Don’t Know Much About Theology…

National Review Online | Published on June 12, 2012

By George Weigel

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Casual observers of Catholic affairs, reading the press in recent weeks, might well conclude that the Vatican is trying to distract attention from its own internal woes — Vatileaks, and all that — by waging a “war on women,” and on several fronts.

On the Roman front, according to the Washington Post, the Vatican, in its statement of concerns about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, uses “the word ‘feminist’ and even ‘radical feminist’ the way third-graders use the word ‘cooties.’” The same paper reported, with barely repressed glee, that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recently released critique of Sister Margaret Farley’s study of sexual ethics, Just Love, had resulted in a sharp spike in the book’s sales on Amazon.

On the American front, innumerable media outlets have claimed for months that the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration’s “contraceptive mandate” is an attempt to cloak the Catholic Church’s essentially misogynist cast of mind behind a campaign for religious freedom.

None of this Sturm und Drang, it would seem, has anything to do with doctrine. It’s all about power. And in that power struggle, it’s all war-on-women, all the time.

Which is all rubbish, all the time. But when you take the trouble to sift through the rubbish, you actually learn some things, unpleasant as they may be. One involves American culture’s 21st-century concept of religion. The other involves the sorry state of the professional theological guild in the United States.

The American mainstream media, reflecting deeper currents in American culture, typically treats “religion” as a private lifestyle choice: a personal option one may exercise to make sense out of life (and death) through certain rituals embodied in communities. That the “choice” in question has anything to do with adherence to the truth, as one is grasped and transformed by that truth; that those rituals embody religious truth in a unique way that linksthebelieverto the very life of God; that those communities are formed by, and accountable to, truths that can be rationally explicated in a body of knowledge called “theology” — say what? To treat religion as a lifestyle choice leaves little room for the very concept of “truth,” unless it be the anorexic postmodern notion of “your truth” and “my truth” (which means that Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s “truth” is just as much “truth” as Pope Benedict XVI’s). In the sandbox of self-absorption that is so much of postmodern culture, there is little or no room for the truth.

There is even less room for the notion of “the truth” as both binding and liberating at the same time. Yet that just happens to be the Catholic understanding of doctrine: a “doctrine” is an authoritative truth that invites (indeed compels) assent, and that liberates the believer into the deep truths of the human condition and the divine life. So when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, citing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious’s own documents and program, avers that the LCWR has come up short in what was specifically and deliberately called a doctrinal assessment, the Congregation is concerned about truth, not power, and about the integrity of religious vocations, not misogyny.

But try telling that to the Post‘s Lisa (“cooties”) Miller. Or the Church-obsessed Maureen Dowd over at the nation’s former newspaper of record. Or the editors of USA Today, whose June 8 editorial falsely charged that the Catholic Church, in its opposition to the HHS mandate, was “attempting to apply its view of contraception to non-Catholics” and to “limit birth control coverage for non-Catholics.” Now, to be sure, the scribes and editors in question have their own issues and incapacities — including, it seems, an inability to read federal laws, government regulations, or Vatican documents with minimal comprehension. Perhaps more important, though, these falsehoods and calumnies embody the widespread equation of “theology” with “irrationality” in contemporary American culture. (How many times have you read “theological” used as a synonym for “rigid” or “mindless” by otherwise-sensible writers?) And that leads, without much further ado, to the notion that “doctrine” is simply the imposition of someone’s will on someone else.

Deep currents in various forms of the mainline Protestantism that shaped American religious culture from the colonial period through the Second World War help explain this 21st-century incapacity to grasp the idea of doctrine, or authoritative religious truth. Intellectual laziness also plays a role. So does the master narrative of Catholic life that got set in journalistic concrete at Vatican II (1962-65) and has proven immovable ever since: the idea that everything in the Catholic Church can be sliced, diced, and understood in terms of a continuing power-struggle between good “progressives” and evil “traditionalists.” That master narrative is, of course, utterly incapable of grasping the complexities and cross-currents of contemporary Catholic intellectual, spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral life. But inadequate as it is, the master narrative survives — and survives in part because it is regularly reinforced by numerous card-carrying members of the contemporary Catholic theological guild, the pathologies of which have been on full display in the LCWR and Farley controversies.

At its recent annual meeting in St. Louis, the Catholic Theological Society of America decided to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States, tabling “indefinitely” a resolution that expressed “deep concern” over the HHS “contraceptive mandate.” The resolution, proposed by eleven brave souls willing to challenge their colleagues’ conventional gauchisme, acknowledged that “differences of opinion exist” within American society over “the morality of contraception and sterilization” but would have placed the CTSA on record as affirming “religious liberty as well as the fundamental right of both individuals and institutions to not be forced to act contrary to their informed consciences.” That, however, was a bridge too far for the likes of Father David Hollenbach, S.J., of BostonCollege, who argued that “the mandate to provide health care, including contraception…is an appropriate limit on the religious freedom of some people.” (Memo to Father Hollenbach: Please read the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and consider whether it does not affirm a more robust concept of religious freedom that you seem willing to countenance.)

