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Theologians can be a ‘curse and affliction upon the church’: so says the US bishops’ senior doctrinal adviser. I wish ours had one like that

But the fact that in the US they do shows that the Benedictine counter-revolution is on course

By on Friday, 19 August 2011

Fr Weinandy

Fr Weinandy

An interesting article in the National Catholic Reporter, by John L Allen Jr — who though he writes for what Father Z calls the “Fishwrap” is one of the most balanced and reliable writers in the Catholic Press — gives an account of what may be another sign that the great Benedictine revolution is steadily proceeding. Under the headline “Bishops’ staffer on doctrine rips theologians as ‘curse’”, the article begins thus:

Theologians can be 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.”

Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the U.S. bishops’ conference, has warned of a “crisis” in Catholic theology, caused by theologians who “often appear to possess little reverence for the mysteries of the faith as traditionally understood and presently professed within the church.”

Those remarks came in a May 26 address to the Academy of Catholic Theology in Washington, D.C., and were published in July in Origins, the official documentary service of the U.S. bishops.

Now, there are several interesting things here: Firstly, that the US bishops have a “Secretariat for Doctrine” at all (ours don’t as far as I know, though they could certainly do with one); and secondly that they have someone in charge of it as 100% kosher as Father Weinandy. That is a name which is well known on this side of the pond. He used to be Warden of Greyfriars, Oxford, one the Personal Private Halls (PPH) here, which the English Capuchins, after his time, shockingly closed down without any consultation (in what I believe to have been a great betrayal of the Catholic cause).

But I digress: Father Weinandy was undoubtedly the motivating intelligence behind the recent condemnation by the US bishops of a book on the Holy Trinity by a Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of theology at the very dicey (ie modernist Jesuit) Fordham University in New York. The bishops’ statement pronounced that Johnson’s 2007 book on the Trinity, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God, “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”

I can’t explain exactly how it does that because I haven’t read it, and the bishops’ statement isn’t available online (there appears to be something wrong with their website). But you can work it out to some extent from her very long response, which the NCR has put online.

First, though, I return to Father Weinandy’s address to something called the Academy of Catholic Theology, which was founded, according to one of its members by a group of theologians “who regard the Catholic Theological Society of America as “too anti-magisterium in tone and too one-sided in content.” It is, in other words, part of the Benedictine counter-revolution against the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity”, and of the re-establishment of the authority of the tradio after the hi-jacking of the Council sometimes impertinently called “the Spirit of Vatican II”.

So Fr Weinandy’s audience was significant: and it was also significant he should express the view that “the divine call to do theology … implies a responsibility of “promoting, advancing and defending” philosophical and theological truth as taught by the Church. “Much of what passes for contemporary Catholic theology,” he said, “often is not founded upon an assent of faith in the divine deposit of revelation as proclaimed in the sacred scriptures and developed within the living doctrinal and moral tradition of the church.” Too often,

…. theology degrades into an “intellectual game,” based on “the fun of being cleverly and sophisticatedly entertaining, or the thrill and buzz that comes with academic sparring.”

Weinandy stressed that theology should also be grounded in an active spiritual life, citing a 1990 instruction from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that scientific research must be united with prayer. Sometimes, Weinandy said, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“Theology may be the only academic pursuit where one can seemingly be considered a theologian without actually having to know the subject matter,” he said. “It would appear at times that a theologian need not actually know God.”

I wonder if Fr Weinandy was thinking of any of the senior theologians who held sway in Oxford during his time there? One of them was the very grand Professor Maurice Wiles, who believed that Arius was one of the Fathers of the Church (he was even reported as saying to a group of students that he thought that he himself was one of the Fathers of the Church). Wiles didn’t believe in the possibility of the miraculous; a clerihew circulated throughout Oxford (some said it was by a Jesuit):

Professor Wiles,
Sardonically smiles
At the merest mention
Of divine intervention.

It was Fr Weinandy’s remark that “It would appear at times that a theologian need not actually know God” that reminded me of Professor Wiles: for Professor Wiles believed emphatically that that was indeed the case: personal knowledge of God was irrelevant. A friend of mine wrote a doctoral thesis under his supervision, and Wiles insisted that in it any theologian—Saint Thomas Aquinas, say, or St Ambrose—had to be quoted by him simply as Thomas Aquinas or Ambrose, since according to Wiles, whether or not they were holy had nothing to do with the validity or otherwise of their theology. My friend had to go through the first chapter he had submitted for Wiles’s comments crossing out the word “Saint”.

You will have gathered by now that I think that Fr Weinandy is a thoroughly good egg. You can discover that for yourself on his website, on which you will find a number of articles written in order to explain to readers without theological training some of the more difficult but nevertheless essential questions that have caused controversy from time to time, but about which the Church has a very clear view. One of these has a direct relevance to the bishops’ condemnation of Professor/Sister Johnson who says the bishops’ statement criticises her presentation of the question of the impassibility of God (the question of whether God suffers or has suffered). “It says”, objects Johnson, “ I am presenting it as a viable alternative to traditional Catholic teaching”.

