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Don’t Know Much about a New Generation of Catholic Theologians…

Over at National Review Online, George Weigel has put up a blog post, “Don’t Know Much about Theology…”. In it, he criticizes a number of things. I will highlight these and say a brief word about them; however, I will especially focus further below on what Weigel claims about a “new generation of Catholic theologians” that he observes “is rising.”

First, Weigel asserts that those who express their support for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious or for Sister Margaret Farley see the Vatican’s actions as “all about power” and nothing “to do with doctrine.” While some critics of the Vatican’s recent actions concerning women religious in the Church may indeed focus on the power aspects, I suspect that most critics would not bifurcate or separate “power” and “doctrine” in the way that Weigel here alleges.  Moreover, if one reads the statement by the Board of Directors of the Catholic Theological Society on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Notification: Regarding the Book Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics by Sister Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.,” which Weigel contends “was entirely predictable,” no mention is given to power at all. Rather, concern is expressed primarily about “the understanding of the task of theology presented in the ‘Notification'” and, for example, with “the authentic development of doctrine” (emphasis added).

Second, Weigel criticizes “deeper currents in American culture” that tend to relegate “religion” to the private or subjective sphere, so that any truth or theological claims are viewed as “rigid” or “mindless.” I suspect that most, perhaps even all, of my fellow Catholic theologians spend a significant amount of time in the classroom and in our writing critically addressing such “currents in American culture.” Indeed, a number of the papers I attended at the recent annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) here in Saint Louis criticized, for example, excessively individualistic (and private) attitudes in U.S. culture (and where it has contaminated Catholic thought and practice in the U.S.).

Third, in addition to expressing his disagreement with the statement of the CTSA Board of Directors, Weigel alleges that “the Catholic Theological Society of America decided to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States, tabling ‘indefinitely’ a resolution that expressed ‘deep concern’ over the HHS ‘contraceptive mandate.'” The resolution, which was presented during the business meeting of the CTSA, was, Weigel writes, “proposed by eleven brave souls willing to challenge their colleagues’ conventional gauchisme….” As one who was present, I can say that the vote to table the resolution occurred after several theologians (not only David Hollenbach, S.J., the one person Weigel notes in this connection) offered their views on either side–some in favor of the resolution, others opposing the resolution. Then a motion was made to table the vote on the resolution, and the motion was seconded, and it was carried. Then through the vote of all who were present at the business meeting, the majority was in favor of tabling the resolution. I would not assume that there was an absolute correspondance of those who supported vs. opposed tabling the motion to those who supported vs. opposed the HHS mandate. So I would not agree with Weigel that tabling the motion was a decision “to stand with the Obama administration rather than the bishops of the United States.”

Fourth, Weigel claims that “numerous card-carrying members of the contemporary Catholic theological guild” reinforce a “master narrative” in which “everything in the Catholic Church can be sliced, diced, and understood in terms of a continuing power-struggle between good ‘progressives’ and evil ‘traditionalists.'” In his view, this problematic master narrative is “utterly incapable of grasping the complexities and cross-currents of contemporary Catholic intellectual, spiritual, liturgical, and pastoral life.” I agree that such a master narrative is a problem. However, I think Weigel himself may exhibit some traits of this master narrative when he refers to a “new generation of Catholic theologians” who will change the current state of affairs in theology from “the depths of confusion in the understanding that many CTSA members have of their own discipline…” (I’m pleased he said “many CTSA members” and not “most” or “all” of them).

His reference to “the next generation of theologians” is certainly a broad generalization. I know who he’s got in mind (he gives a nice shout out to my old friend from Notre Dame grad school days, Fr Michael Sherwin, O.P., and others). But Weigel appears to ignore “the complexities and cross-currents” of us contemporary Catholic theologians. We are not some homogenous group. While we are unified in many important respects, we are not uniform. Those of us who are regular contributers here at, for example, are attempting to break out of the standard binary labels of “progressive” (or “liberal”) and “traditionalist” (or “conservative”), which in the past may have prevented some (not all!) theologians with opposing views from respectfully engaging one another.

Indeed, our mission statement reads:

We are a group of North American Catholic moral theologians who come together in friendship to engage each other in theological discussion, to aid one another in our common search for wisdom, and to help one another live lives of discipleship, all in service to the reign of God.  We understand our role as scholars and teachers to be a vocation rooted in the Church and so we seek to place the fruits of our training at the service of the Church,  as well as the academy and the world.  We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard “liberal /conservative” divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility.

