I was going to write a very different post this month.
Then, HeresyLetterGate occurred and I’ve been following along via the various posts on social media. I’m not going to recap all the arguments and social media events that occurred in this because that’s already been done.
What occurs to me in all this, however, is that there is a real question to be raised about who has the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church. Now, this wasn’t the original issue, but it became part of the whole HeresyLetterGate discussion and it is an important question that we need to continue to think about. This question resonates not only personally but also with my own research. And, as a woman… a member of the gender who for a long time did not have the authority to teach (thanks a lot Saint Paul!)… this question is an important one to continue to think about even now that women have been granted the right to teach theology (though not, apparently, to offer any substantial input).
My main area of research focuses on a moderately obscure group of nuns in seventeenth-century France. I say moderately obscure because they were involved in the Jansenist controversy which brought them to prominence, but even still, beyond a handful of scholars, almost nobody–in the United States at least–has studied them. The question that I bring to the writings of the nuns is precisely the question of who has authority as a theologian. My argument is that although the nuns did not have the academic qualifications to be considered theologians, they very much learned, wrote, and taught theology.
Significantly, however, of the nuns from Port-Royal that most scholars focus on–with the exception of Jacqueline Pascal–all held the position of abbess at one point or another in their lives. Thus, their authority did not just merely derive from their education, writing, or teaching, but it also came from the position that provided the opportunity for them to do so.
Parallels can be drawn to the discussion over credentials for writing about theology and ecclesiology in two ways. In some ways, these nuns do represent professionals and those of us who have chosen a vocation to professional theology. Although they did not have the same academic formation that professional theologians of the Sorbonne would have had in the seventeenth century, their position in the cloister gave them access to more knowledge and education than most of the laity had at the time. On the other hand, they were not priests and they were not academic theologians, so in other ways they represent the same position that Ross Douthat occupies.
Of course, we’re not in the seventeenth century anymore and so I have two more thoughts on this controversy.
One is the same point that Katie Grimes brought up in her explanation about why she signed the letter to the New York Times. That is, when a news organization wants commentary on science (except maybe on vaccines), they ask a scientist, generally someone who has spent years getting a doctorate in the field of science in which they are an expert. So, why is the same courtesy not extended to theology?
Of course, Ross Douthat doesn’t function as the theology expert for the New York Times, writing instead for their opinion page and, yes, anyone can have an opinion about what is going on in the Catholic Church.
But, furthermore, as examples throughout history–especially the example of women–show, often it has been precisely the uneducated (in the sense of not having the academic credentials of a theologian) who have provided the church with particular and unique insights from their theological reflection.
So, I’ve come full circle in this post and unfortunately don’t really have an answer to the main question of who has–or should have–the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church. Looking back into my historical research, an argument could be made for leaving it to the professionals and also for opening it up to everyone. And again, as a member of the gender who was not officially allowed to teach for a long time, I worry about the idea of making distinctions over who can and cannot speak out about theology. But, as someone who has dedicated many years of my life to becoming credentialed in the field of theology, there also needs to be a place where a certain amount of deference and respect is given to those who have spent the time to become experts in these topics.