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What is theology?

SAN DIEGO -- Yesterday morning, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America listened to an extended critique of the way their organization operates, especially with respect to the way the society conceives of the practice of theology itself and its attitude toward more conservative theologians. The paper, delivered by Paul Griffiths of Duke University, caused quite a stir--an effect that seems not to have been accidental. I live-tweeted the session, as well as a related one that took up a report on "theological diversity" at CTSA released by an ad hoc committee last year.

Caveat lector: This is going to be long. And the ghost of Steve Jobs seemed determined to introduce errors as I tried to capture the flow of commentary. So you'll see a few typos (and informalities, all thanks to autocorrect). Also: Mostly I'm paraphrasing, so I apologize in advance if I've inaccurately conveyed a speaker's intent. Bearing that in mind, you'll find the day-in-tweets after the jump.


About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Theologians do not establish church doctrine. They can teach it. But not establish. That requires authority they lack.

I think this is the big difference between theology and philosophy and why theology isn't aken very seriously by many philoaophers ...  a lot of philosophy classes go straight from Aristotle to Descartes, skipping all ithat's in-between  as irrlevant.  Both religion and philosophy dwell on some of the same subjects .... what's good or just, what's the nature of reality, what's life's purpose ..... but the way the answers to those questions are arrived at are so different.  Philosophy is ideally the search for truth, wherever that might lead, through critical thinking.  Theology, especially Catholic theology, seems to be just about explaining already decided doctrine ... theology seems to disrespect the idea of discernment, the idea that people are moral agents who can make good decisions without having been previously "shaped".  Or so thinks this former philosophy major ;)

There is an ecclesial task for the theologian since our faith is clearly communal in nature. There is also,an ecclesial task for Bishops in terms of holding the church together. Neither is an easy task.

Certainly, faith is also doctrinal. But all of these broad areas of consensus seems to fall apart the moment that there is movement in any direction. The Nicene creed was a consensus creed and was arbitrarily changed by Latin bishops and theologians. This was inappropriate from an ecclesial point of view.

We know mistakes have been made. Denying communion to those who have been "validly" baptized in those churches of the reformation is another mistake.

if the Roman church is not able to own it's own errors what hope is there for the ecclesial task of the theologian to say nothing of the ecclesial vocation of Bishops.

3 tasks of Catholic theology. 1: Discovery. ...Doctrine binds that discovery.

To be a theologian means to be under authority--of doctrine and magisterium and Scripture.

Theologians do not establish church doctrine. They can teach it.

How can someone "discover" something if the bishops/magisterium have already defined the "must" believes?  How does the magisterium define doctrine before theologians have done their work? It seems to me that if the theologians are those who "discover", the bishops should be following their lead instead of imposing settled doctrine on theologians who may only teach, not think (it seems).

Theologians do not establish church doctrine. They can teach it.

I don't think most theologians of the recent past have shared this belief .... thinking of Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan,  and Edward Schillenbeeckx, not to mention all the hundreds of Catholic theologians who dissented from Humanae Vitae.

Theologians do nothing if not talk, and philosophers are not very far behind them.  However, I think that theologians do many more *kinds* of things with words than philosophers do.  Philosopher John Searle's classification of kinds of "speech acts" can help us see the differences.  Here is Wikipedia's listing of those kinds.  (I have numbered them.)


  • 1)  "assertive = speech acts that commit a speaker to the truth of the expressed proposition, e.g. reciting a creed
  • 2)  "directives = speech acts that are to cause the hearer to take a particular action, e.g. requests, commands and advice
  • 3   "commissives = speech acts that commit a speaker to some future action, e.g. promises and oaths
  • 4)  "expressives = speech acts that express the speaker's attitudes and emotions towards the proposition, e.g. congratulations, excuses and thanks
  • 5)  "declarations = speech acts that change the reality in accord with the proposition of the declaration, e.g. baptisms, pronouncing someone guilty or pronouncing someone husband and wife"



  • Note that all of these uses not only *say* something, they *do* something.  Clearly, when a theologian merely expresses a creed or some part of a creed at a convention, that is quite different from a bishop speaking the creed officially to his flock, and that is very different from his ordering his flock (including his theologians) to  believe what he says. The last two kinds of acts, if not parts of theological discourse, are certainly the subject of some theological discussions.  At any rate, I think it's useful to distinguish mere saying of theological thoughts from the doing of the kinds of utterances listed by Searle.
  • I think it should also be noted that some of the Orthodox Churches have a very different and ancient notion of what theology is.  As I understand them (not very well), theology also includes describing the theologian"s own experiences of God's revevelation, including their own mystical experiences.





St. Augustine's Confessions is theology. Afterall, he shares his understanding of Original Sin in the incident of he and his friends stealing pears from the pear tree for no other reason than the fact that it was theft and destruction. He writes that it was vile and they loved it. Now you could argue that he was also engaging in depth psychology but he interpreted it as theology.

One thing I disagreed with is that a non believer or non Christian could do Christian theology. I do not see this as possible. A prerequisite for theology must be the faith experience otherwise you are doing religious studies or maybe psychology. The faith experience provides a qualitatively different content to the reflection of faith. So, in that sense, the theologian serves the church (understood as the community of believers) as opposed to an academic or professional association.

In that sense, theology is different than other academic disciplines although it draws from the tools of those disciplines in its work.

Rahner said that the Christian of the future would be a mystic or would be nothing at all. By this he meant that the Christian of the future will have had to have a personal experience or he or she will not be a Christian.

i read where Wittgenstein believed similarly. When a believer uses the same words as a non believer those words means something entirely different. There is a qualitative difference to the term that someone not sharing the faith. So for example a Jewish person could study and explain what is meant but the credal statement "Jesus is Lord" but that will mean something qualitatively different for the Christian.

Ditto for Seder meals. We had a discussion on the use of Seder meals on Holy Thursday. A Seder meal means something qualitatively different for a Jewish person than a Christian even though they are doing the identical thing. Again...arguably.

