Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Author: Rev. Donald Wuerl


Rev. Donald Wuerl

Established recently in St Louis (USA)

In the wake of Second Vatican Council which stirred the still and deep waters of theological opinion in the Church, there began to surface various interpretations of what the Church actually taught in the Council. This is not a new phenomenon in the Church. Each age has seen writers and teachers who highlight one or another of the doctrines of the Church or aspects of her divinely revealed message. Study of the New Testament reveals what can be called the various "voices" of the apostolic age. St. John touches on one intuition of the meaning of Jesus' resurrection while Paul points out another and yet again Mark gives us still a different and equally beautiful reflection on the glory that is Christ. All passed on to us their faith-work that we now know to have been inspired. So in every age the whole Church is enriched when several schools of thought approach the faith and try to penetrate what ultimately remains a mystery—to make it, at least, in part more intelligible.

There was, for a while, after the Council a brief moment of confusion when it seemed that the richness of the Church's perennial teaching might be overshadowed by those who rushed to take up the "new theology", the "new morality", and became exponents of the "new breed", and "new lifestyle" as they were then called. One of the side effects of this dash was that disputation in too many cases gave away to harassment and the perennial theological wisdom of the Church fell under the ban of the bell, book and candle of much of the mass media. The burden of proof passed in some areas of theological reflection from those who proposed strange views of the Christian faith to those who authoritatively and authentically interpreted and proclaimed the teaching of Christ in His Church. Thus in part the renewal that the Council stimulated was marred.

Return to balance

In no small part the flaw was found in the manner in which the teaching of some theological writers tended to separate those writers from the mainstream of Catholic thought and consensus and in so doing cut themselves off from the life-giving continuity of the Christian tradition. This became a plague on the house of theology in the late 60's and early 70's. Much solid productive theological work, work full of insight, continued to be done but it was overshadowed by what had come to resemble more the "Sunday Supplement" feature than serious theological reflection. In too many instances bizarre ideas got the publicity. The newspapers and magazines including those that were to form opinion in the Catholic community latched on to the story that Father X or Doctor Y advanced his own extravagant notion of some aspect of Church teaching or morality and failed, or were not in a position, to point out that the great majority of priests or teachers in the Church held no such position but continued to teach in communion and in solidarity with the rest of the teaching Church.

But as always happens—with the passage of time—the need for balance reasserts itself. Signs of this return to a more central position among many whoare responsible for teaching the faith and pursuing theological investigation are evident today. The most recent Synod, which had as its subject catechesis, called for a return to the full teaching of the faith and a complete presentation of the doctrine of the Church. It reasserted the value and place of formulas of the faith and their memorization as also the learning of prayers in the training of the young believer. Much of this would have been quite unthinkable five years ago. The trend was certainly in a different direction and many people would have preferred not to hear the word "memorization" or "formulas of the faith". And yet today with a more balanced starting point these words and instructions seem also natural.

Purpose of Fellowship

Another interesting sign that the Church in various parts of the world, and in this case particularly the United States, is re-appraising the tendency to contrast too sharply the teaching of the Church as proclaimed by her teaching office and the contributions of theological writers is the formation recently in St. Louis, Missouri (USA) of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. The statement of purpose of the Fellowship notes that its members "in various disciplines join in fellowship in order to serve Jesus Christ better by helping one another in work and by putting our abilities more fully at the service of the Catholic faith...

"Throughout the course of history, the Church's understanding of this unchangeable faith develops and becomes more explicit under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And it must be faithfully and creatively proclaimed in a way which meets the challenges of every age. We accept the responsibility which a Catholic scholar may not evade: to support the faith of the whole Church and to assist every member in personal assent to the mystery of Christ as authoritatively taught by the Pope and bishops in communion with him".

"Founding Fathers"

The fellowship has brought together many prominent intellectuals into the group of "Founding Fathers". America magazine describes some of these members: "such distinguished thinkers as the philosopher Germaine Grisez, the Jesuit theologian John Hardon, S.J., the moralists William May of the Catholic University of America and John Mangan, S.J., of Loyola University of Chicago, the physicians Hannah Klaus and William Lynch, the Benedictine sociologist Paul Marx, the Redemptorist marriage specialist Henry Sattler as well as the historian James Hitchcock...

"To lead the Fellowship the founding convention elected the eminent Capuchin scholar Ronald Lawler as the Fellowship's first president. Mons. James Kelly, the Fellowship's godfather, will serve as executive secretary" (America, November 5, 1977, p. 313).

The Fellowship at its founding meeting noted that it will strive to:

1. come to know and welcome all who share our purpose;

2. make known to one another our various competencies and interests;

3. share our abilities with one another unstintingly in all our efforts directed to our common purpose;

4. cooperate in clarifying the challenges which must be met;

5. help one another to evaluate critically the variety of responses which are proposed to these challenges;

6. communicate our suggestions and evaluations to all members of the Church who might find them helpful;

7. respond to requests to help the Church in her task of guarding the faith as inviolable and defending it with fidelity.

Given the purpose of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, its eventual service to the Church will centre probably in the area of technical assistance to the teaching office in the Church. It certainly, given the credentials, writing and reputation of its members, can provide the bishops with theological expertise. Perhaps in an age which increasingly looks toward dialogue between the hierarchy and theologians this instrument will be a useful tool in productive theological conversation.

