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Good will hunting.

In a thirteen-page letter [PDF], Cardinal Donald Wuerl, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, explains his committee's rationale for taking on Elizabeth A. Johnson's Quest for the Living God (blogged abouthere,here, andhere). The wide-ranging letter--while acknowledging the theologian's "legitimate vocation"--re-emphasizes bishops' authority to teach, govern, and sanctify, comparing their role to that of a referee--"it's not the player who calls the ball out of bounds," Wuerl writes, "but the referee." (Mollie takes up that analogy below.)It's a strange document. The letter is addressed to "brother bishops," but it's framed as a response to Catholic Theological Society of America board members, who issued a statement criticizing the doctrinal committee's review of Johnson's book. The CTSA board, according to Wuerl, "seems to misread the legitimate and apostolic role of bishops in addressing the right relationship of theologians and bishops." The cardinal doesn't provide evidence for that claim. Read the CTSAstatement. It explicitly recognizes the "distinct vocations of the theologian and the magisterium."Why, then, does Wuerl spend several pages reminding the bishops of the scriptural and traditional grounding of their office? That is not in dispute. What remains to be seen is why the Committee on Doctrine issued a document that so badly misreads the work of a prominent theologian without bothering to ask whether they read her right.

As the CTSA boardpoints out, the bishops of the Committee on Doctrine failed to follow their own guidelines for handling disputes between theologians and bishops, as set forth inDoctrinal Responsibilities (1989). That document--overwhelmingly approved by the bishops conference--held that when such conflicts arise, "informal conversation ought to be the first step towards resolution." Of course, as Wuerl points out, the bishops weren't required to contact Johnson before condemning her book because the guidelines inDoctrinal Responsibilities are not "obligatory." Besides, "the statement makes clear that these suggested guidelines 'can only serve if they are adapted to the particular conditions of a diocese, its history, and its special needs.'" I don't know what that means or how the cardinal thinks it applies here."Our understanding of the not limited to the explicit teaching and preaching of the bishop," Cardinal Wuerl writes. "The bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching." He affirms theologians' "legitimate autonomy" while emphasizing that their work must be carried out "presuming" the "received faith of the church." A bishop's job is to set the "boundaries of the authentic faith." Sure, there will be times when the "legitimate academic freedom of Catholic theologians" leads to apparent conflict with pastoral obligations of the bishop.

Nevertheless, when good will is present on both sides, when both are committed to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, their relationship can be one of profound communion as together they seek to explore new implications of the deposit of faith.The church, therefore, encourages a respectful dialogue between and among bishops.

Undeniably wise. Yet, reading the Committee on Doctrine's statement on Quest for the Living God, which accuses the book of "completely" undermining the gospel and the faith of those who believe it, I can't help wondering: where was the good will? Lost in the rush of composing and approving a response to a four-year-old book? When the Committee on Doctrine misrepresents important aspects a distinguished theologian's work, why would other theologians submit their work for an imprimatur? (Never mind that imprimaturs are handled locally, not by a USCCB committee.)Cardinal Wuerl writes that his committee "does not wish to stifle legitimate theological reflection or to preclude further dialogue, but it does want to ensure that the authentic teaching of the clearly stated and affirmed." That's reassuring--and who would deny that a bishop's job includes clearly affirming church teaching? But couldn't the doctrinal committee have carried out its task more carefully--by, say, not ascribing to Johnson views she does not hold?Cardinal Wuerl concludes by expressing his committee's hope "that the discussion generated by its statement will help lead to renewal and foster a proper and fruitful relationship between the bishops and the whole theological community." Regrettably, I doubt this discussion will have such a happy ending. Doubling down on a bad bet rarely does.


Commenting Guidelines

I thought the concerns about dialogue were directly addressed in the document."Once a theological work is published, however, it is ipso facto open to response. It is like the ball that has been hit in a tennis match. It is already in play. If it is called out of bounds, it is not an adequate response to say that the referee did not enter into dialogue with the player beforehand. When a work is published and, particularly, if it is being used and accepted as authentic Catholic teaching, the bishop has an obligation to address it." (p. 9)When a ball is in play (i.e. when professors are already making their syllabi and bookstore orders for next fall), it's not the time to have an extended conversation with a theologian about her motives for writing the book. When the ball is in play, you just look at the book, decide whether or not there's a pastoral response necessary, and, if so, respond.