"Theologians do nothing if not talk, and philosophers are not very far behind them. "

Right, Ann. Theologians is a chrisma and they are necessary for the church. The CTSA's claim to fame is that they have Johnson, Tilley and Farley and some others. For the most part they are an ivory tower group who are more self aggrandazing than proclaimers. They forgot what Thomas said that he left some basis out of his theology.  Congars, Kung, Schillibexx, Rahner used the charism with passion and proclamation. The CTSA wil charge for the papers giving at their meeting. Too many theologians are hired hands and lose the spirit of the Gospel. Despite their protestations.

Augustine was a theologian who could write beautifully. Yet he has many flaws. Most critically is his approval of violence against fellow Christians.

I am not sure what Griffiths means by they should be closer to the church. I thing they should be closer to the parish community. Beth Johnson got upset with me when tears agi I mentioned my opinion of CTSA. She likes them while I don't. They should be more like her. 

Should read that Thomas left some "basics" out his theology.

"not a particularly difficult task" -- seasoned theologians say that it takes 20 years just to get the hang of what theology is actually about. Griffiths has a background in analytical philosophy and in Buddhist studies conducted in an analytical vein. Is he really versed in scriptural hermeneutics, the hermeneutics of the councils, and the art of considering theological issues in light of 3000 years of Jewish and Christian thought, and of the multifarious questions and horizons of today?

Speculation "the most exciting part" of theology? Actually, theology as the clarification of the place and intelligibility of faith in its present context is a subtle hermeneutical art. Securing the ground on which we may stand is the alpha and omega of this art. Speculation in any more ambitious sense is a luxury and a distraction. The scholastic theoretization of Christian faith both in scholasticism and in German Idealism is a metaphysical formation to be overcome; the same resources of intelligence are better invested in the concrete intelligibility of a dialogal faith today. God's eye views of, say, the relation of Christianity and Islam are at best convenient sketches for orienting dialogal encounter, which fall away as the encounter deepens. The fruit such interreligious dialogue should aim at is not a higher speculative synthesis.

Concern for social justice and also for pastoral care is not an accidental supplement to real theology, but part of the context that theology has to be constantly attentive to. Otherwise it will produce only a distorted or incomplete clarification of the contemporary meaning of the faith-tradition.

Well, it looks like the theologians who responded gave Griffiths good instruction on the nature of the theological task. In fact, I do not think Griffiths has any degrees in theology, and his criticisms of theologians resemble the helpless flounderings of a "bon gros". The CTSA is a pretty conservative society, and nothing earth-shaking or eccentric was said here.

George D. --

I posted my reply to your post above on the wrong thread.  I repeat it below.  Sorry.   

"A prerequisite for theology must be the faith experience otherwise you are doing religious studies or maybe psychology."

George D. --

You seem to be assuming that there is one and only one "faith experience" that everyone must have to speak meaningfully about faith.  But it seems to me that the four Gospels show that not all of the Evangelists experiences were of the same sort.  Not to mention St. Paul. 

What do you mean by "faith experience" anyway?  Sorry, but I have to ask.  I know it's a hard one.

I assume that there are many different sorts of experience of "the Faith".  However,  though all are directed to the same referent they cannot all be described in the same way.  This implies that the Faith is a complex set of truths and goals, and different people experience different parts or aspects of those truths and goals. Experience of one person might be mainly experience of the narratives of the objective facts of the Gospel.  For instance, a person might know that a man who implied He was God chose to die in order that we might live eternally.  Such a faith is rather cut-and-dried, but communicable in ordinary language.  It has nothing to do with any subjective, mystical experience of the facts nor any direct appreciation of the goals of the Faith.  Another person  might have a rather mystical, affective appreciation of a few of those facts, and others might react to some other aspects of the Gospel.  Not to mention those who uphold the Faith as a way of living a good life in this world.

If you're saying that all must have an affective response to the Faith, how do you know that the affective response are the same in everyone?  No doubt some are similar in being affective, but I just don't see how we can  understand other peoples' experiences at all unless they poets (in some sense) who manage to suggest the ineffable by analogy or metaphor.



It is typical of analytic philosophers of reigion to claim that theology can be well done without faith. While there have been great theologians who had lost the faith, such as Franz Overback, what the analytic philosophers are thinking of is something like the following:


The only interesting questions in theology are speculative ones, e.g. how do we reconcile divine omnipotence and omniscience with human freedom. These questions are best handled by trained logicians. Whether or not you believe in divine omnipotence is beside the point. The meaning of divind omnipotence is luminously clear and its logical implications are all that need to be spelled out. Indeed faith and devotion could be obstacles to clear thinking on the issues.


I would say that this is a wretched caricature of real theology, consigning its adherents to a necrophiliac recycling of 14th century debates and not engaging at any point with the real faith-questions of today.


As someone who has been a CTSA member for decades, I'd affirm Grant's reading. Of course, some of the resolutions do not represent the "conservative minority" and of course some people sometimes, though very rarely, take potshots at magisterial authorities. The society has been consciously attempting to be more inclusive by ethnicity, gender, and theological stance. Has it been successful? Moderately. The percentage of women who are members reflects the percentage of women in the disciplines of theology and religious studies. Catholicism does not reflect the population, so it looks different from the picture of the US in ethnicity and race; the society reflects this, perhaps even more intensely (I don't have adequate numbers on this). The "conservative minority" is indeed underrepresented on the Board of Directors and in the presidential line; given that these officers are elected, this is not surprising. Even when nominated (and they are nominated), they are rarely electe.

Paul Griffiths is right about many things, but wrong about as many. As noted above, umpires blow calls, but when they call balls and strikes, they are balls and strikes. Period. In speech act terms, these are declarations. Declarations can create error as well as truth. Theologians do and must explore the "gift" of doctrine not merely to interpret it, but to analyze whether what it declares is truth or error, assuming that normally the declaration was a good one and having to bear a heavy burden of proof to show it was in error, either in formation or subsequent interpretation and application, especially by the magisterium. This fundamental scotosis leads him to misconstrue the scope of theologians' work, Hence, he goes off track but definitely not always.

"Griffiths: If you think Catholic theology is unconstrained by authority then you'll be A-OK with criticizing those who have it"

The logic in Griffiths' thought here seemed to me not to follow. If you think Catholic theology is unconstrained by authority, why would you even bother to criticize those who wield authority?

