Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Predictablity of the CTSA

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 19, 2011

When the Bishops issued a critique and cautionary statement on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God (see The poor misunderstood theologian), it was predictable that the Catholic Theological Society of America would issue a defense of Sr. Elizabeth. It was predictable because the CTSA has been controlled by Modernists now for a generation or more.

Now the standard response by typical Modernist academic theologians to any sort of disciplinary exercise by ecclesiastical authority—whether it is the local bishop, the national conference of bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or the Pope himself—always makes the same three points: First, proper procedures were not followed; second, the authority in question has not properly understood the issue; and third, the work in question is wholly justified by the nature of the theologian’s function in the Church.

It is not hard to see why this is the standard response. The first part paints those in authority as knaves, the second part as fools. And the third part has the ultimate advantage of rendering ecclesiastical authority irrelevant altogether by explaining that theologians are really supposed to be doing exactly what bishops object to their doing.

With all this in mind, I was watching for the inevitable CTSA statement. Sure enough, the Doctrine Committee of the USCCB issued its critique on March 24th and within about two weeks the CTSA had weighed in. And what to our wondering eyes should appear? Why, look, it is a statement divided into three parts:

  1. Procedure
  2. Misreading
  3. The Theological Task

Ah, well, it was to be expected.

The only thing I want to call particular attention to here is the CTSA’s citation of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes to justify their portrayal of the theological task. After speaking of the need of the Church to “express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples” so that everyone may grasp it, the Council goes on to state:

It is for God’s people as a whole, with the help of the holy Spirit, and especially for pastors and theologians, to listen to the various voices of our day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word, so that the revealed truth can be increasingly appropriated, better understood and more suitably expressed. (#44)

The CTSA comments on this passage as follows:

To suggest that a theologian who engages in the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures is denying the knowability of the very revelation—the Word of God—that theological reflection takes as its authoritative source, strikes us as a fundamental misunderstanding of the ecclesial vocation of the theologian.

This is very clever. It is, as we say in the schoolyard, a nice try. But of course the bishops have not said that the theological task in interpreting revelation amounts to a denial of revelation’s knowability. Rather, the bishops have said that Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, in doing exactly this, has failed egregiously in her ecclesial vocation to perform the theological task.

So has the CTSA, and the reason is not hard to find. Vatican II said that “the Church has learned to express Christ’s message in the concepts and languages of various peoples” (#44). The CTSA refers to this as “the difficult task of interpreting revelation for present times and cultures”. The two are hardly equivalent. Theologians are called upon to reflect on Christ’s message so that they, and the Church along with them, may understand it more deeply. They are not called upon to “interpret revelation” in the sense of making it fit the existing categories of time and place, as if these categories, unaided by Revelation, are sufficient to encompass it.

But that’s what Modernists do. They regard religious truth as whatever is manifested in the religious consciousness of each culture. In different times, places and cultures, truth is different. On this reading, the theologian succeeds in his or her task only when Revelation is reinterpreted as something which fits the existing patterns of prevailing cultural thought. That is, the theologian succeeds only insofar as he or she subverts the fundamental mission of the Church.

For the mission of the Church is to place a culture’s concepts and categories at the service of expressing not the usual message but the Christian message. The goal is not to reinterpret Revelation so that it fits comfortably within the existing consciousness of the group, but to use what the group already understands to enable it to see how Revelation relates to that understanding—and bursts its bounds.

Let us remember that Vatican II said all God’s people, especially pastors and theologians, are to “listen to the various voices of the day, discerning them and interpreting them, and to evaluate them in the light of the divine word”. What is being interpreted and evaluated here are the voices of the day, not Revelation. Rather, Revelation is the standard of judgment which lets us discern what is true and useful in making Christ’s message known.

This is something we must all do, and it would be very nice if the CTSA would help. Its first step must be to stop reinterpreting Revelation to fit whatever it wants to find in each culture (I use the phrase “wants to find” advisedly, though it is an argument for another day). The CTSA needs first to discern, interpret and evaluate these cultural ideas, so it can see where they can be helpful and where they need to be rejected, altered or expanded in the light of Christ. The CTSA needs to do something which is not conditioned by the culture it is supposed to be evaluating, something that is not culturally predictable. Only then will it be able to stop issuing statements which are always divided into the same three parts, statements which defend the false principle that the culture is to shape Revelation, and not the other way around.

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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  • Posted by: Obregon - Apr. 21, 2011 1:15 AM ET USA

    So beautifully expressed I have nothing to add to your expression of support for the bishops. Just wonderful!

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Apr. 20, 2011 2:36 AM ET USA

    Heterodoxy 101

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Apr. 19, 2011 8:34 PM ET USA

    Although he is having difficulties at present, I cannot help but quote Fr Corapi: "The Truth is not something; it it Somebody: Jesus, the Christ." The CTSA has it backwards; rather than evaluating the voices of the day in the light of Truth (Jesus), they want to evaluate Jesus thru' cultural filters, making the 'glass' through which we see darkly, even murkier. Oh, now that's helpful.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Apr. 19, 2011 5:45 PM ET USA

    Wouldn't it be nice if the CTSA would get real jobs and quit saddling the Body of Christ with their incompetence, (or maybe, their mischief).