As everyone who follows conflicts in the church knows, there has been a nasty fight going on between some members of the hierarchy and the majority of professional Catholic theologians—those who teach the university courses and write the articles for mainstream or liberal Catholic periodicals, most of whom are members of the Catholic Theological Society of America.
It began in March when the bishops’ nine-member doctrinal committee published a rebuke of Catholic theologian Sister Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University, alleging that her book, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, which is used in many college theology courses, undermines the Gospels and presents inauthentic Catholic theology. Her fellow theologians in the CTSA leapt to her defense and overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for a review of the procedures that lead to the critique, especially since established protocol requires that the person being investigated be personally consulted. Sister Johnson was not.
Since then we have learned that all 36 members of the U. S. bishops administrative committee, under New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, approved both the content and the procedure leading to the rebuke. And that the executive director of the secretariat for doctrine, spokesman for the bishops during the controversy and presumed author of the statement, Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, delivered a lecture in May to the Academy of Catholic Theology, which has been widely criticized by his fellow theologians.
Although Weinandy is described in his Wikipedia biography as a “leading scholar in the Roman Catholic Church” and has taught at a variety of colleges and written books and articles mostly for conservative publications, he has not been, until now, and compared to Professor Johnson, very widely known.
I have just read his address, published in the July 21 Origins, plus follow-up news stories, including the comments section of NCR, and the Web site catholicmoraltheology.com. The address—which is very long, repetitious and expressed in generalities rather than examples—warns that theologians “will become a curse and an affliction upon the church,” they lack faith, they are not holy, don’t pray, don’t “know God.” How can they teach if they don’t know God, he asks? Much modern scripture scholarship, he says, is “bankrupt.” Rather than see themselves as “evangelists,” many contemporary academic theologians “claim they offer what is novel, groundbreaking and sometimes even shocking,” when it is actually not in accord with the church’s teaching.
Just one question. How does he know whether another man or woman knows God”?
One theologian, Emily Reimer-Barry, writes (first response), “I am wrestling with feelings of sadness, anger and fear.” She finds Weinandy’s tone polemical and divisive. Concerned with preserving the teaching authority of the bishops in continuity with received Revelation, she says he reveals an ecclesial vision that separates “insiders and outsiders.”
In her blog, Jana Bennett, describes her life getting the kids dressed for Mass, trying to work in prayer time, asking “Lord, help me get through this day.” She writes Scripture reflections for her Web site and teaches catechism to 3-6-year olds. She explains Weinandy’s attitude through the generation gap: he and she read different works in their training, and theology has been de-clericalized so that clergy and lay persons socialize in different worlds. Still another writer comments that Weinandy’s generation (he is 65) didn’t necessarily read primary texts, but were taught to understand what the church taught about them.
Fordham theology chair Terrence Tilley accuses Weinandy, in a quarterly published by the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, of both misrepresenting and misinterpreting his views. He urges Weinandy to emulate Avery Cardinal Dulles, who read others’ work “thoroughly, interpreted it charitably, and reported it accurately—especially when he disagreed with them.”
For good reasons, some hope this debate will just blow away. I wish the conservative bloc had a more reliable spokesperson. Fr. Weinandy’s Origins talk makes it all too clear where he is coming from. I have worked at and sometimes taught theology at six Jesuit universities over 40 years and know many theologians—from Gerard Sloyan to Avery Dulles—as friends. I do not recognize the theologians Weinandy describes; the men and woman I have known have been people of faith and prayer.
To assess the treatment of Professor Johnson, the Catholic faithful have a right to know who called for this investigation into her work and how many of the 45 bishops who voted to censure Professor Johnson actually read her book and her reply to the committee. If they did not, how do they defend their decision?
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.