Does he think people who think theology is unconstrained criticise those in authority positions just to pass the time? To indulge in anti-authoritarian posturing? To scratch the itch of irritablity over the existence of authority figures in the world, when they don't matter anyway?

The only reason to criticize persons in authority is if you think the rightness or wrongness of what they say matters. If you, in fact, deeply care whether a position taken by someone in authority is right or wrong, that's when you take the trouble to criticize.

A yes-man is not a mature figure. Nor is the absence of criticism necessarily a token of assent. 

I returned yesterday from the CTSA Convention, buoyed by some wonderful presentations, both at the Plenary Sessions and in the numerous group discussions (of course one can only attend a limtited number).

Anthony Godzieba's Inaugural Address (are you checking in, Tony?) was superb, creatively enriched by excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Paul Griffith's talk which has been the focus of the discussion here was provocative and rich. It is a tribute to the then President-elect (now President), Susan Wood to have invited Paul to be a plenary speaker, thus allowing a voice and a point of view to be heard that is outside the mainstream of the Society.

The content of the address deserves to be pondered and dialogued upon. I'm glad that "Terry" (Tilley?) found much in it with which to agree. I undoubtedly would not have as much as Terry with which to disagree -- though that itself would make for a further enriching conversation.

One of the high points of the Convention for me was the Friday evening session discussing the Report of a committee regarding place in the Society for different theological voices. That the Report was commissioned by the Board and that a special session was devoted to it is something for which I am greatly appreciative. That about 180 members of the Society returned from a free evening to listen to the panel and to participate in the discussion was truly encouraging and indicative of the issue's importance. That President Richard Gaillardetz introduced and moderated the session so well was a blessing, as were his spirited reflections at the Convention Liturgy.

There was wide-ranging discussion after the panelists spoke; there was certainly disagreement,  as well as approval but no one, to my memory, thought the Report "tendentious." Indeed, the evening brought back memories of the Bernardin-Murnion Common Ground Initiative. And for that I (who probably have been in the Society for even more decades than Terry) am grateful.


Griffiths: Theologians do not establish church doctrine. They can teach it. But not establish. That requires authority they lack.

This seems like a misplaced objection.  A theologian -- or anyone else -- can enunciate the truth.  His conclusion that they lack authority is beside the point.  The truth doesn't become not true just because the person speaking it lacks authority.  So yes, you might say that the church's job of teaching and enunciating the truth is more complicated when a vast array of theologians disagree with each other and even the church -- but it seems inarguable to me that you are more likely to establish a truth if many people are thinking about a subject and available to walk through the strengths and weaknesses of a given interpretation. 

Sort of like you are much more likely to find your misplaced keys if everyone in the household is looking for them.  For most points of doctrinal truth, expecting the church to discern them without the assistance of theological examination would be like expecting the lost keys to start shouting their whereabouts. 

"... umpires blow calls, but when they call balls and strikes, they are balls and strikes. Period. In speech act terms, these are declarations. Declarations can create error as well as truth. Theologians do and must explore the "gift" of doctrine not merely to interpret it, but to analyze whether what it declares is truth or error,"

Terry --

I assume that here you mean that it is the bishops (e.g., in a Council) who make the declaratives (thus establishing the official magisterium), and the theologians then interpret them.  (That's not all the theologians do, but it's some of it.)  

The problem here is: what is it that the bishops are constituting by their declaration?  The bishops are clearly affirming a performative utterance -- the utterance (in this case a statement)  not only *says* something but the very saying *constitutes* something. It has never been Church doctrine that the saying of such declaratives establish the *truth* of the declaratives.  What a declaration (in this sense) does is constitute that statment's status as one which must be believed by the faithful.  In other words, the declarative does two things:  1) it asserts the statement as true and 2) it binds the Faithful to believe it on the basis of the bishops' authority.   

In our culture the authority of the self is taken very often to be almost absolute -- it assumes that if I know that I think a statement is true, then I cannot possible deny that I think it is true, so I cannot accept it as false.  Except sometimes that is exactly the reasonable thing to do.  For instance, suppose I compare my illness to that of a friend, and I conclude that we both have the same illness, diabetes.  Our symptoms match exactly.  I go to my doctor and he insists that I don't, that I have a similar illness.  What is the rational thing for me to do -- continue to think that I have diabetes and stop eating a lot of sweets, or accept what my doctor says because of his greater authority?  The answer is obviosu.  I think that matters of dogma are similar -- we have our own opinions based on our experience and what we've read, but (theoretically)  the bishops have much more theological data to draw on, so it is reasonable to accept their judgments -- unless, of course, we have very sure data of one sort or another, we understand the bishops' side of the issue, but we honestly conclude that the bishops are wrong.  Thus conscience trumps the bishops declaration, but only if there is sufficient reason to disagree with them.       

Some of the most respected Catholic theologians are those who *did* try to discover the truth, though they often got in trouble for it with the CDF.  Those who only interpret what others have deemed for them to be the truth are just apologists.  To matter, theology has to be about reality, not about established doctrine. 

From an article at NCR that had different theologianscomment on the CDF's rebuke of Farley, Lisa Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor, Department of Theology, Boston College, wrote this about theology ...

It is important to understand the nature and role of academic theology or theological scholarship as "faith seeking understanding." Theology is rooted in faith and practical concerns. But the main purpose of theology--unlike pastoral teaching or guidance--is the understanding of God and of humans in relation to God. Understanding involves intellectual justification and cogency. Finally, theology is a process of seeking. Theology is a process of inquiry and exploration in a dynamic and critical relation to other theological positions. Theologians do not see or present their work as "official church teaching" and few of the faithful are confused about this fact. Readers of Just Love hardly need to be warned that this is not official church teaching; they will feel free to question, disagree and improve the points of the author, as is no doubt her intention.

"To matter, theology has to be about reality, not about established doctrine."

Crystal --

But what if established doctrine is true?  Are only unfound gold mines valuable, or can the found ones be valuable too?  

And even explorers have their presuppositions, don't they? I mean they two rely on various sorts of authorities in one way or another. The notion that we can discover all the important truths all by ourselves just doesn't hold water.   

But what if established doctrine is true?

