No Academic Question

Should the CTSA Seek 'Conservative' Views?

The annual gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) took place last week in sunny San Diego, but there were storm clouds gathering around the meeting’s agenda (see here and here and here). As I continue to ponder Duke Professor Paul Griffiths’s plenary address to the society, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady persistently pops into my head—and not just because of Griffiths’s charming English accent. Harrison’s Dr. Henry Higgins famously asked, “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” In the end, I think Griffiths’s talk amounted to the question, “Why Can’t the CTSA be more like the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT)?” The answer to that question, I think, properly shapes the response to another, more pressing matter that arose at the CTSA this year: what can or should the organization do to be more welcoming to “conservative” theologians? To the extent that advanced theological education helps to shape the larger debates within American Catholicism, this is not merely an academic question. 

What would it mean, concretely, for the CTSA to be more like ACT? Griffiths suggested that the task had both positive and negative aspects. He argued that certain theological topics should be nurtured and supported by the CTSA but others actively “discouraged.” My worry here is that this narrowing of focus is actually inconsistent with the mission of CTSA, which seeks to encourage a more free-wheeling discussion then does ACT. In fact, if you look at their respective membership rosters, mission statements, and conference programs, it is clear that the two groups operate with different understandings not only of what theology is, but also of the purposes of their own meetings.

Over thirteen hundred scholars and teachers belong to the CTSA, which was founded in 1946. More than four hundred members normally attend the annual meetings, which include wide-ranging plenary addresses as well as more specialized sessions on disparate topics. Themes are generally broad, meant to spark discussion in a wide range of sub-disciplines, from moral theology to systematics to sacramental theology. For example, the 2014 theme was “Identity and Difference: Unity and Fragmentation.” In 2015 the theme will be “Sensus Fidelium” (.pdf). Most significantly, the CTSA’s official mission is capacious: “Our purpose, within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition, is to promote studies and research in theology, to relate theological science to current problems, and to foster a more effective theological education, by providing a forum for an exchange of views among theologians and with scholars in other disciplines.” Despite the claims of some, there is no ideological test for membership: anyone can join who possesses the appropriate academic qualifications, normally a doctorate in theology or related studies.

In contrast, ACT is a much smaller and narrowly focused organization. Founded in 2007, it has about a hundred members. ACT conferences tend to take up very specific themes, such as “Catholic Thought in the Wake of the Enlightenment” (2013); “Faith Theologically and Philosophically Considered” (2011); and “Blessed is She Who Believed: The Role of Mary in Catholic Faith” (2008). Membership is closely regulated; prospective members are nominated for election by current members, who vote (in a closed ballot) at the annual meeting. The tight control over membership reflects the mission of the organization: “The Academy of Catholic Theology’s principal purpose is to foster theological work of the highest intellectual standard that is faithful in the Spirit to the Revelation of God in Christ, as that Revelation has been handed on in Scripture and Tradition, and authoritatively interpreted by the Magisterium.” While the larger Catholic tradition in fact provides a nuanced account of magisterial authority, and endorses certain forms of theological critique, the members of ACT seem to place a high value on avoiding any sort of conflict with the magisterium.

A special evening session in San Diego was devoted to theological diversity at the CTSA—and specifically to the question of what the CTSA could do to make conservatives, many of whom belong to ACT, feel welcome. As the foregoing comparison of mission and culture reveals, the question is really this: what should a group that has a broader and more free-wheeling account of its purpose do to accommodate others who have a more focused, and arguably narrower view of the task at hand?

My own view is this: The CTSA should be open, positively, to considering topics, questions, and positions that “conservatives” believe have been neglected. More discussion is good—of Mariology, of traditional devotions, of metaphysics, of obsequium to the magisterium. Yet the CTSA must not acquiesce to negative pressure to narrow its discussions and deliberations to fit the parameters of ACT. To do so would be to abandon its own mission. This is especially important when it comes to how the CTSA is governed. The society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Theological Diversity noted that some “conservatives” have complained that they aren’t elected to officer and board positions in the CTSA. But an official leadership position is not simply an honorific; it triggers a fiduciary duty to fulfill the basic mission of the organization. So the question to be asked of all candidates for CTSA offices is whether they are committed to that mission. I would not vote for anyone—“liberal” or “conservative”—who disdained the broad forum to which the CTSA is institutionally committed.

