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Kathleen BonnetteAugust 25, 2023
Bishop Robert Barron speaks at World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 2, 2023. His recent comments have sparked a discussion on how to avoid “dumbed-down” theology. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minn., reflecting on the decline of the church in the West, recently argued in an interview with EWTN that “[w]e’ve dumbed down the faith for way too long.” He said young people “don’t want an uncertain trumpet. They don’t want a vacillating message. They want something clear.” This is not a new claim for Bishop Barron, and it is not unique to him. There is no shortage of Catholics decrying a supposed loss of intellectual rigor in the Western church.

At one time, I was among those voices. My initial conversion to Catholicism occurred through my study of classical theology, and I can relate to Bishop Barron’s anecdote about purchasing texts from the Catholic intellectual tradition for his niece, whose comic-book-style high school theology book he found infantile. But it is concerning that all or almost all of the books generally included in this tradition were written by Western men, just like those I studied in college and graduate school.

It is concerning that all or almost all of the books generally included in this tradition were written by Western men.

Now, thanks to theologians like M. Shawn Copeland, I have come to recognize the “camouflaged speech” of classical Western theology, which ostensibly addresses the human subject or person but actually centers the white, male, bourgeois European. “Such speech,” Dr. Copeland insists, “[fails] theology’s vital task of abstraction: grappling with concrete data to discern, understand, and evaluate their emerging patterns in order to interpret their meanings.” It is understandable why many in the church would not find this tradition compelling.

Bishop Barron has focused on his belief that the church has become intellectually weaker, but even assuming that is so, we cannot simply return to the hierarchical framework (heaven over earth, mind over body, men over women over animals) perpetuated by classical Western theology, which has amplified the voices of those in power while silencing others. It is telling that the period in which many feel that theology has been “dumbed down” corresponds directly to the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps this is a coincidence. But I suspect that a desire for theological certitude—one interpretation of a “clear and certain” trumpet—comes from anxiety.

In the chaos of life, we want to feel in control, to cling to something sure. But we cannot let this anxiety lead to a closed intellectual system that suppresses diverse voices. God (who is truth) is not controlling or limited; God is relational and creative.

We cannot let anxiety lead to a closed intellectual system that suppresses diverse voices.

It wasn’t until I took a position in the Office of Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation with the School Sisters of Notre Dame that my conversion deepened and my understanding of truth began to expand. Women religious are among those who have taken up the mandate of Vatican II reforms to develop theology consistent with their charisms, and they have experienced attempts to shut down what others determine are “violations” of Catholic orthodoxy.

One example is ecofeminist theology, which invites us to relate to God as the love that creates and sustains the world—present, as Pope Francis writes, “in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.” Rejecting hierarchy and embracing interconnection, ecofeminism is embedded within the Christian tradition. But as Ivone Gebara, O.S.A., explains, in our patriarchal culture, God “has a masculine face” and is considered “a super power.” In this context, ecofeminism is “considered a kind of heresy.”

Through the practical work of ministry—encounters with marginalized people, conversations with sisters overcoming their own marginalization in the church—I have learned to value the truth that comes from experience and encounter. There are many means of acquiring knowledge, and the Catholic intellectual tradition should incorporate them all. To limit the pursuit of truth to classical Western inquiry is to limit—and even distort—God’s revelation.

To limit the pursuit of truth to classical Western inquiry is to limit—and even distort—God’s revelation.

As the Cuban theologian Ada María Isasi-Díaz notes, solidarity must respect “the people’s ability to reason and to participate reflectively in their own struggles against oppression.” I suspect this reveals why the Western Catholic intellectual tradition has been disregarded even by many Western Catholics: not because it has been dumbed down, but because it has been passed on in a top-down fashion. It thinks about us rather than thinking with us, to use Dr. Isasi-Díaz’s language.

Until the Catholic intellectual tradition includes the voices of those who have been marginalized, it will not have the power that Bishop Barron and I hope it will. And it shouldn’t. Without openness to diverse ways of knowing, our intellectual tradition closes in on itself and cannot approach the great mystery that is God. The traditional canon is certainly beautiful, but it should serve as a springboard to ever deeper questions; otherwise, adherents evangelize from a standpoint of abstract domination rather than encounter.

As Sister Gebara insists, “we want to broaden [our theological] perspective and leave it open for new learnings.” To do so is not to be “an uncertain trumpet” but to insist that God is not dominative and neither should be our pursuit of truth.

If we recognize the importance of intellectual engagement in responding to the pull of God’s love, we must ask: Are we being invited to expand the horizons of our thought and use all of ourselves to seek God? Sister Gebara’s exhortation is crucial: “Resist the temptation to allow the various dogmas we have created in the course of history to dull our cognitive faculties.… Be continually alert to the flow of life.”

Good theology is not about intellectual certainty but about turning attention to this flow. This is what I hope to teach my students. The Catholic intellectual tradition is rich, but it needs the voices that have been marginalized to reach its fullest potential.

[Related: “Black theology and a legacy of oppression,” by M. Shawn Copeland]

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