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Does the Man with the Ball Get to Define the Game?

David Cloutier says the point of Paul Griffiths's talk is to ask the question "what is theology"? But why do we have to accept his question as THE question, let alone his answer?

As I said at the session, I think Griffths's talk was a jeremiad. It was an indictment of the CTSA, which he himself acknowledged.

But he doesn't have actual jurisdiction, let alone subpoena power. So CTSA members don't need to accept his framing of the charge. And one point of my piece is that I don't think they should.

I really don't see why the narrow defnitional question "what is theology" needs to be the CTSA's question, collectivley, although it may indeed occupy a number of its members. In fact, I suspect insisting upon a precise, exhaustive, definition of theology before moving on to other questions is an unhealthy preoccupation with methodological prolegomena. CTSA members don't need a precise answer to the question in order to do good and fruitful work. In social ethics and moral theology, we live with unclear and sometimes contested and contestible boundaries. Does it really matter whether John Courtney Murray was doing theology all the way down, or was mixing theology and insights from democratic theory? Did he have to get that definitional question right before moving on to address religious liberty? Is it essential to separate his anlysis of the American situation from the rethinking of the doctrine on church-state issues, even if we can distinguish some strands? Those questions are important to ask in some cases, I think. But I don't think there was any way they could have been settled in advance

The Church, after all, baptized elements of Greek philosophy and Roman law, integrating it with insights from Jewish sources. And to the extent that "natural law" is a key aspect of Catholic moral thinking, streams are muddled here as well. Do we need to "purify" all the water in advance?

I still don't know, positively, why members of ACT would want to join CTSA—any more than why someone convinced that philosophy was only analytic philosophy would want to join a group with a substantial number of continental philosophers.  

I would be grateful if someone would answer that question.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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I am not a member nor did I attend. I don't even know what the mission and bylaws of the CTSA are. However, I have read the threads and the comments surrounding his talk. Participants, including some members, of the CTSA who post here suggested that what he said rang true. It resonated with their observations. Maybe not in every detail but in broad strokes.

The issue is not Griffith or his talk but instead the core message and postion he was advancing relative to the ideological and theological homogeneity of the CTSA.

If I were a new member of the CTSA and basing my observations solely on the comments on this blog, I would say that at a minimum there should be a sub-committee struck to examine his point relative to inclusivity. I am not sure that inclusivity is part of CTSA because at least some members seem to believe that there is something to what he is saying. At a minimum, it warrants fruther exploration. I think we are stronger when we engage with people who are different. Obviously, there needs to be some boundaries but the only way that can occur is through dialogue, discussion, and an effort to work together.

I don't know much about the CTSA.  Do all Catholic theologians belong to it? Thinking of the recent past  - if some of the theologians then believed as Griffiths does, much of what they wrote would never have been published.  An example:  Hans Urs von Balthasar was really raked over the coals for his book on Holy Saturday because his view was like that of Luther and Calvin ... "Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy" ... ... here's the start of the article ...

"Hans Urs von Balthasar once keenly observed what makes someone an ecclesial theologian: “It is quite clear that anyone who practices theology as a member of the Church must profess the Church’s Creed (and the theology implicit in it), both formally and materially. This profession is made formally, by positing the ecclesial act of faith; materially, by accepting the ecclesial contents of the faith.”

In other words, what ecclesial theologians say should reflect the beliefs they hold and those beliefs are to be the ones held by the ecclesial community. In virtue of their common profession, the theologian bears a name in common with the preexisting community of faith. This ecclesial relation suggests why the community can correct and even censure members who reject its common doctrine. Both formal and material professions serve as a lamp to guide and correct the work of the ecclesial theologian with the light of faith”and to enlighten any adequate evaluation of that work. For Catholics (like Balthasar), the definitive profession is expressed in Scripture, tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium as these are inseparably united.

What then are we to think when Balthasar himself radically reinterprets a perennial doctrine of his ecclesial community, the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell? When he retains the form in its general expression but changes the content to the point of contradicting the original? ..."

The argument about that went on ... "More on Baltasar, Hell, and Heresy" ... "Responses to Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy" ..., and "Was Balthasar a Heretic?" ...

Hi Cathy-- Great comments. I wasn't at CTSA, so I can't say if Griffiths' talk had the style of a jeremiad - it may be that my reading it as just words on a page has a different effect that seeing the address delivered. I'm inclined to agree with your claim that somehow starting with pure definitions - "definitions will save us" - isn't right. The time to step back and ask clarifying questions about definitions is likely some kind of impasse or crisis - maybe an inability of people of good will and some common concerns to communicate effectively. We could characterize the liberal/conservative, or the CTSA/ACT divide in that fashion. A more benign interpretation of Griffiths' intervention would be as a constructive attempt to figure out how to improve communication. If it is merely a matter of saying, "CTSA, you should adopt the mission statement of the ACT, we're playing baseball and you are not," then I agree with you. But I think there are plenty of ways in which "CTSA practice" - in less and more partial ways - does in fact do the things Griffiths is saying, and a more constructive way forward would be (a) a clearer self-consciousness about that, and (b) a creative way of responding with a different (better?) statement about what it means to do Catholic theology. By all means, let's not get hung up on endless prolegomena. But Griffiths provided a precise, pretty efficient layout of the "rules of the game," and it seems fair to suppose that some common self-conscious methdological clarity can be beneficial, particularly when two groups of people claim to be doing the same activity, and yet regard one another with suspicion. My own sense (still developing) is that a response to Griffiths has to engage the question of experience, also has to take up more questions about history and cultural contextualization, and finally has to take on his initial claim that the subject matter of theology is primarily God, and only secondarily "created things." Griffiths seems (on my reading) to leave plenty of room in his categories - particularly of "interpretation" - to deal with culture, history, experience, and practice. Creative extensions fall under his category of "speculation." Thus, the real question is the status of what he means by "discovery" - surely he does not think that there is some pristine, ahistorically available propositional doctrine just "sitting there." But I think he worries that at least some CTSA work suffers from two problems: (1) insufficient attention to discovery, in order to engage in interpretive and speculative work that isn't well-enough informed, and (2) (as I mentioned in my earlier post) a tendency for the work to be driven by ecclesial and political action items in a way that weakens and/or distorts the theology. It would be wrong to imagine action as some completely separate category of work, but it does seem to be distinguishable. I quoted his example of mujerista theology and "Thomism of the strict observance" because it would be easy to convict (bad) conservative theologians of exactly the same offenses - and he seems to be alert to this. It seems that Catholic theologians who have rich, varied, extensive knowledge of the tradition - people like yourself and Griffiths, people at CTSA and people at ACT - would benefit immeasurably from having their conversations be shared, rather than isolated.


