In 2004 Avery Dulles was asked by Commonweal magazine to respond to a disputed question: “How Catholic is the Catholic Theological Society of America?” The impetus was Cardinal Bernard Law’s charge that the CTSA, the largest and most prestigious association of Catholic theologians in the United States, had become little more than a “wasteland” of dissent against official Church teachings. The Boston Cardinal was provoked by a recent report issued by the Society on the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. Despite being a direct challenge to millennia of Church teaching and practice, the vote in favor was breathtaking in its lopsidedness: 216 to 22 (there were ten abstentions). For Law, such an action required a public statement that the CTSA should be considered Catholic no longer. Dulles, however, made his argument based on the published plenary addresses, concluding that together they represented “a series of attacks on Catholic doctrine more radical, it would seem, than the challenges issued by Luther and Calvin.” 

Indeed, things had reached the point where young theologians were faced with a “drastic choice” between the CTSA and “the tradition as taught by the popes and councils.” The blowback was immediate and fierce, and took little account of the fact that Dulles was a longtime member and past president of the Society as well as the leading American Catholic theologian of his day. Dulles’s credentials, to which would soon be added the title of Cardinal of the Catholic Church, were plainly insufficient to give weight to his concerns.

It is interesting to note that Mary Ann Hinsdale and John Boyle in the collection What’s Left? Liberal American Catholics charged that Dulles’s criticisms, as well as those of Law, reflected a discomfort with the “diversity” of the present Society. Both men were, at root, unhappy with the present inclusivity of the Society and looked back with nostalgia to a time when it was predominantly clerical, male, and insular. It is a sharp irony, then, that the most recent attempt to challenge the liberal domination of the CTSA has been carried forth under the banner of diversity. 

In 2012, the CTSA’s Board of Directors, under pressure from a few of its members, commissioned a “Report on Theological Diversity” aimed at addressing the diminishing presence of conservative theologians at annual meetings. Former CTSA president, Daniel Finn, chaired the committee; I was also a member. Finn, it may be remembered, dedicated his presidential address in 2007 to the issue of power in theology and included a section on how the CTSA used power to marginalize and, in too many cases, drive out its more conservative members. As evidence, Finn pointed to the Society’s practice of issuing public statements on controversial issues approved through the mechanism of a majority vote. Although Finn made clear his personal sympathy with the intentions behind these efforts, he argued that this abuse of the majority’s power resulted in the ideological leveling of the CTSA at odds with its stated mission of “providing a forum for an exchange of views among theologians.”

The 2013 report enlarges upon Finn’s judgment that the CTSA’s behavior has made it unattractive to theologians out of synch with its liberal ethos. In particular, it points to the common practice of speakers ridiculing the magisterium and conservative Catholics: “Many CTSA sessions, both plenary and concurrent, include jokes and snide remarks about, or disrespectful references to, bishops, the Vatican, the magisterium, etc. These predictably elicit derisive laughter from a part of the audience.” For readers of First Things, this will likely bring to mind Robert Jenson’s quip from the 1990s that John Paul II was more popular at the Southern Baptist convention than at the CTSA. The issue is not a simple lack of courtesy to Church officials, but what such behavior says about the Society’s self-understanding. People feel free to joke about opponents only when they can safely anticipate their audience’s ready agreement. We speak differently when we know that our hearers share our views, luxuriating in the obviousness of collective rightness.

Of course, the converse holds when we anticipate the possibility of disagreement. We couch our assertions with qualifiers that signal our acceptance that reasonable people might dispute what we are saying. Such shaping is neither cowardice nor evidence of a lack of conviction but an indication of our openness to possible disagreement. It is the conversational style proper to academics and one that should characterize a society like the CTSA. Its anti-intellectual opposite is the creation of a group that presupposes in-group agreement, and treats dissenters as, at best, marginal participants. “In sum,” the report asserts 

the self-conception of many members that the CTSA is open to all Catholic theologians is faulty and self-deceptive. As one of our members put it, the CTSA is a group of liberal theologians and ‘this permeates virtually everything.’ Because the CTSA does not aspire to be a partisan group, both attitudes and practices will have to shift if the CTSA is to become the place where all perspectives within Catholic theology in North America are welcome.

If anything has changed since Finn’s original address, it is an increased awareness of the fragmentation of Catholic theology in the United States and the CTSA’s lamentable role in fostering it. This reality goes back to the creation of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars in the wake of the CTSA’s report “On Human Sexuality” in 1976. That document, which in the eyes of many endorsed a kind of sacramentalized libertinism, was a clear signal to conservatives that the CTSA no longer aspired to be an umbrella society for Catholic theologians. Rather, it had chosen to become a mouthpiece for those dissenting from Church doctrine. The successful formation of the Fellowship, moreover, showed that it was possible for Catholic intellectuals faithful to the magisterium to create a parallel association.

