Archive for theology

Congratulations to Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I am taking a short break from my vacation to share this NCR story about Professor Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s acceptance speech at this week’s LCWR annual assembly on the occasion of her having received this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award. Her remarks (those made public in new reports, the full text has not yet been made available) are courageous and honest. Not only does Prof. Johnson deserve this recognition in light of her academic work, but her steadfast yet respectful engagement with the USCCB committee on doctrine in the wake of its treatment of her writing remains a model of faithful response. I wish to extend my congratulations to Prof. Johnson and to my sisters in the LCWR here. To read more, see Religion News Service story or the NCR report by Dan Stockman here:

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The Vatican and women religious are caught up in a tension with historical, sociological and ecclesiastical roots, but a solution could be found, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said.

The Fordham University theologian praised the sisters for their commitment to “meaningful, honest dialogue” and urged them to stay the course.

Johnson was honored Friday with the Outstanding Leadership Award by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest group of women religious leaders in the nation, representing about 80 percent of the 51,600 sisters in the United States.

Both Johnson and LCWR have been criticized by the church, and Johnson told the nearly 800 sisters gathered here for LCWR’s annual assembly that the criticisms of her writing and of LCWR are intertwined.

Johnson is widely admired by LCWR members, and she urged them to hang on despite an ongoing investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I think both of us are caught in a situation not of our own making,” she said.

Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph from Brentwood, N.Y., is considered one of the architects of feminist theology. She has published nine books and more than 100 essays in scholarly journals, book reviews, book chapters and articles; her work has been translated into 13 languages. She holds a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America and is a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham.

Johnson is a former president of both the Catholic Theological Society and the ecumenical American Theological Society, was a consultant to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and the Church. She was featured in a Library of Congress calendar called “Women Who Dare.”

She is also controversial. In April, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered that after this assembly, speakers at the group’s events must be approved by Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who heads the congregation’s five-year reform agenda for LCWR. Müller cited LCWR’s selection of Johnson for the Outstanding Leadership Award as one reason for the mandate, noting that Johnson has been “criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings.” Sartain attended each of the public events during the LCWR assembly except for Johnson’s presentation, as he was traveling Friday night.

LCWR communications director Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders said the assembly directed the board members to respond to the mandate but would not say what that response would be.

“They told the board to take the next steps,” Sanders said.

A statement on the action to be taken is expected sometime after the board finishes meeting Monday.

In 2011, the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, is not in accordance with official Catholic teaching.

Johnson’s selection as a speaker, Müller said in April, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment” and further alienates the LCWR from the bishops.

“It was clear from his statement that Cardinal Müller neither read the book or my response, but simply echoed the criticisms of the panel,” Johnson told LCWR members. “But the committee’s assessment of Quest is itself theologically flawed.”

Johnson reiterated her stance that the book does not say the things the panel claims it does and that she does not believe the things they say she wrote.

“It criticizes positions I take that are in accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in several instances, it reports the opposite of what the book actually says in order to find fault,” she said. “In my judgment, and this is difficult to say, but I do believe such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”

Johnson said the doctrinal congregation’s criticisms of LCWR are similar.

“The investigation’s statements express a vague, overall dissatisfaction and distrust on certain topics, and judgments are rendered in such a way that they cannot be addressed,” she said. “But your willingness to stay at the table and offer meaningful, honest dialogue is a powerful witness.”

Johnson said historically, there has always been tensions between religious communities and the hierarchy because one is based on a radical living of the Gospel and the other is based on administration, which requires order.

The issue is also sociological, she said.

“The church did not start out this way, but as an institution, it has evolved a patriarchal structure where authority is executed in a top-down fashion and obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest of virtues,” Johnson said.

Finally, she said, the tensions are ecclesiastical because women religious have undergone the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council and the hierarchy has not.

“Certainly, the LCWR and the sisters they lead are far from perfect, but they have got the smell of the sheep on them,” she said to heavy applause. “Post-Vatican II renewal has not taken place at the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith].”

