Why does so much of this seem to have been forgotten among so many American theologians? Some will cite the widespread theological dissent from Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on the ethics of human love, as Ground Zero for the meltdown whose effects are now evident. And it is true that many Catholic theologians seem to think of the Humanae Vitae controversy and their “heroic” role in it rather like the Washington Post thinks of Watergate and its “heroic” role in that business.
Yet perhaps the less political, more theological answer to that question can be found in David Tracy’s seminal chapter on the “three publics of theology” in his 1981 book, The Analogical Imagination. Theology, the University of Chicago professor and Yonkers-born priest suggested, has three audiences: society, the academy, and the Church. Now it is surely true that serious theology has important things to say to society at large and to a culture’s intellectual life; but whatever Tracy’s intention, what many of his colleagues learned from his tripartite scheme was that theology’s real audience, the audience that really counted, was the academy. Thus two generations of Catholic theologians would plight their intellectual troth, not to the doctrine of the Church, but to the conventions of the late-modern and postmodern academy — and would do so just when American higher education was itself imploding under the cultural pressures that produced post-modernism and the world of I Am Charlotte Simmons.
This is changing. A new generation of Catholic theologians, inspired by what John Paul II called the Catholic “symphony of truth,” is rising. It wants to think with the Church while stretching and deepening the Church’s understanding of the truths it bears. It understands that doctrine binds and liberates at the same time. Its day will come.
And when it does, there just might be an opportunity to open a genuine conversation with the culture and the media about truth, doctrine, and the things that actually count in the Catholic Church.
Until then, casual observers should, so to speak, take their cooties carefully.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.