Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Father William Most Collection

Towards an Adult Theology

[Homiletic and Pastoral Review 71 (July 1971) 59-67]

"When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, think like a child.... When I became a man I put childish ways aside."

When we were children, we accepted, as St. Paul says, what older people said, without asking for reasons to support their statements. That of course is inescapable in a child: he could not do better at this age. No more could be expected of a child. But when we reached that anchorless period of adolescence, we tended to question everything--things that needed questioning, things that were secure. We were trying to work out a reasoned basis for our convictions, religious and other. Out in the middle of that sea, when one has lost these supports of childhood, and has not yet finished building the solid adult foundation for convictions, he could not be other than uncomfortable.

Theology today reminds one of this adolescent storm. Father Andrew Greeley saw it far earlier than most persons. As far back as 1966 he wrote an article, "Adolescent American Catholicism" (Sign, Nov. 1966, p. 16): "Intellectual fads and fashions combine with the catchwords to create an unstable ideology that is not only a substitute for scholarship and for thought, but actually a pretext for rejecting precise scholarship and serious intellectual investigations."

His opinion was seconded by some distinguished Protestant commentators. Martin Marty (Davenport Messenger, June 27, 1968, p. 7) said: " . . . some Catholic renewal has not been renewal of the Church, but the manic babble on the part of people with personal problems." Albert Outler (NCR, Nov. 15, 1967, p. 9) added: " . . . the crisis among Roman Catholic theologians has reached a major level of befuddlement."

Now, four years later, Greeley speaks even more flatly of the adolescent turmoil (NCR Spring Book Report, April 17, 1970, p. 1): "The anti-intellectual romanticists in the larger American society call into question serious scholarly or intellectual work (witness Gregory Baum's recent statement that every man could be his own theologian)."

Remarkable views of theologians

Greeley is right, sadly right. In spite of Teilhard de Chardin's optimism that our race will continue a steady ever upward intellectual march to an Omega point, we find "theologians" putting forward the most remarkable views, with little or no attempt at rational support, and readers by the thousands willing to accept the new pontifical authority with solemn awe in the name of open windows. For example, we are told that there is no great Person outside us called God, that the Eucharist "celebrated" at a kitchen table by a negro woman is just as valid as that consecrated by the Pope, that all St. Paul meant to say by asserting our faith is vain if Christ is not risen is that the influence of Christ lives on while His physical body rots, that homosexuality is quite OK for a man who cannot somehow get his kicks from heterosexual relations, that Christ became like us even in having an identity crisis--except that His lasted much longer than what most adolescents have: He didn't know who He was until He was baptized, was crucified, or rose (depending on which view one likes)--and so on "sine fine" and "ad nauseam."

This article makes bold to suggest that theology today should grow up, should begin to act in an adult fashion, i.e., be able to give solid reasons for what it holds.

Now theology, like other fields of knowledge, needs an intellectual method adapted to its own situation. The importance of method has been most glaringly shown in the natural sciences For centuries, scientists sat back in their armchairs, dreamed up a (seemingly) plausible explanation of how lightning worked, etc., never bothered to check out their theories with experiments, merely issued unsupported pontifical decrees. In that period of science, doctors could attempt to cure Francis of Assisi's blindness by drawing a red hot iron over his forehead. But came the revolution: the natural sciences turned to what we now know is real scientific method, and Voila! Our own era of chain explosion progress in science is the result.

Theologians might learn a thing from the scientists--not that theology should use the philosophical method (which would send it back to the armchair). But theology ought to rediscover its own proper method.

This article wishes to propose, as a means of growing up intellectually, that we adopt the theological method actually given by Vatican II. And so that you. the reader, will not fear we are about to take off on another open window flight supported only by some invisible spirit of Vatican II-- which will always obligingly second whatever the writer wishes to hold--we are going to simply look at some actual statements of the Council.

Of course, it is obvious even before we look at the Council that one should study the sources of revelation. He should do it with the best modern techniques, including the approach to Scripture through literary genres (interesting to note it was not Vatican II but Pius XII who first, in spite of caricatures of him, not only permitted but required Catholic exegetes to use that means) and he should also make use of redaction criticism and form criticism (as first suggested to Catholics by the Pontifical Biblical Commission).

