By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Until quite recently, statements of support for beleaguered theologians from the Catholic Theological Society of America, the main body for professional Catholic theologians in the United States, were as regular as clockwork. The Vatican or the U.S. bishops would censure somebody, and the CTSA would issue a statement backing that person and criticizing the disciplinary process.
A couple of factors, however, seem to have nudged the CTSA, at least in terms of formal corporate statements, toward greater reticence.
One, perhaps, is a recent evolution in the way officialdom treats theologians under review. Beginning with the Vatican’s 2001 document on the work of the late Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, a more clear distinction is drawn these days between investigating works of theology and disciplining persons. Today, the typical outcome of a doctrinal review is a critical notification about specific works, which, in effect, amounts to a sort of bad book review. Silencings, suspensions, and bans on teaching or publishing, which seem to make the person the problem rather than the book, have become rare.
(That’s not to say that critical notifications don’t create “add-on” problems. Theologians may find invitations to speak in certain dioceses withdrawn, or may experience pressures related to their jobs if they work at church-run institutions. Such difficulties, however, are not the direct product of a formal ecclesiastical act.)
In that sense, the CTSA and other groups in the church, to some extent, may simply have less to protest.
Another factor is a degree of unease, articulated last year by then-CTSA President Daniel Finn, that issuing statements which criticize church authorities may alienate more conservative theologians who agree with at least some of officialdom’s concerns. Finn argued that the CTSA ought to be a place where theologians of all persuasions can meet, and the price of fostering such an atmosphere may be greater restraint in taking official positions on behalf of the whole organization.
However one explains it, the trend seems clear enough.
This year, for example, some observers had expected a statement in support of Fr. Peter Phan, a prominent Vietnamese-American theologian and former president of CTSA, whose 2004 book, Being Religious Interreligiously, was the object of a critical notification from the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. bishops in December. Phan, who is attending the CTSA meeting in Miami, is an enormously popular figure in theological circles; this afternoon, he was part of a panel on inter-religious studies.
In the end, however, no statement about the Phan case will be issued. That shouldn’t be interpreted, sources here say, as a lack of support for Phan. Rather, in the words of one participant, it’s an option for “reverential silence.” It also reflects the approach of Phan himself, who has steadfastly declined to engage in public polemics about his case.
The CTSA faced the same question last year, in the wake of a critical Vatican notification on the work of Jesuit liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, a Spaniard who lives and works in El Salvador. Among other things, Sobrino’s emphasis on the link between faith and social justice reflects his personal experience – six of his Jesuit confreres at the University of Central America, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, were murdered by an army unit in 1989 as part of a long-running civil war in El Salvador.
The Vatican's notification charged that, albeit for noble motives, Sobrino's theology distorts or downplays key articles of faith about Christ and the church. After the notification appeared, the CTSA decided not to issue a statement, but rather to organize a panel on his work at the Miami meeting.
That panel, which amounted to a tribute to Sobrino’s theology, took place this afternoon; no critical notes were struck. Sister of Charity Eileen Fagan of the College of Mount Saint Vincent said that the CTSA had originally hoped Sobrino himself could be present, but prior commitments prevented him from coming.
Speakers on the panel included Fagan, Jesuit Fr. Kevin Burke of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Jesuit Fr. Stephen Pope of Boston College, and Thomas Kelly of Creighton.
Burke opened with a provocative metaphor.
“Theology is like a wild animal, like a wolf or an eagle or a great white shark,” he said. “It’s dangerous, and given the propensity of human beings to domesticate and dominate what frightens them, it’s also endangered.”
Burke said that at least two dangers face Catholic theology today. One is the secular tendency to deny theology any place at all in the academy, arguing that it’s “unscientific.” The other, he said, comes from within the church. It’s a tendency Burke described as reducing theology to “advanced apologetic catechesis,” driven by fear that genuine, thoughtful theological reflection might harm the faith of “simple believers.”
In that broad context, Burke said, it’s little surprise that some are alarmed by Sobrino’s writing in the area of Christology, or the church’s doctrine about Christ, which Burke called “the lion of all dangerous theologies.”
Despite whatever danger may surround it, Burke said, Sobrino’s work is valuable. His emphasis on taking the experience of the suffering poor as a starting point, Burke argued, leads to “authentic faith” grounded in the example of Jesus.
Burke argued that Sobrino probes important questions that sometimes the church would just as soon avoid, such as:
•tOn whose behalf do we do theology?
•tWho benefits from our theology?
•tCan we do theology in way that takes world seriously as a place to love?
Burke said that Sobrino’s emphasis on the example of Jesus “consistently protects theology from the most insidious threat, which is the temptation to use its own logic to misrepresent God.”
Pope acknowledged that some critics charge Sobrino with stressing the social dimension of the faith at the expense of the personal and spiritual – with being, as Pope put it, “all prophet and no priest.”
Instead, Pope argued, Sobrino’s ethical vision can save Catholic thought from “false dichotomies and imbalanced affirmations” such as “belief without discipleship, charity without justice, and reconciliation without truth.” His theology, Pope said, helps address a “contradiction between our professed faith and our inadequate action.”
Kelly focused on Sobrino’s ecclesiology, meaning his teaching about the church. In effect, he said, Sobrino raises an essential question: “What is a church that resembles Jesus?”
Sobrino’s answer, Kelly said, is that “the church should incarnate mission of mercy that Jesus lived out during his life.” Among other things, he said, Sobrino’s vision can save the church from an excessive preoccupation with “regulating its own internal life,” ensuring instead that it is “outward-focused.”
Fagan commented on Sobrino’s writing on martyrdom, arguing that he helps push the Catholic concept of martyrdom beyond someone killed strictly in odium fidei, or hatred of the faith, toward a broader sense of people who give their lives for others.