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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.



  1. Thanks for this post, Meghan. I attended the plenary as well and had a similar reaction. I was troubled by the baseball metaphor, the part about embodiment of angels as an “interesting theological” question while most of ethics is “uninteresting” and the overall tone, which was more argumentative than dialogical. The talk stimulated many thoughtful conversations during the rest of the conference, but it did not make me want to become a member of ACT. I wonder if anybody thought to themselves, “Well, it is okay with me if this speaker stops attending CTSA.” I wouldn’t be surprised. But if that did happen, then his talk was counterproductive. I would have preferred a bridge-building message.

    Gustavo Gutierrez explains his understanding of theology in his latest book with Paul Farmer: theology is reflection on the realities of life. I find this a compelling starting point. Of course, I’ve been influenced by the ethnographic turn in contemporary moral theology, by feminist and liberationist approaches, by a desire to do theology from the margins. I think the “center” remains contested, but for me it has more to do with Jesus and discipleship in a complex world (love the title of your post).

    I’m reminded by this quote from last summer’s interview of Pope Francis:

    “When I insist on the frontier, I am referring in a particular way to the need for those who work in the world of culture to be inserted into the context in which they operate and on which they reflect. There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a ‘lab faith’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths… When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter for Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty… The frontiers are many… Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.” –9/30/2103, “A Big Heart Open to God”

    In the Practical Theology session, Elsie Miranda used the term “pluriversality” in contrast to “universality” to emphasize the importance of recognizing different context-dependent starting points for theological reflection. And some of our discussion at the end of that session was about style/substance (both matter- but often we put too little attention on style/tone I think).

    I was energized by many conversations at the conference… sounds like you were too!

  2. I particularly liked this Meghan:

    “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.”

    That theological humility is so important. The doctrinal centre of the church doesn’t have all the answers, and it’s certainty is often overstated, but those at the edges do not always clearly see the bigger picture. Together, and in dialogue, both approaches have a lot to offer.

    I thought this piece from Abp Ganswein, commenting on Pope Benedict’s thought on legal norms, also speaks to moral theology :

    The first and fundamental contribution of Benedict XVI is the appeal to the fact that the ultimate sources of law are to be searched in reason and nature, not in a command, from whoever it is. The originality of Pope Benedict’s position in regard to the presence of Christians in the public sphere is rooted in a vision of Christianity as universal religion, addressed to all, which trusts in the possibility that reason transcend the very capacities of reason, which he asserts with the words of Saint Paul: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Romans 2:14ff.).

    Benedict XVI’s proposal resolves the problem at its root, where he affirms that the source of legal norms is not revelation, but reason and nature in their inter-relations.

    That “reason and nature in their inter-relations” seems to express the grounding of theology in reasoning based on experience.

    God Bless

  3. Meghan, I heard Griffiths’ comments about theology as seeking to clarify what is properly “God talk” as distinct from implications of that talk. I certainly don’t think he was dismissive of moral theology, or of development of doctrine (as he averred in one response to a question from the floor).

    IMF policy is not theology. Concern with IMF policy may arise from theological convictions, though, and it is those prior convictions that Griffiths is interested in. My understanding is that he wants us to pay attention to the framing of theological questions always, not prescinding from them by attending only to the ethical imperatives that flow from them. So I agree with him that social justice, world peace, and the preservation of creation are not theology; they are concerns that arise from theological convictions, which people of faith must be interested in.

    For me, that intellectual humility is based in a simple fact: I’m not trained in economics, or biology, or political science, or any number of other fields that can deepen and expand the world’s understanding of those complex problems. I’m trained in theology. I wonder whether the current theological illiteracy of so many Catholics (not to mention others)– even those within the academy– is due to the fact that theologians are not doing the kind of theology that Griffiths calls for, and doing instead various types of social analyses for which they are not really properly trained.

    • Tim,

      You wrote:

      So I agree with him that social justice, world peace, and the preservation of creation are not theology; they are concerns that arise from theological convictions, which people of faith must be interested in.

      This seems to be much too narrow a view of what theology is. The kind of academic, “ivory tower”, approach to theology which drives most Catholic away from theology and reinforces the view that theology is completely detached from real life and peoples everyday concerns, suffering, and struggles.

      The Church has always taught that we encounter Christ in the poor, in the natural world, in work for Peace and Social Justice.

