Theologians Say Robust Discourse Needed: McBrien, Cosmology, Freedom of Vatican II Fill CTSA Discussions

By Johnston, Rosemary | National Catholic Reporter, June 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Theologians Say Robust Discourse Needed: McBrien, Cosmology, Freedom of Vatican II Fill CTSA Discussions


Johnston, Rosemary, National Catholic Reporter


SAN DIEGO -- In the tone of its plenary sessions and group meetings and in the passage of a rebuke to a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Theological Society of America gave notice here that the church is in for more spirited dialogue, not less.

In resolutions, the theologians scored the bishops' committee for recent action against theologian Fr. Richard McBrien (NCR, April 12 and 19).

Nowhere was the intent to expand the dialogue more apparent than in a paper on women's ordination, an issue on which the Vatican has forbidden further discussion. The paper will be circulated among academics for comment during the coming year. (See accompanying story.)

Several theologians interviewed here said they think theological discourse in the United States will remain robust and membership in the society will continue to increase, especially among women and the laity.

In her address as outgoing society president, theologian Elizabeth Johnson of Fordham University called for the recovery of a cosmology, a "turn towards the heaven and the earth," which the moral and intellectual integrity of theology now demands.

In his opening presentation, titled "Do Not Stifle the Spirit," Jesuit theologian Randy Sachs of the Weston School of Theology evoked the work of the late theologian Karl Rahner and the theology of the Spirit that developed from the documents of Vatican II.

"In many of its key documents," Sachs said in his opening remarks, "the council embodied and encouraged a new attitude of openness, freedom, respect, dialogue and cooperation both inside and outside the church. This is the great legacy of the council. Sadly, it is a legacy threatened in today's church."

Sachs credited Rahner with addressing what he described as "the tension between the council's two-fold teaching about the universality of salvation and the necessity of the church and baptism." This tension, he said, is at the heart of the church's understanding of itself and its mission. Echoing Rahner's call for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and an acknowledgment that other religious traditions contain truth, Sachs claimed that "one cannot so easily say that the fullness of truth is contained in Christianity if one acknowledges that the Spirit is not contained by or restricted to Christianity."

Sachs suggested that the discernment of other Christian denominations that have struggled with such issues as the ordination of women and the development of ministries to the gay and lesbian community "is of great theological significance and ought to have some real authority and weight for the Roman Catholic church as it attempts to discern where the Spirit is leading it."

Acknowledging the church's development from European-centered to a world church, Sachs warned that "the unity of the faith that is expressed in the creed cannot produce or demand theological, liturgical or disciplinary uniformity." Sachs called for a renewed "theology of reception" that would "take more seriously the presence and action of the Spirit in all the faithful, the necessity of consulting the faithful and the necessary role of the assent of the whole church for the authentic exercise of magisterial authority."

Acting on a proposal by members of the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, participants passed a resolution deploring the refusal of the NCCB's Committee on Doctrine to grant "formal doctrinal dialogue" to Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien. The bishops' committee cited "pastoral problems" in its public statement on McBrien's 1994 edition of Catholicism," an encyclopedic and definitive survey of Catholicism that is an updated version of McBrien's 1981 book of the same name.

A second resolution noted that the NCCB, in its refusal to grant formal doctrinal dialogue to McBrien, disregarded its own 1989 guidelines for handling doctrinal disputes between bishops and theologians. …

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