Donald W. Wuerl
Bishops and theologians in the service of the new evangelization.

In the Mass, at which I was privileged to be a concelebrant, recently celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at the close of the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which had as its theme, “the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian faith,” the Holy Father reflected on the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus. Pope Benedict said that this “is the last miraculous healing that Jesus performs before his passion, and it is no accident that it should be that of a blind person, someone whose eyes have lost the light.... It represents man who needs God’s light, the light of faith, if he is to know reality truly and to walk the path of life.” The Holy Father observed that Bartimaeus represents “those who live in regions that were evangelized long ago, where the light of faith has grown dim and people have drifted away from God, no longer considering Him relevant for their lives.” The “new evangelization” that is needed especially in those regions, the pope remarked, “applies to the whole of the Church’s life.” The synod thus offers us the opportunity to reflect upon the role of the church, “the whole of the Church’s life,” including that of bishops and theologians, in the great work of the new evangelization that seeks to heal the deepest blindness of all, groping in the dark “where the light of faith has grown dim.”

It is in that light that the synod spoke of the theological task of the new evangelization and how theologians share in the church’s primary mission of passing on the faith. As the synod’s Proposition 30 states: “Theologians are called to carry out this service [dialogue between faith and the other disciplines and the secular world] as a part of the salvific mission of the Church. It is necessary that they think and feel with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia).

Ecclesial Task of the Theologian

The particular role of the theologian presupposes but goes beyond a catechetical presentation of the faith, “beyond” not by contradiction—authentic theology does not presume to generate new teachings—but “beyond” in depth, in intensity and in precision. It is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith, according to the ancient adage, fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the faith of the church is enriched through “the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts” and in particular “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth” (No. 94).

The synod offered its support to what Pope Benedict referred to as the correct hermeneutic of theological development. Proper theological investigation must come out of a continuity and connectedness with the living apostolic tradition of the church. As the synod’s Proposition 12 states, “The Synod Fathers recognize the teaching of Vatican II as a vital instrument for transmitting the faith in the context of the New Evangelization. At the same time, they consider that the documents of the Council should be properly read and interpreted. Therefore, they wish to manifest their adherence to the thought of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who has indicated the hermeneutical principle of reform within continuity, so as to be able to discover in those texts the authentic spirit of the Council.”

Theology, then, is neither simply catechesis nor a radically independent academic discipline. It is always tethered to the faith taught by the church, much as a natural scientist’s work is tethered to the facts of physical laws. Theology enjoys a legitimate autonomy, but an autonomy bounded by the standards of the field and the boundaries of what constitutes spurious or fruitless investigation. There is a broad field for theological exploration and critique, for instance, from the “underlying assumptions and explicit formulations of doctrine...to questions about their meaning or their doctrinal and pastoral implications, to comparison with other doctrines, to the study of their historical and ecclesial context, to translation into diverse cultural categories, and to correlation with knowledge from other branches of human and scientific inquiry” (The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop). These investigations, however, are not made in isolation from the received faith of the church, but are made presuming that faith, and in light of that faith.

It is essential for the health and progress of theology, then, that it take place within the context of a clearly cohesive community of faith, that its creativity be channeled and maximized by boundaries delineated by the received revelation. Identifying these boundaries of the authentic faith constitutes the bishop’s contribution to the flourishing of the theological sciences. Theirs is the duty to see that the noble enterprise of theology is integrated into the overall mission of the church to transmit the good news.

It follows that theological opinion can never be placed on an equal footing with the authoritative teaching of those to whom Christ has entrusted the care of his flock. Nevertheless, the bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching. “The Church cannot exist without the teaching office of the bishop,” The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop states, “nor thrive without the sound scholarship of the theologian. Bishops and theologians are in a collaborative relationship. Bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium. The ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support.” This same idea is found in the text of the International Theological Commission, “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria,” where we read that “the magisterium needs theology…[and] also theological competence and a capacity for critical evaluation…. On the other hand, the magisterium is an indispensable help to theology…” (No. 39).

The Challenge of Theologians

An article in this publication (“The Road Ahead,” by Richard Gaillardetz, 9/24/12) laments that a recent intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not respect the “critical exploratory function of theology” in “challenging faulty arguments, raising difficult questions and proposing alternative frameworks for the church’s prayerful discernment.” Much of the work of theologians, the article states, “can be supportive of the magisterium,” but then concludes that “the work of theology cannot be limited to this.” If authoritative teaching does not withstand the challenges of theologians, the article concludes, then “perhaps honest theological exploration will yield insights for a development or even a substantive change in the teaching.”

