Theology for Dummies

All too briefly we were permitted to savor the image of the Speaker of the House poring over the writings of St. Augustine in the watches of the night, looking for things of which the Bishop of Hippo had been unsure. Always mindful of the public, she did not keep her findings to herself. In an impromptu lecture to the press, she opined that she could tap into the putative Augustinian ignorance and go on killing babies and be as good a Catholic as he. Seemingly San Francisco had made her an honorary STD.

And then, mirabile dictu, the chiding voices of bishops were heard. Not one, not two, but half a dozen, perhaps more. Admonishing bishops have become almost as rare as theologians in Congress, but here we had corrective statements remarkable for their pith and point. There is no cover in Catholic doctrine for abortion, any more than there is in natural law.

Where did Nancy Pelosi come by the notion that she could offer alternatives to “official” doctrine and that this was actually the Catholic thing to do? Where would she have acquired the confidence that abortion is a live option, that everyone could just follow his own “conscience,” that moral absolutes are no more? The answer is simple. She is a typical product of Catholic education.

In the forty years and more since the close of Vatican II, those with a claim to authoritative credentials in the matter have been saying the sort of thing Nancy Pelosi said, and worse, in season and out, in the halls of Catholic academe, warping the minds of the young, offering stones rather than bread.

The revolt of the theologians began much earlier, but it came out of the closet with the appearance of Humanae Vitae in 1968. The day after the encyclical appeared, a full-page ad in The New York Times announced that the undersigned theologians rejected the teaching of the Holy Father. The pope was wrong and the laity were to listen to dissenting theologians rather than to the Vicar of Christ. It was a heady moment.

Cardinal Stafford’s recently published memories of what it was like to be a young priest in Baltimore during those tumultuous times reveals them to be even worse than I had thought. There was open revolt of the clergy and it was given a patina of respectability by the leadership of moral theologians in seminaries and universities.

Karl Rahner, a Jesuit, provided the notion that theologians constituted a “second magisterium” or teaching office in the Church. The pope and bishops were the first magisterium. On the matter of contraception, the two magisteriums were in disagreement. What was the resolution? Time would tell, came the answer. Indeed it did.

For all practical purposes, the magisterium – there is only one – was systematically undermined by Catholic moral theologians. Generations of students were taught that there was no firm justification of traditional moral teaching and they were going to have to make up their own minds. Now, every student knows that when he is told to make up his own mind he is not really being given a multiple-choice test.

The Catholic Theological Society of America commissioned a book by several of its members which appeared as Human Sexuality. The book made it clear that a revolt over contraception now extended to the whole spectrum of sexual morality. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, were no longer simply wrong. One had to consider the circumstances. One might invoke the “principle of totality.” If a man came home to his wife most nights, forget about those unexplained dalliances with Fifi LaRue, by and large he was a faithful husband.

Moral theologians became like criminal lawyers who showed that it was the law, and not the breach of it, that was in the dock. Publicity lured them on and they became more and more outrageous. Wearing for the nonce clerical collars, they appeared on television to explain how benighted the pope was. But it was the steady and relentless undermining of sound moral doctrine in Catholic classrooms that characterized the post-conciliar Church. And almost the only bishop who said anything about it was the bishop of Rome and of course his statements were immediately trashed.

As a product of such teaching, the Speaker of the House was a little surprised, I am sure, at the episcopal reaction to her excursion into theology. There is, to be sure, something quaint in all this. There is a new generation of moral theologians in the Church; the dissenters have grown long in tooth and are running out of people to shock. And we seem at last to have bishops who understand their role as masters of the faith. Has aggiornamento finally begun?


Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.