On April 3, National Catholic Reporter presented an essay by Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M. entitled Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians.” At the risk of gross simplification, the author bemoans the shallow understanding of Catholics whose knowledge of things religious comes from skimming the internet. Father Horan is a member of my former Franciscan community, though I left the Order before he came to national prominence.
One of the objectives of the Catechist Café is connectedness of Catholic adults to the world of higher studies in the Faith. While I agreed with the author on many points—including the Catholic jungle of internet sites posted by amateurs, I felt compelled to suggest that the hallowed halls of ivy belong to all believing Catholics, not an academic elite. Thus, I submitted this letter to the editor of NCR. Whether it sees the light of day is anyone’s guess, but Café readers have the link to the original article, and my response beneath it.
“Faith Seeking Understanding: The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians” [April 3, 2019, Father Daniel Horan, O.F.M.]
The Brew Master’s Response:
Regarding Father Daniel Horan’s April 3 offering, “The Problematic Rise of Armchair Theologians,” the author targeted one contemporary problem and opened the door to several others. To his main point, it is not simply a problem of individuals skimming religious terminology and summaries from the internet for self-aggrandizement, or worse, for service to the wide varieties of parish ministry and catechizing. The more pernicious issue is what they are skimming. There is a distinct lack of visibility of sound professional theology on the internet and other sources for college educated and/or motivated Catholic readers and novice researchers. Were one to Google “Catholic Encyclopedia” this afternoon, the first entry to appear is the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, which literally ends in 1917. There is no entry in the encyclopedia for Vatican II or Humanae Vitae. Where does the probing Catholic set off on his journey?
I would like to say Catholic academia, but I sense a disconnect between town and gown. One of the most underserved of Catholic faith formation populations is the cohort of professionally successful adults. Competent in so many areas of life, it is tragic that Catholic scholars on the whole have not developed suitable outreach to introduce wholesale adults to the writings of Church historians Massimo Faggioli and John W. O’Malley, moralist Margaret Farley, liturgist Joseph Martos, Scripture scholars Raymond Brown and John Meier; or slip the latest copy of America, Commonweal, or The Bible Today in anyone’s briefcase for the work commute.
It is a stretch to assume that in our church pews there are not many believers who can grasp the principles of cutting-edge theology for the enrichment of parochial life. I encounter many devout Catholic who are embarrassed by their own elementary grasp of theology as adults, and what is worse, many of them are immersed in providing adult education in their parishes. There is a tone in Father Horan’s essay [and certainly in his quotations from Anthony Godzieba]—dare I call it an academic clericalism? –that the career theologians alone can handle the deep thinking. The danger here is that academics are not by and large the ones passing the Catholic faith from generation to generation.
The villain of the piece seems to be computers and their spawn, and there is something to be said for that. The Catholic on-line world is replete with defenses of the Catechism and ad hominem attacks upon its critics, but this is, after all, how official present-day catechetics is conducted—as certainty—more akin to scholastic fidelity than internal reflection. If those in the armchairs look smug, it is because they have been told they enjoy that right by virtue of literal fidelity. The flexing of Catholic experience is becoming more affective and less left-brained. In several more generations, we will be an evangelical Church riding the wave of emotion because we have never learned to think. Over a century ago William James warned of the half-life of enthusiasm.
The greatest gifts that Catholic scholars can bring to the Church are twofold. The first is recognition of the challenges faced by “amateurs” who desire to know what “the experts” know. The second is recognition of the role of Catholic academia in catechetics. In his 2018 biography of the Biblical scholar Raymond Brown, Father Donald Senior describes the scholar’s efforts to build such bridges. After completing a major work, Father Brown would publish a smaller summary for public consumption, an invitation to come closer to Scriptural insight. How useful were his An Adult Christ at Christmas or A Risen Christ at Eastertime. Provide a Church “historiography” of reputable authors, publishing houses, and publications. Make the armchair a respectable seat of learning again.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything