Some of our readers may have seen that John Allen, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, recently summarized a talk Thomas Weinandy OFM Cap (executive director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s doctrine committee) gave in May to the Academy of Catholic Theology. This talk, “Faith and the Ecclesial Vocation of the Catholic Theologian,” was published at the end of July in Origins (the documentary service of the US Catholic Bishops).
[ Update: Somewhere in my editing of this post, I accidentally deleted a sentence noting that WIT first learned of Weinandy’s talk from our friend (and favorite Franciscan) Dan Horan. I recommend his post on this topic.]
In speaking about Catholic theologians, Weinandy uses troublingly polemical language. NCR’s headline is “Bishops’ staffer rips theologians as ‘curse'”; Weinandy’s actual words are
Every Catholic theologian is to be a blessing and gift to the church, but if this honored calling is not conjoined with equal responsibility, theologians can become the very opposite of what they are called to be. Theologians will become a curse and an affliction upon the church.
Weinandy’s talk was given in the context of the controversy concerning the doctrine committee’s treatment of Elizabeth Johnson and her most recent book, Quest for the Living God, about which WIT have had some thoughts, and on which the boards of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society have issued statements (CTSA and CTS are the two major professional organizations of Catholic theologians; the Academy of Catholic Theology is a smaller organization which has existed since 2007 and is limited by its constitution to a maximum of 50 members, at least until 2012).
As Allen notes, “In his address, Weinandy did not mention Johnson or any other theologian. His analysis, however, would seem to form part of the background to the dispute over Johnson’s work.” I would like to suppose out of charity that Weinandy’s rhetoric is aimed at other, problematic scholars in the Catholic academy. Even so, after five years of graduate study, I cannot think of anyone–let alone any considerable group–who would warrant Weinandy’s claim that
…theology may be the only academic pursuit where one seemingly can be considered a theologian without actually having to know the subject matter. Biologists must actually know real plants, and physicists must actually understand the workings of real material objects, but it would appear at times that a theologian need not actually know God.
Too often theologians speak and write while only possessing a theoretical or abstract knowledge of their subject matter, that is, they know about God and his mysteries and are even able to make helpful philosophical and theo- logical moves, but they do not actually know God and the mysteries of which they speak.
Moreover, I remain disturbed by the resonances between Weinandy’s address and some of the most problematic claims of the doctrine committee’s statement on Quest for the Living God. Compare Weinandy’s claim about theologians who do not know God with the doctrine committee on Elizabeth Johnson:
For [Johnson], God remains mysteriously unknowable. This position, however, completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in that Gospel … (19) [for a critique of the statement’s reading of Johnson on this point, see Erin’s third “Defense” post]
I am compelled at this point to address the present crisis within Catholic theology. If the theological virtue of faith is foundational for an authentic Catholic theology, the lack of this theological virtue, in my personal opinion, accounts, by in large, for the present crisis within Catholic theology. Much of what passes for contemporary Catholic theology, it would appear, often is not founded upon an assent of faith in the divine deposit of revelation as proclaimed in the sacred Scriptures and developed within the living doctrinal and moral tradition of the church.
The doctrine committee’s statement:
The real crisis…that this book illustrates is reflected in the disjuncture between a proper and authentic understanding of the traditional notion of the Christian God and an understanding of God that no longer comports with Christian revelation and the Church’s profession of faith (6).
…contemporary theology often seems to be a search to find and articulate just what the content of the faith, if any, actually is or should be for today’s church and world. Catholic theology, as practiced today, has often become what John Paul II stated it has no right to become. It has become an attempt by reason to pass judgment on the content of faith as if it were of human origin, instead of laying hold of the content of faith through an act of faith and, from within the context of faith, reason then seeks to penetrate more fully and express more clearly what that content is.
Because of the lack of faith in the church’s content of faith, theologians become judges who stand above the faith and arbitrate what is to be believed and what is not. In so doing, many contemporary Catholic theologians often appear to possess little reverence and fondness for the mysteries of the faith as traditionally understood and presently professed within the church.
