Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Those Misleading Leading Theologians

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Descriptive Title

Those Misleading "Leading Theologians"


Kenneth Whitehead questions where the so-called "leading" theologians are leading us by looking at three of their major errors: The suppression of popular Catholic devotions by pre-Vatican II theologians who believed that the strong emphasis on the divinity of Christ was problematic for the Church. Second, the widespread dissent of leading theologians from the teaching of Humanae Vitae. And third, the 1997 study paper by the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) that essentially denied papal infallibility by casting doubt on the status of John Paul II's statement in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Larger Work

New Oxford Review



Publisher & Date

New Oxford Review, Inc., May 1998

Leading scholar, " "leading writer, " and the like are familiar terms. They suggest distinction and accomplishment. But the image they convey is incomplete. To be "leading" is, after all, to be leading someone or something somewhere. A little thought makes it evident that to call someone a "leading" figure is not simply to recognize achievement but also to imply responsibility. And what is the responsibility of a true leader? Paradoxically enough, it is to be a true follower — to follow the true path and thus to lead in the right direction.

In the Catholic Church we have "leading theologians," and in the past three decades or so we laity, even if we do not know a Dyophysite from a Monophysite or the Council of Chalcedon from the Council of Trent, have learned to ask just where it is that our leading experts are leading us. I recall that in 1967 I joined a training class for laymen who would teach CCD classes for children. Our instructor was a theologian appointed by the diocese who early in the course made a strange statement. He informed us that one deficiency in "Catholics today" is that they tend to overemphasize the divinity of Christ and neglect His humanity. It followed that in modern catechesis more stress needed to be laid on His humanity.

This sounded to me not only wrong, but diametrically wrong. Had he looked around him? The modern world, persuaded to a comfortable materialism by a false scientism claiming to be true science, prides itself on accepting only what seems verified empirically. The Church's assertion of Jesus' divinity is, strictly speaking, neither scientifically nor historically verifiable (were it verified, everyone would be a believer), and even His humanity is subject to perennial skepticist arguments that He was only a legend. The humanity of Jesus might be the one thing modern man would concede Him, but certainly nothing more, so why should catechesis emphasize His humanity? It seemed to me then (as it still seems) that getting people to believe in the divinity of Christ is the most basic of all the tasks of Christian apologetics and evangelization. Sincerely puzzled to hear a Catholic teacher assert that stressing Christ's divinity is a "problem," I attempted to convey my concerns to my teacher, to "dialogue" with him, for he had presented himself as a believer in dialogue. But he simply was not interested in my viewpoint. So much for dialogue!

Only recently have I understood that this man had been led to his unshakable conviction — a conviction that seemed to me at the opposite pole from what is self-evident — by following the leading theologians of the preceding generation. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's excellent book A New Song for the Lord provided this insight, and it has opened up for me the fascinating question of where it is that "leading theologians" lead, and who follows, and why. Ratzinger recounts that the outstanding theologians of the generation just before the Second Vatican Council (Karl Adam, Josef Jungmann, and pre-eminently Karl Rahner) all wrote that the devotions and pious practices of ordinary Catholics tended to pay too little attention to the vivid human figure of Jesus that emerges from attentive reading of the Gospels, and that the focus of popular piety on a timeless, divine Jesus represented a "danger" to the faith. They warned that this was an imbalance in proper Trinitarian belief leading to a kind of practical Monophysitism. (Monophysitism — one-nature-ism — is the heresy that denies that Jesus had a true human nature and asserts that He had one nature only, the divine.) Ratzinger reports that Jungmann in particular felt that Christian prayer had "a kind of monophysitic momentum that he tried relentlessly to expose in [his] analysis of the popular piety of his time."

These men, whom Ratzinger calls "the leaders in the field of theology," wrote books that were "formative for a whole generation of scholars and pastors." Rahner was surely the most influential of all theologians at Vatican II and after. His views had an enormous effect not only on the Council but also on the way the Council has been interpreted and implemented in the past three decades. And for him, as for his distinguished colleagues, too great an emphasis on the divinity of Christ was a "problem" for the Church. Well, if the leading theologian of the day found it a problem, students formed by his teachings were likely to find it a problem too. Here no doubt is where my catechetics trainer of 30 years back had found the idea which so baffled me.