Thus, the “new generation of Catholic theologians” may be more complex than Weigel assumes. For evidence of this, just read some of our posts on this site! Indeed, there are many of us who agree that theology is an ecclesial enterprise (by Church, though, we mean more than the magisterium even as we recognize its place in the Church). Also, we agree that theology is neither religious studies nor catechesis, and we likewise agree that it includes critical exploration. While we respectfully engage Scripture and Tradition, we may not all accept either of these at face value (after all, the Bible and the Tradition were invoked in the past to defend such evils as slavery). Moreover, we do not limit our three audiences (Church, society, academy) only to the academy; yet, many of us (not all!) are worried and upset about the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s “Notification” about Margaret Farley’s book. Actually, now that I think of it, much of what I’ve just written about the “new generation of Catholic theologians” probably applies to many of our mentors and teachers from other generations.

At the end of his blog post, Weigel expresses his hope for the day when this “new generation of Catholic theologians” will help to foster “an opportunity to open a genuine conversation with the culture and media about truth, doctrine, and the things that actually count in the Catholic Church.” I share his hope, but I worry that his vitriolic polemics in blog posts like “Don’t Know Much about Theology…” may actually further the “master narrative” about which he rightly worries.




  1. “Vitriolic polemics” is right. George Weigel often seems to write as if he were thinking, “How many people who don’t agree with me can I offend here?”

  2. Tobias,
    Thank you for this post. I think this blog is a wonderful testimony to what is possible in the field of moral theology in terms of authentic dialogue. I wonder if Weigel has ever checked us out!

    That being said, I do think he raises a number of very valid points that echo my own concerns in recent months and which have intensified in recent weeks since “L’Affaire Farley.” The heart of my concern (and I think Weigel’s too) is over the nature of authority within Catholic theology, and particularly Catholic moral theology. Tobias, you write that “there are many of us who agree that theology is an ecclesial enterprise (by Church, though, we mean more than the magisterium even as we recognize its place in the Church).” First of all, shouldn’t all of us agree that Catholic theology is an ecclesial enterprise? In what sense is theology not ecclesial? Second, and more importantly, the real disagreement between so many moral theologians and the magisterium concerns precisely what role the magisterium ought to play. We often speak as if magisterial authority is up for debate, as if there is a way of doing Catholic moral theology outside of or apart from magisterial authority. But this is precisely what the magisterium says is not the case.

    I may be wrong, but it seems that the CTSA took the former position. The CTSA statement claims that Farley is engaged in a “legitimate way in engaging in theological inquiry.” I think what the “Notification” is saying is “No, you are trying to develop a new method that can attend to pressing matters of sexuality, but a method that leads to so many conclusions that are in fundamental contradiction to the teachings of the Church is not a legitimate method for a Catholic theologian. Your book might be a work of ‘theology’ broadly considered, but it is not a work of Catholic theology.” In other words, what makes Catholic theology distinctively Catholic, at least in part, is that operates within the authority of the Church. The magisterium is not just another voice in the debate or something that one can dispense with in doing theology (which seems to be what Farley claimed to be doing in her defense of the work). It is something more fundamental entirely. At least, Lumen Gentium seems to think so, despite remarkable attentiveness to the importance of the lay faithful’s role in the discernment of truth:

    That discernment in matters of faith . . . is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God. Through it, the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life (12).

    Romanus Cessario takes this position in his new Introduction to Moral Theology. He writes (quoting Dei Verbum 10) “Thus ‘by God’s wise design, tradition, scripture and the Church’s teaching function contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.’ Theologians are expected to conform not only their work but their lives as well to these expressions of divine truth” (15). He goes on to say more explicitly about the discipline of moral theology,

    Although the exact relationship between philosophical ethics and moral theology remains a topic for discussion, a complete and adequate moral theology develops only in harmonious union with a living faith. This means that God’s truthfulness alone, as mediated through the witnesses of Scripture and Tradition and safeguarded by the Magisterium, guarantees the authenticity, that is, the true supernatural character, of a revealed teaching about morals (17).