I have never been to a CTSA meeting but I have been to annual meetings of many professional organizations. I have chaired many annual conferences, been a keynote speaker at some, and an audience attendee at others. I can tell you that the most interesting and fruitful conferences were the ones that offered differing points of view on a particular subject followed by a panel discussion so that the audience could ask appropreate questions and respectfully challenge each speaker. The worst conferences were the ones where everyone was preaching from the same song book with little insight and creativity. I am biased because as an thought-leader in my chosen field, I had to constantly be at the leading-edge of issues. I benefited from other points of view...that is what thought-leaders among the so-called experts do. 

It is in dialogue that we are brought to a better understanding of truth, that someday will  cause a responsible change, or none at all, in a teaching. It is in dialogue that new scholarship and insight is born for our goal and journey in Christ.

If we agree that we have been living in a divided church and in a crisis in truth for the past 40+ years, part of the so-called solution is not more exclusivity. 

If the point of Griffith's address was for the CTSA to encourage more diversity and outreach to members of the ACT to participate in CTSA's annual conferences on subjects that are important to both groups, I ask: Why not, if that will lead to a better understanding of truth and benefit the Body of Christ, which is His Church? 

Granted, because of philosophical and theological differences, not many ACT members will want to join the CTSA or be a presenter at their annual meetings. However, more inclusion and effective outreach to ACT theologians with an opposing view point will not poison the mission statement of the CTSA by narrowing their charter. On the contrary, it will mean more respectful relationships and more theological collaboration. The negative cycle of exclusion and divisiveness must be broken. This is not being naive but  realistically optimistic.





Professor Kaveny,

    Thank you for your posts about Paul Griffiths' plenary address to CTSA.  Having read Paul's text, I would respectfully say that you fail to engage the specifics of his argument.  You refuse to respond to his challenge to define Catholic theology and even question why Paul would want to be a member of the CTSA!  Obviously, no theologian shoud be forced to dicuss questions that don't interest her, and you may choose to avoid methodological debates.  However, all theologians operate wih an implicit conception of ther enterprise, and many reflect explicitly on the nature of theology.  It would therefore seem useful for members of the CTSA to occasionally consider definitional issues.  Paul offers a specific definition of Catholic theology,and describes discovery, interpretation and speculation.  What exactly do you find problematic about this discussion?  What alternative definition of Catholic theology would you offer?  In presenting his account, Paul also employs Wittgenstein's ideas about definitions and language games.  Do you think Wittgenstein is mistaken in his approach to these topics (I do, and therefore differ with Paul on some questions)?

   Yes, Paul Griffiths lacks subpoena power over the CTSA, but I don't see why this point is relevant to his argument.  Rather than making defensive comments about his juridical powers, I hope you will engage Paul's argument more seriously.



I don't agree with Griffiths' notion of theology--I think it is too narrow. I also think he misuses Wittgenstein. I think the more helpful Wittgensteinian insight the meaningof the term "theology" lies its use. 

And I think its use is demonstrably very complicated. Theology  operates in part  by  drawing concepts and ideas from other systems; figuring out precisley when it is theology and when it's not doesn't strike me as a helpful endeavor.

Fortunately--and I think this is my main point--the CTSA works, by virtue of its mssion, on theology and related fields. I don't see any real need to define a sharp line between theology and a cognate field. To put it another way, there may be a focal meaning in theology, but there is no "essence." It's like other fields. The puzzle about "what is law, exactly" is interesting around the edges or in particular contexts. Most of the time, we deal with what we know is law, or how it interacts with the people and questions it interacts with. And that's where the interesting questions are. I say to my contracts students, "courts will enforce promises reasonably relied on." But the legal standard of "reasonable reliance" necessarily points outside itself to social practice. Is it really helpful to try to draw an always aplicable line about what is and isn't law? Or is it more fruitful to offer a "thick description" of how lawers and legal scholars operate?

So I am quite content that a range of topics related more or less explictly to theology go on under the big tent of the CTSA. And I'm very fine with not having a sharp boundary.

In a nutshell: Wittgenstein taught us to pay attention to questions, not just to answers. And he also taught us that all questions aren't helpful.  I would urge a bit of Wittgensteinian therapy reqgarding the demand for a "conceptual definition" of theology that can be used as a Procrustean bed to rule certain discussions out of bounds.