LCWR said Johnson was chosen for her distinguished academic achievements and scholarly contributions and for her consistent focus on those suffering and in need.

“Through her engagement of the most difficult questions of our day and her attention to violations of God’s beloved creation,” the LCWR statement regarding the award said, “she works tirelessly for change in our world that is in accord with Jesus’ vision of the reign of God.”

Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck, who delivered this year’s keynote address, said Johnson’s speech was “fabulous.”

“She names things so clearly, but at the same time, her commitment to the faith is unquestionable,” Schreck said.

Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler praised Johnson’s assessment of the situation.

“Her analysis of the difficulties between the hierarchy and where religious communities are was right on, and she did it on so many levels,” she said. “What do you do when you’ve gone ahead and implemented Vatican II and they haven’t?”

Following her speech, Johnson received a long standing ovation, and afterward, dozens of sisters waited in line to speak with her while dozens more waited outside the hall to order audio recordings of the speech.

Johnson closed her talk by sharing an Apartheid-era photo of a wall in South Africa where someone had written “Hang Mandela!” Someone else had come and penciled in “on” to make it “Hang on, Mandela!”, completely changing the meaning of what had been a statement against anti-Apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time.

That creativity, she said, subverted a slur into an inspiration, a curse into a blessing, and that same creativity can be used to change the present situation.

And so, to LCWR members, she urged, “On!”

Photo: NCR

John D. Caputo Interview with New York Times

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JohnCaputoThere is an interesting discussion posted on the website of the New York Times between John D. Caputo and Gary Gutting titled “Deconstructing God.” Longtime readers of DatingGod.org will know of my appreciation for and interest in the work of Caputo in the field of continental philosophy of religion. Whether you are a fan of Deconstruction or not, whether you’re a fan of Caputo or not, these interviews with him are always interesting and worth considering. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion, you can visit the NYT website to read it in its entirety.

Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?

John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.

If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.

G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.

J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.

I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.

G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?

J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.

G.G.: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.

Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.

J.C.: No! I am not resurrecting the old comparative-religion thesis that there is an underlying transcendental form or essence or universal that we can cull from differing empirical religious beliefs, that can be approached only asymptotically by empirical cases. I am saying that the inherited religious traditions contain something deeper, which is why they are important. I don’t marginalize religious traditions; they are our indispensable inheritance. Without them, human experience would be impoverished, its horizon narrowed. We would be deprived of their resources, not know the name of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the startling notion of the “kingdom of God,” the idea of the messianic and so on.

As a philosopher I am, of course, interested in what happens, but always in terms of what is going on in what happens. The particular religious traditions are what happen, and they are precious, but my interest lies in what is going on in these traditions, in the memory of Jesus, say. But different traditions contain different desires, promises, memories, dreams, futures, a different sense of time and space. Nothing says that underneath they are all the same.

G.G.: That doesn’t seem to me what typically goes on in deconstructive theology. The deconstructive analysis of any religious concept — the Christian Trinity, the Muslim oneness of God, Buddhist nirvana — always turns out to be the same: an endless play of mutually undermining differences.

J.C.: There is no such thing as deconstructive theology, in the singular, or “religion,” in the singular. There are only deconstructive versions of concrete religious traditions, inflections, repetitions, rereadings, reinventions, which open them up to a future for which they are not prepared, to dangerous memories of a past they try not to recall, since their tendency is to consolidate and to stabilize. Accordingly, you would always be able to detect the genealogy, reconstruct the line of descent, figure out the pedigree of a deconstructive theology. It would always bear the mark of the tradition it inflects.

A lot of the “Derrida and theology” work, for example, has been following the wrong scent, looking for links between Derrida’s ideas and Christian negative theology, while missing his irregular and heretical messianic Judaism. I like to joke that Derrida is a slightly atheistic quasi-Jewish Augustinian, but I am also serious…

Read the rest of the interview here: Deconstructing God.”