We might note too in passing that although, theoretically, Catholics recognize tradition as part of the means of transmitting revelation while Protestants do not, yet in practice, many Catholic theologians need the advice of Martin Marty (Davenport "Messenger," June 27, 1968, p. 7): "The public need have no reason for confidence in a theology that listens not at all to the thousands of years and only to the moment, that is as jumpy as a magnetic needle but lacking an axis.... I look for a more aristocratic--and thus more humble--theology in the future, one which moves more by norms gained from Christian listening to a tradition than from merely being outrageous."

The Catholic method in theology

But when one has made this study of the sources, there comes the moment of truth: a decision must be made on what the sources mean. The critical question is this: What is the decisive criterion for being sure what they really mean? Herein lies the most basic difference in the Protestant and the Catholic method in theology. For the Protestant criterion has been and still is simply this: What do I think, i.e., personal judgment. There is no higher court for the Protestant approach. For the Catholic however who really is Catholic, who really does follow Vatican II, the deciding factor is found in the Constitution on Divine Revelation (10): "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ."

Christ will be with His Church

Such judgments of the teaching office are of course binding when made in the infallible form (On the Church 25); ". . . when either the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him defines a judgment they pronounce it in accord with revelation itself. All are obliged to maintain and be ruled by this revelation...." Further: even though the Council taught and stressed collegiality, yet in the very same section of the same document it also added that a Pope can even define without consulting the Bishops:" . . . they [his definitions] need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment."

Is it rational, reasonable to accept such teaching, particularly if the Pope happens to speak without much consultation of the Bishops and the laity? The Council says flatly: Yes. The reason is not that we are asked to think this Pope, or any other Pope, is an intellectually brilliant man, a specially holy or enlightened man, or anything of the sort (and similarly for the body of Bishops)--it is simply that he (with or without the body of Bishops) is on the receiving end of the promises of Christ who said He would be with His Church until the end, that the powers of the lower world would not prevail, that "He who hears you hears me." If a man believes Christ made such promises and that He had the ability to fulfill them, then and then only is it rational to believe what a Pope (with or without the bishops) teaches.

Theology differs from other sciences

This situation makes theology radically different from all other fields of knowledge. In other fields, the decisive criterion is the judgment of each man. He should of course weigh the evidence, he should consider the views of the most competent men in the field. But when all the chips are down, there is nothing that could authoritatively lay claim to his assent, or could overrule his personal opinion. In other fields there is no special reason for trying to preserve continuity with what the past workers in the field have held: one may freely contradict anything or everything they have said or thought, if he has evidence. But in theology the decisive thing is precisely the judgment of the teaching Church, not personal judgment. It is rational to accept that because of the promises of Christ. And to preserve continuity with the beginning is vital--we must at all costs adhere to what Christ brought us. As we shall see, this does not preclude progress. It merely means we must not contradict what the Church, under protection of His promises, has once taught.

A careful study of the doctrinal changes made by Vatican II shows that not once did the Council contradict any past teaching: its changes consisted in pushing on to new truths or insights. This position of Vatican II on the role of the teaching authority does not stifle research--such a claim is most commonly made by persons who have done nothing to advance the frontiers themselves. Really, it means that there are two areas to be marked out: one in which the Church has spoken, the other in which it has not yet spoken. The second area is immense, leaves room for more research than the concerted effort of all living theologians could finish in many lifetimes.

But Vatican II pushes things still farther: it insists that Catholics should believe its own teachings, even though it made no statement in the infallible form at all. It even requires them to believe teachings issued by a Pope alone, in the non-infallible mode (On the Church 25): " . . . religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra. That is, it must be shown in such a way that . . . the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to . . ." The reason is still basically the same: we are not asked to suppose this Pope is intellectually brilliant, singularly holy etc.--we are asked only to say he is on the receiving end of the promises of Christ in this respect too.

Some will exclaim at this juncture: Isn't it too much to ask me to accept something that is non-infallible, admittedly non-infallible?

The worry sounds obviously valid, until we recall how life in general is lived. For how many things we believe do have an infallible assurance? Students commonly believe teachers, who are never infallible; we sit down often to a meal which includes food taken from a can. If someone were to add: Did we send it to the lab to have a check made for Botulism (mortality rate 65 %) we would think him odd. Yet we literally stake our lives on the non-infallible belief that the food is not poisoned. (And of course even a lab check would not be infallible either). In eating the food we are being reasonable: there is a chance of death all right. But it is a far out chance, so far out that the normal rational man not only may but should ignore it.