Incidentally, my refence to "subpoena power" has to do not with defensiveness on my part, but with an allusion to the rhetorical form of the address Griffiths engaged in. I said I thought it was a jeremiad. That is a form of indictment for violation of a covenant that was practiced by the Hebrew prophets, and reinviograted by the Puritans, especially in America. It is a highly Protestant form of discourse.  A legal indictment does not allow one much room to resist the terms of the engagement. as unhelpful.Fortunately, a rhetorical indictment does.






I keep imagining Francis as the hero of 1940s movies.  In this one, Cardinal Bertone, with Bishop Bergoglio on his right,  is seated on a throne on the steps of St. Peter's  looking down the grand boulevard  that leads from  St, Peter's Square into the city of Rome.  Down the middle of that august street, now only a block or two distant from them, Cardinal Raymond Burke, with his great red cardinal's hat smashed down on his head, and his  matching red cappa magna dragging heavily behind him,  advances steely-eyed toward Bertone with his golden bishop's mitre in one hand and his drawn Renaissance sword in the other.  Bergoglio looks up at Bertone and says, "Are you crazy?  I will NOT be your second!"  

Oops.  Wrong thread. Sorry.

'To put it another way, there may be a focal meaning in theology, but there is no "essence.'"

Perhaps "theology" is what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance term".  Given all its varied uses/meanings there is no one element common to all the uses/meanings (no one "essence") that defines it, but given any particular use that one is at least something like some other use.  

On the other hand, maybe "theology" is like the transcendental terms (being, one, true, good) which refer to *everything*, though in analogous ways.  Scotus said that there are three subjects which have transcendenal extension (they are about *everything*) -- metaphysics, logic, and language.  Maybe he should have added theology.

Perhaps "theology" is what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance term

That seems like a promising direction and a good way to approach it. I am less inclined to think of transcendental terms but maybe that is because I am a later convert to Witt....introduced to him here actually. Not quite a disciple but I find that his approach makes sense even if his writing doesn't always !

Paul J. Griffiths is no doubt very opposed to the idea that "theology" is a "family resemblance term" and a fortiori to the idea that "Catholic theology" is such a term. He has no higher degrees in theology himself, and seems to have fallen for a very narrow and ideological account of what theology is.

Can there be a Christian theology without reference to Scripture? Can there be a Catholic theology without reference to the teaching Church? If the answer in both cases is "no", as appears to be the case, then we are not dealing with a family resemblance term.

That is, the nub of "family resemblances" is that all can be members of one family even if there are two members of the family that have no trait in common.

Whereas all members of the Catholic theology family must have at least two traits in common, i.e. concern with Scripture and concern with church teaching.


And of course all members of CTSA have these two traits in common, which makes Griffiths' blunderbuss attack fall dismally flat.

Anybody can define any term in his/her own way.  If we do, we can't always expected to be understood,  However, *not* giving one's own meaning often is worse -- it  leads to even more misunderstanding.

Ordinary speech doesn't usually need to be very exact. Fuzzy language is mostly good enough.  But scholarly discourse is something else, especially in ancient disciplines such as theology in which important words have long, long histories with many different shades of meaning.and many different kinds of uses.  Consider just  "the Word" in Christian theologies!

As Professor Keveny points out, theology is already an adequately defined academic enterprise, with pretty clear boundaries over against philosophy, including philosophy of religion, and over against non-confessional "religious studies" or "history of religions", though we need not obsess about making those boundaries foolproof . She is neither claiming to define theology any way she likes nor refusing to define it at all.

But Griffiths, in a most unwittgensteinian way, is not happy with this focal understanding, and clamors for a definition of essence, which he constructs in a very narrow way.

I reviewed Griffiths' two chief Buddhological books, and I seem to recall that he constructed intellectualist teasers that were then to be resolved speculatively, building no doubt on conundrums in the ancient texts. But I felt that the full sweep of Buddhist thought was missed by this procedure, just as the full sweep of theological thought is missed when we make it turn about such arcane conundrums as whether Mary's sinlessness made her naturally immortal.

I am sorry to say that unlike those praising Griffiths for raising challenging questions, I think this entire discussion is a waste of time, because though he has somehow got an academic position as a Catholic theologian Griffiths has an amazingly jejune and foreshortened conception of what theological thinking is.

I just noticed an unfortunate typo is the second review -- "does enable" should be "does not enable"

I don't know why Joesph O'Leary, who lacks a PhD in philosophy, keeps wasting our time with his interpretations of Wittgenstein. Of course, the circumstances in which Wittgenstein received his own degree in the subject were highly irregular, so perhaps we should stop reading him, too. 


Mr. Boudway - keep in mind that JOL's reading of Wittgenstein and others is framed by:

"Freud and Lacan had a deep and penetrating understanding of human life and the human heart, as is reflected in the brilliance and beauty of their literary style in their respective languages. They are a resource for healing that should be drawn on.

I suspect that the phobia against Freud and Lacan in some positivist circles is due to the way that psychoanalysis has been translated, systematized, and imposed in the English-speaking world. Lacan's critique of American Freudianism is a potent corrective to that."

So, all of his interpretations are filtered through his Lacan lense which provides *brilliance and beauty * because of their literary styles.  Obviously, your reading is biased because of the English-speaking world's incorrect understanding and application of Freud and Lacan.  You need to set up Lacan and Wittgenstein side by side in an effort to interpret JOL.



I said I thought it was a jeremiad. That is a form of indictment for violation of a covenant that was practiced by the Hebrew prophets, and reinviograted by the Puritans, especially in America. It is a highly Protestant form of discourse.

