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Fr. Thomas Weinandy and the Theological Generation Gap

In a National Catholic Reporter article by John Allen, Fr. Thomas Weinandy from the USCCB spoke against the problems he sees in contemporary American theology. Theologians are a:

‘curse and affliction upon the church,’ according to the U.S. bishops’ top official on doctrine, if their work is not grounded in church teaching and an active faith life, and ends up promoting ‘doctrinal and moral error.’

Moreover, Weinandy contends that theologians have too often acceded to the academy, allowing theology to devolve into an “intellectual game”.

I think he’s right, mostly, when these things are the case – but when I think about what to do about it – I’m stymied. That’s because I think one of the real issues here, which he doesn’t get at, is a generation gap, and a gap of which I am a part. (So therefore I’m part of the problem ;-))

1. De-seminarizing of theology: In the first place, I think about the fact that theological training in the US is no longer what it was during Fr. Weinandy’s training. In other words, I don’t think I (or others) are playing an “intellectual game” so much as doing theology in the way we were formed.

The “older guys” in my department all went through seminary training, even if they are not priests – and they learned a particular kind of Thomism and a broad and deep swath of theology that I, even six years out from earning a PhD do not know. They read a lot. My doktorvater, Stanley Hauerwas, writes extensively of all the books he read as an undergraduate, and while in seminary and doctoral work at Yale University (in his book, Hannah’s Child).

If I were to come up with such a list it would not be quite so extensive, and I think with this current generation of students I teach, it would be even less so. I don’t remember most of what I read (which is probably telling – though I was a biochemistry major for much of my college career and the books were 50 pound tomes that would now be out of date). I do remember that I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, not just once, but four times. And I find it interesting that as a medieval history major, I read a lot of saints’ lives and Jacques LeGoff’s work on purgatory but never once cracked open Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, nor knew it was there. I credit my great advisor with the fact that I read Augustine’s Confessions, a book that my students now say is too hard – and trully, they don’t have the skills to read it in the way I think even my own generation could do.

In seminary, there was more engagement with primary texts: I read scripture, Calvin, Barth, Wesley. But those were far outweighed by reading critiques – feminist, post-modern and otherwise. In doctoral work, I did far more reading of “the tradition” but by then, I had already been formed by my Foucauldian upbringing to be suspicious and critical, not to read broadly and widely.

This is not to criticize the amazing and brilliant people I studied with, but is rather to point out that my education was almost the reverse of what other previous generations, including Fr. Weinandy, did: I began with the critiques, in an academic system that was peopled by those who had critiques – and added in the works people were critiquing only later. I didn’t see that this was what was happening till I was in doctoral work myself, and now I’m trying to catch up, as fast as I can. So when Weinandy discusses that theologians are not grounded in church teaching – I’d wonder if what it really is, is this loss of Catholic intellectual life that supported church teaching in ways that intellectual life no longer does.

2. The de-clericalization of theology: The other major change is the one that we here on this blog represent: we are all lay people. Many of us are married with small children. This means that not only did we NOT get a seminary education of the kind that Weinandy and others had, it also means that we’re not part of an institutionalized faith formation of the kind that clergy get. We’re not privy to those diocesan priestly retreats, and whatever else bishops (rightly) do to help form their pastors.

I don’t actually know any theologian who fits Weinandy’s description of not having an active faith life. It’s just that that life looks something like this: 1) aim to get to mass on Sunday with all the kids dressed (three year old IN underwear please!), and aim to keep everyone from killing each other, to say nothing of actually praying. (Thank goodness that there are others praying on my behalf.) 2) aim to read scripture and pray in the morning and evening, but see above point about kids. Sometimes my morning prayer is “Lord, help me get through this day.” 3) Write scripture reflections for my parish website. Love this – I do it during my workday. 4) Teach catechetical classes for 3-6 year olds. I’m trained in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd; it’s a great blessing in my life, but it, too, makes my Sundays crazy AND it requires that my spouse have sole care of the kids.

I’m not saying it’s not also very difficult for priests – who, I know, are extremely busy – to pray and otherwise focus on faith life. I’m simply saying that clergy have at least some semblance of formation in their diocese and/or order. And when most theologians were priests, this meant a very different kind of culture. You could be a theologian for the church while in the academy and not see the kind of split that Weinandy sees.

