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]

Weinandy’s address:

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).

Weinandy’s address:

…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.

24 thoughts

  1. younger Catholics, including younger theologians, have advanced beyond the ostensibly-divisive concerns of our post-Vatican II mentors.

    I am so glad if you can move beyond while finding possible to remain within the Church. As an older Catholic woman, who loves Elizabeth Johnson, I need to call God ‘Godde’ because I feel so tired by all the patriarchy, I find that I dance best with Godde outside the Church.The diatribe, the venom, the self-righteousness I come across again and again, has worn me down and I need to stay away from the debates.

    If you indeed can transcend, rise above the pettiness of our debates, and give us hope for a future of equality … I will feel happy then for my daughters and grandchildren… The future of our Church is in good hands.

    Thank you for the hope you are giving me here.

    P.S. I also love the Madaleva Manifesto… as well as all the books that come out of the group 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Claire — and I agree, the published Madeleva lectures are wonderful. And I very deeply agree with you concerning how difficult the venom and self-righteousness makes it to operate within the Church, whether at a professional level or a personal level — without very strong connections to particular communities and people, there is a good risk certain aspects of the Church would become entirely spiritually deadening to me, definitely.

      I think you may have slightly misread my conclusion, though — I’m actually somewhat skeptical of the claim that younger Catholics are able to “rise above the pettiness of our debates.” I certainly hope that all Catholics can become less petty, and focus these debates on issues rather than people — but I worry that the rhetoric of “rising above” often serves to silence discussion about issues of power, privilege, gender, sexuality, etc. So I hope that all of us can commit to engaging in such debates in ways that are actually able to rise above vitriol and insults — but I think that call needs to be framed in a significantly different manner than I have thus far seem it proposed: one that is very clear that such issues must still be discussed, and that officed representatives of the Church routinely contribute to the rancor from which we need conversion.

      1. Oh dear, Bridget, I am sorry I misread your conclusions… I must have read what I wanted to see… Less petty… silencing discussions…
        I find difficult to discuss with ultra-conservatives. Their minds seem to be closed to different alternatives or just angles…
        I don’t feel equipped to discuss with them. But I will pray that you do… And I will see if I can learn how to 🙂
        Thank you for your clarifications.

      2. Please don’t worry! I certainly wish that your original reading were more accurate.

        And I certainly think that any form of deep conversation across widely divergent perspectives is going to require considerably more psychological and spiritual safety for those who experience themselves as existing at the margins than currently exists. I sometimes feel as though the only thing I discuss in spiritual direction is how to resist my own defensiveness. :-/

  2. Beautiful! And I’m SO GLAD that you pointed out the fallacy of this current obsession with “overcoming polarization” and “moving beyond the post-Vatican II divide.” As I think you’ve mentioned before, that project has the actual effect of shifting the entire conversation to the right, despite its claim to moderation.

    1. I certainly agree that there is a deep undercurrent of sexism that affects how many issues play out, but I wouldn’t actually say I think that gender is at the root of all of this — you have male theologians being treated with just as much disrespect as female (see: Roger Haight), but of course gender remains a significant element that requires analysis in all of this.

  3. There’s a great post today on http:/ that would be a remarkable counterpoint to Weinandy’d diatribe. It is on getting on on the academy and listening to each other into truth. It’s just beautiful, as opposed to Weinandy’s raw accusatory tone.

    1. Thanks, Jane — I loved that post as well. I just recently started reading Feminism and Religion, and I am so very glad they’ve added their voices to the theological blogging universe. I plan to do a post recommending their blog in the near future.

  4. “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. ”

    I imagine I am one the people you have in mind here; at least, the concern seems related to the post I made at about a theological generation gap.

    I think you right. There is not a way in which a younger generation has transcended the divisions of an older one, nor do I think that younger theologians have “advanced beyond” – certainly not in the face of the kind of inflammatory and libelous language that Weinandy uses. At the same time, I think the divisive conversation that Weinandy imagines in his speech (where there are apparently ! theologians who have no faith life and no concern for or love of Christ !) does not exist, precisely because of changes brought on, I think, by a loss of Catholic subculture, so yes, a generational change. That means, time for more conversation, and a reality check about who theologians are and where they are.

    Nearly all of the people who are members of the new Catholic organization are not, note, of a “younger generation” that thinks the mandatum is merely a conversation with the bishops. So does the organization itself rightly grasp what the current story is?

    1. Hi, Jana — Thanks so much for your comment. I certainly wasn’t thinking of you when I wrote that — I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not directly familiar with your work, and I only read your post at CMT this evening — but if you see certain resonances with your own perspective, I very much welcome the conversation.

      I’m not sure to what you’re referring when you talk about the “new Catholic organization” — do you mean ACT here? I’m well aware that many (most? all?) of the members of ACT are senior scholars, and I didn’t intend ACT by that comment. I was commenting, rather, on a certain narrative I have heard peer-colleagues articulate, in coursework and more casual conversations.

