What is theology? Moral Theology is Messy
Throughout this weekend’s CTSA, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of context within the practice of theology. “Identity and Difference, unity and fragmentation” was the theme and the theme surrounded the conference in ways that I haven’t experienced other year’s themes. There is no doubt that the “conversation starter” of the weekend was Paul Griffiths talk on theological disagreement (see here for Commonweal live tweets and discussion by others). Griffiths’s paper and Michelle Saracino’s response served as a catalyst for many fruitful discussions about how we each understand the vocation of the theologian and our own participation in the CTSA. Personally, I was deeply uncomfortable with Griffiths talk – not because of his understanding of what he thinks theology is and its purpose but because it was communicated as if it was THE one answer. I recognized the words he was using – doctrine, interpretation, speculation….and yet, I found his definitions inadequate to capture the depths of “faith seeking understanding” within the numerous branches of Catholic theology and within the Global Church. His is one way of understanding the theological project – but it is not the only way and as a Catholic ethicist, it’s untenable for moral theology.
As a philosophy major, I learned and deeply believe in defining terms and clarifying arguments while maintaining intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is not just about the recognition that I may be wrong or I don’t have all the answers, but also the recognition that I do not have all the questions. What do we need to know to analyze a situation? Who gets to determine what the questions are? As a Catholic female theologian, I have witnessed and experienced the assertion of power to simply define outside “the pertinent issue” questions that another scholar doesn’t see. On the one hand – conversations are bounded (if we are talking about Harry Potter, we are not talking about hurricanes); but when we are discussing theology – the boundary lines are not quite so fixed. If on the same subject, someone raises a question, perspective, or possible framing about that subject that is different – it is an assertion of power and privilege to claim a priori that’s not what we’re talking about. And so I pause at a plenary that appears to assert much of moral theology as not what theology is about – for example: “social justice, world peace and the preservation of creation” it was stated are not what theology is about. Sure they may be good things to do, but they are not properly the scope of theology. Whether it was the speaker’s intention or not — he simply defined my field -Catholic social thought – out of what theology properly does.
Personally, this conference was incredibly rewarding in moral theology. In part perhaps due to the Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church committee meeting, there were a higher than usual number of Catholic moral theologians from around the globe. Like at Trento, I got to sit down and discuss theology and pedagogy with colleagues from Manila and Nairobi as well as around from the USA. In all these sessions and conversations, the questions, projects, and contexts we were all prioritizing did not fit into Griffiths narrow definition of what is most proper to theology, such as cross-cultural pursuits of justice and reconciliation. Bryan Massingale beautifully identified my deep disconnect with the plenary – in moral theology “we start in the mess” of a broken world and not with the intellect. Moral theology as it is practiced in all four of the MT sessions I attended or spoke at were deeply rooted in the incarnation or creation. But their theology did not fit into the “discovery, interpretation, and speculation” of doctrine defined as what is most proper to theology. They used our contemporary context to reflect on doctrine and what must be done. Context matters.
There is urgency and contingency to the practice of moral theology that requires a deep intellectual humility. It also requires a difference sense of time than Griffiths’s understanding of theology, in which he asserted theologians need not worry about influencing doctrine, for they will be long dead before such things happen. Moral theologians who specialize in ecology and environmental theology are concerned with development and transmission of doctrine on creation. There is an immediacy that is not about academic egos but the ecological crisis. How we interpret the dignity of creation and stewardship has immediate consequences. At one point in his talk, Griffiths asserted, rather matter of fact, that proposals of the IMF have no relevance for theology (I am relying on my notes). On one level – yes the economics of the IMF as economic policy is not a matter of theology. On another level, the implications of those programs impact millions of people for whom poverty and structural injustice means death. Structures of injustice are very much the realm of Catholic moral theology. A moral evaluation of IMF policies as they impact the vulnerable and excluded is of utmost concern to Catholic moral theology. As the US Bishops argued in Economic Justice for All: The fundamental questions for economic policy are: what does it do to people? What does it do for people? And, how do people participate in it? The concern for ethics and people-centered policies are also emphasized in Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. Context, history, experience, embodiment, power – all of these matter greatly to Catholic social ethics – which is properly theology (moral theology itself was established as distinct type of theology at the Council of Trent).
We should spend lots of time discussing the nature of doctrine and the theologian’s relationship to magisterial authority. So too should we look at the nature of revelation and the person of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, however, if more inclusive dialogue is the goal– then perhaps starting with fixed definitions of theology in which one defines huge segments of the field as “not what theology is properly about” was not the best way to begin the conversation.