“Getting to Work,” by Patricia Ranft (2/18), provided an informative view of the theology of work and the legacy of Catholic theology on labor. But her attempt to apply this legacy to the 21st-century United States sounded like a Paul Ryan campaign rant.
What was she talking about? Social Security diminishes the importance of labor? Our benefit is determined by our years of work and how much we earn. How many seniors “retire while still able and active, only to discover in boredom the beneficial nature of work”?
I thought of my Dad, born in New York in the 1920s, who was forced to work from the age of 14 at blue-collar jobs and, except for a stint in the army during World War II, worked his whole life. He retired at 65 to collect his pension and Social Security benefits. I remember asking him what he was going to do when he retired. His answer was simple: to watch TV and play cards with his friends. I guess that 35 years of “beneficial” work was enough.
In the world, when theory and reality collide, theory applied to real people causes great harm.
Patricia Ranft indicated “potential problems with entitlement societies,” in that “they fool people into believing that not working is as desirable as working.” Professor Ranft does not specify whether she believes that the United States is an entitlement society, but many do. In that regard, it is important to note that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs provide go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled or members of working households—not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work.
Enter the Helix
I am grateful for the clarity of “The Noble Enterprise,” by Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl (2/4), of the role of bishops and theologians in the crucial task of the new evangelization.
In response, I offer an interpretive image grounded in Cardinal Wuerl’s assertions concerning the vital interplay among the theologian’s vocation, the received faith and the magisterium: the “hermeneutical helix.” This helix admits of multiple strands, representing the interplay of textual analysis, philosophical and theological reflection and the indispensable doctrinal teachings of the magisterium that determine the “boundaries of the authentic faith.” In this herme-neutical helix, there are multiple points of intersection among the strands (some simultaneous) as it continues to Infinity. The synthetic understanding which the theologian seeks in the hermeneutical helix admits of objective norms, as well as speculative, practical and experiential components.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the methodology of any “science” is subalternate to the integrity of sacra doctrina. Cardinal Thomas Cajetan understood that sacra doctrina is comprehensive and that theology remains a single science—enjoying a single formal light. Our being taught by God is prior to the establishment of distinct theological disciplines or crafts. All the while, the magisterium engages and judges the conformity of “scientific expositions” with the church’s faith and tempers the subjectivist threat to privatize the meaning of the authoritative text(s). Cardinal Wuerl’s “dynamic vision” of theology maintains that faith is a legitimate mode of knowing, and the array of subalternate sciences must be employed in pursuit of comprehending the sacra doctrina.
And yet vibrant theological collaborators with the bishops, “to be agents of the new evangelization,” writes Cardinal Wuerl, “must first perceive themselves as such, as important cooperators in the work of the church, as credible and convicted believers.” Otherwise, how shall we effectively re-propose the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our day?
Into the Light
The days of the chubby little friar lecturing on Peter Lombard in a drafty medieval hall are long gone. Religious studies and theology departments are interdisciplinary places. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., completely rewrote the book on how to do theology. (Full disclosure: I hang out with a bunch of Lonergan disciples at Boston College.)
Lonergan states that in all thought, positions and counter-positions develop, and that counter-positions fairly cry out to be reversed. It is like the story of the emperor parading through the capital with no clothes on. Emperor, get dressed! I would like to mention just a couple of Cardinal Wuerl’s counter-positions that I believe need to be reversed.
First, Pope Benedict XVI has said that people who have distanced themselves from the church are leaving the light and going into the darkness. Exactly the opposite is true. The taint of clerical sex abuse is the darkness, and people are rushing out into the light. As personally a victim of priestly sex abuse, I can vouch for this.
Second, Cardinal Wuerl seems to imply that to think with the church means sticking to the standard Vatican line. The theologians I know do in fact think with the church. But it is the people of God, the whole church. Whatever happened to respect for aggiornamento, for fresh theological air coming in? The church is a big tent.
Please Write Again
I met Cardinal Wuerl in the mid-1980s. He was a member of one of the teams of bishops and theologians appointed to conduct the apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries mandated by Rome. I was a full-time faculty member at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla. He impressed me at the time by his genuine love for the church and as a pastoral and a very approachable person.
In “The Noble Enterprise,” Cardinal Wuerl addresses the relationship between the teaching office of the bishops and the role of theologians. Perhaps he is aware that his article calls for a complementary one on the sensus fidelium, that “supernatural instinct” (as Pope Benedict XVI recently referred to it) that received due attention during the early Arian polemics and again when Marian dogmas were proclaimed.
I find troubling an aspect of Cardinal Wuerl’s article, but perhaps I am reading it wrongly. He appeals to the magisterium not only as being authoritative, but also as if it were a block of truths unchanging for all time (which appears to be also how the Catechism of the Catholic Church treats it). But it would be very helpful to some of us to know how we are to understand what at least appear to be significant differences in magisterial teaching.
Read, for instance, Pope Gregory XVI’s “Mirari Vos” (1832) or Pius IX’s “Quanta Cura” (the “Syllabus of Errors,” 1864) on the absurdities of calling for freedom of conscience, and then read Pope John XXIII’s “Pacem in Terris” (1963) on the same subject. How do we explain the “apparent” differences? Read Pope Nicholas V’s “Romanus Pontifex” (1455) authorizing the King of Portugal to enslave pagans and Saracens and others, and then read Pope John Paul II’s “Veritatis Splendor” (1993) on the subject of slavery. Where would the cardinal have us look for guidance? (To give credit where it’s due: I’m stealing the latter example from A Church That Can and Cannot Change, by John T. Noonan Jr.)
Second, Cardinal Wuerl cites Proposition 12 of the recent Synod of Bishops, manifesting “adherence to the thought of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI,” particularly in his teaching on Vatican II. Since I’ve spent a large part of my career studying contemporary China, the phrase carries an unhappy resonance of that country’s campaigns to ensure the adherence of the Communist faithful to “the thought of Mao Zedong.” Is the comparison absurd? I hope so, but I’m not sure. Loyalty to a man—president, pope, king, even party leader, is one thing; loyalty to his “thought” is something else.
Incredible as it may seem, Cardinal Wuerl did not quote Vatican II’s “Decree on Ecumenism” in his article that sought to enlighten theologians about their task. The decree reads in part: “Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated—to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself—these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.” To paraphrase: We have here a pilgrim church.
Today we would say more truthfully and humbly not “if” but “when” there have been those “deficiencies.” Going from “if” to “when” is part of the pilgrimage. Hasn’t the church moved from the arrogance of that presumption of innocence to the humility of admitted historical facts? Among many other tasks of the theologian today is an explanation for why, after several hundred years of scholasticism in seminary formation, it was a Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., who moved us all along that pilgrim path. If he was not a theologian in the service of the church—something more than mere Christianity—was there ever such a one? Faith is not the only thing we have received from the past.
The decree continues, “The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’ So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us.” Let’s narrow the issue here to the Catholic hierarchy and theologians, as the article did. Both are in need of one another’s mutual forgiveness. They need to create the “opportune moment.”