End Notes: The Big Chill

“Daniel Maguire, a Roman Catholic theologian at a Jesuit university, has spent the last three decades defying the church.” Thus begins an Associated Press article on the new mandatum—the mandate set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) that those teaching theology in Catholic institutions must seek from their bishops.

Of course Maguire, a professor of social ethics at Marquette University, will have none of that. No more will Rev. Richard McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame, who is unworried about himself, given his senior status, but warns of a “chilling effect on attracting Catholic faculty and doctoral students to our universities.”

The American bishops at their last meeting voted in favor of credentialing theologians. This was the result of more than a decade of arguing about how Ex Corde should be implemented in the United States. Anyone who can see this fairly toothless requirement as threatening is probably worried about the influence of accrediting associations at his institution. A chilling effect?

I’m going to miss Maguire and Father McBrien. A case could be made that they should be kept on—if only as a reminder of what has gone wrong with academic theology in the post-conciliar years. Maguire is the darling of Planned Parenthood, an advocate of abortion and contraception, who treats the Church as a foil for his wholly secular views. A laicized priest in his second marriage, Maguire is everything a modernist theologian ought to be. Not only is there no connection between his label as Roman Catholic theologian and the “theology” he touts, but he is a veritable role model of sexual liberation. And he is a treasure.

 

What could be more hilarious than these grizzled dissenters hobbling about advocating the sexual standards of the secular society? If only all dissenting theologians were so outrageous. The main constituency of a theologian like Maguire is the secular press. He will promote his new book, Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions (Fortress Press, 2001), at a meeting of Planned Parenthood. I hope he is on its payroll, too. At least that income would be honestly earned. Marquette University could arguably be sued for alienation of funds in paying him, but he is worth every nickel.

In the same AP article, we read: “‘As theology became a lay thing, the Vatican lost control. They want it back,’ said Maguire, who believes the mandatum limits academic freedom. ‘The way you get it back is to say you’re totally dependent on a bishop to say whether you’re competent.” Maguire’s lack of competence would be clear to anyone who listened to him—if he spoke to audiences other than Planned Parenthood.

What ails theology will not be addressed by the mandatum. Academic theology has painted itself into a corner where the likes of Maguire and Father McBrien define what it is. It is thus following the pattern established in Protestant universities, where the teaching of Christianity is divorced from any church body and becomes what any professor says it is. That may seem the logical consequence of private interpretation. But Catholic theologians, too, have declared their independence of the teaching Church, thus constituting themselves as a rival magisterium. No one will tell them what is de fide or what is not. How could professors who so describe themselves be expected to seek credentials from a rival? It won’t happen.

Theology is not just another academic discipline. It can be meaningfully engaged in only by one who believes. To speak of it as a wertfrei enterprise having nothing to do with the teaching Church is to describe what has come about on many Catholic campuses, but is not to describe what the Church means by theology. The problem is not that there are lay theologians, but that there are priests and former priests like Father McBrien and Maguire who have muddied the waters for decades. “Theologian” has become an equivocal term. They have done their damage, and it cannot easily be undone.

Is there hope from the young? Daniel Finn of the Catholic Theological Society of America says its members are feeling torn: “They don’t want to be perceived as openly rebellious, since they aren’t.” The sentence cries out for parsing, but that would be cruel, since it occurs in a news report. One hopes Finn is not announcing a mere difference of style. Perhaps the open rebellion of the Maguires and Father McBriens is already a fading memory. Perhaps it is domesticated dissent that will mark the future, a dismantling of the magisterium that does not show its hand. One hopes not.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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