Several theological suppositions seem to be connected with the idea of theological expertise being placed at the disposition of the teaching office of the Church. Among these is the concept that every Christian is a witness to the Gospel of Jesus (Evangelii Nuntiandi 14, 15). Yet when we come to the question of witness we also come to the matter of validating that witness. Authentic witness must be related to the Church and identified with her mission, for both participate in the same mediation and witness of Christ. As Christ is the unique witness of the Father, and the Church the divinely appointed one of Christ, so the individual believer is a witness to revelation. He participates as does the Church in the revealing action of Christ but precisely as a member of the Church. His witness is valid only in the context of the principal testimony given by the Church.

He shares in the Church's ministry of testimony and office of witness only as he is in communion with her. This unity necessarily pertains to the doctrine taught and the faith handed down.

As to the continuation of Christ's witness and the verification of the testimony concerning Christ himself, the Church is the first and complete witness to God and the force of his mediation in the world today. This witness in doctrine and moral matters is found in the teaching of those who fill the divinely commissioned teaching office. The witness of an individual to the truth of the faith can never be independent of the witness of the Church for both speak of what they have—not of themselves but of another.

Witness of the Church

When dealing with the faith one testifies to something which is not his own in the sense that it is a communication of God's self-knowledge and his plan, and not the position or opinion of any human. The witness to the faith relies not on his own understanding of the revelation, but on the truth of God that gives it validity. "It is not ourselves we preach, but Jesus Christ", as St Paul puts it. The message is beyond human understanding and is thus called supernatural. No human can, therefore, witness the faith as he sees it, divorced from the way it is presented as believed by the Church. Ultimately the witness is valid insofar as it testifies to that which God has revealed and which the Church proclaims. This is so since the individual witness participates in the witness of the Church and receives what he has to hand on only in and through the Church.

Witness does not exist in a vacuum. Neither can theological studies be carried on disconnected from the mainstream of Catholic teaching, theological investigation and thought.

Witness essentially relies on continuity between the fact witnessed and the testimony to it. Continuity is absolutely essential to authentic credible witness. And only in union with the Church can the individual find the continuity. His witness as it shares the testimony of the Church can lay claim to the continuity of the living witness of the Church only as he is in communion and conformity with the Faith as the Church believes and receives it. Saint Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians argues the authenticity of his testimony in terms of what the Apostles believe and, therefore, its continuity with what the whole Church believes.

Church's obligation

In the Acts, to safeguard the testimony of the Church and to ensure its historicity and credibility, it was insisted that the number of Apostles, diminished by Judas' death, be filled only by "one of those who bore us company all the while we had the Lord Jesus with us, coming and going, from John's ministry of baptism until the day he was taken from us—one of those must now join us as a witness to his Resurrection" (Acts 22). The individual witness participates in the witness that is the Church. He, therefore, shares in her continuity and her infallibility while he is joined to her as a witness. All the authenticity in his testimony depends on the relationship he maintains to that same Church. For as the witness to Christ and God's mighty works, the Church is the first and only witness. All individuals share in this work as members of the Church and are to be always humble before her witness.

To the teaching Church is entrusted the obligation of spreading the faith of passing on the saving word. She must bear witness to the presence of God and our life in him. If man is to be saved by his participation in the saving action of Christ—if he is to be counted as one who "knows Christ" so that everyone who has faith in Christ may possess eternal life, then he must know of that supernatural reality that is Christ and his Redemptive plan. Each one must be given an opportunity to hear of that truth, to have it witnessed before him, to have its reality testified in his presence. This is the function of the witnessing, leaching Church.

Service of Magisterium

The Magisterium by its authentic witness provides an enormous service to the faith community. In authentically witnessing the Gospel, the Church not only proclaims the truth about Jesus Christ but validates the proclamation of the individual believer and confirms the truth of his faith. All individual testimony to the truth revealed in Christ Jesus must find its touchstone of authenticity in relation to that voiced—given flesh in words—by the Church through her official witness. This does not mean that witness within the Church is limited only to the Bishop. Instead it is supposed that obligation to bear testimony concerning all that Jesus said and did falls to every believer.

But in that body of believers—gifted with various talents, gifts, callings and ministries—there are also those chosen specifically to see that the witness of all is never lost, confused, misunderstood. The office of official, authentic witness becomes necessary in a Church that is incarnate in a world not yet perfect. It corresponds to the most obvious and deep need of all society for an authentic spokesman of the values that establish and maintain the given society. Teaching authority in the Church exercises a function that represents the community's awareness of itself and its belief about itself. It is in one aspect the community's self-expression of its faith as received and believed.

One of the particular qualities of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars is that it recognizes the unique place of the teaching office in the witness function of the Church. It holds in proper regard the witness value of the individual teacher, writer or theological student, yet at the same time, in order to praise this dimension of witness it does not feel obliged to lessen the validity of the teaching office of the Church.

Disciplined witness

The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars offers a disciplined academic witness to the faith in the continuity of the understanding of that faith as expressed in the Church's teaching office. As a group of scholars the Fellowship claim to remain faithful to the laws internal to specific disciplines and thus help further the development of their chosen field of study. Yet in what pertains to the living faith they hope to work in close collaboration

with those who have the office of proclaiming authentically the teaching of Christ. Thus the witness of scholarship and the witness of proclamation might continue to serve the Gospel.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
2 February 1978, page 11

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