Skip to comments.Theologians challenged to set the pace for inclusive conversations
Posted on 06/18/2007 6:11:52 AM PDT by siunevada
It's the nature of my job that I attend far too many conferences. Over the course of a decade reporting on "all things Catholic," I've sat through thousands of papers, lectures and keynote speeches, in various languages and on various continents. Even measured against that volume of material, however, the Daniel Finn's presidential address June 10 at the annual Catholic Theological Society of America convention ranks as one of the most impressive presentations I've ever heard.
When I say "impressive," I mean not just intellectually provocative or rhetorically satisfying, though Finn's address was both, but also brave and potentially transformative -- not only for the CTSA, but for American Catholicism.
Finn, of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, invited his colleagues to consider whether the CTSA's high-profile public statements criticizing the Vatican and the bishops over the years have been counter-productive. Those statements have produced a distorted public image of the CTSA, he argued, and they've divided the theological community, driving away conservative theologians who feel "alienated" by declarations that "poke fun at Vatican shortcomings and put the CTSA name on statements they do not endorse."
"The price has been too high compared to what we have gained," Finn said. "I wish we were not facing this trade-off, but I believe we are."
The CTSA, Finn argued, should instead be a common space in which theologians of differing perspectives can come together.
"Our church is wracked by divisions caused by ideological simplicities on all sides, and we need broader dialogue in the church than we have today," Finn said. "In the CTSA, all theologians should feel respected, and a majority should not employ the mechanics of majoritarian democracy to produce statements that the minority would find offensive, and then leave."
This was Finn's last act as president; the office is now in the hands of Margaret O'Gara of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.
Finn, it should be said, hardly means to muzzle theological discussion of church teaching or Vatican interventions. He suggested that in the future, statements on those subjects should come from individual theologians, perhaps with others signing on, rather than in the name of the CTSA.
* * *
Before I proceed, three clarifications are in order.
First, Finn's address came at the end of the June 7-10 CTSA convention, and to focus on it is not to suggest that nothing of note happened before he took the podium. In fact, there were stimulating discussions in Los Angeles on a wide variety of topics, such as ecumenism, the authority of bishops, and how bishops should engage public debates in a pluralistic culture. A spirited presentation on the first day by Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, to take just one example, was worth the price of admission all by itself. Among other things, she argued that a decision by the bishops to consolidate ethnic minorities in the American church under the single heading of "cultural diversity" amounts to a "Hallmark card ecclesiology." I posted several stories from the convention which collectively offer something of its flavor: http://ncrcafe.org/blog/2682 
Second, Finn's choice of topic should not be read to suggest that there's presently some crisis between the CTSA and church authorities. In fact, a number of bishops took part in the conference, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles; Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, president of the U.S. bishops' conference; Bishop Tod Brown of Orange, California; Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, New Mexico; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco of Toronto; Emeritus Bishop Fritz Lobinger of Aliwal, South Africa; Emeritus Bishop Francisco Claver of Malaybalay, the Philippines; Emeritus Bishop John Cummins of Oakland; Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; and Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala. Several expressed appreciation for the theologians' work.
Third, to some extent I'm distorting Finn's address by focusing on his comments on the CTSA. In context, they were part of a broader analysis of the way power shapes human relationships; he called power "the software of daily life." Drawing on the work of philosopher Thomas Wartenberg, as well as his own experience as a community organizer in Minnesota, Finn invited theologians to be more attentive to the dynamics of power, for both good and ill.
With those caveats, I nonetheless want to suggest that what Finn had to say about the methods and aims of the CTSA is critically important, with implications well beyond the theological guild.
* * *
I was hired by the National Catholic Reporter in 1997, the same year that the CTSA put out a much-discussed statement critical of church teaching on women's ordination. It held that there were "serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching, and its grounds in tradition." That declaration built upon earlier CTSA statements on controversial subjects. Two decades before, for example, a CTSA document had argued for the acceptance of homosexual acts within covenanted and committed relationships.
Covering reaction to the 1997 statement was, in some ways, my introduction to the bitterness of much American Catholic debate. Most famously, Cardinal Bernard of Law, then the archbishop of Boston, defined the CTSA as a vast theological "wasteland." Then-Fr. Avery Dulles, now a cardinal, said that the CTSA "constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics." Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote acerbically that a Lutheran friend goes to CTSA meetings "to stay abreast of liberal Protestant theology."