Photo: File

Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of (so-called) Heretics

Posted in Theologians That Rock, Uncategorized, Vatican II with tags , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

stthomas2Today is usually a pretty big deal for students of theology. When I was doing some philosophy studies as a Franciscan postulant, the seminary where my classes were held was closed on this feast day. Thomas Aquinas, who today is remembered for his genius, theological acumen, and universal orthodoxy, wasn’t always received with such illustrious acclaim. Those familiar with the contentious debates about the place of theology among other arts and sciences during the early years of the nascent University of Paris will know well that Thomas was essentially “silenced” and viewed as a suspect theologian within three years of his life.

The angelic doctor died in 1274 and by 1277 the Parisian Condemnations, round two, which focused mainly on Aristotelian postulates and other increasingly influential ideas, focused on twenty of the angelic doctor’s doctrines and indirectly targeted a number of Thomas’s other ideas, essentially condemning his method in the process (the correlative engagement of the theological tradition with the metaphysical and epistemological work of Aristotle and his arabic commentators). In fact, for a time even the Dominican Order forbade his work from being read — my, how times have changed! It was thanks to a number of later Dominicans and other theologians seeking to highlight the genuine and important insights of Thomas that eventually led to his acceptance and canonization.

While this is simply a quick snapshot of the complicated beginnings of Thomistic theology — there are plenty of books and articles about these matters if you’d like to learn more — I mention it with good reason today.

I’m frequently amazed by the ironic embrace of Thomas Aquinas by some theologians and other Christians who see him as the bastion of orthodoxy and the intellectual center of the authentic vita evangelica. I actually don’t dispute this, for I believe he was both an intellectual giant, rightly deserving the title “Doctor of the Church” alongside Bonaventure and Augustine, and a holy individual. However, quickly do many of these same people forget the troubled past of this man from Aquino County in modern-day Italy. Similarly, many of those who hail Thomas as the icon of methodological orthopraxis and theological orthodoxy conveniently forget to recall his term served, largely posthumously, as a heretic.

Thomas engaged the “modern” philosophy and sciences of his day, arguing by means of his theological method that such insight — “pagan” though it was — was nevertheless a bearer of truth that could helpfully inform the Christian theological enterprise.

How many people today are viewed, judged, and written off as “heretical” or “unorthodox” theologians because of their own contemporary following in the footprints of Thomas Aquinas?

There are the big names, particularly those pre-conciliar theologians who were suspect or condemned and then called upon for guidance during Vatican II. But there are also many others, including women and men today, who are similarly dismissed or viewed with askance glances of doubt and suspicion.

Last fall I was talking with a gentleman who, interestingly enough, was a former student of René Girard. An intelligent and faithful man, our conversation stumbled into so-called “postmodern philosophy,” particularly the contemporary continental schools of thought tied to thinkers like Foucault and Derrida. When I expressed my appreciation for their insights, noting too that I was less amiable to certain aspects of each thinker’s work, and that I believed each had something to contribute to Christian theology, he was taken aback. These men were “atheists,” “nonbelievers,” “hostile to religion,” etc. etc., which was simply a modern way to talk about how Aristotle and the Muslim Aristotelians Thomas Aquinas drew insights were viewed by many in the thirteenth century!

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that truth is found in many places, traditions, cultures, and faiths. And that we should be open to these insights, particularly as they are beneficial in our quest to know the living God through the Spirit that continues to move in our world and intellectual history.

On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, may we remember that so-called heresy not pertaining to direct refutation of creedal dogmas is generally in the eyes of the beholder. Don’t rule out the possibility that we can indeed learn from others and remember that theology is not simply a repetition of catechetics or the reinvention of the wheel-of-faith. The practice of theology, as demonstrated by Thomas, is a faithful journey into understanding better who God is and who we are.