Ann, I don't mean there's not any time when the truth and doctine are the same, but I'd really love to see a reasonable explination of the Marian doctrines, for instance ;)  If theologians only interpret the catechism, then they're glorified PR  persons and it will be hard for anyone not a traditionalist Catholic to take them seriously. 

Robert, you wrote: "There was wide-ranging discussion after the panelists spoke; there was
certainly disagreement,  as well as approval but no one, to my memory,
thought the Report 'tendentious.'" I didn't mean to suggest that during the discussion anyone called the report tendentious. As I wrote, what I thought what I first read it last year, and what I was reminded of during the panel discussion, was that it is "mired in tendentious claims." That's not the same as calling the whole thing tendentious. I believe my commentary on Twitter explains why I found some of its claims tendentious. But here's more: The report claims that "the CTSA has worked hard in recent decades to reach out to a number of underrepresented constituencies in theology, an effort that has greatly enrichedthe diversity of the Society. Yet there is another important group within Catholic theology that is underrepresented at the CTSA: conservative theologians." The report does not acknowledge the fact that CTSA did change the very structure of the annual conference to allow members who feel underrepresented--and I would hesitate to compare this kind of underrepresentation with ethnic underrepresentation.

"Many CTSA sessions, both plenary and concurrent, include jokes and snide remarks about, or disrespectful references to, bishops, the Vatican, the magisterium, etc. These predictably elicit derisive laughter from a part of theaudience." I've only been attending for about ten years, but this strikes me as difficult to believe. Has this occurred from time to time? I'm sure it has, even if I haven't witnessed it myself. But "many CTSA sessions"? I've been to man. Never seen this kind of thing.

"Many CTSA members employ demeaning references. For example, the phrase 'thinking Catholics' is sometimes used to mean liberals. The phrase 'people whowould take us backwards' is sometimes used to mean conservatives." Again with the "many." First, "thinking Catholics" went out of style about fifteen years ago, at least as it is meant here. Never heard "people who would take us backwards"--an oddly specific example. Is there a book of offensive quotes somewhere?

"Resolutions are a significant problem because an individual member can bring to the floor of the business meeting a divisive issue that not only consumes important time and energy but exacerbates the ideological differences that exist among theologians, typically leaving conservatives feeling not only marginalized but unwelcome." I have no doubt that resolutions have proved problematic in the past, but the fact that this report didn't even mention the resolution on the contraception mandate, brought to the floor two years ago by a group of members who probably sympathize with the thrust of this report, does not speak well of its fair-mindedness. The CTSA board could have crushed this resolution. It was sure to be divisive, and if it had been allowed to come for a vote, it would have failed, pitting the society against the U.S. bishops--not what that relationship needed then, or now.

"(CTSA members who have trouble understanding this as a problem might ask how they would feel if they were part of a professional society that passed resolutions criticizing a theologian they hold in high regard or endorsing views they reject.)" This is oblique. I don't know what theologian they're referring to. Ratzinger/Benedict? Recent resolutions passed in defense of criticized theologians may have been strategically unwise (for reasons Dan Finn explained), but they did focus narrowly on process.

"In recent decades, conservative theologians have only rarely been invited to be plenary speakers and respondents." OK, in recent decades. And over the past decade, the society has worked to include conservatives in plenary sessions.

"In CTSA elections, there is a general unwillingness of many members to vote for aconservative theologian. Scholarly credentials seem often outweighed by voters’partisan commitments." An irenic report wouldn't speculate about the motives of the members. How do they know whether conservative candidates were more qualified than their liberal counterparts? And "partisan commitments"? Did they forget about that unfortunately composes contraception-mandate resolution some of them advanced two years ago? Now that could have been construed as a partisan salvo.

"Some conservative theologians have experienced the feeling that a number of other members “wish I wouldn’t come back” to the CTSA." That is unfortunate, and it would be better if those feelings could be avoided. But how is anyone supposed to know what this refers to? How is one supposed to be able to judge whether such a feeling is really justified?

"In sum, the self-conception of many members that the CTSA is open to allCatholic theologians is faulty and self-deceptive." So irenic.

"As one of our members put it, the CTSA is a group of liberal theologians and 'this permeates virtually everything.'" That may be true, but if it is true, then perhaps some of these aggrieved conservatives might pause to ask whether its the very liberalism they find so unwelcoming that is itself responsible for fostering the conversation they want to keep having.



I am grateful that the Board of the Society did not find the Report (signed by past President Dan Finn and present President Susan Wood) as "mired in tendentious claims" as you did.

On receiving the Report in Spring 2013 the Board directed President Rick Gaillardetz to write a letter to the membership as the Board's considered response to the Report. In that letter (dated October 4, 2013), Rick presented a series of "guidelines for the conduct of the Society and its members."

Among them are:

+ "future convention planning should attend to theological diversity in the choice of plenary speakers and respondents;"

+ "topic session and consultation leadership should consider theological diversity in their selection of papers;"

+ "members should consider the advantages of a theologically diverse leadership in their voting for the election of board members."

I credit the leadership of the Society for their initiative in these matters, clearly they did not find the complaints without merit. I believe the 2014 Convention showed some of the fruits of that initiative. To be fair, the 2013 Convention has already manifested steps taken in the direction of greater inclusivity, due, partly, to the criticisms evoked by the 2012 Convention (recall that the Committee was established in Fall 2012 as a response to such criticisms).

I credit the Committee's Report for spurring this needed conversation.

I hope that the good work that has been begun continues ... to the benefit of Catholic theology and the Church.

I find the mandate for "theological diversity" puzzling. Can someone explain to me what this is?

Diversity is a contemporary shibboleth. I find it worrying that theological thinking is being assimilated to categories devised in the first place for race, gender, and ethnicity. 

Say there is unanimity about some theological principle, would one be compelled to find someone to disagree, just to be sure that diversity is achieved? What does that say about the enterprise of thought? That our unchallengable condition is always and everywhere to resist agreement -- and this is deemed good always? 

Or is the assumption here that men and women, or persons from different classes, or parts of the world, or different sexual orientations, will inevitably have different theologies because theology has no independence but is an extension of identity politics?