Cathy, now that's just silly. First, last I checked, the Hebrew prophets were still part of the Catholic canon of scripture and we often listen to their jerimiads in the first reading at the Sunday liturgy. Second, the Catholic theological tradition is full of jerimiads. There is nothing distinctively Protestant about them.

Like David Cloutier, I did not hear Paul's address delivered. But I have read it, and found myself wondering what the big deal was. He laid out a clear, strongly-stated argument for one way of understanding theology. Feel free to disagree. Make a counter-argument. But labeling it a "jerimiad" or "Protestant" is not an argument. In fact, it looks more like the very policing of the boundaries of Catholic theology that people are accusing Paul of.


Take a look at Perry Miller, the New England Mind (vols. 1 and 2); Sacvan Bercovitch  The American Jeremiad. David Howe- Pitney, The African American Jeremiad, James Darsey, The Prophetic Tradition and Radical Rhetoric in America, my Santa Clara lecture on  prophetic rhetoric in the public square. For English Puritan  roots, see, e.g., David Weir's history  of  covenant theology. A key source remains  Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy, particularly his distinction between Hellenism and Hebraism in post-Puritan England.  On characteristic forms of Catholic thought, see John O'Malley Four Culture of the West. 

And then we'll talk, provided you quit the name-calling. It is beneath you.


What name did I call you? I characterized something you said as silly (and adjective, not a noun). I gave reasons why it was.

Can I give you a bibliography as a precondition for further conversation?

On second thought, forget it. 



Adjective , noun, the tone is the same. 

Finally, I got a chance to  read Griffith's piece. He certainly complicates things and in my view is not a clear or precise writer or thinker. I am peplexed that some are saying that he invites dialogue where in essence he is a champion of the magisterium and Ex Corde Ecclesis is next. He states that it is not always easy to understand what the magisterium is clearly thinking. 

But where he errs is in presuming that the magisterium has been right. His allusion to baseball strains credulity. Practically any rule in baseball can be changed. The most liberal theologian knows there are some inscrutable truths. But they see them in the Sermon on the Mount rather that in ex catedra statements. Han Kung was censured because he questioned the Infallibility fo the Pope. Is there any theologian who believes in infallibility anymore.

Griiffiths is bringing in Dominus Jesus through the back door. The Church of Dogma which canonized Charlemagne and was quiet during the Holocaust. My question is Griffiths should be happy that anyone takes him seriously. No one should. 

We have theologians to keep the Vatican honest. If they do their job. 


I have been lurking around this conversation for some time, not sure whether or not I want to weigh in. I'd like to make three points.

First, let me thank the contributors to the debate. Many good points have been made, and conversations over comment sections, as the above testifies, can be both hopeful and discouraging.

Second, let me disabuse a certain caricature. The ACT is not some monolithic body of disgrunted theologians who have some agenda against the CTSA. Sure, some may fit this descrption. I have only attended two sessions of the ACT, but have encountered a wider audience. I also belong also to the CTSA. Deciding to accept nomination to the ACT had, for me and I suspect for many others, nothing to do with being disaffected with the CTSA.

Cathy was right in her original post, that the two conferences/meetings have two very different aims. The ACT is a little more like a retreat, where a main goal is to promote an inter-disciplinary discussion around a theme/topic. It's at a retreat house, and it is very cozy. The CTSA has a much different feel. 

I don't consider myself "conservative" in any unqualified sense, and many  ACT member/friends, I suspect, feel the same way. The last time I heard Paul Griffiths speak there, I think he ruffled about the same proportion of feathers there as he did at the most recent CTSA. 

Third, the CTSA really does have to answer for the way they've treated more conservative or traditional theologians. The CTSA should be the "big tent" theological association for Catholics, but it has to some degree failed. And I've read in numerous comments something akin to "good riddance" at the fact that people like Paul Griffiths, one of the most interesting and compelling Catholic theologians in North America, doesn't feel particularly welcome. It's the CTSA's job to encourage right-leaning theolgians to attend, and to want the conversation to be bigger. At times it has done so, and in these moments I've been proud to be a member. But it cannot be a clubby association for people who share theological convictions that lean toward an exclusively liberal position. The Catholic Church in America needs the CTSA to be bigger than that.

As Catholic theologians, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard that bishops and Vatican congregations. The CTSA will likely remain a place where a "progressive majority" rules, and that is fine by me, but it's moral model should be "gracious host."

Bill Mazzella,

You said: "I am perplexed that some are saying that he (Griffith) invites dialogue where in essence he is a champion of the magisterium and Ex Corte Eccleis is next."

You may be absolutely correct that Griffith is an uncritical apologist for the magisterium, but in his final comments he is indeed promoting dialogue and theological diversity, when he says in paraphrase 'that the CTSA doesn't permit serious disagreement but actually prevents polemic exchange....the CTSA should encourage more contestation and the full range of theological works.'

Since I never attended a CTSA conference I cannot say whether Griffith's opinion is right or wrong. Nevertheless, Griffith seems to be saying that there is a certain kind of narrow mindset in the CTSA (which may be said of the ACT as well) but is encouraging more dialogue (e.g., contestation) and diversity (subject matter).

Do we not need more dialogue and respectful contestation so that we do not forster the theological divide? Perhaps I missed the importance of the arguments about the definition of theology.





A couple of people have asked me for info on the jeremiad as a particular type of rhetoric. Here's a Santa Clara lecture I gave on it.  The first few pages give the definition:


"...when he says in paraphrase 'that the CTSA doesn't permit serious disagreement but actually prevents polemic exchange....the CTSA should encourage more contestation and the full range of theological works.'"