The CTSA’s fecklessness on the HHS mandate embodied some of the confusions within U.S. Catholic theology at the intersection of gauchiste theology and gauchiste politics; the society’s expression of deep concern over the Vatican critique of Sister Margaret Farley (a former CTSA president) was entirely predictable. But the depths of confusion in the understanding that many CTSA members have of their own discipline were even more clearly evident in the statements by individual Catholic theologians on L’affaire Farley.

There is not a whole lot in dispute about Just Love‘s contents. Not to put a fine point on it, but Just Love makes claims about sexual morality — on just about every imaginable question, from the morality of homosexual acts, to contraception, to masturbation, and on to the nature of marriage, etc. — that are the polar opposite of what is settled Catholic teaching. Or, to put the matter differently, Sister Margaret Farley evidently believes that what the Catholic Church teaches about the ethics of human love is false, and that what she teaches is true. Her book is in fact a series of permission slips for the sort of upper-middle-class self-indulgences and naughtiness that have wrought havoc throughout American society; in that se
nse, there is nothing substantively original about Just Love. Still, the author is admirably candid about her views. There is no to-ing and fro-ing here: Sister Margaret Farley does not teach what the Catholic Church teaches about the matters she discusses and does not pretend to do so. What she does claim is that she is a Catholic theologian.

That her colleagues at the higher altitudes of the Catholic theological guild have protested against the alleged harshness of the Vatican in criticizing Sister Farley and challenging the Catholicity of her theology is not surprising; they, too, think of these disputes largely in terms of power. But what is surprising is the clumsiness of the defenses mounted by some rather prominently placed theologians.

Thus the president of Loyola University Maryland, Father Brian Linnane, S.J., told Catholic News Service that he was “hard pressed to think of a more careful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable Roman Catholic working in the field of moral theology.” (Really? How about Father Michael Sherwin, O.P., of the Dominican Faculty of Theology in Fribourg, successor to the late, great Servais Pinckaers, O.P., in the revitalization of Catholic virtue ethics? Or closer to Loyola University Maryland, John Haas and Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia? Or any number of younger theologians doing original work in moral theology based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body?)

Notre Dame’s M. Cathleen Kaveny, like Linnane a former student of Farley’s, claimed that the Vatican had missed “an opportunity for dialogue when it failed to see Margaret Farley as an important ally in critiquing problematic practices ranging from the hook-up culture to sexual slavery” — without, evidently, considering whether the permission slips bountifully dispensed in Just Love might have something to do with various “problematic practices,” including the hook-up culture.

Then there was Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College, who told CNS that theology is “a process of inquiry and exploration in a dynamic and critical relation to other theological positions.” Which, at first blush, would seem to reduce the Church’s doctrine to another “theological position.” And which, in any case, is a rather different understanding of theology than that taught by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “Theology relies on the written Word of God, taken together with sacred Tradition, as on a permanent foundation. By this Word it is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated, as it searches out, under the light of faith, the full truth stored up in the mystery of Christ.”

Theology, as the Catholic Church understands it, is an ecclesial discipline: It is not religious studies, which can be done anywhere. Theology, rightly understood, can be done only within the Church. That Church, through its duly constituted leaders, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome, defines the boundaries of what is and is not authentically Catholic. That, and nothing else than that, is what lies behind both the Vatican attempt to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Church’s official critique of Just Love.

There is ample room for exploration on Catholic theology; for if theology is not religious studies, neither is it catechism. But for that exploration to be authentically Catholic — and thus of use to the Church — it has to take Scripture and Tradition as its baseline, and it has to begin from the premise that the doctrinal boundaries of the Church, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, point exploratory theology in the right direction.

Why does so much of this seem to have been forgotten among so many American theologians? Some will cite the widespread theological dissent from Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the ethics of human love, as Ground Zero for the meltdown whose effects are now evident. And it is true that many Catholic theologians seem to think of the Humanae Vitae controversy and their “heroic” role in it rather like the Washington Post thinks of Watergate and its “heroic” role in that business.

Yet perhaps the less political, more theological answer to that question can be found in David Tracy’s seminal chapter on the “three publics of theology” in his 1981 book, The Analogical Imagination. Theology, the University ofChicagoprofessor and Yonkers-born priest suggested, has three audiences: society, the academy, and the Church. Now it is surely true that serious theology has important things to say to society at large and to a culture’s intellectual life; but whatever Tracy’s intention, what many of his colleagues learned from his tripartite scheme was that theology’s real audience, the audience that really counted, was the academy. Thus two generations of Catholic theologians would plight their intellectual troth, not to the doctrine of the Church, but to the conventions of the late-modern and postmodern academy — and would do so just when American higher education was itself imploding under the cultural pressures that produced post-modernism and the world of I Am Charlotte Simmons.

This is changing. A new generation of Catholic theologians, inspired by what John Paul II called the Catholic “symphony of truth,” is rising. It wants to think with the Church while stretching and deepening the Church’s understanding of the truths it bears. It understands that doctrine binds and liberates at the same time. Its day will come.

And when it does, there just might be an opportunity to open a genuine conversation with the culture and the media about truth, doctrine, and the things that actually count in the Catholic Church.

Until then, casual observers should, so to speak, take their cooties carefully.

- George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.