By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
An up-and-coming Catholic theologian said today that the previous generation in the church, both bishops and theologians, has left behind a “negative legacy” of ideological division, and called upon theologians to recognize that “overall, the hierarchy is not our enemy.”
Perhaps most pointedly, Jozef Zalot called upon theologians to remember that bishops are the successors of the apostles, and it’s their teachings which are binding on the church, not those of the theological guild. At the same time, he also invited bishops to seek contributions from a “greater range” of theologians in formulating statements, and to be open to private critique from sources outside the hierarchy.
Zalot, who received his Ph.D. from Marquette in 2002 and today teaches at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, made the comments at the annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in Miami.
Zalot spoke as part of a panel on a new generation of theologians in the CTSA. He described what he sees as an unfortunate split between bishops and theologians that prevents the church from addressing pressing social problems in a unified fashion.
“Many theologians believe bishops to be theologically illiterate, while many bishops view academic societies such as the CTSA to be irrelevant,” Zalot said. “This dynamic needs to change.”
In practical terms, Zalot urged that Catholic theologians “need to work more collaboratively with the church hierarchy.” Candidly, he added that based on conversations he’s had with more senior members of the theological guild, this is something “there seems to be little desire on the part of many theologians to do.”
Zalot made clear that he sees this call as reflecting neither a traditional “liberal” or “conservative” stance. In fact, he seemed to suggest, that very ideological taxonomy is part of the problem.
“On one side we have the so-called ‘liberals’ (clerical and lay) who are wary, distrustful, and sometimes openly hostile to church hierarchy, and who see little or no possibility for collaboration with it,” he said. “On the other side we have the so-called ‘conservatives’ (again, clerical and lay) who, while meticulously maintaining continuity with established church doctrine, render as heretical any attempt at respectful, critical questioning of magisterial teaching.”
Zalot said those divisions prevent Catholicism from offering a unified witness to critically important questions such as “individualism and relativism … the war on terror, sexuality, medical research, immigration, the plight of refugees, [and] economic policy.”
Zalot said that he does not see “the ideological divide in our generation as I do with our predecessors.”
“My hope and prayer for our generation is that we will not allow our differences to cloud the work that God has called us to do,” he said.
“It would be of great service to the church if we, the next generation of Catholic theologians, made it clear to the U.S. bishops’ conference – and by extension to the magisterium as a whole – that we desire a positive working relationship,” Zalot said.
Zalot described the hierarchy as “an essential partner in extending Christ’s message to a world that so desperately needs it.”
At the same time, Zalot challenged the bishops to be open to theological input, saying that “critique offered in a spirit of mutual collaboration is good for our church, and hopefully someday our bishops – and the magisterium as a whole – will more fully recognize this.”
Zalot asked rhetorically, “Am I being naïve and idealistic here?”
“Maybe,” he said.