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.