Magisterium and Theologians
I do think there’s a “magisterium versus theologians” undercurrent in academic theology. I’ve seen it at conferences; I’ve been frustrated by some theologians’ comments against the magisterium even as I’ve been frustrated by, for example, the way I thought the bishops mishandled their judgement of Elizabeth Johnson’s work. I’m tired of feeling like I have to somehow, and impossibly, be part of two churches – that’s not the way it should be.

But given the kinds of shifts that have happened in theology (and I’m sure there are others we could mention), I wonder if we’ve really yet got at the root of the problem or found its solution. Fr. Weinandy made a point about the mandatum. I think he’s right that a mandatum lends a seriousness to theology, especially in an academy that doesn’t want to take Christianity seriously at all; I know I’m in a minority of theologians in not opposing the idea of a mandatum. But at the end of it all, is the mandatum just a piece of paper that doesn’t really fix the generation gap?

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8 Comments

  1. Jana, Thanks for jumping in on this important topic. When I read Allen’s article, I thought that surely he was misrepresenting Fr. Weinandy’s lecture. Surely the executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Doctrine didn’t challenge the faith, holiness, and goodwill of Catholic theologians? Surely he didn’t use the word “curse”? I was reluctant to chime in because I wanted to read the full address first. Now that I’ve read it (published in the July 21, 2011 volume of Origins, pp. 154-163 for those who have online access), I am wrestling with feelings of sadness, anger, and fear. I found the tone of his address uncharitable and unnecessarily polemical and divisive. It seems like a classicist methodology, especially concerned with preserving the teaching authority of the bishops in continuity with received Revelation. The basic argument is that a true Catholic theologian “thinks with assent” and freedom of inquiry is allowed within the bounds of official church teachings. There are clear insiders and outsiders in his ecclesial vision, and I’m not sure that is a helpful posture for real collaboration to occur.

    Quotations of interest:

    “Theology may be the only academic pursuit where one seemingly can be considered a theologian without actually having to know the subject matter. Biologists must actually know real plants, and physicists must actually understand the workings of real material objects, but it would appear at times that a theologian need not actually know God” (155).

    “While theologians are free to inquire into the truths of the faith in a manner that they believe most beneficial, they are not free to reject the principles upon which Catholic theology is based–the received understanding of the sacred Scripture and its doctrinal tradition” (156-7).

    “It is not the role of theology or the purview of theologians to adjudicate the truth of the revealed mysteries but to accept them, in faith, as true” (157).

    “If theologians do not grasp in faith the content of what the church teaches, then it is impossible for them to assist the magisterium in strengthening and enhancing the faith within the church” (159).

    “When the fundamental mysteries of the faith as expressed in Scripture and within the living authentic teaching of the church are undermined, expressed ambiguously, or even denied outright, this is a sign not simply of inadequate theological training, though that may greatly contribute to the problem, but also, I believe, a sign of the absence of the theological virtue of faith. This is equally true within the disciplines of biblical studies and Christian ethics. Because the virtue of faith is absent, it is impossible for a ‘Catholic’ theologian to be authentically Catholic since he or she does not believe what the church believes and so is incapable of exercising in a proper manner the vocation of an ecclesial theologian” (159).

    “It is difficult, if not impossible, for the Spirit to reside and work in such an inhospitable theological climate [i.e. when 'theologians' disagree with magisterial teachings], a climate where the faith that he himself [Holy Spirit] confirms is wanting. Thus, such an understanding of the theological enterprise ceases to be ecclesial, for the theologian is no longer working within the boundaries of the church’s faith nor in collaboration with the magisterium” (160).

    “Given the bankruptcy of so much modern and contemporary scriptural scholarship, the time is opportune for systematic theologians and moralists to seize back the Bible and make it what it rightly is–the primary source book of their own disciplines” (161).

