Pages Navigation Menu

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.





  1. This short reflection has many virtues, but the one that I am interested in is that it takes issue with the notion that “young theologians” (I have always wondered what’s the cut off transforming one into an oldster) are some how less polarized than their elders. It is undoubtably true that the council created its own intra-generational split, and that the attitudes of our teachers of that generation should not be translated to their students. Yet, the issues that divide have not, nor will they, fade away with each funeral.

    There are conceptual and cultural entities that can be safely called “liberal” Catholicism and “conservative” Catholicism. The young as well as the “old” participate, each leaning one way or the other. The only interesting issue is whether and how fruitful coexistence is possible. Most of the liberals I know (of whatever age) think the conservatives I know are wrong and regret their power in the institutional church. Most of the conservatives I know (of whatever age) think the liberals are wrong and regret their continuing power in the academy and the dominant theological societies.

    I support efforts like the Catholic Conversation Project to see if fruitful coexistence for the good of the Church universal can be forwarded. I wish them the bestest of luck (I am, alas, too long in the tooth to contribute), but I just hope that the bright generational line some (not Dillon) seek to draw fades as they themselves sink into the autumn of their years.

    • Hi James…thanks for your thoughts. But let me respectfully suggest that this binary way of thinking is precisely what the CP is trying to avoid. Indeed, most of the people who attended couldn’t be shoved into either of the two camps you lay out as the only two options. The linear, two-dimensional model just doesn’t capture the complexity of the various theological approaches that were heard and discussed.

      That said, the goal of finding ways for people who are in these camps (a number that appears to be decreasing, at least in the theological academy…but I would argue it is a more general trend with young people) to ‘peacefully coexist’ is an important one.

  2. Thanks, Dana, for this wonderful response to an indictment of theologians I find puzzling and uncharitable. I love going to meetings of academic theologians because the vast majority (young and old; liberal, conservative, and everything inbetween) are people of deep faith, intellect, and humility who genuinely love the church and want more than anything to serve the church.

  3. Jim and Charlie, As for what distinguishes the younger from the older generation, I have been intrigued by the argument that it is the difference between those raised in a Catholic sub-culture, versus those who were raised after the decline of it. At the Society of Christian Ethics meeting in 2005, the Ethics and Catholic Theology interest group held a session entitled “Beyond the Subculture: Recent Changes in the American Catholic Church, and Their Impact on Catholic Moral Theology,” with panelists David McCarthy, Julie Rubio, and Angela Senander. They all contributed wonderfully on this topic, and my great regret is that their presentations were not gathered and published.

  4. Thanks, Dana, for your beautifully written and challenging post. You ask some great questions! And I think there is substantial evidence out there that in U.S. culture many of us (in the theological guild as well as the wider culture) are in the habit of talking with people with whom we already agree. So it is so important to build relationships across “clusters” and have intentional and respectful dialogue. I find that I have a hard time keeping up with all the interesting publications in my “cluster” sometimes and so I struggle to read the newest journal articles from the other “side.” But I’m with Julie– I love going to conferences and seeing the vast majority of participants who do what they do out of their love for the church.

  5. Thanks to everyone for your comments. I would like to point out that part of the issue of “clusters” that I was trying to raise here is precisely that there are “clusters” missing at the conferences. Although there are some exceptions, many of the folks who go to the Academy of Catholic Theology (where Weinandy gave his talk, and where he likely found a great deal of sympathy) have opted out of the CTSA. Dan Finn pointed this out as a problem in his presidential address (2007, I think). Without disagreeing with Emily and Julie about the faith and love for the church that I see there, I remain disappointed that this is (I think increasingly) space that fails to bring together the diversity of perspectives in the church. Again, I mean the word “fails” there descriptively, and without blame. But again I would ask what will we do about that failure.

  6. Thank you everyone for your comments – I am happy to see such a careful discussion about the very destruction divisions within the Church and among theologians today.
    I would like to add my voice to this discussion as someone who is a) a member of ACT, b) someone who has not been a regular attendee of CTSA, CTA or AAR, c) a woman, d) one of the oldsters (I am nearing the big 5-O), and e) someone who has been involved in another controversial aspect of theology – relations with non-Christians.
    Given all of the above, I realize that my perspective on this may be rather narrow. Nonetheless, I would like to point out that what has been decisive for me when I have chosen the ‘cluster’ (as Dana so nicely puts it) within which I have been academically engaged is the attitude the members have toward tradition. It is certainly too simplistic to simply divide people into categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Yet it is also the case that these categories point to something, and I believe this is often manifested in how each regards tradition. Is the tradition something that communicates accumulated wisdom that, although often deeply embedded in cultural trappings, should form the foundation for our contemporary thinking on any given subject? Or is the tradition primarily the way in which underprivileged groups have been oppressed by arbitrary norms and practices that should now be thrown off in order to give us a new freedom, both inside and outside of the Church? Proponents of the former often call themselves ‘traditionalists’ and the latter ‘progressives’, which I think reveals a great deal about their attitudes.
    Again, I realize that this is somewhat black and white, but I will say that my own experience in the past twenty years has been that in many, many circles, most obviously the three associations I mention above, one cannot simply present papers or be involved in discussions that engage the tradition deeply without first listing the one hundred ways in which it is false and oppressive. In my own field, there are precious few venues in which I can speak honestly about the limitations of Islam without being labeled Islamophobic, patristic and medieval insights into the uniqueness of Christianity without being dismissed as exclusivist, or even to be a woman active in Vatican dialogues and programs without being seen as a traitor to the ’cause’ of women’s ordination. It really becomes tiresome, and I have fallen into the habit of hanging around with those who do not question my credentials, psychological limitations or motivations in order to be able to do serious thinking and publishing about pressing issues.
    None of this is to imply that I believe that the institutional Church has never been wrong about anything (Inquisition??????), the Church is constituted in the Spirit out of fallen human beings, and this fallenness is manifested in every human activity. Nonetheless, it seems to me that Fr. Weinandy, wielding a sledgehammer to make his point, is speaking for those who despair of the future of humanity when ancient wisdom is treated with contempt. The world moves faster than light speed today, and we need the ‘progressives’ to articulate current problems and possible solutions, but we also need the ‘traditionalists’ to remind us of the accumulated wisdom the best minds have to offer.

