More on who gets to say what’s what

It’s hard for someone who knows practically zero about the ecology of academic theology to say anything very definite about the recent demand by German theologians for ‘intelligent restructuring’ of the Vatican’s doctrinal office. Still, a theologian should admit it’s OK to talk about things that go far beyond our actual knowledge, and we all have to orient ourselves with regard to reality and how we know about it, so here are some comments:

  • Peter Huenermann (the leading proponent of the demand) talks about “the guarantee of quality in the scientific field today” as something handled by consultation among scientists, and seems to suggest that the same should apply to theology. But is knowledge of God a “science” (or even a “Wissenschaft“) in the current academic sense? Can there be an expert on God in the way there can be an expert on quantum mechanics or the Northern Renaissance? The academic sciences don’t seem to have anything comparable to revelation or the dogmatic teaching authority of the hierarchical Church. When does that come into the picture, and where is the ultimate authority?
  • If there’s a truth you stake your life on, the usual approach is somewhat more conservative than a system of peer review among experts to determine what approaches seem worth entertaining as possibly illuminating. Consider for example the tests new drugs and medical treatments go through before they are made available to the public. Trends in the Church since the ’60s—lots of bright ideas, most of which worked out badly and seem stupid in retrospect—suggest something of the sort might have been smart in Catholic circles.
  • Ditto for rules you live by. Law isn’t determined by academic peer review, except maybe Muslim religious law (which doesn’t seem a perfect model). Why should what is taught as legitimate Catholic belief and practice be so determined?
  • John Rawls thought that free rational discussion would never lead to anything like a consensus on basic religious issues. That view seems to have gained general acceptance among mainstream academic political theorists. Do mainstream academic theologians agree with their brethren in the poly sci department on that point? If not why not? Have they told them about their disagreement? Or if they agree, what do they do with the issue?
  • Like anyone else, academic theologians should be treated with human respect. It’s not obvious they should have a special position though, and that seems to be what they’re demanding. So far as I can tell, Catholic intellectual life mostly fell apart after Vatican II. Before then there were lots of Catholic writers who mattered to a lot of people. Today there don’t seem to be any. Also, it seems odd to claim there would be hundreds of theologians in a single European country whose gifts and attainments entitle them to special status. With all that in mind, why is it so important what German state functionaries think their privileges ought to be?

The Vatican view of some of these matters is no doubt expressed in the Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, which the Pope issued in his old job as Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I haven’t read it, and it apparently hasn’t received much discussion in spite of its evident importance.

Leave a Comment