The Theological Studies dust up, NCR, creeping infallibility, and the ecclesial vocation of the theologian

There is a bit of a dust up concerning the journal Theological Studies, a prominent English language publication, sometimes useful and much venerated by liberals.

In 2004 Theological Studies published an article by two theologians arguing that the Church should change her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.  Their article was published in full.  Two theologians, Germain Grisez and Fr. Peter Ryan, tried to respond in the pages of the same journal, to defend the Church’s teaching on marriage.  Theological Studies published the response article in June 2011, apparently after slow pressure was applied by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  However, TS substituted their own comment in place if the author’s abstract, stating in a kind of disclaimer: “Except for minor stylistic changes, the article is published as it was received.”

However, Grisez and Ryan had actually adjusted their article after receiving feedback from peer review imposed by Theological Studies.  Grisez and Ryan submitted their adjusted article in 2009 and again in 2010, having used also the feedback.

TS was then going to publish Grizez and Ryan’s response in a truncated form, having cut out salient points and thus weaken their response to the 2004 piece.  The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith got involved.  Subsequently, 7 years after the fact, TS published the response article as submitted.  Those are the basic facts as I understand them.  The accounts are a little confusing.

CNA wrote a good and accurate summary about this here.  On the site of Catholic World Report there is also a good and accurate article about this with links to the articles in question and statements from those involved. A PDF of Grisez and Ryan’s article as it appears in Theological Studies can be read here, and a PDF of the Himes-Coriden article to which they were responding can be read here.

NCR has a couple articles about this.  NCR, however, probably through an error, left out that Grisez and Ryan had used peer review feedback.

It is all a bit confusing, but the bottom line is this.   To repeat: Theological Studies published an offering which asserted a contradiction to divine law clearly enunciated by the Church.  Two theologians responded with a defense of the proper teaching.  They went through some peer review at the behest of Theological StudiesTheological Studies still didn’t want to publish it in full.  When the CDF got involved – remember: the CDF is supposed to get involved when doctrine has been distorted, and it had been in the pages of Theological Studies Theological Studies started to play ball, with apparent reluctance.

Now NCR and their camp are now upset that Theological Studies had to publish the full response article defending Catholic teaching.

For example, Mr. Thomas Fox of the NCFishwrap wrote:

We report today that the Vatican’s orthodoxy watchdog department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has sharpened its focus on the way theology is being conducted in our church today. The purpose of the congregation is to uphold Catholic doctrine. The congregation, however, misconstrues its role when it becomes the arbiter of what constitutes Catholic theology, managing and even squelching discussions within the theological magisterium. Doctrine and theology should have separate places in the Catholic lexicon. …. [I]t is essential that journals like Theological Studies are free to support healthy discussions — and are not intimidated for engaging in them.


The problem here is that Theological Studies did not engage in anything “healthy” when it came to the responding theologians.

Another problem, and I am sure you spotted it, rests in the phrase “theological magisterium”.

I am pretty sure that what Fox means to imply here is that there is a “magisterium” exercised by theologians apart from the Magisterium as we understand the term today.

Strictly speaking, the term Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff and the bishops as the successors of Peter and the Apostles.  It is part of the office of the hierarchy to teach official in the name of the Church and of Christ.  Theologians do not have that authority.  Theologians work to serve the Church’s teaching office, the Magisterium, exercised by the hierarchy, but they do not teach in the same way in place of the hierarchy or on their own.   That doesn’t mean that theologians are merely the mouthpieces of the hierarchy.  They are not enslaved.  They can indeed stretch out beyond Magisterial definitions, but always in the service of the Magisterium.  Theologians play an important role in explaining the Church’s teachings, making them fresh and understandable in each new generation.  They explore the implications of new developments.  But while the hierarchy can oblige Catholics the accept certain teachings, theologians cannot.

