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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.

‘Unsafe’ Dissenters

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Ann Prendergast
12 years 8 months ago

Michael G. Lawler and Todd A. Salzman are to be commended for their fine article addressing the distinction between catechesis and theology, in particular how it affects the 10-year review of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the apostolic constitution on Catholic University.  To me, a lay person interested in the question of why one should believe in this day and age, it clarifies enormously the kind of ‘church speak’ that informs the decision to censure Sister Elizabeth Johnson for her misrepresentation of the faith. To my layman’s ear it is not far off from the hierarchal thinking that blinded itself to the overwhelmingly apparent fact of priest child abuse.  Or, on a less inflammatory level, the thinking behind the ICELs argument that ‘consubstantial’ is a better word to show the relationship of Jesus to the Father because its closer to the Latin equivalent than ‘one in Being’ which is closer to the Greek.  Do they honestly think that this kind of hair splitting will deepen and enrich the ordinary person’s experience of God?  There is a huge disconnect between the faithful and the ecclesial church.  It’s almost as if the church does not accept the reality of a ‘living faith,’ one that is alive, fully human and not always in line with official thinking but groping toward God.  Elsewhere in this issue you note that church membership is trending downward and the number of non-infant entries has collapsed since 2001.  Could it be that that the people who are turned away from religion are looking for something the church should have to offer but has so conflated with rules and regulation, failures and inconsequence that God has become unrecognizable to  those who might seek him?  Benedict XVI said recently that “to believe means to follow the trail indicated by the word of God.”    The kind of public demonstration of the faith evidenced in Bishop Olmstead’s punitive actions toward St. Joseph Hospital, or the statement from the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine censuring Elizabeth Johnson are off putting not only to believers but to others as well.

Alexander Monette
12 years 8 months ago

The fact remains that theologians are intellectuals. But they are not supposed to be the same as secular intellectuals like Diderot, Baron D'Holbach or Lenin, because the title theologian has the Greek root theos- which includes God.

I think what the Vatican is complaining about is that some theologians seem to care neither about the Church and nor about God, and all they care about is their own little intellectualism, and in a kind of pride they mock the faith of the little ones, like the Pharisees mocked Jesus before his Passion.

Bad or incompetent theologians can be just as damaging to the faith as the evil pedophile priests were in these past decades. Bad theologians can seriously devastate the Church, cause schisms, create cults, spread confusion and falsehoods, lead people into atheism and satanism, and even contribute to the spread of violence and anarchy within society.

Theology is supposed to be 'the head' of the Church, as if it were its mind and its voice. When theology becomes dysfunctional, as it most obviously is now, what we end up with is a headless Church, like in the parable of the ten crazy virgins (Matthew 25), where the brides-to-be are lost and without Christ.
Tammy Gottschling
12 years 8 months ago

robidou wrote: "Theology is supposed to be 'the head' of the Church, as if it were its mind and its voice. When theology becomes dysfunctional, as it most obviously is now, what we end up with is a headless Church, like in the parable of the ten crazy virgins (Matthew 25), where the brides-to-be are lost and without Christ."

That's an interesting comment for various reasons.  One being that good theology should keep the "the head"(I presume it is safe to use the model of Church as Institution) in-check with the rest of the body.

Amy-Jill Levine has done some wonderful lectures on parable.  Her depth of scholarship in NT Studies and Jewish Studies is a much needed asset in Catholicism too understanding what the parables used by the writers of the Gospel's could have meant in context. 

Charles Erlinger
12 years 8 months ago
This article by Lawler and Salzman, and the article, also in this issue, by Pinter, together with the comments, constitute, in my view, some of the most important writing and thinking that has appeared in this publication in about a  year.  Let's not allow discussion on these topics to subside.  These are very important long term issues.
Karen Silver
12 years 8 months ago
I am a graduate of a Catholic university with an advanced degree in Theology. I am also a Jew. I experienced nothing but respect and kindness from the professors. They answered my questions. They never tried to drag me into the Church. Indeed, the whole point of educating me was to have a Jew who knew a lot about Catholicism and could interact in the ongoing dialogue between our two faiths.

Corde ecclesiam is a relic of prior times that has no role in modern life. The purpose of a university it to teach, encourage exploration, be available to the student, ask questions and help the student answer them, teach critical thinking. Fordham was that for me and I am enormously grateful to the seriousness with which my questions were addressed.

I would hope that theologians in scholastic environments have a sufficient grasp of their roles as college professors that they do the job. The Roman Catholic church has traveled far in its path as an educational platform. I interact with some Catholics who are abusive traditionalists but they are not teachers. They do not question the Church's doctrines and they basically try to annihilate anyone who does. Actually, they are teachers. They teach what the church is NOT. It was that way maybe in the late 19th century and earlier but those days are gone unmourned.
12 years 8 months ago
Is not Professor Lawler the theologian who advocated premarital cohabitation by Catholics on theological grounds a few years back in another Catholic publication?
Michael Barberi
12 years 8 months ago
One of the best articles to appear in America magazine for the past 2 years.

