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Catholic Education Daily


Professor Defines Role of Theology in Prominent Academic Talk, Criticism Follows

TheologianA theologian from Duke University elicited strong responses from some Catholic university professors after his talk at a recent gathering of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) in which he offered a definition of theology and theologians, affirming their position under the authority of the Magisterium of the Church.

Dr. Paul Griffiths, chair of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School, delivered a plenary address to the 2014 CTSA convention on June 6.  His talk was titled, “Theological Disagreement: What It Is & How to Do It.”  Griffiths is a founding member of the Academy of Catholic Theology (ACT).

In his address, Griffiths said, “To be a (Catholic) theologian is to be under authority; the authority, most fundamentally, of the Lord’s self-revelation, which means, textually speaking, the authority of Scripture and of magisterially-given teaching, which is itself formulated under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

“Theologians may and should teach Church doctrine by ordering it, systematizing it, writing books and essays in which it is set forth, giving lectures on it, speculating about it and so on,” Griffiths continued. “But that is not the same as establishing what the Church’s doctrine is. Doing that requires an authority theologians lack.”

“It is easy and common for theologians to find themselves serving and seeking other goods – social justice, perhaps; or world peace; or the preservation of the created order – as if pursuing these things were theology’s primary task,” he added. “But it is not.”

Meghan Clark of Saint John’s University, writing at, described Griffiths’ definition of theology as “narrow.”  She wrote:

Personally, I was deeply uncomfortable with Griffiths talk – not because of his understanding of what he thinks theology is and its purpose but because it was communicated as if it was THE one answer.   I recognized the words he was using – doctrine, interpretation, speculation…. and yet, I found his definitions inadequate to capture the depths of “faith seeking understanding” within the numerous branches of Catholic theology and within the Global Church.  His is one way of understanding the theological project – but it is not the only way and as a Catholic ethicist, it’s untenable for moral theology.

Professor Charles Camosy of Fordham University, also writing at, in part seconded Clark's primary criticism:

So, Paul Griffiths’ plenary address at CTSA this past week has got people talking. Our own Meghan Clark added her voice to these discussions, and it is difficult to disagree with her main critique.  At least based on the few general things he said in this part of his talk, his understanding of theology (abstracted from Catholicism) seems too narrow and fails to make room for a specifically Catholic understanding which includes the doing (teaching, advocating for justice, meeting the gaze of the poor and marginalized, etc.) as informing and shaping the actual theological enterprise. It is not merely accidental.

In his talk, Griffiths also noted the inhospitable character of the CTSA towards theologians who break from the theological society’s mold.

“The very openness of the Society’s mission statement with respect to the question of theology is what contributes to its lack of hospitality to those who have a more precise and thought-through understanding of what it is they do as theologians,” Griffiths said in his address. “It’s as if the World Series were left sufficiently open, definitionally speaking, that Jamaica’s cricket team could be invited to play, with the result that no game can be played.”

Last October, a National Catholic Reporter article described the release of a report by the CTSA which “criticized its members for sometimes excluding members with conservative or traditional views.”

Boston College professor Cathleen Kaveny wrote in Commonweal that the CTSA is simply more “open” and “free-wheeling” than the “much smaller” and “narrowly focused” Academy of Catholic Theology.  

She wrote:

The CTSA must not acquiesce to negative pressure to narrow its discussions and deliberations to fit the parameters of ACT. To do so would be to abandon its own mission. This is especially important when it comes to how the CTSA is governed. The society’s Ad Hoc Committee on Theological Diversity noted that some “conservatives” have complained that they aren’t elected to officer and board positions in the CTSA. But an official leadership position is not simply an honorific; it triggers a fiduciary duty to fulfill the basic mission of the organization. So the question to be asked of all candidates for CTSA offices is whether they are committed to that mission. I would not vote for anyone—“liberal” or “conservative”—who disdained the broad forum to which the CTSA is institutionally committed.

Griffiths’s critique of the CTSA raised another question for me. Why, actually, do “conservatives” want greater participation in the CTSA, given the fundamental nature of their disagreement with its goals? Griffiths sketched a view of the nature and purpose of theology that is sharply divergent from that held by many in the CTSA. If the disagreement about first principles between CTSA and ACT is as fundamental as Griffiths suggests, why isn’t the best course of action for each group to wish each other well in the pursuit of different paths, the values of which will eventually be known by their fruitfulness?

Professor David Cloutier of Mount St. Mary’s University summed up his thoughts in Commonweal by writing that Griffiths’ talk was “not primarily about tidiness versus messiness, nor about open discussion versus more narrow inquiry. It is an attempt to define more carefully what the enterprise of theology actually is, and thus delineate in more detail why there is contention over it.”

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