). Sungenis holds that the Mosaic covenant has been completely “revoked” and that God is entirely finished with the Jewish people as an ethnic group – God has rejected them. According to Sungenis, the establishment of the New Covenant in Christ was a punishment of Israel and God has been hardening the hearts of the Jewish people, blinding them to the Truth ever since Christ’s death and resurrection and He will continue to do so without reprieve until the end of time. He holds that God’s interest in Jews is solely as individuals, not as a group, and only if they convert and become Catholic.

 

He has consistently insisted that the words “revoked” and “superseded” “are the most important legal words related to the topic of the Old Covenant today.”6 But as these words and concepts are completely absent from the USCCA, there is no reason to conclude that Sungenis’s personal brand of extreme supersessionism was “vindicated” by the change the U.S. bishops made. (You can read more about the problems with and internal inconsistencies in Sungenis’s theology as it pertains to Jews here, here, here, here, here and here.)


4) Did many of the U.S. Bishops resort to voting in secret to change this sentence because they were afraid to do so openly, as Sungenis publicly suggested?

No, that claim was baseless and false. It was refuted in Debunking Another Conspiracy Theory.

5) Is Sungenis’s bishop a proponent of the “dual covenant” error as Sungenis claimed?  And did his bishop oppose the removal of this sentence from the USCCA, as Sungenis implied?

The answer is “no” to both questions. Bishop Rhoades (Sungenis’s bishop at the time) is not a proponent of the dual covenant error. His Excellency called Sungenis’s accusations against him “slanderous and erroneous” (click here). Some of the proof that Bishop Rhoades does not hold to the dual covenant error can be found here, here, here, here, here and here

In fact, not very long ago, Sungenis himself even privately admitted that he no longer believes Bishop Rhoades is a dual covenant proponent. Instead, Sungenis said he now believes there was another “evil man” who was actually the “mastermind” behind all of his troubles with the Diocese of Harrisburg (click here to read his own words).

Bishop Rhoades voted to remove the problematic sentence in the USCCA – something that was confirmed with the Diocese of Harrisburg at the time. Bishop Rhoades also publicly stated that he gladly supported the bishops’ document repudiating Reflections on Covenant and Mission (click here). And he endorsed our article that unequivocally repudiated the dual covenant error and stated that the New Covenant in Christ “superseded” the Mosaic covenant (click here). As such, the accusations Sungenis previously made against Bishop Rhoades are “slanderous and erroneous,” just as His Excellency stated.


6) Was Sungenis attacked merely for objecting to this sentence or for his opposition to the dual covenant error in general? And did Sungenis’s bishop force him to remove the name “Catholic” from his apostolate simply because he criticized the dual covenant error and the one problematic sentence in the USCCA?

There is no evidence that Sungenis was ever attacked by anyone for merely objecting to the one problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA or for criticizing the dual covenant error, although Sungenis has been publicly challenged to provide it (see here and here). Neither he nor his supporters have ever produced any evidence to the contrary. However, it is a matter of public record that he was heavily criticized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for making broad-brushed, prejudiced statements against Jews for over a decade, promoting countless conspiracy theories about them, as well as for exhibiting a seeming inability (or unwillingness) to refrain from salting even his “theological” arguments involving the Jewish people with what Bishop Rhoades characterized as “hostile, uncharitable, and unchristian” rhetoric. In fact, Sungenis himself even acknowledged these failings in his article Catholic Apologetics International and Its Teachings on the Jews (CAITJ). And ironically, Sungenis’s lone clerical supporter subsequently admitted that even CAITJ itself – which Sungenis published as a supposed apology and solemn promise to stop uncharitable attacks on the Jewish people – was “unnecessarily combative and polemical in tone, and/or open to misinterpretation.”7

Bishop Rhoades did not force Sungenis to remove the name “Catholic” because Sungenis criticized the dual covenant error. To the contrary, His Excellency appreciates responsible efforts to correct that error, which is why he publicly endorsed an article we wrote that repudiates it. In fact, he explicitly said that our critique of the dual covenant error was “right on the mark.” 

Bishop Rhoades forced Sungenis to remove the name Catholic because Sungenis continued to give evidence that he was incapable of dealing with Jewish issues charitably and responsibly. To read a more detailed account of why Bishop Rhoades ultimately forced Sungenis to remove the name “Catholic” from his apostolate8, see A More Reasonable and Consistent Narrative and Answering Sungenis’s Latest on the Bishop Rhoades Affair (scroll down and begin at “Back to the Crux of the Matter:  CAITJ”).

