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Does Paul Griffiths have to be Right for Paul Ryan to be Wrong?

So, Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at CTSA this past week has got people talking. Our own Meghan Clark added her voice to these discussions, and it is difficult to disagree with her main critique.  At least based on the few general things he said in this part of his talk, his understanding of theology (abstracted from Catholicism) seems too narrow and fails to make room for a specifically Catholic understanding which includes the doing (teaching, advocating for justice, meeting the gaze of the poor and marginalized, etc.) as informing and shaping the actual theological enterprise. It is not merely accidental.

That said, at least from my perspective in our chandelier-bedecked plenary hall, this was not the main point of his address. Instead, his main challenge to the Society was to ask us to think about and define more precisely what it means to do Catholic theology and what it means to have a Catholic theological disagreement. Suppose we agree that his generic definition of theology is too narrow; is there anything else that, if we engage him in intellectual solidarity, that we can learn from trying to respond to this challenge?

The basic critique of Griffiths I’ve heard from many quarters is that his understanding of the “game” of Catholic theology as having “rules” laid down by the bishops of the Catholic Church is far too simplistic. Doesn’t he understand doctrine has developed over time?  Doesn’t he understand that it often developed precisely in response to the work of theologians? Doesn’t he understand that there is a hierarchy of truths and different levels doctrine’s capacity to command consent?  (Interestingly, especially for a discussion we are having on these pages, the subtext for a number of these questions seem to involve skepticism about Griffiths being a convert to Catholicism.) Doesn’t he understand that theology–and especially moral theology–is messy?

I must say that I’ve become increasingly suspect of the critique offered by academics that “x is messy.”  Most often, in at least in my experience, what turns out to be messy are principles and ideas that the person offering the critique has an interest in destabilizing for other reasons. However, there seems to be near supreme confidence in the clear implications of the apparently unproblematic principles and ideas which serve as the means of offering the “messiness” critique. Griffiths is aware of the messiness of the tradition’s history with regard to the doctrinal questions mentioned above–his challenge to the CTSA is with regard to the role of the theologian when it comes to such questions. He would likely say that the level of messiness when it comes to understanding the rules for doing what counts as Catholic theology is exaggerated. While there might be disagreements about interpretation here, and level of authority there, Griffiths implies that we all know the basic rules of the game. We all know what counts as the broad rules for doing something that could be legitimately called Catholic theology.

If Griffiths expanded his view of theology to explicitly include moral theology, he might have made his point by referring to discussion of Paul Ryan’s views of Catholic social thought on these pages. Ryan’s attempts to reconcile his faith with his economics (and view of the human person) were met mostly with respectful and but firm critique by our contributors. One classic move of Ryan other Catholics on the (economic) right is to identify their skepticism of federal government, and preference for private and market-driven solutions, with the principle of subsidiarity as understood by Catholic social thought.  But as Meghan Clark has brilliantly shown, this kind of claim cannot be sustained. Citing social-doctrinal claims in her defense, she systematically demonstrates that this view of economics cannot bear the name “Catholic.”

But perhaps, in response to Clark, Ryan could take a page from the playbook of those who so strongly criticized Griffiths’ view as too simplistic. Doesn’t Clark understand the social context of the liberal European bishops who are actually responsible for Catholic social teaching?  None of them actually have any experience running a business and they know very little about economics. (For an absolutely stunning dismissal along these lines, see National Review‘s critique of Cardinal Maradiaga’s remarks at the recent conference on libertarianism and Catholicism at CUA.) Wouldn’t Ryan say that Catholics with experiences that the bishops lack should be given priority with regard to these disputed matters? And that dispute is profound: most Catholics appear to have simply rejected the Church’s social teaching. Almost no one has an actual preferential option for the poor–to say nothing of living as if there should be a universal destination of goods. (Including the CTSA…especially given the blingy luxury in which we hold our meetings.) The social teachings of the Church, Ryan could say, are teachings not received by the faithful.  At the very least, given our disagreements about economics (and moral anthropology) we ought to make room for “big tent” when it comes to Catholic social thought–liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and more. After all, moral theology is messy.