More over, theologians aren’t just scholars engaged in research or professional teachers.  If they are truly Catholic theologians they must also bear witness to the faith in their work.  They must be believers, faithful to the Magisterium, accepting the Church’s teachings, even when they are hard.  Insofar as theologians are also faithful and bearing witness to the Faith as the Church teaches, in that sense they edify and by analogy have a kind of magisterium of faithful witness.  The many of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are examples of this.  Doctors such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux are both Doctors of the Church though they were not members of the Church’s hierarchy.  They reflected in their lives and works something of the Church’s role as Teacher.  Their writings, however, do not bind our consciences in the way that defined doctrine binds us.  Even a great Bishop and Doctor such as Augustine of Hippo’s works are not the equivalent of the Church’s Magisterium.

If you want a good examination of the Magisterium, try the late Card. Avery Dulles’ book Magisterium. Every seminarians and priest needs this book, by the way.  Also read the CDF’s Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the TheologianNCFishwrap is a bit obsessed about papal authority and what they perceive as “creeping infallibility“.  But I digress.

That said, here is another bit from Mr. Fox:

Yes, the papacy should be the final authority in the church, but it has now become the only authority. Yes, theologians will always be prone to mistakes. Theologians must be true to their role and criticize one another, and at times the hierarchical magisterium must step in. However the magisterium cannot just tie itself to one school of theology and condemn all others.

Today little doubt exists there is a widening gap between many theologians and the episcopal magisterium. Some tension in this area will always exist, but the present gap is not good, not healthy.

Again, I don’t think what Theological Studies did was healthy at all.  TS should have published the response article, as adjusted by its authors after peer review without the CDF or any other referee having to get involved.

Think about what happened.

The CDF did not make the editor of Theological Studies publish a repudiation of the 2004 article.  All the CDF did was get them to publish an article defending Catholic teaching in response to an article contrary to Catholic teaching.

That’s what Mr. Fox calls “squelching”?

Another Fishwrap writer, Phyllis Zagano, promoter of the ordination of women to the diaconate, in her NCFishwrap defense of Theological Studies called the CDF the “Vatican Thought Police”.  This comparison will leave any reasonable and well-read person puzzled, because of its tone and by reason of the comparison itself.

Think it through. In 1984, Orwell’s Thought Police (the CDF on Fishwrapworld) suppressed and punished thoughtcrimes.  But it was Theological Studies, not the CDF, which suppressed the thoughtcrimes of the responders Grisez and Ryan.  The CDF wanted to make sure the other side of the argument was heard and not suppressed.  Zagano’s comparison isn’t very apt.

It is, however, pretty mean.

Then again, in the past, Ms. Zagano attacked Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph through a similarly weird, though far meaner, comparison.  She drew a moral equivalence between Bishop Finn and Arnold Schwarzeneger (unfaithful husband), Anthony Wiener (odd-ball misuser of Twitter), Dominque Strauss-Kahn (accused, possibly falsely, of attempted sexual abuse) and Egyptian businessman Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar (accused of sexually abusing a hotel maid), putting them all on the same team.  Read about that here.  And when I defended Bp. Finn, Zagano started attacking me.   But I digress.

Make up your own minds about this, but it seems to me that NCR doesn’t like the fact that someone on their team, Theological Studies, was required to play fair.  Furthermore, they are continuing with their campaign to support alternative “magisteria” over and against that of the Roman Pontiff and bishops in union with him.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Gregg the Obscure says:

    In a world where:
    – physicians promote euthanasia of the old, the disabled and the very young;
    – bureaucrats coerce Christians into supporting all forms of euthanasia;
    – businesses kill people to use their DNA in commercial products;
    – scientists conduct non-consenusal medical experiments;
    – politicians promote more extensive use of non-consensual medical experiments;
    – judges deem natural law to be illegal hate speech; and
    – mass media promotes redefinition of family to try to make criminal conspiracies equivalent to actual families,
    can it be surprising that some badtheologians would invert the moral imperatives of their state in life?

  2. Glen M says:

    Thank you for the book recommendation, Father, I’ll add it to my wish list.

    At this point I’ve given up caring or wasting time on the NcR. They are as predictable as gravity.