      Theology, understook as faith seeking understanding, the intellectual quest for a deeper knowledge and relationship with God, is certainly being done whenever people encounter and work for the poor, the environment, for peace, and engage with the IMF, because that work is an encounter with Christ which deepens our knowledge and relationship with him.

      I would argue, together with Liberation Theologians, and Pope Francis, that theology can ONLY be properly done in active solidarity and engagement with the oppressed.

      It seems to me that this is the real divide among theologians today and that those who claim adherence to doctrine and magisterium but hold off active solidarity with the poor and marginalised are actually out of step with both Catholic tradition and magisterial teaching.

      God Bless

  4. Having heard Griffiths’ talk in person, it makes sense to me that his definition of theology was almost unrecognizable to you, Meghan, because of its narrowness. I would also say that I have seen a sort of mirror-image situation: conservative theologians confronted with descriptions of theology (explicit or implicit) that, for one reason or another, are virtually unrecognizable to them.

    My question is what happens next. Is it possible to “lean in” and address these very basic differences directly? Or does it make more sense to walk away? (Or maybe to hope the other walks away?) If I’m understanding your comment, Emily, you feel that, in this case, you’d opt for the latter. I’m thinking of a comment that both Emily and I heard at another session in which the story of Jacob and Laban (Gen. 30) was referenced as a reminder that sometimes the only solution (in order to avoid even worse conflict?) is to part ways.

    Facing the question in its larger context, I am genuinely unsure. What looks to me like increasing polarization in the world of Catholic theology worries me. We now have groups of Catholic theologians who have no overlap at all: different academic institutions, “canons” of theological standards, conferences, journals, blogs, etc. (Given this, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy emerges: when they do cross paths, they seem more and more strange to one another.)

    I find myself haunted by the claims of Paul in Corinthians 12: we exist in profound interdependence, and we need to be most careful at the moment we’re most confident about which members of the body we can do without. I also remember that story of Jacob and Laban, which is a somewhat complex narrative. Initially, Jacob actually wants to put much more distance between the two of them, but Laban is hesitant to let him go. “The Lord,” he says, “has blessed me because of you.” In the end, they compromise on a separation of a three-day’s-journey.

    At this year’s CTSA meeting, I felt there were unexpected new forms of engagement, but I wonder if, ultimately, we’ll see what could be described –for all practical purposes–as a complete parting of the ways?

  5. I count myself among the current theologians who reconsider the presumed divide between intellect and experience, doctrine and morals,authority and conscience (etc…) reflected in a quote like Massingale’s above. I would challenge those as simply false dichotomies that might actually serve to cover different dynamics of power and interestedness.

    So when I hear Griffiths define theology as he did, I don’t see it automatically following that this excludes application and interpretation in terms of practical issues in a contemporary context. I would challenge anyone who thinks they are doing such application or interpretation APART from the use of reason or in terms of principles that are functioning effectively as doctrines.

    I fully endorse the application of critical principles to both outward and inward dynamics in order to clarify what we are doing as theologians, and how we are doing it. Nobody gets off the hook for answering Nietzsche’s challenges.

    So, I would like to be able to put to any claim like the following:

    the challenge that you don’t get off the hook for operating out of a set or “compendium” of abstract truths if you claim to be acting in solidarity with the poor. My disappointment with contemporary theology, ESPECIALLY moral theology, is not that its critical, but that it’s not critical *enough*, operating from a set of doctrines and norms that remain implicit, frequently merely cultural, and thus unexamined, and that the method employed employs reason and language in rhetorically-powerful modes that are intellectually unsatisfying.

    The mechanism for raising such questions in public forums like plenary addresses, however, does not exist. I did consider raising the question about a plenary speaker’s employment of a concatenation of powerful examples to render the audience amenable to the claim that aborting an 11-week old unborn baby is a compassionate act, but literally, I would not know where to begin: method? definition? verification of anecdotes?

    But more immediately, would a white male raising such questions simply be dismissed as unjustly asserting privilege and power in a logocentric and heteronormative mode of discourse, for the sake of my own self-justification and reduction of anxiety?

    It’s that level of fundamental difference about what we’re even doing in the same room that I think Griffiths’s talk was essential for uncovering. I think there needs to be more uncovering of motives and methods of EVERYONE involved, across the board.

    I guess that makes me a conservative?

