Is peace breaking out? No, not in Iraq, but among Catholic scholars in the United States? It seems unlikely, yet one promising sign is the address delivered last month by the Catholic Theological Society of America’s (CTSA) outgoing president Daniel Finn.

Finn’s talk, given in Los Angeles at the CTSA’s annual convention, was titled “Power and Public Presence in Catholic Social Thought, the Church, and the CTSA,” and was for the most part a sophisticated analysis of the nature and uses of power in any social or political context. He urged Catholic theologians, who are often deeply suspicious of the exercise of power, to recognize that it is an inescapable dimension of human relations and thus of great theological and spiritual interest. In short, if Christians are called to change the world, they are also called to understand and to use power.

What garnered headlines, however, was Finn’s call for the CTSA, often accused of being merely an advocacy group for liberal causes within the church, to take a less adversarial approach to Vatican actions and pronouncements. Over the past few decades the CTSA, which is a professional guild for academic theologians, or its board has raised questions about the Vatican’s condemnations of theologians. Vatican pronouncements reiterating church teaching on homosexuality and the prohibition against ordaining women have also met with critiques of various kinds from CTSA ad hoc committees. “The problem,” Finn argued, “is that these statements become the public face of the CTSA for nearly everyone who doesn’t attend our conventions. Taken together, they present us as individuals who come together as a group primarily to defend ourselves against hierarchical authority.”

Finn was careful to defend the justice of protests against arbitrary or ill-considered Vatican actions. Indeed, he applied his critique regarding the nature of power not only to his fellow theologians but to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguing persuasively that the CDF is mistaken in its assumption that “issues of doctrine are so important that the complexities of transparency and due process pose risks to the true faith.”

Finn’s immediate concern, however, was what he considers to be the distorted public perception of the CTSA, and especially the spin given by the media and more conservative voices to the society’s efforts at theological engagement with the bishops and the church as a whole. Conservative, and especially younger theologians, Finn warned, have been alienated by what is assumed to be the society’s liberal agenda. Some of that suspicion, Finn suggested, was justified. “Our church is wracked by divisions caused in part by ideological simplicities-on all sides-that a professional society like ours can challenge and improve,” he said. “Our church and our world need a broader dialogue within the church than is occurring today. I judge that part of the price of achieving that dialogue is making fewer public statements that defend theologians against ecclesiastical power.”

Finn’s speech received a standing ovation from his fellow theologians, some of whom undoubtedly have been the object of Vatican scrutiny and the target of conservative criticism. In his weekly column “All Things Catholic” (June 14) in the National Catholic Reporter, John L. Allen Jr. praised Finn. He suggested that “Finn’s vision is itself remarkably prophetic, pointing beyond the cul-de-sac of interest-group struggles, and suggesting a willingness to rethink entrenched attitudes and patterns of behavior in order to realize an ecclesiology of communion.”

It will be interesting to see how bishops and conservative Catholic theologians and commentators respond to Finn’s overture. What Finn is proposing is similar to the vision of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative, an effort to engage liberal, moderate, and conservative Catholics in conversation, an effort resisted, and even condemned, by influential bishops and conservatives. What, some conservatives superciliously argue, do those who affirm Catholic teaching have to talk about with those who ignore or question it? A belief in the value of dialogue, after all, is considered by some to be symptomatic of what is wrong with so-called liberal Catholicism.

What dialogue will not obscure, of course, is that the differences among Catholics are not trivial. All the more important then, as Finn pointed out, to “meet for conversations not just with your allies but with your strongest opponents as well.” If there is to be any hope for an ecclesiology of communion, it is important that bishops, clergy, theologians, and the laity build personal relationships. The first step in building a relationship is to begin talking with one another, and the only hope for sustaining one is to continue talking.

June 28, 2007

Published in the 2007-07-13 issue: 
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