    • Sandra, thanks so much for your detailed and heart-felt thoughts. This could be the beginning of a very good conversation.

      I’m happy to see you agree that it is much more complex than liberal/conservative, but I think we also need to be honest about the fact that it is more complex than tradition = good vs. tradition = bad. Many of the people you describe as ‘progressive’ disagree about precisely what counts as the tradition, how to interpret it, how much we can actually know about our Church’s history given missing voices, etc. Many also think that the tradition, while normative, is imperfectly articulated by the current Church leadership and current theological categories/structures…many of which they believe are novelties in the tradition. Many also focus on the Church’s prophetic tradition which challenges us all to become better followers of Christ. I know very few people who dismiss the tradition altogether as wholly false and oppressive. In fact, I know many of them to have a deep love and reverence for it.

      But almost all of us seem to agree that the tradition is not self-interpreting, that it is “deeply embedded in cultural trappings”, so maybe this a starting point for further conversation? Perhaps one cluster could stop referring to the other as a “curse” (and like words), questioning their good will (and even their spiritual life!), and the other cluster could stop making the similar kinds of personal judgments I was sad to learn appear to have been leveled at you. This might create the space for us all to actually listen to each other in the spirit of charity, with a goal to move toward the kind of unity for which Jesus himself prayed.

  7. This is a wonderful conversation sparked by the Conversation Project (which also featured many excellent conversations!). I very strongly agree with Dana that it seems important – particularly in forums that gather theologians from many institutions – to overcome the tendency to “cluster.” I think Dan Finn’s call for CTSA to avoid “advocating positions” as a society was helpful – indeed, we can see it this year, in that the CTSA complaint about the Beth Johnson case was strongly focused on process rather than on any substantive position.

    I especially appreciate Sandra laying out the problems clearly. I do think there is a tendency in some progressive circles to react in hostile and unconstructive (=personal) ways to certain issues. Calling someone “patriarchal” or “Islamophobic” for advocating a particular position just seems deeply unhelpful to me – it is a conversation-stopper, and ultimately it substitutes for real argument about the complexity of tradition. At the same time, Rev. Weinandy’s remarks are equally unhelpful – to impagn someone’s faith as “not genuine” is the equivalent of calling someone “patriarchal.” Each suggests a sweeping and personal dismissal of any claims. There is, unfortunately, no shortage of conversations among some Catholics largely devoted to deciding on who is “really” a Catholic and who is not. Further, I tend to agree with Charlie that one might criticize the understanding of “tradition” that some progressives espouse, but to suggest that they are simply “against” tradition seems false (although to be fair to Sandra, I suspect working in interreligious dialogue tends to bring out some folks who are “against tradition” on these issues).

    But the good thing is… we are talking! Whether as good academics or good Catholics, the worst thing would be to cut oneself off from others.

  8. Thank you! I agree – since I am new to blogging (being old and all!) I could not, obviously, present all of the nuances that both Charlie and David have added. What is needed is in fact more time trying to understand the concern of the conversation partner, and less time trying to ‘figure out’ where she stands on the spectrum of liberal vs. conservative. This is of course critical for successful inter-religious dialogue, even when it is not practiced!.
    Perhaps what is needed is a larger conversation about the role of tradition and the ways in which it unifies as well as challenges us today. In response to Charlie, I do wonder, though, whether most of those who wholly dismiss the tradition (and they were very well-represented in the past) have simply left the Church. But for those of us who remained, the task is how to approach it with all of the questions Charlie has raised while still giving it due authority. Of course, this is not a new issue, but it is one that we, as Catholics, are constantly expected to consider. David is correct that interreligious questions are by and large met with the assumption that the past has nothing good to offer us apart from a few random thinkers ahead of their time (read: like us, not like the tradition), which is why the institutional Church has been so nervous about it. But I am not yet ready to say this attitude is restricted to my own field.
    I do believe that there is an opportunity now to reexamine some of questions surrounding the use and value of Scripture and Tradition as we gain some distance from the craziness of the 60’s and 70’s. Keep us old folks in the conversation and let’s see if we can together articulate the issues in a more nuanced, careful, and ‘Catholic’ way.


  1. Pope Benedict XVI’s Message to University Professors | Catholic Moral Theology Pope Benedict XVI’s Message to University Professors | - [...] speech labeling many theologians a curse has received a great deal of discussion our our website (see Dana Dillon’s…
  2. Sectarianism and Relativism: The Challenge of Common Ground Today « Daily Theology - [...] then, there have been a few follow-up posts online on this site, the Women in Theology blog and the…
  3. Toward Genuine Exchange: Deconstructing the Linear Binary | Catholic Moral Theology Toward Genuine Exchange: Deconstructing the Linear Binary | - [...] and multifaceted issues in play in such spatial terms is a fundamental mistake.  As Dana Dillon helpfully pointed out,…

Leave a Comment