That influential theologians were suspicious of popular piety does not mean, of course, that there is anything wrong with the Christology of Vatican II. But it does mean that there was in the air in those heady days of aggiomamento the persistent idea — one might even say the fashionable idea — that popular Catholic devotions were somehow misguided.

Today, a generation after the Council, it can be seen that the sophisticated, theologically trained people who undertook to undermine traditional popular piety were more successful in that dubious enterprise than in getting the positive and legitimate reforms of Vatican II established. Ratzinger (who is writing, we should remember, about his own mentors) says,

To what extent they judged the situation at the time can remain an open question, but it is evident that the danger today is exactly the opposite. It is not Monophysitism that threatens Christianity but a new Arianism [the denial of the true divinity of Christ] or.. .at least a pronounced new Nestorianism [the doctrine that there were two separate Persons in Christ] to which, incidentally, with a kind of inner logic, a new iconoclasm corresponds.

And how! The "new iconoclasm" in question, which American Catholics have experienced only too acutely in many of our liturgical innovations and novelties, has effected the downgrading or suppression of many traditional devotional practices. The iconoclasts succeeded to a greater extent than the open enemies of the Church could ever have hoped to. No Catholic who lived through the late 1960s and early 1970s will forget how often and how condescendingly the faithful were told that Rosaries, Novenas, Benedictions, Crownings, Scapulars, and the like — even the Stations of the Cross — were no longer needed or appropriate in the new era of "active participation" in the liturgy.

Again, one wonders if the leading theologians and their followers have their eyes open to the world around them. How is it that the devotions in which so many of the faithful participated actively did not count as "active participation"? Moreover, how does a prayer such as the Rosary, which concentrates on events in the lives of the Incarnate Jesus and his human Mother, lead its practitioners to the border of Monophysitism, of all things? How does the practice of praying and meditating the Stations of the Cross, which focus entirely on the all-too-human story of the Passion and Death of the human Jesus, divert the faithful from a proper comprehension of Jesus' humanity?

The pinnacle of popular piety (and now commercial piety) is, I suppose, the feast of Christmas, which has long since become the principal religious festival of the year. The status accorded to Christmas could perhaps be criticized on valid theological grounds as tending to diminish the status of Easter by comparison. But surely the last thing that the widespread celebration of the birth of Christ as a human baby could suggest would be some kind of overemphasis on Jesus' divine nature.

In today's disbelieving, neopagan culture, the fact that a belief in the divinity of Christ could be singled out as a problem by the leaders in the field of theology, rather than as something to be proclaimed, affirmed, and nurtured, is deeply worrying to Catholics who depend on such leaders to truly lead. It seems plain that the distinguished gentlemen not only got it wrong but got it backwards, perversely wrong. And yet, we were led where they wanted to lead us. As Cardinal Ratzinger writes, "the popular piety of the 1920s, to which both Karl Adam and Jungmann referred in their critical remarks, does not exist anymore" — or, let's say, hardly exists anymore.

With the loss of our popular devotions and the de-emphasis on the divinity of Jesus, we Catholics have indeed been modernized. Now, modern man tends to believe that he can find his own "way" to some relative "truth" that will suffice for his self-defined "life." Jesus is neither the way nor the truth nor the life, and no Son of God come to earth is needed to save us. "Save us from what?" asks modern man. Have our "leading theologians" led us to a point where we Catholics no longer have the devotional and theological resources to give a persuasive answer?

As I mentioned, my training class was in 1967. In July 1968 came the publication of Pope Paul's Humanae Vitae, in which the pontiff restated and reaffirmed the Church's traditional and reasoned teaching against artificial contraception. There was, as we know, widespread disagreement with this teaching, disagreement of a vocal and intense nature that shook Catholics and was noted outside the Church (and celebrated by her enemies). Public dissent was heard from many of the leaders in the field of theology (as well as from many of the followers —1 noticed that my 1967 catechetics teacher had publicly joined the ranks of those theologians dissenting from Humanae Vitae. As of 1968, dissent became almost automatic on the part of the sophisticated modern theologian in America, something unheard of in Catholic tradition theretofore. To a layman it was inexplicable, until one took into account that the Pope's affirmation of solid Catholic teaching had gone counter to the recommendations of a majority of the members of his Commission on Birth Control, among whom were —aha! — many "leading theologians." Humanae Vitae was taken as a slap in the face to a proud profession, and dissent seemed to be a reflexive reaction. (Laymen, of course, may wonder what part pride properly plays in the theological profession; we had heard it was one of the deadly sins.)