Mike B,

Griffiths is part of a long line of hierarchical apologists who say dialogue while practicing monologue. The point of view Griffiths champions is always on the CTSA agenda albeit critical. CTSA and other thinking theologians have always dealt with the dogmatic view and has debated it in a scholarly way for decades. You will find much dialogue on that. How many of us have disected Dominus Jesus and found it wanting in solid theology. The debate has been scholarly, intelligent and thorough. What does Giffiths want. Agreement, Obedience? His point of view has been shoved down theologians throats for decades. It is not like he is offering something new. What is new about what he is saying. Except maybe that he wants to set the CTSA agenda. Which Cathly alertly called him on it.

He may be witty, British and acerbic. But it is the same old in a crafty form. CTSA and theologians have longed clamored for such dialogue which John Paul and Benedict constantly denied. They answered with censure instead of dialogue.  Is there some wacky irony here?Who could forget the witch hunts during "Ex Corde Ecclesia" when fear was prevalent all over and theology died a slow death. 

Bill M.

Thanks for this explanation. I am aquainted with juridical rule characteristic of the papacies of JP II and Benedict XVI, and the intransigent attitudes of traditionalist theologians in not wanting to enter into respectful debate over many teachings on sexual ethics. Their arguments are about authority and the obedience to magisterium teachings, pure and simple. I do not know Griffith so I will rely on your knowledge about his point of view and intention. 

Perhaps the CTSA does often ask traditionalists to speak at their conferences to encourage more contestation and dialogue. If so, I applaude more of it because in legitimate debate what becomes clear is the problem with many teachings, namely, their lack of a convincing moral theory in support of teachings, and the deliberate side-stepping of the major points in counter-arguments. 

Thanks again for the education.



I do not know Griffith so I will rely on your knowledge about his point of view and intention.

Mr. Barberi, you are making a terrible mistake.

I still don't know, positively, why members of ACT would want to join CTSA—any more than why someone convinced that philosophy was only analytic philosophy would want to join a group with a substantial number of continental philosophers.  

I would be grateful if someone would answer that question.

Since you asked, I'll give that a shot.

I am a member of both the CTSA and ACT, and am new to both this year. I've been in the classroom for twenty years, teaching moral theology and historical theology, and I like to engage in subtantial theological conversations. Due to funding and time limitiations, I only get to attend about three conferences each year at which I can find such conversations, meet intelligent colleagues from other institutions and learn something new.

I'm puzzled by the opposition to the expectation that an academic society for theologians should have a common idea about what theology is. I suppose that the opposite of a "narrow," "precise" and "exhaustive" idea about theology could be construed as an "unfocused," "vague" and "incomplete" idea about what theology is, but I suppose others would like to construe the opposite as "expansive," "inclusive" and "open-ended."

Whichever might be the case, the fact is that everyone in attendance at any academic conference is working out of some understanding about what the discipline is, what its standards are and what lies outside the bounds of acceptability. As some of the comments above reveal, there is great concern among some that this call for openness is merely a clever ploy for reestablishing the power-structure characteristic of pre-Vatican II theological institutions.

Trained when i was, there's no way I can ignore the power dynamics at play here. Paul's call for humility on the part of theologians resonated with me, on precisely this point: if somehow this debate within the society is about who gets to have power and who doesn't, then we've kind of missed the point of being Christian, never mind Catholic, and never mind theologians. If the goal of being an academic was to enjoy and exercise power, then I could have gone into literary theory or political philosophy, which probably pays better and holds its conferences at more exotic and luxurious locales.

The measure of whether I remain a member of any theological society will thus depend on a few basic points:

  • Is there a Christ-like love and humility evident among its members, or are they striving to attain self-recognition and control through participation in this society and its sessions?
  • Can I recognize and engage the reasoning by which the speaker or respondent is presenting his or her ideas?
  • Are there enough substantive sessions that makes it worth the time and money I have to devote to attending the conference?

If not, there are already a number of conferences where I can do this, meet great and serious scholars, and come away more knowledgeable than I arrived.

One big thing, though; ditch the chandeliers, especially when the speakers are bemoaning the deleterious effects of entrenched wealth. The irony of such settings is only amusing for a brief time, and then it simply becomes vulgar.

To use an old-fashioned word, theology is an organic discipline, wide in scope, symphonic in the variety of voices it listens to, growing as a broad-based rethinking of revelation in each successive epoch, in responsiveness to the signs fo the times and the new horizons of culture. 


Griffiths seems to have an unorganic conception of theology as a kind of problem-solving exercise, the problems including such earth-shaking matters as whether Mary's sinlessness guaranteed her freedom from death. This is jejune and atomistic, very far from the breadth of vision that theologians seek to attain and have attained in great presentations of Christian faith. Such breadth is a collective achievement, and the CTSA are engaged honorably in that collective effort, which the supercilious Griffiths fails to appreciate.


Theology is one of the most dialogal, perhaps the most dialogal, or academic disciplines, and that means that theologians must reach out to and be influenced by the great shaping geniuses of our culture (such as Marx, Wittgenstein, Russell, Heidegger, Derrida, Freud, Lacan -- all of whom were too intelligent to scoff at one another -- well Russell was a bit of a scoffer, but in his less valuable writings). It is true that theologians should beware of affecting expertise in cosmology, economics, psychoanalysis, or philosophy,or even literary criticism -- all too often what they write in these domains is shoddy and secondrate -- the protocols of interdisciplinary encounter here need to be stricter perhaps. But conversely philosophers should be very careful about affecting expertise in theology. Much too much of what passes for theology today is actually an overspill of postmodern philosophy, or social theory, or the theological turn in phenomenology, or analytical philosophy, and we hear more of Zizek, Agamben and the like than of Scripture and the Fathers (unless it be Scripture as read by Badiou or the Fathers read by Lyotard). Naturally philosophers have ever right to talk about theology from their own angle, but it is unhealthy when that angle swamps out the historical texture and the methodological stability of theology in the primary sense.