Photo: Stock

The Prologue for All Theology

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

booksAnother school year is upon us. Students and scholars alike are getting back into the routine of the academic cycle, preparing courses, reading texts, plotting research trajectories, and so on. This is certainly the case for me as I begin my second year at Boston College. I’m in the process of transitioning into the daily work that accompanies the excitement of a new semester, while also finishing up some revisions for journal articles after review and working on book manuscripts due at the end of the year. As I work on both the material for my coursework and the theological research and writing outside the classroom, I find myself reflecting on the prologue to the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

There is perhaps no more-important medieval text than Lombard’s Sentences, even if you’ve never heard of it. This particularly influential collection of authoritative theological opinions relate the early university study of scripture to the pressing doctrinal questions of the day. It became the blueprint for students studying to be theology masters in the high-middle ages, it was the structure that framed the commentaries of the theological masters. It also inspired others to consider alternative framings for a theological treatise of central Christian doctrine — think Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, to name two.

While reading Lombard’s prologue for a class earlier this week, I was struck by how the opening paragraph could — or maybe should — rightly serve as the “prologue for all theology” and stand as something like the motto or mission statement that each theologian should hold in view of her or his work. It could be something of an implied preface to the task at hand, a task that is truly intimidating, a task that is important and necessary, a task that should always be seen as ministry as much as scholarship.

And so, with that, I share the opening paragraph of Lombard’s Prologue to the Sentences:

Wishing, with the poor widow, to give something to the Lord’s treasury out of our penury and poverty, we have dared to scale the difficult heights and to undertake a work beyond our strength. We have grounded out confidence of completion and the reward for our labour in the Good Samaritan, who, after giving two silver pieces for the care of the man left half-dead, promised to repay all the expenses of the caregiver, who might have to spend more. The truthfulness of the one making that promise delights us, but the immensity of the work terrifies us; the desire to make progress spurs us on, but the weakness of failure discourages us, and only the zeal for the house of God overcomes it.

Happy New Academic Year!

Photo: Stock

On Why (Most) Academic Writing is so Terrible

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

writing“Academic research is often driven by real passion, but by the time it turns into scholarly prose, the heat has long since dissipated,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education columnist, former academic-press editor, and writing professor Rachel Toor in her latest column, “Writing with Soul.” For years I have appreciated Toor’s direct and honest advice. As someone who espouses the principle of “professional tough love,” meaning that I believe it better to give and receive hard truths than offer empty praise, I think Toor’s work generally promotes a sense of straightforward advice that most graduate students and junior faculty would prefer to otherwise ignore. I often hear in her years of experience a voice given to views or intuitions I already have, but have found difficult to express due to the absence of the examples and illustrations from which she draws in her columns. Such is yet again the case in her recent piece.

I have been frustrated with the generally poor quality of academic writing for years — and here I’m referring primarily to theology, my own field, but recognize this is a much broader phenomenon. As Toor points out, oftentimes the motivation for a given article, conference paper, or monograph originates from a place of passion and commitment for a topic, thinker, or cause. However, the finished product turns out to be frequently dry, convoluted, arcane, pretentious, long-winded, jargon-laden, or just poorly written. Toor summarizes what is missing in a word: soul.

Far too much “academic writing” lacks soul, Toor insists. I agree. She explains that in the case when writing lacks soul, it can appear as though the text was written by some machine or generic producer of “academese” nonsense that aims to be “objective” and ultimately occludes the author entirely. Toor explains: “Indeed, one of the problems with much scholarly writing it that we can’t see the men and women—with sweaty hands and occasionally overfull stomachs or caffeine-buzzed nervous systems—who compose it. It seems, often, to come straight from central processors, with formatted bullet points, weak verbs, and multisyllabic Latinate phrases.”

She explains what is meant by writing with soul.

Writing with soul doesn’t have to be personal, confessional, or raw, but it can’t be pretentious or inflated. Most of the great essayists knew that a plain style didn’t hurt. Sit down with Montaigne, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt, Goldsmith, Bacon, and Lamb and you’ll feel like you’re in a tavern or a book-lined private study, chatting with a smart, wise, and often witty friend. Academics learn to dress their ideas in bulletproof, jargon-ridden suits, to parry attacks before they are launched, to make small and careful points rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable by pitching big and strange ideas in direct and forceful sentences. But that is not the path to making yourself compelling as a writer.