    “I highlight this [need for evangelization] because I am convinced that many contemporary academic theologians do not see themselves as evangelists. Rather, they see themselves as writing for their academic peers, often in a most incomprehensible manner. Or, if they do write for a student or popular audience, they often claim to offer what is novel, groundbreaking and sometimes even shocking when, in actual fact, they are often offering either a repackaged and resuscitated spurious theology from the past or simply one not in accord with the Gospel and the church’s teaching” (162).

    My Questions:
    Is not his use of the term “church” to mean magisterial authority ultimately too narrow?
    Does he collapse a thick understanding of “faith” with “content” of official magisterial teachings?
    Is this theological vision consistent with the best research in ecclesiology, church history (including development of doctrine), and spirituality?
    Is this theological bullying?
    Is my work in the classroom best characterized as “evangelization” or as an invitation, accompaniment, or witnessing?

  2. Jana,
    Hi, me again. My previous post was more a response to Weinandy’s lecture than your post. I do agree with you that there is a new moment in contemporary Catholic theology/ethics given the break from the model of the seminary/clerical culture (although this is more true in the U.S. context than in the developing world). But I wouldn’t characterize it as a generational gap because it seems like he is targeting revisionist/feminist theologians and their methodologies. Many of the most well known revisionist theologians are his contemporaries. What really bugs me is the assumption that revisionist theologians do not love the church, and that their theology is not rooted in the Gospel and animated by love of God who is ultimate Mystery. For real collaboration to occur between the bishops and theologians, there must be a climate of trust. This lecture does not contribute to a climate of trust.
    I think your description of the chaos of your family’s Sunday morning is beautiful! As I’ve struggled to balance parenthood, teaching, and justice work in the past year I’ve really enjoyed reading Wendy Wright’s Seasons of a Family’s Life and Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s In the Midst of Chaos. Both are books about authentic spirituality in the midst of busy family life. If you haven’t seen them, you might want to take a look! All best, Emily

  3. I appreciate Fr. Weinandy’s honesty and candor. I think it is important to make the distinction between those who are general theologians or students of theology and those who would call themselves “Catholic” theologians. If the intent is to use speculative theology and research for the purpose of opposing the teachings of the Catholic faith or “re-interpreting” it to fit modern sentiments and opinions, then no, I don’t think someone could claim to be in the Catholic tradition accept in a nominal sense. It would be hard to argue within the Catholic tradition that the tenants of the faith are simply a matter of opinion and up for a vote as if we were Congregationalists. On foundational teachings, it is important to recognize the different roles that exist within the faith tradition as laity, clergy, theologians, philosophers and etc. and how the deposit of faith is transmitted. There is also the need to respect revelation and the role of the magisterium. Though we are many parts, with different parts to play, we are still called to be one body in faith.

  4. I would be hesitant to paint a glowing picture of the past theological or spiritual formation of priest theologians regarding primary texts. The intellectual training of older priest theologians with whom I have spoken anecdotally confirms that reading of original texts was not necessarily the order of the day. Excerpts from and lectures (not discussions) of such were. One graduate from the early 60s told me that it was not important to read primary texts but to understand what the Church taught about them.

    Also, the Thomism that was/has been taught is not necessarily that of Aquinas but rather of the Reformation and Post-Reformation era, with serious distortions. The golden age of Thomism in seminary formation has been greatly exagerated.
    In terms of my current research on the identity of priesthood in that era, I am reading dissertations by American priest theologians from decades ago that show a serious lack of academic rigor and understanding of traditional, basic theological concepts found in their counterparts in Europe.
    As far as faith formation, I can say as a PhD student it has been discouraging to see lay theology students get financial support for theological study who are neither Catholic nor who live Church teachings, for example, on same-sex cohabitation. But, it is equally discouraging to be in class with numerous conservative seminarians and young priests who are not equipped to handle doctoral study not due to lack of training but to intellectual ability. The quality of instruction if affected, as will the future governance of the Church.
    As to their spiritual formation – a huge topic – it varies greatly, depending on whether they are diocesan or religious order priests. The prayer life may be there but spiritual formation philosophies and resultant anthropologies (and hidden theological distortions therein) are another matter, and they affect theologians’ thinking and discernment at a very basic level. We are seeing these effects in this current controversy.