Therein lies the difficulty. The magisterium, the church’s teaching office, does not assert that in its proclamation of the faith it has exhausted every development, nuance or application of the faith in the circumstances of our day. But the church does define that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ. No one else can rightfully make that claim. We turn to the teaching of the church not for speculation, but for sure guidance on the way to eternal life with Christ. To suggest that a “substantive change in the teaching” of the church is a legitimate fruit of theological work underscores the different ecclesial view held by some theologians today. Such an approach to theology inevitably bestows on theological work the aura, at times even the explicit declaration, of a “parallel magisterium,” one that has the competence not simply to deepen our understanding of the faith, but to graft onto it teachings extraneous to the deposit of faith that Jesus entrusted to the church as its steward.

The true challenge of theologians is not their presumptive authority to challenge established teachings of the magisterium, but rather their vocation also to challenge themselves in exploring more deeply, more intensively, more prayerfully the truths of the faith handed onto us by Christ through the church. It is the challenge to accept as a starting point for their investigations the teachings of the church and the authority of those entrusted with passing on the faith and guarding it from erroneous intrusions. It is the challenge to resist the temptation to bend to the currents of every age, to accommodate Catholic teaching to the penchants of the times rather than penetrating the times with the wisdom of Catholic teaching. It is the challenge to realize that faith is ultimately a gift of grace, the bracing call to follow Jesus that comes directly from him, not the work of rendering Catholic teaching more comfortable and agreeable to our way of life.

Catholic theologians, whether or not their works are used as “textbooks” in Catholic institutions of learning, are collaborators in the teaching mission of the church, and cannot exempt themselves through appeals to a false and counter-productive freedom from accountability. To do so would in fact denigrate the noble vocation of theology. The great Catholic theologians of the past and present are remarkable not only for their profound insights and provocative theological speculation, but also for their humble recognition of their own fallibility and their acceptance, even desire, for the church’s appraisal of their work. This humility was grounded in their recognition of the important role they played in the church’s life and in the church’s teaching of the faith, whether or not their works were used in any official teaching capacity. As theologians themselves rightly remind us, theirs is not simply a catechetical vocation; it is precisely their vocation to deepen our understanding of the church’s faith that renders their work especially needful of robust accountability.

Theology and the New Evangelization

Theologians who embrace this vibrant vision of their role as responsible collaborators in the teaching of the church are well poised to contribute to the new evangelization urged by the Holy Father and the recent Synod of Bishops. There are numerous people, particularly in the Western world, who have already heard of Jesus. Our call as Christians is to stir up again and rekindle in the midst of their daily life and concrete situation a new awareness and familiarity with Jesus, to re-propose his Gospel in all its depth, its intensity and its transformative power. Theologians, in their efforts to penetrate more deeply our understanding of the deposit of faith, to draw new conclusions of that faith, to render more precise our understanding of the church’s teaching, to apply the truths of faith and morals to our time and our culture, and to find better approaches to proclaim the faith effectively to the people of today, play a crucial role in advancing the banner of the new evangelization.

This dynamic vision of theology within “the whole of the Church’s life” draws its vitality from the grace of faith. For theologians to be agents of the new evangelization, they must first perceive themselves as such, as important cooperators in the work of the church, as credible and convicted believers. Their personal faith is not an impediment to objective and fruitful theological work, but rather its prerequisite. In The Nature and Mission of Theology, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that as “there is no theology without faith, there can be no theology without conversion…the opportunity for creative theology increases the more that faith becomes real, personal experience; the more that conversion acquires interior certainty.” It is faith that allows theologians to stand on the pillar of revealed truth, to sense the need for theological accountability, to perceive the magisterium as intrinsic to their work. Natural scientists are grateful for the existence of physical laws since their work is only sound, only fruitful, when it respects the foundational truths of those concrete boundaries. In a similar way, the church’s teaching office, when grasped in the context of faith, is a great assistance to the scholarly research of theologians since its judgments are determinative of good theology.