I remember when I was an undergrad simultaneously studying theology and journalism. At one point one of my theology professors gave me what I came to later realize was very bad advice. The concern was that my writing style in theological essays seemed too concise and “journalistically” and that my style in writing for theology should be more elaborate, lengthier and, essentially, filled with more jargon. The implication was that this is what a “theological essay” should look and feel like, this is what is makes a scholarly essay. And that is simply wrong.

It is not some scholarly platonic idea of a “scholarly essay” in which your essay participates or according to which it should be modeled that makes it legitimate. It is your ideas, research, cogency, and ability to intelligently convey those ideas that makes it legitimate. Yet, like my well-meaning professor a decade ago and so many grad students, people continue to think this is the case and that they need to emulate what is essentially bad writing in order to “be taken seriously” or to “sound scholarly.” What makes something scholarly is its original contribution according to good research and a good argument. And, counterintuitively, crappy writing according to some preconceived “academic style” can actually obscure and ultimately undercut that intended goal.

Rachel Toor warmed my heart with the following paragraph.

The moves that academics tend to make in their prose are often antithetical to “soulful” writing. Long, windy, semicolon-flecked sentences with recycled and ready-made phrases can create barriers that establish distance between writer and subject, author and reader. Often when I’m reading academic work not only do I feel like there’s no soul, I feel like it’s not even written by humans. Or for humans.

One reason I love this paragraph so much, as my former students and many of current colleagues know, is that I believe that semi-colons are a gateway drug to terrible writing. There is almost never a reason that one needs to use a semi-colon (the one exception is in a complicated series in which several commas are already in use, but even then one could technically rework it to avoid using semi-colons). Unlike periods, commas, and colons, the semi-colon is almost entirely elective. And, quite unfortunately, like commas and colons (to name but two), the semi-colon is almost always misused or at least imprudently used. When tempted to use a semi-colon, consider writing two tighter independent sentences. Your ideas will be more concisely and clearly expressed, thereby strengthening your argument and presentation.

In these summer months when so many students and scholars are working on this or that project, it might be a good time to take Toor’s comments to heart and reconsider how one appropriates good and bad writing habits. If you’re the type of person who thinks that she or he “needs to sound a certain way” and struggles to replicate an “academic style” of a platonic sort — stop right now. Focus on the content of what you’re saying and say it in the way that comes naturally to you. Work on it so it is technically correct (grammar, punctuation use, vocabulary, etc.), but please do not perpetuate the bad habits of academic-writing mythology.

There is no such thing as “good academic writing.” Good writing is good writing. Period.

If we all do our part to write with soul, maybe academic writing won’t always be so terrible.

Photo: Stock

A Rahnerian Prayer for the End of the Semester

Posted in Prayer, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 6, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

book-pile-5575So things have been noticeably quiet here at DatingGod.org. It’s the end of an academic semester, which means lots of seminar-paper writing and a variety of other work that keeps students busy. My apologies to those who would like more regular content here during these last days — fear not, the end of this crunch time is (God-willing) near and the regularity of posting shall return! In the meantime, here is part of a lengthy prayer by the famous German theologian Karl Rahner, SJ, that seems perfect for this season in life.  It comes from a prayer titled, “God of Knowledge.”

May You along enlighten me, You alone speak to me. May all that I know apart from You be nothing more than a chance traveling companion on the journey toward You. May it help to mature me, so that I may ever better understand You in the suffering that brings me, as Your holy writer has predicted. When it has accomplished this, then it can quietly disappear into oblivion.

Then You will be the final Word, the only one that remains, the one we shall never forget. Then at last, everything will be quiet in death; than I shall have finished with all my learning and suffering. Then will being the great silence, in which no other sound will be heard but You, O Word resounding from eternity to eternity.

Then all human words will have grown dumb. Being and knowing, understanding and experience will have become one and the same. “I shall know even as I am known;” I shall understand what You have been saying to me all along, namely, You Yourself. No more human words, no more concepts, no more pictures will stand between us. You Yourself will be the one exultant word of love and life filling out every corner of my soul.

Be now my consolation, O Lord, now when all knowledge, even Your revelation expressed in human language, fails to sill the yearning of my heart. Give me strength, O God, now when my soul easily tires of all the human words we devise about You, words which still fail to give us the possession of You. Even though the few flashes of light I receive in quiet moments quickly fade out again into the dark-grey sky of my daily life — even though knowledge comes to me now only to sink back again into oblivion, still Your Word lives in me, of which it is written: “The Word of the Lord abides forever.”

You Yourself are my knowledge, the knowledge that is light and life. You Yourself are my knowledge, experience, and love. You are the God of the one and only knowledge that is eternal, the knowledge that is bliss without end.

Amen.

Photo: Stock

The View From Gary Wills’s Theological Armchair

Posted in The Papal Watcher, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on February 15, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

WillsI have long appreciated the intelligence and wit of Gary Wills. As a historian of some prominence — he’s won the Pulitzer and holds a PhD in classics — and a literary critic whose work has regularly appeared in the New York Review of Books and other significant publications, I have admired his skilled assessment of texts and tradition. As an avowed Roman Catholic, Jesuit educated from youth and through college at St. Louis University, I’ve also appreciated Wills’s attempts to explore his own faith and its tradition through small books on the Gospels, the Letters of St. Paul, Augustine, and other subjects, including an older text that offers something of an apologia for his continued Catholic faith. His training in classics and his familiarity with the original Greek of the New Testament and Latin of Augustine offered the public intellectual insight into these materials that others might not have.

One wonders with someone whose interests are so polymathic just when does he reach the limits of his reasonably expected competence. When does he cross the boundary of well-researched personal inquiry and reflection into the territory of ignoratio?

I will make a bold claim that his recent New York Times op-ed contribution, “New Pope? I’ve Given Up Hope,” marks just such a border crossing.

I should begin these comments by stating that his sentiment, namely the frustration he exhibits about seemingly archaic systems of power and structure in church leadership, is actually quite reasonable and I suppose very sincere in his case. Critical though he may be, at other times Wills (like E. J. Dionne and other public commentators who maintain their Roman Catholic identity in a public way) has time and again reflected his disappointment with what he understands to be the church, while struggling to be a faithful Christian. Such public witness, especially as an academic and intellectual figure in whose circles such proclivities might be easily dismissed, is truly admirable.

Nevertheless, if what Wills was saying had more to do with explicit theological discourse, he’d be committing what is classically understood as heresy. Heresy, of course, doesn’t mean the opposite of orthodox doctrine or even some ideological position along the continuum of heterodox thought. Heresy is holding part of the truth as the whole truth. The easiest examples to recall have to do with Christological heresies: believing that Jesus Christ is human is not heretical. The Council of Chalcedon affirms as much. But, believe that Jesus Christ is only human is a heresy.

Analogously, much of what wills says in his op-ed piece is true. However, his lack of appreciation for the complexities and nuances about which he speaks borders on the incomprehensible or irrelevant. Again, not because his motives are false (he has, I believe, good intentions), but because he doesn’t actually understand — it would seem from his writing — that about which he is speaking.

To due justice to the subjects Wills names in passing and with a sense of flip cynicism would take more space and time than I have here in this post (you’re welcome, I promise not to write 4,000+ words here and keep it short). Perhaps a few examples will highlight the deeply problematic assertions that Wills advocates by way of partial truth interpreted according to Wills’s armchair-theological perspective.

Take the theme of papal monarchical status and the question of infallibility. Yes, even to this day the pope is a sovereign head of state. The Holy See — geographically constituted by “Vatican City” —  is its own internationally recognized sovereign state with diplomatic rights, centuries of international treaties known as Concordats, and so on. While the Christendom model of monarchical papacy Wills readily admits no longer exists, historians might argue that the model he caricatures never, in fact, existed. Yes, the pope at various times over the course of nearly two millennia has exercised a certain temporal influence that is perhaps less visible in modern history. However, to refer to the pope as a monarch simply because that is how, as a single person with such metanymnic significance for a church that is made up of over a billion persons, he appears to someone on the street does not account for a great deal of theological and canonical factors left untouched by Wills’s rant.

