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Posted June 19, 2007

Theologians challenged to set the pace for inclusive conversations

All Things Catholic by John L. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter

It's the nature of my job that I attend far too many conferences. Over the course of a decade reporting on "all things Catholic," I've sat through thousands of papers, lectures and keynote speeches, in various languages and on various continents. Even measured against that volume of material, however, the Daniel Finn's presidential address June 10 at the annual Catholic Theological Society of America convention ranks as one of the most impressive presentations I've ever heard.

When I say "impressive," I mean not just intellectually provocative or rhetorically satisfying, though Finn's address was both, but also brave and potentially transformative -- not only for the CTSA, but for American Catholicism.

Finn, of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, invited his colleagues to consider whether the CTSA's high-profile public statements criticizing the Vatican and the bishops over the years have been counter-productive. Those statements have produced a distorted public image of the CTSA, he argued, and they've divided the theological community, driving away conservative theologians who feel "alienated" by declarations that "poke fun at Vatican shortcomings and put the CTSA name on statements they do not endorse."

"The price has been too high compared to what we have gained," Finn said. "I wish we were not facing this trade-off, but I believe we are."

The CTSA, Finn argued, should instead be a common space in which theologians of differing perspectives can come together.

"Our church is wracked by divisions caused by ideological simplicities on all sides, and we need broader dialogue in the church than we have today," Finn said. "In the CTSA, all theologians should feel respected, and a majority should not employ the mechanics of majoritarian democracy to produce statements that the minority would find offensive, and then leave."

This was Finn's last act as president; the office is now in the hands of Margaret O'Gara of the University of St. Michael's College in Toronto.

Finn, it should be said, hardly means to muzzle theological discussion of church teaching or Vatican interventions. He suggested that in the future, statements on those subjects should come from individual theologians, perhaps with others signing on, rather than in the name of the CTSA.

Before I proceed, three clarifications are in order.

First, Finn's address came at the end of the June 7-10 CTSA convention, and to focus on it is not to suggest that nothing of note happened before he took the podium. In fact, there were stimulating discussions in Los Angeles on a wide variety of topics, such as ecumenism, the authority of bishops, and how bishops should engage public debates in a pluralistic culture. A spirited presentation on the first day by Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, to take just one example, was worth the price of admission all by itself. Among other things, she argued that a decision by the bishops to consolidate ethnic minorities in the American church under the single heading of "cultural diversity" amounts to a "Hallmark card ecclesiology." I posted several stories from the convention which collectively offer something of its flavor: http://ncrcafe.org/blog/2682

Second, Finn's choice of topic should not be read to suggest that there's presently some crisis between the CTSA and church authorities. In fact, a number of bishops took part in the conference, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles; Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, president of the U.S. bishops' conference; Bishop Tod Brown of Orange, California; Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup, New Mexico; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco of Toronto; Emeritus Bishop Fritz Lobinger of Aliwal, South Africa; Emeritus Bishop Francisco Claver of Malaybalay, the Philippines; Emeritus Bishop John Cummins of Oakland; Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit; and Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala. Several expressed appreciation for the theologians' work.

Third, to some extent I'm distorting Finn's address by focusing on his comments on the CTSA. In context, they were part of a broader analysis of the way power shapes human relationships; he called power "the software of daily life." Drawing on the work of philosopher Thomas Wartenberg, as well as his own experience as a community organizer in Minnesota, Finn invited theologians to be more attentive to the dynamics of power, for both good and ill.

With those caveats, I nonetheless want to suggest that what Finn had to say about the methods and aims of the CTSA is critically important, with implications well beyond the theological guild.

* * *

I was hired by the National Catholic Reporter in 1997, the same year that the CTSA put out a much-discussed statement critical of church teaching on women's ordination. It held that there were "serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching, and its grounds in tradition." That declaration built upon earlier CTSA statements on controversial subjects. Two decades before, for example, a CTSA document had argued for the acceptance of homosexual acts within covenanted and committed relationships.

