How Catholic Is the CTSA?

Did the most recent convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America reveal a "wasteland"? Did the major addresses constitute a challenge to well-established Catholic beliefs regarding the priesthood and Eucharist? Must Catholic theologians and church authorities make a "drastic choice" between upholding the society as a legitimate venue for Catholic theology or condemning and possibly replacing it as no longer true to authentic Catholic tradition?

My answers to those questions are no, yes, and no.

I attended the CTSA’s convention last June. I went as a reporter for the New York Times, as a friend of CTSA members of widely differing views, as a nontheologian who depends on theologians, not the least of them Avery Dulles, for intellectual insight and spiritual nourishment. I also went as an American Catholic more than a little worried about the future of the church.

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 society’s 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 convention’s papers and comments were unmistakably pastoral. At the Sunday-morning table discussions of the major addresses on the Eucharist, one theologian’s questions arose from her efforts at catechizing young people; another’s from her experience with Central European Eastern-rite Catholic immigrants; and so on.

At the same time, three of the convention’s four major addresses, taken cumulatively, set a direction that Father Dulles is right to flag, even at the risk of courting the inevitable denunciations.

Unfortunately, Dulles’s citations do not serve his critique well. Some are unfair. Others ignore the speaker’s nuanced formulations or considerable argumentation. Still others read tone and meanings into these statements that I neither recall nor find in the text. I have heard any number of bishops, for example, declare that apparently many parishioners do not distinguish between rituals performed by the ordained and the nonordained. What is shocking about a theologian reporting the same reality?

Nonetheless, Dulles is not imagining that all three addresses moved in a similar direction, a direction away from positions taken from Trent through Vatican II and toward positions much more congenial to the Reformers and in general to their liberal and low-church descendants. Although the major speakers diverged on details, the overall thrust could best be captured by the image of diffusion. Priesthood is diffused into the assembly’s leaders, ordained or not, and into the whole assembly. Real presence is diffused into intentional reception of the sacrament and even into spiritual communion. The words of institution and moment of consecration are diffused into other parts of the liturgy and then into the ritual as a whole. The "official" liturgy is diffused into its local, popular instantiations. Traditional methods of theological reflection on texts are diffused into "critical theory of ritual process."

One after another established category and distinction melts away, and what replaces them is fluid, vague, in a word, diffuse. So what is wrong? Aren’t established categories and distinctions known to freeze, narrow, deaden? Isn’t a gathering of theological scholars exactly the place where disquieting but plausible ideas can be explored?

What was disconcerting was not the exploration of radical possibilities, but the exploration of only those skewed in this one direction. An unacknowledged grid, it seemed to me, worked to determine which "audacious" ideas were to be entertained and which were ignored. At bottom, that grid had to do with the issue of women’s ordination and the limitation of priestly leadership to (celibate) men.

This was the tail that wagged the whole meeting. Amend that statement: women’s exclusion from the priesthood is too important an issue to be called a "tail." And yet it does have a stranglehold on the theological guild that excludes other, similarly weighty issues.

This imbalance in the major addresses was reinforced by their strange Pollyannishness, their inexplicable lack of irony, self-doubt, or tragic sense. For all the talk of new theological data, of studying concrete, local ritual process, and the experience of "the baptized in the nave," precious little of it actually appeared. There was no registering the various kinds of data, from opinion polls to dress and body language, suggesting that not all the news from "the nave" about eucharistic belief and piety is good—and that at least some negative side effects can be attributed to an understanding of Eucharist that is already much more diffuse than twenty-five years ago.

Take the fairly obvious fact that such increasingly diffuse understandings of Eucharist are more compatible with the world view of naturalistic science—and therefore may be attractive not because they challenge oppressive social hierarchies but because they minimize cultural dissonance and ease social assimilation. One would expect that some speaker might have at least adverted to this possibility.

Surely the most brilliant of these addresses was Gary Macy’s virtuoso excursion into medieval eucharistic theology, a paper well-calculated to destabilize conventional Catholic assumptions about ordination, real presence, and the relationships among transubstantiation, reception, eucharistic devotion, and spiritual communion. Macy argued that the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries witnessed a "clericalization of the West" in which the ordained consolidated power over the Eucharist but only as the laity asserted a counter control over popular devotions, including access to the Eucharist redefined as spiritual communion. A similar "renegotiation of ritual power" is going on today, he surmised, with an eradication of the lines between ordained and nonordained that have existed since the mid-thirteenth century.

All very stimulating and maybe even true. As a nonexpert I worry that Macy’s paper might be as much a fanciful tissue as, say, John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, but that will have to be demonstrated by something beyond Dulles’s dismissive reference to "a certain display of historical erudition."

I simply note that this formidable erudition was accompanied by unalloyed approval. Macy mentioned no dark side to anything preceding or following the medieval division of ritual labor, only that the poor were well cared for in England, and his enthusiasm for the current "renegotiation of ritual power" was unqualified. Although he cannot "quite imagine the shape that new form of Catholicism is taking," he knows that it is "a new and wonderfully exciting church."

"For the first time in seven hundred years, something really new and wonderful is stirring," he said—a remarkably ahistorical claim for a historian—"and I, for one, am thrilled."

If, like Dulles, I am not so thrilled, I cannot think of a response less apt to be fruitful than the ’drastic choices’ Dulles contemplates. Another wedge driven between church authorities and theologians will be mutually destructive. And if the vote of 216–22 in a secret ballot on the Task Force report is any measure, there is not a large constituency for yet another competing scholarly group.

The CTSA can forestall that by assuring that its programs are not restricted in their concerns and ideology, that respondents do more than praise papers while adding boilerplate admonitions to pay more attention to the poor or other cultures, and that scholars be expected to relate their work to the established tradition with no less attention than they expend on the latest wave of scholarship.

Church authorities, for their part, need to surrender their lingering illusion that the production and consumption of theology by Catholics can be institutionally controlled as they once were, by oaths, Indexes, excommunications, imprimaturs, academic purges, fear of hell, or some variants of the same. Sorry. Authority will have to engage theology in a new way.

Church authorities must also recognize the high cost, the endless hemorrhaging of credibility, that stems from excluding women not just from the priesthood but, despite apologies and excuses, from all the higher echelons of church office, which remain tied to priesthood. I sincerely hope that Dulles has sounded a warning on this point to the quarters where he enjoys a hearing as vigorous as the one he has raised about the CTSA.



Read more:  How Catholic is the CTSA? By Avery Dulles, SJ
A response by Mary Ann Donovan, SC
Readers respond: Letters, April 24, 1998

Published in the 1998-03-27 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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