Finding Common Ground

Reconciling Faith and Reasonby Thomas P. Rausch, S.J.Liturgical Press. 134p $24.95

At a chapel I occasionally attend, some worshipers face the tabernacle during the Liturgy of the Word, even though the lectern is at the opposite end of the central aisle. Elsewhere at a Sunday liturgy, I heard the presiding priest begin by invoking the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Life-giving Spirit, mention neither Lord nor Christ in the Kyrie, skip the Creed (on Pentecost!) and begin the Lord’s Prayer with Our Father and Mother.... A priest and theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, Thomas P. Rausch opens his book with similar stories of his experience of worship in a divided church. No doubt readers can supply their own.

Rausch’s book is a search for theological common ground for addressing the issues that divide the church. After a chapter briefly characterizing the Catholic left and right, Rausch traces the development of contemporary Catholic theology. He gives a sympathetic account of the logic of the changes in theology in the era of the Second Vatican Council, emphasizing the church’s belated appropriation of modern biblical, liturgical and historical scholarship. At the same time, he is critical of an overly academic theology that is separated from the life of the church and of contextual theologies that reject the tradition for reasons that seem more ideological than evangelical or religious.


The third chapter turns from academic theology to apologetics, focusing on an influential group in the United States whom Rausch labels New Apologists. These include, among others, Peter Kreeft, Scott Hahn, Karl Keating and several writers associated with The New Oxford Review. They often address the concerns of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants and share many theological assumptions with them. Some are themselves former evangelicals. Rausch’s treatment is discriminating, generally respectful of Hahn, for instance, while indicting Keating for various forms of fundamentalism or at least non-historical orthodoxy. He deserves credit for taking these apologists seriously, when most theologians simply ignore them. (Unfortunately they drop out of the book’s remaining five chapters. There is one reference to Kreeft, one to Hahn, none to the rest.)

Three chapters follow on specific theological issues: doctrine, sexual morality and liturgy. Rausch explains the development of Catholic teaching on Scripture and tradition from the 16th century to Vatican II. He goes on to discuss the development of doctrine, emphasizing the theological importance of reception of doctrines and decisions of church authority by the church at large. Finally he takes up the recent expansion of authoritative church teaching, in which Rome has introduced a new category of things taught definitively though not as dogmas (including the ban on the ordination of women to the priesthood) and declared canonical penalties for those who dissent from such teachings. Though Rausch does not mention the mandatum required of theologians, this chapter offers a good background for anyone who is puzzled as to why even very moderate theologians are anxious about it.

On sexual morality Rausch explains why contemporary theology might question the application of traditional norms to the sexually marginalized, such as homosexuals and the divorced and remarried. At the same time, he offers a theological and sociological defense of Catholic teaching on marital fidelity. In the end, he calls for a recognition of areas of darkness, where each person is alone with God and the traditional teaching of the Church on the primacy of conscience comes into play.

Rausch next traces the development of liturgy from medieval times through Vatican II, then turns to conflicted issues of the present day. To conservatives, his message is that the changes introduced by Vatican II were warranted. To liberals it is that there really are grounds for conservatives’ complaints that some contemporary liturgical practice is desacralized or even irreverent. I’ve seen Catholic undergraduates approaching communion with chewing gum in their mouths....

Rausch concludes by sketching the general shape of a theology that is evangelical as well as critical and faithful to the Catholic tradition and by proposing 11 criteria for a theology that is suited to the search for common ground.

The book’s subtitle characterizes it better than its title does. Though Rausch labels his task reconciling faith and reason, that is, harmonizing the traditional faith of the church with critical reason and the understanding of our world that comes from contemporary science, very little of the book has to do with contemporary science, and much does not even clearly involve reconciling faith and reason. What it is really about is reconciling Vatican II Catholics with conservative or restorationist Catholics in the American church. It could therefore serve well as a basis for a series of common ground discussion groups among Catholics or lead individual readers to a balanced understanding of controversial issues. But to this end it may well give theology too large a role and pay insufficient attention to cultural factors.

One factor that Rausch points out but does not develop is generational. Sociological data indicate that young American Catholics by and large are more liberal than their elders, especially on issues of sexuality and gender. Young Catholics, however, who are serious about religionwho major in theology, enter seminaries and religious communities or join lay movements, for instanceare often quite conservative, though not exactly in the manner of older conservatives. They bear some resentment toward the Vatican II generation for having deprived them of a coherent, articulate vision of their faith, much desired in the postmodern age of discontinuity and fragmentation. My own Vatican II generation, in turn, has become fearful and defensive, perceiving that the gains we thought we had made within the churchand perhaps our own freedom or livelihood as lay theologians and ministersare threatened. Fear and resentment can preclude common ground, no matter how much theological argument goes on.

This year’s meeting of the College Theology Society included a section titled, What Are Generation-X Catholics Doing With, To and For Catholic Theology? The dialogue in and after it was less a matter of theological argumentation than of listening to one another’s stories of church and theology. Younger theologians could perhaps see that what they take for granted, for instance that they can find employment as lay men and women teaching theology in Catholic colleges, we had to fight for. Older theologians may be acknowledging that, because we took for granted a view of life and the world through the tradition, we were more concerned to struggle against its limits than to hand it on.

This is not just a dialogue for theologians. Any search for common ground in the church must begin by listening to one another’s stories and recognizing the reality of our regrets, resentments and fears. Against this background, theological issues will arise, and, when they do, participants will find Rausch’s book a wise and helpful guide.

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11 years 2 months ago
This past June (2007) the priest in the liturgy I mentioned wherein the Creed was skipped on Pentecost informed me that the omission was unintended; it was a slip-up on the choir's part.


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