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Work–Life Imbalance

I agree with Elizabeth Corey (“No Happy Harmony,” October) that there will always be conflict between motherhood and career, but I don’t agree with her reasons. She contrasts the leisure needed for love of children with the self-culture needed for the pursuit of excellence in a career as if they were (in her words) “two distinct modes of being.” But I think that draws too sharp a contrast.

Self-culture always requires loving what is not the self. It demands leisure because love means paying attention, and paying attention takes time. All good work requires diligence, the attentiveness born of love (from the Latin diligere , to love). And this attentiveness to what is not the self is what perfects the self in any art, skill, virtue, or wisdom.

That is the mode of being common to all worthwhile human work, from motherhood to politics and economics. That is why a teacher paying attention to students is often doing a bit of mothering, just as a mother raising her children is surely doing quite a bit of teaching. These are different activities, to be sure, but they are not different modes of being. They are all forms of the pursuit of human excellence and flourishing, all of which tend toward the perfection of the self in love.

Insofar as the recent feminist literature Corey cites is concerned instead with the pursuit of what we now call achievement and success, its aim is what Aristotle called honor, not excellence or virtue. This is a distinctly lesser good that cannot perfect us or make us happy. There is no need to “balance” this with the goods of child care, which make a far superior contribution to human happiness.

What needs to be balanced—and often can’t be—is, quite simply, time. We don’t have enough time for everything, and therefore we don’t have enough love to go around. The banal fact that our time is limited is the deep root of many tragic conflicts in the lives of finite, temporal creatures. We can’t be good at everything.

Phillip Cary
Eastern University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


Though Elizabeth Corey’s conclusion that “no happy harmony” exists between the conflicting demands of career and motherhood isn’t hopeful, her acknowledgment that it’s “the tragedy of the human condition” that doesn’t allow for both brings with it a sense of peace. As a young mother, the nagging thought that I’m leaving some part of me unfulfilled is hard to put aside. It’s nice to be reminded that I can’t have both in entirety simply because of my humanness, not because I’ve failed in some way.

To join Josef Pieper’s philosophy with the work of mothering helps a great deal as well, even though many of the daily realities of caring for little children seem like a far cry from leisure and contemplation. I’ve come to realize that there are pursuits compatible with childrearing that allow for some amount of self-culture, like teaching an online class, leading a ­Bible study, and reading First Things , even if they don’t bring anything like the exposure of a full-blown career.

When faced with choosing between family and work, I can’t help but feel that the task of mothering, compelled by Christ’s model of emptying oneself as well as by the ever-tangible needs of one’s own offspring, is one I would tremble to neglect. And with keen awareness that mind and body dull with the birth of each subsequent child, the hope of God’s favor and my children’s good is a very ­necessary incentive.

Kathryn Walker
Lancaster, Pennsylvania


I have no complaint with Elizabeth Corey’s handling of the career-and-motherhood conflict other than to ask, “How should men deal with their career dreams conflicting with family responsibilities?” Feminist women are not the only ones who face soul-rending choices. Men don’t have all the luck and all the fun.

How many men would gladly chase a career in their collegiate field but for the fact that the various pressing needs of family, location, and opportunity tie them to a wholly different trajectory, much to their dislike? Plumbing, treetopping, or car sales are great careers if you love them. But if you are trapped into them only because they provide a good living for your family, they can be a continual trial and testify to a man’s sacrificial dedication. It’s the old George Bailey story all over again, which makes for a great movie but a hard twenty to thirty years to live out. 

Yes, families and careers are often at odds. But no one knows this better than the men who carry the weight of caring for and supporting single-wage-earning families.

Maynard Nordmoe
Knoxville, Tennessee


Elizabeth Corey is astute in recognizing that the problem with the search to balance career and motherhood is not one that will find its answer in sociopolitical reform. I wonder, however, whether she is right that career and motherhood have “fundamentally different existential orientations”: work toward “self-culture” and motherhood toward “self-giving.”