Griffiths’s critique of the CTSA raised another question for me. Why, actually, do “conservatives” want greater participation in the CTSA, given the fundamental nature of their disagreement with its goals? Griffiths sketched a view of the nature and purpose of theology that is sharply divergent from that held by many in the CTSA. If the disagreement about first principles between CTSA and ACT is as fundamental as Griffiths suggests, why isn’t the best course of action for each group to wish each other well in the pursuit of different paths, the values of which will eventually be known by their fruitfulness?

On the other hand, many distinguished members of the CTSA leadership are deeply committed to broadening participation by conservatives. For some, it is a question of ecclesiology: they believe it is somehow not “Catholic” to have various groups pursuing theological inquiry independently of one another. They believe we all need to stay together. My view is somewhat different. I want the CTSA to accommodate as wide as possible a range of theological opinion. All members should be treated with respect. No one’s views should be ridiculed. At the same time, I do not think it is a breach of ecclesial communion if one group decides it can do better work within a more narrowly defined theological context. Leaving the CTSA isn’t leaving the church. An academic conference is not the Body of Christ, after all. And within the church, there has always been ample room for different groups to pursue their calling in parallel, inconsistent, and sometimes contesting ways. Jesuits aren’t Franciscans, who in turn definitely aren’t Benedictines. If the members of ACT think they can do better work in a less pluralistic academic setting, God bless them. CTSA members can and will read their work, and find other settings in which to engage them. What the CTSA should not do is compromise its distinctive mission of fostering a more open conversation between the Catholic theological tradition broadly construed and other areas of human learning. It would indeed be a sad irony if the CTSA acquiesced to pressure to constrict its conversations about neuralgic topics in the name of promoting inclusiveness.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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A great article and a subject that raises a larger issue. If the CTSA and ACT want to function as idependent organizations with different agenda's and mission goals that make theologians with different opinions feel unwelcomed, then both organizations will function not to solidify but will further the theological divide over the many issues that plague the Chruch today.

A similiar issue arises when you consider the goals and practices of many Catholic Theological Journals. It is almost impossible to get a revisionist-leaning essay published in a traditionalist-leaning journal. Sometimes 'Theological Studies' will publish an article that is in accordance with magisterium teachings and a also publish a reply essay that disputes it. However, the 'Josephiuum' will hardly ever publish scholarly work that might cause a rethinking of a teaching. Far too many journals fear the CDF and stiffle the diversity of theological work.

I wonder just how the Roman Curia and bishops get informed about new theological scholarship that might cause a rethinking about certain teachings. Each bishop has a theologian, but I question how much sensorship is taking place. It would be interesting to know what kind of information will be circulated to the bishops as part of the 2014-2015 Synod on the Family. 

Germain Grisez gave a most enlightening essay in 1988 called "How To Deal with Theological Dissent" in Readings in Moral Theology No. 6: Dissent in the Church, Edited by Charles Curran and Richard A. McCormick. He was trying to bridge the theological divide. In essence, he suggested a process where the pope and bishops in a Synod would first listen together to both sides of the theological debate consisting of two groups of theologians representing divergent views on the important issues facing the Church. Then, the pope and bishops would dismiss them so that they could engage in their own reflections, organize their questions, objections and to compel the theologians in annother session to clarify and defend their views.  After an appropriate time, if no consensus among the bishops began to emerge, the pope could convene a plenary sesson, present his own tentative judgment and reasons for it, and lead all the Synod Fathers together in the work of reaching one judgment in discerning the truth. This is by not means the whole of Grisez's suggestions, but I hope you get the point. 

What we need is more solidarity, not more division, more respect, not more inappropriate crticisim, and more inclusion, not more exclusion. 






