US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The growing divide between bishops and theologians

By Meghan Murphy-Gill | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

NCR reported earlier this week that the “leading English-language Catholic theological journal,” Jesuit-run Theological Studies was forced by the Vatican to publish an unedited essay that was a response to another essay published seven years ago in 2004. The original essay, by Kenneth Himes and James Coriden, posited the possibility of a change in the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage on the “grounds of a deep disconnect between the Church’s doctrine and its pastoral practice.” A response was submitted by Jesuit Father Peter F. Ryan, which was rejected at least once according to NCR. The reply eventually published thanks to a Vatican mandate and without peer review is co-authored by Ryan and Germain Grisez, titled “Indissoluble Marriage: A Reply to Kenneth Himes and James Coriden.”

NCR points out that Rome forced its hand in another Jesuit-run publication, America magazine, Thomas J. Reese was forced to resign in 2005 as editor in chief after the CDF determined America was straying too far from official church teaching.

U.S. Catholic has also been on the receiving end of such pressure. But the difference between publications like Theological Studies and publications like America and U.S. Catholic is the audience.  Not only is the readership of Theological Studies significantly smaller (2,848 subscribers), they’re largely academics, not the sort to get confused about church teaching, confusing of the faithful being what Rome persistently warns against.

In recent years, several U.S. theologians have felt the heat from the hierarchy. Elizabeth Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, was publically criticized by the U.S. bishops (and vehemently defended by her colleagues and fans). Creighton professors Todd Salzman and Michael Lawler’s book, The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology was reviewed by the USCCB and determined to depart in method and conclusions from official Catholic teaching.  Peter Phan’s work on religious pluralism drew sharp criticism, as did books by Roger Haight and Jon Sobrino on christology ,

In a May address to the Academy of Catholic Theology in Washington, DC, Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy (who heads the committee that criticized Johnson’s book as “[undermining] the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel”), said that “Too often…theology degrades into an ‘intellectual game,’ based on ‘the fun of being cleverly and sophisticatedly entertaining, or the thrill and buzz that comes with academic sparring.’”

I’m not an academic, but in the short time I spent studying theology, I never read or met a single professor whose work seemed an “intellectual game.” Quite the opposite, the theologians I read, Johnson, Salzman, Phan, Haight, and even Sobrino included, all begin with grounded, pastoral questions. They’re doing modern theology, responding to the pastoral issues of the 20th century from a vast and long theological tradition. For me, reading Johnson was when theology moved from being an intellectual pursuit to one rooted in the needs of the church.

Phyllis Zagano says Catholic writers and scholars will be “running for the secular hills.” With Catholic publishers growing wary at potential reprimand from Rome, writers have and will continue to seek secular publishers, who “offer a safe haven for scholars who ask questions the Vatican would rather not have asked.”

Weinandy’s comments and the Vatican’s pressure on theologians, however, reveal an increasing divide between the work of the bishops and the work of theologians, which should trouble the church if it wants to continue to respond to the needs of the faithful, not simply in rote tones of memorized lines from the catechism, but with fresh, new insights that breathe life into the teachings of the past.

Incidentally, we’ve just posted a Sounding Board written by Paul M. Zulehner, an Austrian professor of pastoral theology at the University of Vienna, on the pastoral approach to divorced/remarried Catholics. Zulehner doesn’t propose changing church teaching, but his argument, that the rest of the church should follow the example of the Austrian bishops, is provocative.