Readings: The 'Crisis' in American Theology Today

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 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.

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Jack Barry
7 years 4 months ago
Crystal  -  Good question.   May be hard for a creative theologian to answer beforehand: 
The Editor-in-Chief of Theological Studies, the journal being discussed at dotCommonweal, aims to comply with Benedict XVI's call to ''do theology 'on the frontiers' while necessarily remaining 'rooted in the center'''.    Sounds like a difficult position in which to work. 
John Barbieri
7 years 4 months ago
This is a very good, well reasoned, thoughtful article.
Thank you, Father Schroth.
Surprisingly and without intending to, this article also illustrates why there should NOT be a church council at this time.
Given the state of the hierarchy, it is doubtful that the problems of the church would be debated with knowledge and honesty. Far less would the problems be resolved amicably. I would fear that a council would add to the antagonisms and precipitate a schism. (Perhaps a schism already exists between the hierarchy and the laity!)
Pope John XXIII was a rare man.
He was neither a liberal nor a conservative, but rather he was a deeply compassionate human being. He truly loved people.
I hope that by some fluke a future pope will be elected who will be like him.
Such a pope would be a sine qua non for renewal.

PJ Johnston
7 years 4 months ago
There is actually talk of schism of Austria, but I don't know whether or not the threat is being exaggerated:,8599,2090629,00.html#ixzz1WeEZdG2a
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
One of the primary reasons that I call myself Catholic is because the theology is so good.  I love the poetry of it.  The theological explanation of Eucharist as the summary of all creation coming together in a single hymn of praise, surrender and thanksgiving turns me on. 

I've looked through some of the links and I cannot find a single specific example of where a theologian's teaching goes against Church teaching.  The rhetoric on the part of Church "staffers" is vague and general.  It sounds more like fear than a real underlying disagreement.
Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 4 months ago
"I've looked through some of the links and I cannot find a single specific example of where a theologian's teaching goes against Church teaching. "

I should have clarified that I could not find an example specified in language that I could understand.
Crystal Watson
7 years 4 months ago
There was a recent post at dotCommonweal on a similar subject -
Maybe part of the problem is the question of the purpose of theology.  Is its purpose to search for the truth where ever that may lead,  or is it to just elaborate within the envelope of defined Catholic doctrines?   

Dale Wisely
7 years 4 months ago
Without question, my personal faith was at its strongest during the years I studied theology at a Jesuit college.  It allowed me to burn down a shallow and ill-informed faith and build up one based on study, prayer, reflection and, yes, openness to a range of ideas of smart and faithful people (and even some sincere not-so-faithful ones.)  That experience, for good or ill, is still the basis of my strongest connection to the Church.
Vanessa Landry
7 years 4 months ago
It seems to me that the heirarchy is closing the barn door after the horses have run wild..
for about  40 years.  As far as this amateur lay person can see, theologians are already trending (albeit slowly) toward more classical forms, and reigning in certain excesses on their own. The worst of those were  perpetrated during the free-for-all that was the result of confusion stemming from Vatican II.

Personally, I think a lot of it has to do, perhaps not with the purpose of theology, but with interpretation and translation.  There are two types of translation: one tries for the more literal meaning, the second goes for a more poetic embrace of the original meaning. Since it is impossible to express the full meaning of the original in a different tongue (especially across cultures and centuaries)  a certain leeway is invited.  If the new translation of the Roman Missal is anything to go by, I bet this is at the crux of the Heirarchy's true criticism of modern theologians. Perhaps these theologians rely on the latter type of translation, which has been spread near and far for the past 40-60  years or so. The more literal translation seems to be coming back into vogue- at least in heirarchical circles. 

I honestly don't know how I feel about this.  On one hand, there are dangers to literal translation, especially if the same words mean different things over time.  In the second, there can be so much leeway in translation that meaning is wholy lost. and we are rediced to hazy feel-good language. Perhaps a course-correction is intended, to stray away from indulgent cliffs?

Would yet another council make this better?  I don't know. I like to think that the Heirarchy has been doing this and observing the consequences literally for centuries. While both sides of the debate have committed unflattering acts, the papal leadership has never advocated heresy. Considering some things that have happened throughout history, one has to proclaim  the existence of miracles, and trust in God.

I have to agree wtih the commenter who remarked that he wished the conservatives had a better representative. It seems ever the way in these modern times that those who advise caution speak rashly and without clarity, and those who bend with the times speak with honey'd tongues and get the best sound-bites.
7 years 4 months ago
It's wonderful to hear two sides of an issue.   But I get very uneasy and concerned when it deteriorates into uncharitable, judgmental statements.  It's Satan's famous strategy:   divide and conquer.   And he seems to be winning........we need to pray fervently that the whole Church: hierarchy, theologians and the rest of us, stay focused on Almighty God, the triune God...... and all this posturing of they are wrong and we right will disssipate.   After all it's always about  Him.
Michael Barberi
7 years 4 months ago
Weinandy 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?

Any book or essay that challenges a church teaching is summarily dismissed and severely criticized. The process is not democratic and never was.  We have stopped becoming a listening and learning Church because the Magisterium has authoritatively closed debate on the many issues that divide us. A Church that does not listen and learn cannot be a teaching Church. All Church teachings are not the absolute moral truth. I ask: When has a Church teaching not been received, and not been reformed? I can think of several: usury, slavery, the ends of marriage, and capital punishment. Who in the Church today would say the Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors is the moral truth? In Veritatis Spendor, deportation is asserted to be intrinsically evil. If an illegal alien commits a felony and is deported, is this really intrinscially evil?

There continues to be no effective and sincere efforts to bridge the theological differences between theologians and the Church Hierarchy. Ditto for the voices of the informed laity. The result is a tragedy called a divided Church.


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