A Life in Theology: 39th McGinley Lecture
It is a matter of surprise that I have occupied the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society for 20 years. When I reached the statutory retirement age at The Catholic University of America in 1988, I received several academic offers. As a Jesuit, I consulted my provincial superior as to which I should accept, and he replied that I should await an offer from Fordham that was still in the making. In another month I received a letter from Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., the president of Fordham, inviting me to be the first holder of this new professorship named for the president emeritus, Laurence J. McGinley, S.J. Father O’Hare gave me a choice of accepting for two years or for one year renewable. Being of a cautious nature, I opted for the second alternative. As it turned out, there was no limit on the number of possible renewals, which have cordially been extended both by Father O’Hare and by his successor Father Joseph McShane, and so here I am, 20 years later, still sitting on the metaphorical chair.
Why, then, a farewell? Why not 30 or 40 years on this blissful seat? In this life, unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. I was already making serious preparations to resign when I began to be stricken with a succession of health problems, all resulting from a bout of polio dating from 1945, when I was a naval officer in World War II. Until at least the year 2000 it seemed that I had pretty well overcome the disabilities, but the aftereffects began to manifest themselves in recent years, and in the past year they have become so acute as to prevent me from doing the teaching, lecturing and writing that my duties here at Fordham require. Divine providence, which has graciously guided my career throughout these many years, is giving clear signs that it is time to move on and make way for a younger and healthier successor.
Among the principal responsibilities attached to the McGinley Chair are the semi-annual public lectures that I have been delivering since the fall of 1988. This lecture ought by rights to be the 40th, but because I had to miss one lecture back in 1994, there are only 39. The first 38 have been gathered into a book just published by Fordham University Press. The book will probably be the most substantial, if not the sole, memorial of my tenure of the McGinley Chair.
Selection of Topics
All told, I have given hundreds of lectures on a great variety of themes during the past 20 years, but the McGinley lectures belong in a category by themselves. I have given them my closest attention to make sure of having in each case a publishable text. Whereas in other cases the theme has usually been set by the persons issuing the invitation, almost all the topics and titles of the McGinley lectures are my own.
The designation of my professorship—religion and society—leaves open a very wide field of choice, ranging from the religious to the secular, from ecclesiastical doctrine to social analysis. I have spoken on strictly theological themes such as the sacrifice of the cross, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, heaven and hell. But also, gravitating toward the societal pole, I have talked of secular themes such as politics, human rights and the death penalty.
In the selection of topics I have followed three criteria.
First of all, I wanted all the topics to have at least a theological dimension. A theologian is what I am, and I work within the Catholic tradition, which is my home. Although I try not to display ignorance of fields such as philosophy, history, literature and sociology, insofar as they are relevant to my inquiry, I claim competence only in theology.
In the second place, I attempted to concentrate on themes that were matters of debate among Catholic theologians. These lectures are not a simple exercise in catechesis or Christian doctrine. In every instance, I suspect, a controversy is being addressed, or at least lurks in the background. My intention is to give an informed judgment as to which positions are sound and which should be rejected.
Third, I have tried to choose topics of general interest not reserved to a small clique of specialists. For these lectures are public. I make an effort to avoid theological jargon and to speak a language that all educated Christians can understand. I recognize the necessity of using technical terms for discussing recondite questions, and even in these lectures I borrow from the church councils terms such as “substantial presence” and “subsisting in,” but I hope I have made these terms generally intelligible. Theologians are sometimes tempted to display their erudition by adopting the most recent coinages of sophisticated European intellectuals even when the terminology serves more to obscure than to clarify their message.
As I glance over the titles of my McGinley lectures, I have the impression that they form a solid collection dealing with major theological and social issues inherited from the Second Vatican Council and still under discussion today. I dare to hope that the opinions I have proposed and defended are true and persuasive. The faith that underlies them is not true today and false tomorrow; its teachings are permanent and universal.
A certain number of these McGinley lectures, I acknowledge, are linked with events now past, such as the advent of the third millennium. Pope John Paul II, however, used the great jubilee as a teaching moment to impress on the faithful ideas that should guide them, and us, at all times. The teaching ministry of that extraordinary pope until his death in 2005 gave me much necessary guidance.
Listening and Learning Before Speaking
I cannot claim that these lectures are unified by a single method. In each case the method has to be adapted to the topic. But in general I have begun my investigation by asking what others, especially authoritative voices, have had to say about pertinent questions. I want to learn before I speak. If all the witnesses agree, and if there are no unanswered objections, it will be sufficient to note the consensus. But because I have deliberately selected controversial topics, I have generally found both agreements and disagreements. After ascertaining the spectrum of opinions, I search out the best arguments in favor of each major position. To present and classify the existing opinions is, I take it, a service to theology, but I think it necessary also to criticize views that are inadequate. Feeling a responsibility to reach a judgment, I draw conclusions that bring me into conflict with some of my colleagues. In my conclusions I try to incorporate the valid insights of all parties to the discussion, rather than perpetuate a one-sided view that is partial and incomplete. I think of myself as a moderate trying to make peace between opposed schools of thought. While doing so, however, I insist on logical consistency. Unlike certain relativists of our time, I abhor mixtures of contradictions.
