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Theology and Other Catholic Sports

Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at the CTSA (the full text is now available here) has raised many productive questions. Meghan Clark has responded that theology is messier than Griffiths suggests. Cathy Kaveny just posted a thoughtful comment indicating that the main issue is the CTSA as more “open” and “free-wheeling” than the ACT.

These analyses are on to something, and I would love to engage them in more detail, but I fear that it becomes easy to fall into a dualism—the inclusive liberals over here, the exclusive conservatives over there—that misses the central points of Griffiths’ talk. It is not primarily about tidiness versus messiness, nor about open discussion versus more narrow inquiry. It is an attempt to define more carefully what the enterprise of theology actually is, and thus delineate in more detail why there is contention over it.

Griffiths’ primary contention in the address is that many members of the CTSA do not have an adequate understanding of what Catholic theology is. He is not saying that their work is not intellectually able, and even “beautiful” (a word he uses)…the question he poses is whether it is Catholic theology. Hence, his primary metaphor of arguments between proponents of cricket and proponents of baseball—or the problems with inviting cricket teams to take part in the World Series. It’s not meant to be a point about cricket being worse than baseball…or better. The point is: cricket is one game, baseball is another. The implication: CTSA has people playing cricket and calling it baseball. Doing one thing (which is not theology), but calling it theology.

That the CTSA is playing a different sport is based on three further claims. The first is that any intellectual enterprise is “interesting” and productive in its intellectual engagements insofar as disagreements happen in the context of considerable shared agreements, both about the nature of the enterprise and about its findings. The second is that Catholic theology in particular is a science that necessarily acknowledges the authority of scripture and ecclesial magisterium as the shared foundation for its further “interpretations” and “speculations.” The task of “discovery” means that there is intellectual work to be done in discerning what the authority actually says…but this is not a task of critique, except insofar as authority appears contradictory. (So, for example, at this year’s ACT, a particular German Cardinal was the subject of quite significant critique!) The third claim is that Catholic theology in the absence of such decisive authority and shared agreement becomes “uninteresting” and even lacking in genuinely productive disagreements…because it really becomes a “labelling dispute” that can only be sorted out by (arbitrary) power and sanction. It is no longer primarily about intellect, but about boundary control. (The claim that such theology is “uninteresting” should be understood in this sense, I think. He means it becomes intellectually uninteresting, because it can no longer be an intellectual discourse open to critique and clarification. It is an exercise in exhortation and power.)

I would then distinguish two ways of responding to Griffiths. First, one could ask whether his claims about Catholic theology are correct. Second, in light of those claims, one could ask whether his descriptions of the CTSA and its members are correct. It is important to separate these two types of responses. One could accept the intellectual construction of the practice of Catholic theology that Griffiths offers, but question his belief that the CTSA is not engaged in this practice.

Griffiths uses the CTSA mission statement as indicative of what CTSA is about—a fair thing to do, but in practice, I am unsure that the mission statement makes much day-to-day difference in theological work. I would instead look at the actual meetings of the Society, which, I think, makes answering the latter question very complicated. It is complicated first by the fact that there are many, many different members of CTSA, with different training, in different eras. It is also complicated by something that Griffiths seems completely right about: a lack of precision, brought on to some extent by a tendency to depart from the role of theologian in favor of other roles—for example, the role of pastor, the role of political prophet, or even the role of a self-interested professional association protecting its turf. Let me be clear: none of these are necessarily bad roles. But they becomes jumbled together in ways that make the task of theological engagement and disagreement more difficult to identify clearly. If nothing else, Griffiths performs a service to the CTSA by encouraging the Society to gain greater clarity about what “game” it is playing.

These complications make it more difficult to know whether Griffiths is right about the specifically theological (in his definition) work done at the Society. Do papers rely on Scripture and tradition? Do they engage in interpretative disputes about what such and such belief might mean? Do theologians believe they are doing work in service of Christ and of the mission of Christ’s Church?

It would not take long to find out that, yes, nearly all the work done at the society in some way could be characterized along Griffiths’s lines as “Catholic theology.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions of Elizabeth Johnson or Margaret Farley, it would be difficult to claim that they are not engaging the tradition, doing skilled interpretation, and insistent in their conviction that they are serving the good of the Church.

