Beyond Catechesis: What is the proper role of theology?
When Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix accused St. Joseph’s Hospital of performing a direct abortion to save the life of a mother and withdrew its status as a Catholic hospital, a question was raised: Could any such perceived lack of fidelity to Catholic teaching be applied to Catholic universities as well? The question is especially pertinent because the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is approaching its 10-year review of the application of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on the Catholic university. What if the U.S. bishops were to apply the Phoenix standards to the teaching and research of Catholic theologians?
If it comes to this, bishops and presidents of Catholic colleges and universities may want to keep in mind an essential distinction between catechesis (as in catechism) and the academic discipline of theology.
The tendency among members of the hierarchy is not to make this distinction, a tendency evident in a recent statement by the U.S.C.C.B. Committee on Doctrine that evaluated Quest for the Living God, a book by Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J. The committee concluded that the book “contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church….” In support of Sister Johnson, the board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a brief response: While the bishops’ statement recognizes “the complementary but distinct vocations of the theologian and the Magisterium,” the C.T.S.A. was troubled that the statement “seems to reflect a very narrow understanding of the theological task.” This narrow understanding appears to reduce the theological task of the theologian to catechesis. This same understanding of the theologian’s role is present in the “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1990, the same year as “Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”
The Charism of the Theologian
The instruction begins by emphasizing that the discipline of theology is “important for the church in every age” as a means to a deeper “understanding of the realities and the words handed on” in Catholic tradition. The document refers vaguely to “moments of crisis and tension” and never specifies the nature of the theologian’s charism until it addresses dissent, but it does note that theology “offers its contribution so that the faith might be communicated” (No. 7).
It is easy to conclude that the instruction identifies the theologian’s charism, as did Pope Pius XII, with catechesis. The great 20th-century ecclesiologist Yves Congar, O.P., agrees that the charism of didaskalos, or teacher, in the primitive church was more like catechesis than scientific theology. But he also points out that the theological schools that developed and flourished in the second and third centuries and thereafter moved away from catechesis to speculative thought on the nature of the faith and salvation. Tension developed between the theologians’ speculation and statements that were traced to apostolic succession. Defining the charism of the theologian in terms of catechesis in the instruction and locating this definition in the section on dissent appear to send a message: To avoid conflicts with the magisterium that may lead to investigation and censure, the theologian should focus his or her efforts on explaining and defending magisterial positions.
Nevertheless, the distinction remains important. “Catechesis is an education in the faith…which includes especially the teaching of Christian doctrine imparted…in an organic and systematic way, with a view to initiating the hearers into the fullness of Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 5). Theology may include catechesis, but it is also more than that. Theology uses scholarly principles not only to communicate the truths of faith but also to explore the meanings of those truths and contemporary ways of articulating them.
Theologians as Mediators
Theologians play a mediating role between the magisterium and the faithful. Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., explains that this two-way mediation is “from the faith, culture and questionings of the people toward the magisterium; and from the pronouncements of the magisterium back to the people.” The first mediation takes place before magisterial pronouncements are issued; it requires theologians to do the preparatory work to elucidate the questions, issues and concerns of the faithful. The magisterium relies on this theological work to address any concerns in its pronouncements. The second mediation comes after magisterial pronouncements; it requires theologians to interpret those pronouncements for the faithful in terms that are culturally and developmentally appropriate.
The instruction, however, clearly emphasizes the second mediation, which it highlights in its treatment of the canonical mission or mandatum required of “those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies” (Can. 812). In “Ex Corde” “the theologian is officially charged with the task of presenting and illustrating the doctrine of the faith in its integrity and with full accuracy” (No. 22). This charge is part of the theologian’s vocation, but it does not exhaust that vocation.
In the first phase of mediation, the magisterium relies more heavily on what could be called safe theologians for consultation—that is, those who hold a single, Roman theology and serve as methodological and theological apologists for the magisterium. As a result, other theological voices are silenced or ignored, and the two-way mediation is short-circuited.
Theologians considered unsafe—those whose positions differ from the magisterium’s on open or noninfallible questions—are discounted. This procedure is a double-edged sword. One edge permits the magisterium to claim that the pronouncement has been made with theological consultation and agreement; the other edge provokes a response from theologians who have not been consulted. Determining whether a pronouncement communicates the faith of the entire church is settled ahead of time by safe theologians, leaving those excluded with no option but to offer a critique after the pronouncement has been made. If their response is critical, these theologians are unfairly labeled dissenters.
This biased process serves no one well. For the magisterium, it creates polarization between itself and both the faithful who disagree with the doctrinal pronouncements and the theologians who articulate this disagreement. Since theological reflections are restricted to either affirming or critiquing magisterial pronouncements arrived at without broad consultation, the process makes it appear that dissent among theologians and faithful is not “limited and occasional” but rampant (“Veritatis Splendor,” No. 4).