In asserting the licitness of artificial birth control against the virtually unanimous witness of the Christian tradition, innovative theologians did not have any such excuse as that they were trying to foster correct Trinitarian belief. If anything, they were disavowing correct belief and frankly joining the consensus of a disbelieving and materialistic secular culture. They were, in effect, abandoning the Catholic tradition. Even though they typically brought forward theological arguments to justify their position—just as the pre-Vatican II German theologians had discovered "Monophysitism" in popular Catholic piety — they were denying the teachings and the teaching authority of the Church in which Catholic theology is necessarily and properly grounded. They were "kneeling to the world," as Jacques Maritain pointed out around that time. Just as in the earlier theological crusade against a supposed Monophysitical error, the leading theologians dissenting from Humanae Vitae led us exactly where we didn't need to go. They moved to endorse contraception at the very moment when modern society was marching confidently into the quicksand of sexual immorality, waving, as it sank, tattered humanistic banners proclaiming everyone's freedom to use his sexuality without regard to moral or natural law. Again, the theologians seemed to have their eyes closed to what many others could see. The experts not only got it wrong. They also helped to deform and even destroy the faith of many by openly opposing the Church's teachings.

Nevertheless, the leaders in the field of theology do not seem to have learned very much from these twin disasters, the crusade against popular devotions and the promotion of contraception. On yet another crucial matter they got it wrong again. In June 1997, the members of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) voted to approve (by a large majority) a study paper questioning whether Pope John Paul II's decision in his 1994 document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that the Church does not have the power to ordain women to the priesthood — represents the definitive teaching the Pope expressly declared it to be. Though pretending to take no position on the ordination question itself, the CTSA paper casting doubt on the status of this Church teaching nevertheless amounts to a practical denial of the papacy's authority to declare closed a debate that many theologians want to keep open. It is just as harmful and destructive as if these theologians openly opposed the Church's teaching on ordination.

Once again, this represents an adoption by the leaders in the field of Catholic theology of a viewpoint current in the contemporary neopagan and secular world — in this case, the ideology of radical feminism — and they persist in it even though it contradicts what the supreme authority in the Church has declared the faith of the Church to be. They have, in effect, abandoned their obligation as theologians to defer to the authority of the Church and instead have deferred to a modern ideology that holds that "justice" for women requires "sameness" with men. Once again, followers of the leading theologians clamber onto the bandwagon of reform and innovation just when we need teachers and writers with their feet on the ground — the solid ground of Church teaching.

What can we say about all three of these contemporary shipwrecks of faith, in which theologians guided us confidently onto the rocks? Well, for one thing, it would seem that even very learned theologians can be quite wrong in spite of their special knowledge and training. Come to think of it, this is not news. Most of the major heresies in the history of the Church have been started by Catholic theologians. Perhaps a little more humility, modesty, self-effacement, and even prayer are called for within the theological profession, in view of the special temptations to which those within it are apparently exposed.

For another thing, it certainly does not seem to be a very profitable habit for young theologians to follow too readily after "the leaders" in the field. More common sense and perhaps even the use of one's own eyes and ears once in a while would be advisable. The temptation to be up on the latest — and fashionable — thing afflicts many professions and disciplines, but perhaps theology even more than others, judging by the above examples.

Finally, as far as Catholic theology is concerned, it should never be forgotten that the entire "field" is based on the faith of the Church, as set forth by the Magisterium of bishops in union with and under the pope. Theology does not itself establish or define the faith of the Church, as too many of the modern leaders in the field have come to believe (judging by their practice). After all, Jesus hardly founded His Church on the scribes and Pharisees, the learned scholars of His day. He founded His Church on ordinary people — fishermen, tax collectors, tentmakers, and the like.

Moreover, Jesus certainly did anticipate the temptations to which any kind of special education or knowledge can expose people, and which verifiably have affected the so-called leaders in the field of Catholic theology today; for Jesus did not fail to note for the instruction of all subsequent generations: "Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes" (Mt. 11:25).

Kenneth D. Whitehead, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, is a professional translator and the author or co-author of seven books, including Flawed Expectations: The Reception of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press).

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