Well, read her response: it’s pretty clear that that’s precisely what she’s doing. Father Weinandy’s explanation (written some time ago) of why the Church’s teaching is essential to belief in the Incarnation itself is lucid and compelling. It’s in an article entitled “Does God Suffer?” (he has also written a book on this subject), and it first appeared in First Things (Nov. 2001, Num. 117, pp. 35-41). To attempt to summarise his argument without distorting it would need more space than I have here. But here is part of it: his answer to the question of whether, on the cross, Jesus suffered as Man or as God:

… the pleasure of the Father is witnessed in raising his Son gloriously from the dead. The bodily resurrection testifies that Jesus’ offering of his human life was salvific, and thus that the human suffering and death he bore were of the utmost importance. To place the significance of the Son’s suffering within his divine nature is to relegate his human suffering and death to insignificance, and thus to relegate all human suffering to insignificance. The fully human resurrection of Jesus not only authenticates the reality and even importance of human suffering, it equally ensures that sin and death and the suffering these cause have been vanquished. The suffering and death of the Son incarnate is the Father’s answer to human suffering.

That ought to make you want to read the whole article. Not only will you be better informed about a basic doctrine of the Church: it should make you thankful that the American bishops have Fr Weinandy’s Secretariat as a resource. If only ours did. Ah, well.

  • Anonymous

    I agree: the tediousness of dissident theology is a threat to the faith.

  • Anonymous

    Commonweal ran an interesting pro and con of the bishops’ statement, unfortunately behind a paywall:

  • Anonymous

    “It is, in other words, part of the Benedictine counter-revolution
    against the “hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity”, and of the
    re-establishment of the authority of the tradio after the hi-jacking of the Council sometimes impertinently called “the Spirit of Vatican II”.”

    This is troubling, because it looks as though the official Church is splitting into factions, not neatly, but in a very untidy way. It’s a very good advertisement for the case made by SSPX, because it confirms what the Founder of the SSPX was saying 40 years ago. If the official Church in the US is splitting into factions, with theologies that are at odds, and theologians who are at odds, when they should be co-operating, maybe that is a judgement on the “new orientation” of the Church. The fruits of *aggiornamento* have had 40 years to ripen – is that one of their results ?

    As for the phrase “the spirit of Vatican II”, there is an article on it here:

    “…Professor Wiles believed emphatically that that was indeed the case: personal knowledge of God was irrelevant.

    ## Academically, it is.

    “A friend of mine wrote a doctoral thesis under his supervision, and
    Wiles insisted that in it any theologian—Saint Thomas Aquinas, say, or
    St Ambrose—had to be quoted by him simply as Thomas Aquinas or Ambrose,
    since according to Wiles, whether or not they were holy had nothing to
    do with the validity or otherwise of their theology.”

    ## How does personal piety make someone a better scholar of NT Greek or a thousand other things in theology than someone who lacks this piety ? If I read a book about the transmission of the NT text in the Latin Fathers, I want to read something by someone whois thoroughly concersant with his subject; not something by a saintly soul who is not well up on the subject. Theology is as much an academic profession as a vocation from God or the Church – especially as a great deal of theology is studied outside the CC. Even in the CC, it has, rightly, to be academically rigorous. Academic methods do not bother with orthodoxy – to be concerned about that, is to look at theology under a quite different aspect.

    Avoiding the “hagiological prefix” is no indication of the supervisor’s own belief, but is part of “good practice” in writing a thesis, since a thesis is as likely to be read by a scholar of no Christian belief as by one who is a high Anglican or a Catholic. That’s what comes of working in theology – it is an inter-confessional science, and has to be intellectually respectable, but should not be theologically partisan.

    Professor Wiles was right. Some Saints have been distinguished theologians, but a great many have not. Holiness does not in itself confer theological insight. What theologians & Fathers say does not gain value by calling the authors “Saint X” or “Saint Y”; if it is valuable at all, it will not be less valuable because they are not given a hagiological prefix. Even among the Saints, it seems reasonable to think St. Thomas was a better theologian than St. Joan of Arc would be.

    “Wiles didn’t believe in the possibility of the miraculous” – which is a perfectly good position, partly because the concept is so elusive. Mark 9.14-29, far from miraculous, looks uncomminly like an accurate description of a grand mal convulsion; & these are not caused by demons, nor is exorcism the appropriate therapy.Yesterday’s miracle may in modern terms be nothing of the kind. Many Biblical miracles are probably natural events of which the causes were not known.

  • Anonymous

     Try this:

    I found it by searching on the author’s name followed by the first sentence.

