A recent issue of Horizons , the journal of the College Theology Society , a clubby American Catholic professional association, reminded me of the significant limitations of the current scene in academic theology in the United States.
The issue (Vol. 34/1, Spring 2007) features a symposium on Fergus Kerr’s new book, Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians: From Chenu to Ratzinger . (See my own review essay of Kerr’s book, " Theology After the Revolution " (subscription required), in the May issue of First Things .) The short reviews illustrate the intellectual dead-end that we call liberal Catholicism.
Two members of the Catholic theological old guard, Michael A. Fahey and Bernard Cooke, reminisce and reiterate some of the standard sentiments of their generation. Fahey expresses surprise that "Kerr does not state outright that he considers Rome to have overreacted" in the removal of Han Küng from the Catholic faculty at Tübingen some thirty years ago. The old battles of church politics rage on in the minds of the retiring faculty who have dominated American Catholic graduate study for decades.
Bernard Cooke expresses a similar preoccupation. He regrets that the creative ferment and culture of theological experimentation that defined younger days has been "largely blocked up in recent decades," in part because of "undue patriarchal domination and clericalism." The wistfulness is standard fare and should be familiar to anyone who goes to meetings of Catholic theologians. I don’t think Cooke is quite aware of the irony of his affirmation of the ideal of "a theologian who theologizes historically." After all, he gives the distinct impression of a fly frozen in the amber of the past.
Jeannine Hill Fletcher may not be frozen in the 1970s, but she manifests an even more icy tone. Her review is little more than a denunciation of Kerr’s book as politically incorrect. His crimes are many. Kerr, she asserts, has chosen to write about white, European clerics, and this perpetuates "androcentric discourse." Kerr fails to focus on the (supposed) fact that feminist theology "changed the way theology is done." He talks about heterosexual marriage without denouncing its normative role in the tradition.
Yikes. Reading Hill Fletcher I felt as though I had happened upon a memo for the prosecution at a 1930s Soviet show trial. Doesn’t Kerr know that he is duty-bound to undertake ritual critiques of "androcentrism" and "heterosexism" and "clericism" and so forth? Doesn’t Kerr know that writing a history of twentieth-century Catholic theology should not try to inform readers of the crucial mid-century theological debates, but instead needs to erase people from photos and put others in their place so we are fed the "right" views? Isn’t Kerr aware of the de facto quota system: You gotta have women in your story, even if no women theologians played roles in the defining debates leading up to the Second Vatican Council?
I must say that I was relieved when I read the final review. Cara L. Antony offers a sensible, intellectually responsible engagement with Kerr’s approach to Karl Rahner. I’m glad to know that the College Theology Society has at least some members who are not either nostalgically stuck in the past or heresy-hunting with a new Syllabus of Ideological Errors.
In Fergus Kerr’s response to the reviewers, one detects a certain tone of dismay. In a number of cases, the reviewers misread his dry, sardonic tone, thus assume that Kerr endorses what he in fact thinks strange and troubling. This misreading is especially painful in Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s denunciations of what she takes to be Kerr’s warm affirmation of the Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Paul II’s speculations about the nuptial mystery of love, marriage, priesthood, and the church. "I expected readers," writes Kerr, "to pick up on my astonishment that the century of mainstream theology that opened under the grip of Neo-Scholasticism closed with this new emphasis among influential theologians on ‘nuptiality.’"
It is reasonable for Kerr to hope that ordinary readers will pay attention to the words, follow the arguments, and exercise the modest discipline of distinguishing between what an author is trying to explain and what an author wishes to affirm. But I’m afraid that the liberal Catholic establishment has difficulty meeting ordinary expectations.
John Stuart Mill once wrote that the Conservative Party in England was the "stupid party." What he meant was that English Conservatives were like most Establishment parties: smug, complaisant, immobile, and more inclined to block changes than affect substantive plans. These days, liberal Catholicism defines the Catholic theological establishment in the United States, and, as the reviews of Fergus Kerr’s book illustrates, it tends to be the stupid party. Not one of the reviews raises a new idea or suggests a fresh insight about the crucial period of Catholic theology surveyed in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians . Instead, in these reviews, we see the Catholic academic establishment do what establishments so often do: The reviewers largely give us tired old shibboleths as substitutes for thought, and the energy and verve that remain come from knee-jerk ideological reactions instead of reasoned arguments.
This observation is not meant to throw in doubt the intellectual gifts, Christian commitment, or learned expertise of most members of the College Theology Society, or its older brother, the Catholic Theological Society of America. I’m sure that folks like Michael Fahey and Bernard Cooke have a great deal to offer. Furthermore, the liberal Catholic project itself made important contributions to the mid-century Church.
But as members of the establishment, they and others too often approach books and ideas as occasions to refight the old battles. Anti-modernism was a centrally important feature of twentieth-century Catholic theology, and, as Kerr testifies, it had a stifling effect. So I find myself appreciative of the generation that made the arguments that convinced the Catholic Church that the oath against modernism was no longer necessary. Nonetheless, it is now 2007, and that episode in theological history, and the Neoscholastic theology that stood behind the ecclesiastical reaction against modernism, needs to be analyzed and understood, as Kerr himself suggests. It should not be treated as a bug-bear to be defeated over and over again with fulminating incantations¯which, unfortunately, the liberal Catholic establishment continues to train its members to do.
The same holds for feminist and womanist and gay and postcolonialist and all the other theologies of the moment that fancy themselves speaking from the margins. A proponent of feminist theology such as Jeannine Hill Fletcher might have any number of interesting insights. In fact, her review half wants to give expression to those insights when she opens with the observation that the book is well-written and very engaging. But as a member of the Central Committee, she is drawn into the reactionary, establishment role of policing publications and body slamming anyone who appears to deviate from the party line. Duty calls, and it’s hard to read for nuance when there’s "androcentric discourse" abroad that needs to be stamped out.
Petrified wood is hard but brittle. The liberal Catholic establishment that presently dominates most American Catholic universities can seem very powerful to those of us who dissent from its dominating ethos. But as the Establishment, it has become so very stupid that I don’t think it has much of a future. So let us now praise (and understand) those learned and courageous and faithful scholars who transformed the world of Catholic theology some thirty and forty, even fifty and sixty, years ago. But let’s also get on with our efforts to make sense out of the Church that this Establishment did so much to form and shape in recent generations.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.