For example, the very condition for the possibility of Benedict XVI’s resignation from his office is the fact that his is not a monarch in the same sense that Wills suggests. What it means to talk about “the pope” is simply another way to talk about one bishop who happens to be the Ordinary of the Diocese of Rome, and therefore is granted primacy as first among equals (much to the reasonable chagrin of the Orthodox Churches who understandably resent the dismissal of their primates by the Latin Church). Such is the case canonically too. The only difference between the Bishop of Rome resigning and the Bishop of New York is that, technically, there is no one to whom the first among equals tenders one’s resignation. Instead, as we saw on Monday, the Bishop of Rome does so in sound mind in the presence of his colleagues — the other bishops represented by the College of Cardinals in consistory.

Wills’s simplistic understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility is likewise misleading. He’s better than most to acknowledge, somewhat too briefly, that not everything a pope says is infallible. However, that’s a huge detail: it has only been invoked twice in history and done so within the very particular confines of a very limited exercise of magisterial office. Wills would do well to read some of Francis Sullivan, SJ’s classic work on the theology of magisterial authority or Richard Gaillardetz’s primer, By What Authority? A Primer on Scripture, The Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003). The complex factors that converge to describe what this charism of infallibility actually means are too detailed to present here in this already lengthy post. However, the point to note is that Wills ties this highly technical (and widely misunderstood!) theological and canonical teaching to the monarchical authority of the papacy. It’s not that simple.

His clear lack of the moral teaching of the church and the, again to overuse the word, “complexities” of what something like Paul VI’s Humane Vitae present and rely upon, seriously shades his vision and confuses — at least as he expresses it — some sort of unilateral authority with the teaching office of the church, which varies in degree, something unacknowledged by Wills.

This is not to suggest that Wills is incorrect with his stats from the United States. I have no reason to doubt the overwhelming numbers of those who have not “received” the teaching of Humane Vitae in practice, but I do doubt whether or not the church (which is the Body of Christ = all the baptized) has “received” the point of the teaching. It is for moral theologians and bishops to hash out the role of medication, prophylactics, and the like vis-a-vis the teaching about authentic exercise of human sexuality in its (1) openness to life and (2) unitive dimension. These distinctions about what is actually being taught in the encyclical, whether one agrees or disagrees with the practical proscription, remain absent from this sort of critique.

If you want to challenge these teachings, and they are not without reasonable and grounded critique, then go through the trouble of doing your homework.

On a final note of highlight, the line near the end of his piece, “The claim of priests and popes to be the sole conduits of grace is a remnant of the era of papal monarchy,” is simply and utterly incorrect. Any priest (or any pope for that matter) who would make such a claim is doing so apart from the church. There is no ground to suggest that the church teaches that priests, or any particular person or group of persons, are the “sole conduits of grace.” In almost every instance, from St. Paul through Augustine to Martin Luther and to Karl Rahner and beyond, grace is always and everywhere understood in the first case as referring to the Holy Spirit.

It is perhaps this single line in all of Wills’s op-ed reflecting that betrays his truly inadequate sense of theology. It is an understandable conjecture, the kind to be expected of a pre-Second Vatican Council popular piety. For someone who pontificates (pun intended) about the ills of the church, the lack of theological nuance or broader appreciation for the history of the tradition is unsettling. While I haven’t yet read his new book on the priesthood, I have a sense that I will be disappointed given the shallowness of this op-ed’s theological reflection.

If it makes Gary Wills feel any better, I too would have lost hope in the pope and church that he describes. But as a baptized Catholic, a religious, a priest, and someone with more formal theological training than anyone knows what to do with, I don’t recognize the church about which Wills speaks. I do recognize a deeply flawed community of the baptized with a mixed history reflecting our human finitude. But I still have hope.

Photo: New York Review of Books
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