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Keep the faith, but keep it in perspective

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Ad Tuendam Fidem,(http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/tuendam.htm) closes the circle on an interesting century that began with the papal campaign against Modernism, crested with the Second Vatican Council’s cry for freedom and reform, and now crawls to a whimpering conclusion with the pope’s command to a billion faithful to think only as he thinks.

It may be a good time for theologians and others, instead of committing theological hara-kiri, to step back a few paces and look at the bigger picture.

Theology is where we try to figure God out. Long before there were catechisms with definitive answers, people sat by primitive fires or looked at their reflection in a lake and wondered where they came from and who was responsible and how it all might end. They located God high on mountains or deep in forests, above or within, vengeful or benign. God was elusive from the beginning, hard to pin down -- immense and cosmic or intimate and personal. The God we found usually said more about us than about God.

Eventually the search for transcendence, now called religion, got organized. Rules had to be made. Officials had to be found to define and defend the official God. Never mind that there were many official gods, jealously espoused by the world’s great religions. And even the official gods were elusive, never quite showing their faces. This left room -- and created the necessity -- for speculation or inspiration.

The trouble is, human speculation and divine inspiration are equally quixotic. Imagination can raise its head and play havoc with old orthodoxies. Out of this human development two kinds of theologians arose in most religions, including Catholicism: the theologian who represented the party’s traditional line; and the one who couldn’t keep her or his imagination from wondering and suggesting and writing troublesome books with new angles on God. In a perfect world these two theologians would overlap, but in ours this rarely happens. The result is the tumultuous history of Catholic theology.

Ours is not an age of imagination. The other end of that pole is fundamentalism. While imagination is potentially reckless, fundamentalism is invariably fearful. It clings desperately to whatever status quo has been good to us in the past.

Once fear kicks in, however, it’s hard to exorcise it. One must batten down one hatch after another to keep one’s truth in and everyone else’s fallacies out. So, when the pope writes that henceforth Catholic truths will be exactly as he tells us and engraves this in the Code of Canon Law, the gesture looks risky: What if everyone doesn’t get it? So the faithful Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger comes to the rescue with his own document (http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/ratz.htm), even longer than the pope’s, battening down every doctrinal hatch.

No gradation of belief is left unchecked. No infringement on any teaching is left unpunished. Every conceivable jot and tittle is paraded. The gibe about medieval angels on the head of a pin would seem an understatement here.

And yet. When we or the pope or the cardinal confront our God, the formulas fall away, and we are on our own with the image we got from pictures or parents, from visions or intuitions or whatever. Seldom is it the image or essence of papal document or theological text; it’s something much more personal. And no two of our gods are exactly the same, not even Ratzinger’s and John Paul’s. They’re all seen through our personal glasses darkly.

Theologians and we and the pope and the cardinal know all this. The topic here is who’s in charge of the church. Who gets to say what God means? If we could all say it, the church would be less necessary. It’s a huge dilemma for the Vatican. Even as the pope wowed the world on his trips, more and more people came to regard the church as less essential for their ultimate happiness. Many think this is because today’s God isn’t joyful and generous but uptight and begrudging.

This pontificate has chosen to solve the dilemma by retrenching. Let cafeteria Catholics who don’t buy the whole package stay away. Let theologians who dare to question stay quiet. The only good Catholics are those in sufficient sync with the pope. Woe to those who are not.

This means, if taken seriously, the end of theology for now. By definition theology goes beyond today’s boundaries to new insights. Anything else is rewriting the catechism.

The pendulum swings. Outlawed theologians of the past have time and again been rehabilitated, even canonized. We’re at an in-between time. While there’s a pendulum, there’s hope.

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998