    This is what Weigel is arguing as well (though maybe not as nicely as we strive to do here at Catholic theology at its core requires an assent to magisterial authority because the magisterium possesses a divine warrant to teach with authority. This doesn’t mean that the church as a whole or moral theology more specifically will suddenly become homogenous, but it does mean that the church’s heterogeneity will submit to catholicity, unity, and apostolicity. Nor does it mean that “Catholic theology” need be reduced to mere catechesis. Moral theology needs new modes of exposition (Cessario sees his own work as a “new mode”) and it is constantly confronting problems in its attentiveness to the signs of the times where serious, progressive academic work needs to be done (Farley’s attention to domestic violence might be such an area). But the Catholic theologian is distinct because she doesn’t start at square one: she starts with the sacred deposit of faith, recognizing the fallibility of human reason and human experience, and she is always careful to keep the deposit of faith safe even while pushing the Church forward.

    I say all this (in what I recognize is a rather long response) because despite the heterogeneity of the new generation of moral theologians (and I agree with your description, Tobias), this issue of authority is not going away. The Catholic Church does not work like CTSA—we don’t get to vote. And again and again, the magisterium has reaffirmed an understanding of authority that many (maybe most) professional moral theologians find distasteful: Catholic theologians have a responsibility to listen to, obey, and support the magisterium:

    Whatever the situation, a mere formal and exterior obedience or adherence on the part of theologians is not sufficient. Theologians should strive to deepen their reflection on the truth proclaimed by the church’s magisterium and should seek its implications for the Christian life and for the service of the truth. In this way, theologians fulfill their proper task, and the teaching of the magisterium is not reduced to mere decorative citations in theological discourse (International Theological Commission “Theology Today,” 41).

    I think that the deep divisions in the Church will continue among this new generation of theologians unless we can come to more agreement over the role of magisterial authority and the task and boundaries of the discipline of moral theology. However, what we have here at this blog is foundational indeed for the work that still needs to be done in our field. Here, I am able to share these thoughts which, judging from the response of my colleagues to the Farley affair, are rather unpopular within my discipline However, I know that unlike elsewhere, I am going to have a bunch of moral theologians who I know and respect seriously engaging my ideas, dialoguing with me and correcting me where necessary, rather than responding with a series of ad hominem attacks or (worse!) ignoring me as a naive “conservative” or “traditionalist” or any other “label.” And I hope my interlocutors know that they can expect the same from me in return.

  3. Clearly Catholic (and maybe more generally Christian) moral theology has to find a middle ground between two absurd positions: the complete irrelevance and the complete infallibility of magisterial authority. The office-holders in the Church embody a tradition of hope and promise that defines what it is to be Catholic, and on this promise we depend pretty well unconditionally. But that charismatic reality, rooted in the risen Christ and the abiding presence of the Spirit, does not imply any special competence arising from the office as such in matters of prudential or empirical judgment. For that, we need to look for wisdom wherever it is to be found. When authority fails to observe this distinction, it polarizes the Church unduly, and brings its proper charism into a disrepute by association.

  4. I appreciate these responses, and I especially appreciate Beth (and in consequence, Tobias) for modeling the kind of discussion that gets to the main issues.

    I think one difficulty here is the failure to distinguish between legitimate disagreement and disobedience. Prof. Farley’s CTSA speech made clear two things that might be helpful. First, she appealed quite strongly to the claim that Catholic moral theology is grounded in the natural law, that what “natural law” means is a legitimately contested philosophical concept, and that revisions to natural law teachings are valid when “the reality of things” discloses something new. Now, I would myself want to dispute some of the claims she makes in her book about how contemporary experience is newly disclosive of reality (perhaps we need a forum on this!!). But I have more difficulty seeing how the method to which she is appealing is somehow illegitimate. Beth is right that theology (like any discipline) needs boundaries, as well as a clear agreement about the task of the discipline. Would I assign Just Love in a general undergrad class? No. Would I read it in an indepedent study with a committed theology major? Perhaps. Why? Well, because I understand at least part of my task as a teacher to be pressing students to take the Magisterium’s unpopular positions seriously – it is, frankly, the same reason why I would avoid assign neo-conservative texts in economics in a CST class. In both cases, I worry that simply seeing an argument like this – to which many are culturally disposed – gives students a very easy “out.” However, I do not think this is at all Farley’s intention! Insofar as she appeals to the sources from which we traditionally do Catholic moral theology, it would be difficult to simply reject it as “not Catholic.”