  6. This is a rich conversation but before I respond to anything I need to correct my first contribution, which was written without the Gutierrez book in hand. And in my attempt to paraphrase, I left out a key detail. So – what Gutierrez actually writes is: “We address the poor not only to make life better for the poor but also to announce the gospel to the world. Liberation from the sin of social injustice and exclusion is thus a clear sign of evangelization and the reality of God’s reign on earth. In this way, theology is utterly practical, a reflection not merely on theories and concepts but on life as it really is and as it really can be. The various challenges to human life–economic, political, environmental, and medical–may seem disconnected from theology, but they are not. Theology is a reflection about life in light of the reality of God. And this means that theology is very historical. It develops in the history of the church as we try to announce the gospel within a concrete situation and in a way relevant for daily life. Thus theology is ‘in the middle,’ between the living faith of believers and the task of announcing that faith in the world. More specifically, this means that to be coherent, theology must pay attention to the situations in poor countries or the contexts of historically excluded groups in rich countries…. Though adapted to particular situations, this way of doing theology is not new. The Bible itself does not adopt a ‘view from nowhere,’ to use a current phrase.” (from In the Company of the Poor, pg. 28)

  7. Surely liberation theology draws on cultural analysis, economics, etc: and yes scholars need to disclose and reflect upon our methods, but I would hope that we can build trust as a community of scholars by learning about the work in other areas of scholarship before making a case that the other is not doing “real theology.” To give an example: as someone deeply influenced by feminism I think that some of my colleagues too easily dismiss the sexism within the tradition or sugar-coat their analysis of the Holy Spirit’s preservation of the magisterium from error. I react with suspicion and it is difficult to then self-censor and re-frame my questions so that they can be heard by someone more trusting of authority. I tend to invoke a “people of God” ecclesiology over a “hierarchical/institutional” ecclesiology– but as a community of scholars, can’t we recognize that both are legitimate positions, and then discuss the various pros and cons of each? I sometimes feel that instead of getting to the conversation where we hash out what is compelling, we start drawing battle lines, and then don’t really “hear” the other. So, Holly, I would answer by saying that yes, I would like to “lean in” to this… and I fully recognize that I have strong convictions but also that I do not have the whole truth and I need to hear other perspectives. Theology done in community is more adequate than theology done as solitary endeavor. I think this is why Dana’s presentation was brilliant: because it challenged us to engage with one another from a context of relationships. And it is in relationships that we build trust first, so that people can speak honestly.

  8. Because it came up in the plenary address, I reviewed the CTSA statement of purpose: “Our purpose, within the context of the Roman Catholic tradition, is to promote studies and research in theology, to relate theological science to current problems, and to foster a more effective theological education, by providing a forum for an exchange of views among theologians and with scholars in other disciplines.
    In this way the Society seeks to assist those entrusted with a teaching ministry of the Church to develop in the Christian people a more mature understanding of their faith, and to further the cause of unity among all people through a better appreciation of the role of religious faith in the life of human beings and society.”
    I know we attend conferences for a variety of reasons: networking, publication opportunities, etc; but the point I was trying to make earlier is that if the speaker does not identify or agree with the CTSA statement of purpose, no one is forcing him to attend CTSA. Now, if we as a society are not living up to our statement of purpose, that is another question. I would be interested in hearing about what other members think about that.

  9. Another reaction to Griffiths from Greg Hillis: “Properly theological questions do not simply receive and accept answers from on high; such questions need to be lived out for the answers to have any truth, goodness, and beauty.”

  10. Thanks to Meghan for starting the conversation! I was not able to attend the CTSA and am grateful for the comments of those who did. A few things stand out for me as important for continuing conversation:

    1. Robert’s point that we should examine the methods we’re all using and hold each other accountable. It’s easier to see presuppositions and to challenge lazy arguments when people with genuine differences are in the same room together.

    2. Tim’s point that as moral theology becomes more applied and utilizes more social science, theologians may be working outside their area of expertise and failing to give people the theology they need. I would argue that moral theologians in the past tried to comment on a broader range of issues and often did so without the relevant sciences. I think we’re doing better moral theology now in part because we specialize more and are in dialogue with those in related disciplines, but I do sometimes worry about being under-qualified for this kind of work. And I see the need Tim points to.

    3. Meghan’s point, echoed in the quotes from Massingale, Gutierrez,and Pope Francis, that we start “in the mess” of the world and bring the wisdom of our tradition and the strength of our intellect to “the frontier.” Is there really disagreement on this point among theologians? We all start with the problems we see. It’s just that we see different problems. But I hope ongoing conversation can help those on both sides to see better the concerns of those from whom we’ve been estranged too long.

