Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The One and Only Theological Impasse

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 26, 2009

In his presidential address to the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America on June 7th, Terrence Tilley discussed “Three Impasses in Christology”. Tilley is Chair of the Theology Department at Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. For Tilley, a theological “impasse” is a theological problem which admits of no easy solution, in which two or more sides harden their positions against one another to the point of stalemate, thereby preventing theological progress. The catch in Tilley’s argument is that he identifies one of these “sides” as the Magisterium of the Church!

The Problem of Fidelity

The exclamation point at the end of that last sentence may not be justified for such a predictable statement. Tilley’s address exemplifies exactly the kind of thorough-going rejection of the Magisterium which we have come to expect in the Western Catholic theological mainstream. The tactic is always the same: Identify the Vatican as simply one of many voices to be heard and then, if it chooses to act decisively, dismiss it as authoritarian and obscurantist. The mind boggles that this attitude can still be found at the core of a presidential address to the CTSA after so many years of utter failure on the CTSA’s part to contribute to any sort of authentically Catholic theological renewal.

That Tilley is still occupied with the going out of business sale at the same old theological store is immediately obvious from the examples he uses in his introduction to illustrate what he means by an impasse hardening into a stalemate. To set the stage for understanding the seriousness of it all, he identifies three larger ecclesial impasses before moving on to his specific Christological concerns. These are:


  • “a shrinking and in some places demoralized presbyterate that cannot be enlarged significantly under present rules”
  • “a laity that loves the church but has stopped listening to the bishops”
  • “a hard-working and loyal body of religious women who are disgusted and discouraged by repeated investigations of religious life and attempted reversals of self-governance”

But these three problems are not the result of legitimate differences among varying schools of thought; they are rather the direct result of the destruction of the faith of Christians through the rapid secularization of culture in the twentieth century, a destruction marked in each case by a stark refusal to follow the Magisterium of the Church. In other words, the root of these problems is not debatable complexity but simple infidelity.

Thus the crisis in vocations is directly traceable to lack of fidelity, not the refusal to allow priests to marry or to ordain homosexuals (“present rules”). Vocations prosper in dioceses, religious communities and regions which emphasize fidelity to the Magisterium and the spirituality which such fidelity stimulates. The plain fact is that many regions of the United States are now mission territory. Similarly, the failure of the laity to listen to their bishops has been directly proportionate to the secularization of the culture and of the bishops themselves, particularly their own failure to teach sound doctrine, ensure reverent liturgy, and check widespread scandal (problems created in no small part by secularized “theologians”), as well as their penchant for expending their remaining spiritual capital on political rather than religious causes. And perhaps most obviously, the “hard-working and loyal” religious women in Tilley’s analysis are precisely those who have presided over the graying of female religious life by their departure from the original charisms of their founders, their abandonment of Catholic doctrine and spirituality, and their self-absorption in feminism, the New Age, and even Wicca. These communities are seriously ill; if they go much longer without being reformed, they will die.


The bulk of Tilley’s address focuses on his three Christological impasses and what to do about them, but these are all variations on the same anti-Magisterial themes. The first impasse is methodological: “The methodological impasse has to do with the starting point of Christology: Does one begin with Scripture and tradition or does one begin with the current situation?” This dilemma—always posed by Modernists—is entirely bogus, for the starting point of all Christology must be Christ Himself, Who can be known only through Revelation as protected and authenticated by the Magisterium of the Church. Using any cultural situation as the starting point of Christology is a recipe for tailoring Christ to fit a particular culture’s extremely limited natural understanding of reality. The nature of Revelation demands that those limitations be exploded to bring people into contact with the living God, so that both they and their cultures can be conformed to Christ. This does not mean theologians should not seek more effective ways to explain Christ in each cultural situation, but it does mean that in this we are dealing essentially with a problem of communication, not of theology. The Truth can be preserved only by a proper understanding of the difference between the two.

Unsurprisingly, Tilley finds that every time a theologian runs into problems with the Magisterium, it is because he is doing his job exactly as did the great Fathers of the Church, adapting “concepts in use in their culture to express the theological concepts of value to the tradition.” Referring to Roger Haight, SJ and Jon Sobrino, SJ, both of whom have been the focus of negative directives from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Tilley argues that whenever the CDF asserts that some theological work fails to transmit “the immutable sense of the dogmas as understood by the faith of the church” (a phrase taken from the CDF’s judgment on Haight’s work), it is guilty of unfairly preferring just one of the “many varied Christological moments and narratives” found in the New Testament and of insisting that “Christology must be represented in the terms used to inculturate the faith in cultures that exist no longer, terms like hypostasis, physis, prosopon, persona, substantia….

