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J. Michael ByronJanuary 22, 2014

At my father’s recent funeral, a priest approached me in order to marvel out loud, as he had done before, that he was amazed to discover through conversations with my father that this 80-year-old, lifelong practicing Catholic was such a “liberal.” Nobody in my childhood home would have recognized that term as descriptive of my father. Neither would “conservative” have applied. Those categories simply make no sense in describing his Catholic disposition. He received his formal education—through college—at Catholic schools during the 1930s and ‘40s. He never pontificated about the benefits or evils of the Second Vatican Council, the pope or the liturgy. He just prayed in a thoroughly Catholic manner, went to church every Sunday, served the parish and the archdiocese in several leadership positions and made sure his children were raised and educated in the faith. How is that “liberal” or “conservative”? It is simply Catholic.

There was an underlying theological method, however, even though my dad—the most brilliant thinker I ever knew—would not have been able to carry on a formal conversation about it. (He once told me that my doctoral dissertation was the most baffling prose he ever attempted to read.) Every cleric, every pastoral minister, indeed every engaged Catholic Christian, approaches pastoral situations with an operative theological method. Many, perhaps most, might be unaware of how to identify the method and are therefore incapable of articulating and evaluating it. Nonetheless, the type of theological methodology is perhaps the most basic indicator of how people live into their vocations, whether clerical or lay.

Catholics today must ask whether a particular theological method adequately accounts for the data of experience or, alternatively, whether experience ought to be relevant at all. In other words: Is the task of faith and ministry today the resolution of intellectual quandaries, or is it something else? Does one confront pastoral situations in order to explain the “why” of events, or to be pastorally present to the “what” of events, even without an immediate theory? How a person answers those questions will disclose his or her theological method or “first principles.”

How We Evaluate

To speak of theological method may strike one as abstract and uninteresting, but in fact it is a concrete, informative investigation. Perhaps the very term “method” could be misleading, because it seems to suggest that the minister has been deliberate in reflecting upon his or her first principles and has consciously opted for one or another. This is typically not the case. A methodology critically reflected upon could rightly be called a bias or even an ideology, because it represents a deliberately chosen, default set of immovable assumptions about how decisions get made in ministry, how priorities are evaluated, what data are considered and why. A theological method, whether conscious or not, is essentially a judgment about the bedrock convictions and dispositions with which one enters into pastoral activities.

None of us can avoid making use of a method, nor should we; the worst possible kind of method is uncritical because it is not named. For example, whatever a person thinks of the various liberation theologies operative in the church, one of the contributions they make to critical thinking is that each is quite up-front in articulating a set of first principles that guide reflection and discussion. Usually those principles have to do with existential suffering or oppression in history. A method might be viewed as inadequate, but this judgment requires the critic to articulate his or her own method and why it is superior.

Today some use a category of methodologies that can be called “transcendental.” These operate from a certain set of convictions about human anthropology, and there is more than one specific kind: the ontology of the human person, the universal structure of human cognition and understanding and so on. Great theologians like Karl Rahner, S.J., and Bernard Lonergan, S.J., identified their convictions up-front, but many pastoral ministers employ such presumptions without ever thinking about why or whether they are adequate.

Various fundamentalisms reflect yet another methodology that is increasingly found in all religions today. In general these appeal to a single source of authority without subjecting it to critical review. This could be the Bible, the Koran, the pope, the Code of Canon Law or some other chosen font of unquestionable truth. Within fundamentalism it suffices to simply appeal to a text or a teaching to solve ministerial questions.

Jesus never offered his disciples a tutorial on theological method, as far as we know, and honest attention to the texts of the New Testament can reasonably bear a plurality of methods. For example, Jesus sometimes responds to pastoral situations by quoting the Mosaic Law. At other times he warns against appealing to law and instead urges compassion. Those are different operative methods. Pastoral theologians need to make such judgments. In fact, throughout Catholic history a variety of methodologies has been employed, deliberately or otherwise, by theological and magisterial tradition.

Many patristic theologians believed, for example, that simply quoting the words of early Christian heroes was sufficient to resolve debates. Thomas Aquinas did this to a lesser extent, but added the scholastic predilection for appealing to natural law and the philosophy of Aristotle. He appealed to some different grounds for theological authority, and he attended to some questions more than others. The most credible expressions of doctrine and law and theological opinion are self-conscious about their underlying method. So much of the present rancor in Catholic polemics over doctrine and pastoral practice is not so much about faith in the true Christ or the true church as it is about methodology.

To speak of method in ministry is, in essence, to pose this question: What information, data and authority are most persuasive in rendering pastoral judgments in ministry, and why? To give attention to method can rescue us from the insoluble and (in my opinion) completely meaningless and often uncharitable reflex of many during the past two generations: to pit the “liberal” Catholics against the “conservative” or “orthodox” ones, whether lay or ordained. Those labels should never be used in ministry because they do not contribute anything toward understanding. They are political tags, and ministry is not fundamentally about politics, in the modern sense of American polemics.

Challenged Narrative

My father was raised in a traditional Catholic home and school system during the early-mid-20th century. By traditional I mean there was an unchallenged assumption that Catholic doctrine was pretty much capable of accounting for the metanarrative of the world, culture and people everywhere. In other words, the often messy and ambiguous experiences of people’s lives “on the ground” were considered not so much to be challenges to the prevalent Catholic story as problems to be adjudicated by the Catholic story, expressed by the institution and magisterium.

That is not a surprise. The theological-methodological landscape was controlled at that time—as it had been for centuries—by an approach now commonly called “neo-Thomism,” a method neither blessed nor condemned by Scripture, since it did not appear until more than a millennium after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Thomism was vigorously endorsed by popes and bishops, especially Pius IX, in the period following the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. But Thomism, like any other method before or since, is not the Gospel. It is a way of trying to understand the meaning of the Gospel through certain interpretive choices. Thomism (and neo-Thomism) excels at abstraction. It follows the logic of intellectual propositions, like in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and thus arrives at clear conceptual distinctions in doctrine that flow from various questions. For example: Is the existence of God self-evident?

For my father, an important tipping point came when, as an adult, he began to experience dissonance between the Catholic meta-narrative and his life experiences, particularly when a few of his friends’ adult children revealed they had a same-sex attraction. This was disruptive of the neo-Thomist theological worldview he had previously assumed. Another example: my father encountered many Jewish people and at least a few atheists in his broad professional circle, and he had to determine how to respond to them. My father was in his 50s and 60s when most of this occurred, and it forced a methodological decision upon him—even though he could not have identified it as such. He had to decide: To what extent ought experience, even the emotional life, matter in thinking about God, church and salvation and in being present to people? To follow neo-Thomist training and instincts would lead toward one answer. To attend primarily to the experiences, emotions and claims of his friends and associates would lead in a different direction. The point here is not to determine the better choice, but to make clear that it is an unavoidable choice, based on different criteria for an adequate pastoral-theological methodology.

My father and mother made the choice to allow the claims of his friends and their children to help shape their view of God and God’s will. They allowed concrete experiences to dialogue with and perhaps even relativize abstractions of Thomistic theology. This is a decision, albeit un-thematic, about theological methodology. It is a decision to question the presumptions of a meta-narrative. I think the priest thought my dad was “liberal” because my dad listened respectfully to others, took seriously their perspectives and perhaps allowed this to shape his own beliefs. This is not “liberal.” It is merely giving a privileged place to dialogue in the development of theology.

Speaking more universally: To what extent—if at all—ought emotions, feelings, personal experience, context or the dissonant religious claims of others matter in shaping or establishing one’s “first principles” for making theological and pastoral judgments? Under the rules of Thomism, none of these things count for very much—and perhaps they should not. This is not a conversation about “liberal” vs. “conservative” dispositions in pastoral theology. It is about which data should be primary, and why, for determining the most appropriate pastoral practice. This question allows for measured, intelligent and dispassionate theological conversation on the basis of merits of various claims, the kind of conversation that would be a major step forward.

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Robert O'Connell
10 years 2 months ago
Fr. Byron writes that "Jesus never offered his disciples a tutorial on theological method, as far as we know, and honest attention to the texts of the New Testament can reasonably bear a plurality of methods." How true! Yet Jesus prayed and did his best to follow his Father's Will -- and loved, and taught us to love like He loved.
Bruce Snowden
10 years 2 months ago
I very much like Father Byron’s recently deceased Dad, his fidelity to the Faith a lifelong faithful Catholic a brother I never knew in life, but about whom I’ve learned much from his “obituary” and more, blogged by his son in “A Faith That Works.” We are in age contemporaries, myself two years beyond eighty, for him docility a grace, for me in most cases regarding belief an irritant, being ever ready to question, yet equally ever ready to believe . Mr. Byron was neither liberal or conservative, such designations foreign in faithfully living his Catholic life. For me however those words are completely acceptable, compatible and are in my mind theologically interchangeable having intrinsic moral connective tissue so to speak Thus I have no problem calling myself a theologically conservative liberal, or the other way around. For me they go together like two hands on a body – both are useful, sometimes the left, sometimes the right. Both proclaim Godliness. I believe one has to find Faith wherever one can and by “Faith” I mean faith in God. God can be very obvious as in the mechanics of nature, or in spiritual living where language can sacramentally transform materiality into objects of wonder and awe! But God also hides in nooks and crannies, under rocks of disbelief, the kind of rock believe it or not, on which he built his Church, making it necessary to look for the Mysterious One, the invisible God who by his own word admits “no one has seen.” It’s really a simple thing, simply complex more precisely, yet I do find delight in God when I find him, or maybe when he finds me! In effect, the only way I know how to find a Faith that works is through TRUST, which can come only through quiet prayer – yes, it happens at prayer, sometimes in darkness but you know he is there and that’s enough. Study is good because it stirs the mind to seek, to look, to experience. But one must allow the pages of the text to fall like leaves at autumn, laying bare in stark silhouette, the worthlessness of words, revealing in absolute astonishment, Faith at work, in other word, A Faith That Works, a simple Faith that needs nothing other than TRUST, the kind of Catholic Faith that Mr. Byron possessed and has so inspired me! I wish I could be more like him, blessed with a simple, uncomplicated faith in God. Yet true to self I trudge on with questions, on questions leading to another endlessly it seems. But fortunately all revelatory of God, pulsating in the vibrancy of A Faith That Works, somehow!

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