Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dialogue is Key in Moving Beyond Theological Impasses

I find the remarks of Terrence W. Tilley (pictured at right), the outgoing president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, to be both insightful and hopeful. According to a recent Catholic News Service article posted on the website of the National Catholic Reporter, Tilley contends that “unresolved ‘impasses’ in theology and in church life lead to counterproductive stalemates that ‘stunt’ the growth of the church.”

Tilley insists that continued dialogue (which incidentally is the primary goal of the Catholic Coalition for Church Reform’s 2010 Synod that I and others are organizing here in the Twin Cities) is crucial if we are to move beyond the damaging impasses he identifies. “The vices of inertia, expediency, marginalizing the other and changing the subject are deadly,” says Tilley. “Theology is a practice that begins and ends in communication.”

Following are highlights from the Catholic News Service article on Tilley.


In his remarks Tilley identified three current impasses he sees in the U.S. church: “a shrinking, and in some places demoralized, presbyterate that cannot be enlarged significantly under present rules”; “a laity that loves the church but has stopped listening to the bishops”; and “a hardworking and loyal body of religious women who are disgusted and discouraged by repeated investigations of religious life and attempted reversals of self-governance.”

While “some bishops have tried to work through these difficult impasses,” Tilley said, “some have followed the vigilantes of the political and religious right by making noisy attacks on Catholic institutions of higher education. Some have berated politicians – Catholic or not – whose political strategies differ with theirs.”

Tilley also pointed to three ongoing impasses in theological circles.

One impasse is whether one begins with Scripture and tradition, “or does one begin with the current situation?” Tilley asked.

He said Vatican investigations into the writings of U.S. Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight and Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Latin American liberation theologian, are the result of such an impasse.

. . . Another theological impasse, according to Tilley, is “how to account for God’s salvific will being effective beyond the community of the baptized.”

“The real shape of the impasse,” Tilley said, “emerges when we consider Judaism. Either Christianity is or is not supersessionist.

"If it is, then the First Covenant (God’s covenant to the Jews) is abrogated, superseded by the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ,” he continued, “and either we should seek to convert Jews, as advocated by the late Avery Cardinal Dulles,” he continued, “and others, or we should co-opt Judaism by inclusivist tactics and theory that render it an incomplete outpost, ignorant of the salvation wrought in Jesus Christ.

“If the First Covenant is not superseded, then that covenant is sufficient, the claims for the universal salvific mediation of Jesus Christ are untenable and, incidentally, the practice of attempting to convert Jews is improper,” he said.

Tilley said the third theological impasse – how Jesus could be both divine and human – has never been fully resolved, and was “papered over” during a turbulent period during the first millennium when “the church’s unity was splintered. The political response to the impasse was to resort to force or divorce – this impasse became a stalemate.”

Various tactics “have been tried and found wanting” to solve the impasses, he said, but “the key failed tactic . . . is stopping the dialogue, often done by silencing theologians.”

One resolution, Tilley suggested, is to see that “the virtues of hope, constancy, fidelity, tenacity and solidarity are crucial,” while “the vices of inertia, expediency, marginalizing the other and changing the subject are deadly. Dare I say that without loving, thoughtful, active patience in solidarity, we can get beyond no impasse, but will be condemned to stalemate?”

Tilley said, “The way through impasse is to keep hope alive.”

He pointed to the case of U.S. Jesuit theologian Fr. John Courtney Murray, who in the 1950s was barred by the Vatican from writing on church-state relations, especially on efforts to reconcile Catholicism with U.S.-style separation of church and state.

The priest eventually was invited to joint the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and “his ideas became the basis” for the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, written by the agency, Tilley said.

He also urged continued communication. “If we cannot communicate the faith well, then we cannot represent the mystery of Jesus the Christ, the truly divine and truly human one,” he said. “Theology is a practice that begins and ends in communication.”

To read this article in its entirety, click here.


I agree with the following comments left on the NCR website in response to Tilley’s remarks:

Bob writes: As long as Rome insists on fidelity to non-infallible magisterium, indeed the three legged stool approach, Fr. Tilley’s attempt t o start to work through impasse will fall on deaf ears. See the Holy Father’s instruction to the Austrian Bishops. My guess is the current divisions will get worse before there is any hope of betterment.

Andrew writes: Bob is correct. As long as we continue the doctrine of “creeping infallibility” Father Tilley’s words will fall on deaf ears. Sad to say, it appears that the church has given up on the principle that man is a rational animal, and can reason to the truth. The church seems to believe that the truth is given to an elite few whose job it is to impose it on others. Philosophical truth is as difficult to find as scientific truth, and as Meister Eckhart said truth cannot be attained without a hundred errors on the way. Sad to say, the church no longer has the patience for this, which is why we will no longer produce the great theologians and philosophers of the past. [NOTE: For an example of “creeping infallibility,” see here.]

Shirley writes: It is interesting that Fr. Tilley only mention religious women who are tired of being investigated, etc. What about religious women outside of orders who are married or single and are just simply ignored outside of the parish level -- and all too often there as well. We are the glue that holds the church together, but even glue over time will dry out and lose its sticking power. The inclusion of women into decision making in the church is the fourth impasse.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Call to Be Dialogical Catholics
From Rome to Minneapolis, Dialogue is What’s Needed
Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
Canceling Out Dialogue
Is Dialogue Always Possible?
A Time to Re-Think the Basis and Repair the Damage

Recommended Off-site Links:
Civil Discourse. In Church? - Charles Pilon (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 5, 2009).
One Archdiocesan Community, Two Mindsets - Paula Ruddy (Progressive Catholic Voice, June 1, 2009).


PrickliestPear said...

I thought that was an interesting article, and thought about blogging on it myself, but haven't (yet).

It made me think about your recent post, "Is dialogue always possible?" because I think Tilley has identified several areas where in fact dialogue is not possible.

Take his third theological impasse – how Jesus could be both divine and human. I personally think the Chalcedonian formula is inadequate -- even incoherent -- and I know this not an uncommon view among theologians. If there was a way of salvaging the belief in Jesus's full divinity and humanity, someone would have discovered it by now. But really, it's been held up for so long as one of the central truths of the Christian faith that I'm not sure there is any backing away from it.

The best we might hope for is a greater openness to alternative ideas, which in practice would mean a resolution to Tilley's first theological impasse, which in practice would mean allowing theologians genuine freedom of inquiry and expression. That won't happen under this pope, who said (before he was pope), "The church's main job is the care of the faith of the simple."

So it's theological pablum for everyone!

colkoch said...

There is one way to reconcile Christ's divinity and humanity and that is to consider the thought He was the First amongst billions of equals.