In the Fall of Man, our loves became disordered and, as a result, our approach to work  and  to family changed. Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “Before, and as God created [man], he was exalted, and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish.” In other words, self-giving is God’s original design for both work and family, and self-culture is a distortion of that design. 

Corey does a great job in describing the self-giving nature of motherhood as God originally intended it. Yet she barely touches on the distorting effects of self-culture on motherhood. What about mothers who are hyper-present or set inflexibly high standards? Are they always driven by self-giving love or is their interest at times distorted by self-culture?

In the context of career, she does the opposite: She misses the opportunity to describe self-giving as God’s original intention for work and instead suggests that self-culture is fundamental to it. Yet there are companies that promote humanized workplaces, where managers value excellence and leisure, where investment decisions are made to benefit the common good. On what virtue are such workplaces built if not self-giving love?

The real tension, therefore, is not between work and career but between God’s original intention of self-­giving and the Fall’s distorting effect of ­self-culture. Even here, however, there is hope.

Edwards continued: “But God, in mercy to miserable man, entered on the work of redemption, and by the glorious gospel of his Son, began the work of bringing the soul of man out of its confinement and contractedness, and back again to those noble and divine principles . . . . And it is through the cross of Christ that he is doing this; for our union with Christ gives us participation in his nature.”

May we live, therefore, coherent and wholehearted lives at home and at work as we pursue the restoration of self-giving in both career and ­family.

Bethany L. Jenkins
New York, New York


Elizabeth Corey’s essay is a refreshingly honest and candid analysis of the conflict between career and motherhood. She writes, “Parenting requires ignoring for a time the individual quest for self-perfection and excellence and focusing instead on the needs of another person,” but I would argue that parenting does not preclude the quest for self-perfection and excellence, unless by these words one means only or primarily worldly recognition.

Why is the effort to be the best possible mother not pursuing ­excellence, yet pursuing maximum profit for a major corporation is? A schoolteacher is pursuing excellence, but a homeschooling mom is not? Yes, the schoolteacher gets a paycheck, but the mother teaching her own children is using the power and insight of her maternal love to shape souls that she is uniquely qualified and obligated to shape.

The latter work, while focusing on the needs of another, also greatly contributes to the development of the mother herself. Mothering expands a woman’s capacity to love and to live a life of virtue, something that work outside the home may or may not do.

In the beloved children’s book Charlotte’s Web , Charlotte the spider, who had done some very notable things in her life, still described the laying of her eggs as her “magnum opus.” Whether mom is in the ­boardroom or at home, the raising of her children is always her greatest work. I would suggest that striving to raise her children to the very best of her ability is a mother’s purest pursuit of excellence.

Rosemary Bogdan
Ann Arbor, Michigan


Elizabeth Corey makes a ­compelling case for a semi-permeable membrane between the culture of self-­achievement (career) and the culture of self-giving (motherhood). It does, however, flow in reverse.

The professional women I’ve worked with who have put their careers on hold to become stay-at-home mothers are, if and when they return to the workforce, more adept leaders and more skilled problem-solvers. There is a nuanced change in their perspective: They see the whole of issues more clearly and can put things in their proper place. Having been to the City of God, they don’t sweat the City of Man so much. They are more relaxed, more confident, more forward thinking—and more rewarding and enjoyable to work with and for.

Motherhood can be a good career move.

Mark R. Proska
Springfield, Pennsylvania


Elizabeth Corey’s thought-­provoking piece asks whether the culture of achievement and the culture of care permanently clash for mothers. Speaking as a mother of eight children who holds an endowed chair in the professoriate and has been a La Leche League leader for over a quarter of a century, I suggest that a subtle change in perspective may be helpful in moving past this tragic view of motherhood. I learned this alternative perspective not from women, but from certain inspiring men in my life.