I wonder if readers are aware of the commotion currently afoot in French Catholic intellectual circles due to Emmanuel Falque's call to "cross the Rubicon", the Rubicon in question being the border between philosophy and theology. See

This debate echoes an older one in which some claimed the authority of Maurice Blondel to claim that philosophy only really comes into its own when completed by theology. Henry Duméry refuted this in a formidable book.


Joseph O'Leary,

You write:

Much too much of what passes for theology today is actually an overspill of postmodern philosophy, or social theory, or the theological turn in phenomenology, or analytical philosophy, and we hear more of Zizek, Agamben and the like than of Scripture and the Fathers (unless it be Scripture as read by Badiou or the Fathers read by Lyotard). Naturally philosophers have ever right to talk about theology from their own angle, but it is unhealthy when that angle swamps out the historical texture and the methodological stability of theology in the primary sense.

May I suggest that, as I understand it, such was precisely Griffiths' point in placing "discovery" as the first moment of the theological task.

May I also suggest (da amico) that the insights you have to offer are too often impeded by framing them with words like "jejune" and "supercilious." Especially since you contend (with reason) that "theology is one of the most dialogal" of disciplines.

I appreciate Robert Barry's post above. He wrote:

I'm puzzled by the opposition to the expectation that an academic society for theologians should have a common idea about what theology is. I suppose that the opposite of a "narrow," "precise" and "exhaustive" idea about theology could be construed as an "unfocused," "vague" and "incomplete" idea about what theology is, but I suppose others would like to construe the opposite as "expansive," "inclusive" and "open-ended."

My only "friendly amendment" would be that I would suggest that this "expectation" is only increased when the society in question identifies itself as the CATHOLIC Theological Society of America, thereby differentiating itself, in some measure, from the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Christian Ethics.

To Barry's three points enumerated above as norms for his participation let me add a consideration that has not received attention in the discussion as far as I am aware.

I have attended CTSA meetings since the Chicago Convention of 1974. I would estimate that I've gone to at least three out of every four conventions, at least thirty in forty years. I have served on the Board, chaired committees, and made presentations. I've been both enriched and frustrated as is normal.

A key marker for me in announcing the Catholic nature of the Society is that the Convention begins with a welcome and a short address by the local bishop or his representative. Perhaps this is a formality in the eyes of some, but for myself, and I'm sure many others, this affirms the Society's understanding that theology is an ecclesial discipline and accountable as such.

The second marker is that the Convention reaches a climax with the celebration of the Eucharist on Saturday evening. Here theology passes into doxology.

Should, God forbid, these two markers no longer frame the meeting of the Society, then, to my mind, it would become barely distinguishable from sessions of the AAR and scarcely worth the time and expense of attending (chandeliers not withstanding).



As bishop Sheen used to say: "It is the business of philosophers (theologians) to complicate simple things." 

I understand that complexity makes things interesting. But what is the border between that and confusion?

"I really don't see why the narrow defnitional question "what is theology" needs to be the CTSA's question"

Well, sure, but if you want an association named "Catholic Theological Association of America" one would think that there should be some basic agreement about what is theology and what makes it Catholic, no? In fact, I think Griffith's question was about the "C" as much as about the "T".

You may not "have to" accept that as the question, but it may be intelligent to do so if you want to prevent the CTSA from becoming yet another insular group that mimics within a Catholic context the obnoxious ideological divisions of American culture.

Jejune and supercillious are precisely employed. As for "da amico", I'll take your word for it!


it is the invidious precision of their employment that led me to urge the words' withdrawal -- da amico.

Do you condone them? and, if so, on what basis?

'What is theology" is a good question for the CTSA. If it is like my field, every year one has to choose plenary speakers, topics of discussions, papers for people to present, and there are always a few papers for which the question arises: "Interesting, perhaps, but is it within the scope of the conference?" Every time we struggle with such a question, we have to define our field, and our response, in turn, also helps define it. The CTSA's choices also serve to define theology: pragmatically, theology could be defined as "What is discussed at CTSA meetings."

Griffiths, in his introductory remarks, expresses unease: when he attended the meetings, he found himself at the margins of the field. But then, instead of humbly saying "My kind of theology is not mainstream", he tries to pull the cover to himself and claim that he is at the center and that the entire CTSA ought to move in his direction. It takes a certain kind of personality to make such an assertion...  But it's fair game. Most academics wish for their subfield to be viewed at the central, most important part of the discipline. There is nothing wrong with advocating for oneself. (It would be more surprising and more interesting if he pointed away from himself, for example saying: "I am not competent to work on questions related to such-and-such, but I think that they are at the core of theology and wish they were emphasized more"!)

In his speech, I noted the quick jump from theology to Catholic theology. What about Christian theology?  I would have thought that Christian theology was primary. Indeed, his numerous mentions of Augustine are not Catholic but Christian. Regarding Catholic theology, it seemed that he spent most of his time talking about doctrine. Doctrine! Is that all there is to Catholicism, from a theological perspective? I would have thought that everything Catholic was relevant to Catholic theology. What about the lives of the saints? What about what ordinary Catholics think, believe and do? What about the people at the fringes of Catholicism, including the outer fringes? 

