Theology should be taught in the light of the Catholic faith tradition

Father John A. Kiley

The United States Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently issued a respectful but firm admonition concerning a college textbook by Sister of St. Joseph Elizabeth Johnson entitled “The Quest For The Living God.”

In her writings Sister Johnson lamented the notion of God as a supreme being majestically above a lowering hierarchy. She posited that all names for God are merely metaphors. She opted for the view that God in his inner divinity can suffer in unity with mankind. As might be expected, the sister scorned male names for God even those found in revelation. She was inclined to favor the presence of God equally in all religions and in their sacred texts as well. A tendency toward pantheism – blurring the distinction between the Creator and his creation – and a slight softness on the divinity of Christ – Christ revealed God but was he actually God? – were also noted. While acknowledging Sister Johnson’s literary efforts, the bishops exercised their prudential and somewhat exceptional caution because the volume was intended for general classroom circulation rather than for scholarly perusal.

At the conclusion of their advisory, the bishops offered this wise and pointed observation: “The basic problem with ‘Quest for the Living God’ as a work of Catholic theology is that the book does not take the faith of the church as its starting point. Instead, the author employs standards from outside the faith to criticize and to revise in a radical fashion the conception of God revealed in Scripture and taught by the Magisterium.” This perception that the Catholic faith tradition is the starting point of theological study is critical not only for religious scholars but for the inquiring faithful as well. Pope Benedict made a similar observation in his recent document on the sacred Scriptures, “Verbum Domini,” noted in “The Quiet Corner” a few weeks ago. The pope wrote: “The primary setting for scriptural interpretation is the life of the church.” And again his holiness taught: “An authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church.” As “The Quiet Corner” observed then: “To be authentically and fully interpreted, the Bible must be read in the light of church practice, church experience, church tradition.” The American bishops are stating the same understanding now about theology. Theology must be investigated, understood and taught in the light of the Catholic faith tradition. Merely approaching theology from a worldly, secular, scientific or even atheistic point of view is by its nature compromising. Theology is not discovered; theology is uncovered. An authentic Christian theology is a treasure that the church already possesses. An older generation knew it as the deposit of faith. The virtue of faith and an appreciation of the church’s faith life is the key to mining this deposit. A traditional faith rather than a personal ideology is the only suitable methodology for the Catholic writer as well as for the Catholic reader.

Although our revered pontiff and our respected bishops might endorse an active and alert faith life as the primary condition for interpreting the Bible and for analyzing doctrine, a lively faith is almost understood today to be a bias or a prejudice. The person of faith is thought to be animated by pre-conceived notions, foregone conclusions and fixed ideas. Paradoxically, the more detached the preacher or teacher is from traditional Catholic practices the more his or her credibility is assumed both by the popular media and by a number of Catholics. Something heard on the Eternal Word network is dismissed as tired and unoriginal; something read in the “National Catholic Reporter” is welcomed as the Gospel truth.

The thirteenth is sometimes considered fondly as the greatest of Christian centuries. Certainly that era lacked electric lights and indoor plumbing. But they did have thinkers who were simultaneously brilliant and faith-filled. Aquinas, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, Duns Scotus, Anthony of Padua, Gertrude and Mechtilde were men and women of great intellect but they were also men and women of great appreciation of Christian tradition. Their instinct was indeed “faith seeking understanding.” Such will always be the attitude that will produce the most beneficial religious teachers.