Thanks, Grant - some initial responses:First, he makes no mention of the already decided protocol on this in 1989 (okay, indirect reference to it) which was years of work between theologians and the USCCB. He makes it seem as if that work needs to be suppressed and started over.Second, he does come up with a new point that published books used in 1st/2nd year theology or late high school theology classes need to be scrutnized for orthodoxy? He gives no details and says that is work to be considered. Yet, such a statement re-opens the whole debate which the Land of Lakes compromise tried to encompass. It is as if theologians can only think/discuss within and with their own specialty but need some type of episcopal blessing before their work can be used by the folks in the pews or classrooms.Third, his constant imprimatur meme ..he paints too black and white; he oversimplifies, and he ignores the current reality of publishing, etc. What happens when a bishop gives an imprimatur and another bishop or USCCB doesnt agree? The complexity is always there.He skips over many of the CTSA points in their response and comes across as very defensive. Granted, bishops are teachers.but are they pastoral teachers or policeman teachers? The complexity around this is mind numbing. Again, he paints with a simplistic brush.His tennis analogy guess he doesnt know the sport. There are linesman who call balls in or out of bounds; the referee is there to adjudicate when there are questions, differences.His statement (like others) about poor catechesis since Vatican II is truly a meme (as defined by Ungidan). Any college teacher can tell you that he is painting again with a very black and white brush you get students are on a continuum in terms of catholic knowledge, experience, spirituality, maturity, etc. He basically slams the reality that more Catholic kids attended higher education since 1970 than at any time in our history.He makes no mention of the committee executive secretary's response and confirmation that he composed the statement on Sr. Johnson's book. We continue to have little transparency around who developed, reviewed, and contributed to the original Wuerl statement. Since his statement is directed to his fellow bishops - is this a move to head off episcopal division in terms of this book; the original statement; etc.?? If this is to his colleagues, why make a public statement - why not a private letter to them?

One thing that Card. Wuerl's statement does do well is show the scope of the problem. He is supposed to be one of the "smart" ones. The Church indeed is in trouble if this simplistic, reductionist, defensive statement is the best that our bishop's can do. Is it any wonder that Catholics around the world are leaving the Church in droves?

Alan: is it any wonder that Catholics of all stripes and persuasion who actually STAY in this church tend to be very "prudential" in what credence they give (if any) to the statements coming from individual bishops or the USCCB in general? And the US is one of the good coutries when it comes to Catholic attention to their church in any great degree. Can you imagine the credibility of bishops and their pronouncements in Europe? Good luck on any re-evangelization there so long as the clergy have the control, final approval authority and direction of the activities and events. Brrrrr.

Jimmy,The conviction that bishops are the Church's teachers is boilerplate Vatican Council II: "This sacred synod, following in the steps of the First Vatican Council, teaches and declares with it that Jesus Christ, the eternal pastor, set up the holy Church by entrusting the apostles with their mission as he himself had been sent by the Father (cf. Jn. 20:21). He willed that their successors, the bishops namely, should be the shepherds in his Church until the end of the world." (LG 18)

Kathy --Nobody is disputing this.

He thinks peer review is absent or ineffective among theologians -- perhaps meaning that they do not sufficiently act as watchdogs of Roman orthodoxy toward one another. He seems to want university theology courses to make up for what he sees as failed catechesis at lower levels -- but the best way to revive interest in faith among students is to introduce them to exciting debate. The catechesis the cardinal favors is as dull as ditchwater. On Monday I introduced the Bible as literature to an eager group of 20 Japanese students, yesterday I read a ghost story by Penelope Lively with another class, today I introduced a nililistic, sexually anarchic but Buddhist-themed novel of 1935 by Ishikawa Jun, tomorrow there is a class on "Kubla Khan" and another on "Madame Bovary" -- amid this exciting kaleidoscope of life and literature, the drabness of standard theology seems pathetic. And to add to the excitement, we expect another big seismic aftershock tomorrow.

"Nobody is disputing this." Clearly if no one was disputing "this" then every Catholic theologian would request an imprimatur before they had their book published. However, if a Catholic theologian is not required to be a Catechist, the Bishops should not be surprised when Catholic theology is not consistent with our Catholic Faith, nor should they be surprised when a theologian makes an analogy between The Blessed Trinity and three rocks that appear to not be of the same substance, are not ordered nor do they exist in unity, thus there can be no communion, nor can they be ONE. ( see cover of Quest For The Living God) In this case, the Bishops didn't even have to read the book, they only had to take a look at the cover.

. . . [T]he Bishops didnt even have to read [Johnsons] book, they only had to take a look at the cover.

Were in even bigger trouble than Id thought.

Is there a requirement that members of the Catholic Theological Society must be Catholic? Observant (however defined) Catholics? Just asking.Their website doesnt seem to mention any religious requirement: Active Membership is open to those who possess the doctoral degree in theological or related studies, and who are or have been actively engaged in teaching and research. course we can all think of several good reasons why membership in a professional association should not be restricted by religion. But when theres a conflict between the bishops and the theological society it would be useful to know more about the religious composition of the CTSA and how solid is the commitment of all its members to the Church.

"Nobody is disputing this. Clearly if no one was disputing this then every Catholic theologian would request an imprimatur before they had their book published."Why?

I have been following this discussion--in a number of different posts--ever since the USCCB Theological Committee, under the Presidency of Cardinal Wuerl, issued its'warning' or 'clarification' about Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's book, Quest for the Living God.I have been reading her book, and the more I read, the more I am reminded of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the suffering he endured--as an obedient and silent religious and priest. He died without ever seeing most of his lifelong work unpublished.He was effectively 'silenced' by the Church. Out of love for the Church, he accepted, indeed honored, the silence imposed.When he died on Easter Sunday 1955, because of his being "silenced", he was buried privately--without a public Priest's Funeral--at the Jesuit Cemetery in Poughkeepsie, NY.Although Sr. Elizabeth Johnson has not been "silence"--yet!--her faithfulness to Catholic Faith is certainly being questioned ... possibly by those who either have not read--or have not understood--what she has written. Out of respect and obedience, she has remained, for the most part, silent.The history of the Roman Church, when it comes to theologians, reveals a pattern of disputes between the "powers" and the "thinkers": Aquinas, for example, was suspect of heterodoxy because he dared to utilize Aristotelian thought forms to explain the Faith ... and was not accepted or recognized until after his death. What I hear in this latest response from Cardinal Wuerl is a retrenchment into the authoritarian attitude of another generation: when I cannot win by persuasion, I appeal to authority. As the French say, "Plus sa change, plus sa meme."

Jimmy, why so down on Europe? I can't imagine Cardinals Martini, Danneels or Kasper, or even Schonborn making such a statement in the first place. A more successful model of engagement with the world and teaching is surely modeled more on dialogue, less on the pulpit.Or maybe Cardinal Wuerl is just trying to help Sr. Johnson sell more books. Nothing sells like a good old-fashioned condemnation...ask Salman Rushdie. I'm reading Jurgen Mettepinningen's 'Nouvelle Theologie' at the moment and the list of those condemned is longer than just Theilard de Chardin and includes Yves Congar, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Henri de Lubac, Louis Charlier, Eduard Schillebeeckx...

Even Aquinas was condemned at one point.

Patrick --You seem to think that solidity of committment is a criterion of orthodoxy. Why? One can be totally sincere, passionately committed and wrong, and that goes for folks on both sides of our divide.I'm not a theologian, but it seems to me that having non-Catholics in the CTSA is a good way to make the teachings of the Church better known. And civil challenges from non-Catholics can lead at least to deepening of understanding of the Faith.

Ken,That's not what the French say.

Ann,I agree with your points. Commitment does not equal orthodoxy and ecumenical exchanges can be mutually beneficial. But in the name of transparency (who is against that?) I would like to know if there are members of the CTSA who have rejected the Catholic faith and/or no longer practice it. They may still be correct on any given issue but it would be nice to know if someone wants to gauge the sensus fidelium. Or perhaps a name change for the society would clear up any confusion: The Society for the Academic Study of Catholicism by Doctoral Graduates in Theology and Related Disciplines.

In the current NCR, there is an interview with Sr. Johnson where she lays out what she hoped to accomplish.I was impressed.Here in my high science cominity(wit hmost PHD's per cap) a fellow parishoner is trying to engage his fellow Catholicscientist on faith/sienc ediscussion - he ven put out a bibliography to stimulaye discussion.The issues here are several butone is the engagemen tof modernity (rather than the retrenchment currently in vogue among curialists and US Bishops. This is a seperate issue from the question of roles(theologians/bishops) some think is critiical.

A second issue is the one of the roles. i commented on this topic below that the Bishops are indeed the authentic teachers in the Church; but, that doesn't mean they can't screw up and I posit that is in fact more likely if they are trying to do so by power rather than rational argument and dialogue.Meanwhile, there is clearly a cleavage in the theological comunity with quite differenr views of exploerin gand engaging our faith in today's world.I think members of CTSA, who of its board members, as far as I can see, are loyal and excellent members of the faith who fon't question the faith of those who disagree, must be chilled not only by the Cardinal's approach, but also comentators like Mr. Malloy who obviously knows better.Gene is right -God help us!

Two things. One, I agree completely with Grant about the danger of "doubling down." Bad teaching is worse than no teaching, and if the bishops cannot be trusted to give an accurate reading of a book that, by their own admission, is aimed at non-specialists, how can they be trusted in more complicated matters? Poor use of authority undercuts authority itself.Secondly, on the imprimatur meme, I notice that Thomas Weinandy (secretary of the Bishops' Committee on Doctrine) doesn't seem to have an imprimatur on his "Jesus the Christ" which is clearly aimed at a non-specialist audience. If it does bear an imprimatur, it isn't printed on the copyright page as is customary. Is this a requirement only for those theologians already viewed as suspect by the powers that be?

A third is issue is Catholic education and educated Catholics.The question of Catholic education is indeed worthy of discussion given the complexities of available resources, the questions about charter schools at the elrmentary level, the issue of the goals and priorities of Catholic elementary and high schools, and the efforts of adult Catholic education and the extent to which it is indioctrination or formation.There is an apparent inference in some quarters that the drift of many young catholics is due to their ignorance (their fault) and not poor presentation of Catholic truths and also lack of credibility by teaching authorities.As to educated Catholics, one could start with the seminary issue (say as raised by Abp. Martin) and the attempt here by the US hierarchy to bring Catholic institutions of higher learning and periodicals -as advocated previously by Cardinal George - and IMO the Wuerl action is a piece of the same, to a univocal "ultraorthodox" (read maximal magisterilalism) approach.Returning to Sr. Johnson then, her view of engagement, questioning and growing is not sought out by our current hierarchy and, I would add, not conducive to "educated Catholics."

@Patrick, I get your point about being interested in knowing the affiliation of the Society members, but how ya gonna measure that without imposing a predetermined notion of orthodoxy to allow you to say who is "in name only" and who is "really" Catholic?There's a danger in pushing this approach (not that Patrick does) and we should learn from what's happening in another academic society--the Society for Biblical Literature. There's been huge controversy over whether one must be a believer to correctly study the Bible and it has spilled over into academic departments at secular colleges and universities--which are rapidly shrinking. We need vibrant and diverse Departments of Religious Studies/Theology at secular schools, I believe, as part of providing a well-rounded liberal arts education. We don't need academic societies (which are a vital part of the discipline's health and growth) limited to believers. I don't want Departments of RS/Theology or academic groups serving as satellite campuses for Bob Jones, Liberty, or Ave Maria. Frankly, I don't want the Catholic college departments running as exclusively apologetic courses of study, but I recognize they have a different needle to thread.

Mary --What you said.

Kathy: when someone says that they have the final word on what is in, out, up, down, right, wrong --- and then their actions do not lend credibility to their self-proclaimed authority, do you actually think that all of their claims will be given credibility in the long run?"He who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed." (Abraham Lincoln in debate with Stephen Douglas.)"If authoritative teaching is representative teaching, it must actually be received as authoritative and representative in the Christian community. It is not enough simply to claim that such teaching is representative. The community of Christians addressed by their teachers will either receive or not receive the teaching in light of their faith in Jesus Christ and of the scriptural witness to God's revelation in Christ. In the process of reception it becomes apparent whether or not the teaching was representative."(Wolfgang Pannenberg, The Present and Future Church, First Things, November 1991.)

"the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest, yet the argument from authority based on divine revelation is the strongest. But sacred doctrine also makes use of human reason, not, indeed to prove faith...but to make clear other things that are not set forth in this doctrine." (Summa Theologica, part 1, question 1, article 8, reply 2)I have not read Sr. Johnson's book and I am weary of anyone described as a 'feminist' but coming down like a hammer on someone without offering a forum to better discuss the views and conclusions seems juvenile. Unless I am mistaken, judgements and verdicts are reserved for the end of trials.

Just a word of support for Patrick's point. If the question is about whether a theological society has a relevant interest in the Bishops' pronouncement on a particular matter of doctrine, it does seem important to ask whether that society is interested qua faithful believer or qua scholar. Of course the two are not always easily separable, but if I'm a scholar of Catholicism who has no interest in attending mass on Sunday or receiving the sacraments, it is hard to understand why my protest ought to be registered by those who are mostly concerned with the folks who fill the pews. On the other hand, if I'm a Catholic scholar who is committed to the mission of the Church in communion with the faithful, then one would hope that the shepherds of that flock would want to engage in dialogue with me. I have a feeling that most members of the CTSA belong to the latter group, and given that Wuerl saw the need to address, however unsatisfactorily, their concerns, it seems that he considers them to be "in" as well. But all that is not to say that it's not worthwhile to raise the question, and that if a particular group of scholars of religion claim not to care about actual faith commitments, then their opinion might be weighed differently when it comes to church matters. Of course, apropos of the SBL debate, this does not at all mean that such scholars are not good scholars and don't have extremely valuable insights to contribute to the study of religion and the understanding of the history, texts, and practices of a particular tradition, which one would hope might be of interest to believers and nonbelievers alike. And such scholars might even, and probably do, have a better understanding of such matters than some of the most ardent believers. It's just that such information may not always be relevant to the administration of doctrine, but then again, sometimes it might be. But, I don't think that it's clearly wrong of Patrick to raise the issue.

Eric,I am not sure that it is worthwhile to raise the question if there is no way to answer it. It seems to me raising the question is just saying, "Hmmm . . . you know, these people may not be real Catholics." I really think, as you seem to, that the majority of people who would join such an organization are faithful Catholics. (I am not sure that attending Mass every Sunday is a perfect measure of who is and who is not a faithful Catholic, either.) And in any case, their protest should be judged on its merits, not on the churchgoing habits of the people who wrote it. And the bishops' critique should also be judged on its merits, not on the fact that they are bishops.

"If the question is about whether a theological society has a relevant interest in the Bishops pronouncement on a particular matter of doctrine, it does seem important to ask whether that society is interested qua faithful believer or qua scholar" (Eric, 4:34pm)As you note, that's difficult to separate. I'd say impossible to evaluate the former without imposing a highly contested set of criteria, though I suppose "agrees with Bishops majority of time" is an option (a bad one, imho). I still don't see why it is a relevant or important question, given at least two of the three interests they address in their original statement: 1) did the bishops follow their own rules? and 2) did they get her book wrong? Neither of those questions requires one be a believer, much less a good one. I'll grant, the third interest they raise (implications for the vocation of theologian) may impinge on particular faith commitments. However, the first two have been largely the focus of CW discussion, not the teaching authority of the bishops. Finally, I think the bishops' clear misreading of Johnson's book is itself evidence against your argument that faith buttresses quality of evaluation, since I'm sure we'd agree the Bishops are "good Catholics" despite their interpretive failure. Cheers!

I see the imprimatur suggestion as a dialogue-starter is not catching fire here.Naif that I am, I view the mandatum the same way.

"I am not sure that attending Mass every Sunday is a perfect measure of who is and who is not a faithful Catholic, either."Right; most of us lack the ability to read what is in other people's hearts. It seems that sociologists use mass attendance as a useful proxy for measuring commitment, though.

"And the bishops critique should also be judged on its merits, not on the fact that they are bishops."David N. --ISTM that this is at the crux of the problem of teaching authority in the Church. One might put it this way: how can having a charism (teaching dogma) guarantee that the charism will be faithfully carried out? If possessing the teaching charism does *not* guarantee that truth will be taught (that is, if simply *being a bishop* doesn't guarantee the truth of what he says), then what does the charism guarantee? Obviously, being a bishop doesn't guarantee speaking true dogma. If it did, there would be no heretical bishops. But there have been many.Back to the problem of theological epistemology, this time from the point of view of the faithful: how do we know what is dogma and what is not? When truth is being taught, how can the faithful recognize it? The problem is acute for theologians.

David, I may be old fashioned, but I'm not sure I can follow you in saying that mass attendance or at least feeling some solidarity with mass attendees is not a necessary condition, even if not sufficient condition, for being "in" the Church.Mary, I never said or argued for the claim that "faith buttresses quality of evaluation," and I'm not sure I can even agree with you that the "Bishops are good Catholics." Note that I said mass attendance is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition ;)

There is lots of bad theological writing about a suffering God, misled by Moltmann and Process theology, and one can well understand the irritation of Fr Weinandy and the bishops. Still, the issue is a delicate one. Consider this locus classicus from Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel 6.6: And the Father himself is it not true that he suffered in some manner? God takes on himself our modes of being as the Son takes on our passions (citing Ps 102.8). The Father himself is not impassible. If he is supplicated, has nercy and pities he suffers a passion of charity and puts himself in a condition incompatible with his greatness and for us bears human passions. Igitur mores nostras supportat Deus, sicut portat passiones nostras Filius Dei. Ipse Pater non est impassibilis. Si rogetur, miseretur et condolet, patitur aliquid caritatis, et fit in iis in quibus iuxta magnitudinem naturae suae non potest esse, et propter nos humanas sustinet passiones."

Bringing out the big guns of an appeal to ones divinely conferred authority is always a mistake, especially when dealing with very minor issues, such as a single theological book. Paul VI spent a lot of Humanae Vitae defending his right to teach on the issue, and this might also be seen as a sign of weakness. The only two doctrines for which papal infallibility is claimed are very iffy ones. The Council that most stressed its guaranteed infallible status also produced iffy doctrines (I refer to Vatican I), Episcopal authority is self-justifying when exercised properly. When exercised badly, the appeal to epistemological guarantees is useless because the reception on the part of the faithful will not be forthcoming anyway. It is not use saying the authorititative statements are infallible ex sese non ex consensu ecclesiae, because if the consensue ecclesiae is not forthcomiing it can be discerned that the statements were not infallible to begin with (though it they had been infallible it would have been ex sese) infallibility is a Cheshire cat doctrine; try to pin it down too tightly and it vanishes!

Seminarians in Maynooth are now kept from studying theology in the same class as lay people. What kind of theology do the bishops want them to learn? Could it be that they want priests to have just a higher catechesis, a sort of brainwashing, insulated from the questioning of the modern world and from the sensus fidelium?Episcopal authority is real only in its proper exercise. In a dysfunctional church gestures of asserting divinely-guaranteed authority are only a sing of weakness and disaggregation. The bishops need to admit that they are in crisis (pace Abp Dolan), and seek to restore the fabric of a Church that is functioning properly on the social, liturgical, theological, and spiritual fronts. They cannot do this except in open discussion with all other members of the community.

@Eric (9:38)Necessary for what? Sufficient for what? To say, "Hey! Ya'll have a set of guidelines saying X and you didn't follow them"? To say, "Hey! Ya'll say Sr. J said X and she actually said not-X"? Please unpack for me how attendance at Mass is a necessary condition for assessing the truth value of either of those two claims. We know, in fact, that it is not, since the Bishops made errors in their evaluation of the book, despite attending Mass regularly. (I presume you'd grant the bishops go to Mass enough to meet the standard you'd want to apply to the Society members.)Whether Theologians are entitled to question Bishops--and whether their adherence to a particular list of doctrines or practices (are we gonna ask how often they go to Confession, like the women religious were?) increases their credibility with the Bishops and others when contesting Church teachings--is a separate issue, distinct from whether the Bishops followed their own rules and misread Johnson's book. Cheers!

Mary, I never said mass attendance was necessary for assessing the truth value of anything, and I was jokingly trying to suggest that being Catholic was not simply a matter of going to mass or even being ordained, even though such things might be involved in an assessment. So, no, without knowing more about this or that bishop, I would not presume that they meet any such standard. In fact, as some have suggested, it would seem that they have not sufficiently met any such standards, e.g. as you say, their own. But just because standards are hard to fix, doesn't mean that there are no standards for determining what stake someone has in the debate. Theological interpretation is tricky enough not to be able to simply leave things to the transparency of reason. At certain points, one might want to have some reassurance that we're all after the same thing here. If I don't recognize the authority of the bishops then why should they care what I say, and furthermore, they might even be wondering why I care what they say. My very minimal point is that whether or not the bishops should care about me probably has something to do with whether or not I care about them, which probably would be reflected in my participation in the life of the Church. Clearly, you seem to care quite deeply about them, as I do; so, I hope they are listening to us. If they aren't, who cares?

If you fear that a nun's book will cause students to lose their faith (as if the drab teaching of the bishops' had not already caused thousands of Catholics to leave the Church), why not forbid Catholic students to go to university at all? Or are Catholic universities fake universities where students will be protected from any exposure to debate and questioning?

Mary,Why don't we grant, for the sake of argument, that the bishops misunderstood the book. I don't know of anyone who has demonstrated this, but, if we assume they did, what follows?Couldn't freshmen in college have the same misunderstanding, and at a potentially higher cost, the loss of their faith?

And of course you must keep students from reading suspect theologians such as Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Scotus Eriugena, Eckhart, and all Protestant writers. Needless to say, immoral and bawdy authors such as Catullus, Shakespeare, Fielding, Blake, Gautier, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola, Proust, Gide, Woolf, Lawrence, will be rigorously excluded from the curriculum. We need orthodox Catholics even if they are intellectual zombies. If thy brain scandalize thee, cut it out; better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven without your brains and your spiritual freedom, than to be cast into Hell for the crime of thinking!

@KathyYour second para makes no sense: if the students had the same misunderstanding the bishops did, they would not be at any spiritual risk (since judging the book as a threat to faith was based on an erroneous reading). Regardless, that's a pretty good argument for not sending kids to college at all. Yikes. @Eric,You say we need some "standards for determining what stake someone has in the debate." Sure. Here's a basic one: I think anyone, trained theologian or not, Catholic or not, has a stake in truth and fairness. It's the simple matter of how the Bishops' and Society's statements measure up to those two standards, no messy loyalty tests required. You say, "interpretation is tricky enough not to be able to simply leave things to the transparency of reason." Golly, why not? In this case, what interpretive maneuvers are so difficult? What's so murky about guidelines applied or not? About claims made or not? And specifically how would being a bona fide Catholic (by any standard) affect how one makes that judgment? Unless, that is, we are assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who wouldn't meet that standard. What if we found out the Society members were all a bunch of closet agnostics? That makes it OK for the Bishops to treat an author differently or to misread her book? Of course not, so why make the Bishops' ethical responsibilities contigent on the in- or out-group status of the Society members? You say, "If I dont recognize the authority of the bishops then why should they care what I say?" Well, maybe it's just me, but I think they should care when folks (of any stripe) raise concerns about the fairness and accuracy of their statements. How bizarre that we could say, "Well they screwed up but it's not really a problem because the folks complaining aren't the real target audience." That's a calculation for marketers and political consultants.Cheers!

Joseph O'Leary is on target. If the immutable Catholic theology du jour and Catholic students and scholars are so fragile that they cannot confront competitive ideas and keep faith intact, there are more serious questions to be answered than how many bishops does it take to cast the final vote on truth. Humility in the face of ignorance is a powerful virtue as the practice of the best and brightest often shows; fear of contamination by pernicious writings is an opposing vice. For a possibly out-of-date description of where such fear leads, see the thinking in the Catholic Encyclopedia on Index of Prohibited Books (Imprimatur 1910) and CENSORSHIP OF BOOKS (Imprimatur 1908) at:

Fr. O'Leary,I think that the question of the knowability of God is the main issue that the bishops should be addressing. I think they are "reading the signs of the times" accurately, and addressing the most important thing that needs to be addressed.

Mary, I take your point that, all things being equal, misreading is misreading. I think, though, that you are underestimating the degree to which those in hierarchy of the church (and some of the rest of us for that matter) are "marketers and political consultants" or simply have other interests (cynical, sincere, or otherwise) which they bring to bear on the doing of theology. And, I'm self reflective enough to realize that I have some similar interests of my own (some more transparent than others) when I do my theology. So, "truth and fairness" is not always as black and white as you or the bishops seem to think. This is why theology needs to be rooted in relationship. If that's the case, then it seems relevant to ask whether both parties are interested in being in the relationship (kind of like marriage counseling) before haggling over the details.

Even if we accept the analogy, I don't think you've adequately addressed why the Bishops' responsibility to the relationship depends on the faithfulness of a partner ("I can ignore rules because I suspect you don't respect the marriage"??). We obviously have different notions regarding the task of theology. I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Cheers!

Eric, what happened to the Church being a body that tries to shift unbelief to belief? To say that inclusion in the club is a priori necessary for being heard at all rather enhances the likelihood that no interest "from" others becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy of a group that professes no interest "in" others. For the Church, that seems like an especially dangerous track to follow for the sake of carrying forward its past ideals into the future, and not only in crass number terms. It seems to me that bishops should WANT to know if their theology makes sense to others and to understand, if it doesn't, why not -- After all, it is entirely possible that something might not make sense for a reason other than the absence of a shared underlying belief. "You have to be Catholic to understand" should be an oxymoron -- not an excuse for avoiding hard questions about theology.

