“God seems to have preferred a world in which He would offer mercy over a world in which mercy would not be needed.
“And He wanted that mercy to cost something of Himself.”
Father Dylan Schrader went about explaining in laymen’s terms the essence of his 438-page dissertation, which he successfully defended Nov. 12 before a panel of faculty at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C.
He passed the examination, with distinction, the final step toward completing his doctorate in systematic theology.
The title of his dissertation is: “The Motive of the Incarnation and Christocentrism Today: Recovering the Salmanticenses.”
In it, he asserts that through all eternity, “God has wanted to make Himself known to us not just through His infinite power but through an unfathomable act of mercy.”
“One implication of what I argue is that the cross in an essential part of Christian living, through which we focus on offering our lives for the glory of Jesus,” he said.
“With a human heart”
Fr. Schrader is pastor of St. Brendan parish in Mexico; diocesan moderator of youth and young adults and religious education; the bishop’s delegate for the Extraordinary Form Mass; and chaplain to home-school families.
He said he chose this dissertation topic because of its wide application and potential to help him become a better teacher, minister and priest.
“What I’ve learned is challenging me to focus more on Christ and to conform my life to the mystery of His cross,” he said.
Christocentrism is the branch of theology that focuses on Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
The Salmanticenses were a group of Carmelite friars who worked at the University of Salamanca, Spain, in the 1600s.
The Incarnation refers to the Son of God taking on flesh and becoming human.
Fr. Schrader reached across the millennia in search of a meaningful synthesis.
“In the dissertation, I basically connect a modern discussion and a medieval and early-modern discussion,” he said.
The modern part is: “How is Jesus at the center of God’s plan for human history?”
The medieval and early-modern part is about the rationale or motive for the Incarnation, namely: “Would Christ have become incarnate if there had been no sin? Was the Incarnation intended because of the sin of humanity, or was it intended for other motives apart from sin?”
Fr. Schrader pointed out that the Salamanca Carmelites’ teaching about Christ’s Incarnation emphasizes two things:
“So without desiring sin, God actually permits sin to exist, with a view toward redemption through Christ,” said Fr. Schrader.
In order to achieve that redemption, “He took on our human nature and suffered and died because He wanted mercy to be costly of Himself, to show the depths of His love in a way that we could grasp,” said Fr. Schrader.
“God wanted to give Himself to us in a human way,” he asserted. “He wanted to love us with a human heart.”
Toward a fuller relationship
Fr. Schrader, ordained to the Holy Priesthood in 2010, was engaged in full-time parish ministry when Bishop John R. Gaydos, now retired, invited him in 2015 to continue his studies.
With that, Fr. Schrader set about exploring ways both ancient and new of helping people come to know Christ, not just about Him.
“I hope I will better be able to explain the faith to people in a way that makes sense to them, and also lead them to a fuller relationship with Jesus and a fuller practice of the faith,” he said in 2015.
He noted that through the ages, the Church has always been searching for ways to understand and express the timeless, eternal truth of the Gospel.
“That’s what theology does: to reflect on what has been revealed to us by God, to put it together and try to talk about it and figure out the implications of it,” he said.
He completed his classwork at CUA in two years, then returned to the diocese to minister while working on his dissertation.
Wages of sin
“God doesn’t offer us a flow chart or explanation of why this happened to us or why that does,” Fr. Schrader said, “but He does invite us to be with Him the foot of the cross.”
“We can’t always give an explanation for evil, but we can point to Christ as the good that God brings out of evil, and we can be united with Him and His cross.”
Fr. Schrader made a quick distinction between genuine and counterfeit mercy.
“The cross of Christ tells us what real mercy is,” he said. “It is not God looking at our sins and deciding to ignore them and say, ‘you’re okay.’ It is the costly, painful process of healing our sins.
“The modern world sees mercy as pretending that sin does not exist,” he noted. “God’s mercy does not deny the gravity of sin. It responds to it and heals it.”
Sin is willful rebellion against God.
“It is the one thing we can do apart from God, totally absent of God,” said Fr. Schrader. “And the eternal result is hell. You create a place where God is not welcome.”
The only remedy for sin — God’s mercy — came at a tremendous cost: the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Schrader believes the level of mercy shown in the Incarnation and in the passion of death of Jesus gives insight into God that the human intellect would not have been able to reach on its own.
“Philosophers having philosophical discussions could have figured out His power and sovereignty,” the priest surmised. “But I don’t think they could have guessed His mercy.”
Created for Christ
These are not ruminations about abstract things. They present bedrock insights into the nature of human existence.
They show that from the very beginning, the definition of being human is marked by — and points to — Christ’s Incarnation.
“The coming of Christ is not the backup plan,” said Fr. Schrader. “It’s not God’s ‘Plan B.’ Christ — specifically Christ the Redeemer — is what God has always wanted.”
A huge conversation is taking place. Fr. Schrader noted that today’s theologians have written dozens of books and hundreds of thousands of articles about human nature, sin and grace.
He believes the Salamanca Carmelites offer a real breakthrough in these discussions.
“We’re made as human beings in a way that points forward to the Incarnation,” he said. “We’re for Christ! And that applies to everyone, Christian or not.
“That’s why we have to take up our own cross every day. It’s not easy. Some people suffer a lot.”
Fr. Schrader emphasized how grateful he is to Bishop Gaydos and Bishop W. Shawn McKnight for allowing him to undertake these studies, and to his fellow priests and the laypeople of the diocese.
“It has taken sacrifices from everybody to make it possible for me to study,” he said. “I don’t take that for granted. I really am grateful for it.”
He said he now has a deeper appreciation for the “incredibly robust theological tradition we have as Catholics.”
“Our faith is so rich, and our theological tradition is unbelievably fruitful,” he said. “We stand in the line of centuries of saints and brilliant theologians who thought deeply about these things.”
He said looking at Catholic theology through the ages is like gazing at the night sky.
“It’s full of stars everywhere,” he said. “You can’t even count them all.”