Theology and Other Catholic Sports

Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at the CTSA (the full text is now available here) has raised many productive questions. Meghan Clark has responded that theology is messier than Griffiths suggests. Cathy Kaveny just posted a thoughtful comment indicating that the main issue is the CTSA as more “open” and “free-wheeling” than the ACT.

These analyses are on to something, and I would love to engage them in more detail, but I fear that it becomes easy to fall into a dualism—the inclusive liberals over here, the exclusive conservatives over there—that misses the central points of Griffiths’ talk. It is not primarily about tidiness versus messiness, nor about open discussion versus more narrow inquiry. It is an attempt to define more carefully what the enterprise of theology actually is, and thus delineate in more detail why there is contention over it.

Griffiths’ primary contention in the address is that many members of the CTSA do not have an adequate understanding of what Catholic theology is. He is not saying that their work is not intellectually able, and even “beautiful” (a word he uses)…the question he poses is whether it is Catholic theology. Hence, his primary metaphor of arguments between proponents of cricket and proponents of baseball—or the problems with inviting cricket teams to take part in the World Series. It’s not meant to be a point about cricket being worse than baseball…or better. The point is: cricket is one game, baseball is another. The implication: CTSA has people playing cricket and calling it baseball. Doing one thing (which is not theology), but calling it theology.

That the CTSA is playing a different sport is based on three further claims. The first is that any intellectual enterprise is “interesting” and productive in its intellectual engagements insofar as disagreements happen in the context of considerable shared agreements, both about the nature of the enterprise and about its findings. The second is that Catholic theology in particular is a science that necessarily acknowledges the authority of scripture and ecclesial magisterium as the shared foundation for its further “interpretations” and “speculations.” The task of “discovery” means that there is intellectual work to be done in discerning what the authority actually says…but this is not a task of critique, except insofar as authority appears contradictory. (So, for example, at this year’s ACT, a particular German Cardinal was the subject of quite significant critique!) The third claim is that Catholic theology in the absence of such decisive authority and shared agreement becomes “uninteresting” and even lacking in genuinely productive disagreements…because it really becomes a “labelling dispute” that can only be sorted out by (arbitrary) power and sanction. It is no longer primarily about intellect, but about boundary control. (The claim that such theology is “uninteresting” should be understood in this sense, I think. He means it becomes intellectually uninteresting, because it can no longer be an intellectual discourse open to critique and clarification. It is an exercise in exhortation and power.)

I would then distinguish two ways of responding to Griffiths. First, one could ask whether his claims about Catholic theology are correct. Second, in light of those claims, one could ask whether his descriptions of the CTSA and its members are correct. It is important to separate these two types of responses. One could accept the intellectual construction of the practice of Catholic theology that Griffiths offers, but question his belief that the CTSA is not engaged in this practice.

Griffiths uses the CTSA mission statement as indicative of what CTSA is about—a fair thing to do, but in practice, I am unsure that the mission statement makes much day-to-day difference in theological work. I would instead look at the actual meetings of the Society, which, I think, makes answering the latter question very complicated. It is complicated first by the fact that there are many, many different members of CTSA, with different training, in different eras. It is also complicated by something that Griffiths seems completely right about: a lack of precision, brought on to some extent by a tendency to depart from the role of theologian in favor of other roles—for example, the role of pastor, the role of political prophet, or even the role of a self-interested professional association protecting its turf. Let me be clear: none of these are necessarily bad roles. But they becomes jumbled together in ways that make the task of theological engagement and disagreement more difficult to identify clearly. If nothing else, Griffiths performs a service to the CTSA by encouraging the Society to gain greater clarity about what “game” it is playing.

These complications make it more difficult to know whether Griffiths is right about the specifically theological (in his definition) work done at the Society. Do papers rely on Scripture and tradition? Do they engage in interpretative disputes about what such and such belief might mean? Do theologians believe they are doing work in service of Christ and of the mission of Christ’s Church?

It would not take long to find out that, yes, nearly all the work done at the society in some way could be characterized along Griffiths’s lines as “Catholic theology.” Whether one agrees or disagrees with the conclusions of Elizabeth Johnson or Margaret Farley, it would be difficult to claim that they are not engaging the tradition, doing skilled interpretation, and insistent in their conviction that they are serving the good of the Church.

So is Griffiths just plain wrong? Has he constructed a caricature? Not so fast. In his talk, he has an interesting comparison. He says:

A mujerista theologian might take as authoritative for her theological enterprise only the voices and experiences of Latinas, and thus not see or actively deny the need for doctrinal discovery of the kind I’ve sketched. A Thomist of the strict observance might think all that’s necessary for doing theology is analysis and interpretation of what Thomas wrote. Each can recognize, with enough attention and care, what the other is doing; and each may think of what they are doing as properly and fully Catholic theology. (I doubt that either is.) But disagreements about whether and why what each does, theologically speaking, is to be called "Catholic" are likely to remain sterile and to be resolvedbe resolved, if ever they are,...by stipulation backed, where possible, by sanction.