    The second point is a bit more delicate: if this is a matter of disagreement, then it would be most helpful if it were more “comfortable” in venues like CTSA to raise legitimate objection to a text, even if the author is senior and well-known. I think we (as a guild) do an adequate job of this in some areas of theology, but I also think there are other areas – perhaps the highly polarized ones?? – where it is pretty difficult to subject texts to adequate evaluation. I think it is worth exploring (on this blog??) how and why this is. Beth is certainly intimating something true on this score. So this whole controversy has me a bit vexed, because I’m prepared to defend Prof. Farley’s work as legitimate, but I worry that we are unable to raise genuinely pointed academic questions about it. Again, as with the above point, I do not think this is Farley’s fault or intention. Lisa Cahill (rightly) said that as a guild, we should be able to criticize each other. We just have to be able to do that. Otherwise, the road we are going down is separate guilds/meetings, where we just affirm those on our “side.”

  5. Thanks for a great discussion, CMT! One source that might be helpful for thinking about authority (which I agree is quite important) is Nicholas Lash’s Voices of Authority. Lash discusses the question of authority in terms of whom can be trusted to know, and to that end draws on Newman to indicate that there are multiple “knowers” within the church, none of whom are sufficient unto themselves. I think part of the issue between the episcopal magisterium and theologians is that many theologians don’t perceive their particular type knowing being recognized, or fear articulations of their knowledge will be immediately declared out of bounds by the magisterium as well as the faithful; on the other hand, the episcopal magisterium has similar concerns about lack of recognition or immediate criticism from theologians as well as the faithful.

    Lash goes further: the tension between the baptismal vocation of priest, prophet, and king is not simply the tension between episcopal, theological, and lay faithful “knowers” within the church; it is also a tension that can be experienced within one’s own self. So, as a theologian, I might feel that sociological data has compelling information that needs to be included in how the church understands revelation and how that revelation is articulated and enacted through the tradition; on the other hand, I might also acknowledge that the sociological data does not simply cohere with essential theological sources, such as scripture or ecclesial documents; and on my imaginary third hand, I might have to recognize that I am both a creature of my culture and my church and that those two realities merge in ways that are not easily distinguished. A more concrete example: the episcopal magisterium approves a new translation of the mass; as a theologian I may critique (favorably or unfavorably) the processes by which that decision is made or the content of that decision; as a member of the faithful I may simply want to be able to join in the ritual in a way that is reflective though not immediately critical.

    The question of the sources for theological reflection is an important one in terms of the type of authority/knowledge theologians claim–certainly scripture and tradition are essential to that reflection. They are not the only two points on the hermeneutical circle, however, as the recent document from the International Theological Commission points out–the criteria for theological reflection are diverse. The question of how these sources should interact and inform each other goes to the heart of theological method. I think it’s important to realize, though, that we don’t just enter into the circle at one point or empty handed: we always bring multiple sources within us into the inquiry. Critically examining our presuppositions and seeking methodological clarity may require deconstruction, but ultimately, I think, is at the service of a constructive task in theology: to articulate revelation in ways that are faithful to Christ and coherent in the present moment.

    A question that I don’t see being addressed is what the sources of magisterial reflection are. I don’t think it’s either accurate or sufficient to think the only two sources are scripture and tradition, precisely because those two sources are themselves always formed by and inclusive of particular languages and cultures and times. That doesn’t deny their ability to communicate truth, but it should challenge any assumption that these sources can be thought of as empirical or self-evident sources. One of my professors encouraged us not to think of the “deposit of faith” as a file drawer full of revelation. Revelation is personal rather than empirical: given in the person of Christ, communicated through the person of the Holy Spirit, and received by the persons who become in various ways the authoritative “knowers” of the church. Thus it seems to me that, like the theologians, the episcopal magisterium must also enter into critical reflection about the multiple sources that inform their knowledgeable and authoritative articulations of doctrine.

  6. I think it’s also interesting in light of this controversy to reflect on what we can learn from examining some past examples of theologians who disagreed with the magisterium (but were not disobedient – thanks for that distinction, David) – e.g. John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar, and others in the pre-Vatican II period who ran into difficulty and were silenced not only because they were arriving at some conclusions that conflicted with magisterial teaching, but also because of their theological method – i.e. their attention to history. And yet their conclusions and, to some extent, their method itself then became part of magisterial teaching. So I wonder, what will we be saying about the current controversy in, say, 50 years?