Covering reaction to the 1997 statement was, in some ways, my introduction to the bitterness of much American Catholic debate. Most famously, Cardinal Bernard of Law, then the archbishop of Boston, defined the CTSA as a vast theological "wasteland." Then-Fr. Avery Dulles, now a cardinal, said that the CTSA "constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics." Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote acerbically that a Lutheran friend goes to CTSA meetings "to stay abreast of liberal Protestant theology."

Over the course of time, the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, founded in 1977, became seen as the "conservative" alternative to the "liberal" CTSA. While a few brave souls attempt to embrace both, they are a distinct minority.

On the basis of all this, the CTSA has functioned as both a symbol and an agent of the broader ideological polarization in the American church. Of course, that was never anyone's intent. The theologians who crafted CTSA statements did so because they believed important values were at stake which required the public witness of the theological community. One can hardly blame CTSA for creating divisions in the church, a state of affairs which is the product of forces much larger than any one group.

Nonetheless, the status quo is that conservative and liberal theologians in the United States largely attend their own meetings, read their own journals, and talk mostly to one another. In that regard, theologians represent the American church in microcosm, which tends to be fractured into a series of ideologically defined ghettoes -- charismatics, reformers, traditionalists, peace and justice people, neoconservatives, and so on.

It's against that backdrop that Finn's address is so important. Though he did not himself use this language, in effect Finn invited the CTSA to adopt a "preferential option for dialogue."

The CTSA, he said, "should be the place where Catholic theologians of all perspectives come to do their theology." The price of doing that, he argued, is to stop using the CTSA to score points in internal church debates.

* * *

Regular readers of this column know that the question of dialogue in the church is the one dispensation I grant myself from the professional discipline of detachment. On this matter, I am an unabashed advocate. I believe ideology is the moral equivalent of lying, in that both amount to a distortion of, or indifference to, the truth. I also believe that the sterile ideological oppositions that presently dominate Catholicism in the United States are destructive, and that one of the most urgent tasks facing us is the reconstruction of spaces, either physical or virtual, in which Catholics of differing experiences and temperaments can meet in an atmosphere of trust.

I believe this for two reasons. First, it is what Christ wanted for the church; his final earthly prayer was that "they all may be one." Second, the full capacity of Catholicism to transform the world can never be unleashed until we learn to draw upon the best of our various subcultures. A house divided among itself may not stand, but a church divided among itself certainly cannot evangelize.

I have no way of knowing to what extent Finn's statements represent broader opinion within the CTSA, though I can report that he drew a standing ovation on Sunday. It seems revealing that the CTSA did not issue a statement about the Vatican's recent notification on Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, the renowned liberation theologian from El Salvador, but opted instead to hold a discussion of his work at their next meeting.

I want to make two further points.

First, the women and men who make up the theological community in the United States are critically important voices in Catholic affairs. Their books and lectures frame a substantial portion of Catholic conversation, and they are often the experts to whom the media turn when the church is in the spotlight. As goes the theological guild, in many ways, so goes the church.

Second, if the CTSA were to become a space in which theologians from all the various tribes in the American church come together, the ripple effect could be enormous, precisely because theologians are pace-setters. We might relearn the discipline of conversation, as opposed to spin and partisan rhetoric.

At one point, Finn said that by working to build such a climate, he did not mean theologians shouldn't be "prophetic." Though I'm sure this is not what he intended, one could read that statement to suggest that the only form of prophecy within Catholic theology is criticizing authority, whether ecclesial or secular.

I would submit, however, that Finn's vision is itself remarkably prophetic, pointing beyond the cul-de-sac of interest group struggles, and suggesting a willingness to rethink entrenched attitudes and patterns of behavior in order to realize an ecclesiology of communion. May we have ears to hear.

Thank you, John for your

Submitted by Peter Halle on June 18, 2007 - 12:14am.

Thank you, John for your insightful columns. This one about the CTSA wanting to dialogue IS impressive. But, I have to agree that the Vatican has to be more forthright in order for there to be a conversation.

