By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Acknowledging what he called the proper “autonomy and integrity” of Catholic theology, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles last night praised theologians for "the long, painful, and often lonely work of research and writing” which he said is an “indispensable part of the life of the church.”
Theology, Mahony said, is vital to “the central ministry of the church, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations.”
Mahony was addressing the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which is being held this year at the downtown Sheraton Hotel in Los Angeles.
The theme of this year’s gathering is “Bishops in the Church,” and Mahony jokingly thanked the theologians for considering bishops to be a “worthy subject.” Several other bishops are taking part in the conference, including Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops; Bishop Tod Brown of Orange, California; Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee; Emeritus Bishop Fritz Lobinger of Aliwal, South Africa; Emeritus Bishop Francisco Claver of Malaybalay, The Philippines; Emeritus Bishop John Cummins of Oakland; Thomas Gumbleton, Auxiliary Bishop of Detroit; and Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala.
The relationship between the CTSA and the bishops has not always been irenic.
In 1997, a six-member task force of the CTSA issued a report on the church’s ban on ordination of women to the priesthood, concluding that there are “serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and its grounds in tradition.” In response, the doctrinal staff of the U.S. bishops’ conference sent a critique of the report to all bishops in the United States. In June 1997, Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop of Boston, wrote that the CTSA “has become an association of advocacy for theological dissent” and is a theological “wasteland.”
In the same year, then-Fr. Avery Dulles, now a cardinal, charged that CTSA members had rejected “fundamental articles of Catholic belief.” Some bishops have encouraged the growth of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars as a more conservative rival to the CTSA.
Nevertheless, Mahony signaled clear support for the CTSA, saying that he believes “episcopal ministry works best when I work closely with theologians,” and that he respects “academic life with all its rights and responsibilities.”
“I have found that the work of theologians is of inestimable value for the life of the local church,” Mahony said. He mentioned ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as areas which have been especially “strengthened by members of the Catholic theological community in Los Angeles.” Mahony described Los Angeles as “the largest, fastest growing and most diverse” diocese in America.
Mahony said that for more than 20 years, he has relied on an archdiocesan theological commission, made up of theologians from local universities and seminaries as well as pastoral workers. The cardinal said he’s called on the commission to advise him on a host of important questions, such as framing his reactions to a draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the lineamenta, or preparatory document, for the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist.
Mahony also has his own personal theologian, Fr. Michael Downey, who is a well-known writer on spiritual themes.
Mahony offered what he called a “striking example” of cooperation with theologians in the form of an April 2000 pastoral letter on ministry titled “As I Have Done For You,” which he described as “the only pastoral letter penned and published by a bishop and his priests.” Mahony said the letter originated with a request from his priests in the late 1990s for a statement on changing conceptions of ministry, and he asked the priests to work with Downey in giving those ideas “theological form.”
Mahony also described meeting with area theologians in September 2000 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, in response to Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on the Catholic identity of church-run schools and colleges. Among other things, the pope’s letter requires a Catholic theologian to have a license from the local bishop, called a “mandatum.”
“We were able to arrive at procedures whereby I fulfill my responsibilities as the ordinary, in a way that respects the autonomy and integrity of Roman Catholics teaching Catholic theology in this archdiocese,” Mahony said.
As time passes, Mahony said, “I find myself looking to theologians for assistance more often rather than less,” praising them for their intellectual efforts, sometimes derided as “ivory tower,” but which he said is a ministry “only theologians are prepared to do in service to both the academy and the church.”