Paul Griffiths has a dandy response to this kind of move, and it would go something like this, “Well, Paul, you’re certainly entitled to to make your argument and offer your point of view, but you aren’t entitled to claim that what you’re doing is consistent with Catholic moral theology. This kind of theology presumes the social doctrine of the Church as its starting point. Your point of view cannot be reconciled with Catholic doctrine about the human person and its implications for ordering of our economic relations. It cannot, therefore, be called a Catholic point of view.”

But I’m genuinely curious: for our contributors and readers who think that Griffiths’ approach is too simple, is there some other way of claiming that Paul Ryan and other libertarian-leaning Catholics are mistaken when they argue that their views of economics (and the human person) are consistent with Catholic social thought?  One might want to say that they are mistaken about scripture and tradition, but plenty of libertarian Christians simply disagree about what scripture and tradition implies about these matters. And, at least to me, it just isn’t clear how that disagreement is to be resolved without an appeal to some kind of  authority.

But I’m genuinely curious about other kinds of responses.



  1. Here’s a clarification that may help. When moral theologians appeal the authority of Catholic social tradition, we are not– I hope!– merely proof-texting from encyclicals (and exhortations and the like). The authority of such documents arises in relation to scripture, lives of saints, historical attempts to put ideas into practice, etc. Arguments can arise about such authority, clearly. The cases are not all parallel, though, because on these grounds, more substantial arguments can be made about some matters than about others. The tradition’s support for the common good with a particular eye to the well-being of the most vulnerable is wide and deep, even if failure to exemplify it is also quite wide and deep.

    • So, Kelly, in principle a Catholic libertarian could be considered doing Catholic social thought as long as (as they do) they use scripture and tradition to defend their point of view?

  2. Charlie,

    I know my response won’t surprise you, as my own posts on Paul Ryan on this blog have argued for allowing diverse perspectives into the conversation rather than “outsiding” people (to use a James Alison term). I continue to think that the model of Catholic social thought–which identifies broad principles and expects diversity as things get more specific–is a good model for all of Catholic moral theology. Of course, there is a need for authority even in the identification of principles, but I think we need broad conceptions of what that looks like (as Kelly suggests)and ways to think about how it can be challenged and how it can develop over time.

    I agree that it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about what Catholic theological argument looks like, but I would like to see more inclusivity on both sides, not less.

    As Mary Hirschfield told us in the great CTS panel on economics that you organized, many of the arguments about CST are just too simple. Instead of re-hashing the same old big government v. individual initiative debates, we should be asking what works best in each situation. Inevitably, answers will wary and will involve different mixes of government, individual, and community efforts.

    • Hi Julie…yes, I’m glad you responded. But can we get a little more specific here? Is absolutely anybody included if they claim that what they are for economically could in some loose or mysterious way be connected with a principle of CSD? I’m all for inclusivity, but not at the expense of truth. If a Catholic economist denies the need for, as CV says, “quotas of gratuitousness and communion” in economic life, and instead says that the most moral way to distribute goods is in the most efficient way possible…and the most efficient way possible, it turns out, is acting in one’s educated self-interest at every moment…could this really be considered a Catholic position? Saying “no”, it seem to me, wouldn’t be anymore “outsiding” people than claiming that you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe that Jesus is the son of God. I’m all for inclusivity and creativity, especially when there is an honest attempt being made to connect with the teaching of the Church, but at a certain point doesn’t truth have to be named?

  3. Charlie – First, I feel I need to clarify what I meant by “messy.” What Massingale and others both pointed to at the conference was the way in which moral theology is embedded in the world. So when I used the term “messy” it is as a reference to the fact that the human world is messy and broken – therefore moral theology cannot be done except within this reality. There is no pure intellectual moral theology as the high point that we get to speculate about – – all moral theology is contextual. And generally, this is a dialogue between many contexts (as when engaging the tradition on the universal destination of goods in the Early Church and then again in Aquinas and then again in current contexts). Within this context, Gustavo Gutierrez’s reflection is particularly helpful: “No theology is without its own accent in speaking of God – differences in speaking must be respected. It is not imposed uniformity that is required but understanding in diversity.” (Theology of Liberation, P. 7) All theology is contextual theology, whether one acknowledges it or not.