One of the things I learned is that there is another way to approach a career besides focusing on achievement and self-cultivation. And that is to get on one’s knees and ask what good you should do in the world with the talents with which you have been endowed. If one is then given that call—if you feel you have been called by a Higher Power to do a certain good work in the world—a career is not, in that context, an act of self-­cultivation; rather, it is an act of ­self-giving. In that perspective, a career can be a form of “being there” for a world in need.

Second, our world is not better off for having excluded from “the table” those who have “been there” for children, our collective future. It is a form of “being there” for the world for a mother to make her way to that table. Mothers have a sacred obligation to help shape the larger world their children, and all children, will live in. Our world is impoverished and darkened to the extent that they are excluded from “the table” where that shaping occurs—and it is impoverished and darkened to the extent that mothers themselves do not commit to reaching that table for the sake of their children.

Motherhood need not be seen as entailing tragic either-or choices. Just like the turtles of legend, it can be seen as mothering all the way down.

Valerie M. Hudson
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas


What Elizabeth Corey ­poignantly identifies as the tragic conflict ­between the goods of career and motherhood—between achievement and love—in any woman’s life is magnified if an analogous conflict occurs in the lives of men. Not only disappointment but the potential for serious marital dissonance seems apparent in her friend Jessica’s ?“plaintive confession” that her husband “has done the things I really wanted to do, and could have, but didn’t.” Surely such disharmony would diminish the joys of motherhood, perhaps explaining why the literature is full of recourse to achievement, where one might be thought to depend on one’s own arms.

But can’t the existence of incommensurable goods serve as the beginning of reflection about our social practices, not as a cause of despair? Achievement and love may not be reducible to some formula or algorithm, but they need not always be at odds: Excellence often grows with the support of love and, in turn, defers to it.

Part of the issue has to do with what the world honors nowadays—achievement, not love, usually—and what the world honors is most often what opens opportunities, whether for love or for excellence. Or are there always opportunities for love?

James R. Stoner, Jr.
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey


In speaking from our experience, we may struggle in conversing with those with dissonant experience. As Elizabeth Corey notes, her discussion assumes that women “possess a desire to care for children that they feel more strongly than men do.” This assumption utterly fails to capture my experience with the men in my life. It was my father, for instance, who bandaged my wounds, held me while I cried after being bullied, and let me sit for hours on his lap, watching him work on his oil paintings.

The last example points to a problem with Corey’s argument for a permanent conflict between the professional mode, which requires focus on oneself, and the child-rearing mode. In pursuing his artistic excellence—and in sharing it with me—was my father focusing on himself ? Clearly not; but he would not have been focusing on himself had I not been there, either. He would have been focusing on his painting.

Pursuing excellence requires self-culture only in a secondary sense. Such excellence always requires an outward focus on the object of one’s work, and aspiring professionals forget this at their peril.

No one set of virtues promotes good parenting. The parent who attends lovingly to her child’s need for attention may struggle to teach that child that its needs are not always paramount. The professional who excels at getting things done may find that her efficiency has destroyed her creativity. Harmony is elusive indeed, but not only when we approach the personal-professional divide.

I could not agree more with Corey’s concerns about our culture’s scorn of receptivity and its failure to appreciate leisure in Josef Pieper’s sense. But this is a problem for men as well as women. We certainly ought not to accept facile solutions that begin by assuming the values of our current culture. But nor should we accept dichotomies that abandon men to a form of life inimical to contemplation, worship, and love. If there were an ultimate tragedy between two modes here, it would be a tragedy for us all.

Margaret Watkins
Saint Vincent College
Latrobe, Pennsylvania


Elizabeth Corey responds:

I’m grateful for the many comments I’ve received, including the many that came to me directly. The most substantive of these have focused on the essay’s fundamental distinction between self-culture (or what I’ve called excellence) and nurture.

