Theologians in the Dock

It was a memorable sermon, lacking any clear outline or notable linkage to the Scripture readings. It was a diatribe on the ills of modern Catholicism. The major culprits in this priest’s analysis were "so-called Catholic theologians." Since I have spent the last thirty-seven years working as a Catholic theologian, his phrase remains vivid in my memory. Would I ever speak in the classroom or conversation of "so-called Catholic priests" or " so-called Catholic bishops"? No, I would not.

The phrase came back to mind as I recently reviewed the 1999 vote of the U.S. Catholic bishops (223–31) to impose a set of norms that would require those teaching theology to secure a mandate (mandatum) from the local bishop. That vote contravened almost directly their 1997 vote (224–6) not to impose the mandate, a vote which the Vatican subsequently rejected.

As I read over the press clippings in my file, I wondered what dark notion readers might harbor about Catholic theologians. What did they think when the archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua—who played a key role in getting the 1999 norms approved—so strongly emphasized that theologians on Catholic campuses must not present their own variant opinions as authentic Catholic teaching (Philadelphia Daily News, November 18, 1999)? Is that what folks think Catholic theologians really do? Is that what the cardinal wants parents, who send their sons and daughters to Catholic colleges and universities, to understand? Do they think that their children’s teachers really are "so-called Catholic theologians"? Cardinal Bevilacqua’s presumption seems to be that 230 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities are populated largely by a species of Catholic theologians who are charlatans. Instead of engaging students with the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church, theologians bamboozle them with their "variant opinions," which, liars that they are, they persuade their students to accept as official Catholic teaching. If the situation conjured up by the remarks of the cardinal were true, it would indeed be a problem.

It is regrettable that the cardinal was not called upon to cite concrete and specific examples of such a problem and to document its scope. Were he able to demonstrate the case, he would presumably not have been opposed on the mandate by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, the representative body of all but a handful of the 230 schools. He would not have had the opposition of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He would not have had Archbishop Rembert Weakland call the norms a "pastoral disaster" that would foster vigilantism on Catholic campuses.

In fact, Cardinal Bevilacqua could not have documented such a problem because it does not exist. In thirty-seven years of teaching at Villanova University, and in extensive contact with many other Catholic campuses during my term as president of the College Theology Society, I have found nothing that would square with the problem that his words imply.

What I have found are Catholic theologians who present the authentic teaching of the Roman Catholic church fully and unambiguously, and this by virtue of their own sense of academic professionalism rather than any imposition of authority external to their college or university. Their academic responsibility, however, also requires a competent description of the areas of discussion and dialogue around such teaching. This is offered with humility and with the openness to reason that characterizes the Roman Catholic tradition at its best. They proceed, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas, with a sense that "Whatever is of truth is of the Holy Spirit." Their conviction is that expressed by Pope Leo XIII when he opened the Vatican archives to scholars in 1883, that the church has nothing to fear from truth. "Truth," said Leo, "in spite of the persevering efforts against it will break through and triumph; it may be obscured for a moment, but never extinguished."

There is much more to be said about the new norms, especially about delicate church-state issues and federal funding questions that were too easily dismissed by Cardinal Bevilacqua. On this point alone, a question for him would have been: "Are you confident enough of your position to offer to bail out financially these 230 institutions if you are proved wrong?" The bishops would never play financial roulette with their own institutions as they do with institutions of Catholic higher education.

However unintended it may have been, Catholic theologians have been smeared. That is wrong and un-Christian. Students who attend Catholic colleges and universities will not meet "so-called Catholic theologians"; they will meet theology professors of integrity, competence, and seriousness whose work is vital to the distinctive Catholic identity of these schools.

As implementation of the mandatum begins, probably in June, theologians find themselves in an awkward position. Already the vigilantism that Archbishop Rembert Weakland predicted is taking shape with a premature Web site, which lists the names of some two thousand Catholic theologians in the United States and notes whether or not they have applied for a mandatum (see Commonweal, March 23 [Editors’ note: At the moment, the content of the site has been withdrawn]). A further unfortunate development is the decision of some bishops to simply send the mandatum to every theologian in the diocese, increasing the pressure on them to "sign up," rather than apply for a mandatum. Vigilantism, which can take many forms, and the aggressive marketing of bishops put pressure on theologians that will be difficult for some to resist. Moreover, these tactics raise questions about the voluntary nature of applying for a mandatum.

Many theologians will conclude that this process, which began by smearing them and thus creating a "problem" whose solution is the mandatum, and which is now being sold to them under pressure of further smearing, is just plain wrong. With the president of Marquette University, Robert A. Wild, S.J., they are likely to conclude that, "given the fact that most theologians across the country already teach in the way the bishops desire, the mandatum requirement seems to be using a sledgehammer to kill a flea." Theologians may well feel that getting on with the important tasks of preserving and strengthening Catholic identity will not be helped by the use of sledgehammers. When they decline or ignore the proffered mandatum, remember that they are reflecting the wisdom mirrored in Catholic higher education in recent times, as well as in the bishops’ overwhelming 1997 vote not to impose a mandatum.

Published in the 2001-05-04 issue: 

Rodger Van Allen is professor of theology and religion at Villanova University. He is the author of The Commonweal and American Catholicism (Fortress, 1974) and Being Catholic: Commonweal from the Seventies to the Nineties (Loyola University Press, 1993).

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