In fact, however, many theologians are forced into the inaccurate classification of dissenters because they have been deprived of a consultative voice that might have been helpful in the beginning. Basing pronouncements on the arguments of only those who hold a single Roman theology oversimplifies the complexity of a doctrine that would be better clarified by open debate. This oversimplification may result in pronouncements that rely more on ideology than on sound theological reasoning.
Polarization permeates the theological community as well. The magisterium, by consulting only those it expects to agree with it, implicitly endorses one school of theology over another and provides a quasi-sanction for that school’s work. Then debates are settled by a claim of authority, as when Bishop Olmsted ruled that St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix was no longer Catholic and the U.S.C.C.B. issued “rebukes” of Sister Johnson’s book instead of using logical argument.
The lack of broad theological consultation, which freezes out the “unsafe,” also damages the entire body of the faithful who detect the tension between the magisterium and a large majority of theologians. These tensions are frequently aired in the media and often escalate into outright hostility. One need only peruse online blogs about church-related stories to see the level of acrimony between “traditionalist” and “revisionist” Catholics. In this hostile climate of charge and countercharge, complex issues are seldom presented accurately or fairly, serving neither side well and leading to suspicion, distrust and cynicism among the faithful. Since many lay theologians are not consulted, magisterial pronouncements can appear detached from the lived reality of the laity. This has been noticeably true on women’s issues and issues of sexuality.
Lay and Third World Theologians
There is yet another consideration: Both the demographics of theologians and the nature of their enterprise have evolved. Until the Second Vatican Council, almost all theologians were clerics who taught primarily in seminaries. Since the council, however, theology has become largely a lay profession exercised predominantly in both Catholic and non-Catholic colleges and universities. This change has introduced voices, especially women’s and third world voices, that had never before been part of the conversation. These new voices challenge the traditional, male, hierarchical and Eurocentric voices that historically dominated Catholic tradition. They demand that the magisterium take seriously both the fullness of that tradition and the commitment to human experience as an essential component of theological reflection espoused by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The reflected-upon experiences of the lay faithful and theologians are a Spirit-breath that requires communal and charitable discernment to decide whether it confirms or challenges magisterial pronouncements.
Roughly 100 years before Vatican II, Cardinal John Henry Newman published a famous essay, “On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine,” in which he discussed the sensus fidelium and proposed a “conspiracy theory” for exercising authority within the church. In a recent address to the annual gathering of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., claimed that in this essay Newman “asserted that the faith comes to us and is received by us through a dialectical relationship between the authority of the magisterium and the Sensus Fidelium, the teacher and the taught are in communication.” Bishop Kicanas implied that the magisterium is the teacher and the sensus fidelium results from the faithful being taught. But Paul Crowley’s definition of this relationship, which Bishop Kicanas cites approvingly in his address, is a more accurate reading of Newman. Professor Crowley describes sensus fidelium as “the mutual inspiration by the Holy Spirit of teachers and learners in the Church, the pastorum et fidelium conspiratio...the delicately balanced relationship between the teaching function of the church and the role of the laity in arriving at an explicit knowledge of the content of faith.” True dialogue recognizes that both are gifted with “the charism of learner-teacher,” the charism that is available to the whole communion—church, bishops, theologians and the entire body of the faithful alike.
The collective responsibility of theologians as teachers from and of the whole church has profound implications for them and their relationship with the magisterium. For their part, theologians must be prudent in their presentation of open, controversial, theological issues to Catholic laypeople. For its part, the magisterium must be patient in allowing open debate on open, controversial topics among theologians and slow to intervene prematurely to close debates. That patience requires what John Paul II called a “dialogue of charity” between the magisterium and theologians, without threat of disciplinary or punitive action (“Ut Unum Sint,” Nos. 17, 51 and 60).
“Ex Corde Ecclesiae” does emphasize community and dialogue, but unfortunately these values have not always been realized in practice. Bishop Kicanas asserts: “Clearly there needs to be room in an academic community for disagreement, debate, and a clash of ideas even in theology. Such debate and engagement can clarify and advance our understanding. In discussions with local bishops, faculty need to be able to disagree and question with mutual respect.” There remains, however, a great deal of suspicion among Catholic theologians that patience and charity are extended only to “safe” theologians to promote catechesis over theology.
We hope that as the bishops’ conference reviews the application of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” they will strike a balance between Pope Benedict’s call for “intellectual charity” in the reform of Catholic higher education and the academic freedom of all.
Read responses to this article from bishops and theologians.