Theologians in Public Christology Dispute

Article excerpt

Christology, meaning the church's teaching about Jesus Christ, has been the most contentious area of Catholic theology for at least the last two decades. Debates over who Christ was (and is) and how he relates to non-Christians have generated an ocean of literature, not to mention some high-profile crackdowns from both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops.

A lively recent exchange over the doctrine of the Incarnation between a leading American theologian and the top doctrinal advisor for the U.S. bishops--although not part of any official investigation or process by church authorities--illustrates that these tensions are very much alive.

The key players are Terrence Tilley, past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the newly appointed Avery Dulles Professor of Catholic Theology at New York's Fordham University, and Capuchin Fr. Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Weinandy's critique of Tilley carried a note that it reflects his views, "not necessarily any position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops." Speaking on background, sources told NCR that the bishops have no plans to take any action on the matter.

The core issue between the two men appears to be whether fidelity to church teaching on Christ requires being wedded to traditional language and concepts, or whether changing times require new modes of expression.

For Tilley, today's theological efforts to rethink Christology in light of religious pluralism, or solidarity with the poor, represent a 21st-century version of how early church councils and fathers tried to express the Gospel in the context of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. For Weinandy, however, such efforts can flirt with "theological relativism," in which "there is no objective standard of orthodoxy, no authentic rule of faith, by which theological opinion can be judged to be true or false, clear or ambiguous."

In that sense, the back-and-forth between Tilley and Weinandy crystallizes a broader tension between creativity and fidelity that runs through many of today's frontline debates in Catholic theology.

The point of departure for the exchange was Tilley's presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America last June, devoted to analyzing theological debates over the Incarnation. In that speech, Tilley sketched three apparent "impasses": how to articulate the faith today, while using language and concepts shaped by cultures that no longer exist; how to account for God's desire to save people outside the church; and how to express the relationship between Christ's divinity and humanity. …