Im a firm believer in the value of an outsider perspective. Martin Luther and John Calvin surely have much to teach us. And I always appreciate it when commenters at this site clearly indicate that they are no longer Catholic. If anything I pay more attention to their points of view. At the same time I dont expect either non-Catholics, in say a Lutheran or Calvinist tradition or some new variant, or ex-Catholics to be concerned with the flourishing of the episcopate. If pursuit of fairness and justice seems to them to call for the abolition or even undermining of an authoritative office in favor of one with persuasive powers only I would expect outsiders to proceed in that direction without hesitation. Now its just possible that some of these tendencies can be found within the CTSA, as even a president of that organization acknowledged a few years ago. It seems to be a big tent organization with minimal (or perhaps no) religious requirements for membership, though apparently some segments of the theological community do not seem to be welcomed. In 1997 Avery Dulles expressed his misgivings:The CTSA, apparently driven by an urge for theological self-assertion against hierarchical authority, widens the gap and constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics. It tends to impose an orthodoxy of its own. Graduate students who hope to find university teaching positions, and younger faculty seeking promotion and tenure, feel almost compelled to attend the CTSA and to refrain from vocal criticism.Theologians are faced with a drastic choice: whether to follow the directions represented by the CTSA or to adhere to the tradition as taught by the popes and councils. Church authorities are faced with a similar choice. Can they recognize the CTSA as Catholic? Can anything be done to clarify or restore its Catholic character?For an interesting look at how the CTSA responds to this kind of criticism of its own orthodoxy see the vigorous exchanges that followed (may be for subscribers only):

Thanks to Joe O"Leary for the sad news about the seperation of students at Maynooth (a result of Abr. Dolan's visitation?)I'm glad to se that most folks here see the seeking of imprimatur as the dodge and perhaps hypocrisy that it is.The call for dialogue from the Cardinal seems pale to me:Yesterday. the Colege theology Society under its president, Bradford Hinze of Fordham, joined CTSA in scoring the Cardinal for breeding mistrust in young theologians and sadness in seasoned scholars.Five years ago, in his book"Practices of Dialogue in the Catholic Church", Continuum, 2006he wote of theologians being an"excluded" group within the Church by bishops and curia.He states "it is remarkable that of all the groups described in the documents of Vatican II, not one word has been written about the role of theologians in the Church, about their constructive relationships with Bishops about the importanceof their realtionship wuith wider circles of the faithful: ...It has been left to the Congregatio nof the Doctrine of the Faith to describe and catually prescribe the vocation of theologians." (pg246-247)It's been less than five years when the Catholic Common Ground Initiative gathered in New York to present their 'Reflecting on the Past, Looking Into The Future,"(June 24, 2006) reaffirming their work amidst the tensions and conflicts in society and inside the Church.But the initiative founded by Cardinal Bernadin has been buried (and celebrated by George Weigel -leading to Gailardetz's reflection amoing others).I submit that Cardinal's call to "respectful dialogue" is hollow at best, as any real dialogue hasn' t existed and the USCCB really just wants PR instead of theogical dialogue in their approach.This sad affair for many thoughtful Catholics underscores the deep chasm many feel with a hierarchy that unfortunately just keeps growing!

And here is part of Peter Steinfels's response to Dulles's unfair critique:"In no way did the gathering suggest a theological "wasteland." In carefully arguing that a responsum from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did not establish the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdatolis as infallible, the societys Task Force was, I would maintain, not only respectful and responsible but actually conservative."I encountered very little of the anger at church authorities, the flippant dismissals, or argument by crowd-pleasing wisecrack that have often marred theological gatherings on both left and right. The morning prayer sessions were filled to overflowing; the convention liturgy was a central event. Most important, in view of widely voiced worries that the frame of reference for Catholic theology was increasingly becoming the academy rather than the church, the concerns behind the conventions papers and comments were unmistakably pastoral. At the Sunday-morning table discussions of the major addresses on the Eucharist, one theologians questions arose from her efforts at catechizing young people; anothers from her experience with Central European Eastern-rite Catholic immigrants; and so on."I've been to several CTSA conventions. The prayer services are always well attended. The closing Mass is always jammed. There's no religious test because it would be weird for a non-Catholic to join a group that calls itself the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Patrick,What is the issue for meand I don't speak for anyone but myselfis that intellectual disputes can't be resolved by appeals to authority. A committee of bishops are no better at interpreting a text than a similar committee of knowledgeable people who have not been ordained. Now, when you are getting into something like polling the bishops of the world about a matter of dogma, that is a different story (for believing Catholics). I would assume there are many intelligent bishops who can debate theology intelligently, but it doesn't seem to me that that is their usual function. If someone were to make a random selection of theologians and a random selection of bishops and put the same theological question to each group, I would put more stock in the opinion of the group of theologians than the opinion of the group of bishops. I don't think that contradicts Catholic teaching. Whatever the role of bishops as teachers is in the Church, I don't think the Church teaches that ordination as a bishop gives a man some kind of special intellectual powers not possessed by nonbishops.