7) Are there other examples of similarly exaggerated claims made by Sungenis that are worth examining when considering his claims about single-handedly causing the U.S. bishops to change the USCCA?

Yes.  Two brief examples should suffice. 

Sungenis has conveyed that he believes his book Galileo Was Wrong is the reason Hildegard was fast-tracked by the Church to sainthood:

"My plans are to publish a separate book on Hildegard's cosmology very soon. I don't think it is a coincidence that Hildegard went from a curious medieval intellect to Blessed to a Saint in less than a year after I sent GWW [Galileo Was Wrong] to Pope Benedict XVI."9

It seems likely that most people would consider that claim more than a little exaggerated.

 

As another example, a while after Sungenis sent a letter to Cardinal Levada at the CDF about the problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA, he wrote an article in which he publicly touted what he characterized as an official “reply from the Vatican.”  He even claimed, “Reverend Amato assured me that Cardinal Leveda [sic] wanted to express his thanks for the information I gave him in my 15-page letter showing that the Mosaic covenant, according to Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, does not remain eternally valid for the Jewish people, and is, in fact, revoked. He also stated that Cardinal Levada will take the information into consideration.”

The problem is that this “official response” was just a small postcard with two brief sentences and what appears to be a stamped signature. The postcard didn’t even specify what Sungenis had written to the CDF about and it failed to mention him by name. As such, it’s clear that this was little more than some type of form letter that anyone would have received after contacting the CDF.

Here’s a copy of the actual postcard:

Even Sungenis’s business partner, Rick DeLano, later publicly characterized this response from the CDF as a mere “acknowledgment of receipt” (click here). DeLano was correct. Yet, to Sungenis, it constituted proof that the Vatican was taking him very seriously.


Conclusion

Contrary to his assertions and those of some of his supporters, Robert Sungenis was neither the first nor the only person to express objections to the problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA. And there is no reasonable basis on which to reasonably conclude that the bishops’ change to it “vindicated” Sungenis’s personal theology of extreme supersessionism.

However, a fair amount of space has been used here correcting many of the harmful, inaccurate and/or exaggerated claims that Sungenis and his followers have made about our bishops and Sungenis’s own role in regard to the change on page 131 of the USCCA, there are also some things that should be said in his favor.

It is true that Sungenis – like a number of other Catholics both before and after him – was right to raise concerns about the sentence on page 131 of the USCCA.10 It’s true that Sungenis– again, like a number of other Catholics both before and after him – did contact the USCCB about it.11,12 And it’s also true that Sungenis was more publicly vocal about this sentence than anyone else. 

There is credible evidence that Sungenis may at least have had a positive impact on the situation in this limited sense:  by bringing this problematic sentence to the attention of his supporters, he motivated a number of them to contact their own bishops and the USCCB.13 As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that this increased attention from the Catholic laity could have helped to further solidify the U.S. bishops’ resolve to address the issue. If so, that would certainly have been a good thing. It could also be argued that this should encourage U.S. Catholics to trust that their bishops are willing and able to listen and respond to their concerns. 

That being said, while Sungenis deserves credit for taking action on this issue and for motivating his supporters to do likewise, there were serious problems with his approach. Among other things, it was irresponsible and unjustified for him to publicly stoke he fires of fear and hatred about supposed “Jewish slave masters” who he claimed were trying to “rule the Catholic Church,” to create baseless (and demonstrably false) conspiracy theories about our bishops, and to accuse them of “capitulation to the Jews.” And unfortunately, Sungenis’s extremely rash and belligerent approach with the bishops led some of his supporters to follow his bad example.14 

Let's hope and pray, for their sakes as well as for the sake of the Church in general, that Sungenis and his supporters come to believe that it is entirely possible (and authentically Catholic) to be persistent and even assertive in voicing concerns and objections to our bishops without also publicly assuming the absolute worst of them, making rash accusations and generally treating them far more like enemies than as what they actually are – our spiritual fathers. 

--------------------

1 Sungenis, Anatomy of a Smear Campaign, Galileo Was Wrong website, June/July 2014.

 

2 Sungenis has publicly acknowledged these facts in at least two articles:  More Confusion on Page 131 of the USCCA and The Old Covenant: Revoked or Not Revoked.  For example, he wrote, “After CAI had suffered the denial of an imprimatur for the Catholic Apologetics Study Bible [6 Dec. 2006], The Apocalypse of St. John based in part on Bishop Kevin Rhoades siding with the USCCB catechism and its elevation of the validity of the Mosaic covenant for the Jews by specifically citing page 131 of the USCCB catechism in his denial, we had decided to write to the USCCB in order to get to the root of the problem.” 

