A Second Opinion

A Response to Christopher Ruddy

Only by using the word in its most Pickwickian sense would I ever call myself a "young" theologian. Indeed, I belong, at least chronologically, to that post-fifty generation—so effectively dissected by Christopher Ruddy in his article "Young Theologians"—whose mental clocks, in his amusing image, seem to have stopped dead in 1968 with the encyclical Humanae vitae.

Yet despite my age, I found myself agreeing with most of what he wrote. Certainly much of his experience matches my own. I recall the time early in my postdoctoral career when I published an article in America on Cardinal Newman. In my naiveté I had assumed that publication in a magazine with such a large circulation (relatively speaking) would be greeted with a congratulatory nod by my colleagues. Although at the time I was only a visiting professor in a nontenure track at a secular university, I can still remember the shock when my chairman—a man genuinely committed to promoting my best interests—told me such work actually counts against promotion.

An even greater shock came when I was later told the same thing about translations. Once again, I had always assumed that a theologian’s first obligation is to hand on the Great Tradition of the church and only secondarily to try to speak in propria persona. Since I was working at the time on an introductory book on Hans Urs von Balthasar, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to translate two of his books. No, I was told: although certainly not a blot on my copybook, translations would only count in my favor provided they did not cut into the appropriate number of books and refereed articles.

I recently had to review a book by a theologian whose stances on various issues evinced a genuine pastoral sensitivity; unfortunately, his book was couched in such plodding, sawdust prose and larded with, on average, more than two hundred endnotes per chapter that I wonder if the book will ever be read by more than a hundred people. Because of Ruddy’s courageous manifesto, we now know the reason why.

But at the risk of having Ruddy relegate me once more to the old folks’ bench in Theology Park, I would also like to register a demurral or two. First, is it really necessary to the well-being and healthy functioning of a theologian to be affirmed by the local ordinary in the quasi-therapeutic way that the author recommends? If the state of theology—its capitulation to the norms of secular academia, its footnote-mongering, its professional isolation—is as bad as Ruddy claims, then why would a bishop want to plead for scraps of wisdom from the theologian’s table?

Second, I wonder whether the author of this generally well-observed essay has noticed that his own dissertation topic smacks of the old saw about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Of course, Ruddy has a right to follow his interests, and I certainly wish him well in his new career. But do we really need another in-house hassle over papal primacy versus episcopal collegiality?

Yes, in the wider scheme of things, the issue is a real one. But even granting the legitimacy of the topic (however low it may rank in the hierarchy of truths), was Ruddy really allowed full scope to argue the issue at Notre Dame’s theology department? He makes it clear that his own position roughly resembles that of Archbishop John Quinn. What if some more contrary student had wished to argue that the example of the current pope would indicate the plausible need for a strong papal primacy?

What remains ultimately worrisome is the way theological liberalism has congealed into an ideology, an ideology that will brook no opposition to the party line. A good example is the recent silencing by the Holy Cross Fathers of Father James Tunstead Burtchaell, who has been told by his order that he may no longer speak out in support of his latest book, The Dying of the Light, a devastating account of how Christian universities across the board have capitulated to secularism. When the nation’s most articulate defender of Ex corde ecclesiae is silenced, Catholics can at least be amused at this extra fillip of irony: that liberal academics in Catholic universities and their sponsoring religious orders are resorting to the very tactics that have made Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin the heroes of theological liberalism!

I have also been struck by how willing liberal theologians have become to engage in personal attack. Attacks on the good name of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the pages of some organs of right-wing Catholicism during the days of his tribulation facing down false accusations of sexual abuse rightly met with near-universal condemnation; but innuendos by liberals against conservatives go unnoticed. This might be due partly to the fact that most personal attacks from liberals take place in tribal settings or otherwise away from the public eye, such as in phone conversations and confidential letters of recommendation. But I can still remember the published letter from a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) accusing a critic of the CTSA of committing a mortal sin (!) for the effrontery of criticizing most members of the CTSA for their left-wing bias, neglect of the Great Tradition, and ignorance of ancient languages.

It is a sign of how shrill and personal such attacks have become when one realizes that both the critic of the CTSA and the letter writer attacking him are members of the same theology department. I wish Ruddy well, but I fear he has a long row to hoe.


Related: Theologians: Young and Older, by Stephen Pope
The Author Replies, by Christopher Ruddy
Something New, by the Editors

Published in the 2000-06-02 issue: 

Edward T. Oakes, SJ, is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

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