I do have a couple of questions. How many of us "in the pew" Catholics know that there is such an organizaiton as the CTSA of its conserevative counterpart the CDF? How many know that there are differing views on issues within the Church?

Is the Church itself willing to dialogue on theological issues (viz: infallibility, Eucharist, Apostolic succession, celibacy). How many Catholics know that there are questions for some members of the Church questioning these very issues. How many know of the history of the Church - to include the Inquisition (and its follow-on, the Index) and the Crusades?

Thank you for letting me spout.


Submitted by Gino Dalpiaz on June 17, 2007 - 8:20am.

Regarding John Allen’s June 15 remarks on the presidential address of Daniel Finn at the recent annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA), may I ask: Who gave CTSA such importance and authority in the American Church? Who are these so-called theologians who take it upon themselves to criticize the Vatican or the American bishops for their teaching on women’s ordination or so-called “covenanted” homosexual acts? Are these “theologians” criticizing the Catholic Church themselves all Catholic? Or is CTSA just one of the many self-serving advocacy groups in the Church, one that is it trying to be a parallel magisterium? I would like the members of CTSA to go toe to toe with the Master Theologian of our times, Pope Benedict, alias Joseph Ratzinger. Gino Dalpiaz

If we want dialogue within

Submitted by SJ on June 17, 2007 - 12:01am.

If we want dialogue within the Church that's going to have a real effect on average Catholics, then instead of looking to the CTSA we should be waiting on EWTN. EWTN is watched by millions of Catholics around the world. It's twenty-fifth anniversary family celebrations were held throughout the United States and attended by thousands. Raymond Arroyo's biography of Mother Angelica, EWTN's founder, has sold millions of copies. Clearly, EWTN is far more well known and influential among Catholics in the pew than is the CTSA.

Now, if only EWTN would open up its programming to progressives...

John, I've had my antenna

Submitted by donje on June 16, 2007 - 5:15pm.

John, I've had my antenna up for your ideology but have not found it. As all of us I suppose you have your biases, but you succeed in getting beyond them, also.

At 51 years in priesthood I've had enough of "loyal opposition." If CTSA espouses the prophetical, then getting their message out is all that is required; battling to the death is not the prophetic charism. And more, the "prophet" does not try to get a pressure group organized to push his agenda; he leaves that entirely in the hands of God from whom his wisdom has come.

I love to hear "theologians" slug it out; when they start excommunicating each other it gets boring. (We elite can be so self righteous.)

Would that each CTSA meeting would begin with the reminder: "We gather, aware that we are great sinners, maybe not as great as Paul, who claimed to be the greatest. We are aware that not every utterance will be of the Truth, nor every opposition be in humble Charity." I know that we priests are all sinners; I suspect some bishops also wear the label humbly, and even Pope Benedict admits he belongs to that fallen group. -- But it's so easy to forget. My prayer: May the non-ordained begin fulfilling their prophetic role in witnessing to us ordained--after all, we have no wives to keep us in line.

John, Thank you for the

Submitted by Peter Halle on June 16, 2007 - 3:30pm.


Thank you for the column.

However, I have a few questions that may or may not be relevant. First of all, I would ask, what is the job of a theologian? Is it to clarify present teaching of the Vatican? Is it to clarify past teaching of the Vatican? Is it to show how we got to present teaching from the past?

All that the "people in the pews" receive is what is handed out to them on a weekly basis by the priest who is not doing a very good job anymore of explaining theological implications of the readings.

In fact, the second question is: who knew that there was such an organization as the CTSA? Certainly not the majority of the everyday Catholic. With all that is going on in the church these days, one would think that we should know of such organizations, which organizations would help us muddle through these trying days.

Why is it that 95% of Catholics do not know the true historical background of the practices that the Church embraces today (viz: Infallibility, Eucharist, Inquisition, Apostolic Succession). These issues are being studied but are never presented in such a manner that most of us are never even aware that there is a background other than what are the "official" versions. I have listened to 2 sermons from the altar within the past year and-a-half on apostolic succession. Why? What are we afraid of?

