Amateur Night Print
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 15 July 2012

You all know what Amateur Night is. A bar will have an “Open Mike Night” when anyone who wants may go up and sing or otherwise make a fool of himself. Amateur Night also captures the avalanche of theological amateurism after Vatican II. I mean that in the sense of the enthusiastic, though perhaps not the informed amateur.

The Council’s first session started in October 1962 and the last one closed in December 1965. Even as the sessions took place there was preemptive talk in the media. Legions of “experts” spoke and wrote about what the council should do to “bring the Church into the modern world.”

In fact, the council fathers were as much in the modern world as anyone else and yet, strangely perhaps, they did not simply turn the Church into yet another mirror of modern culture like a cable channel or Disney World.

After the council, many priests and nuns took the council documents and ran with them. Often their use of texts was not ecclesial even though “ecclesial communion is the key to our task of proclaiming the Gospel” and the Church as communion is a basic theme of council teachings. (Benedict XVI)

An inescapable hermeneutical requirement is built into using theological statements: namely, that they should be read ecclesially in the unity of the Scriptures and the documents of the Church as the only way even to comprehend them.

This is not eccentricity or authoritarianism. Other complex fields such as medicine or law or engineering, for example, make the same kind of demands. Each field has its own framework of principles and publications. So understanding an article in engineering takes knowledge of pretty much everything else, the technical terms, the mathematics, the logic, previous articles on the subject, etc.

A question for another time is why the rigors of medicine, law, and other disciplines are still accepted in our culture (try being a doctor without being certified!), but taking care with theology is apparently passé or illegitimate.

If unity in communion had been the rule of Catholic mental hygiene after Vatican II, then some people would not imagine that the ‘conservatives (whoever they are) hijacked the council” (“Xavier Rynne’s” nonsense) or that “logically” those of us who were not at the council have the insight to correct it.

Fundamentalist Progressives (no there’s something new under the sun) would not take one line out of a council text and make it the only key to Christian life (look at most of the “social justice” movement). So much writing and speaking would not jump from a line of teaching to “what I think.”

The other day, I came upon someone who misquoted Pope Benedict and then made the misunderstanding the premise for an article. In a different climate of opinion, there would not be the sheer disdain for reasoned theological presentation (and for the persons offering them) that demonstrates a substantial grasp of theology by someone who has indeed done his homework.

Most of all, solipsism in theological things loses the beauty of theology and of the Theos – God, in the process. Without beauty there is no truth, an insight that is valued in other realms as well.  Robert P. Crease note recently that: “The physicist and cosmologist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekar wrote an entire book on Newton’s Principia, the book in which Newton proposes his second law of motion, comparing it to Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

Chandrasekar knew the history of his field and was extraordinarily adept within it, winning the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics. He also knew that even cosmologists can get too blasé and lose the sheer awe at beholding the universe.

Awe comes as well to those who know that they handle sacred things, the Church being one of them. Without the beauty that comes from organic unity of thought (because God and his plan of salvation are an organic unity) there is no love, there is only the vitriol and viciousness of political debate rather than a religious discourse.

For some reason – call it the spirit of the sixties – theology, the most vital, disciplined thought in the world, became a free-for-all. Or even worse, a mere set of planks in the platform of a particular ideological group – the “we want homosexual marriage” group or the “we want ordained women” group or the “we’re against authority except our own” group.

Good for you. But in that way of doing theology, theology as such is eviscerated and people use its terms and concepts to mean anything at all.

Bishops became afraid of their clergy (“I can’t look too conservative.”). Dioceses became doctrinal free-for-alls (“pick a parish that teaches what you like”). Religious orders followed the same script. Universities became anything (“the alternative magisterium”).

But the Church is the communion of truth and love that we participate in and subordinate ourselves to. Communion involves both truth and love. Amateurism rarely has the tools to deal with such realities.


Bevil Bramwell
, priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, teaches theology at Catholic Distance University. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College and works in the area of ecclesiology.
 
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