I mentioned above that I speak as a theologian. By that term I mean that I draw conclusions from what I believe as a Catholic Christian. The church teaches, and I firmly believe, that the Son of God became man some 2,000 years ago, died to redeem us and rose for the sake of our salvation. Christ the Redeemer, who has given the fullness of revelation, has also made provision for the revelation to be kept alive in the church without corruption or dilution. These basic teachings of our faith, held in common by all believers, are presupposed by Catholic theology. The faith takes nothing away from what I can know by my native reasoning powers, but it adds a vast new light coming from on high.
In my lectures, then, I have made continual use of Christian revelation as conveyed through holy Scripture and Catholic tradition. I am reluctant to say anything that runs against these sacred sources on the pretext that we have superior insight today. Respect for the deposit of faith should not be called conservatism in the pejorative sense but a simple loyalty to the word of God. When in these lectures I affirm that Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross, or that he makes himself substantially present in the Eucharist, or that the gate to salvation is a narrow one, or that priestly ordination is reserved to men, or that capital punishment is sometimes warranted, in each case I am willingly adhering to the testimony of Scripture and perennial Catholic tradition.
These lectures, I hope, make it clear that tradition is a developing thing because the church lives in history. Tradition develops in fidelity to its own deepest principles, as this set of lectures illustrates, for instance, with reference to religious freedom and Mariology. To anticipate what developments are appropriate often requires an exceptional sense of the faith. Developments of doctrine always involve a certain continuity; a reversal of course is not a development.
As the reader will easily discover, I do not particularly strive for originality. Very few new ideas, I suspect, are true. If I conceived a theological idea that had never occurred to anyone in the past, I would have every reason to think myself mistaken. The current confusion in theology is in no small part due to a plethora of innovations, which last a few years only to be overtaken by further, and equally ephemeral, theories. The effort to keep up with the latest theological fashions is hardly a profitable investment of time. Far more valuable would it be to insert oneself in the great tradition of the fathers and doctors of the church. I myself try to think and speak within that tradition, while taking due notice of new and deviant opinions.
Without in any way comparing myself to Pope Benedict XVI, I feel that I can make his words my own when he writes:
I have never tried to create a system of my own, an individual theology. What is specific, if you want to call it that, is that I simply want to think in communion with the faith of the Church, and that means above all to think in communion with the great thinkers of the faith. The aim is not an isolated theology that I draw out of myself but one that opens as widely as possible into the common intellectual pathways of the faith.
Salt of the Earth, 1997, pg. 66
These words speak very powerfully to me because, as a Jesuit, I am committed to St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”
The Quest for Eternal Truth and Wisdom
The present climate of opinion does not favor tradition and orthodoxy, two terms that have negative connotations for many hearers. Our culture is dominated by experimental science, which works by entirely different methods, leaving its own past behind as it forges into the future. Science, we all know, does not rest on a treasury of revealed knowledge handed down in authoritative tradition. Science has wonderfully increased our powers to make and to destroy, but it does not tell us what we ought to do and why. It does not tell us where the universe came from, or why we exist or what our final destination is. And yet some scientists speak as though their discipline were the only kind of valid knowledge.
This brand of scientism has been around for centuries, but only today is it boasting of its powers to displace philosophical wisdom and religious faith, as I noted in my McGinley Lecture “God and Evolution,” a year ago. Already as a college undergraduate 70 years ago, I felt the oppressive nature of a culture that had no place for objective moral norms and meaning. I was desperate for enlightenment about whether there was anything worth living and dying for, as I explained in one of my earliest books, A Testimonial to Grace. That very desperation set me on the path that led through ancient Greek philosophy to Catholic faith.
All of us today are immersed in a culture that lacks abiding truths and fixed moral norms. But there is no necessity for our culture to have taken this negative turn. Ancient philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, had refuted the materialism, relativism, subjectivism and hedonism of their day and had shown the validity of metaphysical knowledge. Western thought followed in the path of cognitive realism for many centuries before the revival of agnosticism in the Renaissance. Catholic believers and indeed all clear thinkers have good reasons not to be engulfed in the superficial trends of the times. In his great encyclical Faith and Reason (1998), which forms the topic of one McGinley Lecture, John Paul II summoned philosophy to resume its original quest for eternal truth and wisdom.
As mentioned earlier, I entered college in a quagmire of confusion about whether life and the universe could make sense at all. I was conscious of the emptiness of a selfish life based on the pursuit of pleasure. Happiness, I gradually came to see, is the reward given for holding fast to what is truly good and important. To some extent the philosophers of antiquity identified these goals. But Christian revelation brought a tremendous increase of light. God alone, I learned from the New Testament, was good and true in an unqualified sense. And the same God in all his beauty and majesty became one of our human family in Jesus Christ, the truth, the way and the life. The most important thing about my career, and many of yours, I feel sure, is the discovery of the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the Lord Jesus himself.
As I approach the termination of my active life, I gratefully acknowledge that a benign providence has governed my days. The persons I have met, the places I have been, the things I have been asked to do, have all coalesced into a pattern, so that each stage of my life has prepared me for the next. My 20 years on the McGinley Chair have been a kind of climax, at least from my personal point of view. I often feel that there is no one on earth with whom I would want to exchange places. It has been a special privilege to serve in the Society of Jesus, a religious community specially dedicated to the Savior of the world.
The good life does not have to be an easy one, as our blessed Lord and the saints have taught us. Pope John Paul II in his later years used to say, “The Pope must suffer.” Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils, but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be accepted as elements of a full human existence. Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
Read Fr. Robert P. Imbellis response to Cardinal Dulles lecture here.
Read a selection of Cardinal Dulles past America articles here.