Theologians and the Church

Author: Rev. James B. Nugent


Rev. James B. Nugent

The following article by Rev. James B. Nugent appeared in the " Steubenville Register " (Ohio) Sept. 26th, 1968.

The expression " Catholic Theologian " has been appearing in the. news quite often recently. It has occurred most in reports that some " Catholic theologians " have taken a different viewpoint from that of Pope Paul's encyclical forbidding contraceptive birth control. Originally, some 80 of these theologians opposed the Pope's teaching, and since them, several hundred more have added their names to the protest. In view of the notoriety they have received in this highly publicized matter, it is worthwhile to reflect on what a "Catholic theologian" is and what teaching authority he wields in the Church.

Perhaps it is unnecessary to say so, but a Catholic theologian is a Catholic. He is a member of the Catholic Church and professes the beliefs of the Catholic Faith. This is a minimum, but necessary requirement.

As regards special qualifications, a Catholic theologian, in a loose sense, is someone who has pursued higher studies in theology and perhaps received an ecclesiastical degree such as the Master's or doctorate in theology. After his formal training, very often such a person employs his talents as a teacher in a Catholic college or seminary or in the journalistic field.

The majority of those who repudiated Paul VI's teaching appear to be theologians in this loose sense. The question of what weight their opinion has can be passed by, because whatever is said about theologians in the strict sense applies all the more to them.

" Theologian " in the strict sense is applied only to those relatively few men who are regarded as truly experts in theology. Besides mere academic degrees or teaching positions in that subject, these men display a penetration of thought beyond the ordinary, that classifies them as authorities in the field of theology.

There are a number of factors that go together to constitute theologians in this restricted and exclusive sense. Frequently, they have occupied for a long time the professor's chair at one or more of the top-ranking schools of Catholic theology. In addition, they have generally published a good deal on theological topics and have won approbation and praise from the Church hierarchy. Usually they are consultants and advisors not only to the laity, but also to priests and Bishops and even to the Pope. Another sign of the kind of theological expertise here considered is that a theologian be regarded as having it by his theological colleagues.

The function of such theologians is penetration, clarification, and defense of Church teachings. They themselves arc not primary teachers in the Church, but they assist the Pope and the College of Bishops, who are the primary teachers. The final test of the worth of some theologian's opinion is his faithfulness to official and authentic Church doctrine.

Therefore, if it is true that the hierarchy sometimes consult the theologians, all the more do authentic theologians consult the hierarchy, because they understand that theologians are channels of doctrine and not its sources. When a theologian's view is in open conflict with the clear and authentic teaching of the Holy Father, then that view simply lacks value, no matter what the theologian's fame may be.

The role of theologians in the Church is somewhat like that of research scientists in an industrial firm. It is the job of such scientists to further the projects and goals of the company as they are established by its president and board of directors. If a scientist decides to set policy and to abandon company goals, he is stepping out of his proper role and will soon find himself unemployed. In the same way, a theologian who denies official Church teaching is not fulfilling his role.

Most of those theologians who have refused to give assent to the Pope's teaching are obscure men and not of great theological stature.

However, two genuinely prominent theologians who have not given wholehearted support to the papal teaching are Fathers Karl Rahner and Bernard Haring. Perhaps these worthy gentlemen have become, as Etienne Gilson says about Descartes, victims of their own genius. Perhaps their greater theological lore keeps them from seeing what is plain to simpler men.

But if as Gilson says, there are excuses for being a Descartes but not for being followers of Descartes, so it may be there are for being a Rahner but not for following him. If astuteness and brilliance were the reason for giving assent on religious matters, one might even follow a Bertrand Russell or an Albert Einstein. The choice between Rahner or Haring and Paul VI is not a choice between brilliant men or even between brilliant theologians. It is a choice between theologians and the Vicar of Christ, His authentic representative and voice on Earth. It is hard to see how a Catholic could choose a mere theologian, no matter who, unless he has forgotten what the Church is all about.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
31 October 1968, page 4

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