I applaud both Michael Lawler and Todd Salzman for their courageous and scholarly articulation for bringing into the light one of most important roots of our dysfunctional Church. This dysfunction was brought about by a magisterial process, that was driven by an exaggerated fear of change and an arrogant, perhaps pridefull, theology of authority. While it can be argued that the sensus fidelium and theologians also had no real voice in pre-Vatican II times, this became more acute since 1968 when Humanae Vitae ushered in a period of divisive disagreement with the Catholic Church. Since then, the collected voices of theologians and the general laity, in the development and refinement of doctrine, became non-existent.

Until the profound disagreement between theologians and the magisterium is sufficiently bridged, our Church will stop becoming a listening and learning Church. Many think this has already happened. Any person who studied earnestly why dissent has become chronic in our Church, fully understands the many complex issues that caused this to happened. As a result there exists a cancerous suspicion on both sides of the theological divide inclusive of the magisterium. If the magisterium waits for the theological community to heal itself, it might wait until Parousia. 

It is ironic that one of the most prominent of orthodox theologians, Germain Grisez, proposed the answer to this cancerous dysfunction in 1986 in when he wrote "How To Deal with Theological Dissent". His proposal was a good start. However, it went into the circular file.

What we need is a formal particicatory process involving a wide cross-section of the best of traditionalist and revisionist theologians. I would also emphasis a role for the voices of informed Catholics, the sensus fidelium.

We will never know what Jesus would say today if His incarnation was now and not 2,000 years ago.  For those of us who live in this fallen-redeemed world, I don't think the magisterium's handling His dysfunctional Church is consistent with His Gospel of love.

12 years 8 months ago
Wonderful article. For articles such as this I subscribe to this magazine. Many years ago my Bishop said that he "did not read what he disagreed with." I think there are many in the hierarchy currently who are of the same opinion. Sad!
12 years 8 months ago
Thank you, America's editors, for publishing the article by Michael G. Lawler and Todd Salzman, "Beyond Catechesis". As a member of the Catholc Theology Society of America and former president of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership, I find it to be very insightful and relevant. I hope it will be equally appreciated by our Church's hierarchy. Rev. Thomas P. Ivory
Mark Andrews
12 years 7 months ago
My post is off topic, but I think justice requires I recognize that Dr. Todd Salzman showed real kindness to me in the Spring of 2011 by contacting me and offering to discuss a critique of "The Sexual Person" that I've posted around the 'web. What followed was a great, very personal conversation about where we agreed with one another, and where we agreed to disagree with one another.

Todd showed himself the better man and a true Christian by reaching out to me and I thank him for it. I will post this note wherever I've previously posted my critique of he & Dr. Lawler's work.

I will leave some thoughts about catechesis & theologizing later.

Mark Andrews
12 years 7 months ago
Regarding the tension between catechesis and theology, a theologian who cannot do and does not do catechesis is like a medical doctor who cannot perform first aid (facetiously, doctors who can't do first aid tend to be radiologists & psychiatrists, but I digress).

In the patristic era this circle was squared by practicing pastors, bishops & presbyters, doing the teaching. They were catechists first, and their theological speculation arose out of their pastoral care & catechetical instruction. By contrast, in modernity, some theologians see themselves as academics first, removed from pastoral care & catechesis at the parish level.

Why do theologians absent themselves from parish life? Because interaction with the average Catholic layperson, parish priest or staff member is stifling? Because they fear interaction with the local Catholic hierarchy? My perception - subject to correction of course - is that professional theologians can't be bothered with parish life. This impoverishes parishes, the members of parishes, and theologians alike.

Perhaps the perceived distance between theologians and the bishops is best bridged at the parish level, and not only at the level of competing, hierarchic social structures - academic & ecclesial - each jealous of their prerogatives.
Veronica Wright
12 years 6 months ago
Dr. Salzman's and Dr. Lawler's article "Beyond Catechesis" (September 12, 2011) in which they argue that theology has been "reduced" to catechesis caught my attention and interest for two reasons. First, I have recently been conferred with a Master of Arts in Religious Education (Felician College) and secondly because Dr. Salzman and I had the very same conversation in his office at Creighton University nine years ago. I was taking his class Theological Foundations for Ethical Understanding.

At the time, I objected to his methodology because his class discussions were deliberately open-ended without the benefit of clear understanding or appreciation of Church teachings on Catholic morality.  Our discussion seemed to hit a hot spot for Dr. Salzman. At the next class he gave the students an unsolicited lecture on the difference between a catechist and a theologian. His statements then and now remain the same. 

I object to the division of theology and catechesis particularly on the grounds that one cannot exist without the other. The parallel purpose of catechesis and theology seems obvious. Theology may be the study of all things God, but its practical expression is in some form of teaching. Gaudium et Spes calls it "communicating doctrine to the men of their times" (No. 62). Catechesis is also expressed primarily in teaching and it lacks neither theological depth nor intellectual fortitude. Is not the role of catechesis also, to communicate the doctrine of the Church? Dr. Salzman sees theology as a way to challenge doctrine.

Dr. Lawler and Dr. Salzman continually decry the Vatican's habit of proclaiming doctrine without their specific input. They say "they have been deprived of a consultative voice." What they want is their own voices to be recognized by a hierarchical Church. 

Catechesis and theology are parallels to the same end. Creating a schism between the two, as this article does, benefits no one. Catechesis and theology must exist on equal terms for the benefit of the faithful.

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