Several commentators argue that both focus essentially on something that is “not-self,” whether that be an art or skill or another person. I agree with them in this sense: If  “self-culture” is excessively focused on ourselves and not on the activity we are supposedly pursuing, then of course we have really missed the point. We are then concerned with our own advancement and reputation; we desire recognition and honor, not excellence for its own sake; we succumb to pride. The activity we are pursuing—whatever it is—takes second place to our own quest for self-advancement.

Others have made a somewhat different case against my distinction, arguing that self-culture itself is a result of the Fall of Man and that it is fundamentally a disordered love. On this reading, our task is not to pursue both self-culture (excellence) and nurture but to recognize that self-­culture is a falling away, a degeneration, from the one good and authentic way of orienting ourselves toward work, which is self-giving. They would like to say that work of any kind is fundamentally care for others.

I confess that I’m unpersuaded by these arguments, though I’m also sympathetic to them. I don’t doubt that many of us would like to integrate the two modes, and I do believe that there are ways of doing so, to varying degrees. There is certainly a place for self-giving in the pursuit of excellence.

Depending upon the kind of work, self-giving may even lie at the heart of a quest for excellence, as it does, say, in teaching, ministry, social work, or nursing. Nor would I say that motherhood does not also call for many of the qualities I have attributed to self-culture: determination, persistence, patience, and single-mindedness.

I do, however, think that the two endeavors are at bottom quite different. The pursuit of excellence in the Aristotelian mode is intimately tied to one’s awareness of oneself and one’s abilities. It cannot be otherwise. Nurture, on the other hand, seems to require a radical renunciation of self. Our personal projects and aspirations must be put aside in order to care for someone else. We must forget ourselves—for an hour, a day, a week, or years, as the case may be.

In trying to excel at something, we are trying—let me say it—to perfect ourselves to the extent we can. Thus the endless hours in the practice room, science lab, art studio, or gym.

Nevertheless, at the end of all this, in a curious way, there is often a renunciation of the self, and an emphasis on the skill or art one has developed. Thus the need for anonymity in certain endeavors, as in blind-peer-reviewed scholarly articles or orchestral auditions performed behind a curtain. What matters in these cases is emphatically not the person but the art he or she has perfected.

I will never forget one of my college professors, who spent his professional life showing his students the importance of classical and Christian authors for living an authentically good, moral life. Yet he told us one day that “when I’m on the operating table, having double bypass surgery, I must confess I don’t care whether my surgeon has understood and internalized Plato’s analysis of the soul. I care only that he’s an excellent surgeon and knows his craft inside and out.”

This points to something I consider vital: There really is a sphere of professional excellence that we value for its own sake. Quite often, we simply want the best person for the job, regardless of whether or not that person is kind, generous, giving, or humble, or a good mother or father in private life.

Contrast this with the “nurture” I have described as essential to mothering. Of course there is excellence in mothering. But it is not a cultivation of self and one’s art or craft but rather a (perhaps welcome) loss of self. What is aimed at is not perfection of the self but attention to the other for the other’s sake .

It is almost as if the self, with all the achievements and desires that she may have, must recede altogether. She must love and serve another. She must not think of her own good, or the good of her art, or of her chosen professional vocation, but the good of someone else.

This is indeed a stark distinction, but I think it holds. It is also the source of the condition that I have called tragic. I do not mean tragic in the colloquial modern sense of “terrible” or “sad.” Rather, as in ancient tragedy where characters clashed over incommensurable goods, I see the two modes of being as both good, but to a great degree opposed.

One other point is worth making, which numerous readers have brought to my attention: Where do men stand in all of this talk about excellence and nurture? A short answer would be “in exactly the same place as women.” As several writers point out, men have been dealing with the conflict between work and family for a very long time.

I do think, however (and this is contested by some), that in general most women feel the pull to nurture more than most men do. Are there exceptions? Of course. But this call toward nurture explains, I think, why the question of “balance” is at the forefront of the modern feminist discussion. Women may act just like men in any number of ways, but they very often feel the call to nurture, and the guilt of ignoring that call, more poignantly than men do.


