A Quest for Theology

My friend Jack Smith has some problems with awards in the Catholic sphere. You know, that’s the thing about awards. Somebody wins, and everybody else loses, unless they can wrest a “moral victory” from a loss. Never fear though: the Catholic Key Blog will always outpoll the NCRep for any blogosphere voting. And that’s something, isn’t it?

Here’s the headline and first paragraph:

The Next Theologian to be Censured by the Church will be . . .

. . .announced at 6 pm, June 24 at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel. That is when the Catholic Press Association will hold its Annual Awards Banquet at which the First Place Book Award for Theology will announced. Winning the CPA book award in Theology has coincided so often with subsequent investigation by the U.S. Bishops’ Doctrine Committee or the Vatican, that another editor friend of mine once quipped, “CPA in the Spring, CDF in the Fall.”

But you know, just because two events happened in close proximity, that doesn’t mean that the first caused the second. Ponder it: if the winner of the CPA Theology Award always gets investigated, maybe that’s the only book the bishops know to read. And if it gets the ecclesiastical thumbs down, that might just be a knee-jerk reaction. And if Jack’s friend’s quip is true, it would seem to render the Doctrine Committee about as irrelevant as any extremist blog. Why would I read Mark Shea on torture? I already know his mind. Or Jeffrey Tucker on copyrights? Or the Anchoress on President Obama? At times, they’ve been good for one or two posts a week on their favorite topics. It’s like lilstening to the Goldberg variations, only without the artistry of Bach: I know the melody line and I know where it’s going to begin and end. The middle is just filling: cream, jelly, or chocolate. Same 700 calories with powdered sugar on the outside.

I’ve been making my way through Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for the Living God. And I’ve gone back to the Committee’s statement. Maybe some other reader of Johnson and the bishops can help me out. Johnson is criticizing aspects of modern theism and Enlightenment that have contaminated both the perception of Catholicism as well as the preaching of lesser theologians in our midst. Yet these values are also criticized in Johnson, seemingly because she brings them to the reader’s attention. She sure doesn’t seem to be advocating them.

And I get that the Committee is suspicious of feminist and liberation theology. But here too, Johnson seems to be relating main thinkers in the movements and presenting their ideas as part of an original analysis. In her Chapter 3, for example, she treats the modern encounter with suffering. How does the suffering of more people than ever before in human history align with a compassionate God? The Church, certainly, has lacked for answers in the past century. Believers were allowed to drift away, often in alienation and bitterness, because the Church had little enough to offer in the face of world wars, the nuclear threat, and other aspects of the past century that have added to human despair and desperation. The bishops complain:

She has selected the ideas of these particular theologians, however, as well as those of other theologians she presents in the book, as representing what she considers to be the most important and most praiseworthy developments in recent theology, those that she considers provide the basis for the future of Christian theology.

Why wouldn’t this be so? Every writer has a point of view. Dorothee Soelle has something to say about suffering, the Holocaust, and trying to make sense of the senselessness of the modern world. Her ideas might not be perfect nor delivered in a perfect way, but they contribute to the conversation, do they not? John Paul II got more references in the index than Saint Thomas Aquinas–both more than Soelle. Is a saint’s theological writing the only possibility to consider?

The more I read, the more mystifying the bishops’ criticism of this book seems to me. Heaven help theology in the episcopacy if Jack’s friend is right and the only books they ever consider are award-winners. It turns theology into a popularity contest. And we darn well too much of that in the Church as it is.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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