So is Griffiths just plain wrong? Has he constructed a caricature? Not so fast. In his talk, he has an interesting comparison. He says:

A mujerista theologian might take as authoritative for her theological enterprise only the voices and experiences of Latinas, and thus not see or actively deny the need for doctrinal discovery of the kind I’ve sketched. A Thomist of the strict observance might think all that’s necessary for doing theology is analysis and interpretation of what Thomas wrote. Each can recognize, with enough attention and care, what the other is doing; and each may think of what they are doing as properly and fully Catholic theology. (I doubt that either is.) But disagreements about whether and why what each does, theologically speaking, is to be called "Catholic" are likely to remain sterile and to be resolvedbe resolved, if ever they are, stipulation backed, where possible, by sanction.

Here Griffiths is at his most “interesting”—his sly critique of “Thomists of the strict observance” suggest that so-called theological conservatives can also be guilty of inadequate understandings of theology. (Presumably his criticism would extend to those who lack an appreciation for the complexity of both the tasks of discovery and of interpretation, as if Church teaching is simply “available” to anyone who reads the Catechism. I can say that the members of ACT by and large are not “Catechism conservatives” in this way, but spend considerable time and effort engaging and contesting the complexities of the theological tradition on particular questions.) Of course, such descriptions are likely to draw denials from those charged. Nevertheless, they can hit close to home. It is worth pressing them to understand how Griffiths’s critique does apply to the CTSA.

First, his example makes clear that a key contested point is the role of experience as an authority in theological discourse. I would narrow this and state it even more precisely: the contested point is whether experience is used in ways that trump established authoritative teaching. No one disputes the role of experience in helping us understand Catholic theology. Further, few dispute the role that ecclesial authority has legitimately played in stamping out heterodox appeals to experiences, e.g., based on private mystical visions. Rather, the dispute seems to be over considered, prayerful “discovery” from one’s experience and context that this or that Church teaching is inadequate. The classical scriptural appeal made here is to Peter’s acceptance of the Holy Spirit being given to the Gentiles.

This leads to the second issue: Insofar as theologians becomes spokespersons, with some stature, for an individual’s or a group’s spiritual experiences, are they continuing to do theology, or has their role shifted into a kind of political/ecclesial advocacy? It is difficult but necessary to distinguish these two roles. Difficult, because following Christ is not centrally about doing theology! It is about loving God and neighbor, most especially those suffering and in need. So if those advocating for others’ experiences are doing so as a consequence of their faith, it is tempting to commend them. The criticism here is not of the form “don’t do that,” but rather of the form “don’t call that theology.” Suddenly we are playing cricket, not baseball. The necessity of distinguishing these roles is important because of Griffiths’ claim that the CTSA need more serious contestation and disagreement. Once theology veers into advocacy—whether liberal or conservative—the task of contestation and disagreement is made much harder. Thus, a key implication of this discussion is to distinguish the various roles—or "sports"—of pastoral leadership, political advocacy, and theological inquiry. They are not to be arranged on a better-worse continuum. They are evidently related in living out the Christian life. Yet they are different activities with different rules and ends.

The third issue here is intertwined: While the above points have been expressed in abstractions (“experience” or “church teaching”), the reality is that almost always these questions are about specifically defined issues. They do not call into question the entire Nicene Creed or the very existence of a hierarchical teaching authority. (Clearly, some people make these claims, but they are not at CTSA!) Rather, on a specific question, there is a claim that experience calls into question what appears to be magisterial Church teaching.

So, a simple example: How is the question of the ordination of women treated? At its best, it is treated as a key doctrinal question, in light of other doctrinal understandings about Christology, anthropology, as well as the interpretation of scriptural revelation. At its worst, it becomes a clearly politicized us-versus-them argument, which is “really” about patriarchal authority blithely running roughshod over the living experience of the Holy Spirit in the lives of women of faith. (Notice: as is nearly always the case, the move from theology to politicization can be made in the conservative direction, too—where it’s really about “saving the Church” from “radical feminism.”) When it is a politicized conversation about experiences and power blocs in the Catholic academic establishment, it’s not really an open, free-wheeling debate. It’s really a kind of muted brawl, a fight. But when it is a careful conversation about the tradition and developing ideas, disagreements can happen, and interpretations can improve.

Which mode is operative at the CTSA? I think the answer is: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. Griffiths’s address encourages the Society first and foremost to try to distinguish the one activity from the other. However, he might also suggest that the theological task of “discovery” on this question would indicate that magisterial authority has already established a position, and so to depart from this position is, in effect, no longer to be playing baseball but instead cricket.

Is he right? One might pause and peruse Griffiths’ recent, very positive review of Richard Rodriguez’s book in First Things. Rodriguez, it might be noted, is not a Catholic theologian, nor does he present himself as such. But that he is a Catholic thinker Griffiths acknowledges effusively. Anyone worried that Griffiths is suggesting a narrow approach to the theological enterprise should consider this review. I would instead call it an approach that is careful and candid.