At the heart of this absurd assessment of the CDF lies Tilley’s own manifest discomfort with the very idea of “the immutable sense of the dogmas as understood by the faith of the church”. As he repeatedly makes very clear, he much prefers his alleged disparate “patterns” in the New Testament along with various subsequent traditions, any of which a theologian should be completely free to develop as he sees fit, without benefit of Magisterial guidance. Tilley seems completely unaware that, precisely because of the work of the Magisterium over the past two millennia, the Church now understand Revelation more thoroughly and more precisely than did the apostles themselves. Worse, he sometimes seems unaware that there even is a specific immutable content to the Faith which must be preserved. Such lack of awareness is highly suggestive. For Modernists, religion and spirituality derive from the present situation, the zeitgeist; indeed, cultural sensibilities largely determine their content. But for Catholics, religion and spirituality derive from a real, identifiable, concrete and specific Revelation, the essential sense of which must be faithfully preserved.

Magisterial Uselessness?

I will pass over Tilley’s second Christological impasse, which is the problem of “how to account for God’s salvific will being effective beyond the community of the baptized”. This is an intriguing problem with respect to non-Christians in general and Jews in particular, because Jews too were given an authentic Covenant by God. Far from being an impasse, however, this is an area of theology that is being rapidly explored under the increasing guidance of the Magisterium, which has been deeply interested in this question at least since Pope Pius XII. To make it an impasse, we need to find theologians who wish to ignore the light the Magisterium has already shed on the subject. But the bankrupt theological themes I have been highlighting are further illustrated in Tilley’s third impasse: “How could Jesus Christ be both divine and human?”

Here again Tilley dismisses the Magisterium and the manner in which its work serves to clarify and authenticate legitimate doctrinal developments, separating them from theological errors. In a display of hubris which would astonish were it not so common, Tilley proclaims that even the great Christological decree of the Council of Chalcedon was to no avail: “Chalcedon’s ‘solution’ was hardly a solution,” he says. Well, it wasn’t a solution if you mean by “solution” a statement with which everyone immediately agrees, for universal agreement is practically impossible. If universal agreement is our goal in reaching a conclusion, two problems arise. First, we must subordinate truth to consensus; second we must be prepared for an infinite dialogue which never determines anything, except perhaps on that fortuitous but unlikely day when nobody is interested in arguing about it. Fortunately, the fundamental role of theology is to explain the Faith properly, not to produce agreement.

It is also true that Chalcedon did not provide a “solution” if by “solution” we mean a complete explanation of a mystery, which is not just practically but theoretically impossible. The Council of Chalcedon did not exhaust our understanding of Jesus Christ, but it did enhance it in a way that, if contradicted or ignored, ensures that our understanding must diminish. Christ, the Council stated, has two natures in one Divine person. Pace Tilley, that is not so very difficult to grasp in basic English words in the twenty-first century, with a little study, as long as we understand that it still remains a mystery. But no, as Tilley would have it, the result of Chalcedon was to put the Magisterium in the position of imposing a dubious dyophysite Christology, a tendency still allegedly shared by the CDF today, which in recent notifications appears (to Tilley) “to support a thoroughly Alexandrian understanding and downgrade the Antiochene concerns in the reading of the Chalcedonian symbol.” Here come all those competing narratives again: So much to choose from, and so many equal players to do the choosing!

Luciferian Theology

The longest single section of Tilley’s unfortunate address deals with the proper tactics to use to handle such theological impasses. Tilley’s own proposal is that the authorities (the Vatican, the bishops) must dialogue endlessly with theologians until the necessary breakthrough occurs, without regard to the ongoing confusion of the faithful; he appears blissfully unaware that it is precisely the Magisterium of the Church that must determine what is a breakthrough and what is not. Again, the possibility of making progress by consensus is very close to theoretically impossible, but by failing to proceed in this way, the CDF earns Tilley’s condemnation for being guilty of the very worst possible failed tactic. I can imagine delivering this part of the speech myself, but only as a delicious parody of the ploys of the heterodox:


The key failed tactic, however, is stopping the dialogue, often done by silencing theologians. The notifications and instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can be and are often helpful theologically and pedagogically. They can and do contribute to continuing dialogue. They can and do demand and deserve the attention of other theologians. But when the Congregation resorts to star-chamber tactics and political sanctions—some direct, some indirect—the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may recapitulate the vicious politics of the early church…. Stopping the dialogue by silencing theologians does not resolve impasse. You can kill theologians, but you cannot silence them.

If there ever were a prejudicially loaded passage, this is it. As long as the CDF is simply one among many players, it may be helpful, but as an expression of the Church’s Magisterium its operations rank among the most oppressive injustices in history! In reality, of course, the Vatican corrects very few theologians; you can count the number per year on the merest sliver of your fingernail, which hardly qualifies as “often”. Moreover, political sanctions are unknown in the contemporary Church unless, with Tilley, you count ecclesiastical governance as “political”. And of course the CDF’s deliberations have nothing in common with those of the Star Chamber in the 16th and 17th centuries, nor do they lead to confiscation of property, corporal punishment or execution. But it need hardly be said that Tilley likes to portray faithless theologians as a courageous and beleaguered minority, no matter how much they represent the prevailing secular culture (which, after all, is what they have started with) rather than the Church whose name they repeatedly and unjustly claim. The charge of authoritarian obscurantism continues to play well in the proud West—the same proud West which is rushing boldly into its collective grave with Lucifer’s cry of “Non serviam!” on its cultural lips.

The Real Nature of Theology

Sadly, by reducing the work of theology to exploring this or that “narrative”, Tilley forgets the fundamental principle of Catholic theological interpretation, that each idea in Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium must be understood in such a way that the truth of all the rest is preserved. We are not dealing with many stories but with one story. He also conveniently forgets to distinguish between misunderstandings that can arise between Vatican officials and other theologians on the one hand and a failure of a theologian to be faithful to the defined content of the Faith (that is, to Revelation) on the other. The very nature of theology requires that there be a definitive Revelation to elucidate, a specific content of Faith to explore. It is the function of the Church’s Magisterium—and of the Magisterium alone—to determine what is and what is not compatible with this Revelation, this deposit of Faith.

Indeed, divorced from the Magisterium, theology inevitably loses itself in a welter of competing “narratives”, rendering itself utterly and completely useless. But to hear Tilley tell it, no decision of the Magisterium has ever really resolved anything, for controversies still continue. We may freely grant that there can be very fruitful controversies among different theological schools which propose different approaches to a greater understanding of the content of the Faith. But Tilley fails to acknowledge the far greater problem, namely the frequent controversies between those who accept the dogmas in question as a given—as the central data of their theological work—and those who simply regard them as another set of competing “narratives” which fail to provide a “solution”. Because he wishes not to make that sort of distinction, Tilley would prefer that we judge theological developments over time not by any standard of objective content but by whether they bear fruit among Christians in “faithful discipleship,” in ways of life “that work for justice within the church and the society, that seek reconciliation in a world desperate for healing”. But in Tilley’s code, what might this mean? Usually those who (unlike Benedict XVI) see justice as the primary province of the Church very frequently end up judging Christianity by whether it supports the latest fashionable causes. In the United States, for example, think of determining authentic theology by how well it supports the platform of the Democratic Party.

Tilley seems not to understand that there can be neither justice nor reconciliation unless we first understand what is just and what is unjust, what is good and what is evil, what our purpose is and how it is enabled, Who it is who saves us from all our failures, shortcomings and sins, and how. Our Lord said that if we were His disciples we would know the truth and the truth will set us free (Jn 8:31-32). He prayed that His Father would consecrate (or sanctify) us in truth (Jn 17:17). St. Paul used the term “truth” more than fifty times in his epistles, making it the touchstone of his evangelization. In the New Testament, Luke, John, Paul, James and Peter all insist that the Christian life must be lived, first and foremost, in the Truth. (Matthew and Mark also report that Christ was recognized as one who teaches what is true.) Christ’s truth consists in a grasp of a reality far larger than ourselves, larger than our own desires and plans, larger than our cultures. Despite all the unfortunate conflicts and misunderstandings which can occur in the course of ecclesiastical governance, it is only the Magisterium of the Church—sometimes through directives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially approved by the Pope—that can guarantee the propositional content of this Truth.

By now the reader may wonder why I am paying so much attention to one speech by one obscure theologian at one university “in the Jesuit tradition” in New York City. It is because this was the presidential address of the CTSA, and it strongly suggests that the Catholic Theological Society of America is still living largely in the late 1960’s, and still attempting to preserve an already overlong intellectual adolescence, eagerly supposing reality to be whatever we want it to be. It is very sad for a theologian to attempt to explain gross infidelity to Revelation in terms of competing narratives. In fact it is absurdly sad. For without the deposit of Faith guaranteed by Church authority, Catholic theology loses both its identity and its value. This means that the only real impasse in theology is rejection of the Magisterium, an obstacle that cannot be overcome without conversion, an obstacle that guarantees the death of theology as a legitimate and fruitful discipline. Garbage in, garbage out. In the end, it all comes down to this.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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