Who is and is not a Theologian?

Who is?

Here is the definition that I propose for the term “theologian”: A theologian is a person who writes theology on a continuing basis. And that writing is an expression of serious study and reflection. A theologian seeks a greater understanding of God and religion, and expresses those new insights in written theology. The field of theology deepens, broadens, and progresses by means of new insights, which then offer believers an opportunity to increase their knowledge and improve their lives of faith.

A Catholic theologian is someone who writes Catholic theology on a continuing basis. Roman Catholic theology is based on the teachings of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium, and seeks new insights and a better understanding of the same.

A faithful Catholic theologian is someone who writes sound and insightful Catholic theology, on a continuing basis.

An unfaithful Catholic theologian is any Catholic theologian chosen at random, 9 times out of 10. Most Catholic theologians are unfaithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church, to the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. They badly misinterpret or severely distort magisterial teaching, or they draw conclusions which approve of grave sins and promote serious errors on faith, morals, and salvation.

Who is not?

One work of theology is not usually sufficient to characterize that author as a theologian, just as telling one lie does not make one a liar. But if that one work were particularly useful in teaching the faithful on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, perhaps it would be sufficient.

A faithful Catholic priest, who has much training in theology and gives insightful sermons, is nevertheless not a theologian. His role is of greater benefit to the people of God, but it is not the same as the role of a theologian. But of course some priests are theologians, too, since they fulfill both roles.

Some authors call themselves Catholic apologists, rather than theologians. The idea is that this type of author is only defending the teachings of the Church, not writing formal theology. However, many apologists write theology. They do not merely explain or defend definitive Church teaching. They also propose answers to a wide range of open questions, yet with no substantial theological argument to support those conclusions. As someone who writes theology on a continuing basis, these apologists fit the definition of theologian. Unfortunately, many of them write theology poorly, and so they end up doing more harm than good. Most apologists are unfaithful theologians, pretending to defend Church teaching when they are actually distorting and contradicting it.

Even so, a competent apologist is not a theologian. For a real apologist does not seek new insights into the deposit of faith, nor propose answers to open theological questions.

Many spiritual authors write on the topic of Catholicism, but their writings are a commentary on spiritual matters, not an expression of study and reflection on theological questions and problems. They do not write theology.

Faithful Catholic Theologian

Now some Catholic theologians are called faithful and others unfaithful, according to whether their writings agree with, or contradict, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. But this requirement is difficult to judge, at least in some cases.

The works of theologian Henri de Lubac were, at various times, in favor or out of favor, among Church leaders and other theologians. He wrote numerous works of speculative theology; but his writings and ideas were not in agreement with those of the more prevalent scholastic theologians. Initially, his work was well received by many persons, but over time he garnered a number of theological opponents, who accused him of serious doctrinal errors:

“Although de Lubac enjoyed initial papal sympathy, neo-scholastic forces in his own order brought him under papal suspicion, and following upon the publication of the encyclical Humani Generis (1950) he was forbidden to teach or publish for several years.” [John Milbank, The Suspended Middle: Henri de Lubac and the Debate concerning the Supernatural, excerpt p. 6-7.]

After some time had passed, de Lubac regained some favor with the Bishops, and he was appointed as a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. Many of the ideas taught by the Council were the fruit of work by a number of theologians, including Henri de Lubac. Prior to Vatican II, many Catholics considered the Church to consist of the Pope, the Bishops, and priests and religious. But the Council emphasized the apostolate of the laity, and the fundamental nature of the Church as the people of God. This shift in thinking was partly due to the work of Henri de Lubac. Yet soon he would fall out of favor again, because he criticized particular decisions of some leaders in the Church, decisions made under the temporal authority.

“Indeed, soon after the Council, de Lubac was once more out of favor, this time for his criticism of the bureaucratic diminution of the authority of local bishops.” [Milbank, The Suspended Middle, excerpt p. 7.]

As a theologian, Henri de Lubac’s work and reputation had a number of ups and downs. He went from being forbidden to teach or publish, to being a theological expert at an Ecumenical Council, to falling out of favor again with many leaders in the Church. And next, yet again, he rose in favor in the Church.

In 1972, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), along with Henri de Lubac and other theologians, founded the theological journal Communio. In 1983, Fr. Henri de Lubac was made a Cardinal (though he was not a Bishop) by Pope John Paul II. He died in 1991, the oldest Cardinal in the Church at the time of his death. The Encyclical Letter of Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, cites the ideas of Henri de Lubac in the body of the text. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have publicly praised his work. It is evident that the recent Popes have admired the work of this theologian. And yet the same theologian was for many years prevented from teaching or publishing.