I strongly disagree with his statement "The truth is that the best intellectual work in any field, theology as much as any other, occurs when the field is narrowly defined." That is flat wrong. If I have to characterize it, I would say, on the contrary, that the best work in Math, Physics, and Theoretical computer science, happens when researchers have curiosity for other fields, know people and theories from other disciplines, and are able to make unexpected connections. 

Like all Catholics, theologians must engage with magisterial documents and, insofar as they disagree with them, keep returning to them, like a scientific puzzle to be struggled with, a paradox hiding some greater truth. If there is to be any difference between theologians and other Catholics, I would say that they, more than others, should feel free to contradict magisterial documents. Why? Because they know enough to possibly be able to better discern their flaws. (Similarly, mathematicians more than others ought to feel free to do without the basic rules of geometry or of logic, because they know what is at stake, and sometimes it leads them to new discoveries. Physicists, when they find that some experience seems to contradict the accepted laws of physics, struggle with it until some new insight comes.)

I'm unimpressed with Griffith's analogy with baseball, because an academic field is not a game. Baseball is limited by its own arbitrary rules. Academic work should only be limited by truth. Personnally, I wish theologians were more daring. I wish I heard more crazy ideas coming from respectable people. I wish they were more playful, more willing to go out on a limb, less afraid to make mistakes. For people at the forefront of knowledge in a field, there is nothing wrong with making mistakes. They're the explorers of new ideas, and how will they scout the boundaries of what we don't understand, if they're not willing to consider the unthinkable? - But maybe they do and I just don't know.


I look at the whole CTSA debate as analagous to other professional associations such as APA. That acronym stands for two very different professions; namely the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. Most people outside of the mental health field would wonder what on earth is the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist. But there are differences. And, as a result, there are different professional associations. Consequently, there needs to be some articulation of the difference to warrant different associations that do different kind of work.

I realize that definitions can be tricky and there technically should be no difference between Catholic theology and Christian theology. However, the fact that the prefix "Catholic" is prior to the Theological Society of America begs the question of what is the difference between Catholic theology and Christian theology. Just as the the middle term, psychological and psychiatric, in the APA association begs the question of what is the difference between pscyhiatry and psychology.



Matthew Boudway,

My point was simple: I read Griffith's presentation and I agreed that more contestation and diversity, if lacking in the CTSA, should be encouraged. Frankly, whether Griffith's intention was to influence the CTSA agenda, or forster more obedience to the magisterium teachings, or not, is not important to me. If Griffith's remarks are out of bounds and irresponsible, then I am open to be further educated.

The responsibility for screening and selecting speakers is the purview of the leaders of the CTSA. Honestly, Griffith gave me the impression that not enough dialogue, contestation and diversity existed in the CTSA conferences. If that is not true, I am indeed perplexed why the CTSA gave him the opening presentation. Where they ignorant of his remarks or shocked when they heard them?

Most of this blog seems to be focused on the definition of theology, which Griffith did discuss. I am more interested in learning the point of view of theologians that represent both sides of the theological divide on issues that are important for our salvation and the Kingdom of God. My focus is on moral theology. Issues such as whether Mary's immaculate conception made her immortal is of little interest to me. For others, it may be important. However, to debate a definiton of theology is the last thing I want to do. 




A theologian is someone who sees problems where no one else sees problems, and sees no problems where other people see problems. Once, when he [Paul] is speaking (1 Cor. 7)—it happens to be about family matters, divorce, and sex, and things of that kind—he says: On so-and-so, I have a word from the Lord, but then on so-and-so, I have no word from the Lord. I think he was the last preacher in Christendom who had the guts to say that. New situations come, really new situations. What shall we then do? And Paul says: I have no word from the Lord, but I'll give you my advice. I'm doing as well as I can. And I think I am right. . . . That's a wonderful insight. What a lovely Bible that tells us that sometimes we might need to think, and not just to think that it is all settled.


What Claire wrote. 


O those infallible Catholics! I apologize to you that the earth moves, unbaptized children can go to heaven, contraception is moral, married couples can take pleasure in sex..... And so many other things. Notwithstanding their errors Augustine and Thomas were great theologians. The problem with orthodox theologians is that they are blind followers of both of them and refuse to think on their own. They quote them ad nauseum and are so lazy in expanding the two great thinkers thought. Why O Why is it more important to be Catholic than to imitate Jesus. You cannot say it is one and the same. Look at your history. 

What about the people at the fringes of Catholicism, including the outer fringes?


Fringes implies boundaries. Boundaries implies some kind of definitional space. It implies that there is sufficient clarity as to the shape and contours of "Catholicism" that allows someone to discern what is a fringe.


To say that CTSA fails to define theology is to attack a straw man. It obviously works with the normal understanding of what Catholic theology is about. It is Griffiths' account of theology that is eccentric. Sorry, Robert, I appreciate your friendly counsel, but I do use words such as "eccentric", "supercilious" and "jejune" in a considered way; if you can suggest even more polite ways of expressing what I see as objectively wrong with Griffiths' understanding of theology and attitude to theologians, by all means do so! Congratulations to Claire on a luminous posting above.