    I have engaged ad nauseam in debates that do not simply assert “magisterium” as a simplistic answer. All of my work engages the social context in which the social doctrine emerged, developed, continues to develop, and how it is relevant today. And of its place within the universal papal magisterium – attentive to the particular magisterial weight of each component in the social doctrine (ie. That Gaudium et Spes is the most important document in the social teaching of the Church). The argument about libertarianism going on in many sectors right now isn’t about particular policy claims, but about who we believe we are as human persons in the Catholic faith.

    No one is discounting the authority of both the magisterium and the tradition. (There is a substantive difference between asserting the magisterium has authority to teach X and the assertion that X is correct). So Paul Ryan is free to come back at me and say – yes, but the Catholic Church’s teaching on the person is wrong. He isn’t free to assert that his understanding of subsidiarity is Catholic because he wants it to be (without any evidence of studying the topic seriously).

    If you look at 2 of the “controversies” regarding Church teaching and the CTSA – Margaret Farley’s Just Love was quite clear what Church teaching was and where she was making an argument for different conclusions. She was not misrepresenting or claiming something different about the “Church’s official teaching” on sexual ethics. The debates CTSA members brought up about Humane Vitae 25, as Terry Tilley did – the question wasn’t “what is the teaching?” but reception and/or debate about the argument given (and thus, debate about the magisterial standing of the teaching). John Courtney Murray, SJ was silent when he was ordered, based upon his vow of obedience, under a particular aspect of magisterial authority — that did not make it right or true or accurate.

    The choice is not between Paul Griffith’s understanding of magisterial authority and no authority at all. It is not a matter of Griffiths or subjective relativism in which anyone can claim whatever they want is Catholic as official Catholic theology.

    A good study of Francis Sullivan,SJ’s 2 books on the Magisterium, however, detail quite nicely the boundaries and processes of “creative fidelity” on the part of the theologian. The CTSA is a meeting of Catholic theologians; and the more I think about it the more my starting point disagreement with Griffiths is that I do not believe that theology is a discipline you study just like any other. He defined theology as not requiring belief but requiring an assent to being governed by particular authority (and likened it to other disciplines being subject to authorities of their own as well). I don’t think this is theology at all – because unlike biology or even religious studies – theology as it is traditionally understood within Catholicism (and investigated by Sullivan) is faith seeking understanding – it is ecclesial before it is about authority. As Gutierrez says in Theology of Liberation theology is “the effort of human intelligence to comprehend revelation and the vision of faith” (p. 24)

    In explaining why a Catholic theologian needs to know how to evaluate and interpret documents of the magisterium – he gives 4 reasons that help clarify the question of what is Catholic theology. First, Theology is faith seeking understanding. “to sum up: the faith that seeks understanding when we do theology is necessarily our own faith, and that means that we seek understanding of a faith that is Christian, ecclesial, and Catholic” (Creative Fidelity 6). While this is only the 1st of Sullivan’s 4 points on what is theology and why all theologians need to learn how to weigh and interpret magisterial teaching. Ultimately, a big part of it is learning what it means to engage the “ordinary non-infallable papal magisterium” (such as the teaching on contraception) and when we are dealing with infallible teaching. Moreover, citing Rahner, there is a wide breath for discussion and debate about such theological positions while maintaining that in the end there will be times that it is necessary to step in and condemn a particular position as out of bounds. Again, back to the controversies of CTSA statements regarding the CDF notification of Dr. Farley or the Committee on Doctrine’s notification of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson’s book – neither assumed theological agreement but raised significant concerns about the transparency and justice with which these theologians were treated by the institutional framework. And one does not have to ascribe to what Griffiths described as the relationship to authority to see oneself as properly in relationship to truth, the authority of the Church, and the many types of magisterium (which itself is not so simple).

    • Hi Meghan…thanks for your response and, more importantly, for starting us off with these important conversations.