So as to whom should be called faithful or unfaithful, there is much disagreement. For the opinion of creatures is often unreliable:

” ‘The opinion of creatures!’ she [St. Therese] replied; ‘happily God has given me the grace to be absolutely indifferent to that. Let me tell you something which showed me, once and for all, how much it is worth. A few days after my Clothing, I went to our dear Mother’s room, and one of the Sisters who happened to be there, said on seeing me: “Dear Mother, this novice certainly does you credit. How well she looks! I hope she may be able to observe the Rule for many years to come.” I was feeling decidedly pleased at this compliment when another Sister came in, and, looking at me, said: “Poor little Soeur Thérèse, how very tired you seem! You quite alarm me. If you do not soon improve, I am afraid you will not be able to keep the Rule very long.” I was then only sixteen, but this little incident made such an impression on me, that I never again set store on the varying opinion of creatures.’ ” [The Story of a Soul]

Similarly, you can find one Catholic who adamantly insists that an author is “not a theologian”, and another Catholic who firmly asserts that the same author is a theologian. Or, similarly, you can find one source that attacks a particular author as unfaithful or unreliable on theology, and another source praising that same author. But the mere assertion, by one person or another, is no proof.

Other definitions of theologian

Some commentators insist that a theologian is someone with an advanced degree in theology. This claim is easily refuted. Some Catholics who are widely-acknowledged as theologians have no degrees in theology, but only in philosophy or classical languages or history. Some well-known apologists actually write theology, and yet they have no degree in theology at all.

Certainly, every Doctor of the Church is also a type of theologian. For the Doctors are teachers of the Church on topics of faith, morals, and salvation. They certainly do the work of theologians: instructing the faithful by means of their study, reflection, and insights on God and religion. Yet we know that some Doctors had advanced degrees, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Robert Bellarmine, and others did not, such as St. Francis and St. Therese. So it is foolish to claim that a theologian must have a master’s degree or a doctorate.

As for the definition of faithful theologian, many theologians who write in open rejection of the teachings the Bible and the Church have doctorates in theology and teaching positions at universities. So the idea that one must have certain credentials is refuted by these many examples of dissident and heretical theologians.

Another claim is that, to be a theologian, you must be acknowledged as such by other theologians. That definition is patently ridiculous. It defines theologians like a mutual admiration society. “We are theologians because we each complement the work of one another.”

The Catholic Theological Society of America calls itself the “largest professional society of theologians in the world” and the “principal association of Catholic theologians in North America”. Those assertions are both true. However, they have no members who are conservative Catholic theologians, and, as far as I can tell, no prominent members who are faithful to Church teaching. The main requirement to join seems to be that you have written much theology that undermines or rejects definitive Catholic teaching. One of their past presidents is Sister Margaret Farley, a feminist theologian rebuked by the CDF for approving of the grave sins of same-sex marriage, masturbation, and divorce and remarriage.

So you can be acknowledged by other theologians, and even given awards, and yet only be a theologian in the sense of someone who writes theology that harms souls and contradicts the teaching of Christ and His Church.

Online Arguments

I’ve participated in many discussions and arguments with my fellow Catholics online. Occasionally, someone will say, about me, don’t listen to Ron Conte, he is “not a theologian”. The clear implication, though, is that the readers should listen to that person instead. And yet said person is usually hiding behind a silly username and admittedly has no formal training in theology and has written no works of theology. “Don’t listen to that person, because I’ve given him the label ‘not a theologian’. Listen to me instead, an anonymous online commentator who is not a theologian.”

The same thing happened to Catholic author (and I would say also theologian) Stephen Walford recently. Several persons online were emphatically asserting that he is not a theologian, and therefore his argument supporting the teachings and decisions of Pope Francis should be ignored. They seek to dismiss his arguments and conclusions a priori, without any examination or analysis, merely on the basis that he does not meet their definition of theologian. And yet these same commentators can’t meet their own definition of theologian, so should we also ignore their words on the same subject?

I should add that Mr. Walford does not refer to himself as a theologian, but he does write faithful Catholic theology on a continuing basis.

It is self-serving intellectually dishonest to label someone as a non-theologian merely because their views differ from your own. Any faithful student or author of theology will examine the theological argument for each point of view, and work from the argument toward one conclusion or another. Dismissing the entire theological argument without examination, based on a label (or the lack thereof) is not in accord with the search for truth that is a moral obligation for all human persons.

Sometimes a legitimate theological argument, which may or may not be correct in its conclusions, is dismissed without examination by means of various labels or accusations. If an author is deemed to be liberal, some conservatives will dismiss his work without examination, saying he’s a liberal and that’s all you need to know. They speak as if a liberal theologian cannot be faithful to God, or cannot offer any insights to the Faith. Some online opponents have dismissed my body of work in theology because of my support for Medjugorje, or because of my work in eschatology (which contained some erroneous predictions).

Some opponents find a single conclusion in my theology which they think their own readers will consider incorrect, and then they propose that my arguments on other topics should be ignored. Is it really true that, to be a faithful Catholic theologian, you must be infallible, as if any error at all disqualifies everything you write? That is absurd. Even Popes and Saints and Doctors of the Church are not expected to be infallible in every theological opinion or conclusion. It is not a requirement to be a faithful Catholic theologian that your conclusions be unswervingly conservative, or be in agreement with the majority view of online commentators, or anything similar.

