By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Public statements by the Catholic Theological Society of America criticizing the Vatican and the bishops “have done us damage,” the body’s outgoing president said today, concluding that the prerequisite to fostering dialogue is “making fewer public statements defending ourselves against ecclesiastical power.”
“The price has been too high compared to what we have gained,” said Daniel Finn of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. “I wish we were not facing this trade-off, but I believe we are.”
Finn made clear that he was not trying to stifle criticism, but said that in the future, such statements should come from individual theologians, perhaps with others signing on, but not in the name of the CTSA.
The comments by Finn came in his “Presidential Address” at the conclusion of the annual conference of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Los Angeles, California.
Over the years, the CTSA has issued a number of critical statements on official church teaching or disciplinary interventions against theologians. In 1997, for example, the CTSA issued a statement on the ban on women’s ordination, concluding that there are “serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and its grounds in tradition.” More recently, the CTSA board issued a statement in 2005 defending American Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight after he was censured by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Those statements have produced backlash, including Cardinal Bernard Law’s famous declaration that the CTSA has become a theological “wasteland.” Also in 1997, then-Fr. Avery Dulles, now a cardinal, said that the CTSA “constitutes a kind of alternative magisterium for dissatisfied Catholics.”
In his address, Finn made clear that he was not questioning the content of the CTSA statements, but their impact.
First, he said, they have produced a distorted image of the society.
“They have become the public face of CTSA for nearly everyone who does not attend our conventions,” he said. “They present us as individuals who gather to defend ourselves against hierarchical authority, but that’s only a small part of what we’re up to.” In the end, he said, the statements give “a false impression to outsiders.”
This is a special risk, Finn argued, in an era of “ideological splintering of news outlets,” so that statements which appear to challenge church authorities will be “spun” according to the agendas of different groups.
The risk of misleading impressions of the CTSA is true not just of the general public, he said, but also among the hierarchy.
“Many bishops form their view of us on the basis of our public statements, often influenced by advisors who are conservative theologians who don’t attend our meetings,” Finn said.
Second, Finn argued, the public statements have exacted a steep internal cost in the CTSA by driving conservative theologians away.
“They felt no longer welcome, out of a sense that they’re on the margins of a group that pokes funs at Vatican shortcomings and puts the CTSA name on statements they do not endorse. They feel it’s not their group,” he said.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever get those folks back, but there is a long future of others to come,” Finn said.
Instead, Finn argued, the CTSA “should be the place where Catholic theologians of all perspectives come to do their theology.”
“Our church is wracked by divisions caused by ideological simplicities on all sides, and we need broader dialogue in the church than we have today,” Finn said. “In the CTSA, all theologians should feel respected, and a majority should not employ the mechanics of majoritarian democracy to produce statements that the minority would find offensive and leave.”
Finn also affirmed the merits of the concerns underlying many CTSA statements, including those directed at the operation of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s top doctrinal agency.
“The congregation has preferred secrecy and publicly renounced the due process guarantees of canon law,” he said, “on the basis that issues of doctrine are so important that these procedures pose a risk to the true faith. But if it understood the suspicions that power inevitably generates, it would conclude that the very importance of these issues means that authority should be especially careful to exhibit transparency, accountability, and due process.”
Finn’s comments came as part of a broader analysis of power, in which he argued that theologians have been insufficiently attentive to the way that power operates, which he described as “part of the software of daily life.” He drew on his experience in community organizing, as well as in higher education, to lay out a theory of how power – in both good and bad forms – works in daily human interactions.
An understanding of power, Finn suggested, among other things leads to an appreciation for the importance of maintaining relationships in obtaining one’s aims. He quoted a maxim among community organizers that the most powerful person in a community is usually the one with the longest list of phone numbers.
“Don’t alienate someone except on those rare occasions when you’re sure it would do more good than harm for the cause,” he advised.
Finn noted that this is a special challenge in relationships between theologians and bishops, since the situation has changed dramatically from the days when priest-theologians would regularly have dinner with the bishop at the table of the refectory. He cited his experience of working with the U.S. bishops on the issue of the mandatum, or the license that a Catholic theologian is supposed to obtain from the local bishop. Three bishops thanked him for being “reasonable,” Finn noted, suggesting an impression of theologians as generally unreasonable that, he argued, would not survive actual personal contact with them.
Avoiding contact with people with whom one disagrees, he said, is a “sophomoric strategy.”
To what extent Finn’s sentiments represent a majority in the CTSA is difficult to gauge, but his address drew a standing ovation Sunday morning. It’s also revealing that the CTSA did not put out a public statement on the Vatican’s recent critical notification on two books by Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, a famed liberation theologian, but rather decided to organize a discussion of his theology at their next meeting.