Similarly a non-infallible teaching could be wrong. The only case in history that really may possibly stand up under close scrutiny is the Galileo case--and even there the verdict was not by a Pope, but by a separate agency, and it was not that Galileo's teaching was "false" but that it was "suspect of heresy"--guarded language. Further, Galileo really had not given any satisfactory proof: even the scientists of his day were much opposed to him. So, even granting the most unfavorable view of the Galileo decision, statistically, the chances of error in the non-infallible Magisterium remain much farther out than for our hypothetical can of tomatoes.

The limits of dissent

Much is made of the fact that even old-line, preconciliar theology manuals used to mention a special case: a theologian has done much research on a question. He finds reasons he believes are unknown to Rome that seem to him to invalidate a non-infallible teaching. What should he do? All the old manuals did admit he was free to suspend his intellectual assent. After that, some authors said he ought to report his reasons privately to Rome, be prepared to accept the decision. Others proposed somewhat varying courses. But no one, absolutely no one, gave him the right to take to the press, to maintain his dissent permanently. The attitude of the Church was crystallized in Canon 2317: "Those who persist in teaching or defending, publicly or privately, a doctrine condemned by the Holy See or a General Council, but not as formally heretical [i.e., not defined] are to be excluded from the ministry of preaching the word of God or hearing Confessions, and from any teaching post whatsoever, in addition to other penalties. . ."

That is quite a different picture from the wholesale denial or non- acceptance of the Humanae Vitae decision. Not even a specialist today could dare to claim he has any reason not known to Rome after five and a half years of delay. And the dissenters are, as Canon 2317 says, "persisting" in their teaching, are doing it publicly, have no intention at all of changing their view.

Magisterium and academic freedom

At least, intellectual honesty demands they stop claiming they are following the principles of Vatican II in dissenting. In fact, Vatican II did not even mention the exception proposed by the old manuals. Of course, we may reasonably assume the Council did not mean to exclude it. But we could hardly say it was willing to go beyond that older concession.

What of academic freedom? Is it not essential for the full pursuit of truth? The 1968 statement of the AAUP (Winter 1968 Bulletin, p. 448) says: "A college or university is a marketplace of ideas, and it cannot fulfill its purposes of transmitting, evaluating, and extending knowledge if it requires conformity with any orthodoxy of content and method." The Land O'Lakes Declaration (July 21-23, 1967) of the International Federation of Catholic Universities seems to concur with the AAUP: " . . . the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself." The same idea was stated still more vigorously by Robert E. Hunt, before his departure as a member of the Theology Faculty of CUA ("Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society," 1968, p. 266): "The Sacred Magisterium as such and per se is simply incompetent in theology as such and per se."

Before any other comment, one can note that these three statements hardly fit with the flat demands of Vatican II cited above, especially the statement that "The task of authentically interpreting the word of God . . . has been entrusted exclusively [italics added] to the living teaching office of the Church . . ." (On Divine Revelation 10). If the Magisterium is exclusively competent, it cannot at the same time be "simply incompetent." Nor can a University honestly call itself Catholic if it "must have a true autonomy . . . in the face of authority of whatever kind," even that of the teaching office of the Church.

Does Vatican II then require that one who follows it must give up academic freedom, give up the free quest for truth? By no means, and for two reasons.

Importance of the proper method

First, every field of knowledge has its own proper method. That method is not determined arbitrarily by a vote of professors or other specialists, it flows from the nature of the field. A man who does not use the method of his field is unlikely to find truth easily in it. Again, the natural science instance already mentioned is relevant: What would a science department say of a scientist who wanted to follow the armchair method of the Middle Ages? Could he claim academic freedom, demand to hold his position? He would be laughed out of court. He is a quack. He is unlikely to find much truth. "Academic freedom presupposes a man is a legitimate practitioner, that he uses the real method of his field to find truth. If he does not, he cannot claim the protection of academic freedom for his folly. For it is designed to protect the search for truth, not to protect those who are quacks." Now as we noticed above, there is a method proper to Catholic theology, quite different from Protestant theological method. "In it, the prime means of finding the truth, of being sure of the truth is precisely the judgment of the Magisterium of the Church." He who insists on throwing away the prime means of finding the truth in theology cannot simultaneously say he is using all the best means of seeking that truth, that he needs academic freedom to seek it. Academic freedom "presupposes" a man works in the method needed for the field. If he does not, he deserves no more hearing in a Catholic theology department than would the "scientist" we imagined who would want to use armchair methods in science.