Finally, consider this good example, which contradicts the approach used in dismissive and ad hominem arguments. The theologian, Avery Dulles, S.J., writing in 1966, in his book, The Dimensions of the Church, used 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 Edward 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, who founded his own Church. Dulles also cites and disagrees with certain points in the works of Saint Robert Bellarmine, 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. Sacred Scripture teaches us that God is no respecter of persons: “I have concluded in truth that God is not a respecter of persons.” (St. Peter, the first Pope, speaking in Acts 10:34). This teaches us that we, too, should not be respecters of persons, and that we should not judge based on reputation or appearances, but based on justice and truth. The work of Avery Dulles is a good example of this teaching.

The Chair of Pestilence

[Psalm 1]
{1:1} Blessed is the man who has not followed the counsel of the impious, and has not remained in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the chair of pestilence.
{1:2} But his will is with the law of the Lord, and he will meditate on his law, day and night.

The very first Psalm describes the foundation of theology, the study of the things of God. First, you must turn aside from false teachings (“the counsel of the impious”), which includes not only the errors of sinful secular society, but also the false theology promoted by unfaithful persons within the Church.

Then, you must abandon any attempt to gain popularity by pleasing sinners, telling them what they wish to hear. This happens on the left, in Catholicism, with authors devising all manner of excuses for grave sin, and on the right, with authors who hit every conservative talking point, but offer no real insights into the faith.

The chair of pestilence is, in one sense, the majority opinion of sinners. It is like a group of persons sitting on the sidelines, cheering on any speaker who offers rationalizations for their errors and offenses. In today’s society, the chair of pestilence is that crowd of mostly anonymous persons on the internet, who use the pressure of a tumultuous crowd to try to influence teachers and leaders. The crowd says, “We are numerous, therefore we must be right.” Sacred Scripture says in reply: “You shall not follow the crowd in doing evil. Neither shall you go astray in judgment, by agreeing with the majority opinion, apart from the truth.” (Exodus 23:2).

Examples of Contradiction

Evagrius Ponticus writes: “The breast of the Lord is the knowledge of God; he who rests upon it is a theologian.” By the way, some of the ideas put forward by Evagrius were condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople. He had some good insights, which we should not fear to draw upon, but he also erred in other ways.

Saint Gregory of Narek is the newest Doctor of the Church. He was actually a member of an Orthodox Church, which was not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. So he was in some ways a schismatic, yet he is also a Saint and a Doctor of the Church.

Hippolytus of Rome was a Saint and Martyr of the Church, but also an antipope. He literally falsely claimed to be the Roman Pontiff. Later, he recanted and was reconciled to the Church and to the true Popes (each one in succession).

St. Therese of Lisieux had only an eighth grade education, yet she is just as much a Doctor of the Church as Saint Thomas Aquinas (though in very different ways).

If anyone says, “Don’t give any thoughtful consideration to the arguments of that person, because he or she is in this category,” you should laugh at them. Our Lord Jesus Christ chose a poorly educated fisherman to be the first Roman Pontiff and the Rock on which His Church is founded. So there are no special credentials needed to be a faithful Catholic theologian. You simply need to be a Catholic, faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church, who writes theology.

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

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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5 Responses to Who is and is not a Theologian?

  1. Mark P. says:

    There is indeed quite a difference between an apologist and a theologian. Obviously both serve different purposes but the apologist must know enough true theology to provide the correct answers to certain questions. And some apologists do seem to actually “apologize” for the faith. One of the most common infractions I see are those who try to reconcile faith with science and provide the erroneous answer that the Bible is limited in its inerrancy ONLY in matters of faith and morals. Many of them subscribe only to modern skeptical notions of exegesis, authorship, and dating of books of Scripture which leads to a great dilution of the truth.

  2. Mark P. says:

    No, Tom. I nowhere said that everything is to be taken in the literalistic sense. My point was more towards people who do not accept original sin being committed by a real first set or parents and those who claim that Jesus, Peter and Paul were “conditioned by their time” in terms of male and female roles and their views on sexuality. But it also goes beyond those issues. There are some who doubt major events in the Old Testament such as the Exodus and even the existence of the first temple, the existence of the patriarchs, etc.

  3. Francisco says:

    During the three year public ministry of Jesus, Matthew might have been the most educated among the twelve Apostles for he was a tax collector so he had to be able to read and write at least Hebrew and Latin (this latter the language of the Roman Empire). Yet Jesus gave Simon the charge to be in His place, thus changing his name to Rock (Peter) and giving him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Peter and John were men with little or no education.

    {4:13} Then, seeing the constancy of Peter and John, having verified that they were *men without letters or learning*, they wondered. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus).

    At the Transfiguration Jesus selected only Peter, James the Greater and John (James and John being blood brothers) (Matt 17:1).

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