I read your comments but waited for others to comment before I weighed in. Thank you. I thought your remarks were spot on especially the fact that 'theology' should not be narrowly focused or defined, and Griffith's erroneous analogy that empires (e.g., the magisterium) should call all the balls and strikes and render every issue ipso facto 'settled' for all eternity. The 'truth' should be the determining factor and we come to a better understanding of truth in dialogue, theological scholarship and the workings of the Holy Spirit in agreement and disagreement. The voice and pen of one person or group does not define every moral issue as the 'absolute' truth. Most teachings are the truth, but not everyone of them. When the magisterium says 'jumb', Catholics should not be required to ask which way on the way up. Similarly, theology should not be limited by the narrow guidelines or rules of one person's philosophy, nor should membership and dialogue.




Some sobering thoughts from Vallely's bio of Francis when he was head of the Jesuits.  At this point he was afraid of exposure to ideas. So there is hope for everybody.


"It was seen by him (Bergoglio) as very suspicious if you were interested in that. I had to wait to read it later in life.’ Philosophy was similarly constrained. The course of study began with Pre-Socratic philosophers and then went through Descartes, Kant and Hegel to the modern period. ‘But it stopped with Nietzsche, of whom there was just a little with critical analysis from a Catholic perspective, and very little Kierkegaard or Heidegger ’, said Mom Debussy. ‘There was no Marx, Engels, Sartre, Foucault, structuralists , post-structuralists or postmodernists. Nobody who opposed one iota of traditional Catholic doctrine and dogma. All under the strict orders of Jorge Bergoglio.’ The resistance movement to the reforms of Vatican II was being led among the foremost intellectual religious order in Argentina by Jorge Mario Bergoglio. O’Farrell had encouraged seminarians to study a wide range of subjects outside their mandated philosophy and theology: sociology, politics, anthropology, engineering – even, in one case, solar engineering. Bergoglio steered novices and scholastics away from such an approach. ‘There is a tradition in the Jesuits that you’re encouraged to do political science as a sociology’, said Velasco. ‘This was absolutely discouraged by Bergoglio.’ But if Bergoglio wanted to erase any trace of Liberation Theology inside the Argentinean Jesuits, he was keen for them to maintain their contact with the poor. ‘From Monday to Friday we were at the college but at the weekends students had to go out to parishes including poor areas,’ said Velasco, ‘but our only duties there were religious. We had nothing to do with unions or cooperatives or even Catholic NGOs."


Vallely, Paul (2013-08-01). Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (Kindle Locations 826-831). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 



" ‘But it stopped with Nietzsche, of whom there was just a little with critical analysis from a Catholic perspective, and very little Kierkegaard or Heidegger ’, said Mom Debussy. ‘There was no Marx, Engels, Sartre, Foucault, structuralists , post-structuralists or postmodernists. Nobody who opposed one iota of traditional Catholic doctrine and dogma"

Bill M. --

 Catholic continential intellectuals like Vallely have their own huge blind spots. He doesn't even mention the linguistic analysts.  They have had a huge influence in English-speaking countries. For instance, Bertrand Russell, one of the main analysts, was extremely influential not just on his fellow academic philosophers but on the whole literate  English speaking world.  I see his popular works (yes, he actually wrote popular philosophy)  as one of the main reasons why the mainline churches in the anglophone countries have been weakened -- he was very much a skeptic in epistemology thus undermining all sorts of belief including religious belief, not to mention his influence on popular ethics, especially his free-love ethics and pacifism and his anti-religion stance.

Benedict did see a need to dialogue with the anti-religion traditions, but I fear Francis will not pursue Benedict's initiative. He hasn't shown any interest in them so far at all.


One of the problems of a hijacking of theological problems or the invasion of theological teaching by too massive doses of philosophy is that it breeds a theology that is constantly putting itself in question, in an unwholesome and morose way, and that is estranged from the nourishing sources of Scripture.


hijacking of theological problems by philosophers, I mean

Poor theology.



Maybe I confused the matter. I was pointing out what Francis used to believe. Apparently he thinks a lot different now. At this point he was very orthodox and did not tolerate any progressive views.  But He was always for the poor. 

Bill M. --

I hope you're right.  I think he's a very brilliant man, capable of all kinds of thinking, so maybe he'll come to see that the intellectuals, at least in the West, have a lot to do with current ethics, or the lack thereof.  ISTM that Benedict was entirely right in saying that  it's the widespread Western individualism which gives theoretical support to selfishness, the selfishness that stands in the way of helping the poor.  Radical individualism justifies greed.  

it also seems to me that people's minds need to be changed as well as their hearts --  no change in mind, no change of heart.

Francis can be seen as a comprehensive pastoral thinker, providing thus the most integral theological perspective, notably in Evangelii Gaudium. Theologians can allow themselves to be challenged, nourished, and broadened by this, as they were by the figure of John XXIII.

Before this thread disappears, I would like to express my deepest misgiving about Paul Griffiths' intervention. 

It is this: Griffiths, like Paul Williams, another convert from Buddhology to conservative Catholicism, should be urging the CTSA to enter into a deep dialogue with Buddhism, as the condition of real progress in theology. Unfortunately he is doing the exact opposite, urging continued obsession with questions that suffer from a radical pastness. He reminds me of the terrible lurch whereby Friedrich Schlegel, after publishing the epoch-making Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder in 1808, then turned his back on the Oriental Renaissance and became caught up in the Catholic Restoration instead. Griffiths seems to have become caught up in the recent, failed Restoration of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, instead of taking his place alongside Christian-Buddhist thinkers such as Perry Schmidt-Leukel and John P. Keenan. The harvest is great, the laborers few. 

Another Paul, Paul Hacker, who began as a Catholic critic of Luther's alleged subjectivism (prefaced by Ratzinger) took the opposite course, becoming famous for his work on Indian philosophy. Mehr Licht!

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