Is the appeal to diversity really the only way that liberal theologians can be persuaded to include conservative theologians in their conversations? 


Crystal --

I agree that one of the functions of theologians is to discover truth.  What they don't have the authority to do is to assert that their understanding ought to be acceped as the thinking of the whole Church.  That usually come with time.

Rita --

ISTM that the concept of "diversity" in our culture is a murky one, indeed.  On the one hand, ideas can be diverse because they are simply different,  but  they are compatible (e.g., ideas of how to encourage kids at risk to stay in school or ideas of what can be done with trash generated by a local industry).  Such diversity can be valuabe.  

There is also the diversity  between logical incompatible proposals (e.g., solving the filioque problem by asserting that the Holy Spirit is the love generated between Father and Son v. asserting that the Holy Spirit is *not* the love generated by the love between Father and Son.

Some diversity is enriching.  Some diversity is irrational.  Diversity  is not an absolute value.

Quite troubling to me was the suggestion bandied about at the  conference thtat "conservatives" get a guaranteed plenary.

I think the sort of diversity the pleanries should manifest is dependent upon the theme of the convention. In some cases, it may be more important to get geographical diversity (ie.g., nculturation) than ideological diversity.  Whatever theology may be, the choice of plenariy speakers by a president elect is one of practical wisdom, not speculative wisdom. And then there's always questions of expertise and interest, which may not always line up with ideological diversity as concevied by this report.

I support a general call to include a range of perspectives in every conference--but I don't think this can amount  to "a conservative plenary at every conference." For one thing, a resolution by one president can't bind another in this fashion. For another, it's not clear to me how to define "conservative."  Who decides? Is there a labeling committee?  For a third  consideration, it doesn't seem to me to be fair-- no other underrepresented group gets an automatic plenary. To automatically assign  1/3 of the plenary spots to perhaps eight percent of the CTSA strikes me as unfair, particularly given the career boost it can offer scholars.

Quite candidly, I think a lot of people thought the report shed more heat than light.  Some points were very valuable--name calling is always disrespectful behavior. But I don't know what to do with a nebulous claim about "Feeling Unwelcome--" still less do I know how one can attribute it to one's "conservative" propensities , rather than to the natural reticence and introversion of most academics.  How many people actually feel welcome at academic conferences? Most people tend to hang out with people they already know from grad school. And then there is the matter of interest, Not everyone is going to be interested in what everyone else does--heck, at the end of the academic year, most of us are barely interested in what we ourselves do. 

In short, I think Grant's view of the report was shared by many people. One problem was that the committee was strikingly undiverse--it didn't include anyone who didn't share the perspective that there was a huge problem, and who might have offerend other ways of thinking about the situation. As a result, I think, the report was phrased in a way that was perceived as insulting, especially speculation about motives..

That may not be a problem in and of itself, but I do think the report, like Paul Griffith's talk (jeremiad) is more likely to generate a backlash than promote further inclusion of "conservatives" --whatever that term means.




A historical point relevant to Griffith's talk: the idea that the "magisterium" is defined as the pope and bishops is fairly recent. The magisters used to include theologians, especially those on influential faculties of theology. The restriction of the use of the term to pope and bishops alone seems to begin in the mid-18th century, and really have teeth with Pius XII. (See John Mahoney, "The Making of Moral Theology", 116-120.) So are theologians answerable to "the magisterium"? its older usage, magisterium meant the very guild of theologians with the leadership of the Church, and so would be an obvious point, like saying that physicians are anserable to medical colleagues who shape and administer board exams for licensure. Only with the newer usage ot the term is there controversy, istm.

The concern about a "parallel magisterium" of theologians, then, is not so much a question of wicked theologians usrping a role that was never theirs, but of people claiming a very traditional role in the Church. This role is not equivalent to the role of popes and bishops--but not (until recently) disconnected, either. 


I recall JAK discussing Lonergan who argued that objectivity, in the way you describe, is the fruit of inter-subjectivity.  So the impact of his approach is that subjective experience (or more accurately inter-subjective) really builds and facilitates the objective doctrine against which we authenticate the experience of faith.

As for whether priority should be given to the affect or intellect. That is an age old debate that I doubt will ever end.



i think the issue of diversity is twofold. One there is a place for ethnic diversity which enriches and enculturates the faith. I am thinking of Sr. Eva Solomon CSJ who has done significant work on the Ojibway and seeing their traditions as "First Testaments" that Christianity can be built on. I think we could all agree that this is welcome diversity consistent with enculturates Cathocity.  Just like the move to the vernacular was a welcome change.

The issue of conservatives at the CTSA is, I think,an accurate acknowledgement that positions that would be labelled "conservative" were marginalized at the CTSA. Like every area of life, theology is not immune from ideology and the CTSA is ideologically liberal. I say that not by way of judgement but just by reading this thread. The leqdership of the CTSA seems to agree. Hence their move towards a bigger tent.


George D.

The Lonergan quote was that objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity, not inter-subjectivity, although it is surely difficult to achieve authenticity without inter-subjective relationships.

I don't think it is necessarily positions that are marginalized. I think the questions people want to work on are different. So compare the program of the CTSA  with that of ACT. 

George D. --


Lonergan was a product of a Church that essentially had decided to ignore (or try to ignore)  the intellectual challenges of the last 600 years or so.  (Consider the Index of Forbidden Books, a dodge if ever there was one.)  Although an epistemologist, Lonergan didn't take on Hume's specific skeptical arguments,  he just describes (brilliantly) how Aquinas (with a bit of Kant)  says knowledge happens. Ipse dixit!  But there were historical reasons for his non-engagement with contemporary epistemologists.  (Whether those reasons were also justifications is another question.)   


From the very beginnings of Christianity philosophy has been incorporated into theology (even in St. Paul!).  Platonism seemed most useful in the earliest days, Aristotelianism was more useful later on.  But around the 16th century  epistemological challenges to the value of "faith" emerged.  "What do I know?" asked Montaigne, What can I not doubt? asked Descartes.  Later Hume would deny the reality even of the knower, the "I" in Descartes' "I think, therefore, I am".  The Enlightenment concluded that because there is no evidence for religious faith, faith is merely a superstition.  


