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Theological Progress: An Analogy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Mar 01, 2005

The revocation of Fr. Roger Haight’s right to teach theology by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in February was greeted with a public statement of dismay by the Catholic Theological Society of America. This dismay is so out of touch with reality that it reminds me of someone who believes the forward progress of an automobile is caused by constantly changing the scenery.

My Car is Making Funny Noises

Speaking of autombiles, the first sign of a major breakdown is often a strange sound emanating from the engine compartment. The CDF’s announcement, approved by the Pope and published in the February 7-8 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, identifies a high-pitched whine in Fr. Haight’s work occasioned by deviations from the Catholic Faith concerning the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Person of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Trinity, the salvific role of the Church, and the nature of Truth itself. The errors in question are as serious as they are numerous, and as numerous as they are obvious.

They are also old, indicating a long-standing problem. Essentially, Fr. Haight insists that we cannot know precise information about God, that Revelation is therefore fundamentally symbolic, and that this symbolism must be reinterpreted in every age, particularly in our post-modern culture, which does not relate well to previous expressions of the Christian Faith. In other words, Fr. Haight is making exactly the same assertions that Modernists have made for the last 150 years, assertions taken for granted by all the various forms of religious accommodationism throughout the history of the Church, and in fact the same assertions which have dominated the Western theological community at least since the modern crisis of Faith struck the academy in the 1960’s.

Revving the Engine

One wonders whether academic theologians are a particularly tortured breed doomed to constantly reinvent Christianity in the vain hope of making it palatable to the natural man, or if like the rest of us they are simply tempted to win the approval of the surrounding culture by obscuring the demands of Faith. In either case, the forward progress of mainstream academic theology over the past generation has been virtually non-existent. The engine has been revving well enough, but the vehicle has stayed firmly in one place. This is what makes the expressed dismay of the Catholic Theological Society so strange.

As if to prove the point, the CTSA Board of Directors sniffed that peer review is the method by which theological theories should be tested and filtered. They acclaimed Fr. Haight’s constant openness to review and gracious acceptance of criticism, in contrast to the peevish unfairness of CDF procedures. They fear the CDF’s unwarranted intrusion into the conversation will stifle further criticism and undermine the ability of Catholic theologians to critique their colleagues in order to advance the theological enterprise. Finally, they resent the CDF’s presumption in moving beyond theological criticism to a “negative judgment upon a theologian’s personal integrity and responsibility” by revoking Fr. Haight’s right to teach.

But these are the same unsettling sounds we have heard every time we’ve listened to the engine for a generation or more. The erroneous theologian is always kind and gracious; the Church is always unfair and authoritarian. The theological profession is always self-correcting and progressive; Church authority is always personally hostile and repressive. Every time the Church has censured a theologian, the same script has been used for the academic response. The engine roars, but the car doesn’t move.

Transmission Problem

Modern Catholic theologians, including Fr. Haight, have largely forgotten the fundamental fact that their craft’s dependence on objective Revelation is so complete as to have no meaning without it. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is unique in claiming direct, public Revelation from God to man, and the whole point of Revelation is to make up for the obvious fact that man cannot figure God out on his own. All man can do on his own is express his vague intimations of immortality through figures and symbols. In other words, all man can do on his own is what Fr. Haight has done in the work questioned by the Vatican, Jesus Symbol of God (1999).

Just as passengers in a car have it backwards when they think progress toward a destination is achieved by moving the scenery, so too are Fr. Haight and the CTSA gravely mistaken in their belief that they can make theological progress by rearranging Revelation. To the contrary, only when the fixed nature of Revelation is taken seriously can an intelligible examination of the Faith take place. Moreover, it is the Church’s Magisterium which infallibly provides the needed connection between the mind and this fixed supernatural scenery. The Magisterium thus performs a role analogous to the transmission in a car. Unless it is engaged, the wheels don’t turn.

Now, consider that Fr. Haight is saying exactly what dissident theologians were saying when I was a boy a half-century ago. Consider that the academic/journalistic establishment is still so backward that his book won the Catholic Press Association’s award for the year’s best book on theology in 2000. Consider that the book contradicts teachings of the Church on several key matters which were definitively settled in the fourth century (nearly 1700 years ago!). And consider that the CTSA is now rebuking the Church for nastily interrupting the all-important progress of the ongoing discussion. Diagnosis: The transmission has been disconnected for a long, long time.

The Church as Mechanic

In our time it may fairly be said that the Church is very good about making the latest manuals available but reluctant to pick up the wrench and the air gun. Still, in this case she has rolled up her sleeves, gotten her hands dirty, and reconnected the theogicial engine with the landscape of Revelation by reinserting the Magisterium. If the accelerator is now depressed and the engine speed increased, the theological vehicle will actually move. The Faith will be explained, elucidated and, well, transmitted.

This must be terrifying to men and women who have long enjoyed the comforts of the SUV without understanding the purpose of wheels. We must urge them to be calm and to keep the gears engaged. Yes, motion sickness can cause dismay. But it is not the scenery that is supposed to move.

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