I think it is important to recognize that it isn't as if the only two choices are between the prevailing ideology and ethos of the ACT and that of the CTSA. Many would love to have the kinds of academic exchanges which (currently) take place at neither conference. (Indeed, the prevailing ideology and ethos at each seems to preclude them.) This is why it is so important to get beyond the liberal/conservative binary when thinking about these matters and focus on the broad range of diverse of theological approaches within our guild. ACT is not currently set up as the kind of conference to do has more narrow aims. But with a commitment to theological diversity the CTSA is set up to be that conference where previously homeless academic conversations can take place.

By the way, Griffith's address is now available online:

Me thinks that it is likely the ACT which is the more open minded of the two groups.


I like this very much:


<blockquote>The CTSA should be open, positively, to considering topics, questions, and positions that “conservatives” believe have been neglected. More discussion is good—of Mariology, of traditional devotions, of metaphysics, of obsequium to the magisterium. Yet the CTSA must not acquiesce to negative pressure to narrow its discussions and deliberations to fit the parameters of ACT.</blockquote>


Not being a U.S. professional theologian, but having read Grittith's adress, I'm not sure that I fully agree with your concern:

<blockquote>Griffiths sketched a view of the nature and purpose of theology that is sharply divergent from that held by many in the CTSA</blockquote>

I do disgree with some of Griffith's formulations but, as an outsider looking in, it seems to me that his broad argument ought to be pretty much consistent with any theological society using the name Catholic.


God Bless

If there are theoretical and historical differences between the assumptions of the two groups, why not debate them at the two conventions?

Cathleen Keveny, I admire your patience and politeness. The best theologians can do is answer serenely and thoroughly the self-proclaimed conservatives, pointing out the very nature of theological hermeneutics. The conservatives are unlikely to listen, being imprisoned in a barren rationalism, and being partial to manipulative and bullying techniques (sorry, I cannot be so patient). But the written record will show clearly what the theological landscape was. 

Griffiths begins with a naive etymological account of "theology" as meaning "discourse about God". In the early Church "theology" was indeed used in this sense to refer to a small part of what we call "theology" today -- in the distinction between discourse on God in his eternity and discourse on God in this revelation and salvific economy, which was not called theology. Augustine refers to "theology" when talking of philosophers, referring to natural theology. I do not recall meeting the word "theology" in his theological masterpiece De Trinitate. St Thomas prefers to call theology "sacra doctrina" presumably to distinguish it from the abstract consideration of God in philosophy. Thomas's theology proceeds sub ratione Dei, but that is not necessarily the only possible candidate for governing horizon of theological thought. Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth, Liberation Theology each propose concrete biblically-derived horizons for the theological hermeneutical task, as does interreligious theology today.

Griffiths thinks expertise in theology is easy to acquire -- about as easy as acquiring expertise on Sicilian grapes. But the study of Sicilian grapes does not require knowledge of three thousand years of thought, expressed in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German, to mention only the mandatory languages. Nor does it raise the fiendishly complex and subtle hermeneutical questions that this long history secretes.

Even if one limited theology to the study of God, the issues are far more complex than Griffiths, with his talk of God as "the only actual member of the class of the gods", wants to admit. Negative theology is only one subset of the complications of God-language (not to mention the quagmire of trinitarian language).

Griffiths talks of "creatio ex nihilo" as if it were a simple concept to be bandied around in dialogue with Hinduism. All of this suggests a blithe disregard for hermeneutics and the texture of history.

By the way, "the LORD" is not the correct transcription of the translation of "Adonai" in English Bibles. The "ord" part should be in lower capitals.



Of course theology must accept the gift of divine revelation and the clarifications and safeguards that the christian tradition has built up around it. But in seeing the "discovery" of this basis in terms of assembling the fact in a legal brief, Griffiths falls into the cut-and-dried rationalism of the old Denzinger theology. He brings in interpretation at a second stage, whereas the work of interpretation is intensely afoot from the start. To say "I believe in God" is already to have done a lot of interpretation. The instances of interpretation that he offers, in reference to Lateran V, Benedict XII, the condemnation of apokatastasis in Constantinople in 543-553, suggest a limitation of the interpretative task to the sort of issues that can be handled by mere logic or legal thinking, whereas the wide reach of Christian truth is somehow cut off from any hermeneutical thought, immobilized as it were.

