Family Traits, Family Feuds

The International Theological Commission (ITC) was established by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Its members (up to thirty) are appointed for renewable five-year terms. They typically meet annually for a week. The ITC’s purpose is to advise the magisterium, especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

In 2004, a subcommittee was established to write the current volume. When the committee’s term expired before this work was completed, a subsequent committee was appointed in 2009. They completed the work in 2011. Only one layperson belonged to both groups. One American (Sara Butler, MSBT) served on the second group. All the rest of the members of both commissions were ordained or vowed religious. All were teaching or had previously taught in institutions dedicated primarily to the training of ordinands.

The document is clearly the work of ecclesiastical theologians. Cardinal William Levada, then head of the CDF, authorized its publication late in 2011. Although ITC documents are written for the benefit of the whole church, they are not official teaching. Rather, they indicate the thinking being developed in Rome. ITC documents can and often do foreshadow future developments in magisterial teaching. For example, the 1997 ITC document “Christianity and the World Religions” paved the way for the 2000 CDF statement Dominus Iesus.

The present document has 163 footnotes. All of the references are to premodern theologians, magisterial documents, and ITC statements—save for one quotation from each of four more modern theologians: Johan Adam Möhler, John Henry Newman, Yves Congar, and Henri de Lubac. The document seeks to break no new ground, citing no theological work written after the Second Vatican Council. Although the document nods to the postmodern condition, it stands well away from any contemporary debates in theology.

The document seeks to “identify distinctive family traits of Catholic theology” (the English follows the Italian more closely than it does the French “à identifier les traits communs qui distinguent la théologie catholique”). It develops twelve criteria. Catholic theology recognizes the primacy of the Word of God in creation, Scriptures, and Jesus Christ; takes the faith of the church as its source, context, and norm; has a rational, scientific dimension (“faith seeking understanding”); draws constantly on the canonical witness of Scripture; is faithful to the Apostolic Tradition; attends to the sensus fidelium; responsibly adheres to the magisterium in its various gradations; is practiced prayerfully, professionally, and charitably with all the Catholic theologians; is in constant dialogue with the world, helping the church read the signs of the times; should give a rationally argued presentation of the truths of the Christian faith; integrates a plurality of enquiries and methods in a unified project of understanding the faith; and, finally, seeks delight in the wisdom of God that is foolishness to the world.

Depending on how one interprets these criteria, they are quite reasonable, even capacious. But they also remain at a high level of abstraction.

Some points the document makes should be applauded. It recognizes that magisterial pronouncements and definitions do not all possess the same authority. It underlines that there are a variety of methods, fields, and approaches to theological work. While wisely recognizing that the academic study of religion has much to contribute to theology, the ITC rightly notes that theologians must resist a postivistic methodology now all too influential in the academy. Theology Today also acknowledges that the findings of theologians may at times be in tension with, and critical of, current magisterial teaching.

Nonetheless, the ITC asserts that “dissent” has no place in theology. “Bishops and theologians have distinct callings, and must respect one another’s particular competence, lest the magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the church’s pastors.” This recognition of the variety of magisterial pronouncements and the variety of theological endeavors is welcome.

Yet two assumptions weaken the document. First, it tends to see the church and the theologians who serve it as different from the world with which the church is in dialogue. But the boundary between the church and the world is not an external one. It cuts right through the theologians’ minds and hearts. Both professionally and personally, theologians live in the world. In the contemporary academy, we are unavoidably influenced by colleagues outside our discipline. We are also shaped and reshaped by the cultures in which we live.

Second, the ITC sees theology as an exclusively ecclesial discipline. Insofar as theology is done in seminaries devoted exclusively to training people for lay and ordained ministry, such an assumption may apply. Yet in the United States, and in much of the world, this is simply not the case. The vast majority of Catholic theologians in the United States are laypeople, not ordained or vowed religious. Most American theologians work in colleges and universities, teach far more undergraduates than ministry students, and are subject more to the standards of secular academia than to those of seminaries or self-governing theological faculties.

The American theologian David Tracy is rightly revered for reminding us that theologians address three audiences: the church, the academy, and the world. I would go further: Catholic theologians live out their vocations in all three contexts. Moreover, we are judged according to the standards of the academy and the world—by university rank and tenure committees, by business professors, engineers, and physicists—not just in the ecclesial context. And we are not merely people who describe the world; we are also obliged, in many and varied ways, to work to change it.

The main problem with the ITC statement is that it neglects the multiple and various intellectual and personal responsibilities of theologians—not only in the United States, but throughout the academic world. Of course, Catholic theology should be guided by the standards enumerated by the ITC, but the task of theology must be broader still. For example, because the document is so “in house,” it neglects the challenges to Christian faith that are the subject of fundamental theology. This important area of theological work deals with challenges to the faith, such as the reasonableness of believing in God, especially in the face of profound religious diversity and the reality of massive evils. These are essential questions for those living in a rather secularized society. 

Moreover, the document is too sanguine. What happens when the sensus fidelium conflicts with the magisterium? The classic case is the non-reception of the prohibition of “artificial” contraception articulated in Humanae vitae (1968).

In the period before the Second Vatican Council (and after it), Catholics had been taught an act-oriented moral theology. The morality of an act is given by the nature of the act, the actor’s intention, and the circumstances in which the act is performed. Catholics had been taught that barrier methods of contraception—such as the use of condoms—were immoral because they interfered with the very nature of the act of intercourse. Imposing a barrier between the male and the female thwarted the true purpose of the act. With the invention of the Pill, a “non-barrier” method of fertility control became available. After careful study, many Catholic spouses became convinced the Pill could be used to limit and space births because it did not entail the use of a barrier. The commission set up by Paul VI to examine the question agreed, yet the pope was influenced to reject the findings of the commission’s majority report. He reiterated the church’s opposition to any form of “artificial” contraception. Many theologians felt morally compelled to dissent from that finding. The theologians who “dissented” listened to the sensus fidelium. They heard the objections of faithful people whose consciences had been formed by the act-oriented moral theology they were taught. There was no “barrier” to the act. To a great extent, theologians followed the lead of the faithful; they did not provoke dissent in the pews. Admittedly, the willingness of some theologians to speak out inevitably legitimated non-reception of Humanae vitae for many. 

Today there are profound tensions between the sensus fidelium and the magisterium on a number of issues. There is growing opposition to the opacity of church government and the privileges and duties claimed by the clerical caste. The ongoing episcopal attack on the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act seems wildly uninformed by classic moral theology (the mandate seems to require, at most, remote material cooperation with “evil,” cooperation that seems morally licit by traditional Catholic standards). Younger Catholics tend not to oppose legalizing same-sex marriage. Given these realities, what are theologians to do? The ITC document has no recommendations that I can find. The document’s theological stance, for all its capaciousness, blithely states fidelity to the “Apostolic Tradition” as a criterion for Catholic theology, when just how to be faithful to the past in the present is precisely what is being disputed.

The harmonious ideals of Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria are laudable. But the real world of Catholic theology, and Catholic life, remains far more dissonant.

Published in the 2013-06-01 issue: 

Terrence W. Tilley is the Avery Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology at Fordham University.

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