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):
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.