Here Griffiths is at his most “interesting”—his sly critique of “Thomists of the strict observance” suggest that so-called theological conservatives can also be guilty of inadequate understandings of theology. (Presumably his criticism would extend to those who lack an appreciation for the complexity of both the tasks of discovery and of interpretation, as if Church teaching is simply “available” to anyone who reads the Catechism. I can say that the members of ACT by and large are not “Catechism conservatives” in this way, but spend considerable time and effort engaging and contesting the complexities of the theological tradition on particular questions.) Of course, such descriptions are likely to draw denials from those charged. Nevertheless, they can hit close to home. It is worth pressing them to understand how Griffiths’s critique does apply to the CTSA.

First, his example makes clear that a key contested point is the role of experience as an authority in theological discourse. I would narrow this and state it even more precisely: the contested point is whether experience is used in ways that trump established authoritative teaching. No one disputes the role of experience in helping us understand Catholic theology. Further, few dispute the role that ecclesial authority has legitimately played in stamping out heterodox appeals to experiences, e.g., based on private mystical visions. Rather, the dispute seems to be over considered, prayerful “discovery” from one’s experience and context that this or that Church teaching is inadequate. The classical scriptural appeal made here is to Peter’s acceptance of the Holy Spirit being given to the Gentiles.

This leads to the second issue: Insofar as theologians becomes spokespersons, with some stature, for an individual’s or a group’s spiritual experiences, are they continuing to do theology, or has their role shifted into a kind of political/ecclesial advocacy? It is difficult but necessary to distinguish these two roles. Difficult, because following Christ is not centrally about doing theology! It is about loving God and neighbor, most especially those suffering and in need. So if those advocating for others’ experiences are doing so as a consequence of their faith, it is tempting to commend them. The criticism here is not of the form “don’t do that,” but rather of the form “don’t call that theology.” Suddenly we are playing cricket, not baseball. The necessity of distinguishing these roles is important because of Griffiths’ claim that the CTSA need more serious contestation and disagreement. Once theology veers into advocacy—whether liberal or conservative—the task of contestation and disagreement is made much harder. Thus, a key implication of this discussion is to distinguish the various roles—or "sports"—of pastoral leadership, political advocacy, and theological inquiry. They are not to be arranged on a better-worse continuum. They are evidently related in living out the Christian life. Yet they are different activities with different rules and ends.

The third issue here is intertwined: While the above points have been expressed in abstractions (“experience” or “church teaching”), the reality is that almost always these questions are about specifically defined issues. They do not call into question the entire Nicene Creed or the very existence of a hierarchical teaching authority. (Clearly, some people make these claims, but they are not at CTSA!) Rather, on a specific question, there is a claim that experience calls into question what appears to be magisterial Church teaching.

So, a simple example: How is the question of the ordination of women treated? At its best, it is treated as a key doctrinal question, in light of other doctrinal understandings about Christology, anthropology, as well as the interpretation of scriptural revelation. At its worst, it becomes a clearly politicized us-versus-them argument, which is “really” about patriarchal authority blithely running roughshod over the living experience of the Holy Spirit in the lives of women of faith. (Notice: as is nearly always the case, the move from theology to politicization can be made in the conservative direction, too—where it’s really about “saving the Church” from “radical feminism.”) When it is a politicized conversation about experiences and power blocs in the Catholic academic establishment, it’s not really an open, free-wheeling debate. It’s really a kind of muted brawl, a fight. But when it is a careful conversation about the tradition and developing ideas, disagreements can happen, and interpretations can improve.

Which mode is operative at the CTSA? I think the answer is: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. Griffiths’s address encourages the Society first and foremost to try to distinguish the one activity from the other. However, he might also suggest that the theological task of “discovery” on this question would indicate that magisterial authority has already established a position, and so to depart from this position is, in effect, no longer to be playing baseball but instead cricket.

Is he right? One might pause and peruse Griffiths’ recent, very positive review of Richard Rodriguez’s book in First Things. Rodriguez, it might be noted, is not a Catholic theologian, nor does he present himself as such. But that he is a Catholic thinker Griffiths acknowledges effusively. Anyone worried that Griffiths is suggesting a narrow approach to the theological enterprise should consider this review. I would instead call it an approach that is careful and candid.

David Cloutier is an associate professor of theology at the Catholic University of America and the author of Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith.

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