Catholic Theology at Secular Universities

The Tablet (of London, not Brooklyn) arrived late this week due to Memorial Day and I arrived late to reading it because of the extra research having lost a day of work to the holiday. If you do not read the Tablet, you should go online now and subscribe, and not only because I happen to have the cover story on this week’s issue, where I address the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride. The magazine is always a good read but there was an article by Paul Murray entitled "Faith, theology and the secular cloister" that was really important and which the magazine has happily agreed to let us reprint. You can be read in its entirety here.

Murray discusses the value of doing Catholic theology at secular universities, and he does not gloss over the difficulties. The most obvious difficulty is this: Anyone can study religion, but theology presumes a set of data known as revelation that is only accessible to those who acknowledge it as revealed; on the other hand, a public university can scarcely be in the business of deciding who is and is not a Catholic theologian.


Murray addresses many important issues but there were a couple of sentences that especially caught my eye. He writes, "In common theological parlance, ‘liberal’ refers not simply to theological creativity but to the dissolution of core doctrinal commitments and the embrace of prevailing secular norms as an uncriticised ‘foundation’. In contrast, with McCabe, Lash and Kerr [three prominent British theologians] we have theologians of avowedly, if richly and creatively, orthodox doctrinal persuasion; theologians committed to mining the tradition in its depth and breadth for that tradition’s own healing and re-expression, and in service of transformative engagement with contemporary society." First, thems two damned fine sentences. Second, the phrase "tradition’s own healing and re-expression" exhibits a profound insight into religion: It always needs healing because of the brokenness of its members and it always needs re-expression because its members live in history.

The truths of the faith that theology seeks to express can’t be put up on the mantle to collect dust. In the time it takes me to write this sentence, someone will approach death and need the Church as never before, and someone else will watch a loved one die and need the Church as never before, and someone will do a very bad thing and be in need of forgiveness and need the Church as never before and someone else will go hungry and another will see someone who is hungry and both of them will need the Church as never before. If faith is up on the mantle, or in a museum, it will die. Theology must always find ways for the faith to heal and to re-express the truths that have animated the Church through the centuries.

Murray then writes, "The conviction is that it is the tradition that is creative; the tradition that is radical. The point is neither to reject nor to foreclose the tradition but to be, we might say, radically traditional." Seeing as everyone thinks they have a hermeneutic for Vatican II these days, I would submit that Murray has hit the hermeneutic nail on the head here. The key to understanding the Council, which is another way of saying the key to understanding the call, the duty and the promise of Catholic theology today, consists of continuing the Ressourcement that was at the heart of the Council. Vatican II did not drop out of the sky. It flourished, I would submit, out of the discovery by Congar, DeLubac and others that the tradition was richer and more profound, more radical if you will, than what we had turned that tradition into in the 1950s.

Murray notes that the University of Durham was well-suited to address the issue of a public university hosting a Catholic theological chair in part because their Van Mildert chair had always requited that the professor who hold it serve as a canon at Durham Cathedral. We do not have canons in the U.S. but I wish we did so that we could establish such chairs. In the event, the University agreed that whoever hold the Catholic theology chair submit a statement that he or she is a practicing Catholic.

Murray cites the writing of David Ford on the role of Catholic theology in a public university. He writes that "David Ford accepts that the postmodern pluralist university cannot have one integrating narrative or framework. But rather than argue for the re-building of the Catholic university, Ford argues that in place of Enlightenment’s ‘neutral ground’, there should be ‘mutual ground’ of particular traditions in deep engagement with each other." This distinction between "neutral" and "mutual" ground is very important so that we do not get carried away into the Scottish Enlightenment nonsense about the marketplace of ideas that satisfies the Michael Novaks and George Weigels of the world and about which I wrote last week.

That should whet your appetite to read the rest of this truly fascinating article. The issues are important and profound and, in light of the news from Trenton this morning, I would keep an eye on Princeton University as a place where they might be played out on the American side of the pond.

Michael Sean Winters


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