Against Divisiveness in Theological Discourse
I’ve just returned from participating in the second gathering of the formerly-Fordham-now-Catholic Conversation Project. This year’s gathering in Dover, Massachusetts, hosted about 15 pre-tenure Catholic scholars in various subfields of theology or closely related disciplines. I returned filled with hope and energy that theologians of multiple generations, together with bishops, are really invested in moving theological discourse past the polarizing language that so deeply divides factions both within the theological academy and within the Church.
Of course, I also returned to learn that Fr. Tom Weinandy has pronounced theologians—at least some of us—to be “a curse and affliction on the Church.” Apparently, the polarizing language remains alive and well, as do the divides, which are clearly very very deep. As reported by John Allen, Weinandy suggests that theologians become a curse and affliction upon the church precisely when they fail to root their work in an active faith life and in the teaching of the Church. This seems to me to be exactly right. The problem is that we (as a church and as a theological guild) are deeply divided about what qualifies one as reaching each of these two criteria.
What constitutes an active faith life? Does one have to go to Mass weekly? Daily? Read scripture daily? Weekly? Ever? Prayer life? Engagement in the corporal works of mercy? All of these things? To paint a picture that pushes toward the extremes: what if I go to daily Mass but hate/ignore the poor? What if I spend every spare moment serving the poor and marginalized out of a biblically-formed sense that I encounter Christ when I encounter them, but I fail to make it to Mass as many Sundays as I succeed? Likewise, what precisely constitutes the teaching of the church? Every papal pronouncement? Every pronouncement by any bishop? Just the ecumenical councils? As far as I can see, even the most recent ecumenical council has created no small amount of difference in interpretation about what its most authentic/essential teachings were. Is it so clear exactly what one would hold on every issue if one were rooted in the life and teaching of the Church?
I have my own answers to these questions, but my point in raising them is not so much to push anyone to my answer (which is of course right and reasonable), but to point out that there are not simply a wide variety of answers to these questions (which there are!) but even more so, there are, it seems to me, “clusters” of people who tend to answer them in the same way as other like-minded people. I do think that there are two such clusters that (loosely) line up somewhere like what is named by the labels conservative/liberal or right/left.
I think that far too often, people in each of these clusters stay largely within their own cluster. They talk with other people in their cluster, they read and cite and engage the other people in their cluster. Although each cluster has the arguments and disagreements internal to it, the shared assumptions within each are extensive. The other cluster only crosses their minds (or enters their conversations) when they want to mention how wrong are their assumptions about what counts as faith, what defines the church, what the task of theology truly is.
I wonder if it is possible for theologians—in the midst of their different sets of assumptions—to have a genuine conversation about these differences. What would it be like if we began with the assumption that the other—as right or wrong as we might imagine his or her positions to be—was shaped by and wanted to be true to a genuine animating faith and a true desire to serve both the Gospel and the Church? Would it be possible then to have conversations instead of competing monologues? Could we come to any sense of agreement? Mutual respect? Communion?
I take great hope from the gathering I was part of earlier this week with other members of the Catholic Conversation Project. Honestly, we didn’t really argue out many of our differences, and, frankly, although we had more diversity of perspective than many gatherings of theologians, we did not represent the spectrum all the way to the extremes. But we did a lot of listening to one another, striving to understand one another’s shaping concerns. And what emerged, for me at least, was a sense that what we share more deeply than anything else is a sense that we love the Church and want to be of service to it. I think a close second is a sense that polarizing language, stereotyping and knee-jerk reactions divide and poison the Church, and that we want to strive to discipline ourselves and our language to build up, not to tear down.
As part of their response to Weinandy, the folks at the Women in Theology (WIT) Blog made a comment about the narrative that younger theologians are somehow less divisive than their mentors. They said:
We at WIT have often noticed the popularity, within certain segments of the Catholic world, of the claim that younger Catholics, including younger theologians, have advanced beyond the ostensibly-divisive concerns of our post-Vatican II mentors. This trope suggests that senior theologians have contributed to the fragmentation of the church through an irresponsible focus on polarizing issues, while theologians in our 20s and 30s are able to transcend such polarization by focusing on areas of accord.
I think it makes very little sense to place blame (though, again, my guess would be that each cluster I mentioned above has a pretty clear narrative of blame). I also think that it makes little sense to focus overly much on areas of accord. But it is simply the case that there are some very deep divides in our Church, divides that are also reflected in (as they reflect) the divides in the theological guild. And, theologically, we believe that oneness/unity is an essential mark of the Church. Christ himself prayed for that oneness. The question I would ask of every theologian (of every generation), every bishop, every interested member of the Church at every level is: so, what will you do about this? It is not the case that young theologians (or anyone else) magically transcends the polarization and therefore contributes to unity. Instead, we all must choose not simply what we will comment on, but both the tone and the content of our contributions. I’ve been privileged to be in conversation with many theologians (and in the Catholic Conversation Project, most of them do happen to be young), who are trying to focus on doing theology in ways that might be able to help reduce the polarization and help move the church toward the unity we are called to. I hope that more of us–across generations and across ideological divides, across anything that divides us–will do the same.