Instead of meeting these intellectual challenges head on, the Church walled itself off from the new intellectual developments.  The 16th century saw the introduction of the infamous  Index of Forbidden Books. Needless to say this didn't prepare the Catholic intellectuals to engage with their secular contemporaries.  The were mainly left to talk with each other or maybe with the equally conservative Protestant theologians. 


When the so called "Modernists" within the Church summoned enough courage to challenge the Church's sclerotic thinking (or non-thinking) Rome answered with condemnations and excommunications, and it still breathes heavily down the liberals' backs.  


Small wonder the conservatives and liberals (or ancients and modernists) are not inclined to talk very much with each other.  The ancients have been taught for 600 years to not-engage.  Old habits die hard.


There is one small group of Catholic philosopher/theologians that engages wih their contemporaries -- the analytic Thomists.  Interestingly, they seem to be more on the conservative side than the liberal one -- see Anscombe, Dummett, Feser, and Pruss.  I suppose you could count the agnostic former priest Anthony Kenney as a liberal, but he's the only one I can think of.  MacIntyre refuses to be classed as either liberal or conservative.  (I don't know where Fr. Herbert McCabe and Denys Turner belong, though I'd guess conservative.)  All but two of them are British.    

Oops -- I left out John Haldane, a consevative.  And Fr. McCable probably isn't -- he has publictly criticized the Church's teachings on contraception and the ordination of women.

I agree with Cathy Kaveny that the term "conservative" is not particularly helpful. People and their theology are just more complex than that (at least I hope they are). It is not a label that I would apply to myself -- though I know that others would apply it to me. For that matter, it is not a label I would apply to Paul Griffiths, who produces some of the most daring and provocative theology of anyone I know (indeed, he makes me quite nervous sometimes).

I mentioned the problem with the term "conservative" to people I know who were on the drafting committee for the CTSA report and they acknowledged the problem, but felt that they could not come up with a better term. I think it might be instructive to work a bit harder to come up with a better term to describe whatever the divide is at CTSA.


While it is true that labels do not encompass the totality of who we are, but they do describe at least part. Our ideology is an important part of how we discern truth or even what is prudent. They also inform our approach to faith, liturgy, practice, ecclesiology, ethics.

i bet, and I am sure this could be validated through social scientific measures.

What percentage of people who are subscribers, contributors, and commenters on this blog vote Democrat consistently.

What percentage of commenters on say Fr Z's blog vote Republican.

hold each of these sites side by side and can you discern a difference? 

Survey the CTSA on their voting patters during the last three years. That is a concrete measure of behaviour and ideology and you can at least make some inferences.




Griffiths: Is giving an account of injustice an intrinsic part of the theological enterprise? I think not.


12:22 PM - 6 Jun 2014


As it stands, this is an absurd statement. I recognize that these tweets aren't a transcript. But really...given sin, given God. 

And then Griffiths throws Augustine at this line of questioning?

"First as tragedy, then as farce."



"he just describes (brilliantly) how Aquinas (with a bit of Kant)  says knowledge happens. Ipse dixit!  But there were historical reasons for his non-engagement with contemporary epistemologists."

But his greatest work, "Insight" is not merely descriptive. It is an argument in favor of the reliability of empirical, conceptual, and judgment knowledge. His reply to Hume would be similar to Kant and Hegel -- that "the criteria of reality in the world mediated by meaning are far more complex" than the appeal to the senses that might satisfy a child (A Second Collection, p. 241). He certainly does not have an ipse dixit attitude to Kant, or even to Aquinas.


"Instead of meeting these intellectual challenges head on, the Church walled itself off from the new intellectual developments."

Joseph Maréchal did engage the modern thinkers since Descartes head-on in his Point de départ de la métaphysique, notable the fifth volume on Kant. His work was under a cloud but was gloriously followed up by Rahner and Lonergan. (An intervention of the young Rahner in Heidegger's seminar has been published in a recent volume of the Heidegger Gesamtausgabe. Hardly the sign of a sheltered seminary product.)

"There is one small group of Catholic philosopher/theologians that engages with their contemporaries -- the analytic Thomists."

Well, some of them do good work, such as Eleanor Stump, but she is totally unsympathetic to phenomenology and other European movements, which are also "contemporaries". Others such as Matthew Levering are extremely conservative, trying to interest us in predestination and other such medievalia. I am not sure that Michael Dummett or Alastair McIntyre can be called Thomists -- they may agree with Thomas on lots of things but the bulk of their study is concerned with other philosophers. Catholics often declare themselves to be Thomists without really studying St Thomas -- and that means devoting 20 years of their life to the task. Lonergan did study Thomas in depth, and so did McCabe, who by the way was politically a leftist, a socialist. 

"objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity" -- I wonder if the analytical Thomists would understand that? What I call their conservatism is their closing of the mind to the transcendental turn in philosophy (Kant and Hegel) as well as to the phenomenological turn (Husserl and Heidegger) and the linguistic turn (Wittgenstein). What? Five Germans? Yup, that is a large part of the problem -- Anglo-American philosophers are notoriously monolinguistic and none of these philosophers can be understood without a sound reading mastery of the German language.

Fr, O'Leary --

Your idea of engaging with philosophers who hold opinions counter to one's own  is not my idea of engagement.  If you  hold that A is B and I hold that A is non-B, then I do not engage you simply by saying, "these are my reasons for saying so".  To engage with another is to consider *his* presuppositions, definitions, premises and arguments explicitly, showing where and how  he went wrong.  Lonergan barely mentions Hume in Insight and Method in Theology, his magna opera.  He sneaks in some Kant, but doesn't consider him critically either.  

I agree that the analysts have not engaged the continentals, but the opposite is true also.  Contrary to popular philosophical belief, however, at the beginning of analytic philosophy G. E. Moore and Husserl did correspond, and one can see  similarities in their basic interests.  The big difference between them, as I see it, is that the phenomenologists attempted to answer their questions directly by analysis of the mind and its contents, while the analysts approached the same or similar questions by analysing the language used to talk about mind and its contents.  

