Testing the Boundaries

WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO THINK WITH THE CHURCH

Over the past few years, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., has been at the forefront of attempts by Catholic bishops to define the scope of Catholic theology in the United States. To his credit, he is keen to engage with younger theologians in Catholic colleges and universities. His most recent effort to explain the relationship between bishops and theologians (“The Noble Enterprise,” America, February 4) situates the theological task within the “New Evangelization.” In short, we are to “think and feel with the church (sentire cum Ecclesia).”

I could not agree more. But where the rubber meets the road—namely, in addressing the question What is the ecclesial task of the theologian?—Wuerl’s argument leaves at least this young theologian uninspired. His essay acknowledges that theology is not “simply catechesis,” yet its argument allows for very little by way of newness in theological research. “Authentic theology does not presume to generate new teachings,” Wuerl writes; rather, theologians must go “beyond” catechesis “in depth, in intensity, and in precision.” While this deepening describes one aspect of thinking with the church—and the work of many theologians—there also exists a strain of theological thinking that seeks to broaden the field of inquiry. And here Wuerl expresses concern. He exhorts us “to delve more profoundly” but to stay within the “boundaries;” he stresses “accountability” as a means of keeping theologians “responsible.”

In a previous statement, “Bishops as Teachers: A Resource for Bishops,” Wuerl used a sports analogy to explain the relationship between bishops and theologians, casting bishops as “referees” or “umpires” in a theological tennis match. The bishop, Wuerl wrote, has the duty “to make the call and to declare, if necessary, certain notions out of bounds, the bounds of Christian revelation.” His recent essay deploys a less playful metaphor to refine the same argument. To explain how one ought to be “responsible” in theology, Wuerl invokes the natural sciences, asserting that theology is “always tethered to the faith taught by the church, much as a natural scientist’s work is tethered to the facts of physical laws.” The “church’s teaching office,” whose “judgments are determinative of good theology,” discerns abiding truths for theologians, just as physical laws constitute the “foundational truths” that delimit scientific research.

Yet this is not really how science works; indeed, Wuerl’s peculiar analogy ultimately opposes the view of theology he means to defend. Scientists are not bounded by unchanging laws. Scientists themselves postulate these “laws,” such as the law of gravity or Newton’s laws of motion, through observation, hypothesis, and experimentation, and then actively test them—often in order to break them! In the twentieth century, it was precisely the breakdown of Newtonian laws of motion at the frontiers of observation—astrophysics and quantum physics—that caused the paradigm shift in scientific truth that we associate with Einstein, Heisenberg, and the rest. At the scale of the very big and the very small, our “laws” of nature turned out to be wrong—and openness to new truth on the part of scientists led to a vision of the cosmos far more beautiful and mystical than imagined before. Through this course correction, twentieth-century science took on a poetic and even theological voice. Quantum reality is articulated through metaphors of “cats” (Schrödinger’s) and “clouds” (of electron probability). The paradox of “spacetime” is “infinite but bounded.” A particle is a “wave” or, in the case of the Higgs boson, even compared to God.

Wuerl further wants the “autonomy” of theologians to be “bounded,” like that of scientists, “by the standards of the field and the boundaries of what constitutes spurious or fruitless investigation.” Here again he seems mistaken about how science proceeds. Science’s standards are: the challenging (and expanding) of received truths, peer review, the repeatability of experimental findings, and benefit to society. Correspondence to previously received knowledge is only one consideration.

Where Wuerl’s essays show a fondness for boundaries—theology is “bounded,” “tethered,” “cared for,” and “deposited”—the writings of Benedict XVI on theology, by contrast, are filled with verbs of exploration. In Benedict’s terms, to do theology means to walk a path; to search; to thirst; to suffer with the questions of contemporary men and women; to question oneself about the reasonableness of faith; and thus to develop strength for seeing the path (see “Discourse at the Conferral of the First ‘Ratzinger Prize’”). Benedict’s vision of theology is not only broad, but itinerant and expansive.

Along these lines, thinkers as different as C. S. Lewis and Serene Jones have argued that if theology—the erstwhile “Queen of the Sciences”—is in fact at all like a science, it is most akin to cartography. Many of the best Christian theologians have explored the frontiers of observation, wielding not a microscope but a compass, a translator, and a field journal. Consider examples from our past. The apostle Paul perceived, through years of exploration in the field, the ways God was working among the Gentiles, and accordingly changed his view on the received law of how God makes covenants with the peoples of the world. Athanasius searched both natural and scriptural revelation for the best image to capture the emerging orthodoxy about the Triune God in a new landscape, describing God as fountain-stream, the radiance of the sun, and even as the bond between the Roman emperor and his statues.

That last one would likely get him in trouble today for its unorthodox Christology. But sometimes the unexpected analogy is what helps one test boundaries, seeking out new ways to capture for new people the uncontainable essence of God. Centuries after Athanasius, Matteo Ricci, SJ, and other missionaries to China struggled to comprehend the structures of honor, status, and divinity in a foreign language and culture, in order to understand how God was working among them, and how the message of God’s Son might be theologized in a place without the same word or concept of “God.” In our own day, theologians such as Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, chart the “frontiers of faith and action” that are revealed when the church finds the Holy Spirit active in new and “strange situations.”

Some of these strange situations occur right in our own classrooms. Just about every day, theological educators must channel Paul at the Areopagus, tailoring our methods to an audience that has no idea what we are talking about (Acts 17). Following Paul’s lead, we meet our students where they are, in order, God willing, to bring some of them forward on a path (educere). In that process of theological education—not catechetical instruction (instruere)—we learn and change together.

Like most natural scientists, most theologians are not activists. Like scientists however, we test new hypotheses and encounter new data. Most of the time, change is incremental. But as in science, theological paradigm shifts do occur, even if the magisterium prefers not to acknowledge “substantive changes” in the teaching of the church. Some of these are so recent it hardly seems necessary to mention them: the teachings on religious liberty, for instance, or the status of the Jews in Catholic theology. These were preceded long ago by changed rules on the eligibility of women for the diaconate or whether clerical celibacy should be mandatory.

Astute observers note that God does do new things in the world, often to our surprise. One thinks of the shock of the early Christians at their first theological paradigm shift, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Gentiles—the Gentiles!—and did so even before they were baptized (Acts 10:44–48). Now that was out of bounds. Most were saying, “God makes covenants with Jews only—that’s the rules.” But Peter’s openness at the frontiers of observation showed his ability to think and feel with the church.

It is an episode I keep at the ready when I teach theology. You see, in my experience of American theologians, most of us already do think and feel with the church. And the church thinks and feels right back. Ever ancient, ever new.

Published in the 2013-04-12 issue: 
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Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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