      I’m also not tracking your sentence “I think the divisive conversation that Weinandy imagines … does not exist, precisely because of changes brought on…by a loss of Catholic subculture.” (Feel free to chalk this up to insomnia I’ve been struggling with lately!) If you could elaborate a bit on that, I would greatly appreciate it.

      All best.

      1. Hey, no need to feel embarrassed. I’m only a junior scholar… and I don’t know that my blog post was all that interesting!

        Re: Catholic subculture – I do think that the differences in training and experience of Catholic “culture” or lack thereof between an older and younger generation fuels the debate about theologians versus magisterium – that has a long track record that dates (at least) to the birth control debate. And while I think younger theologians recognize the questions and put themselves in these debates too, I think there’s a loss of a Catholic culture (across the board) that makes a complaint like not having an active faith life unintelligible – what, exactly, does an active faith life look like in the voluntaristic religious culture in which we live? I don’t know if this is any more clear. I’m having trouble more precisely getting at what I mean.

  5. I just heard about the “Update” line above, I feel very honored to hold the title of favorite Francsican of WIT — I knew there was a reason (among so many others) that you women are indeed “theologians that rock!” I’m happy to call you friends! Thanks, Bridget, for an excellent reflection here and to all the WIT authors for your ongoing contribution to sound and sane theological discourse online!

  6. Why are you in any sense surprised by any of this?

    I would suggest that the new book by Matthew Fox tells us all that we need to know about the origins and cultural consequences (for all of Earth-kind) of this dogmatic patriarchal mind-set.

    The book is The Pope’s War:Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church

    1. John, this is the second time you have begun a comment on this blog with the question “Why are you in any sense surprised by this?” My answer remains much the same as the last time you posed that question: when we lose our ability to be taken aback by manifestations of sin, injustice, and/or violence (whether physical, verbal, mental, or spiritual), our connection with grace and with who and what we are called to be is diminished. When we no longer experience surprise and anger, it means that we no longer hope for better.

      I’d also ask that in the future, if you desire to express this sentiment, you say that you are not surprised. When you open a comment with the question with which you’ve begun, I read your tone as adversarial and condescending.

  7. ISTM this is the essence of Fr. W’s objection: “… contemporary Catholic theology … often is not founded upon an assent of faith in the divine deposit of revelation as … developed within the living doctrinal and moral tradition of the church.”

    The question is, what is to be the status of propositions that the Church (Pope and bishops in communion with him) have always believed, but not specifically declared to be de fide. Much teaching concerning the nature of women and their proper role in the Church falls into this category, so the question is not merely theoretical for female Catholics.

    The other concrete implication is the question of who should “count” as a Catholic theologian. Only those who regard Fr. W’s rather broadly-defined “deposit of faith” as axiomatic? Or any self-described Catholic who publishes on theological questions? In this case, the question is not merely theoretical because it also answers the question, “whom is it appropriate for Catholic universities’ departments of theology to hire?”

    For example, should it be permissible for a Catholic theologian to propose that the development of the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of holy matrimony has historically been limited by the teachers’ lack of first-hand experience and needs to be augmented? Or does that proposition tend too much to suggest the Holy Spirit has been remiss in His duty to enlighten us?

    1. Yes, that is certainly what Weinandy is asserting — but I and others take issue with that assertion. Our objection is rooted in, amongst other matters, a study of the historical development of doctrine within the Church. It is actually not the case that teachings concerning the nature of women and our place in the Church have always been believed by the Church. For example, the Supplement to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa and John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem both say that women cannot be ordained as priests — but a significant aspect of the Supplement’s reasoning is “it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection” (Supp. 39.1, corpus), while John Paul II is at pains to emphasize that the male-only priesthood is fully in accord with the equal dignity of women. See, e.g.:

      In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behaviour, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time. Consequently, the assumption that he called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ’s way of acting.

      So, does the Roman Catholic Church not ordain women because to be female culturally signifies subjection, or does the Roman Catholic Church not ordain women in a manner entirely unrelated and opposed to the supposition that women are to be subject to men? Or, on the specific topic of marriage, see this post from Katie on the changes in the Church’s teaching: “A Church that Changes.”

      Moreover, there are things the Church has seemed always to believe which have been altered: it was a universally-shared assumption before the 20th century that the Jewish people lived under a curse for the rejection and/or death of Jesus Christ, and that God willed the Jewish people to wander, homeless, until the eschaton. Since Nostra Aetate, this is explicitly rejected by the Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of mainline Protestant churches, a shift which theologian Gregory Baum has called the single most profound change in the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church.

      Moreover, Weinandy’s assertion concerning the deposit of revelation–the scope of which is contested by theologians, given what I have said above–is accompanied by repeated assertions that significant numbers of Catholic theologians working today do not possess the theological virtue of faith and do not know God. This goes beyond a disagreement concerning the nature of Catholic theology and makes claims concerning the state of others’ souls which, as Dan Horan OFM has noted, “even a spiritual director or confessor” cannot make.

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