In recent years, both the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have censured the writings of Catholic theologians, judging them to be not in conformity with authoritative church teaching. In a 2011 “statement” on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God (2007) and in a 2012 “notification” on Sr. Margaret Farley’s book Just Love (2006) the Committee on Doctrine and the CDF respectively concluded that theological positions advocated in those works deviate from church doctrine and do not reflect authentic Catholic theology.

The reasoning behind those judgments, and the fact that the bishops’ censure set the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the standard from which Johnson and Farley were alleged to have deviated, led many theologians to complain that the bishops were conflating theology with catechesis. Theology is exploratory by its nature, bringing the truth of revelation to bear on contemporary culture and considering new ways in which that truth can be conceptualized and expressed. Moreover, the doctrine of the church—what Catholics regard as its sacred tradition—can develop in unanticipated ways over time, and theological reflection has always been a crucial ingredient in that development, as theologians ask the church to consider how changes in Catholic belief, including dramatic ones, might stand in continuity with the age-old faith. If theologians are condemned for not being in conformity with the Catechism, how can they offer judgments about such developments? How, in this important regard, can they do theology at all? Bishops who reduce theology to catechesis, the complaining theologians assert, fail to grasp what theology is.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who presided over the Johnson case as then-chair of the USCCB doctrine committee, rejects this interpretation. In a September 2011 article in America, Wuerl insisted that “when bishops individually or collectively disagree with a specific theological position or methodology, it is not because they do not understand the task of theology.” On the contrary, Wuerl argued, the failure in understanding lies on the side of theologians who think that authentic Catholic theology can ever deviate from the teaching of the magisterium. Following the CDF’s censure of Farley, Richard Gaillardetz wrote in America (September 24, 2012) that theology properly includes a “critical exploratory function” that may “yield insights for a development or even a substantive change in the teaching [of the magisterium].” Wuerl responded in America in February 2013, asserting that only the hierarchy can guarantee “that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ,” and that “no one else can rightfully make that claim.” Theologians who think that their work can lead to substantive change in church teaching are misguided, Wuerl argued. “Such an approach to theology inevitably bestows on theological work the aura, at times even the explicit declaration, of a ‘parallel magisterium,’ one that has the competence not simply to deepen our understanding of the faith, but to graft onto it teachings extraneous to the deposit of faith that Jesus entrusted to the church as its steward.”

Here we see a fundamental disagreement about the nature of theology, its appropriate task, and how it is properly responsible to the church. Looking into this disagreement can help us understand better the tension between bishops and theologians that has prevailed since the Second Vatican Council—itself a paradigm of cooperation between bishops and theologians in the formulation of church teachings.

Wuerl’s response to Gaillardetz shifts the discussion in a revealing way. When Gaillardetz highlights theology’s occasionally creative role in the development of tradition, Wuerl responds by talking about the magisterial authority of bishops. He seems concerned that Gaillardetz’s position, which a large majority of Catholic theologians holds, challenges that authority, construing theological reflection as a “‘parallel magisterium’”—parallel, that is, to the authentic magisterium of bishops. In his view, the understanding of Catholic theology shared by many theologians usurps by its very nature the teaching authority of the hierarchy, since it assumes that theologians teach in the church, and to the church, with the same authority as bishops.

Let’s parse this neuralgic issue in hopes of clarifying the respective roles of bishops and theologians. We should begin by agreeing with Wuerl that the authority of bishops as teachers be duly recognized. It is simply a basic Catholic belief that the bishops, as successors of the apostles, possess a charism, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which ensures that their teaching truthfully hands down the deposit of faith. The bishops possess a unique authority that other believers, including theologians, cannot claim.

Amid the suspicion with which traditional authority is viewed today across all institutions, the effective exercise of episcopal authority in a hierarchical church is surely no easy task. Given such difficulties, one sympathizes with Wuerl’s concern that the authentic authority of the magisterium be recognized and respected. Yet in my thirty-five years as a theologian, I have never met a Catholic theologian who claimed or aspired to magisterial authority. My experience tells me that Wuerl’s concern about a parallel magisterium is unfounded. His concern springs, I believe, from his assumption that theologians should echo the teaching of their bishops in every respect. Such a belief runs counter to the understanding of a large majority of Catholic theologians—namely, that theological research offers the church new ways of imagining the continuity of tradition, and thus the deposit of faith.

