What Do Theologians Know?


January 1, 1989

Back on November 2, Father Richard P. McBrien and I had lunch together at the Morris Inn at Notre Dame. Not four hours later, at a formal function, a university official asked me how the lunch went: “Were there explosions?” Surprised that a pleasant lunch had become an “event,” I replied: “Hey! We don’t agree on a lot of things, but we’re friends.”

I do like Dick. He talks straight. He shows bravery. “Besides,” I told another of my interlocutors that night, “if Christians can love their enemies, so can theologians.”

True enough, odium theologicum is so common that the medievals gave it a Latin name. (Appalachian translation: “Ain’t no hate like theologian hate.”) But Dick and I don’t hate each other; quite the opposite.

One of the points on which we do disagree, however, is his “preferential option” for professional theologians. Dick has held it over my head that, despite eight years in graduate school, I do not have a doctorate. For him, that matters.

In the same spirit, Father McBrien recently questioned the authority by which bishops dare to pass judgment on matters of faith:

How, precisely, do bishops (including the Pope) come to know more about the mysteries of faith than do those who study these mysteries in a sustained and scholarly way? . . . Why should theologians waste their time and energy trying to discern the meaning of revelation and the intent of faith if the bishops somehow already know the answers and without ever having had to crack a book or learn an array of foreign languages or engage in careful exegesis of a text or sort out the complexities of history or fashion sustained and compelling arguments that will survive the critical scrutiny of a wider community of scholars? [America, December 31]

Since about the age of 20 I have had my own answer to that question. “Not by dialectics did God see fit to save his people,” I once read in St. Ambrose and in Cardinal Newman. I did not then commit my life to “a wider community of scholars.” I said and meant: “Credo in unum Deum . . . et in unam, sanctam, catholic am et apostolic am ecclesiam.” I never placed my faith in theologians, useful servants though they are.

In those days, the body of learned theologians most eminent in my life were the “neo-Scholastic” theologians on whom Father McBrien now heaps ridicule. Well, not quite. Father McBrien offers a caricature that applies at best only to some of the neo-Scholastics, certainly not to the greatest among them in the 1950s and 1960s, let alone in ages past. (Disputatious bunch that they always have been, I was well taught never to trust all neo-Scholastics.) Indeed, at the Harvard Divinity School I learned that each generation in “the wider community of theologians” begins by denouncing the errors of earlier generations. Harvey Cox renounced Reinhold Niebuhr, who had renounced Rauschenbush, etc. Surely, Father McBrien’s generation will be (already is being) renounced for its own illusions, fashions, and failed experiments. Who would want, then or now, to place her or his eternal soul in the keeping of theologians?

In addition, St. Thomas Aquinas taught me the difference between the knowledge of chastity proper to theologians and the knowledge proper to chaste Christians (however unlearned in theology) who loved the chastity they lived. And Jacques Maritain taught me the difference between the knowledge of theologians precisely qua scientists and knowledge by connaturality. Before both of them, Aristotle had written that the good man, the man of practical wisdom, is the only true perceiver of ethical reality, the very measure thereof, much more so than any putative ethical scientist. And my many theological courses and daily meditation on the Scriptures also taught me that in the Mystical Body of Christ there are many different members, with many different functions, each of whom shares in an appropriate set of graces.

Among these are the special graces promised to a chosen few, the apostles and their successors, to discern true faith from attractive but false faith, so that against the Body of Christ “the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

In brief, I believe that the Holy Spirit protects bishops and, above all, the bishop of Rome, in a way, alas, that the Holy Spirit does not watch over the American Academy of Religion, the Catholic Theological Society of America, or even me. No doubt, sometimes the A.A.R., the C.T.S.A., and I fancy ourselves smarter than some bishops and some popes. Can it be true that God has chosen the weaker and the humbler instruments through which to manifest his guiding Truth? A typical choice, foretold in the Scriptures, and intended to humble not only theologians.

All this, I had thought, all Catholics understood clearly. It never entered my mind that theologians were unusually holy men, graced with the special protection of the Holy Spirit, charged with discerning true faith from false, and ordained for the professional mission of guarding “the rule of faith” and in true faith “confirming the brethren.” Rather, I thought our mission (even those of us not in the guild) was to try to understand the data of faith in a sustained and systematic way; to offer hypotheses and even entire systems of hypotheses to link these data systematically. And I thought these hypotheses were always to be kept quite distinct from the data of faith, and always to be held under the judgment of those with charisms and responsibilities quite different from our own. In community rank, we were burdened with a different and lesser authority than bishops.

That such an understanding of theology and faith is bound to be full of contention, stress, struggle, and fateful conflict was abundantly clear to me from studying the intellectual battles of the early centuries. I read with fascination the battle of Athanasius against the Arian bishops and of the later conflicts among the universities, popes, and bishops during the Middle Ages. I noted that one Archbishop of Paris (poor man) publicly condemned some basic teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. I learned that, not infrequently, theological work whose hypotheses were at first disdained was in God’s good time vindicated. After fiery testing, much of it came to be recognized as legitimate contributions to the patrimony of the much lauded Doctors of the Church. All this, I thought, made theology attractive. It seemed to be a discipline for brave pioneers, willing to endure great dangers in their fidelity to the Truth, and eager to bring their meager offerings (“mere straw,” St. Thomas called his) for the testing of the centuries.

Cardinal Newman taught me also the difference between time and energy “wasted” (he would not have used that verb) to clarify and to systematize notional assents, and the time and energy expended on deepening one’s whole being in real assents, in which the seeker is united to the Sought. I noted carefully the resistance that the hierarchy of his time put up against Newman. This also happened to practically every other pioneer who framed notional assents. How could the intellectual courage of theologians be praised, if in their chosen line of work none was required?

