Take a Theologian to DinnerRead Now
My best wishes today to all of my friends with ties to the Jesuit Order as we celebrate today the Feast of the Jesuit founder, Ignatius of Loyola. My grandfather wanted me to become a Jesuit, given the reputations of Canisius High School and Canisius College in Buffalo. (St. Peter Canisius was an early follower of Ignatius and an outstanding educator, and yes, he wrote a catechism, too.) However, at the age of fourteen I packed my worldly belongings in a trunk and headed off to the Franciscan boarding seminary in the Catskills, beginning a 27-year sojourn with the followers of St. Francis of Assisi instead. How I ended up with the friars is an interesting story; how I ended with the friars period an even better one, but we’ll save that for a slow news day.
I can say that even as a boy the intense academic demands of the Jesuit formation program lasted longer than I cared to wait. I was told in elementary school that Jesuits were not ordained until they were 32 years old. I did not see myself as a priest-scholar, but more along the lines of a parish priest or retreat master. The Franciscan recruiters indicated that these were very viable options at that time. A few years ago I took that highly accurate Facebook test to determine my best suitability for religious life, and I learned that I was called to be a Dominican. By my values today, that does make more sense, but in 1961 there was no Facebook to help us with such critical decisions.
I did not become a real “student” until I was about 24 or 25, which is a bit late in the game, but like the baptized adult convert I tried to make up for lost time. The late Father Andrew Greeley used to decry what he saw as the “anti-intellectualism of the clergy;” I can’t say I encountered a lot of that, but my priest peers in the 1980’s were sincerely puzzled that I would go to night school for a second master’s degree. What I do see in some areas of the Catholic press is a tendency to label many Catholic scholars as “dissidents” or disloyal to the Church.
In truth the Jesuits—and all the religious communities, of men and of women, who place a premium on advanced scholarship—are providing a critical service to the Church. In the first instance, there is much about our world and our culture that is genuinely new and challenging. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si alone will create work for Catholic moral theologians as they sort out the ethical implications for public policy and internal Catholic consciences. In the second instance, it is my observation that much Catholic devotion on the parish level is of a highly emotional and pietistic strain. At the turn of the twentieth century the philosopher of religious experience William James wrote that “if merely 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience.” One of my professors did him better: “Piety comes and goes; stupidity remains forever.”
In his classic Varieties of Religious Experience James observed that enthusiasm can rarely maintain itself over the human lifetime as the bedrock of a religious commitment, as he correctly incorporates the fatigue of aging and the inevitable deterioration of the human mind and body into the internal experience of religion. James was focusing on American Methodist revival, but Roman Catholic saints have taught much the same thing. Francis of Assisi insisted upon an uncomfortable life of austerity and service, while Thomas Aquinas became the embodiment of the theological arts, “faith seeking understanding,” a mental labor Feeling is that occasional gift to be cherished, but as I can speak from experience, my religious pieties can be altered by coffee as much as by grace, and with greater predictabilities.
I am presently devouring a history of Vatican II by Xavier Rynne. If the name sounds peculiar, it is a pseudonym for a Catholic theologian serving as a peritus or expert for a bishop who wrote extensive inside coverage of the Council for New Yorker magazine, which agreed to maintain his cover, much to the delight of Catholic intellectuals who followed the proceedings closely. Rynne’s writings on the Council run to four volumes, though there is a one volume summary I am currently reading. He annoyed the Curia no end, which at that time was releasing only the most general of news releases from its press office. The first session of the Council, 1962, was marked by a titanic struggle between the Curia and its theologians on the one hand, who wished to change nothing; and the majority of the world’s 2500 bishops, on the other, who believed that the changing world called for fresh thinking and pastoral approaches to invigorate the Church. Celebrating the sacraments in the vernacular was just one of many issues under debate.
What becomes immediately clear in Rynne’s reporting is that despite the Curia’s efforts to curb theological research and innovation (against the wishes, I might add, of Pius XII and John XXIII), the work of professional theologians was invaluable to the Council. Each bishop, as I noted, was allowed to bring one or more periti or experts into the session with him. For some, like Cardinal Cushing’s, their main role was translating the Latin, the official language of the floor, but which most bishops could frankly not understand. But other participants brought into the proceedings some of the most gifted theologian/scholars of the day. New York’s Cardinal Spellman invited the brilliant Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray to the final three sessions (1963-65) despite the fact that Murray was officially silenced by the Vatican at the time. Murray would make major contributions to the Council’s teaching on religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
The aggressive and painstaking work of the academic theological community is worthy not just of our gratitude but our attention. Clergy, religious and lay theologians--men and women, I am happy to say—are at this moment producing works of great benefit for thoughtful, college educated Catholic laity and their clergy. They are a population generally unknown in most quarters, actively hated in a few, and generally ignored in recent decades at the highest levels of the Church. Strange for a Church that celebrates Aquinas, Bonaventure, Augustine, and today Loyola. Maybe this is easier to do when they are safely dead. But if you know a living theologian, take him or her out to dinner.
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