Over the course of time, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, founded in 1977, became seen as the "conservative" alternative to the "liberal" CTSA. While a few brave souls attempt to embrace both, they are a distinct minority.
On the basis of all this, the CTSA has functioned as both a symbol and an agent of the broader ideological polarization in the American church. Of course, that was never anyone's intent. The theologians who crafted CTSA statements did so because they believed important values were at stake which required the public witness of the theological community. One can hardly blame CTSA for creating divisions in the church, a state of affairs which is the product of forces much larger than any one group.
Nonetheless, the status quo is that conservative and liberal theologians in the United States largely attend their own meetings, read their own journals, and talk mostly to one another. In that regard, theologians represent the American church in microcosm, which tends to be fractured into a series of ideologically defined ghettoes -- charismatics, reformers, traditionalists, peace and justice people, neoconservatives, and so on.
It's against that backdrop that Finn's address is so important. Though he did not himself use this language, in effect Finn invited the CTSA to adopt a "preferential option for dialogue."
The CTSA, he said, "should be the place where Catholic theologians of all perspectives come to do their theology." The price of doing that, he argued, is to stop using the CTSA to score points in internal church debates.
* * *
Regular readers of this column know that the question of dialogue in the church is the one dispensation I grant myself from the professional discipline of detachment. On this matter, I am an unabashed advocate. I believe ideology is the moral equivalent of lying, in that both amount to a distortion of, or indifference to, the truth. I also believe that the sterile ideological oppositions that presently dominate Catholicism in the United States are destructive, and that one of the most urgent tasks facing us is the reconstruction of spaces, either physical or virtual, in which Catholics of differing experiences and temperaments can meet in an atmosphere of trust.
I believe this for two reasons. First, it is what Christ wanted for the church; his final earthly prayer was that "they all may be one." Second, the full capacity of Catholicism to transform the world can never be unleashed until we learn to draw upon the best of our various subcultures. A house divided among itself may not stand, but a church divided among itself certainly cannot evangelize.
I have no way of knowing to what extent Finn's statements represent broader opinion within the CTSA, though I can report that he drew a standing ovation on Sunday. It seems revealing that the CTSA did not issue a statement about the Vatican's recent notification on Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, the renowned liberation theologian from El Salvador, but opted instead to hold a discussion of his work at their next meeting.
I want to make two further points.
First, the women and men who make up the theological community in the United States are critically important voices in Catholic affairs. Their books and lectures frame a substantial portion of Catholic conversation, and they are often the experts to whom the media turn when the church is in the spotlight. As goes the theological guild, in many ways, so goes the church.
Second, if the CTSA were to become a space in which theologians from all the various tribes in the American church come together, the ripple effect could be enormous, precisely because theologians are pace-setters. We might relearn the discipline of conversation, as opposed to spin and partisan rhetoric.
At one point, Finn said that by working to build such a climate, he did not mean theologians shouldn't be "prophetic." Though I'm sure this is not what he intended, one could read that statement to suggest that the only form of prophecy within Catholic theology is criticizing authority, whether ecclesial or secular.
I would submit, however, that Finn's vision is itself remarkably prophetic, pointing beyond the cul-de-sac of interest group struggles, and suggesting a willingness to rethink entrenched attitudes and patterns of behavior in order to realize an ecclesiology of communion. May we have ears to hear.
And any theologians who need an outlet for their baser instincts could always spend some time on the FR Religion Forum - Home Of The Cheap Shot.
The heterodox desire for “dialog” can mean only one thing—they are losing the debate, badly. They fall under a saintly pope who is by loving teaching and persuasion remaking the Church into the Bride of Christ, not, as the CTSA would have it, the Whore of Satan. (BTW, what a rogues gallery of Bishops who attended the meeting CTSA.) The experience of the Episcopal Church USA is instructive with respect to theological relations. While a minority, the liberals were all about “dialog” and “inclusion.” Now that they have control of all levers of power it’s “Off with their heads!”
John Allen writes:
“I believe ideology is the moral equivalent of lying, in that both amount to a distortion of, or indifference to, the truth. I also believe that the sterile ideological oppositions that presently dominate Catholicism in the United States are destructive, and that one of the most urgent tasks facing us is the reconstruction of spaces, either physical or virtual, in which Catholics of differing experiences and temperaments can meet in an atmosphere of trust.”
John Allen must also believe the Church has no enemies.
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