The Church is not a community of scientific researchers. It is, rather, a community constituted by sharing in the life of God, Who seems to prefer the company of the humble, the least accomplished, the broken, the ungifted, and sinners. (That is what the “option for the poor” meant for us then, who by the way happened also to be materially poor).

Nonetheless, today’s community of theological scholars — or, at least, a small part of it —really does seem to believe that it is superior to bishops and popes in its understanding of faith. A given bishop’s understanding of Catholic doctrine, McBrien points out, might indeed be “solely derived from his seminary courses 30 or 40 years ago.” Unlike Supreme Court justices, he observes, “bishops are not professionally trained and professionally active theologians.” It may even be true, as he insists, that “some few bishops may have earned a theological doctorate 20 or 30 years ago,” but that “almost none of them was ever professionally active in teaching, in professional societies, or through publications in scholarly journals or books.”

It had never occurred to me that the Archbishop of Paris who condemned basic teachings of Aquinas was a Doctor of the Church, as Aquinas turned out to be, or that Newman’s hierarchical adversaries were his professional equals. Newman did point out that time is required before fresh theological formulations can possibly be absorbed into the daily life of a large community. So theologians need both the virtue of patience and a willingness to endure being misunderstood and rejected.

But the deeper and for me more decisive matter is that the two professions are quite different in their inherent aims, their inherent responsibilities, and the inherent protections afforded them by the Holy Spirit. A minority even thinks it is not required that members of the theological “community of scholars” actually believe in God, be practicing Catholics, or accept responsibility for the impact of their published hypotheses upon the Catholic community. A few defend liberty (admirable service) but scarcely criticize the toxic use some make of it. The sharks who devoured a statesman, a surgeon, a plumber, a bishop, and a biologist, while sparing a lawyer “out of professional courtesy,” are still in second place to the courtesy that some few theologians now extend to one another.

Yet orthodoxy is the fire in the ingot of faith; without it, faith is cold, shapeless, and dead. Theologians serve orthodoxy, to keep the community intellectually alive and faithful. Their efforts to understand the data of faith are crucial, indispensable, and noble. But not all their hypotheses withstand the fire. Theological texts are often thickly covered with the dross of the “spirit of the age,” its errant passions, and its illusions. They also suffer, as the fruits of every profession do, from an inherent deformation professionnelle. (“Peer review” too naively embraced implies submission to the conventional orthodoxy of the age, one that by no means promises eternal life.)

Thus, a great deal of the theology one reads today strays very far indeed from the data of faith. Some of it rejects inconvenient data. Some cuts Catholic faith to the procrustean bed of contemporary prejudices (which, even on other grounds, fail tests of common sense, and scarcely measure up to giants in the tradition, the Fathers and Doctors of the faith). Contemporary intellectual passions preached as certitudes in today’s theological academies do not inspire confidence; Professor Sheehan’s famous account of the actual content of the faith of many, although not all, of today’s theologians (reviewed by Alvin Plantinga in Crisis, April 1987) points at least to a legitimate worry. Yesterday’s non-historical orthodoxy is not the only danger to a full understanding of the faith. A gnostic passion for the new, neodoxy, is now more prevalent and deadly.

Theologians have much to teach the Church of their time. Blazing trails into the future, they are the scouts of a living tradition. For this task, they need liberty to roam. Seeking a safe path for the main body of pilgrims, avant-garde explorers must necessarily do a lot of zigzagging; lines of exploration are rarely straight.

Yet along with scouts, a living community needs leaders, who must pass prudent judgment upon the reports sent back to them from the wastelands. The judgments of leaders can be fateful for entire eras. Paths exhilarating for brave scouts may not be trustworthy for the millions who must later follow them. Compared to the ordained leaders of the com-munity, theologians are at best explorers. Their trustworthiness is in part measured by the respect they show for the special needs of the community. It would be wrong for theologians to evince much respect for their scholarly peers, little for the larger community, and least of all for its heavily burdened leaders.

When my friend Dick McBrien (see Notre Dame Magazine, November) describes Pope John Paul II, Cardinal O’Connor of New York, and other bishops whom, especially, I love and trust, he loses me. In the circles he travels in, he reports, “a lot of ordinary, responsible, middle-of-the-road Catholics . . . don’t like this pope” and “think he’s a disaster.” Funny. I have never encountered such lay people, although I have heard harsh words from “progressive” clergy, both talking among themselves and in print. Father McBrien says of the Pope, “I think his understanding of the institution is distorted”—he means the Pope’s understanding of Catholicism. Now being more Catholic than the pope, especially on such a basic matter as Father McBrien’s own professional specialty, ecclesiology, seems to me an exposed position. I trust the Pope’s understanding of the institution more than my friend McBrien’s.

More than I trust theologians, I confess my trust in the poor, humble men called by the Holy Spirit to guide His people. In matters of faith and morals, popes and bishops have responsibilities as pastors — and they have graces to match — that we theologians (amateur and professional) do not have. On matters beyond faith and morals, and even on many matters within that realm, we are quite free to argue and to criticize. (No one yet has accused me of too much timidity in criticism.) We have duties to truth as we see it, but we also have duties to our pastors, duties to respect their heavy responsibilities, and duties to be one with them in charity.

That there is contention among theologians and bishops and popes is not at all new in the life of the Church. Of these, theologians have never been designated as the rock on which the Church is founded.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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