Are Liberal Catholic Theologians Past Their Sell By Date?

I like Massimo Faggioli. As an Italian living and working in the USA his articles commenting on the culture and the state of the Catholic church in America always offer a fresh perspective. I’m sorry that he is too often thrown into the same soup as more radical and unthinking liberals–as if one needed to add beans to the stew.

I may not always agree with him, but he brings up some good points and backs them up with a genuine knowledge as any decent scholar should. He often sees problems correctly even if he doesn’t always offer solutions.

His latest article at Commonweal acknowledges the radical disconnect between liberal Catholic theologians and anybody else in the church. The article outlines the reasons for this increasing irrelevance of liberal academic theologians. First he honestly acknowledges that young Catholics don’t care for the older, established liberal theological establishment:

the estrangement between academic theology and the institutional Church is one reason many younger Catholics are now turning to neo-traditionalist circles for instruction. A new generation is re-examining what’s happened in the church since the 1960s and reacting against the theology that came out of the Second Vatican Council. Some younger Catholics are also questioning the legitimacy of the secular, pluralistic state. This is why the concerns of academic theology are no longer merely academic.

Those who have contact with young Catholics—for example, college students—may have noticed that this theological anti-liberalism is not just coming from a few marginal intellectuals. Catholic anti-liberalism is part of a broader phenomenon, a new quest for Catholic identity that takes various forms. It may be expressed as an enthusiasm for the Tridentine Mass and a distaste for the Novus ordo. Or it may take the form of an interest in countercultural communities—in some version of the “Benedict Option.” But it can also take the form of a theo-political imagination that rejects liberal democracy in favor of a new Christendom. Mixed in with this ideal is often a suspicion of those who come from parts of the world where Christianity is not the predominant religion.

This rise of Catholic anti-liberalism marks a regression in the ability of Catholics to understand the problem of the state and of politics in our age. But it also says something about the state of Catholic theology, especially in America.

Faggioli then goes on to make the claim that theology can only really exist and flourish in a traditional academic setting.

I believe that the fate of Catholic theology in the Western world is inseparable from the fate of academic theology. In order to survive and flourish, theology needs universities, publishers, and journals. You can just about imagine the church surviving intellectually without academic theology, but I think it would be the poorer for it. Especially in the American system, where there is no constitutionally established church, academic theology is part of a religious and ecclesial Catholic establishment. But we cannot assume the institutions that support academic theology will last forever. And for Catholic academic theology to be healthy, it cannot depend entirely on a few great institutions like Notre Dame and Georgetown.

I don’t buy it. In my experience it is just as arguable that the very academic establishment the Faggioli wants to prop up is the very kiss of death of any real, creative and dynamic theology. Why? Because the liberal theologians and Bible scholars in academia are, in my experience, incredibly hidebound, worried about their tenure, their careers and the opinions of their liberal academic peers. It is an enclosed and exclusive club in which one dare not challenge the orthodoxies of liberalism.

Academic departments of theology with their cushy jobs and their cynical department heads are the last place I would look for dynamic, fresh voices. Instead I would look to the religious orders–the Dominicans, the Benedictines and the new generation of Jesuits to produce the freshest theological voices. Those voices are there, but of course they are marginalized and excluded by the liberal theological club.

It is also true that there are independent, freelance scholars. These are devoted non theologians who nevertheless make startling discoveries and write books and theorize about God, the church and Biblical scholarship totally outside the hallowed halls of academe. But these people may be doing something shocking and disturbing: they are writing for a popular audience and they do not have two or three PhDs. They are perhaps poets or mystics. They have blogs. They get their books published by non-mainstream publishers. They are the mavericks and prophets, but they are the ones doing the positive theology today.

I’m thinking, for example of the seminal work of Rene Girard. Not a theologian, but an anthropologist and historian of literature at first, and yet coming up with astounding insights. I’m also thinking of British Biblical scholar Margaret Barker–a Methodist laywoman who has done ground breaking work on Old Testament studies and early Judaism. Others write popular books that bring to light new discoveries ignored by the mainstream scholars. To be sure some creative academic theologians have then picked up their work and gone further, but the new insights came from outside.

Faggioli goes on to lament the fact that there is a disconnect between theologians, the bishops and the broader aims of higher education:

The work of Catholic theologians became less and less important to many Catholic leaders (bishops, public intellectuals, big donors), who instead turned their attention to initiatives that addressed the “culture wars.” But even apart from ideology, there was a real turn away from contemporary Catholic theology toward Catholic culture. This means that many Catholic students in America learned about Catholicism not from theology professors, but from Catholic professors of literature, the arts, history, and politics.