Wittgenstein, I think, really messed things up greatly by his own mushy theory of mind. He also discouraged the analysts from asking the Really Big Questions that the continentals are so fond of.  He's still my favorite in spite of it all.  If nothing else, he showed that writing in German does not necessarily result in muddy ideas.    

But Insight does consider Kant critically. It accuses Kant of conceptualism and of not understanding that judgment that affirms something true cannot be grasped as subsumption of one concept under another. To call it a merely descriptive work is to miss its powerful argumentative backbone. It takes up Kant's transcendental method and turns it against Kant. Perhaps you want Lonergan to quote long passages from Hume and Kant and refute them item by item, but that is not the method Lonergan pursues in the work -- his historical references are meant only as lateral indication while he constructs his central argument, which stands or falls on its own merits. 

Even if Lonergan took up the task of correcting older philosophers, why would it be so important to deal with Hume? Has epistemology not progressed since 1740? Has Kant made no difference to our reception and judgment of Hume? Could it be that the Anglo-Saxon world greatly overestimates the contemporary importance of Hume simply because Hume is the last great classic philosopher to write in English?

Lonergan does argue in general terms against myopic forms of empiricism, and a historical philosopher could no doubt apply his insights in dealing with Hume.

As to Method in Theology, which I would rank much lower than in 2nd place among Lonergan's many works, why on earth should it have to get involved in a discussion with Hume?


No, epistemology has NOT progressed very much since 1740, and that, I submit, is one of the main reasons for the eventual loss of rligious faith by many.  Hume whacked away at the foundations of ALL sorts of knowledge.  He rejected some of his own conclusions, saying he just didn't know how to overthrow them, then proceeded on by the seat of his pants.  Rorty did essentially the same thing, first trying to find refuge in pragmatism, but that didn't really work out and he ended up in an English department.  At least he had the courage of his convictions, unlike the other post-analytics.

Hume is relevant to theology becaue he shook the foundations of *all* kinds of knowledge and knowledge of the self, and because of his strong criticism of the notion of miracles.

A philosopher doesn't have to engage with his contrary contemporaries to do his/her own work.  But when the others ignore him, he shouldn't scream  "ignorant bigot!"

Method in Theology is not a work of apologetics, in which the issue of Miracles would be discussed. Theology today seems to have taken Hume-style critiques in its stride quite well, in that theologians go to great lengths to deny that miracles break the laws of nature, and invoke St Augustine as a spiritual authority for this.

Hume's critique of the self is probably influenced by the Jesuits at La Fléche, where he wrote his Treatise. Some were missionaries in Buddhist lands and the greatest scholar of Buddhism of that time, Ippolito Desideri SJ, may have left his manuscript there a few years before Hume's visits. The "self" that is presented as the source of the passions of pride and shame in the second book of the Treatise is the self-as-illusion, not any kind of substantial self.

Hmmm.  I didn't know that the fathers at LaFleche were aware of some of the Buddhist teachings.  Hume's notion of the flow of sensory data without any necessary connexions amongst them also fits the Buddhist description of the flow of things quite well.  Then there is also the great uncaused absolute of the Buddhists and Hume's uncaused bits of being which simply are, temporarily anyway.  

Lonergan’s project in Insight is set out in this sentence:

Thoroughly understand what it is to understand, and not only will you understand the borad lines of all there is tobe understood but also you will possess a firm base, an invariant pattern, opening upon all further developments of understanding.

A few pages later he concludes his Introduction with this paragraph:

In the Introduction to his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume wrote that one does not conquer a territory by taking here an outpost and there a town or village but by marching directly upon the capital and assaulting its citadel. Still, correct strategy is one thing; successful execution is another; and even after the most successful campaign there remains a prolonged task of mopping up, of organization, and of consolidation. If I may be sanguine enough to believe that I have hit upon a set of ideas of fundamental importance, I cannot but acknowledge that I do not possess the resources to give a faultless display of their implications in the wide variety of fields in which they are relevant. I can but make the contribution of a single man and then hope that others, sensitive to the same problems, will find that my efforts shorten their own labor and that my conclusions provide a base for further developments.

Here is the paragraph of Hume to which he alludes:

Here then is the only expedient, from which we can hope for success in our philosophical researches, to leave the tedious lingring method, which we have hitherto followed, and instead of taking now and then a castle or village on the frontier, to march up directly to the capital or center of these sciences, to human nature itself; which being once masters of, we may every where else hope for an easy victory. From this station we may extend our conquests over all those sciences, which more intimately concern human life, and may afterwards proceed at leisure to discover more fully those, which are the objects of pure curiosity. There is no question of importance, whose decision is not compriz’d in the science of man; and there is none, which can be decided with any certainty, before we become acquainted with that science. In pretending therefore to explain the principles of human nature, we in effect propose a compleat system of the sciences, built on a foundation almost entirely new, and the only one upon which they can stand with any security.

It will be seen that they both had very ambitious philosophical goals–essentially to rethink the whole thing, and no more than Hume was required to engage with every philosopher who preceded him–and in fact did not engage them–was Lonergan required to do so. And when it came to “ipse dixits,” what better illustration than the fatal description at the beginning of Hume's works of “impressions” and “ideas”?


JAK --

Yes, Lonergan was undoubtedly a brilliant teacher, and he does set out his project at the beginning of Insight -- but his project is not to engage Hume.   

There have been some first-rate  philosophers outside the Church who have tried to find some solid grounding for epistemology -- Husserl, Russell, and in recent years Bernard Williams and Searle to name a few conspicuous ones. The latter two have seen clearly that ethics needs re-grounding after Hume's onslaught, but neither has succeeded in providing solid new grounds.  So far as I can tell, the Church's own intellectual establishment  (the CDF of the official Church and the other theologians and philosophers) apparently doesn't even see the need to try -- it doesn't see that the culture of the West is an essentially skeptical one (one strongly reinforced by most intro. philosophy courses throughout the Westt) a lesson not lost on college kids.  if you're not *really* sure of anything , then why should anyone trust anything the Church says? So the kids -- and middle-aged -- are leaving in droves.  

Benedict XVI does see clearly that something is basically wrong with the underpinnings of  Western philosophy, but he thinks that problem is what he calls "relativism".  He doesn't seem to appreciates that the relativism itself is a reaction to the even more basic epistemological problems posed by, yes, Hume.  But at least he was willing to talk to the skeptics -- I mean the Court of the Gentiles initiative. Unfortunately, Pope Francis doesn't seem to see the Church's intellectual problems as  being important at all.  Sometimes, God bless him, he even sounds anti-intellectual.  Sigh.

Maybe it's going to take a giant of a philosopher to take on Hume.  Maybe that's why Lonergan irritates me so.  He was a really, really brilliant man who didn't engage.  

Lonergan's engagement with Hume was to try to do what Hume did--compare their programmatic statements--, and to do it better. 

Hume also tells us at the beginning of the Treatise just what he plans to to:  found ethics securely by laying out clearly just what human nature is.  His method is to analyse and criticize his own assumptions thoroughly -- a method that goes back at least to the Scholastics who, using the Scholastic method, would ask a question then give answers both for and against the writers' own positions.  

In other words, both Hume and Aquinas (and the other Scholastics) were thoroughly critical in their approaches so truth.  Lonergan just tells us how *he* sees it.  His method is monoloogue --  non-critical monologue.  That's not engagement.

I don't know anyone writing in the English language who praised more highly than did Lonergan the medieval quaestio as the engine of the remarkable philosophical and theological advances of the Middle Ages. He even employed it in some of his own theological essays, as, for example, in the one on the natural knowledge of God. His own presentation of the moment of Dialectics in theological method is a transposition of that medieval technique. 

No, he doesn't employ it in Insight, whose first subtitle was something like "An essay in aid of the appropriation of one's rational self-consciousness." In other words, it is an invitation to the reader to see whether what he describes as the dynamic, self-assembling structure of human knowing can be discerned and verified in the reader's own self-consciousness. That is why also there are three chapters on "judgment," the last of which, the pivotal one, is entitled the "self-affirmation of the knower" and concludes with contrasts with Kantian analysis and with relativism. There is no similar section contrasting his view with Humean empiricism perhaps because the latter makes no room for judgment.

I can remember his saying in conversation something similar to what he writes in Insight: that Hume's great work on human understanding displays a fine and critical mind at work reaching novel conclusions, but Hume's own theory of knowledge says nothing about the critical exercise of the mind in ways that result in novel conclusions. Hume's theory of knowing can't explain its own genesis, a fatal flaw: must not any theory of knowledge, that is, any claim to know what knowing is, be able to account for its own emergence and verification? This is a variant on the age-old dialectical technique of performative retorsion.

And as for engagement with other philosophers by Hume, consult the index to the Inquiry and see how seldom he refers to earlier thinkers, to Descartes, say, or Malebranche, or Locke, or Berkeley. Just take Hume's description of ideas as pale impressions, and show me, please, where he makes use of the medieval technique of the Sic et Non. He doesn't. He "just tells us how 'he' sees it. His method is monologue--non-critical monolgoue. That's not engagement."

JAK --


When I talk about "engaging" with another philosopher I mean presenting his premises and conclusions which oppose my own, and showing how at least some of his arguments miss their mark -- or don't.  It's the arguments that count, not the philosopher's name, though in Hume's case the name "Hume" is practically synonymous with his radically skeptical arguments.


I agree that some of Hume's arguments can be countered.  But some remain problematic -- most especially the cause-effect relationship, and the objectivity of the external world, not to mention the nature of the self and just how one comes to know it.  But I do find Hume's radical honesty admirable -- he is willing to criticize his own thinking and admits it when he fails.  Few philosophers have that sort of humility.


As for his not taking on Descartes, etc., the Treatise began not as a work in epistemology but as a work in *ethics*.  He began with what he saw as human nature and human understanding, and soon found himself criticizing his own assumptions.  By the end of Book I he had forced himself into a total skepticism, having demolished the external world, cause and effect, substances, and even himself!  By the end of Book I the Treatise is even less than a monologue:   he had in effect concluded that there is no Descartes, etc., etc, nor even a Hume. 


So he admits his failure to ground ethics, but, being a sane man, he rejects his own skepticism out of hand and proceeds to write a book on ethics without a firm foundation. Ever since then anglophone philosophy and much of the continental stuff has floundered because of Book I.  Nowadays nobody knows nothin' for sure.  The effect on Western culture has been disastrous, while Rome has mainly looked the other way.

I forgot to mention that before starting the Treatise Hume went to study with the Jesuits at LaFleche for several years.  (Yes, years.)  Unfortunately, he didn't get a solid grounding in Aristotle or Aquinas there.  But he certainly tried not to ignore them.

I do not think Hume ever rejected his own skepticism -- that would make him a totally incoherent thinker. Rather he developed a conventionalist theory of ethics, etc. He invested less and less energy in philosophy, possibly because he saw the nature of what it yielded, and wrote history instead.

In Mahayana Buddhism the scholastic theories of causality of earlier Buddhism are hoist on their own petard -- if everything arises in dependence on something else, then nothing has its own-nature (svabhava) but is ultimately empty; nonetheless we traffic in conventional causality or conditionality to comport ourselves ethically and soteriologically in the fleeting samsaric existence.

 I am not sure that it is correct to say that Hume "studied with the Jesuits" -- rather he lived in the town and visited the Jesuits and used their library.

Also Hume's years in La Flèche were not quite "before starting the Treatise" -- rather he wrote the Treatise there.

Perhaps we need to be a little more skptical about the foundational importance of skepticism:

Fr. O'Leary --

Hume does admit at the end of Book I of the Treatise that he doesn't accept his own conclusions, but doesn't know how to get out of them.  So, yes, he is thoroughly inconsistent, but he admits it.

About the Buddhist texts. I have the Shambala translation of the sayings of the Buddha, but I don't know whether that edition is a truly scholarly work.  I know that the Pali texts are so ancient that there is bound to be some question about how to translate them.  But -- do you know that edition,and should i trust it as at least fairly competent?  


Message lost -- recommend Pali Nikayas translated Boston: Wisdom publications, and Kalupahana, Causality. Hume does not renounce his skeptical creed at end of Treatise I but only says that he is "diffident" both about his doubts and his convictions, as becomes a true skeptic.

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