Vision Quest

Younger theologians find themselves at a cultural distance from their older colleagues. The key difference seems to be that the older theologians are generally priests or members of a religious order, while their juniors are much more likely to be married laypeople. Even the exceptions to this trend exhibit the sensibilities of their age groups, as older lay theologians take for granted the “Catholic culture” of their ordained and religious peers, while younger ordained and religious theologians join their more numerous lay colleagues in a search for formation in a fragmented society.

A group of younger moral theologians interested in the need for formation hold summer meetings at Notre Dame to discuss the vocation of the theologian and the status of moral theology in the academy. In New Wine, New Wineskins, eight of these scholars propose a new approach to their field that highlights the importance of virtue and holiness as fundamental to moral theology. Such an approach, they argue, rejects the “left-right” battles over the role of proportionalist moral reasoning, by which the morality of an act is determined in part by the context in which it occurs. Animating this group’s work is their embrace of the vocation of teaching theology through a variety of scholarly avenues. What difference, they ask, can the notion of the theologian as believer make for doing moral theology?

Christopher Steck’s essay calls for moral theologians to embrace the need for formation, and suggests cultivating the devotional practices that nourished generations of Catholics. He proposes a “discipleship casuistry,” in which the theologian’s quest for virtue and knowledge is guided by the rightly formed desires of Christian discipleship. With a similar sensibility, William Mattison’s chapter examines the relationship between teacher and student in a reflection on the nature and power of rhetoric. He presents the marks of the Christian orator in a manner that would serve well as an examination of conscience for the teaching scholar.

Christopher Vogt and Margaret Pfeil focus on the relationships between bishops and theologians, especially the distance between the two now that most theologians are laypeople, not clerics. Vogt laments the lack of connection between his work as a theologian and the wider ecclesial community. As a first step toward bridging the gap, Vogt suggests that bishops make some provision for lay theologians to serve as homilists. Almost as a sober rejoinder, however, Margaret Pfeil gives a clear-eyed description of the current tension between bishops and theologians. I am not quite sold on her somewhat one-sided call for theologians to understand their vocation as “transparent mediation” of church teaching. But perhaps an intermediate step featuring a more dialogical relationship between bishop and theologian would allow for Pfeil’s generous vision to unfold with integrity. Of course, setting the stage for such a dialogue would require that theologians and bishops develop basic mutual respect. Theologians, for their part, might try to imagine committing themselves to doing two or three dozen confirmation evenings every year (and posing for photos with every single eighth-grader afterward)-just for starters.

The contrasts implied by the premise of this collection can be overdrawn. “Church” is often treated somewhat nostalgically as a rich culture of Catholic tradition and practice, and “world” is often reduced to consumerism, individualism, and the mores of MTV. Perhaps this facile contrast simply reflects the fact that these theologians spend most of their time teaching undergraduates with unlimited Internet access. The New Wineskins scholars show a similar tendency to dismiss the secular academy as hostile to their vision of integrity and holiness. They would do well to spend more time in the faculty dining room, allowing their position as academics on strong liberal-arts faculties to shape their understanding of the vocation they wish to claim. Perhaps if they had more conversations with their peers in sociology, chemistry, and the arts, they would find some long-term value in the lived “culture of professionalism” they decry in the abstract. They might find that the relationship between research and teaching-as that between scholarship and holiness-doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game. Such encounters might reveal that at least some of the older “transitional” generation (one’s immediate predecessors are always the most despised) are rethinking earlier positions, too, and would welcome their younger colleagues’ interpretations of the ongoing interface between church and world. Indeed, a deep immersion in both church and world has always been the delight of the theologian, whether right or left, old or young.

Given the collection’s general dismissal of earlier “isms,” I wasn’t surprised to see feminist thought simply dismissed, yet I was puzzled to find that gender questions were not addressed at all, given the importance of gender for many issues in moral theology. Perhaps this entire question is another thing these scholars have “moved beyond,” but if so, the argument for their shift ought to be offered. It’s hard to imagine the whole gender thing never came up during all those summer barbecues at Notre Dame. Can it be mere coincidence, for example, that all the essays in this volume happen to favor using female pronouns for humans while retaining male pronouns for God?

Indeed, this practice takes on added resonance in Darlene Fozard Weaver’s essay on our relationship with God and our own self-understanding. A fine example of the project and of the entire collection, Weaver’s essay successfully bridges the generation gap among moral theologians by bringing the theological insights of earlier theories about the fundamental option for the poor into constructive dialogue with John Paul II’s reservations about proportionalist moral reasoning. Nevertheless, in an essay so deeply conversant with the thought of John Paul II, Weaver’s almost exclusive use of “her” to refer to the human person cries out for some explanation. Does Weaver intend to evoke John Paul II’s well-known claim that women as women have a special capacity for intimacy, for “the other”-and that in this capacity women image what it means to be human more fully than men? If not, some clarification would have been helpful. And if so, of course, the essay should take stock of the profound ramifications of such an interpretation.

In his role as “elder theologian,” Bill Porter, a middle-aged academic, raises a glass to the younger generation in a genial foreword. Cloutier and Mattison follow with an invigorating, trenchant introduction. This new vintage is superb, worthy of its fresh skins and deserving of a wide sampling. But it’s a Beaujolais Nouveau, so do drink it now.

Published in the 2007-03-09 issue: 
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Nancy A. Dallavalle is associate professor of Religious Studies and vice president for Mission and Identity at Fairfield University.

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