I was intrigued by Archbishop Dolan’s reflections on the “ad limina” visit he and other US bishops have been having at the Vatican. It sounds like a great way to come together and discuss, with colleagues in similar positions, the benefits and pitfalls of their particular locations as well as questions about the state of the church today. It also sounded a bit like a retreat atmosphere, a necessary part of continuing to flourish vocationally.
In fact… it sounds a lot like the benefits I get at some of the academic conferences I attend, if, in fact, my colleagues are limited to the ones in the academy.
There’s the sticking point for me, though. As a theologian, my colleagues – or at least my conversation partners – are not just those in the academy but are also the ones in the church. But though each of us individually might seek to have relationships with bishops, priests, other religious, and lay people, beyond what we have in the academy, I’d love to see what would happen if we could conference with each other kind of like in the ad limina visits.
In the article, Archbishop Dolan remarked:
“I heard more than one bishop say, ‘I should spend as much time with my priests as these people have spent with us.’ It’s a great example to us”
It made me wistfully think, “I wish I could spend even just a little bit of time with my priests and bishops, discussing benefits and pitfalls and questions about the state of the church today. I wish I could spend even just a little bit of time on retreat with some other theologians, but also some priests and a bishop or two.”
I worry that sometimes the emphasis I get in the church is that I’m a lay woman, and not that I’m a theologian – even though being a theologian is supposedly an important role in the church. But when do I (or others) really carry out that task for the church itself?
Is it only to be in the classroom or in books, which would seem not to be particularly for the church itself? Is it only to be in piecemeal discussions that, in my experience, tend to happen only occasionally and only between a few? For example: my parish priest constantly seeks to involve me and other theologians in parish life and conversations, just as he seeks to involve others with other particular skills – but he’s a rarity. More often than not, I think I’ve been seen as a threat, merely because another parishioner happens to introduce me to Father as “a theologian.” That’s usually been a conversation stopper, or seen as self-aggrandizing. But if being “high and mighty” is always the assumption made about theologians, then where’s the possibility for the real role of theologian in the church? (Lest this be totally one-sided, I do think theologians have a responsibility to cultivate virtues of humility….)
My colleagues Emily Reimer Barry and Charles Camosy have already spoken about the conference they attended on the new evangelization. I think that was an important meeting. But I’m wondering about that kind of thing happening at other levels. What would it be like if many of the theologians in my diocese got together for regular (once every 2-3 years? Or more often?) retreats, with a few priests or diocesan officials?
And, what would it be like if theologians had ad limina conferences?
I love this post and I think you are raising some critical questions for our Church to deal with today, especially as theology becomes more of a lay discipline. At Carroll here in Montana, we are lucky. As a diocesan school, we have a much closer relationship to the bishop than many others do. In fact, our theology department is meeting with Bishop Thompson next week to discuss the state of the department, questions, and concerns that we have. But like your priest, our bishop is an exception it seems, not the rule.
I like that you mention the virtue of humility which is an indispensable virtue for theologians in the church (might we also include docility?). Theologians have to be careful, I think, when we enter the church, realizing that even though we have a mission and task that is for the church (and not just the academy), we are still playing on someone else’s turf, with an authority that is not ourselves. That does not, by any means, mean we should keep our mouths shut, but maybe it does mean that we shouldn’t just try and “contribute” to the life of the church when we feel our parish priest is wrong or could do something much better, much more in line with the way we see things. I think this is why oftentimes, the label “theologian” is a conversation-stopper: we have a reputation of telling priests (and bishops) that they’re wrong, and less of a reputation of “building up.” Maybe young theologians, like the ones on this blog, can, in the spirit of working towards our own ad limina conferences, strive to find more ways of emphasizing what is good in our priests and bishops in order to show that we are allies and that hopefully someday, we might be better partners.
Thanks for this post. When I’ve had occasion to participate in the kinds of retreats and discussions you describe, I’ve found, consistently, that participants leave saying something to the effect of “we should do this more often.”
To add another angle, I’ve discovered, in my professional relations with priests and bishops, that the kind of collegiality that was manifest at the ad limina visit is actually quite uncommon among them. Indeed, the lack of collegiality among many priests (diocesan especially) and between bishops and priests has been recognized as a serious problem that contributes to the unhappiness and ineffectiveness of many ordained ministers.
While the institutional dynamics that inhibit collegiality among priests/bishops may be different from those that inhibit collegiality among theologians or between theologians and priests/bishops, I wonder if similar human issues are at work in the various sets of relations. Specifically, I wonder if we simply fear working together or if we don’t know enough about how to do it effectively. To put it in the language of virtue, perhaps we lack solidarity, which enables us to collaborate together in the care of the common good.
Maybe one way that theologians can contribute to the cultivation of solidarity is to dedicate more attention to the challenges (practical, moral, spiritual, and institutional) associated with authentic togetherness. I think this would be a real service to the academy, to the Church, and to the relations between them.
Thanks for this post. And I agree with much that you and Beth said. I would add that the virtue of humility must be both ways – as theologians we need to cultivate the virtue of humility (ultimately, that “playing on someone else’s turf, as Beth nicely put it, for me is about God’s turf – which definitely means humility!) but also that bishops and priests need the virtue of humility as well.
No one is served if we have a reputation of just pointing out where others are wrong….and yet, I don’t want speaking out against injustice to be viewed as “tearing down” not “building up.” Because real building up of the Church will require both – I think of recent events in a few diocese (not any of ours) which have come to light in the press where it is a matter of justice not preference to speak out if one is a theologian there.
