From the Publisher: Deregulating Theology

Anyone who has watched the decline of Roman Catholic theology over the past several decades would have bet the ranch that theologians in our colleges and universities would react as they have to the publication of formulas for the Profession of the Faith and an Oath of Fidelity. If you expected this crowd to defer to any authority other than the zeitgeist, you have been out of touch.

Father James Burtchaell, my esteemed colleague, debased his wit and intelligence to the Charlie Curran level of theological discourse in a sarcastic piece in the National Catholic Reporter. There is a whiff of Protestantism in his effort to drive a wedge between the papal and episcopal Magisterium and “the prophets and apostles.” Where, he asks, is there any mention of loyalty to the Gospels?

If Burtchaell were less interested in having fun than in understanding the Profession, and assuming of course that he read it in Latin, he would have been given pause by “Firma fide quoque credo ea omnia quae in verbo Dei scripto vel tradito continentur et ab Ecclesia sive solemni iudicio sive ordinario et universali Magisterio tamquam divinitus revelata credenda proponuntur.” If that bothers him, he is doubtless bothered by Vatican II’s Dei verbum as well. Father Umberto Betti’s comments in L’Osservatore Romano (weekly edition of March 13) stand in salutary contrast to Burtchaell’s screed.

It is depressing to have it driven home that not even theologians of Burtchaell’s undeniable gifts give a damn about such Vatican documents. It is not that they sat down with an open mind to read them and stood up in offended fury. Clearly they handle them as Sylvester the Cat does a delicacy from the garbage can. They are a priori opposed to being told by anyone what the Church teaches. They bristle with pride at the suggestion that their faith has made them captives. They have become a magisterium unto themselves.

I have argued elsewhere and earlier that “theologian” has become hopelessly equivocal as between what Vatican II and other magisterial documents mean by the term and the sense it must have to cover those who hold positions in our departments of theology. Many of our theologians are not Roman Catholics at all; those that are may have received their theological training in Protestant or ecumenical faculties. By and large, they consider themselves to be members of a professional academic group with no loyalties outside it. The reason a mandatum docendi appalls them is that accepting one would amount to the declaration that their teaching is done in terms of a wider community of whose faith the bishops and the Holy Father are the authoritative interpreters. In short, such theologians are not Roman Catholic theologians; they have declared their independence from the Magisterium in the name of academic freedom. And they seem to be in control.

Clearly then it would be a waste of time to engage such theologians in argument over the meaning of documents whose presuppositions they reject. The anti-papist Watchtower of my youth would have hesitated to speak of the pope as these theologians do. The insolence involved in treating a magisterial document as if it were an undergraduate essay has become so habitual as to be almost innocent. Wasn’t it Karl Rahner who said that once he thought of Hans Kueng as a Protestant it was easier to understand him? The loyal Roman Catholic on our campuses no longer feels at home. Like Evelyn Waugh he is tempted to think of himself as a tourist in his native land so as to make life bearable.

There is no chance that our university theologians will publicly declare themselves as Roman Catholic theologians loyal to the pope. Contrast John Updike’s description (in his recent memoir, Self-Consciousness) of his father taking a loyalty oath as a teacher in Pennsylvania during the McCarthy era. When Updike asked his father about it, the latter replied “mildly that he had no trouble swearing he was loyal to the United States.” Why in the name of God should a Roman Catholic theologian have trouble declaring himself loyal to the Vicar of Christ on earth? He is ashamed to because — here is the tragic truth — to do so would be a lie.

If then it would be a waste of time for bishops to discuss the matter with such theologians — if they cannot make that profession of faith, they must consider the bishop as just an off-campus pest — what is to be done?

There is a swift and simple solution.

At the University of Notre Dame, to take an ex-ample, six credits in theology are required for graduation. W hat is the historical basis for that requirement? That the educated Catholic should receive a comparably high education in his religious faith and arrive at a more profound understanding of what the Church teaches. By their own strident and frequent declarations, this is no longer what our theology departments offer. Requiring theology for graduation has lost its raison d’etre. The conclusion is obvious. Put theology on the free market. If students want to take theology, they will take it for what it is. Our theologians insist upon their freedom from Rome. Students should have a comparable freedom. Perhaps truth in labeling would prove the death of such departments, perhaps not. But in either case, the truth would be served.

Furthermore, all those gifts that have made life so plush and pleasant for dissidents must be reconsidered. Is it perhaps illegal to put money given to further the teaching of the Church at the disposal of those who attack and mock that teaching? Surely those so jealous of their integrity in matters of oaths and professions will not wish to take money under false pretenses.

To show my bona fides in making this suggestion, I propose that the analogous requirement in philosophy be dropped as well. The reason for the philosophy requirement participates, historically, in that advanced for the theology requirement.

Such a decision would take everybody off the hook in one fell blow. Bishops would no longer have to answer the outraged letters of parents. Theologians could go on ignoring letters from Rome. The bishops could say, “They don’t speak for the Church,” and the theologians could alter the pronoun and make the same solemn profession.

Once a man for all seasons gave him his life rather than repudiate the pope. Now those who have lost their savor mock the Holy Father. More than once in recent years I have thought how peculiarly relevant to our times is H.F.M. Prescott’s novel of the English Reformation, Man on a Donkey. Anti- Romanism, anti-papalism, have come to characterize our institutions of higher learning. I suppose it was somewhat like this during the Reformation. Now as then one longs for heroes. For saints.

In the present atmosphere, thumbing one’s nose at the pope is easy, but it would be an act of grace, in both senses of the term, if the good professors at Notre Dame’s theology department stood before the high altar in Sacred Heart Church and pronounced their Profession of Faith. Pray God that they will.



  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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