How Catholic Is the CTSA?

A Response to Avery Dulles

Father Avery Dulles has leveled extremely grave charges at the Catholic Theological Society of America. I regret that he was not in attendance at the convention he censures so heavily. If he had been present he could have perceived how mistaken are the terms he uses to establish attitudes: for example, one speaker "sarcastically" declared, the priest who spoke "meekly" was "sharply" reminded, the chorus was "orchestrated." Neither the meetings nor the text of the Proceedings justifies his division of the participants into the sincere and the sneering. Many of us who have admired Avery Dulles can only ask what could have led this eminent theologian to adopt so hostile an attitude toward the CTSA and to offer so misleading an interpretation of its 1997 convention.

His first charge, that "the convention put itself on record as collectively opposing the irrevocable character of the teaching that the church has no authority to ordain women," misreads the resolution adopted by the society. Its text is: " (1) There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and its grounds in Tradition. (2) There is serious, widespread disagreement on this question not only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the church. (3) Once again, it seems clear, therefore, that further study, discussion, and prayer regarding this question by all the members of the church in accord with their particular gifts and vocations are necessary if the church is to be guided by the Spirit in remaining faithful to the authentic Tradition of the church in our day."

Sentences 1 and 2 do not "collectively oppose" anything. They simply state two facts: there are serious doubts about what kind of authority this doctrine has and these doubts exist among theologians and others throughout the church. Consequently, states sentence 3, the members of the church should give this matter further study, discussion, and prayer. The resolution endorsed by the CTSA states two facts and a consequence that is reasonably drawn from them. I strongly disagree with anyone who chooses to interpret the approval of this resolution as an act of dissent. This resolution was not asserted against the magisterium; it was submitted to the episcopal conferences of the United States and Canada. Theologians are expected to make difficulties clear to the magisterium. Doing so is part of their work.

Father Dulles has accused the speakers at the 1997 convention of rejecting "fundamental articles of Catholic belief regarding priesthood and Eucharist." Presumably he bases this charge on the various places in the Proceedings to which he then refers. The following comparison between what Dulles has written and what the speakers at the convention actually said, will, I believe, suffice to show that he has not offered a fair and objective presentation of what was said.

Dulles: "One speaker lamented what he described as the ’ideological misuse’ of the imagery of Christ as Bridegroom and the importance of the maleness of Christ."

What was said: "Taking a useful metaphor like Bridegroom from the tradition and raising it to a principle of theology is dangerous business, for it fails to respect the genre in which the metaphor has been proposed and runs the risk of ideological misuse."

Dulles: "The idea that the priest-celebrant acts in persona Christi was repeatedly assailed."

What was said: In fact none of the speakers "assailed the idea." Dulles seems to have found an example of this in the passage to which he then refers:

Dulles: "The debate ’about in whose persona the priest acts in the Eucharist,’ one speaker sarcastically declared, is of interest ’primarily as a disputational exercise, yielding occasional experiences of theological "Gotcha."’"

What was said: Whether this was said "sarcastically" is for those who were at the convention to judge. That the speaker was not "assailing the idea that the priest-celebrant acts in persona Christi" is clear from her next sentence, which gives her reasons for judging that dispute to be of minor importance: "Why? The premise of the debate is that the priest is the sole effective human subject of liturgical action, and that premise itself is no longer tenable."

Dulles: "Speaker after speaker rose to proclaim that the Eucharist is accomplished not by the priest-celebrant but by the whole assembly."

What was said: None of the speakers said that the Eucharist is not accomplished by the priest-celebrant. Rather, they rightly insisted that the Eucharist is offered by the whole assembly, and not only by the priest-celebrant.

Dulles: "It is clearly established, according to one, that the baptized, rather than the ordained, are the ’effective human subjects of the church’s liturgy.’"

What was said: "Sacrosanctum concilium ( par. 14) had mandated, "In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, the full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered above all else....’ In this statement, the baptized are clearly identified as the effective human subjects of the church’s liturgy."