Like many analytical philosophers, Griffiths would seem to reduce the task of theological thought to the posing of teasers and the search for speculative solutions to them. Those really versed in the discipline of theology would say that what Griffiths is talking about is not theology at all, but a scientistic caricature of it that had some success in post-Scotist scholasticism but has been gently put aside by Vatican II.

"theology's speculative aspect is its most interesting and intellectually exciting"


Theologians have gone all the way with Thomas and Scotus, Hegel and Schelling, and have come out at the other end, chastened and wiser (except for the Germans such as Pannenberg and Moltmann who seem to remain stuck in the tunnel).

But I suspect that what is meant by speculation here is the jejune reasonings of analytical philosophers of religion, proving by logic the compatibility of omniscience and freedom or some other such dead duck. In addition, the resurrection of dog-flesh is the sort of luxury issue by which he thinks to renew the speculative tradition (whereas reflecting on macro-economics has nothing to do with theology!). He thinks to understand and "place" Islam by speculation -- what about the vast process of interreligious dialogue?

Theologians who have no speculative aspect would be dumped by these criteria -- e.g. Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, Schillebeeckx, etc. 

Theologians in this picture are obsessed with defined doctrines and with the defining authorities. But what if doctrine is secondary to revelation, a mere auxiliary to the interplay between revelation and the horizons of the contemporary world? The huge emphasis on defining is a noetic distortion that runs athwart living theological thought.


He scoffs at the idea that justice and peace are theology's primary task and is amazingly confident that his own speculative puzzles are what theology is all about. Oddly the Bible pays no attention whatever to such speculative teasers -- and immense attention to peace and justice.




His jejune and very poorly reflected notions of the functions of theology (has he even read Lonergan, not to mind Rahner?) and then invoked to lambast the CTSA for its support of Roger Haight and Margaret Farley, whose heterodoxy he takes for granted. Clearly he is caught up in a rather nightmarish culture war scenario.

The frightening thing is that conservatives who know nothing of theology, and who basically dislike and distrust all theology except that which they imagine they find in a distant past, are very likely to sell themselves to worried bishops as pillars of the faith. Benedict XVI fell again and again for coteries of zealots (as exposed in Berger, Der heilige Schein), overlooking their myopia in view of their claimed orthodoxy.

It is interesting that über-confident analytical philosophers who talk down to theologians often themselves plunge blithely into extreme heterodoxy, as in Richard Swinburne's defense of tritheism. I would not think Griffiths' set of cut-and-dried defined doctrines is any sure protection against heresy, which could creep in under the guise of his licensed speculations. Marcionism that cuts the gospel off from the Israelite prophetic message of justice and peace is a likely candidate.

So some of the boys built a tree house and put a sign on it saying, "No Girls Alowwed (sic)." Then they all went down to the park, where everyone can play, and played there. Question: Why did they build their tree house?

I know why they built the tree house.  I just don't know why they want to play in the park, so to speak.


I thought they built the tree house because the girls could run faster and hit the ball better. But it doesn't do them any good if they come down and let the girls prove they are better all over again.

As one of the writers on the report on Theological Diversity let me simply say that I admire Cathleen's honesty. She wants an ideologically monolethic society, albeit she allows that one should not be rude about it. This is a tried and true CTSA attitude that goes back at least to 1977 when the Society began issuing reports over and against the objections of its conservative minority. In time, most conservatives were forced out and began to found their own societies. Cathleen may be content with this and I suspect that is an attitude widely shared. That said, the purpose of the report was not to force the CTSA to become the ACT; besides being impossible, it is not necessary. Rather the goal is a more 'catholic' CTSA, more in keeping with its original mission to be a forum for theological exchange. If the CTSA would like to remain little more than a liberal in-group, to be it, but the purpose of the report was to suggest it might be more than that and, by doing that, better serve the Church.