  11. Thanks, everyone, for a great discussion so far! I thought I’d add my thoughts here and ask a question of you all.

    I was also present for this plenary. This was my first exposure to Paul Griffith’s work. And what an exposure it was! I want to note that he was careful to define “doing theology” and “doing Catholic theology” as distinct activities and the difference between these two is, according to his plenary address, not small. (Charlie Camosy has made this point elsewhere here on CMT.) This distinction is also not unique to his thought. It is all about the Magisterium. (That is a discussion thread in itself–one which I’m not yet ready to enter!)

    I am glad that the CTSA leadership decided to ask him to speak, and I hope that next year’s meeting will demonstrate that we all genuinely heard and mean to respond to his experience of the Society’s meetings and culture. To me, responding to his experience of the Society’s meetings requires maintaining an awareness of his claims in our topic sessions and Q/A responses. Responding to his experience of the CTSA’s culture means keeping that standard of discourse in our conversations in elevators, at lunch meetings, at the water tables–basically anywhere under the omnipresent chandeliers. That will be more difficult. But since I am also informed by feminism, I say that holding with care his experience, as an experience, is critically important because it is his experience. It matters. It carries authority. This is a point on which he and I might disagree.

    This relates to Julie’s important point #1, I think, which also reminded me of something that other panels at this year’s meeting also discussed. For example, regular CMT contributors Emily and Dana together offered recommendations about how this discourse ought (and ought not) proceed. This CMT blog is another place where such recommendations are followed with care, and that is so very important. I think Paul Griffiths, and Emily Reimer-Barry, and Dana Dillon, are all correct that the way we talk through disagreements matters a great deal. This is hard exactly because this is not just a matter of differing viewpoints, or differing emphases. It is about me saying x is right and y is wrong, and you hold y and here’s where you err just as you say that y is right and my x is wrong, and here is why. In this conversation, neither of us thinks that “x” and “y” are a matter of opinion. And yet we can discuss it with emphasis and honest listening. We can, I believe, because we are both a part of the Church and I want that Church to be a BIG Church.
    I had one question throughout Paul Griffith’s plenary. It is a big question and the fact that we were not able to address it then or even yet now indicates to me that his critique holds some merit. (Please correct my memory of his talk as needed–I am working from notes here.) Paul Griffiths identified three phases or stages of Catholic theology and spent most of his time on the first of the three. But I want to hear more about phase #2: interpretation.
    So my question is this: In Catholic theology, what exactly is “interpretation?”

  12. I read the text of Griffith’s speech and it did not exclude the entire field of Catholic Social teaching from theology. He said specifically, “It is easy, and common, for theologians to find themselves serving and seeking other goods – social justice, perhaps; or world peace; or the preservation of the created order-as if pursuing these things were theology’s primary task. But it is not. These topics, and many others like them, are theological only to the extent that treatment of them flows from and is integrated with theology’s response to what the LORD has given us of himself”.

    He is criticizing specifically putting the ‘theology’ label to a whole other endeavor, such as an objective of societal change or progress. If you want to be an activist or devote yourself to a cause then those may be worthy endeavors, but if it is not adhering to the discipline of theology then don’t say you are doing theology.

    I was hoping that the responses to Griffiths would be to point out that he has incorrectly characterized the problems with the practices of the CTSA. Not the uncontroversial assertions that Catholic theology is expected to be an objective discipline whose practices would follow a practice of discovery that forms the boundaries of theological questions to be addressed.

  13. If it were true that “theology is a reflection of the realities of Life”, then every Life would be a reflection of The Word of God; not every person, however, lives their Life according to The Word of God. Theology that reflects the reality of The True God, is a Theology that reflects The Truth of Love. Love is ordered to the personal and relational Dignity of the human person, created in The Image and Likeness of God, as a reflection of Love, although not yet perfected through our Savior, Jesus The Christ. One cannot separate the reality of Life from the purpose of Life, communion with God.

  14. There is a difference between theology and Catholic Theology. We can know through Faith and reason that Catholic Theology is theology that is, in essence, consistent with The Word of God as He Has Revealed Himself to His Church, in the trinitarian relationship of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and The Teaching of The Magisterium. In order to be a Catholic theologian one needs to conserve The Deposit of Faith wholly, and apply it liberally. A Catholic theologian knows through Faith and reason, once you add or subtract an element to The Word of God, or interpret The Word of God in such a way that it does not complement the Spirit of The Law, The Truth is no longer The Truth.


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