Catholic Theologians

Catholic Theologians  

(an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Religion in a Material Universe)

I recognize that it is unfair to single out any individual for being influenced by [career] pressures when they affect every Catholic theologian on the planet.  Catholics are long accustomed to reading their theologians “between the lines” because they are all too aware that a statement or an omission may not reflect what the authors think but only what they need to do to preserve the apprearance of orthodoxy.

A most revealing omission in this regard, is that these theologians, while they insist that they are trying to update Catholic thinking on dogmatic issues, typically exclude from their aggiornamento the very “dogmas” of apostolic succession and magisterial infallibility that justify the intellectual suffocation that inhibits them. This is more a propos for this epilogue than it might first appear.  One is inclined to ask: is it possible that the institutional factors that render theologians impotent are the same factors that establish the character and appeal of the Roman Catholic Church?  Are theologians complicit in their own enfeeblement for reasons of self-interest at a deeper level?  Has the Roman Catholic penchant for offering absolute dogmatic assurances that avoid facing the void, so penetrated their thinking that they no longer recognize it as contrary to the spirit of Jesus?  Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor was right, after all.  Dostoyevsky’s Cardinal Torquemada put Jesus himself on the rack out of “love for humankind” whom he claimed could not bear Jesus’ call to freedom — the call to embrace the void.

His radical openness to “God” led Jesus to a very desolate place — the cross.  It was the void.  I believe there is no way to follow him and not end up face to face, as he did, with the forces — some natural, some intentional — that dehumanize people.  It left him lost and impaled.  Jesus had no choice; he had to trust “God.”  Institutional Christianity,  on the other hand, well protected by its wealth and power, does have a choice and rarely lets itself get trapped in such narrow places.  Dismissing the challenge to face the truth of its own pretensions may be simply another way for Catholicism to avoid the radical insecurity and subsequent loss of constituency that would come from not having credal absolutes — the comforts of infallibly having “the answers.”  The void for Catholics would be the admission that we just don’t know, and that in the absence of knowledge we have to trust.  It is difficult to imagine following Jesus without treading that path; and it is difficult to imagine the Roman Church ever making the choice to do so.  Catholic theologians, unfortunately, are all too prone to the smugness that characterizes their Church with its conceits of absolute infallible “knowledge.”

Ultimately, these are personal questions that bear upon theologians’ internal motivations and depth of spirituality.  We may never know what really drives their professional careers.  No one is judging.  But we need them to examine their conscience.  We are dependent upon them.  Because of the daunting complexity of the souces of Christian doctrine, we rely on them to research, analyze, think and reflect in ways that we cannot.  Theology is a communitarian enterprise, and theologians have the task of articulating our collective struggle.  Their subject matter is the whole community’s evolving understan­ding of our place in this Sacred Matrix, and that includes our misgivings and disillusionments.  It is not a simple matter; facile solutions will no longer fly.  Refusing to challenge “doctrine” at the depths that reality and truth require, makes a mockery of the calling.

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One comment on “Catholic Theologians

  1. rjjwillis says:

    Tony, I have long thought that Catholicism, as practiced, destroys faith. What do I mean by that? I mean, simply, that the Catholic Church ties everything up for its members in the bows of certainty. All that you need do is obey us, whether you understand what we are commanding or why we are commanding it. We have a direct line to God and God’s Will, which you don’t have. So, instead of having faith in God all you have to do is to trust us. If you do that, we can assure you that you will get to the eternal rewards of heaven, not for believing in God but for obeying us. In this system, there is no need to worry about the void, to face darkness of faith. I suspect that for many Catholics it is only in the face of approaching death that the claims of ecclesial certainty are shown to be what they truly are: whistling in the wind as the cortege winds its certain way to the graveyard. For me, true faith dwells in living even in the looming and ever-present shadow of death. Thaniks again, Tony, for your thought-provoking comments that help illuminate our common journey. Bob

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