This is true. The college students I know don’t give two hoots about modern Catholic theology. They would prefer to study Dante, and through Dante, Aquinas and Aristotle. This, it seems to me, is not the fault of the students, but the fault of the liberal theologians who choose instead the path of relevance.  Faggioli agrees:

Too many theology departments try to remain “relevant” by offering courses that I fear will make theology less relevant in the long run. The anxiety for relevance means that Catholic theology is now often reduced to Catholic social teaching. At the same time, the growing irrelevance of academic theology is due to the fact that for a long time aggiornamento Catholic theologians thought that aggiornamentotheology did not need to be defended because it was self-evident. The result is that today many conservative Catholic students instead major in “Catholic Studies,” while many progressive Catholic students major in justice-and-peace studies.

Faggioli is wise to be aware of the perceived irrelevance of his own department and be worried about the future.

At a minimum, theologians and religious studies professors should be more aware of their duty to respond to questions that traditionalist or conservative Catholic students have and for which they often find no answer in liberal-progressive theology departments. More generally, theologians and religious-studies professors teaching on Catholic campuses ignore at their own peril the big shifts happening in church politics and in the relations between the institutional Church and Catholic higher education. I believe that liberal Catholic theologians have to offer an alternative to the current neo-traditionalist vision of the Catholic tradition.

I agree. But my next question is, what exactly would that alternative look like?

How would a liberal theologian come up with something new? Liberalism is most often derivative, critical and deconstructionalist. How do those premises come up with something original?

I expect that new alternative will not come from within the halls of academe at all, but will spring up from some home schooler, some start up online academy, a blogger who reads instead of watching TV or some hard working home grown scholar who is teaching at a classical school or slaving away teaching the great books to undergraduates.

2018-03-07T18:00:04+00:00 March 7th, 2018|Categories: Blog|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Anne Gomes March 7, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    The Catholic Church was founded by God Incarnate Who chose and equipped His Apostles to evangelize the whole world. For generations these and their successors sacrificed everything, even their lives to spread the Gospel, being diligent and faithful to what they had been taught, out of their Love for God.
    Christianity grew, spread, and we still had outstanding scholars, preachers and saints, but, fewer and fewer of the elite, educated, intellectuals really believed.
    We ended up with Catholic academics quoting Bultmann, and teaching like Richard McBrien and Hans Küng. After all that, Faggioli can’t figure out why nobody cares about Catholic academics. They may be smart, but they are clueless.

  2. Frederick Snyder March 7, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    Are liberal Catholic theologians past their sell by date? IMHO, yes.

    Theology: the critical study of the nature of the Divine.

    In the history of humankind, many societies have grappled with the nature of the Divine. So, to me, a study of the more interesting efforts helps us to understand those societies.

    But, for Catholics, our study of the nature of the Divine must be rooted in God’s revelation about Himself, the one true Divine, in the Bible, especially the teachings of Jesus Christ and His instructions to His Apostles. We are 2,000 years old, so we now have the great Saints who provided us reliable analysis and proper interpretation including Saint Pope John Paul II. We faced down hearsays time and again promoted by passionate, but wrong, believers.

    I am not interested in ‘liberal theology’ or ‘academic theology’ – not defined in the article – of various professors who teach views without the clear authority of the Church established by Christ.

  3. Darren Szwajkowski March 7, 2018 at 10:00 pm

    “A new generation is re-examining what’s happened in the church since the 1960s and reacting against the theology that came out of the Second Vatican Council.”

    Massimo Faggioli Is living in The Twilight Zone making this comment. That theology absolutely did not come out of the Second Vatican Council. Did he attend a different council then the documents that I’ve read?

    That statement betrays his ideological falsehoods. I’m currently reading from The Bellarmine Forum – Slaying the “Spirit” of Vatican II”. Massimo Faggioli Should read it. Heck, he should actually read the documents that Vatican II actually produced and not the Cliff Notes that the mass media produced or the ideologically driven commentators that falsely reported on the council.

    All I’ve done is read GK Chesterton over the last 7 years of my life and I can read the philosophical dribble that comes out of one that is supposed to be “knowledgeable”.

    He should start reading GK Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, throw in a little Archbishop Sheen, Cardinal Newman, and maybe an encyclical or two by a Pope not named Franis so he sees the hermeneutics in the consistency in the teachings of the Church and not the “latest and greatest” encyclical taken way out of context.

    He’s like Saul. Completely blind to his own pride and zeal to a “Vatican Council” made up in his own mind.

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