Mary, Mary

Matthew Milliner writes of Maximus the Confessor’s fascinating “death blow to phallocentrism,” as expressed in his phrase “not through seed but by the power of the Most High” (“Our Lady of Wheaton,” October). This has its scriptural antecedent in what we might call the annunciation to Abraham in Genesis 17, where the patriarch is informed that the covenant is to be established, not through his natural liaison with Hagar (whose son Ishmael will nevertheless be endowed with all the fullness of the primal blessing of Genesis 1:28), but through a son born to his wife Sarah. This earlier knell is fittingly inscribed in Abraham’s phallus through the rite of circumcision. 

J. Gerald Janzen
Christian Theological Seminary
Indianapolis, Indiana


Matthew Milliner’s “Our Lady of Wheaton” was a very inspiring read. I am unsure, however, whether he sufficiently explored Thomas Aquinas on the matter of original sin and Mary. 

As Frank Beckwith explains, Thomas Aquinas wrote that while Mary was conceived with original sin, “nevertheless, it was removed by God after she was conceived . . . . She was also the recipient of an abundance of grace so that she may be protected from all actual sin. So, St. Thomas’ view, though not the view currently held by the Church as dogma, contained within it some of the same logic on which the Church’s dogma is based.”

Furthermore, in his Commentary on the Angelic Salutation ( Expositio Salutationis Angelicae ), Thomas analyzes Luke 1:28 and states: “Sin is either original, and from this she was cleansed in the womb, or mortal or venial, and from these she was free . . . . For we know that to her was granted grace to overcome every kind of sin by Him whom she merited to conceive and bring forth, and He certainly was wholly without sin.”

It is my understanding that even Bernard of Clairvaux believed Mary was cleansed from original sin before birth. For example, in the Letter to the Canons of Lyons he stated, “If Mary could not be sanctified before her conception itself, on account of the sin (concupiscence) involved therein, it follows she was sanctified in the womb after conception, which, since she was cleansed from sin, made her birth holy and not her conception.”

Angela McCormick
Edmonton, Alberta,


Chivalry was born and flourished in the Age of Faith. Chivalrous men do not allow the reputation of a good woman to be dragged through the mire of public opinions. But for men who claim to be Roman Catholic to allow the Woman of women to have her honor and dignity publicly impugned is unconscionable. Chivalry is dead at First Things .

John Hauer
Appleton, Wisconsin


Matthew Milliner replies:

I thank J. Gerald Janzen for his reminder that the entire Judeo-Christian enterprise is premised on the ritual damaging of the male member—all the more reason that unholy patriarchy should find no shelter among Jews or Christians. Angela McCormick is perfectly correct that Aquinas and Bernard demurred from the Immaculate Conception by only a few months or so, as they both believed Mary was cleansed sometimein utero.

But however close Thomas’ and Bernard’s position may seem to current Catholic teaching, because it entails a maculate conception, it falls no less under the condemnation issued by Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus than any other opinion about Mary. Blunt instruments, those anathemas—no wonder Catholic thinkers like Avery Dulles, Heribert Mühlen, and William Henn have proposed to soften or remove them. Until they succeed, when it comes to Mary, only non-Catholics can be Thomists.

As to John Hauer’s faulting the men of First Things for failing in their chivalric duty to protect the presumably helpless Virgin, I offer some historical perspective. In the Byzantine Empire, Mary was the Nikopoios , the victory bringer: an “invincible general” whose tears alone could “incinerate the barbaric insolence,” as George of Pisidia puts it in Bellum Avaricum .

As Theodore Synkellos wrote in De Obsidione Constantinopolitana , she protected her city of Constantinople, “inflicting horror and fear on the enemies . . . . The Virgin sank men and boats together [so that] the whole bay could be crossed without wetting one’s feet because of the dead bodies scattered at random and empty boats floating aimlessly.”

Whatever one makes of such sources, one thing is certain: Mary can fend for herself.


