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The Irrelevance of the CTSA

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 03, 2007

For years, the Catholic Theological Society of America has been a preserve of modernist and semi-modernist theologians who spend much of their time reinterpreting, rather than illuminating and deepening, the teachings of the Church. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had already commented in First Things way back in 1997 that “The CTSA as an organization has—its claims to the contrary notwithstanding—withdrawn from the community of ecclesial reflection devoted to ever more clearly expressing and transmitting the Catholic Faith.” (August/September)

Not to put too fine a point on it, Neuhaus was making the case that the CTSA has rendered itself irrelevant as a Catholic professional society. Now, in his farewell address on June 10th, outgoing CTSA president Daniel Finn has admitted as much. Finn’s address was purportedly devoted to establishing the need for a theology of “power” so that it becomes possible for all members of the Church to understand the dynamics of the exercise of power, and the impact of that exercise on others. One focus of Finn’s concern was the mandatum, or authorization to teach, which the bishops are supposed to be issuing to or withholding from theologians based on their suitability as authentic expositors of the Faith.

But the real purpose of Finn’s address was clearly to admit that the CTSA has an enormous problem. Noting that most CTSA statements have been critical of the Church and the Magisterium, Finn argued that it is a poor exercise of power to repeatedly issue statements which, despite their rectitude, have unfortunate consequences. Carefully emphasizing that it is all a “misunderstanding” derived from a failure to “read our statements carefully” or from snap judgments by bishops who may be advised by “conservative” theologians, Finn emphasized that the issuance of these statements has led to unfortunate consequences—but, again, “not because they were erroneous.”

Among the unfortunate consequences, Finn singles out two. First, the CTSA has suffered from a misunderstanding “of the notion of credibility, which according to the dictionary is not a matter of the strength of one’s arguments but of their capacity to elicit belief.” In other words, the CTSA is always right, but nobody else perceives the CTSA as right, and therein lies a failure of an important sort of power. Second, says Finn, there has been a membership cost: “There are a lot of conservative theologians who used to attend the CTSA convention who no longer do,” diminishing the power of the group as a whole.

Put another way, Finn now agrees with Neuhaus that the CTSA has made itself irrelevant. They only disagree about where to place the blame. For Neuhaus, the CTSA has withdrawn from the community of ecclesial reflection. For Finn, it is all about power, and the failure of the CTSA to use it effectively.

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