So academic freedom does not rule out the use of the Magisterium, does not declare the Magisterium incompetent: rather, it "requires adherence to it in theology."

Presupposition of the AAUP

The AAUP statement contains a presupposition: that there is no divinely provided means of finding an absolute truth. That presupposition is, of course, true in all other fields--in all but the science of revelation, theology. Were that presupposition valid in theology we should by all means reject the Magisterium. One who does not accept the divine mission and the promises of Christ has every right, in fact, has the duty, to reject adherence to the Magisterium in theology.

Since then academic freedom "presupposes" right method, we are making "no exception" to it at all when we insist on the adherence to the Magisterium as "the" means of reaching final certitude in theology.

The second approach to the problem of academic freedom is more pragmatic. It does not try to avoid admitting an exception to academic freedom. Instead, it notices that all rights have their limitations. The right of free speech does not allow me to slander my neighbor. The right of freedom of religion does not allow polygamy even if one believes in it religiously, as the Mormons formerly did. Nor does freedom of religion give a man the right to practice the religion of a headhunter who thinks his gods demand he take off other people's heads. Similarly, a Catholic institution, of whatever level, has a right to exist as such. That is, if a group of people put together their money and found and maintain an institution precisely to promote Catholic faith, they have a right to get what they paid for. A parallel case would be one in which a number of men would contribute their money and time to found an institution to promote the audio-lingual method of teaching languages, a controversial method. Suppose after a time, a professor hired by them came and stated: "Gentlemen, I am sorry, I do not believe in your method. I am not going to use it. In fact, I am going to talk against it in my classes. You, however, must let me do it, you must pay me to do it, pay me to work against the purpose for which you established this institute. For I have academic freedom. If you do not, I will ask the AAUP to blacklist you, to try to close you down."

That would, obviously, be contemptible behavior. It would not be liberalism--it would be narrowness. It would presuppose only one kind of institution had a right to exist, an institution committed to nothing at all. For if it would try to be committed, it would still be obliged to pay a professor who might wish to destroy it, pay for nullifying the very reason for its existence.

Should we say that the statements and principles of Vatican 11 apply only to the simple, to the lower levels of teaching in our schools, but that for the professional theologian there should be no need to adhere to the Magisterium?

Paul VI on the Magisterium

First, Vatican II nowhere hinted that theologians were exempt from its statements on this or other matters. If the task of determining the meaning of revelation has been "entrusted exclusively" to the Magisterium, by what title do professional theologians declare themselves exempt, call the Magisterium "simply incompetent in theology as such and per se?" If the use of the Magisterium is the prime means of reaching certitude, can a professional dispense from using that prime means? If he does, he is not acting as a professional, but as a quack. Paul VI left no doubt on the point. In speaking, not to catechism teachers, but to the International Congress on the Theology of the Second Vatican Council (Davenport Messenger 11-10-66, p. 7), he told the professional theologians assembled there: " . . . the immediate and universal norm of this unfailing truth can be found solely in the authentic Magisterium of the Church. . . Therefore you especially italics added] will more surely possess that truth the more wholeheartedly you are joined with the Church's Magisterium. If in your search for truth you wander away from this magisterium . . . it might even expose you to the danger of deviating from the right path, choosing your own judgment, not the thinking of the Church, as the criterion of truth. This would be an arbitrary choice, 'hairesis,' the road to heresy."

Vatican II furthers development

To borrow from Winston: "What do you want?"--but the choice proposed is not "good grammar or good taste"--it is whether or not to follow Vatican II. If someone chooses not to follow the Council, at least intellectual honesty should compel him to admit he is not following it, that he is instead contradicting it.

One who does want to follow the Council ought first to see by a careful reading of all sixteen documents precisely what changes in our teaching were made by the council and then, in the second place, he should judge other changes, those proposed by private theologians, according to the principles of the Council. That course does not prevent him from making advances. Rather, it greatly helps him by giving him sound method. It aids his advance too, by dispensing him from the need of starting from scratch, as it were, of trying to establish what has once-for-all been stabilized by the teaching of the Church. Taking that for acquired territory, he can avoid waste of time, can have more time and energy to push on to newer frontiers of truth.



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