Don’t Know Much about Theology . . .
Why two Catholic stories are grossly misinterpreted.

Sister Margaret Farley


George Weigel

That her colleagues at the higher altitudes of the Catholic theological guild have protested against the alleged harshness of the Vatican in criticizing Sister Farley and challenging the Catholicity of her theology is not surprising; they, too, think of these disputes largely in terms of power. But what is surprising is the clumsiness of the defenses mounted by some rather prominently placed theologians.

Thus the president of Loyola University Maryland, Father Brian Linnane, S.J., told Catholic News Service that he was “hard pressed to think of a more careful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable Roman Catholic working in the field of moral theology.” (Really? How about Father Michael Sherwin, O.P., of the Dominican Faculty of Theology in Fribourg, successor to the late, great Servais Pinckaers, O.P., in the revitalization of Catholic virtue ethics? Or closer to Loyola University Maryland, John Haas and Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia? Or any number of younger theologians doing original work in moral theology based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body?)

Notre Dame’s M. Cathleen Kaveny, like Linnane a former student of Farley’s, claimed that the Vatican had missed “an opportunity for dialogue when it failed to see Margaret Farley as an important ally in critiquing problematic practices ranging from the hook-up culture to sexual slavery” — without, evidently, considering whether the permission slips bountifully dispensed in Just Love might have something to do with various “problematic practices,” including the hook-up culture.

Then there was Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College, who told CNS that theology is “a process of inquiry and exploration in a dynamic and critical relation to other theological positions.” Which, at first blush, would seem to reduce the Church’s doctrine to another “theological position.” And which, in any case, is a rather different understanding of theology than that taught by the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: “Theology relies on the written Word of God, taken together with sacred Tradition, as on a permanent foundation. By this Word it is most firmly strengthened and constantly rejuvenated, as it searches out, under the light of faith, the full truth stored up in the mystery of Christ.”

Theology, as the Catholic Church understands it, is an ecclesial discipline: It is not religious studies, which can be done anywhere. Theology, rightly understood, can be done only within the Church. That Church, through its duly constituted leaders, the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome, defines the boundaries of what is and is not authentically Catholic. That, and nothing else than that, is what lies behind both the Vatican attempt to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Church’s official critique of Just Love

There is ample room for exploration on Catholic theology; for if theology is not religious studies, neither is it catechism. But for that exploration to be authentically Catholic — and thus of use to the Church — it has to take Scripture and Tradition as its baseline, and it has to begin from the premise that the doctrinal boundaries of the Church, rooted in Scripture and Tradition, point exploratory theology in the right direction.