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Theological Fidelity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 19, 2010

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, famously said that the solution to priestly sex abuse was threefold: “Fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity.” His point (among other examples of fidelity) was that if priests were faithful to their calling, they wouldn’t be abusers; if bishops were faithful to the mission of the Church, they would not create situations in which obvious potential abusers were first ordained and then protected; and if theologians were faithful to Divine Revelation and the Magisterium, they would not rewrite moral theology to justify the kinds of sexual behavior which have always been condemned as sinful.

Theological fidelity is an important topic today because the lack of it is still a huge problem in Catholic colleges and universities around the world. Sadly, particularly in Jesuit schools, many ostensibly Catholic theologians dissent against Church teachings even on issues as obviously fundamental as the identity of Christ, the authority of the Magisterium, the nature of the Eucharist, the ordination of women, and sexual morality. Given that dissent is typically culture-driven, the usual pattern is for unfaithful theologians to begin by attempting to “reconceptualize” Catholic teachings on human sexuality to suit the times (and doubtless in many cases their own personal weaknesses). This inevitably leads to the need to “reconceptualize” Church authority and, ultimately, even the normative character of Revelation itself.

Now the first thing any competent Catholic theologian must realize—and the one thing without which he or she simply cannot be a Catholic theologian—is that theology is the servant of Revelation and of the authority principle in the Catholic Church. Theology has been aptly defined as faith seeking understanding, but faith for the Christian means acceptance of what is revealed to us by God Himself. Without Revelation, there is no basis for either faith or theology. And without the authority Christ established in His Church, there is no reliable guide to what may or may not be ascribed to Divine Revelation.

So the Catholic theologian is called by the very nature of his craft to seek a deeper understanding of what has been revealed and to do that within the authoritative judgment of the Church as to both the character and the ultimate meaning of this Revelation. If a theologian dissents either from the fact of Revelation or from the authoritative understanding of what Revelation is, then he simply cannot do Catholic theology. That would be a contradiction in terms.

For this very reason, any claim to a right of dissent based on academic freedom may be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, any notion of academic freedom which purports to free a scholar from the intrinsic nature of his discipline is nonsensical in the extreme. For example, for a theologian to argue that his own theological study leads him to conclude that the Magisterium’s definition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is defective is no less absurd than for him to claim that his own theological study leads him to understand that Christ never existed.

The intellectual bankruptcy of such positions may be illustrated by an analogy. This is exactly like a physicist saying that his specialized study has led him to conclude that there is no such thing as the material world. He may have reached that conclusion in some personal way, but not as a physicist. Moreover, he can no longer claim to be a physicist after reaching that conclusion, because he has in one fell swoop eliminated the very object of his field of study. In just the same way, a Catholic theologian cannot claim to be a Catholic theologian while asserting that there is no Revelation, or that Revelation is wrong, or that his understanding of Revelation differs from that of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Again, in reaching these conclusions, he has eliminated the object—that is, the very data—which it is the purpose of Catholic theology to study. These are the data which faith seeks to understand through theology.

I will close with a telling quote from Pope Paul VI, a quote which applies all too well nearly half a century later:

It is true that the Church always has a duty to try to obtain a deeper understanding of the unfathomable mysteries of God (which are so rich in their saving effects) and to present them in ways even more suited to the successive generations. However, in fulfilling this inescapable duty of study and research, it must do everything it can to ensure that Christian teaching is not damaged. For if that happened, many devout souls would become confused and perplexed—which unfortunately is what is happening at present. (Homily, June 30, 1968)

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: impossible - Nov. 20, 2010 11:06 AM ET USA

    Very well-said! Today's Augusta Chronicle has good article on Catholics Come Home and a sidebar of PEW's %'s of Catholics leaving for various reasons. I think ignorance is key -- you can't love what you don't know. Politicized bishops; dissenting theologians, priests and bishops and the continuing effects of Luther (relativism), not to mention better coffee & music, are the primary reasons. All worsened by the Vatican and Bishops failing to promptly and firmly exercise discipline.

  • Posted by: Eagle - Nov. 20, 2010 8:00 AM ET USA

    Slowly, but surely, the last two Pontiffs have been reforming both the heirarchy, and through the heirarchy, the secular clergy, back to orthodoxy. However, the same power of appointment is not available for Religious, and Religious control Universities. Notwithstanding their vows, many Religious have become their own Religion. Whether it be wholesale Apostolic Visitation as occurred with the Legionaires of Christ, or other means, the authority of the Magisterium is impotent if not exercised.