Chinese Christians

Jillian Kay Melchior’s article “China’s New Christians” (October) gives a helpful and concise overview of a church existing in a place far removed from the one we inhabit in the West. This difference is not only geographic or political; it is profoundly cultural. During thirty years of living in that country, I became slowly more aware of the implications of this for the church and our (Western) understanding of it.

In Melchior’s remarkably helpful picture of the Chinese church, it is important to keep in mind the contextual differences. She comments that the Christian faith is “culturally neutral”—and we are wise to keep that in mind as we consider this through our own cultural lenses.

The living out of Christian faith, however, is inherently a cultural exercise. We are called to be faithful and present in our current time and place, to be the hands and feet of Christ where we have been placed. To this end then, it is helpful to understand the Chinese church more in its cultural context than in ours.

China has never had religious freedom per se—not the way we understand it. Communism wasn’t the first totalitarian system in China. The Communist party of China, as historian Harrison Salisbury posits in his book The New Emperors , is simply the latest imperial iteration.

To understand the Chinese church and how it navigates the political and cultural challenges of the twenty-first century, one needs to think of the church in its communal sense. This is quite different from the Western (and Protestant) tendency to understand faith individually—personal faith, salvation, devotions, etc.

We can understand this cultural orientation in the context of Chinese history. Historically, times of chaos in China have brought about unimaginable suffering on an equally unimaginable scale. The resulting fixation on stability has contributed to this cultural identity in community —the subjugation of the individual to the needs of the community and the preservation of stability. Social tension, therefore, is to be avoided because stability trumps individual (or specific group) “rights.”

Therefore how Chinese Christians understand their place in society and how they choose to engage in their context will be, in this perspective, as a broad community rather than as an independent entity at war with their society. I suggest that understanding this rather than the lack of religious freedom is the way to understand the Church in China, both historically and as it moves forward.

As we in the West find our faith increasingly on the cultural margins, we would be wise to understand how the Church around the world is living faithfully and with consequence.

Scott Crosby
New City Commons Foundation
New York, New York


Even though I have been closely associated with the Church in China for nearly forty years, including years as president of Asian Outreach International, I still find the explosive development of that church most amazing. The extraordinary newness of China’s new Christians that I have recently observed are:

First, the line between the official Three-Self church and the “underground” unregistered church is becoming blurred. In fact, it is almost nonexistent in certain cities. It is not uncommon to see the leadership of both groups fellowshipping, sharing, and cooperating. When it comes to theological education and leadership training, I often have leaders from both groups attending my classes. It is indeed good and pleasant to see brethren dwell together in unity (Psalm 133:1).

Second, the “underground” church, which has been the image of the unregistered house church held by the West, is by and large above ground now. They are not only building big church buildings and buying multiple floors in office buildings in central business districts for their gathering places, they are also becoming actively engaged with social-development and charity work in China. Many of the top urban house-church leaders are in regular dialogue with city officials.

Their “social services and constructions” are well appreciated. For instance, several large house churches are joining hands and committing November 25 (see 1 Cor. 11:25) as a day that their congregations will donate blood to the Red Cross.

Third, perhaps the most surprising thing to witness is that China’s ultraconservative, fundamentalist groups, such as the Little Flocks and the True Jesus Family, are no longer hiding but emerging as dynamic evangelistic and social-development forces in China. I recently saw their leaders confessing to their congregations that it was wrong for them to be “avoiding the world and hiding from the society when there are needs and opportunities all around and about us.”

One of the strongholds of the Little Flocks is in Zhejiang province. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, they sent hundreds of volunteers and millions of renminbi to help with the rescue and reconstruction efforts.

David Wang
Hong Kong


Debating Dissent

Bruce D. Marshall in “The Theologian’s Ecclesial Vocation” (October) argues that reason must be subordinate to faith, and theologians subordinate to the Church. If this means only that an organization that hires a scholar specifically to teach only what that organization wants taught has the right to fire one who does not follow orders, one can only assent.