Personally, I don’t think it is necessarily a conversation stopper because we have a reputation for “nay-sayers” but I think we are in such a place that a pastor or priest doesn’t necessarily know how to respond to “she’s a theologian.” For quite some time that has had little relevance to the parish – and I don’t know that a priest is viewing it as a threat but as largely irrelevant (I’m not quite sure what is worse…..but I think the response/way to fix it is different for sure).
Thanks for this post; I think it is going to generate a lot of good commentary. Our theology department at the Mount meets with the bishop (well, actually one of the auxiliaries of Baltimore), along with our colleagues from the two other Catholic colleges in the Archdiocese. We have an evening of discussion of some relevant articles agreed upon by the bishop and the departments, and then we have dinner together. It is very nice (I love our auxiliaries!)… and very short. Given that there are 20-25 of us, it is certainly a good thing, but I don’t think it blossoms into the kind of pastoral “collaboration” that Jana points toward. That is, we don’t have enough time to really acquaint the bishop with key theological issues, and he doesn’t have enough time to share with us how we could all help his ministry. Academy and church remain rather separated. I think here, part of the challenge is size (it’s a big, spread-out archdiocese – and an aging one, with priests spread thin) – and part is the presence of two significant seminaries (ours and St Mary’s in Baltimore) where there are another set of theologians, most of whom are ordained.
I think Beth is right about the need to avoid critique being the primary mode of engagement (e.g. Father, in your homily, you said, etc.!!). But honestly, I have known very few lay theologians who are not eager to help with the building up of the Church. I think there are serious questions of structure. Parishes (and pastoral theologians) are only beginning to work out viable models of the practice of lay people filling professionalized positions in parishes, and so we lay theologians, I think, should consider how to give an account of this ministry, either in terms of parish or in terms of diocese. And I actually think it would benefit bishops/priests as well, if there was a structure, so that there could be greater insight into what “builds up” and what kind of “speaking out” is needed.
So, structures? And also thinking about the scale problem of both parishes and dioceses? I know a unique feature of the diocese of St Cloud was that all the permanent deacon candidates had to get a master’s from St John’s school of theology (many took classes in the summer). This helped connect theologians and diocesan structures very well – though on the scale of a reasonably small, mostly rural diocese.
Beth – Yes, I think part of this is a working out of the situation we have now, with increasing numbers of lay theologians. Thanks for the more thorough discussion of humility – I do think that’s really important and probably should have discussed its necessity a bit more.
Steve Miles – You make a good point here about institutional collegiality as a whole. We as a church could do far better. I’m curious: do you have particular ideas in mind when you say: “the cultivation of solidarity is to dedicate more attention to the challenges (practical, moral, spiritual, and institutional) associated with authentic togetherness”?
Meghan – Ah, good point about the “theologian” name as perhaps irrelevant than as a threat. The relevance question makes me wonder a bit more about Ex Corde, and The Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian. If these were being written now, what might we say? To what extent are those documents relating to a church (and academic community) that once was more connected than I (and others) perceive now, drawing further on what it means to be a lay theologian? I am encouraged by what Dave and Beth say about their conversations with their dioceses, but with the caveat that they are at diocesan schools. Other schools and their theologians have less of a relationship – which makes sense, perhaps, from the point of view of the diocese, but it makes very little sense in an academy where most people don’t get to choose where they work. I mean – some of the theologians who might be most avid and helpful conversation partners are not necessarily the ones who are at diocesan schools. Indeed, they may well be at secular schools. And thanks, also, for further developing thoughts on humility.
Dave – I think you raise an excellent point about structure. See my comments above to Beth – isn’t part of this also structure of the academy?
In response to your request for particular ideas, I’ll throw out some thoughts. These aren’t especially well-formed, as I don’t have an adequate grasp of the problem we’re discussing. As you and others have noted, there are structural issues, vocational issues, personality issues, etc. I think there are also historical issues and cultural issues, to name a few. I suggested the framework of solidarity because I gathered that we were reflecting on how to be Church together (theologians, priests, everybody!), which is directly relevant to solidarity. OK, some thoughts….
I think there’s a theoretical piece that pertains to the role of the theologian within the Church, especially in relation to the hierarchy. It seems to me that the “live” positions range between theologians-as-a-kind-of-second-magisterium, on the one hand, and theologians-as-promulgators-of-magisterial-teaching, on the other. These different understandings imply very different responsibilities and postures. Absent a more broadly shared understanding of the role of the theologian within the Church, it’s no wonder why bishops/priests don’t often invite collegiality with theologians. They wouldn’t know what they’d be getting. This gets to David’s point about structures; it’s hard to envision healthy structures when we’re not sufficiently clear about the nature of our ministries and the ways they overlap.
I also think there’s an important spiritual issue that needs attention. I have in mind here the general distrust of lay persons that marks the hierarchy’s current thinking about priestly formation (see, e.g., the Vatican’s summary report of the 2006 seminary visitations). Such distrust easily breeds the view that the contributions of lay people (including lay theologians) are not necessary for the priest (and later future bishop, perhaps) to understand and fulfill his ministry within the Church; one needs only a clerical theology. I label this a “spiritual” problem—it is, of course, more complex than that—because I think that fear is the driving issue. I’m not sure how this nut can be cracked. Maybe the best that can be done is to give voice to needs that lay people have, vis-à-vis their vocations in the world, that are overlooked or misunderstood by clerical theology.