      Your comment raises a lot of points, and one would almost need a whole new post to respond to them. But let me just try to get one thing clear. It is interesting all the respect and openness for the views of libertarian economics within a Catholic context that you Julie, and Kelly have offered. This is not the reaction I was expecting. :) So, just to be clear: a libertarian Catholic who reject the substance of the social doctrine of the Church and says, “Yeah, I’m trying to push for development of doctrine here with regard to teachings not received by naive bishops who don’t understand economics” should be considered working within the boundaries of Catholic social thought?

  4. Here are some thoughts in response to Charlie’s post and Meghan’s reply. I want to start with a vignette that I think illustrates the point that Charlie is making in his post. When Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University in 2012, you may remember that his critics presented him with a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. You can imagine that if the US bishops presented Elizabeth Johnson or Margaret Farley with a copy of the Catechism, that would have been a ludicrous response. So why isn’t the same true in the case of Paul Ryan? I think Charlie is on to something, that we are going through what is in some ways a really weird and contradictory period of church life (maybe it has always been thus, however!).

    Along the same lines, Meghan, it seems like you want to have it both ways on the issue Charlie raises. On the one hand, you claim that moral theology is always contextual, and that the church’s social teaching emerged, developed, and continues to develop in particular social contexts. But on the other, it still seems like you want to hold on to the idea that there is such a thing as THE Catholic teaching on the human person. I am making my way through your book and I think you do a really great job of precisely what you say, of tracing the development of CST in its context. But I think you would have to admit that the vision of the person that emerges in John XXIII and Paul VI’s writings is one that emerges out of their historical context, out of their experience of world events, such as World War II, and despite the continuities, is in some ways different from the vision of the person in earlier CST. Also, the reality is that in that earlier period, some Catholics were marginalized within the church precisely for advocating the vision of the person later ratified by John and Paul. So Catholic teaching on the person is evolving and never quite settled. In fact, this very discussion demonstrates that the question of whether contextuality is an essential element of personhood and to what degree is in negotiation.

    Therefore I think it is inadequate to say that the problem with libertarianism is that it contradicts the Catholic faith on who we are as a person. Maybe it does, but maybe it has insights into the human person from which Catholicism could learn (or already has, I would argue, but that’s for another day). I think Meghan is right that there is a valid distinction between the Magisterium and the tradition, but I think a point raised by Charlie’s post is that in their criticisms of Ryan, and libertarianism generally, the critics are collapsing that distinction (hence the Compendium episode), failing to adequately consider the historical contingency of their own interpretation of CST and also failing to recognize elements of the CST tradition (both Magisterial and non-) that might challenge their own perspective.

  5. By this question I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I have been wondering throughout this very rich conversation, and about Griffiths’ talk in general: what do we mean by Catholic theology? Is it presumed to mean simply Roman Catholic, therefore being under the direct authority of the pope and Roman Catholic bishops? If it is, I wonder if we’re being expansive enough. Maybe it’s because I’ve done a lot of work on Graham Ward and Rowan Williams, but I would certainly consider these Anglo-Catholics to be doing Catholic theology. I know that the CTSA has members who are affiliated with “independent” Catholic churches as well.

    Many–if not most–of these people (not to mention many Orthodox theologians) would happily acknowledge the truth of most (if not necessarily all) of (Roman?) Catholic Social Teaching, but not because it was promulgated by popes and bishops, but rather because they recognize its truth to flow from the Scriptures and Great Tradition as well as being consonant with current issues. If this is true, it seems that a far more important matter than whether we’re letting the bishops set the “rules” is whether or not a particular claim fits within the larger tradition and reflects the needs of the time, or if another does that work better: in short, whether or not the teachings are true, for if they are then they are (or should be) Catholic–truth does not contradict truth. If they are not, the fact that they are Catholic is of little significance. Once they are accepted as true–and Ryan certainly seems to accept in principle that the Catholic teaching on subsidiarity is true, for which I disagree with Charles about the non-reception of CST–then questions of interpretation get much messier: like Thomas said about natural law, once you get further from the most general principles (Do good, avoid evil) the actual application is far trickier. In moral matters, practical effect becomes a significant issue: a more important question when someone says that the unregulated free market helps the poor is not whether it’s in line with Catholic Social thought or not, but rather, “Does it really?” For if it does, then no matter what CST says, we have an issue. And if (as it doesn’t), it doesn’t, then that’s the problem, not that he’s disagreeing with the pope. CST explains holistically why its basic principles are consonant with Scripture, tradition, and human reality, and is thus extremely valuable, but using it as a “trump card” seems a direction that will not get us very far.

    Part of being in a living tradition is that that very tradition is going to be contested and it is not always going to be possible to discern at the moment if a particular course is an aberration or a genuine development, and as we’ve seen with the women’s ordination debate, simply having an authority step in to decide the matter often gets us nowhere. And if we are to appeal to authority, I think reception of the church(es) is a more important locus to think through the authority of a teaching. This can’t be separated from the authority promulgating a teaching, but also can’t be conflated with it. Even the fact that Ryan uses the language of subsidiarity (though it does seem to me he doesn’t understand it well) shows that CST has been received by the church (and not simply the Roman Catholic Church) as a common language–whether it has been put into practice is not always dispositive (does the fact that so few Catholics actively put “Love thy neighbor” into practice dilute its reality as an authoritative and received teaching? This is where the conversation shifts from one about reception to one of sinfulness).

    I want to clarify that I completely accept that bishops and the pope teach authoritatively, and that their teachings in most areas should be presumed to be trustworthy, but I think the distinction made above between the Tradition and the magisterium is a very important one. Something can be authoritative and not necessarily be true.

    Anyway, apologies for the ramblingness of all that. This is why I don’t post much on blogs! Many thanks again for an excellent and important conversation.

  6. Like anyone else who was not able to be at CTSA, I find it hard to enter this conversation, since I am basically relying on others’ reporting and Grant Gallicho’s livetweets to know what Griffiths is saying. Still, the talk has clear touched a key nerve, and the discussion on this thread, following Meghan’s post, has been very interesting. Let me just pose a few questions that seem to need clarification:
    1. It sounds like Griffiths made theology sounds like a “purely intellectual” enterprise, and that we recognize by contrast that it is political/embodied/practical? That’s fine… but it doesn’t seem to affect what (I take) to be his point: that theologians are intellectuals, not activists. I’m not agreeing with that point. But I suspect that he thinks CTSA is misguided because the tail is wagging the dog – the commitment to activism is driving the intellectual work, rather than the other way around.
    2. Can we all get clearer about what we mean by “authority”? The way I would understand what (apparently) is Griffiths’ point is that any intellectual discipline must have settled, accepted claims about truth in order to engage in progressive enquiry. Everything cannot be called into question at once. Moreover, even in other fields, such accepted claims are both intellectually tested but also held by gatekeeping authorities who get to adjudicate the question of what counts as knowledge in the discipline. Griffiths is (I presume) making the point that the CTSA is not such a gatekeeping authority for Catholic theology, but the bishops are.
    3. I’m glad Charlie noted that CST is not received by the Church. He’s totally right. Look at any Catholic university. Compare their policy on condoms in the dorms or other such issues with their business practices, partnerships, investments, and labor practices – which has been more clearly “received” by the institutions, the sexual teachings or the economic teachings? Seems easy to answer! But can we get clearer on exactly what the foundational principles – we could even call them “truths” – of CST are? Are they the universal destination of goods, human solidarity, the common good, and the option for the poor and vulnerable? Is there something else that would have to be at the deepest level? And (the further question) how exposed are these principles to Meghan’s claim about contextuality? Certainly APPLICATION of them is exposed to contextuality. But isn’t the universal destination of goods a “fundamental Catholic truth” that is of the same sort as “monogamous lifelong marriage with children”? Again, PRACTICE is another matter – we can show failure of practice on morality and on dogmatic claims. But in terms of “the teaching authority” of the tradition, aren’t these principles quite well established?


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