Bartimaeus, the Holy Father reflected in his homily at the close of the synod, represents “man who needs God’s light, the light of faith, if he is to know reality truly and to walk the path of life.” There is no more urgent task in the church today than shedding that light anew upon those thirsting for the truth, for the beauty, for the goodness of the Gospel. Bishops and theologians both contribute, powerfully and distinctly, to that momentous project. On their fruitful collaboration depends not only the renewal of vibrant Catholic theology, but to a large extent the renewal of the church herself and her readiness to meet the great commission of our day, the commission to re-propose the Gospel to a weary world with clarity, with joy and with conviction. On their fruitful collaboration depends, in great measure, the fruitful harvest of the new evangelization.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl is archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Comments

David Madsen | 3/2/2013 - 11:03pm

Forgive me for the late posting. I have been distracted by the folks who represent the Magisterium (Cardinal Mahony, Pope Benedict XVI, and Cardinal O'Brien) and its apparent infallibility. But now that I have a moment to read Cardinal Wuerl's defense of the bishops over against renegade theologians (among whom I surmise is Richard Gaillardetz), I cannot help but note the following irony: wasn't Cardinal Wuerl's first task as a newly appointed bishop the undercutting or surveillance of the Archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, whose prophetic witness will be validated by history (even if not by the Curia)? Is the Cardinal not about to be hoist with his own petard?

Jerome Knies | 2/12/2013 - 5:00pm

Dear Editor:

Re: Cardinal Wuerl's "Noble Enterprise", February 4, 2013.

Just what do theologians do! Incredible as it may seem, the Vatican II "Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)" was not quoted in that article seeking to enlighten theologians about their task. The light of Vatican II shines on everyone from Pope and Cardinals to altar servers and the newly baptized baby. To paraphrase Vatican II, 6: Folks, we have here a pilgrim church. "Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated-to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself-these can and should be set right at the opportune moment."

Today we would say more truthfully and humbly not "if" but "when" there have been those "deficiencies". Going from "if" to "when" is part of the pilgrimage, folks! Hasn't the Church moved from the arrogance of that presumption of innocence to the humility of admitted historical facts? Among many other tasks of the theologian today is an explanation for why after some several hundred years of scholasticism in seminary formation it was a Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. who moved us all along that pilgrim path. It was a move away from our crimes against humanity: the slave trade, the abuse of the Amerindans and racial prejudice. If he was not a theologian in the service of the Church--something more than mere Christianity-- was there ever such a one? Faith is not the only thing we have received from the past.

"The words of St. John hold good about sins against unity: 'If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us'. So we humbly beg pardon of God and of our separated brethren, just as we forgive them that trespass against us" (op cit. 7). Let's narrow the issue here to the Catholic hierarchy and theologians as the article did. Both hierarchy and theologians are in need of one anothers' mutual forgiveness. They need to create the "opportune moment". That lacking or until such happens any newest baby pilgrim is doomed to follow circling wagons, a most tiresome parade, a hell with nether "if's" nor "when's"!

NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 2/10/2013 - 9:41am

I find troubling two aspects of Cardinal Wuerl's article, and perhaps I am reading it wrongly. First, he appeals to the magisterium not only as being authoritative, but also as if it were a block of truths unchanging for all time (which appears to be also how the Catechism treats it). But it would be very helpful to some of us to know how we are to understand what at least appear to be significant differences in magisterial teaching. Read, for instance, Gregory XVI's Mirari vos (1832) or Pius IX's Quanta Cura (the Syllabus of Errors -- 1864) on the absurdities of calling for the freedom of conscience, and then read John XXIII's Pacem in Terris (1963) on the same subject. How do we explain the "apparent" differences? Read Nicholas V's Pontifex Maximus (1455) authorizing the King of Portugal to enslave pagans and Saracens and others, and then read John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor on the subject of slavery (he quotes Gaudium et Spes from Vatican II). Where would the cardinal have us look for guidance? (I'm stealing this latter example from John Noonan's book, to give credit where it's due).

Second, Cardinal Wuerl cites Proposition 12 of the recent Synod of Bishops, manifesting "adherence to the thought of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI," particularly in his teaching on Vatican II. Since I've spent a large part of my career studying contemporary China, the phrase carries an unhappy resonance of that country's campaigns to ensure the adherence of the Communist faithful to "the thought of Mao Zedong." Is the comparison absurd? I hope so, but I'm not sure. Loyalty to a man -- president, pope, king, even party leader, is one thing; loyalty to his "thought" is something else again.

