The sources used in sound Roman Catholic theology

I would like to expand on a point of criticism in my previous post, on the site reviews at CatholicCulture.org. I criticized them for a fault which is found among many conservative Catholics. When the site reviewers have a disagreement with any particular author on any subject, they then reject that author and this entire body of work in theology. It is as if they expect every theologian to be infallible, or to do nothing but repeat and explain what the Magisterium has said. It is as if anyone who disagrees with them on any theological opinion is disagreeing with Catholicism itself.

This fault is found in the site reviews at CatholicCulture.org. For example, any site speaking favorably of Teilhard de Chardin was considered unsuitable for a positive rating in the realm of fidelity. But, as I pointed out, the Vatican.va website has positive comments about Teilhard de Chardin by Pope Benedict XVI and by Cardinal Levada.

The same faulty approach to evaluating theologians and works of theology occurs among many Catholic commentators online. If a theologian or author has taken a position on any issue that the commentator dislikes, he denigrates that person and all his works. Anyone who speaks well of the person or his works is also held in disregard. On the other hand, if a theologian or author is in favor, that person and his works are accepted without critical evaluation. Such commentators are taking an ‘all or nothing’ approach to their sources in theology.

And the categorization of an author, as accepted or rejected, is not based on a critical assessment of the value of his writings. Sometimes it seems to be based on whether the author or theologian is perceived to be conservative or liberal. Other times it seems to be based on whether the commentator happened across an idea or two that he dislikes or thinks is in error. Instead of considering whether an idea proposed by a theologian or author is supported by a sound theological argument, any idea different from the current opinion of the commentator is assumed to be false. This is a very common error.

They say: “The Church teaches this. The Church has never taught that.” And so on. But what they are really expressing is not the teaching of the Church, but their own limited understanding, misunderstanding, and errors, which they attribute to the Church. They cannot support their claims as to what the Church teaches with a theological argument based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.

My main point in this article is that this all-or-nothing attitude toward Catholic authors and theologians is foolish. If an author errs on one point, but has a good insight on another point, why reject everything? If an author has a large body of work in theology, with much that is useful on matters of faith and morals, it is not only foolish, but an offense against God who is Truth, to reject everything, on the basis of a few points of disagreement. It is also offensive to Truth to accept everything that an author says, with no critical assessment as to whether it is true in the light of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, simply because the author is conservative, or liberal, or entertaining, or his views are the same as yours.

Moreover, I believe that God is offended when someone accepts what an author says, without first considering if it is true in the light of Divine Revelation and Church teaching, even if the author is a Saint or Father or Doctor of the Church. God is no respecter of persons. If theologian Peter Abelard is right on a particular point of theology, and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is wrong, then God sides with Abelard, despite his errors on other points. If Teilhard de Chardin or Karl Rahner or Edward Schillebeeckx or some other controversial author has a good insight into Divine Revelation, that truth is of God and must not be rejected.

A good example of the proper approach to theology is seen in the works of Avery Dulles, in his book The Dimensions of the Church. He uses a number of sources in seeking the truth about the extent and limits of the Church. Dulles draws on the work of a Jewish philosopher, Henri Bergson; he finds his work useful in discerning truths about the Catholic Christian Church. Dulles does not reject Bergson’s work on the basis that he is Jewish, or on the basis that he is more a philosopher than a theologian.

Dulles also finds truths pertaining to the nature of the Church in the work of the controversial Catholic theologian E. Schillebeeckx, O.P., as well as in a private revelation (a vision) to the early Christian writer Hermas, in a work called ‘The Shepherd’. And he devotes an entire chapter to drawing useful insights from the work of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; he does not dismiss the work of Bonhoeffer on the basis that he is a Protestant. Dulles also cites and disagrees with certain points in the works of Saint Robert Bellarmine, who is a Doctor of the Church.

Notice, in this good example from Avery Dulles, S.J., that he searches for truth wherever it may be found, regardless of the reputation of the individual. He disagrees on some points with a Saint and Doctor of the Church, but he agrees on some points with a Jewish philosopher, a Protestant theologian, a private revelation, and a controversial Catholic theologian. I should also point out that Dulles wrote an article for First Things magazine (‘Development or Reversal?’) in which he disagrees with a non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor, concerning which acts are intrinsically evil and which are not.

The approach used by Dulles is how theology is done. The ‘all or nothing’ approach so common on Catholic blogs, discussion groups, and other online forums is not how theology is done. For good Roman Catholic theology uses a wide array of different sources, and a critical evaluation is made of any points drawn from those sources. Infallible teachings of the Magisterium are incontestable, but non-infallible teachings are subject to the possibility of licit theological dissent. The theological opinions of the Saints, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church are reliable, but must not be treated as dogma. The same must be said of any private theology by any Pope.

Evaluate your sources and give each its proper weight. Consider not so much who said it, but what is being said. Is a position supported by a strong theological argument? Then why reject it in favor of a counter argument with little basis? Good insights into the Deposit of Faith can be found in many sources. All that is truth is certainly of God, who is Truth. We must not be respecters of persons, but seekers of truth.

It is sad and perplexing: the vast majority of Catholics arguing various theological points online, give no weight to any theological argument contrary to their own position. It is severe intellectual dishonesty. They have no theological arguments to support their views. They have badly misunderstood magisterial teaching. And they spread their errors widely through the internet and the mass media. This problem is very grave. Eventually it will result in a terrible upheaval in the Church, a great schism, with immense confusion among Catholics as to which teachings and which teachers to believe. The Year of Faith is the most likely time for this event to occur. It is the great apostasy. But most of those who will leave the Church in that apostasy, have already left the Church in their minds and hearts. And that is why they despise sound Roman Catholic theology.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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