 

3 There were numerous problems with CASB2.  In fact, Sungenis’s friend, Dr. Arthur Sippo, predicted that it would not obtain an imprimatur before Sungenis even heard back from the Diocese of Harrisburg.  Jacob Michael also did a partial reading of the book and documented some of the problems in CASB2’s Missing Imprimatur:  The Real Reason the Bishop Said “No”.

4 Sungenis, Catholics Falling for Jewish Errors, 27 March 2007 (no longer available on-line). Sungenis subsequently removed this article from his website and blocked the web archive.

5 Daniel Burk, Catechism Edit ‘Troubling,” Jewish Leaders Say, Washington Post, 13 September 2008.

6 Sungenis, My Response to Bishop Rhoades, p. 2 (No longer available on-line). Sungenis subsequently removed this article from his website and blocked the web archive.

7 Fr. Brian Harrison, Robert Sungenis Has Disobeyed No Binding Precept of His Bishop, Culture Wars, April 2008.  (No longer on-line).  It should also be noted that while Sungenis admitted in CAITJ (31 July 2007) that he had violated charity in regard to the Jewish people and he promised to obey Bishop Rhoades’s directive in the future, he never actually apologized for his attacks on the Jewish people in that article.  Nor did he obey the bishop.

8 On occasion, Sungenis and his supporters have denied that Bishop Rhoades forced Sungenis to remove the name “Catholic” from his apostolate.  However, Sungenis himself publicly admitted that he was forced to do so: 

"R. Sungenis: By June 2008 the bishops of the United States voted 231 to 14 to eliminate the heretical sentence about the Mosaic covenant from the US catechism that I, and only I, had pointed out to them and the rest of the world. After that, Rhoades’ campaign against me dwindled, but not before he forced me to take the name “Catholic” from my website …” (Geocentrism? Seriously?, Discover Magazine Blog, comment on October 12, 2010 at 8:20 am; emphasis added.)

The fact is that Sungenis only removed the name “Catholic” from his apostolate because he was under pressure from his former bishop.  Had the bishop not intervened, Sungenis never would have done so.

9 “Catholic Cosmology” Facebook page.

10 This is something that RSATJ has always acknowledged.

11 While Sungenis did write to the CDF, even Rick DeLano (Sungenis’s business partner) has admitted that the CDF reply was a mere “acknowledgment of receipt” (basically an automated form letter on a postcard). As such, there is no credible evidence that this letter had any impact at all on the issue.

12 Sungenis directly made at least two individuals at the USCCB aware of his personal concerns about the problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA.

13 In fact, Monsignor Kutys of USCCB explicitly acknowledged this fact to Daniel Burke in the RNS/Washington Post article:

The USCCB and individual bishops began receiving letters about the catechism in 2006, after a Pennsylvania man, Robert Sungenis, targeted the reference to Moses on the Web site of his Bellarmine Theological Forum, according to Kutys.

Monsignor Kutys was mistaken about the year in which some of Sungenis’s supporters began contacting the USCCB and their own bishops. This could not have begun in 2006 because Sungenis himself only became aware of the problematic sentence on page 131 of the USCCA at the end of 2006/beginning of 2007, when his CASB2 volume was denied an imprimatur. His first article about this problematic sentence (which was simply a reproduction of a letter he wrote to Cardinal Levada at the CDF) wasn’t published until after 5 September 2007 – the date on the letter. However, there is no apparent reason to doubt Kutys’s statement about the USCCB and individual bishops receiving letters regarding the USCCA from Sungenis’s supporters.

 

14 While there are others, one particular case stands out.  In this case, a Sungenis supporter named Lionel Andrades harassed all the priests of the Diocese of Harrisburg via email on Sungenis’s behalf by spreading the false accusations Sungenis had been leveling against Bishop Rhoades. The Vicar General of Harrisburg responded to the priests of the diocese and advised them not to respond to Andrades because he believed it was clear that Andrades’ email was simply designed to gin up controversy and publicity. The Vicar General also stated to the priests that the matter was between Bishop Rhoades and Sungenis and related to Sungenis’s “opinions” on “supersessionism,” which he correctly characterized as not being in harmony with the teaching of the Church. When Sungenis found out about these events, instead of correcting his patron for his inappropriate behavior and apologizing to Bishop Rhoades and the Vicar General, his response was to make more accusations and demand an apology from them. Sungenis later made a thinly veiled threat to sue the Diocese of Harrisburg over it. The diocese ceased all communications with him after that. You can read about this issue at some length in two articles that may be read here and here.