The Future of Catholic Theology: A Response

The more the merrier.

After Prof. Reinhard Hütter published an article titled, “The Ruins of Discontinuity,” in the latest issue of the conservative Catholic journal First Things, decrying the current state of Catholic theology and offering something of an ominous forecast for its future, I thought I would join the slowly increasing number of commentators offering responses in turn.

Today marks the beginning of a new semester for Siena College and given that I teach theology, it seems like a good subject to reflect on at this point in the academic year.

While I do not agree with many particular points of Hütter’s reflection and critique, I am grateful for the number of very important questions that he raises in his article. I believe the most evocative question of the article comes near the end of the piece: “What king of Catholic inquiry will welcome, orient, guide, and instruct young theologians in the years to come?”

It is clear from what precedes this question that Hütter has a bifold choice of possibility. Either the young theologians of today and tomorrow are formed in ways imitating or resembling the pre-Vatican II form of theological education and are therefore predisposed to be like the great theologians of the last century (Hütter’s preferred choice) or things continue on the path Hütter has noted to be problematic.

This problematic course is best described as anything that contributes new articulations and considerations of faith or offers, ostensibly, a correlative engagement of theology with anything outside the realm of doctrine, such as the social or natural sciences.

I agree, as does Notre Dame’s lawyer-theologian Cathleen Kaveny in her dotCommonweal post on the subject, that Hütter’s assertion that a theologian should be ecclesially oriented — a theologians for the Church, the community — is absolutely on target. The primary mission of the theologian (as opposed to the philosopher or sociologist of religion) is to help elucidate the faith, or as St. Anselm would remind us, to facilitate our “faith seeking understanding.”

Where the differences begin to emerge is in understanding the telos of that ecclesial orientation, or, perhaps more accurately, it is in the description of what “is” and “is not” theology for the community.

Hütter’s argument comes across as, to follow Kaveny, almost suggesting a return to the manual-style of theological education. The rote reiteration of the faith as it has been handed on by preceding generations. What is wrong with this, one might ask? The simplest answer is that there is no clear distinction between the content of faith and its expression, to paraphrase Pope John XXIII’s now-classic point at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

I agree completely that a theologian’s responsibility is to pass along and make ever-more discernible the faith of the Church, that is the Body of Christ. However, the expression of that faith necessarily needs to change. Correlation is absolutely essential and to dismiss, ignore or otherwise disregard advances in other academic fields, social contexts and language is to provide a disservice to the faith because it no longer becomes intelligible.

Theology ceases to be theology when one is no longer able to seek understanding for the faith one holds. It becomes something else (inadequate catechetics? an exercise in classical studies? poor historical theology?). The seeming dismissal of several luminous theologians and their prodigious contributions to precisely this theological raison d’être of understanding faith — thinkers like Rahner and Lonergan, not to mention the omitted Schillebeeckx, Congar and others — seems to me an overt attempt to recoil from engaging today’s world theologically.

And what’s so wrong with striving to make theology relevant? This is essentially my greatest task as a professor of theology today. My students, I would argue, find little in their culture, career aspirations and daily life to support the study of theology. Yet, I am wholly convicted in my belief that theological education, at least on some basic level, is necessary for someone to be a fully functioning and literate member of society.

To dismiss the correlative and elucidative mandate of Anselm’s very definition of theology, let alone Pope John XXIII’s instruction to the Council Fathers, is to redefine the missio of theology in a new way with which I am unfamiliar. In light of this, I find Hütter’s assertion that many theologians today “treat revision of the Catholic faith and morals — always in pursuit of the paradigmatic modern Protestant goal of relevance — as the main task of Catholic theology” to be unfair if not off-the-mark.

Relevance is indeed a formidable and laudable part of the theologian’s vocation. Because some theologians, Hütter perhaps numbered among them, find the emerging expression of the faith to be unfavorable is, I dare say, simply a matter of taste. And, as the saying goes: de gustibus non est disputandum.

I agree with Hütter in that this expression of faith cannot be fleeting, arbitrary or superficial, but that rigor and fidelity are to be hailed as cornerstones of the theological enterprise; all done, of course, within the ecclesial community. Just don’t tell me that because you don’t like the way the Holy Spirit guides that endeavor and what the expression that results looks like, it is the result of a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.”

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One Response to “The Future of Catholic Theology: A Response”

  1. Good thoughts, Dan… Perhaps it’s so obvious as not to merit a mention, but the expanded ecclesiology with which we operate today seems to make the central difference for me. Hütter prioritizes a visible and somewhat circumscribed Church, from which follows that there is an obvious information set one must know in order to be a competent Catholic theologian (of course, these are matters of emphasis, not absolutes: I have every confidence that Hütter’s view is that such institutionally focused theology is of the most benefit to the greater Church, the entire Body of Christ). But if we place more emphasis upon a people-of-God ecclesiology, then we acquire a responsibility to hear voices that have not received as much air time in the theological tradition — people of color, people from the Global South, poor people, lay people, women, people with disabilities. Moreover, Nostra Aetate requires us to listen for those “rays of the Truth which enlighten all” which are found outside the Christian tradition — and to listen in a particular way to the self-definition of the Jewish people. So this nostalgia for the age of the Master Theologian, who could survey all discourse and offer a total synthesis, seems to me really to deny the reality of what Rahner calls gnoseological concupiscence — no one person can acquire the competency that a complete overview demands. Yes, there is a fragmentation of the discipline — but this fragmentation simply cannot be overcome in one theologian. So I’m really interested in more of a focus on the sort of unity of end, unity of purpose, unity of love that unites the particular efforts of each theologian toward some sort of eschatological unity — relying more in our desire for unity on the one Spirit whom we pray inspires all of our theologizing and less on a return to a metanarrative…

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