Undeterred by these defections, the CTSA stayed the course and continued to issue resolutions in support of theologians under scrutiny by Rome, as well as the report on ordaining women mentioned above. In 2008 a new group of Catholic theologians began to meet: the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT). Its membership includes an array of leading Catholic theologians and philosophers well known to First Things’s readers. By invitation only and with the requirement of signing on to a mission statement, the group has, nonetheless, steadily grown over the years. Indeed, the demand for inclusion is such that the Academy is currently debating how best to manage its growth.

Although the report was ready for the 2013 convention, the CTSA board decided it would not be promulgated. Only when some on the committee charged bad faith did the incoming president, Rick Gaillardetz, make the report available to the membership, albeit behind the paywall of the Society’s website. He also sent a letter to each member signaling the importance of the report and led a discussion of it at this year’s convention in San Diego. During that discussion, only a few members came forth to defend the old line, darkly warning that placating conservatives might come at the expense of the pursuit of “truth” or “good work.”

Given this reluctance to engage the issue directly, it was providential that the plenary address by Paul Griffiths on how to disagree theologically did just that. He began by informing the assembled that after becoming a Roman Catholic in 1996 he started attending the CTSA regularly, but soon ceased to do so. The Society was, he found, too “dogmatically monolithic” and too distant from cor ecclesiae. In time Griffiths would join others to form the ACT. When he turned to delineate authentic and productive disagreement in Catholic theology, Griffiths argued that this required a shared understanding of the enterprise. Apart from a common understanding of what it means to do theology, no true disagreement is possible. For him, the activity of Catholic theology consists in three discrete steps: discovery, interpretation, and speculation. In discovery one learns what the Church has taught on a particular topic, what Griffiths calls the “liberating constraints” within which one works. 

Second is the knotty matter of the interpretation and ordering of what has been taught authoritatively, the precise contours of this freedom. In other words, learning what the Church has authoritatively taught on a particular matter is never as simple as reading a page of Denzinger or, even, the Catechism of Catholic Church. Words must be interpreted, contexts determined, and levels of authority discerned. Much theological labor and disputation occurs right here. 

Third is the task of speculation, that moment when the theologian seeks to move beyond settled doctrine to tackle a problem not yet determined by the Church’s magisterium. Whether any particular theologian’s work in this area should or will yield dogmatic fruit is beyond the theologian’s competence and, Griffith insists, professional or existential concern. This freedom from concern is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the work of Catholic theologians. While their Protestant counterparts feel the burden that their theology might have, or fail to have, immediate doctrinal import, Catholics know that such decisions are not up to them and any impact they might have will be long after their death.

This last point struck me as quite illuminative of the dynamics now at play in the CTSA. The CTSA was formed right after World War II (1946) and was part of the theological vitality that led to the Second Vatican Council. The debates that characterized its first decades on religious liberty, ecumenism, and liturgy reflected those taking place on the highest levels of the universal Church. Moreover, the advent of Saint John XXIII’s papacy signaled that the reform-minded theologians of this period would see the fruits of their speculation become part of Church teaching. Indeed, I suspect very few Protestant theologians have experienced what it must have felt like to be John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar, or Karl Rahner in those three years. Rusty Reno has rightly called the leading Catholic thinkers of this period “the heroic generation” and their time one of “revolution.” Their theological work changed things and, not in centuries, but within a decade or two. Thus, Griffiths’s effort to tamp down the expectation that theological work can have immediate magisterial effect runs against recent conciliar history and, more specifically, the ingrained ethos of the Society he was addressing. Indeed, one could say that the CTSA is itself inseparable from the conviction that theology has the power to shape the Church in the near future. It’s bred in the bone.

If Griffiths missed this about his audience, he had little problem demonstrating his central claim that apart from a shared understanding of Catholic theology as beholden to the authoritative teachings of the Church, no real theological disagreement is possible. There were some who accepted the point and pushed Griffiths on the complexity of interpretation, a complexity that allows for legitimate disagreement between liberal and conservative readings of the tradition. Others, however, and these tended to be younger members, simply rejected this description of Catholic theology. For them, the real issues were the standard fare of the contemporary secular academic: gender, race, and class. If everything can be reduced to the way the powerful oppress the marginalized, what legitimacy can the college of bishops possibly have? It was particularly bracing that the chosen respondent to Griffiths began her remarks by expressing outrage at the use of the “LORD,” a clear signal of power abused. Even worse, the manner this objection was conveyed anticipated wide agreement on the part of the audience. The implication was clear: Anyone who uses this biblical term without irony is not one of us.

What is one to make of all this? I, for one, am left with little real hope that the CTSA will take up Griffiths’s challenge and return to its original mission to be a forum for Catholic theologians. The combination of the revolutionary spirit on the part of the older and the pull of contemporary academic fashions on the younger is too strong. Fragmentation is our future for the time being.

James Keating is associate professor of theology at Providence College.

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Articles by James Keating

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