  7. There is a reason I made my very brief comment concurring with the characterization of George Weigel’s remarks as “vitriolic polemics,” and that is—as someone who has been in several discussions of the Just Love controversy with people who are not moral theologians, it seems to me it has been largely a matter of liberal Catholic choosing to defend Sr. Farley, conservative Catholics hailing the action of the CDF, and few people wanting to spend a significant amount of time on the issue of what kind of assent is due various levels of teaching of the Magisterium. I have in the past found Richard R. Gaillardetz’s book By What Authority?: A Primer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful a very clear discussion of the topic, and I find myself somewhat confused by what Gaillardetz is saying as a member of the CTSA. It does not appear to be in harmony with what he says in his book. (To be fair, the book is a “primer,” and Gaillardetz certainly can’t have been expected to settle all of the complex questions in advance that were to arise in the case of Sr. Farley.)

    Quite honestly, I am more than a little confused. I liked what Beth Haile said above:

    But the Catholic theologian is distinct because she doesn’t start at square one: she starts with the sacred deposit of faith, recognizing the fallibility of human reason and human experience, and she is always careful to keep the deposit of faith safe even while pushing the Church forward.

    It seems to me that three of the major areas where the CDF claims Sr. Farley goes astray (Amazon hasn’t even shipped my copy of the book yet, so I acknowledge I am not dealing with the best of sources)—masturbation, the indissolubility of marriage, and same-sex unions—seem to be fundamental. For Sr. Farley to say that masturbation is usually not a moral issue and sometimes is actually beneficial is about as flat a contradiction of Catholic teaching as it seems possible to come up with. After all, masturbation is an “intrinsic evil.” So Sr. Farley has quite literally called something good the Church teaches is evil. It seems to me that asserting that masturbation is not intrinsically evil pulls the rug out from under all Catholic teachings about sexuality.

    Now, I personally do not find the Church’s teachings on sexuality convincing, so far be it from me to be critical of Sr. Farley’s work or even her conclusions. The difficulty I have is that, through 12 years of Catholic education and a great deal of reading about Catholic thought, I can’t quite figure out how a highly respected and influential Catholic theologian can be defended when she comes to conclusions on very very different from the Church on very basic matters of Catholic teaching and, to the best of my knowledge, does not present them tentatively, but basically says, “Here are my conclusions.” It seems to me that there are ways to raise challenging questions and spark discussions about new approaches in Catholic thought without flatly contradicting the Church.

  8. Great stuff, Tobias. You and others at this site might be interested in a lengthy piece I did a couple months ago in which I compared a Weigel article to a Weigel book and displayed the degree to which Weigel will go rhetorically to “win an argument” even if it is inconvenient fit with his OWN writing, much less someone else’s. Here is the link. I would love to see this example more widely known because I think it is, as your piece wonderfully shows, important to continue to resist his influence.

  9. Thanks, everyone, for the very thoughtful and helpful comments so far! There are a number of things I should write, but due to time constraints today, I can focus on only one, which is simply a point of clarification for David Nickol, who wrote: “when she comes to conclusions on very very different from the Church on very basic matters of Catholic teaching and, to the best of my knowledge, does not present them tentatively, but basically says, ‘Here are my conclusions.'”

    In my view, Farley does not give definite conclusions. As I wrote in my review of Farley’s book a few years ago:

    A constructive effort, the book offers more a scaffolding that gives purchase for moving toward an answer rather than a finished edifice of definitive answers to every concrete question about sexual ethics under the sun. Those expecting exhaustive arguments for where she stands on various controversial questions of today will be disappointed, though unduly so, for that is not how Farley views the task of the Christian ethicist. An exemplar of intellectual modesty, she devotes her energies to “search,” “probe,” “explore,” “contextualize,” and “consider” before she attempts to “propose.” These are words she tends to use. See

    When your copy of the book arrives, David, I’ll be interested to see if you also see this as the basic tone of approach she takes.

  10. An applicable and enjoyable terse summary of Mr. Winright’s reply to Mr. Weigel is “Only a bit dog hollars.” Weigel’s essay should be required reading for all CTSA members, and the sole outline & topic of that august association’s next meeting. I would be highly pleased to moderate that discussion.

  11. Speaking as someone about to join the “new generation of Catholic theologians” (finishing PhD in 2013), I see no evidence that Weigel is correct. I do see evidence, however, just as you and others do, that the new generation is struggling to move past the tired left-right divide that formed in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. Weigel is obviously on the traditionalist side and is hoping for a new generation of traditionalist Catholic theologians, but I really think he is going to be disappointed. (I have heard, though, that many new priests are traditionalists, but I cannot verify that.)

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