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



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I disagree with the claim that

following Christ is not centrally about doing theology!

Don't we need to have some idea of what God is and what God wants of us, in other words, a theology, in order to follow Christ ?

And when we do follow Christ, isn't that encounter and experience of serving Christ in the world, a theological encounter which, in turn, provides the life experience which builds up our knowledge of God, our theology ?

God Bless


Dear Chris,

For a well-educated, American Catholic, pehaps  theology seems essential, and in terms of *our* lives may even be so, as we need a physics to deal with our machines and a Constitution to circumscribe our political society.

But I don't know that Jesus offered anything much like our theologies to the fishermen.  Aquinas - yes, certainly; Francis of Assisi - well, not so obviously (to me).  Oh, we can tell a story looking backward, but living forward? 

Mark L.



Amusing to observe the practitioners of "theology" struggling to define their art / craft / game / sport / hobby.


I like to say that theology is profitable but not essential. It is useful for knowing what it means to be a disciple of Christ and can aid in our development as disciples, but our understanding or lack thereof is not the primary factor of our salvation.

I don't want to downplay the importance of theology. A bad theology has the power to corrupt people into vicious demons, and a good theology can help us overcome our temptations. However, I don't want to overemphasize it. A theology-centric theology tends to be quite bad. It can lead to a focus on developing an increasingly sophisticated system to the exclusion of actually doing anything useful with it as well as a tendency to attack anything that doesn't fit nicely into the system.


"It is useful for knowing what it means to be a disciple of Christ and can aid in our development as disciples, but our understanding or lack thereof is not the primary factor of our salvation.

"I don't want to downplay the importance of theology. A bad theology has the power to corrupt people into vicious demons, and a good theology can help us overcome our temptations."


Ryan --

It seems from what you say here that theology is valuable because of what it can do for *you*.   --  it's about *your* being a disciple and it can help *you* overcome temptations, and a bad theology can corrupt *you*.  But that is a narrow view because theology isn't just about you or me and your or my issues, it's equally about *others* and their needs and aspirations.  A theology which answers only my own questions is a very limited one, not sufficient for the whole Church.  And theology must be for the *whole* Church.

True, we don't have an absolute right to be wrong, but we do have an absolute duty to seek and speak the truth, and we cannot do that by limiting our questions and opinions to our own.    This means we need to be self-critical, and that alone requires that we listen to criticism by others of our own positions and that we learn truth from them as well.  

No, it is not enough to tell ourselves that "The official Church has spoken, that's all I need to know".  That is not enough because the official Church has been wrong too often.  We need to be self-critical even about our own acceptance of the official magisterium -- sometimes we could be wrong. That doesn't mean that we have to start off thinking the magisterium is wrong.  Far from it -- we mustn't disagree with it unless there is persuasive reason to think that somebody in Rome got something wrong somehow. The faith is what the faithful believe -- the sensus fidelum.  That includes  especially the official theologians -- the popes and other bishops.  But they too must be guuided in their judgments by the beliefs of the universal Church.  (There's that word "univeral" again.) 

This is why it's important for groups dedicated to *Catholic* theology to consider questions and issues of interests to *all* Catholics -- and non-Catholics besides.  That's what "Catholic* means.  The official Church finds the truth when and only when it considers what the whole Church believes and has believed.  Just as the Church is said to be a "universal" one in its membership it thereby must be universal in its interests and goals, and this means getting into issues one might not be interested in.

In other words, to be a Catholic theologian means to be broad-minded in interests even though a Catholic theologian cannot agree with all the differing opinions of all Catholics, a theologian should try to understand those opinions and take them seriously, if not agree with them.

It can be upsetting to discover that we ourselves have been wrong.  But what that should teach us is that we must always look to the whole Church and consider views opposing our own when trying to find what it is that the whole Church agrees about.  Sometimes we ask questions, but there is no satisfactory answer, no answer that makes us feel comfortable that we have an answer that is right.  Well, that just seems to be the way the Lord wants it.  Jesus did not promise that the Holy Spirit would give us answers to all our questions in this life.  But  He did promise that the Holy Spirit would be here with us to guide us.  But we have to be humble enough to admit that sometimes we just don't know enough to figure out the right answers to our questions.  That's when it's especially good to see what others are seriously thinking.  

I've tried a couple of times to follow the link in the post to Griffiths' presentation, but the actual .pdf doesn't seem to be available.  Not sure if it is a temporary issue or if the presentation has now disappeared.


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