    I wish “the Vatican” and local Ordinaries would start speaking out more frequently and taking appropriate measures against heresy and dissent before more sheep are led astray.

  3. benedetta says:

    It appears that upon a pretty quick glance at the facts that contrary to the position of the distorter that a quite healthy discussion was permitted to occur and was engaged in. The problem is with his assumption that the Congregation ought to be muzzled from any meaningful participation whatsoever in the theological dialogue and be reduced to a thumbs up or thumbs down “role” if you could even call it that. I guess afterthought, or something is how he would style it. My sense is that paradigm is actually the unhealthy one.

  4. Supertradmum says:

    The problem is that some theologians, such as the infamous Charles Curran, honestly believe that they do not have to be obedient to the Magisterium because they are theologians. A theologian by definition in modern terms is someone who challenges the Magisterium, rather than supporting the teachings of the Catholic Church. The theologians who stay within the doctrines of the Church are considered suspect for being “the sons of Mother Anglica”, as I have heard a liberal priest state of those who are orthodox. In other words, the contemporary theologian thinks he must deviate from the Teaching Magisterium in order to be recognized as authentically creative by his or her own peer group. Take for example, someone like Avery Dulles, who at first deviated in some ways, repented, changed and became a leading light by his death. He is considered, by some, to have capitulated to the authoritarian Church. Duh. The other problem is that some theologians, like some painters, do not know when to stop thinking. Von Balthazar, for example, deviated from Catholic teaching at the end of his long career. Sadly, these deviations make earlier works suspect as well. Where one’s heart is , is where one finds the Truth.

  5. dad29 says:

    Huh. When the editor of Theo Studies, Fr. David Schultenover, was the Algebra teacher at Marquette High, he did not allow students to solve “X+Y=_ ” ……(where X=1, Y=1) with the answer “3”.

    What changed, Father S.?

  6. RichR says:


    If the CDF ever investigates the NCR, all they will have to do is go to your blog and simply click the “NCFishwrap” tag to present their case against the periodical. You have a pretty exhaustive catalog of their problems.

  7. Emilio says:

    The “other” Fr. Ryan, brother of the above-mentioned Fr. Peter Ryan (SJ mind you!), was my mentor and beloved childhood pastor. Thanks to him I had the grace of meeting both his brother, Fr. P. Ryan, and Mr. Grizez on several occasions. Both men are class acts and most loyal servants of the Church. I add to Fr. Z’s argument, that if the Devil hates priests, then he hates faithful and tradition-minded Jesuits (as is Fr. Ryan) with a fury. My prayers are with both of them.

  8. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Perhaps the NCFishwrap editorial staff constitutes its own Mag-hysteria?

  9. Rich says:

    Sometimes much theology is needed to properly understand and expound doctrine, as with the doctrine of the Incarnation. Theology and doctrine are very much intertwined. It appears as if some want to reserve the special term of “theology” for when they want to teach something that doesn’t totally correspond to doctrine. Sometimes this “theology” begins to contradict doctrine, and even then affect seminarian education, catechesis, and the proper understanding of the faith by the faithful. The CDF and others of the magisterium wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t rein in some theologians. If the folks at NCR have a problem with their doing so, my only response to them is: tough luck; deal with it, people.

  10. mrose says:

    As someone discerning a path toward doing academic theology, these sorts of things interest me greatly. I had a discussion with a friend recently in which I outlined some of my thoughts about such a path, noting that theologians in the past several decades and currently seem to, by and large, be doing notable damage to the Church and her faithful. I told her that I thought the Church in our times needs theologians who seek to accurately and faithfully present the teachings of the Church and have that as the focus rather than an obsession on something new or “innovative.” The Church has all we need, I noted, and so the task of the theologian is to tap that wealth for the good of the Church, and always to do so in full and uncompromising or unapologetic obedience to the Magisterium.

    When reflecting on our conversation later with my wife, she simply noted that “we disagree on things.”

    She recently enrolled in a Masters-level “Pastoral Studies” program at Boston College – the one headed by the heresy-promoting and laicized Thomas Groome.

