Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

When Fear and Anger Give Way to Laughter

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 02, 2007

I think, finally, one has to laugh. I refer to the 130 theologians from Germany and Austria who have signed a petition for reform of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This core group is now rumored to be seeking signatories from other countries. Thirty years ago this would have been alarming. Now it seems like a bad joke that everyone has heard before.

The Desired Reform

What the theologians want is exactly what those who don’t accept the authority of the Church always want: a more “open” process complete with “peer review”. In other words, they want to be judged by others who are doing the same things they are doing, and they don’t want to submit to the judgment of the Church. This is not only an odd way to determine whether theological thought is faithful to Divine Revelation; it also reverses the very methodology of theological study.

To exist at all, theology must presuppose a definitive revelation by God. It is the purpose of theology to explicate this revelation, plumbing its depths, adumbrating its consequences and corollaries, and generally making it better understood. As a biologist studies living creatures, a theologian studies revelation. As a scientist must submit to and be corrected by the reality he seeks to understand and explain, the theologian must submit to and be corrected by revelation. And since part of that revelation is that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is the guarantor of its proper interpretation, Catholic theologians actually abandon their discipline when they refuse to submit to the Church.

And Now the Joke

I say all this only for the benefit of those who may have missed it the first thousand times it has been said over the past generation, lest they be alarmed or confused by this new petition. For such things were somewhat alarming and confusing in the 1960’s and the 1970’s and perhaps a little beyond. When theologians rebelled against the Church, they wreaked considerable havoc, and sometimes left the faithful wondering whose side they should take. But that was then, and this is now. Now very few people find a petition of this type anything but silly.

Such was my reaction and also the prevailing reaction of those who posted comments in response to the Catholic World News story reporting the petition. Here’s a sampling of the comments:

  • “It’s Magisterium by Committee that the European theologians want. Talk about an oxymoron.”
  • “Tell the German theologians to pin their 95 Theses to the door and we’ll get back to them.”
  • “Peer decisions have not had a great track record in civil life; why would they be any better in ecclesial circles?”
  • “Another meeting of the Sanhedrin.”
  • “Peer review—what do they think this is? A scholarly journal?”
  • “Did Our Lord offer the apostles a vote before He called Peter ‘The Rock’?”
  • “If we ignore them perhaps they will go away.”
  • “Oh geesh!”
  • “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

See what I mean? Not much alarm there, and no real anger either. The jury is in: nobody takes dissident theologians seriously anymore.

A Remarkable Shift

I don’t mean that these theologians can’t still do some damage. I don’t want to trivialize their infidelity or their errors. But the confidence of the Catholic faithful has risen a great deal over the past generation. Reasonably well-informed Catholics now know what damage has been done, and they are busy picking things up and putting them back together. They know the difference between a good theologian and a quack—and the quacks simply can’t hurt them any longer. Such theologians are now so discounted that they are not even perceived as a threat.

And look at the numbers. One hundred and thirty? Back in the day, the numbers would have been an order of magnitude higher. For two major European countries which were once major centers of Catholic thought, these numbers are paltry. They no longer indicate where the action is; they simply indicate where it isn’t. I’ll even wager that the average age of the signatories is very high. Granted, these men and women still occupy positions of considerable theoretical prestige, holding faculty positions at many secular and fallen Catholic universities and colleges. Certainly we all know there is still a lot of work to be done. It’s just that nobody outside their own little circles takes them seriously any more.

The Importance of a Book

In this context, Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth becomes even more important, perhaps wildly more important. For this is a work of advanced theology which is also a runaway best-seller that will be read by millions. In fact it will be read in one year by far more people than will ever read the works of all 130 dissidents along with any additional names they can muster. What this means is that, even more than before, informed Catholics everywhere will know exactly what a work of sound theology looks like. This will be true of priests, religious and lay people alike.

It was a shock in the 1960’s when it became obvious that those who had normally expected simply to follow the lead of their professors, bishops and pastors would now have to learn to sort out Catholic questions for themselves, aided only by the official Magisterium. But those difficult days are now a distant memory. Millions of lay Catholics think theologically almost instinctively now, after years of long practice. They no longer have any trouble at all sorting through complaints, statements and petitions like this one.

Earth to dissidents: Modernism is dying. We all know it. And while you used to be able to frighten us a bit, now you can hurt only yourselves.

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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