  5. Generational gap or not, I think Weinandy’s comments are incredibly uncharitable and slanderous, especially given recent events. After all, most polemic (including, for instance, sexism) could be explained by invoking a generational gap of some kind or another. But that doesn’t make it excusable.

    He’s not cloistered off from the world, so I don’t think it’s that he’s simply unaware that prayer can take forms other than recitation of the Divine Office, say. The fact that he’s pretty well-traveled and has had no lack of opportunities for engaging seriously the thought of contemporary theologians makes his remarks all the more offensive. And as for theology devolving into “intellectual games,” that strikes me as a rather apt description of his committee’s critique of Beth Johnson’s book.

  6. Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments –

    Emily – I think your point about his audience is a good one – I think he does probably have in mind feminists/revisionists. But I point out the generation gap partly to say: I think the issues as he’s laid them out are not necessarily the most pressing ones – I think there is a need to think about the way younger theologians have been formed, because that changes the questions. Even though I do think there’s a magisterium versus theologians tendency, I don’t think that’s the main problem to contend with in the near future – and building some kind of trust between theologians and bishops will involve more than what I read Weinandy as discussing.

    VAThomist – I think your distinction about intention is important. I’m not so clear what you mean by “general theology”. If I understand what you mean, wouldn’t that rather come under something like “religious studies” rather than theology? And as to your other points, I think you’re right – my question though, in light of what I see as a generation gap, is how to go about getting there. I’m thinking primarily of Bill Portier’s article on evangelical Catholics here, where he’s discussing the difference between a Catholic subculture and what it means to be Catholic in a voluntarist culture such as the contemporary one. In the second case, which is definitely the kind of world in which I was raised, I think more needs to be done about forming theologians (and bishops and lay people) together – I just don’t think the Catholic “puzzle pieces” so to speak fit together well enough any more to make intelligible the idea that we are many parts but one body in the way that I think could have been done in a previous generation, and which I think the previous generation experienced even if they didn’t know it.

    CMM – Yes. I don’t want to paint too glowing a picture – I think Henri deLubac has already shown how un-ideal theological education had gotten. At the same time, I do think that there was a kind of cohesiveness (however problematic) that made certain things – like the relationship between theologians and magisterium – more clear. It just isn’t the case now.

  7. Well, in a polemical climate, such as is ours at the moment, the first thing that goes out the window is nuance.
    Having separate rabbinacal and priestly castes was not a half bad idea because giving power of the mind and the spirit of the Church to a very small group cannot be all healthy. More to the point, we are asking way too much for men to be seasoned leaders, pastors, confessors, guardians of our rites and academics. It is just not possible. Something is going to suffer.
    Cohesiveness has often been merely interpreted as don’t ask, don’t argue, don’t discuss when it came to tough issues.
    A case in point is indelible character. The theologians in Trent, in their great humility, refused to say exactly what it was. They had all sorts of theories at the time, which they discussed freely. But, they used very cautious language in their statement on it, interestingly changing specific language in one redaction back to that of the Council of Florence.
    Interestingly, that language never made it into French, Spanish and English translations – instead, the translations reverted unconsciously to a narrower nuance that the Fathers had rightly rejected. Thus, I think, a certain arrogance and assuredness on the part of theologians developed later about the nature of indelible character.
    But, to the point here, try writing something right now in this climate on the fact that we still don’t have an adequate definition of indelible character even though we are rightly required to accept the idea of it. Madame Guillotine would come calling…not to be unnuanced.

  8. I agree that it is important to think about how younger theologians have been formed, and it was interesting to hear you describe your personal experience in this regard (my intellectual trajectory is different, but that’s for another conversation). I also agree with you that a priest in a religious order will have a different experience of formation than my experience as a lay woman, and there will likely be some differences in the way we describe our vocations and our role within the ecclesial community in light of this difference in status, living arrangements, access to church leaders, etc. But one of the things I struggle with when we talk about the term “vocation” and the integration of personal devotion is that there is not one way of responding to the vocation to serve the church as a theologian. And it becomes even more difficult to see myself contributing to theological discourse when someone in a position of leadership insinuates that my interior posture of prayer is an “inhospitable climate” for the Holy Spirit.

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