  11. Tom Esteban says:

    Such poor journalism. Journalistic integrity: none. Understanding of the topic one is writing about: none. Remembering that they call themselves Catholic: nope. Good writing: not by a long shot. The only thing they’ve done right? Appeal to their audience, I am sure.

    Sigh. One pities Fishwrap. I’ve never read such a bad attempt at stretching word meanings to try and fit a liberal minded Catholics view in my life. Often they will use words only to obfuscate and confuse their less educated readers.

    But I think we all know what they really mean; what the real agenda is. They don’t care for a heavily orthodox theologian. They wouldn’t defend a theologian pushing for a more orthodox understanding. What they really mean is this: “Implement the things liberal theologians are saying!”

  12. Seraphic Spouse says:

    @mrose: My heart sank at the name “Hines” in Father Z’s post and it sank again when I read your comment. I sincerely hope it is your friend, not your wife, who has enrolled in Pastoral Studies at Boston College.

    Although I would recommend Boston College to potential undergraduates who want to study anything EXCEPT theology, I would never recommend that any Roman Catholic study theology at Boston College. In the words of a Protestant theology student at Boston College (who had hoped to become a Catholic but had become extremely confused and often very weepy), “Somebody told me that a Protestant is more welcome here than a conservative Catholic. I came here to find out what Catholicism is, but everyone keeps telling me something different.”

  13. Seraphic Spouse says:

    Another Boston College theology quote, “Some of the non-Catholic professors are more orthodox than the Catholic professors.”

    Try working that one out without getting a blinding headache.

    By the way, Boston College was founded by the Jesuits for the lower-income Irish-Americans of Boston. A visitor to Boston College today will be struck by the complete absence in the student body of the distinctive “Southie” accent of the lower-income Irish-Americans of Boston. You will, however, hear it spoken among the gardeners and landscapers who carefully tend BC’s beautiful grounds.

  14. AnAmericanMother says:

    A small college (undergrad & now this year offering advanced degrees) has sprung up at our parish.
    The head of the program is as straight-ahead, orthodox, fully obedient a priest as you could find in a month of Sundays. And every professor has the mandatum (and they make sure everybody knows it).
    I am considering whether to enter the master’s program in theology, but waiting to see if I have a job next year or not . . . .

  15. mrose says:

    @ Seraphic Spouse:

    Yes, thankfully, it is my friend and not my wife who has enrolled there.

    I considered BC pretty seriously at one point, even meeting with several professors. I, like the person you mentioned, was at the time a Protestant looking to the Church. And in a different set of words, figured out rather quickly that I was more “Catholic” in theological outlook than they – a scary idea.

    The pride of theologians is a terrifying thing. Those of us in or headed toward such a vocation must take seriously our Lord’s warning that a higher judgment awaits teachers and others in authority. I suspect that may mean more than those in Holy Orders.

  16. Seraphic Spouse says:

    @mrose. Yes. I have listened to a group PhD theology students explain why they wish to be theologians and although they were very nice people, what they said revealed that they clearly wanted to have the power and responsibilities of bishops. Anyone who thinks they have a vocation as a theologian might want to sort out their feelings and motives with a tough-minded confessor. As a matter of fact, the leading (and most popular, bestselling, etc.) Catholic light in a certain building at Boston College is not in the theology department but across the cubicles over in philosophy: Peter Kreeft. Peter Kreeft would not last two minutes in the theology department; I wonder if he leaves his coffee cup unsupervised.

    I could bore for Britain on this topic, so I will keep it short. One problem is that theologians too often see themselves as an “alter magisterium.” If you read Richard McBrien’s survey tome on Catholicism, you will see that he counts theologians as part of the magisterium. One idea floating out there is that bishops are too dumb or too weighed down by administrative tasks to know anything about theology and therefore must be gently led (by the nose) by professional theologians. I don’t doubt that incredibly busy bishops do need to consult theologians. I just wish they would consult theologians who love the faith, not theologians who are busily rewriting it. Academic honours depend on novelty.

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