I can address only a few of Stephen Pope’s welcome questions. First, I agree that undergraduate teaching is a prime opportunity for theology to contribute to the life of the church and society. But has that opportunity really been taken advantage of? I am not as confident as Pope is that it has. What do we make of the irony, as Nicholas Lash notes in The Tablet (April 15), that the best-educated laity in the history of the church is largely theologically illiterate—Catholic higher-education graduates included?

Second, I do not have "doubts about the value of academic freedom"; I value it deeply and, in particular, fear what may happen (and has happened) in the United States to sexual ethicists and ecclesiologists (see Paul Saunders, Commonweal, April 21). I do doubt that there is a single model of academic freedom, one that sees all episcopal involvement as an inherent violation of institutional autonomy.

Third, Pope makes no mention of either the bishops or my comments about them, and so overlooks that I hold the bishops—as heads of their local churches—accountable for fostering the conditions necessary for vital Christian communities and theology. I say nowhere that theology departments are responsible for spiritual formation, and I take Pope’s mention of "monasticism" to be a red herring, which absolves the academy of spiritual integration by raising the specter of the monastic choir.

Fourth, and most important, I do not hold that academic standards should be "dumbed down" in order to encourage ecclesial and societal engagement. Rather, I would raise the bar for both tasks, thereby demanding of theologians more rigor and relevance. It is no coincidence that the theologians I mentioned in my article are also among the academy’s most distinguished members. John Courtney Murray, whom Pope cites as a publicly significant scholar, is further confirmation. Murray wrote regularly not only for Theological Studies but for America on issues like religious freedom, liberalism, and the papal encyclicals. Perhaps we should acknowledge that first-rate theologians—those who render extraordinary service to academy, church, and society—like the late Raymond Brown and Richard McCormick, are rare indeed, a providential combination of innate ability, rigorous training, and timing. Such acknowledgment does not, however, excuse us from responsibility for such formation. On this score, I am unrepentant in my belief that both the bishops and the academy are falling short.

As for Edward Oakes’s response, I thank him for his kind words. However, I have no desire to have my hand held by any bishop. My goal is not therapeutic affirmation by the bishops, but honest dialogue between bishops and theologians; egos will be bruised on both sides. Second, only one part of one chapter of my dissertation touches on primacy and collegiality. I am writing on Jean-Marie Tillard’s theology of the local church. A French Dominican, Tillard was a peritus at Vatican II, and is contemporary Catholicism’s foremost ecclesiologist and ecumenist. His thought, biblically and patristically grounded, exposes the vacuity of labels like liberal and conservative and makes a substantial contribution to the life of the church.

Finally, I freely grant that my project has found a sympathetic ear in Notre Dame’s theology department. Nonetheless, my dissertation board includes contributors to Commonweal, Communio, Crisis, and Theological Studies—surely no party line there! That said, ideology and peer pressure exist everywhere, in every department, and in every job—inside and outside of academia. Ultimately, my Commonweal article will have merit only insofar as it helps to continue a frank and respectful conversation, such as this one.

 


Related: Young Theologians, by Christopher Ruddy
Something New, by the Editors

Published in the 2000-06-02 issue: 

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America.

Also by this author
Benedict’s Theological Legacy

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