You already know that the USCCB Committee on Doctrine condemned the widely-used book Quest for the Living God by Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. The board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of American strongly supported Sr. Johnson’s scholarship and raised serious questions about the fairness of the bishops’ condemnation. Then the board of directors of the College Theology Society followed suit.

Grant Gallicho at Commonweal wondered if the Committee on Doctrine even read the book it condemned. John F. Haught, also at Commonweal, argues not only that the bishops misread Johnson, but that their argumentation seems to presume a pre-evolutionary view of the world. (But see the rejoinder to that, also in Commonweal, by Brian Davies.)

Theologians vs. Bishops: this is depressing. It’s starting to look like a case of compelling arguments on one side, appeal to authority on the other. This is bad, very bad, for the future of theological inquiry in the Church, at the service of the faithful and their leaders. It certainly won’t help the Bishops’ credibility as authoritative teachers.

And now Cardinal Wuerl has written a 13-page letter to the US bishops, a “resource” titled “Bishops as Teachers.” The emphasis is on the apostolic authority of the bishops, as in this key passage:

The Church is called “apostolic” precisely because she alone can trace her origins to the deposit of faith entrusted to the apostles, the Twelve chosen by Jesus and charged, together with their successors, with the responsibility of teaching the true faith, making sure that it is presented clearly, and applying it to the problems and needs of every age.

I hope the Cardinal doesn’t mean to say, “Since we don’t have the arguments, let’s insist on our authority,” but it sort of looks like it.

For now I’ll raise two questions in need of further exploration.

1. The unbroken chain of bishops as successors to apostles. “Bishops as Teachers” grounds the authority of bishops in their being part of an unbroken chain reaching back to the apostles, for example:

It is only through this uninterrupted tradition, stretching back to the time of the apostles and continued by their successors, the bishops, that we can be sure of the integrity and validity of the Christian faith.

Historical claims regarding an “uninterrupted tradition” must be subject, of course, to the scrutiny of rational historical inquiry. Fr. Raymond Brown spoke for what I think is a broad consensus when he wrote in 1970 in Priest and Bishop (which, btw, has an imprimatur),

If the Twelve as a group were not primarily missionaries, neither were they bishops… The fact that the Twelve apostles were not bishops or local church leaders and, in fact, coexisted in Jerusalem with James who was the local church leader, is one reason why exegetes have a difficulty about the bishops being successors to these apostles… [A]ccording to NT thought there can be no successors to the Twelve as such… [W]hen the individual members die, they are not replaced; rather, as the founders of the renewed Israel, they are immortalized.”  (Paulist Press, 1970, 52, 54, 55)

I am not denying Catholic teaching on apostolic sucession, any more than Fr. Brown does in his highly nuanced treatment of the historical data. How we understand apostolic succession, however, is another question, the answer to which cannot ignore historical data.

Christ’s institution of the Twelve, his intention that bishops be their successors, his intention to establish a ministerial priesthood with sacramental powers given by ordination in the unbroken apostolic chain: all these issues involve an interplay between received Church teaching and the data of historical inquiry.

Perhaps a comparison to the Galileo affair is helpful. The received teaching was that the sun revolves around the earth, that Scripture is historically and scientifically accurate, that Popes and Bishops and Fathers of the Church had rightly interpreted the Scriptures, and that a change in Scriptural interpretation would undermine the authority of the Church.

What happened, of course, after a crisis in the Church’s self-understanding, is that historical and scientific data led to a deepening in the Church’s understanding of the truth of the Scriptures. The scholarly data led to a paradigm shift. The Scriptures are still true, but not in the way we had thought. Our understanding of Church teaching underwent change, informed by the data of scientific and historical inquiry.

Similarly, serious engagement with historical data will necessitate a paradigm shift in our understanding of priesthood, episcopate, and magisterium. Catholic teaching on those issues will still be true, but not in the way we had thought. If no one individual was called “priest” in the Christian community for several decades after the Resurrection, if that usage didn’t set in here and there in until the second century or become common understanding until the third or fourth, then we will still believe Catholic teaching that “Christ instituted the priesthood,” but not in the way we had thought. If the Church didn’t understand Bishops to be successors to the apostles until the second or third century, we will still believe that the our Bishops are sucessors and that they have, by Christ’s intention, a unique role in defining Catholic doctrine, but not in the way we had thought.

There is nothing controversial in what I cited above from Ray Brown. All this is a commonplace in contemporary biblical and historical scholarship. But the inevitable paradigm shift in our understanding of Catholic doctrine has not yet happened, at least not in statements such as “Bishops as Teachers.” Cardinal Wuerl seems to write as if the scholarship of the last forty or fifty years has not happened. This does not help the Bishops’ credibility, nor bode well for the possibility of fruitful interaction between theologians and Bishops.

The Bishops teach that every use of artificial conception is morally wrong. But as we learned this week, some 98% of US Catholic women disagree. Is the Bishops’ long-range plan to keep asserting the teaching on contraception until the laity come around? “It’s not gonna happen,” I hear some of you saying. I hope, O how I hope, that we’re not heading into a situation where the Bishops condemn books representative of the work of about 98% of theologians, and keep doing so until the theologians come around.

We’re at an impasse. Frankly, I don’t see a way forward. What needs to happen to move us toward a better future, where our Bishops are our leaders and guides and even heroes? I certainly want that. I want our Bishops to teach authoritatively and credibly.

2. The purpose of undergraduate theology. “Bishops as Teachers” asserts that catechetics since the 1970s has failed to pass on the basics of the faith, and this demands a change in how theology is taught to uninformed Catholic undergraduates. Students don’t have sufficient background to negotiate the wide variety of opinions in the theological academy. Undergrad theology must become catechetical – that is, it must stick to teaching the basics of the faith to the uncatechized.

The Cardinal is raising a new topic here, and his proposal has huge implications for academic theology. Now the question isn’t Sr. Johnson’s orthodoxy, but the purpose of undergraduate theology. Would “remedial catechesis” be seen as a legitimate discipline in the wider academic community? Would the entire faculty approve of “catechetical courses” as general education requirements? What about the non-Catholic students in Catholic schools, sometimes 30% or 50% or more of the student body – would they be exempt from “Catholic catechesis as theology” courses? Would Catholic students who don’t want religious catechesis be able to opt out? Is it pedagogically effective with today’s college students to present only an official viewpoint in the theology classroom, at a timewhen this pedagogical approach is not used in other disciplines?

I see a need for serious discussion on what we think the purpose of undergrad theology is.

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Finally, a question. “Bishops as Teachers” states,

Paul tells the Romans, “How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15).

Why do you suppose the Cardinal uses the old RSV translation ? The Bishops’ own NAB translation of this passage, found at the USCCB website, is:

But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent?