The Magisterium v. Theologians: Case studies

In the footnotes of the letter that theologians, priests and a couple of bishops submitted last month to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asking for a more just process of investigating questions about theological teaching and pastoral practices is a citation for a book by Richard R. Gaillardetz of Boston College, When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Todays Church.

I wrote about this book in June 2012 when Liturgical Press released it. Below is what I wrote at that time under the headline "Summertime Reads":

This isn’t exactly a beach read, but I predict it will be a summertime Catholic best-seller. When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church (Liturgical Press) is a series of essays edited by Richard R. Gaillardetz, the Joseph McCarthy Professor Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. The essays began as papers presented over three years at conventions of the Catholic Theological Society of America as part of a project studying the magisterium. In his introduction, Gaillardetz explains:

What drew our attention was a pronounced magisterial activism, beginning for the most part with the pontificate of John Paul II and continuing under Pope Benedict XVI. As Catholic theologians, all of us accept, in principle, the authority of the pope and bishops to pronounce on church doctrine as a means of preserving the integrity of the apostolic faith. However, we found ourselves considering the recent history of magisterial interventions and asking ourselves about, first, the theological assumptions at play in this record of magisterial activism, and, second, the interplay between the exercise of magisterial authority and key features of the emerging cultural context often designated by that admittedly slippery term, postmodernity.

The book, though academic, is a surprisingly breezy read. There is enough drama in the topics discussed to pull the reader along. Gaillardetz’s introduction gives a concise account of the development of “the magisterium” that sets the stage for what is to follow. The three essays of Part 1 give an overview of the “magisterial interventions” we have seen in recent years. Fordham University theologian Bradford E. Hinze’s essay, “A Decade of Disciplining Theologians,” is especially valuable because it gathers in one place a list of theologians and church thinkers who have been silenced, investigated or warned in the John Paul II and Benedict XVI years.

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Part 2 offers “theological and contextual reflections.” I found particularly interesting Australian theologian Ormond Rush’s essay on the relationship of sensus fidelium, theology and the magisterium. I also liked “When Mediating Structures Change: The Magisterium, the Media, and the Culture Wars,” by Vincent F. Miller, the Gudorf Professor of Catholic Theology and Culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

Part 3, with the understated title “Recent Developments,” is another valuable contribution to this subject because it collects the back-and-forth between the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Doctrine and St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, the Fordham theologian whose book Quest for the Living God was criticized by the doctrine committee last year. We saw that played out over many months, but can now see the documents and letters in one spot.

One of the most compelling sections of the book comes early, in Hinze’s survey of disciplined theologians. He gives “a litany of theologians’ laments.” Hinze urges us to go beyond the official accounts of disciplinary actions to listen to the voices of the theologians in the midst of these processes. There is much to learn, he says, in listening to “the frictions, frustrations, and failures involved in these procedures.”

He writes: “Lamentations offer a source of wisdom, renewal and reform in the church. They are a privileged site for hearing the Spirit of God who groans in the human heart and the suffering world when something new is struggling into existence and when the Spirit is being stifled.”


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