Thank you for letting me ramble. There are many issues that need to be addressed and I feel that the people, once again, are being kept in the dark.


I just read this thread and Submitted by joer on June 16, 2007 - 1:13pm.

I just read this thread and it lead me to post on another thread.

See post on

"On eve of pope's Brazil trip, Sobrino defends liberation theology"

If it gets posted there.

God's Blessing be with us all! God Bless and guide the Pope and all His Church! :-)

The more we discover how much we are Loved by God, the more we want to do God's Will

"I believe ideology is the

Submitted by Dennis on June 16, 2007 - 8:26am.

"I believe ideology is the moral equivalent of lying, in that both amount to a distortion of, or indifference to, the truth". Beautiful thought John Allen Jr. Worthy of meditation and reflection as we compose and post.

I agree that dialogue within

Submitted by SJ on June 15, 2007 - 5:15pm.

I agree that dialogue within the Church is important, but will this particular dialogue really have any effect on the rank and file Catholic? How many Catholics pay attention to statements released by the Catholic Theological Society of America or the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars? How many Catholics are even more than vaguely aware of the existence of these organizations? I follow theology, yet I would likely not have even known that the CTSA were having a conference if you hadn't decided to cover it.

As I see it, even if Fr. Richard Neuhaus and Fr. Richard McBrien were suddenly to become the best of friends, it wouldn't have much of an effect on the polarization within many of our local churches. Why would it?

This column and Mr. Allen's

Submitted by HopingvsHope on June 18, 2007 - 7:36am.

This column and Mr. Allen's initial report about Daniel Finn's closing address have me thinking back to my last attendance at CTSA over a decade ago. If this theological society has become a liberal enclave in which conservative theologians no longer feel welcome, something has changed dramatically since I last attended a CTSA conference.

To the contrary, my sense of CTSA is that it has always been something of a clerical club. Though the culture of the society has necessarily changed as religious women and laywomen joined the organization (that is, as the domination of American Catholic theology by male clerics has waned), the substratum of the organization's culture remained, well into the last decade, solidly clerical.

If I am not mistaken, College Theology Society was founded as an alternative to CTSA because of the heavily clerical tone of CTSA--because it was an organization perceived to be too conservative to permit open discussion of quite a few theological and ethical issues.

If anyone is unwelcome at CTSA, I'd say it is those voices that represent "the offal of the world,...the scum of the earth"--Paul's description of the earmarks of apostles (1 Cor. 4:13). I can't count the number of sessions at CTSA that I sat through in the years of my attendance, in which "the marginal" and "the oppressed" were enumerated--and not once, never, did I hear gay and lesbian people included in the list.

This in a room in which (the elephant loomed large in the living room) everyone knew there was a significant proportion of gay/lesbian members, including clerics and religious. I never recall a session that permitted gay/lesbian members to identify themselves, to discuss their theological issues, to ask about their contribution to the theological universe. When I finally publicly identified myself as a gay person in an academic context, I had the interesting experience at CTSA, repeatedly, of suddenly becoming invisible to quite a few liberal married male colleagues who had previously been chummy when they saw me. Now, they walked right past me in hallways with that look on their face that tells someone she/he has just been invisibilized.

When I finally stopped attending CTSA meetings out of a sense of total exclusion and alienation, with a recognition that many members had no solidarity with me as a theologian whose vocation has been impeded by church officials solely due to my sexual orientation and my refusal to be silent about it, I had the strong sense that, if anything, the society was veering in an ever more conservative direction.

Or perhaps the more apt term would be "classicaly liberal" direction--a direction of imagined (and false) dichotomies between right and left, where it is supremely important to balance competing power groups, and where there is much maneuvering always to stay on the side of power, as power shifts. Classic liberalism never quite commits itself. It doesn't ever want to do so, particularly if there's a chance that the power may shift and the side it has chosen turns out to be the losing side.

I remember an exceptionally interesting discussion at that last meeting I attended. It had to do with a proposal that the society express solidarity with a theologian who had just been silenced. I forget which theologian this was; there have been so many.

An influential liberal member who is cited in some of Allen's reporting about this last conference, and who has written that gay/lesbian people betoken the brokenness of creation in a unique way, got up to argue that the society should think carefully about expressing solidarity with the theologian. Her concern was that in doing so, it would set a precedent.

At that point, one of the first (perhaps THE first) female presidents of the society, a religious woman, got up and enumerated a whole list of theologians the society had expressed solidarity with when they were censured over the years. That stopped the conversation.

It's interesting that it's some of the older members, who have a sharper memory of the society's history, who are are urging CTSA to support theologians who are silenced, while some of the younger liberal members--at least, those whose careers as theologians have gone very smoothly, as they engage in the balancing act between right and left--are the ones urging caution.

In my humble opinion, CTSA (or the College Theology Society, for that matter) doesn't represent the theological future of the American church. I see more effective, honest theology being done by SNAP, VOTF, and on the NCR threads--though academic theologians are likely to consider anyone posting on these threads to be slumming, and journalists who side with those theologians are likely to see theologians posting on these threads to be "non-objective" and affiliated with "interest groups"--as if any academic or journalistic position is objective and disinterested!

To cite an April 12, 1997, letter I wrote a chancellor of the diocese in which I met my Waterloo as a Catholic theologian, "Outcasts have much to teach the church's leaders about the experience of being treated like offal and scum; in offering that gift to the church, we who are shoved off the face of the earth may be offering it valuable insights about carrying on the apostolic tradition in our times--carrying it on in ways that preserve its substance, rather than its facade."

William D. LindseyI totally disagree. I do

Submitted by maryah on June 15, 2007 - 11:42am.

I totally disagree. I do not think the CTSA bears responsibility in anyway. The Vatican ignores and marginalizes dissenting voices. Period. When they start listening and open up to these voices, then I will begin to listen.

Maryah I believe you are in

Submitted by tschraad on June 17, 2007 - 2:14pm.

Maryah I believe you are in error when you say CTSA bears no responsibility in anyway. CTSA is responsible for each and every action it takes. Shirking responsibility is cowardly. I think CTSA should start listening to the teaching of the Catholic Church.

These dissenting voices

Submitted by DrBobus on June 16, 2007 - 9:37am.

These dissenting voices marginalize themselves by preferring their own opinions to Church doctrine.

I hope you are right about

Submitted by Lawrence King on June 14, 2007 - 6:12pm.

I hope you are right about this being a turning point. However, if Finn is correct, and if you are correct, then the CTSA is currently a gathering place for liberal theologians, while conservative theologians meet elsewhere.

Why would the comments of an _outgoing_ president trigger the influx of hundreds of conservatives to the CTSA? At the very least, I think this would require a _current_ president to say something about this.

I hope this brings people together in dialogue, but that will only work if this "dialogue" includes debate. If the CTSA becomes a club where liberal and conservative theologians meet, but may only discuss things they _agree_ on, then no one will be interested in it.

Finally, I am nervous about your comment that "It seems revealing that the CTSA did not issue a statement about the Vatican's recent notification on Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino." If I am reading this correctly, your point is that the "old CTSA" would have objected to this notification, but the "new CTSA" will be more circumspect. Isn't there a third possibility? Isn't it possible that the CDF was right and Sobrino was wrong? If the CTSA simply moves from vocally criticizing everything the CDF does to silently grumbling about everything the CDF does, will that really bring back your longed-for "conservatives"?

Lawrence King, El Cerrito, CA

I think this dialogue

Submitted by Chris Sullivan on June 14, 2007 - 3:02pm.

I think this dialogue between different currents in the Church, leading to greater understanding and unity, is extremely important.

Thanks, John, for continually reminding us of it.

God Bless