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On the Crisis of Theology and the Need for Rulers

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 29, 2011

Fr. Thomas Weinandy caught my eye last week when he complained of a “crisis” in Catholic theology characterized by a rejection of Catholic faith and morals. Fr. Weinandy is the chief staff aide to the US bishops’ committee on doctrine. What are we to say about this crisis?

The first and most important thing to say is that the crisis is of the bishops’ own making. I do not claim that the profound secularization of culture which has eroded Catholic theology on every side is primarily the fault of the bishops, but it is certainly their fault—including the fault of Rome herself—that a pitched battle was not waged in the 1960’s to keep Catholic universities and colleges from succumbing to this secular spirit. For the institutions of Catholic higher education are in fact the collective seat of theological studies, and what Fr. Weinandy rightly calls “a radical divide over the central tenets of the Catholic faith and the Church’s fundamental moral tradition” would far better have been nipped in the bud than allowed, for now nearly fifty years, to grow from strength to strength.

Given the long percolation of Modernism in Catholic theological circles from the late 19th century and the rapid secularization of Western culture in the 1960’s, this battle would have been long and hard. But it is difficult to imagine that it would not now be over, instead of just beginning on far less favorable terrain. The key to victory would have been to make sure that heretics were clearly and forcefully declared to be where they belonged—that is, outside rather than within the Church, so that they could attack Catholic faith and morals only from secular institutions. You may recall that this was finally done with one premier dissenter, Hans Küng, who is no longer permitted to teach theology at any Catholic institution, with the result that nobody any longer cares what he thinks.

That is, unfortunately, only one very small historical lesson. But a larger historical perspective may shed further light. I wish to turn again to Blessed John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, and before you sigh in exasperation at yet another citation from the great 19th century cardinal, let me hasten to add that, in this particular instance, he was wrong.

In one of the later sections of the book, Newman addresses “A Form of Infidelity of the Day”. His purpose is to demonstrate the main technique that secularists outside the Church use to eliminate the influence of religion, namely the technique of ignoring religion rather than attacking it, and supplanting it with other studies while ignoring it. In other words, secularists outside the Church assume that religion has nothing to do with their own disciplines and that, in fact, their own disciplines will ultimately disprove religion, and so they need not engage religion in controversy, which would only draw unfortunate attention to it.

Now thus far, of course, Newman was absolutely right. He understood down to the least particular the nature of the “infidelity of the day” which he sought to delineate and answer. But Newman’s error (if failing to foretell the future may legitimately be called an error) was his assumption that the death of Christendom had happily placed all the enemies of Christ outside the Church.

Newman saw very clearly that there was a great advantage to having the Church’s enemies all on the outside. He knew that in the age when Christianity was culturally dominant (that is, the age of Christendom), the result was that there were very many within the Church who lacked commitment to her teachings, and who were quite content to create severe problems from within. He accepted it as a gain—at least in the matter of controversy—that the secularization of the larger culture up to his time had made it supremely comfortable for the Church’s enemies to thrive outside her borders—because they no longer had any reason to be enemies within.

Newman believed that much was gained for the Catholic university when the secularization of culture made it unnecessary for there to be great battles within the theological schools of Christendom (which were in fact the settings for some very great battles). Consider his argument:

It is one great advantage of an age in which unbelief speaks out, that Faith can speak out too; that, if falsehood assails Truth, Truth can assail falsehood. In such an age it is possible to found a University more emphatically Catholic than could be set up in the middle age, because Truth can entrench itself carefully, and define its own profession severely, and display its colours unequivocally, by occasion of that very unbelief which so shamelessly vaunts itself. And a kindred advantage to this is the confidence which, in such an age, we can place in all who are around us, so that we need look for no foes but those who are in the enemy’s camp.

Such, indeed, was the case when Newman conceived his theory of a Catholic University in the middle of the 19th century. In those days, Protestants and secularists alike separated from the Church with an honesty we can now admire only in retrospect. They separated themselves and attacked her from without. But the crisis of contemporary Catholic theology to which Fr. Weinandy refers is, in fact, a grave crisis only because this clear separation is no longer the norm. The history of the growth of the “radical divide” is precisely a history of deceit and betrayal, by which a great many have been led seriously astray precisely by putting their trust in those who were assumed to be allies within the Church.

I would very much prefer to convert those who betray the Faith by example and argument. But example and argument are never enough for those who do not wish to be converted. Newman may have been too sanguine in his expectation that a secular world would be sufficient to keep those who stray from the Truth outside the Church, but he was right about the principle in question: It is much better for the Church if those who despise the tenets of her Faith and her fundamental moral tradition are on the outside looking in, and not theologians in good standing.

That is why it is necessary to exclude those who are no longer Catholic from theological positions within the Church. But exclusion requires more than teaching and sanctifying. Exclusion requires that bishops learn once again how to rule. By their failure to rule, the bishops have participated in the creation of this radical divide. Only by ruling now can they once again close that yawning chasm—or rather put that chasm and its other side outside the borders of the Church of Christ.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FrMatthewG - Aug. 31, 2011 9:16 AM ET USA

    Well said. All too often I run into people (both laity and clergy) who self-identify as Catholics, and yet dissent on important Catholic teachings. As a priest, this makes my duty of guiding souls in the truth much more difficult. I can tell people what the truth is, but if other priests and theologians "in good standing" say the opposite, it makes people think that it all depends on your personal point of view...

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 30, 2011 10:57 PM ET USA

    Pope Pius X on Modernists: "...thinking not at all of finding some solid foundation of truth, but despising the holy and apostolic traditions, they embrace other vain, futile, uncertain doctrines, condemned by the Church, on which, in the height of their vanity, they think they can rest and maintain truth itself." Many of the bishops themselves were educated at some point by questionable theologians. Good luck in attempting to exclude them now. It might be easier to start from scratch.

  • Posted by: Cornelius - Aug. 30, 2011 2:55 PM ET USA

    Some of this failure to rule may be attributed to the idea that error need not be combated - the mere presentation of truth will vanquish it. Was this a legacy of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII? I believe so. But aside from the sheer naivete of this view on its own merits, the idea gained traction that even the presentation of the truth was too aggressive. Someone might feel excluded or offended. So the Bishops made 'happy talk' - all is fine and dandy, we're all going to heaven. Hurrah!

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Aug. 30, 2011 3:54 AM ET USA

    Excellent, thoughtful article.

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