    It contains this paragraph:

    “In the context of the controversy over Johnson’s book, it is interesting
    to note the amount of attention paid to the theologians listed as
    “consultants” on the doctrine committee’s Web site, as well as to Thomas
    Weinandy, OFM Cap, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat for
    Doctrine. Most commentators seem to presume that it is Fr. Weinandy and
    the consultants who did the intellectual heavy lifting behind the
    statement, and that it ought to be evaluated in terms of their academic
    competence. (See, for example, John E Haught’s take on how the bishops
    misread Johnson, page 14, which is really about how, according to
    Haught, Weinandy misread Elizabeth Johnson and how the bishops’
    statement reflects the weaknesses of Weinandy’s theology.) The
    ecclesiastical competence or authority of the bishops seems somewhat
    beside the point. What really matters is the academic competence of the

  • Paul

    Parasum, you cannot be serious.  A grand mal convulsion is not caused by demons?  All sickness is caused by demons just as all healing is from God.  ‘Jesus went about doing good and healing all those who had fallen under the power of the devil’ (Acts 10:38). 
    We have this habit of thinking that there is only one explanation for a thing.  God doesn’t seem to have that problem.  In the healing of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:1-7 we see God undertaking to heal the king.  Isaiah then comes along and applies a medical procedure, a fig poultice, and the king recovers.  What was the cause of Hezekiah’s healing?  God’s action or Isaiah’s? 
    Jesus was by far the most successful healer in history, modern medicine notwithstanding.  He had never heard of spondilitis of the spine when he healed the woman suffering from it, but he had no hesitation in calling her ‘this daughter of Abraham whom Satan has held bound for eighteen years’ (Luke 13:16).  Was Jesus wrong?  Did he not know what he was talking about?   I respect modern medicine for what it can do, but excuse me while I also declare that I respect Jesus’ words more. 
    When we get sick the first thing we need to do is to turn to God for healing.  The second is to call the doctor.  The sequence is set out with great clarity and humour in Ecclesiasticus 38:9-15. 

  • Paul Spilsbury

    I suppose, therefore, that one should not refer to “Professor” Wiles, since the fact of his holding an academic post does not guarantee the validity of his arguments.

  • Anonymous

    Parasum:  I would have thought calling someone by their title whether “Saint” or “Professor” helps the reader to indentify whom is being discussed.  I know several “Ambroses” so it helps to know that someone is referring to St Ambrose.  Further it seems to me that a relationship with the Almighty might help in talking about the Almighty which is what I suppose theology to be about.  Likewise somebody could lecture on plumbing without ever having done any but personally I would prefer somebody who has real experience of what they are doing.

    And again are there not frequent references in the Bible about where true wisdom comes from?  Still I suppose one must sympathise with those in Academia when they see Jesus selecting his disciples from amongst the utterly uneducated.  Very irritating but perhaps I have got it wrong?

  • Anonymous

    “”Wiles didn’t believe in the possibility of the miraculous” – which is a perfectly good position”
    …but not a position that a Catholic can hold.

    Does the exclusion of the possibility of the miraculous stem from Kantian assumptions?

  • W Oddie

    Fr Weinandy’s point was that to speak of God one ought to have some knowledge of and faith in God. A Saint clearly does, and that is therefore part of his qualification to speak of God. For an unbeliever to write about God (or pronounce on the scriptures) is like a eunuch writing about marriage: he has nothing real or concrete to say.

  • Anonymous

    Fr Weinandy sounds an absolute gem. If only we had an equivalent here.

    His comments on the practice of Theology resonate with my own experience of the discipline: it was taught by Maurice Wiles (and most others) at Oxford as an intellectual exercise, divorced from spirituality; the principal objective seemed to be to challenge and overturn the deposit of faith, in a cynical, arrogant fashion.  The starting point of many theologians seemed to be that the tradition is by definition worthy only of irreverent dissection and, generally, negation.

    I suspect that some of the motivation for this approach lay in the fact that most of the secular liberal academic establishment despises religious faith, so academic theologians feel obliged to play by its rules in order to have any ‘credibility’ in their colleagues’ eyes.  Or, alternatively, they were simply heretics!

    I couldn’t say if such a situation still holds, but I would be surprised if it did not.  If anything, I would expect matters to be worse.

  • Tom Dawkes

    But on eunuchs – don’t forget that it is those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven who have made the running on the entire theology of marriage.

  • Gerry Oates

    An exercise which might cast a new light on the deliberations of Fr. Weinandy is to read the responses which the NCR published from its readers(readily available)which are almost universally critical:people did not take kindly to the idea that only approved ways of thinking are allowed,that every avenue of enquiry must carry an imprimatur.When I studied in Rome one of our professors urged us to pray for our instructors,saying that especially in Biblical Studies new discoveries were common and if one came up with a theory of which the Vatican did not approve one would find oneself dismissed and sent to some far off mission.The Vatican -as Hans Kung used to say -wants to keep a grip on what people are thinking.
    In a conversation with a prominent Geographer.Barbra Bender,we discussed the role of discovery and she told me that what was most revealing was her encounter with the civilization of the Australian Aboriginal nation:how they sang the country-how they populated it with mythical creatures-how they crisscrossed the vast island continent with spiritual “Songlines” and none of this was learned in the classroom.
    Fr. Weinandy’s tone was that of a headmaster.Come to my room if you want to know the right way. The NCR readers objected to being treated like children.