Frank Bergen | 2/9/2013 - 12:26am

In August 1963, as a Jesuit scholastic visiting Rome for the first time, I knocked on the door of the Pontifical Biblical Institute and was greeted by a 60ish priest who identified himself as "Father Zerwick, the famous Father Zerwick". Max Zerwick was a biblical scholar who had been prohibited from publishing by the Holy Office, one of a too long list of scholars whose notion of their calling failed to conform adequately to norms still being espoused by Cardinal Wuerl in this article. Among the latest, of course, is Sister Margaret Farley, whose understanding of human sexuality is somewhat more nuanced than permitted by a Roman/American hierarchy which is so patently guided by the Holy Spirit in its actions as well as its pronouncements. Should he read these comments on his essay, I would hope the Cardinal will take positively my critique of his analogy between the "natural scientists... grateful for the existence of physical laws..." and the theologian assisted by the teaching office. That dog won't hunt, Your Eminence. For whatever it may be worth, the teaching office doesn't constitute physical limits by which the theologian is constrained in order for his work to be sound and fruitful. If indeed "the church does define that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ", it may well be the theologians who keep the bishops from falling flat on their divinely assisted faces.

Vincent Gaitley | 2/7/2013 - 3:41am

Cardinal Wuerl's intellectually dishonest call for limited academic freedom among theologians appeared before my blind eyes the same day that the Irish government reported more fully on the Magdalene Laundry abuses, the same week that Cardinal Mahoney admitted his, ahem, twenty year blindness to child sexual abuse and the cover-up and the law. So.
Before Cardinal Wuerl uses the phrase "robust accountability" again in an essay, someone please ask him to open the archdiocesan books to audit, the running of the archdiocese to wide eyed scrutiny; have him invite laity into the executive management of his vicarage and financial oversight of Church assets. Stop fretting about theologians who color outside the lines--we can all keep one good eye on them. Christ cured blindness in Bartimaeus; the Cardinal and his brethren cured the Church of blind faith. With our eyes open, the laity will read and decide for ourselves. Be in no doubt, our eyes are open now, and we don't like what we see. But here's a thought, why not make Bartimaeus the patron of the sexually abused? His divinely restored sight shocked his sensibilities as ours are shocked now, so I think he would make a good "witness". The Pope connected him to places and peoples where the faith has grown dim. Perhaps we are not blind, and never were. We are just led by low wattage, energy saving bishops who can't see the "dark-out Lucifers."

Sean McCarthy | 1/25/2013 - 8:21pm

It seems as though every comment expresses dissent with the message described in this article instead of finding common ground for encouragement and support. Obviously, this is expressive of the violent rift in the Church between independent theologians the perspective of the magisterium. It is worthwhile to consider that this Year of Faith involves an indulgence allotted to those embodying the willingness to prayerfully read the fundamental recent documents of the Church - the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Catechism. Most of the comments assert that the Magisterium rejects the pursuits of free thought; the Magisterium is wary that such free-thinkers are overly allured and enthralled by the seemingly radical new thoughts that have recently emerged and wish to alter the fundamental character of the faith. Is it possible to engage and incorporate the new ideas, an activity which many persons here consider synonymous with thinking, without radically distorting the nature of Catholicism? If such penetrating and probing analysis does not spring from the roots of Catholicism, then such a concern is urgent. As Heidegger wrote, "The most difficult learning is coming to know actually and to the very foundations what we already know. Such learning... demands dwelling continually on what appears to be nearest to us ...". This coming from philosophy, the field of study most suited and able to interact with new thoughts. Can one rigorously dwell upon the fundamental precepts of Catholicism without becoming profoundly converted intellectually to their self-evident beauty? Such self-evidence must itself be questioned. Should the Catholic faith accept the interpretation of the hierarchy that Jesus appointed the apostles to be the authentic teachers of the faith and that only bishops are in direct continuity with the apostolic mission in its fullness? Is every institution involving human beings necessarily a struggle for power at its core? Has the essential nature of the Gospel been revealed at its source only to be unfolded by us? Or are we actually able to generate new thoughts that radically alter the 'paradigm' of Catholicism? Does emphasizing continuity necessarily stifle growth? If we were concerned to keep up with the pace of the secular world, then continuity should be thrown away. Let us remember that Jesus primarily referred to the apostles as His friends, "because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father. It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name He will give you. This I command you: love one another". Let us hope that Jesus, and not a mere human, selected Cardinal Wuerl.

