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...
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).