Why do so many Catholic theologians hold this view? The answer lies partly in the fact that some teachings that bishops regard as the deposit of faith in a certain historical moment, like ours, may not be so judged in the faith of the church of the future. This possibility is more likely when large numbers of the faithful no longer believe in the long-standing teaching. Take, for example, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that eternal salvation is open to “those who without any fault do not know anything about Christ or his church, yet who search for God with a sincere heart” (Lumen Gentium, 16). This conciliar teaching, which issued from the work of such liberal theologians as Yves Congar and Karl Rahner, dramatically changed the earlier teaching of the Council of Florence (1438–45) that “all those who are outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41), unless they are joined to the Catholic Church before the end of their lives.” Another example of the church reconfiguring an abiding understanding of tradition lies in Vatican II’s teaching that the human person has a right to religious freedom. The council fathers insisted that this new doctrine, cultivated through the groundbreaking work of the theologian John Courtney Murray, SJ, was implicit in divine revelation and so truly reflected the age-old faith, even though it reversed the long-standing teaching on this matter—a teaching that had been viewed as part of the deposit of faith. The council fathers justified this new configuration by noting that the church “examines the sacred tradition and teaching of the church from which it continually draws new insights in harmony with the old” (Dignitatis Humanae, 1).

Theologians know that many church doctrines, even central ones, came to clarity in just this manner—through ardent theological reflection over time, and with the eventual approval of the bishops. They understand that what today is judged to be the deposit of faith, even as it is expressed in the Catechism, may not be in the future. At times, theological reflection engages the possibility of doctrinal development to assist the whole church, including the bishops, in considering the mystery of the ongoing guidance, action, and correction of the Holy Spirit over time. In this key task, theologians are teachers, too.

In his eloquent 2011 letter “Bishops as Teachers,” Wuerl praises the collaborative relationship between bishops and theologians, noting that “bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium.” Yet he again seems to reject the notion that theologians may legitimately propose new understandings of the apostolic tradition; indeed, his remarks suggest that the present-day understanding of the deposit of faith will endure forever in every detail.

Theologians, for their part, embrace the role of bishops as teachers and accept their authority as the official conservers of sacred tradition. But theologians also have a teaching responsibility, one shaped by their knowledge of how the tradition actually evolved over time—in part through the efforts of theologians. Most theologians believe that nearly all the doctrines that comprise the deposit of faith, as catalogued in the Catechism, will never change; indeed, the heart of that doctrine is expressed in the words of the Nicene Creed, which Catholics have professed at every Sabbath liturgy for centuries. Yet theologians, like many other believers, recognize that not every aspect of magisterial teaching remains unchanged over time. Some theologians view current condemnations of artificial contraception or same-sex relationships as prime examples of teachings that may develop in the future.

When theologians raise issues and offer proposals concerning such teachings, they are not declaring or exercising a rival, “parallel” magisterium. The resort to such charges reveals a high level of anxiety on the part of bishops about their own status—an anxiety that, quite frankly, damages the real authority bishops possess. Bishops enjoy that authority by virtue of their office, in which they are graciously assisted by the Holy Spirit. And yet, given the Catholic belief that our own will must cooperate with grace toward the attainment of the good, the authority of the magisterium must still be practiced well in order to be secured in the church. I suggest that such good practice requires of the magisterium a greater openness to the proposals that theologians offer.

I agree wholeheartedly with Cardinal Wuerl that bishops have an obligation to act on their special authority as teachers—and that doing so might entail, from time to time, the censure of a particular theological position. But when theologians make proposals regarding a church teaching that many believers find questionable, and that may currently be in a state of development, using the Catechism as the criterion of theological legitimacy is simply not helpful. In such a situation, judging a theological position as not in accordance with the Catechism merely tells us something we already know. Worse, as the bishops’ critics have said, such criticism conflates the roles of bishops and theologians, restricting theologians to reiterations of already-established expressions of the faith and barring them from exploring possible developments in doctrine. Had theologians throughout Catholic history refused to push beyond the received formulations, little would ever have changed in church teaching, and as a result we would not possess the extensive and rich body of doctrine that is one of the glories of the tradition.

It is important for all to understand that there can be no rival to the teaching authority of bishops. Yet it is just as important for bishops not to cast theology’s tentative efforts to reflect in new ways on the divine mystery and the Spirit’s presence to the People of God as a rivalry with the episcopacy. Perhaps we find here a dimension of the truth of Pope Francis’s recent observation that “we should not even think…that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.” To be sure, theology is not doctrine; but at crucial junctures throughout the church’s history it has contributed to the making of doctrine, in surprising and fruitful ways. Theologians are teachers in the church. Through their knowledge of the tradition they support the bishops in communicating Catholic truth, in all its beautiful variety, to the church and to the world. But they also exercise their responsibility as teachers by offering careful consideration of new construals of the faith that may, with time and the approval of the magisterium, eventually constitute the church’s faith. Throughout the church’s history such theological creativity has redounded to the church’s great benefit—and though it can seem confusing or even threatening, its capacity to assist the church in understanding its saving truth is a blessing.

John E. Thiel is professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. He is the author of Senses of Tradition: Development and Continuity in Catholic Faith (Oxford, 2000) and Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination (University of Notre Dame, 2013).

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Published in the May 16, 2014 issue: View Contents
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