It is obvious that neither "all the people" nor "the baptized" excludes the ordained. There is no justification for Dulles inserting the phrase "rather than the ordained," as in another place he inserts the phrase "or her" where it is absent from the text.

Dulles: "No special importance is ascribed to the words of institution, recited by the celebrant. Sacramental theology, we are informed, ’needs to question the very notion of a consecratory formula.’"

What was said: "As I hope to argue in the third part of this essay...a sacramental theology from below, as well as a sacramental theology that depends upon a close reading of the rites and their history, needs to question the very notion of a consecratory formula."

The speaker devotes seven pages to detailed argument. Historical analysis leads him to write that what is needed, rather than the scholastic emphasis on the moment of consecration, is emphasis on the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit so central to Eastern theology. So he concludes: "Thus Eastern theology has been on surer ground in pointing to the epiclesis as a moment of consecration, although limiting the notion of consecration to one moment is not necessary given my theory about the entire shape and content of the eucharistic action."

Dulles: "The speakers at this convention did not shy away from advocating the celebration of the Eucharist without an ordained priest."

What was said: The simple fact is that none of the three convention speakers advocated the celebration of the Eucharist without an ordained priest. What they did advocate is the full realization and implementation of the truth that the Eucharist is celebrated by the whole gathered people of God, and not by the priest alone.

It is not possible in the space allowed to respond to each one of Dulles’s accusations. I am convinced that anyone who reads the Proceedings and compares Dulles’s critique with what was actually said, will agree that there is no real justification for his accusing the convention speakers of mounting "a series of attacks on Catholic doctrine" or of rejecting "fundamental articles of Catholic belief regarding priesthood and Eucharist."

Much of the historical work presented by speakers is dismissed by Dulles’s judgment: "These views were set forth with a certain display of historical erudition, as though doctrines could be invalidated by tagging them chronologically." He does not address the work seriously on its own terms and interprets the purpose of historical exposition as invalidating doctrines. One must then ask what is the theological significance of earlier practices, teachings, or beliefs? Critical history leads to the interpretation of doctrinal developments in a contextualized fashion. It is true that the vocabulary of "priesthood" began to be taken seriously in its application to Christian leadership in the third century. To affirm this is not to attack the priesthood. It is true that in his own day Thomas Aquinas and his teaching on transubstantiation were not given great weight. To affirm this is not to deny real presence. The first evidence currently available to link ordination and consecration in official church teaching is in 1215; in ending this section the speaker says "much more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be reached...." Here we have an area clearly identified as needing study. To adduce historical evidence for earlier stages of doctrinal development is not to attack doctrine. If Dulles holds this to be the case, he must establish it.

According to Dulles, the CTSA wishes to set itself up as a "kind of alternative magisterium." I can assure him that this is not its intention. The CTSA simply wishes to perform the service proper to members of the Catholic theological community. As the history of Vatican II shows, work of Catholic theologians which at first might seem to some to be incompatible with official doctrine, can, on further study, come to be seen as soundly based on the church’s authentic tradition. The theology of the Eucharist is an area where sound scholarship, based on serious research, is reaching a consensus that post-tridentine Catholic doctrine is too narrowly focused on the words of consecration pronounced by the priest. A more authentic tradition emphasizes the entire eucharistic liturgy as celebrated by the whole gathered people of God. To present and explain this growing consensus, in scholarly papers presented at a theological convention, is the proper work of the Catholic theologian. It does not involve any claim to be an alternative magisterium.

If there are fault lines in U.S. Catholicism they are the fruit of a spirit of antagonism inappropriate to the community of disciples. Incorrect and misleading interpretations of the kind Dulles has given can only augment suspicions and divisions in the church. Why does disagreement among Catholics have to deteriorate into charges of heresy? We ought rather put into practice the "presupposition" with which Saint Ignatius began his Spiritual Exercises: "It should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it."



Read more:  How Catholic is the CTSA? By Avery Dulles, SJ
A response by Peter Steinfels
Readers respond: Letters, April 24, 1998

Published in the 1998-03-27 issue: 

Mary Ann Donovan, SC, is a past president of the CTSA and professor of historical theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.

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