PAUL NIENABER | 1/25/2013 - 5:54pm

I find myself puzzled by the statement, "Natural scientists are grateful for the existence of physical laws since their work is only sound, only fruitful, when it respects the foundational truths of those concrete boundaries." Physical laws are less "foundational truths" or "concrete boundaries" than generally reliable, empirically benchmarked, summative inferences -- but ones that are always tentative, always revisable in the face of new data. Granted, there is a certain inertia that appropriately disposes the community against change, but paradigm shifts DO happen (without the precession of the perihelion of Mercury (&c.), Newtonian gravitation would never have been updated to Einsteinian). These shifts make physics more sound, more fruitful. It may well be that theological boundaries are immune to such shifts; part of me, at least, hopes that God's Spirit is more ingenious than that. As a favorite hymn puts it, "The Church of Christ in ev'ry age/Beset by change but Spirit-led/Must claim and test its heritage/And keep on rising from the dead."

Jeanne Linconnue | 1/24/2013 - 10:37am

It's fascinating that he goes to such great lengths to say that theologians are not supposed to actually think - they are not to explore new ideas - all the theology needed was frozen in concrete a long time ago. Theology that might lead to "change" is forbidden. They may only "think" within the boundaries set by the current crop of men in Rome - but is that really "thinking"? Theologians are forbidden to even discuss new insights - they are silenced and if they refuse to be silenced, they are stripped of their licenses or even excommunicated. They are not to think - their job is to affirm the ideas of the men in Rome, and perhaps to try to disguise the old with "new" language. Rome expects theologians to be empty-headed puppets, just as it expects of the people in the pews.

From Bede Griffths - "The object of Christian faith is neither a proposition nor a series of propositions, but a divine mystery, what St. Paul called the "mystery of Christ." The propositions that form the doctrines and dogmas of the Church are expressions of this mystery in rational terms, and they are never even remotely adequate to the mystery itself. These propositions moreover are always historically and culturally conditioned, so that they are always capable of further development. To present the Catholic faith as a series of propositions to be believer without making clear that they point to a mystery that infinitely transcends them is to give a false impression of the faith. It is this tendency that has alienated multitudes of people from the Church and continues to do so today."

(Bede Griffiths, OSB, letter to the editor, The Tablet, 10/27/90.)

Wuerl's approach pretty much guarantees that the "new" evangelization has nothing new in it at all and will make little or no impact on the continuing loss of people from active participation in the church. It would be better if the Cardinal reflected a bit on Mr. Gaillardetz's thoughts. (“The Road Ahead,” by Richard Gaillardetz, America, 9/24/12), especially this - "If authoritative teaching does not withstand the challenges of theologians, the article concludes, then “perhaps honest theological exploration will yield insights for a development or even a substantive change in the teaching.”

Jerome Knies | 2/12/2013 - 5:04pm

Do you think anyone will read these comments, or are we preaching to the choir. Your observations deserve attention.

Joseph Keffer | 1/25/2013 - 5:19pm

Can the good Cardinal really expect a thinking Catholic to buy in to his thesis, yet alone, the theologians?

He said:
".It is necessary that they think and feel with the Church--_" meaning no new thought.
"--correct hermeneutic of theological development. Proper theological investigation must come out of a continuity and connectedness with the living apostolic tradition of the church." No new thought
"---that the documents of the Council should be properly read and interpreted." meaning no new thougth
"---manifest their adherence to the thought of our Holy Father, " meaning no new thought
"--and to correlation with knowledge from other branches of human and scientific inquiry” (The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop)." meaning no new thought
"---channeled and maximized by boundaries delineated by the received revelation. Identifying these boundaries of the authentic faith constitutes the bishop’s contribution to the flourishing of the theological sciences. " meaning no need for theologians
"But the church does define that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ." Does he claim infallibility for every bishop in the world?
"The great Catholic theologians of the past--" For example, Newman who carefully documented the error of the "magisterium" in the Aryan heresy.

Who does Donald Wuerl think we are?
I reject this exposition.

J H Keffer, M.D.
"Our call as Christians is to stir up again and rekindle in the midst of their daily life and concrete situation a new awareness and familiarity with Jesus, to re-propose his Gospel in all its depth, its intensity and its transformative power." Won't happen with this flawed model of "the church," as recently noted by a keenly insighful theologian pondering the punitive treatment of the Redemptorist Irish priest.