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The power of being well-informed

Im starting with a long list of names but I need to in order to make my point. So, suppose you had encountered a new book on the Catholic Church by Michael Lacey or Francis Oakley or Joe Komonchak or Frank Sullivan or John Beal? What if it had been written by Gerard Mannion or Lisa Cahill or Cathy Kaveny or Charles Taylor? And how about Leslie Woodcock Tentler or Katarina Schuth? Or another sociological study by the indefatigable team of Bill DAntonio, Jim Davidson, the late lamented Dean Hoge and Mary Gauthier? Wouldnt you be excited to read what the book had to say? Well, the bad news is that none of these folks has just published a new book, though I am sure some are impending, but the good news is that they are all featured in the 2011 Oxford University Press collection, The Crisis of Authority in Catholic Modernity, edited by Lacey and Oakley.When I look at this collection and the truly formidable array of scholars who are its contributors I am inevitably reminded of the Yale conference back in 2003 that led to the outstanding book, Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church (Continuum, 2003). The conference opened with an address by the then Archbishop Wuerl of Pittsburgh on the roots of Catholicism, more notable for its piety than for its willingness to grapple with the findings of scholarship. After a polite but distinctly challenging response from Peter Steinfels there came an array of distinguished scholars, many of them also included in this present 2011 volume, simply laying out the facts about the nature of governance and authority. Their conclusions contradicted those of the archbishop, who sadly had been unable to stay to hear what they had to say.

What makes the connection for me, besides the considerable overlap between the two lists of contributors, is the polite but firm challenge to ecclesial assumptions about the exercise of authority in the Church, in the context of our currently serious disconnect between magisterial authority and Catholic rank and file over a whole host of issues. Michael Lacey lays down the gauntlet in the introduction to The Crisis of Authority when he identifies the chief characteristic of Catholic modernity as a quiet insistence upon thinking for oneself. In this kind of modern Catholic world, Lacey adds, effective leadership is more difficult than it used to be: Rome speaks, but the arguments continue. Indeed, if there is one persistent note throughout this collection it is that the primacy of thinking for oneself is simply beyond dispute, not worth wasting any ink defending, a sine qua non for responsible Christian discipleship as of course it surely is for any kind of scholarship, theological or otherwise.If there is little doubt that the scholarly Catholic world is methodologically indistinguishable from that of secular scholarship, and all the better for it, the same cannot be said for the transfer of this message of freedom to the Catholic rank and file. Many of them dissent from this or that teaching, or are simply confused or even angry about one thing or another, but their access to the breath of fresh air that comes from knowing the facts is by no means so easy. Most will not read books like either of the two I mention here, and the chances of hearing preaching that is informed by this kind of scholarship are not good. However, the arguments of the authors in these admittedly specialized texts are just the kinds of things that thoughtful Catholics need in order for their legitimate wish to think for themselves to be seen to be compatible with continuity in the faith-community, if not indeed essential to its survival with any kind of credibility. Ah, the inestimable power of being well-informed!

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Ah, the inestimable power of being well-informed!

I imagine most of the saints were nowhere near as well informed. Hmm.

Unlike centuries past, today we have the communications and perhaps the education to make being informed possible. When it is possible, it becomes mandatory for anyone who wants to put their whole selves, heart and head, into the act of faith. Or so it seems to me. Saints, I agree, may not always have been well-informed but my guess is that they were always thinking people.

To me, that's the important thing - being aware and alive, physically and mentally. Working towards wisdom. Knowledge itself is only mental baggage. One scientist is not worth two street sweepers.

As good as Oakleys scholarship is (and its excellent), I speak from experience (and for generations of Williams alumni), that his teaching is even better. His courses on the Reformation and on Western Political Thought deepened the way I see the world. He is the rare blend of excellent scholar, excellent administrator, and excellent teacher.If Oakleys scholarship and teaching and commitment to the academy is the standard, then we have set ourselves a very high and very worthy goal.

Knowledge itself is only mental baggage. One scientist is not worth two street sweepers.David Smith,So you are advocating anti-intellectualism? How little knowledge do you consider optimal? Is perhaps none at all best?

I should be among the last to raise this issue, since my entire career has been in publishing in the areas of professional books and college textbooks, but $99 (discounted to $84.69) is a lot to pay for a hardcover of less than 400 pages, and $35.00 (discounted to $30.62) is a lot to pay for a paperback. I probably could explain the reasons why books like this are so expensive better than most people, but that doesn't stop me from complaining when it's something I personally would like to buy.

Lacey and Oakley is 30 bucks in paperback at Amazon. Free shipping!

Amazon only has 8 copies of Lacey and Oakley left now. I bet Prof. Lakeland's commendation will empty the shelves, despite the price. Who could resist advice from the author of "The Liberation of the Laity"?

There are now only 6 left at Amazon. I just bought one, and so did someone else since Susan Gannon's posting. I have great respect for Oakley and the others listed here. I haven't seen it, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised were it a tad too academic for the general reader. If Prof. Lakeland is right, and most Catholic will not read books like those listed here, nor will their ideas inform preaching, perhaps someone should think about how such ideas should be made more available to general public. They're not likely to be aired in the diocesan press, for instance.And I suspect (without knowing it) that many people who would take an interest in such ideas, and be helpful in bringing on broader discussions of them, have already walked out of the church. Not just because of the sex scandal, but because there is little encouragement within the church to talk about ideas of this (or perhaps any) sort Anti-intellectualism is not just an American failing, after all, and the church's leadership has reflected it for centuries. As I've suggested before, I think the narrowness of clerical education (at least among those who make it to the top) appears to be one of culprits.

David N and others: always check addall.com before falling for Amazon. In this particular case:http://www.addall.com/New/submitNew.cgi?query=the+crisis+of+authority+in...

I know the book is not cheap, but it's only two pizzas, or three if you are unwise enough to buy at Domino's. Anyway, there's a lot to talk about in this book, so maybe I'll post again on it in a few weeks and we can see where everyone is. So to those who skipped the pizza and bought the book, happy reading!

David (7/13 7:33 pm):

Knowledge itself is only mental baggage. One scientist is not worth two street sweepers.
David Smith,So you are advocating anti-intellectualism? How little knowledge do you consider optimal? Is perhaps none at all best?

1) Not at all, David. 2) Everyone's different. 3) In a sense, I suppose, but that's not practical for most people, especially in complex modern societies. We're all intellectual hoarders to some degree - probably more of us now than in the past and to a greater degree. The human mind thrives on thinking.Someone pointed me the other day to a small, superficial article in Mother Jones about cats. There were nearly seven hundred responses in the comment trail. People love to talk. It's only natural that some are given to thinking a lot more before talking than others, but we're all absolutely certain that we have a great deal of important stuff to say.I think it's good, from time to time, to reflect on the ephemeralness of knowledge.

Paul Lakeland,I live alone, and I am on a diet, so I would never buy two pizzas. I did order the book, though. I do wonder, though, if it might not be to the advantage of publishers to offer books like these in electronic format at a significantly reduced price. I assume the only buyers $99 hardcovers are institutions. Are there really individuals who would pay $99 to have a hardcover when they can get a paperback for $35? Such high prices assume a smallish market, and I wonder if at least part of the reason for the smallish market isn't the price? In any case, unlike David Smith, I believe in knowledge, so I ordered the book. Is there going to be a book-club-like discussion?

David, let's leave it a couple of weeks because such an expensive book needs to be savored (unlike most pizzas) before offering opinions on it. And then I'll blog on it again and we can see where it goes from there.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.