But it should be clear to all that that scholar is not functioning within the canons of academic freedom and may not be saying what his own faith and reason lead him to say. He is not a scholar in the highest sense. Marshall’s position is the opposite extreme from positivism and scientism, which teach that reason, narrowly conceived, must trample faith.

Faith may involve large elements of emotional feeling and moral intuition, but when one says, “I believe,” there is already present some element of cognitive understanding. There is no such thing as scripture, creed, or bull untainted by understanding or reason. Understanding may be only implicit, uncritical, and vague in the mind of the believer at this point, but it is there. Marshall says “faith perfects reason.” He should also have said “reason perfects faith.”

Marshall’s counsel to theologians not to publicly dissent from bishops’ theological judgments becomes outright idolatry when he implies that following Christ and following the Church are the same thing, and when he quotes Newman’s poetic hyperbole equating the Church with God as if it were to be taken literally.

William Gillham
Albion, Michigan


I agree with Bruce D. Marshall’s view and commend his encouragement of a spirit of loyalty to the magisterium. However, his development of thought might have been more solid had there not been a looseness in his account of conscience.

He says: “It is a well-established teaching of Catholic moral theology that we must act according to conscience” and that “we sin if we fail to follow our conscience.” In fact, the Catechism holds that one is obliged to “obey the  certain  judgment of his conscience.” The significance of the adjective “certain” is not minor and would have bolstered Marshall’s argument. The certainty demanded does not have to be absolute; it suffices to have “moral” certitude, which takes account of human limitation.

A conscientious believer who is confronted with a moral question will take all claims to right action into consideration, but still lacking certainty he or she will responsibly pay deference to the wisdom of the Church. This deference, or submission, is simultaneously rational, free, and responsible and is not a violation of one’s own legitimate autonomy in moral decision making.

Eamon Roche
Castlemartyr, ?Republic Of Ireland


I am grateful to Bruce Marshall for bringing renewed attention to the ­ecclesial nature of the theologian’s vocation. The magisterium is too ­often viewed as an obstacle rather than a help in the pursuit of theological wisdom.

Reading Marshall’s essay with Charles Curran’s  Faithful Dissent  in the back of my mind, I was left with a few questions concerning the conflict of conscience with the obedience of faith. A Catholic theologian who disagrees with the Church’s magisterium may report good intentions, seeing himself as following in the footsteps of Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Marie-Joseph Lagrange—theologians who had personal difficulties with certain magisterial teachings, persevered under some degree of ecclesiastical censure, and were at last vindicated by the Church. But if the dictates of such a theologian’s conscience lead him to go so far as to abandon the principles of his science, should we maintain their inviolability?

Certainly, man’s moral conscience is always binding, but perhaps we are facing an equivocation of terms. The moral conscience is a judgment of the rightness or wrongness of acts, but what we might call “intellectual conscience” is a judgment of the truth or falsity of a proposition. The latter is only analogously related to the former and therefore may not be binding in the same way.

The same instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that Marshall cites in the essay seems to distinguish the binding judgment of moral conscience from intellectual judgments of truth and falsity: “Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify [disagreeing with non-irreformable magisterial teaching] because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine.”

Perhaps the difference is that moral conscience is binding insofar as man cannot avoid acting even when moral clarity is elusive, while intellectual conscience is not binding, because one can always withhold a speculative judgment by adverting to one’s own ignorance.

Br. Dominic Verner, O.P.
Dominican House Of Studies
Washington, D.C.


I found one important point missing from Bruce D. Marshall’s analysis. Prior to engaging in serious theological reflection, the Catholic theologian should already have engaged in a great deal of serious personal reflection (and prayer), such that he can say with a firm conviction and an assent of faith that he accepts as true “all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

If he can’t do that, then he shouldn’t even begin to theologize in the name of the Church. If he is able to affirm his acceptance of Church teaching initially, but later encounters a seemingly insurmountable point of conflict with a core tenet of that teaching, he should be honest enough to admit that fact and act accordingly. If he insists on promoting his divergent view publicly, he should certainly be free to continue to engage in theological reflection—but not as a “Catholic theologian.”

