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Commentary

Liberal Theologians Are the Real Reactionaries

Catholicism: John Paul's teachings on sex and helping the oppressed are ignored.

July 03, 1998|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington

The caricature is now firmly established: Inside the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition, sits the scourge of intellectual freedom, Joseph Ratzinger. For almost 17 years, the Bavarian Panzerkardinal has waged war against dissident theologians alongside Pope John Paul II, an aging authoritarian determined to leave the imprint of his reactionary Polish theological views on the Catholic Church of the 21st century. After he makes his weekly report to John Paul in the papal apartment, Ratzinger walks back to his office in the Roman twilight, thinking wistfully of the thumb-screws presumably tucked away in the congregation's archives . .

In a cultural climate in which the human capacity to know the truth of anything is doubted and moral judgments are assumed to be mere statements of personal preference, John Paul II's vibrant orthodoxy and Ratzinger's effort to return a measure of intellectual discipline to the Catholic theological community are not easily appreciated. In fact, though, the papacy itself has become a locus of considerable theological creativity over the past two decades.

To take the most obvious example: Catholicism has not even begun to come to grips with John Paul's "Theology of the Body," articulated in 130 addresses between 1979 and 1984. These addresses marked a radical break with the Manichaean nervousness about sex that had tormented Catholicism since St. Augustine. While developing the idea that our being created male and female is not a biological accident but a path into the truth of the human condition, John Paul argued that marital intimacy is an icon of the inner life of God. Here is a truly bold theological idea, more daring and original than anything to have emerged from the chorus of dissent in the past 30 years. Yet the "Theology of the Body" has been largely ignored by the theologians' guild.

Then there is John Paul's effort to rid the church of clericalism. In numerous teaching documents and most recently in an address to a group of American bishops, the pope has insisted that the priesthood cannot be understood as a career path in the church, a means of accessing or wielding ecclesiastical power or a matter of membership in a clerical caste. Priestly ministry, according to John Paul, is one form of service to the entire Christian community. Yet clericalists in both the progressive and traditionalist camps continue to argue as if the church were a rigidly stratified caste system in which power, not grace, is the basic medium of exchange. The pope's request to Catholics to think about the church as a community called to holiness has been essentially ignored by theologians trapped in their own clericalist imaginings, in which intellectuals replace bishops and the pope as wielders of power.

Or consider John Paul's distinctive, "culture-first" view of social and political change. In Poland, the Philippines, Chile and now Cuba, the pope has demonstrated that helping oppressed people recover their authentic religious culture is the most effective means of breaking the psychological and political shackles of dictatorship. But while the pope was putting into action a genuinely Christian theology of liberation, much of the theological guild was enamored of a style of liberation theology that owed far more to warmed-over Marxism than it did to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this infatuation with Marxism took place precisely when Marxism was imploding as a plausible proposal for the human future.

The Catholic theological community's susceptibility to the serial radicalisms of the contemporary academy has been one of the great disappointments of the post-Vatican II church. So has its unwillingness--or intellectual incapacity--to discipline itself. John Paul II and Ratzinger have had to remind the church's intellectuals that Catholicism has boundaries; those who deliberately breach those boundaries ought not claim to be teaching what the church teaches and ought not teach in the name of the church. That, coupled with their enthrallment to the paradigm of power (the classic disease of the modern intellectual), has caused too many Catholic theologians to miss the theological creativity of this remarkable pontificate.

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