Professor Keating:  I wrote this above:  

My own view is this: The CTSA should be open, positively, to considering topics, questions, and positions that “conservatives” believe have been neglected. More discussion is good—of Mariology, of traditional devotions, of metaphysics, of obsequium to the magisterium. Yet the CTSA must not acquiesce to negative pressure to narrow its discussions and deliberations to fit the parameters of ACT.

Coud you please do me the courtesy of telling me 1) why this is ideologically monolithic and 2) what, precisely you object to about it? 

Are you trying to paint me as an "old style" Vatican II theologian?  I was not in the CTSA in 1977. I was listening to the Partridge Family in Cumberland, RI. Or quite possibly Abba.


Professor Keating,

Your assert "She (Cathleen Kaveny) wants an ideologically monolethic society, albeit she allows that one should not be rude about it."

I did not read in Cathleen's article anything remotely resembling such an accusation. 

The term you chose to describe the CTSA, namely a "liberal in-group" is inappropriately divisive as describing the ACT as a "conservative apologist in-group". This type of name-caling does not move the conversation forward toward a better understanding of truth or more theological diverity to better serve the Church. As I mentioned (first blog comment of this article), we need more inclusion, not exclusion, more solidarity, not more division, and more respectful dialogue, not more divisive and inappropriate criticism.

I may be mistaken, but Cathleen's remarks were far from your characterizations.



Any group that attaches the word "Catholic" to its name can be accused of being ideologically monolithic, as indeed can any group that attaches the word "theological". 

One feature of mainsteam orthodox Catholicism in the spirit of Vatican II, however, is that it does not speak of Protestantism as an alien entity to be disparaged. Not only biblical studies, but also theology are disciplines that at to a very large extent beyond confessional differences. The commonalities of Christian faith and theological procedure create a very broad basis of shared understanding.

All theological societies should aim to embrace fully the widest ecumenical horizon. This imperative will be dismissed as ideological by those who want a more rigid and self-conscious Catholic "identity". But the more one thinks ecumenically the more the unwholesome character of that clinging comes to light.

The Catholic Theology Society of Britain invited a right-wing blogger to address them a few years ago (at the prompting of a young conservative member of the society). The expected culture war rant was delivered and printed with the proceedings in New Blackfriars, but some members felt they had been insulted by the promotion of such subtheological voices. 

The CTSA, in inviting Griffiths, show they are open to all stripes of opinion, as long as they are expressed by theologically competent voices. In the process of debate, the unecumenical thinkers will find the weak points in their position exposed and relativized.  Then they may either claime that they are "forced out" and begin "to found their own societies," or they may continue to sustain full-fledged theological debate, let the chips fall where they will. 




Before this thread disappears, I would like to express my deepest misgiving about Paul Griffiths' intervention. 

It is this: Griffiths, like Paul Williams, another convert from Buddhology to conservative Catholicism, should be urging the CTSA to enter into a deep dialogue with Buddhism, as the condition of real progress in theology. Unfortunately he is doing the exact opposite, urging continued obsession with questions that suffer from a radical pastness. He reminds me of the terrible lurch whereby Friedrich Schlegel, after publishing the epoch-making Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder in 1808, then turned his back on the Oriental Renaissance and became caught up in the Catholic Restoration instead. Griffiths seems to have become caught up in the recent, failed Restoration of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, instead of taking his place alongside Christian-Buddhist thinkers such as Perry Schmidt-Leukel and John P. Keenan. The harvest is great, the laborers few. 

Another Paul, Paul Hacker, who began as a Catholic critic of Luther's alleged subjectivism (prefaced by Ratzinger) took the opposite course, becoming famous for his work on Indian philosophy. Mehr Licht!

When the ACT invites Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ or Reverend Richard McBrien to join them, then I'll agree with you.

My remark is in response to Brian's remark above abut the ACT being the more open-minded of the two groups.


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