This, as I see it, is the true purpose of the mandatum: to ensure theological honesty and integrity. Many of us in parish ministry have heard horror stories from well-meaning parents who have happily and innocently sent their children to ostensibly Catholic universities, only to have them return home four years later with some very un-Catholic viewpoints on matters of faith and morals. Of course, these graduates will almost always maintain that the deviant doctrines were taught to them by “good, Catholic theologians.”

But how good—and how Catholic—were they, if their personal faith was not even at the level of a recent Catholic convert? As the Catholic theology professor cited at the beginning of the article said, requiring men and women in his profession to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church doesn’t seem like all that much to ask. And it isn’t—for those theologians who believe that, in the pursuit of the Truth, they themselves should be truthful.

Fr. Raymond N. Suriani
Westerly, Rhode Island


Bruce D. Marshall replies:

Eamon Roche, Br. Dominic, and Fr. Suriani offer clarifications of the concept of conscience at work in my essay. We are of the same mind, and to what they say I will simply add a few clarifications of my own.

The idea of a good conscience includes the aspect of certainty that Roche helpfully invokes from the Catechism . Part of acting in good conscience is not ascribing to one’s own judgments—including the ­deliverances of conscience itself—­either more or less certainty than they deserve.

I doubt that we have two consciences, one for moral matters and one for intellectual matters, as ?Br. Dominic suggests. That said, he is certainly right to observe that not every act carried out under the banner of conscience is worthy of the name. As Newman puts the point, conscience is the opposite of self-will or self-pleasing, though the latter often claims the rights of conscience. The difference between the two is plain in the case of Congar. The theologian who dissents faithfully, and thus in good conscience, keeps quiet about his dissent, rather than advertising it.

Of course few of us, theologians or otherwise, will own to being guided by self-will. If you have a conscience (and everybody does), you have an inclination to regard it as well-formed. Theologians will thus sometimes claim that while dissent should generally remain private, in their own case conscience bids them to make it public, or to persevere in it after others have made it public (think of Luther in 1521). The theologian who does this may be acting in bad faith, but I doubt that this is the usual situation.

Here we touch on the problem Fr. Suriani rightly raises. Personal reflection and especially prayer are needed schools for the formation of conscience. But it belongs to the fragility of conscience that it can lead us astray. Conscience thus needs external as well as personal formation. This can be painful. I may mistakenly but in all sincerity suppose that I believe what the holy Catholic Church believes, and need the Church herself to compel me to reconsider.

William Gillham’s worries are of a different order. Faith is no doubt cognitive, indeed primarily so, rather than emotional or intuitive, as he supposes. From this it hardly follows that faith’s cognitions are perfected by reason’s—what God teaches us by what we teach ourselves—or that the academic who follows the faith of the Church is less a scholar than the academic who heeds only “his own faith.”

Here we glimpse the hopeless elitism of the ancient rationalist impulse, fortified by modern individualism. Were I seriously to believe that reason perfects faith, I would need to believe that my faith was more perfect, closer to its goal, than that of the elderly Cistercian who hears my confession, to say nothing of, say, ?St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The absurdity of that proposition is a good reminder that reason does not perfect faith, but serves it.

I am quite sure that Newman meant literally the lines I quoted from The Dream of Gerontius , as his own conduct of life repeatedly showed. What he literally said is not that the Church is God, but that she is his (Christ’s) creation, formed and sustained by his own hand so that he may teach us the truth about himself.

And as biblical Israel discovered to her sorrow, we need not worship the creature in order to venture into idolatry. We are also idolaters when we seek the true God where he may not be found, and fail to find him where he gives himself to be sought. Whether following the Church is committing idolatry or, on the contrary, is following Christ depends exactly on whether holy Church is his creation, and her teaching his own.

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