Don't Know Much About a New Generation of Catholic Theologians...

06/19/2012 01:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2012
  • Tobias Winright Maeder Endowed Chair of Health Care Ethics and Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, St. Louis University

Over at National Review, George Weigel has put up a blog post, "Don't Know Much about Theology...". In it, he criticizes a number of things. I will highlight these and say a brief word about them; however, I will especially focus further below on what Weigel claims about a "new generation of Catholic theologians" that he observes "is rising."

First, Weigel asserts that those who express their support for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or for Sister Margaret Farley see the Vatican's actions as "all about power" and nothing "to do with doctrine." While some critics of the Vatican's recent actions concerning women religious in the Church may indeed focus on the power aspects, I suspect that most critics would not bifurcate or separate "power" and "doctrine" in the way that Weigel here alleges. Moreover, if one reads the statement by the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's "Notification: Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.," which Weigel contends "was entirely predictable," no mention is given to power at all. Rather, concern is expressed primarily about "the understanding of the task of theology presented in the 'Notification'" and, for example, with "the authentic development of doctrine" (emphasis added).

Second, Weigel criticizes "deeper currents in American culture" that tend to relegate "religion" to the private or subjective sphere, so that any truth or theological claims are viewed as "rigid" or "mindless." I suspect that most, perhaps even all, of my fellow Catholic theologians spend a significant amount of time in the classroom and in our writing critically addressing such "currents in American culture." Indeed, a number of the papers I attended at the recent annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) here in Saint Louis criticized, for example, excessively individualistic (and private) attitudes in U.S. culture (and where it has contaminated Catholic thought and practice in the U.S.).

Third, in addition to expressing his disagreement with the statement of the CTSA Board of Directors, Weigel alleges that "the Catholic Theological Society of America decided to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States, tabling 'indefinitely' a resolution that expressed 'deep concern' over the HHS 'contraceptive mandate.'" The resolution, which was presented during the business meeting of the CTSA, was, Weigel writes, "proposed by eleven brave souls willing to challenge their colleagues' conventional gauchisme...." As one who was present, I can say that the vote to table the resolution occurred after several theologians (not only David Hollenbach, S.J., the one person Weigel notes in this connection) offered their views on either side -- some in favor of the resolution, others opposing the resolution. Then a motion was made to table the vote on the resolution, and the motion was seconded, and it was carried. Then through the vote of all who were present at the business meeting, the majority was in favor of tabling the resolution. I would not assume that there was an absolute correspondence of those who supported vs. opposed tabling the motion to those who supported vs. opposed the HHS mandate. So I would not agree with Weigel that tabling the motion was a decision "to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States."

Fourth, Weigel claims that "numerous card-carrying members of the contemporary Catholic theological guild" reinforce a "master narrative" in which "everything in the Catholic Church can be sliced, diced, and understood in terms of a continuing power-struggle between good 'progressives' and evil 'traditionalists.'" In his view, this problematic master narrative is "utterly incapable of grasping the complexities and cross-currents of contemporary Catholic intellectual, spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral life." I agree that such a master narrative is a problem. However, I think Weigel himself may exhibit some traits of this master narrative when he refers to a "new generation of Catholic theologians" who will change the current state of affairs in theology from "the depths of confusion in the understanding that many CTSA members have of their own discipline..." (I'm pleased he said "many CTSA members" and not "most" or "all" of them).

This is my main bone of contention with Weigel's piece. His reference to "the next generation of theologians" is certainly a broad generalization. I know who he's got in mind (he gives a nice shout out to my old friend from Notre Dame grad school days, Fr Michael Sherwin, O.P., and others). But Weigel appears to ignore "the complexities and cross-currents" of us "new" Catholic theologians. We are not some homogenous group. While we are unified in many important respects, we are not uniform. Those of us who are regular contributors, for instance, over at, are attempting to break out of the standard binary labels of "progressive" (or "liberal") and "traditionalist" (or "conservative"), which in the past may have prevented some (not all!) theologians with opposing views from respectfully engaging one another.

Indeed, our mission statement reads:

We are a group of North American Catholic moral theologians who come together in friendship to engage each other in theological discussion, to aid one another in our common search for wisdom, and to help one another live lives of discipleship, all in service to the reign of God. We understand our role as scholars and teachers to be a vocation rooted in the Church and so we seek to place the fruits of our training at the service of the Church, as well as the academy and the world. We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard "liberal /conservative" divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility.

Thus, the "new generation of Catholic theologians" may be more complex than Weigel assumes. Indeed, there are many of us who agree that theology is an ecclesial enterprise (by Church, though, we mean more than the Magisterium even as we recognize its place in the Church). Also, we agree that theology is neither religious studies nor Catechesis, and we likewise agree that it includes critical exploration. While we respectfully engage Scripture and Tradition, we may not all accept either of these at face value (after all, the Bible and the Tradition were invoked in the past to defend such evils as slavery). Moreover, we do not limit our three audiences (Church, society, academy) only to the academy; yet, many of us (not all!) are worried and upset about the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's "Notification" about Margaret Farley's book. Actually, now that I think of it, much of what I've just written about the "new generation of Catholic theologians" probably applies to many of our mentors and teachers from other generations.

At the end of his blog post, Weigel expresses his hope for the day when this "new generation of Catholic theologians" will help to foster "an opportunity to open a genuine conversation with the culture and media about truth, doctrine, and the things that actually count in the Catholic Church." I share his hope, but I worry that his vitriolic polemics in blog posts like "Don't Know Much about Theology..." may actually further the "master narrative" about which he rightly worries.

A version of this post appeared originally at