The doctrine committee’s statement:
The basic problem with Quest for the Living God as a work of Catholic theology is that the book does not take the faith of the Church as its starting point. Instead, the author employs standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the Magisterium (20).
This problematic mode of engagement is not directed toward Elizabeth Johnson alone, however. Consider the closing paragraph of Weinandy’s “Jesus Symbol of God: Some Reflections,” an extended review of the christology of Roger Haight, SJ, who has been forbidden to write theology or teach at Catholic or non-Catholic institutions:
I have been extremely critical of Haight’s whole enterprize, to say the least, but then I believe a great deal is at stake – the heart of the Gospel and the whole Christian doctrinal tradition. Haight argues that a radical redefinition of Christianity is necessary in order to make it credible to the contemporary educated person of postmodernity, and he has offered his version of what that redefinition should be. Nonetheless, it must be forthrightly acknowledged that Haight’s reinterpretative enterprize does not arise from within the Gospel itself, but is the importation of a foreign hermeneutic that has ruthlessly been imposed upon it. If history is a good teacher, the Christian faithful, not merely of the present but also of the past, will not tolerate such philosophical and theological colonialism, for they will demand and seize the Gospel’s rightful freedom and integrity.
The rhetoric at work here functions not to advance mutual understanding, but to attack and discredit not only particular theological arguments, but theologians themselves (ourselves!), as lacking the theological virtue of faith.
We at WIT have often noticed the popularity, within certain segments of the Catholic world, of the claim that younger Catholics, including younger theologians, have advanced beyond the ostensibly-divisive concerns of our post-Vatican II mentors. This trope suggests that senior theologians have contributed to the fragmentation of the church through an irresponsible focus on polarizing issues, while theologians in our 20s and 30s are able to transcend such polarization by focusing on areas of accord. It suggests that senior theologians largely err by seeing the academic mandatum as a problematic exercise of ecclesial control, while junior theologians correctly perceive it as an opportunity for friendly dialogue with our bishops.
Situations such as the silencing of Roger Haight, the misinterpretation and misrepresentation of Quest for the Living God, and the truly divisive rhetoric of Thomas Weinandy prevent me and my fellow WITs from accepting that narrative. We will be unable to have an honest conversation about tensions and fragmentation within the church until officed representatives of the church refrain from the suggestion that well-respected and well-loved theologians represent a “curse and affliction upon the church.” We will be unable to “move beyond” the divisiveness of the past until the claim that fragmentation finds its origin in theologians who “attempt to fulfill their charge without the theological virtue of faith” and thereby “diminish the intellectual and spiritual vitality within the body of Christ […]” at last belongs to the past.
And though this post is already quite long, I hope you will stay with me for just a short while longer, because I’d like to end on a note of hope rather than a note of distress. That note is the inspiration and mentoring we as young women theologians have found in our professors, in the senior theologians–women and men, religious and secular and lay–who not only persevere in their own profound and humble love of the Church in the face of vitriolic accusations leveled at themselves and their friends but also find the time and the energy to encourage us to persevere and deepen such love.
When such accusations start to overwhelm me, I often re-read the Madeleva Manifesto, a joint statement of sixteen women theologians concerning women in the Church. I find myself particularly strengthened by the final point:
To the young women of the church we say: carry forward the cause of gospel feminism. We will be with you along the way, sharing what we have learned about the freedom, joy and power of contemplative intimacy with God. We ask you to join us in a commitment to far-reaching transformation of church and society in non-violent ways.
To the women and men theologians who have been our teachers, our mentors, our friends and inspirations, we at WIT say: thank you for your example, your inspiration, and your accompaniment. We owe you a greater debt than we can ever express, and it is with deepest humility that we express the hope that our own work will continue the great tradition you have faithfully handed on to us.