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He sought the truest meaning of faith


On Jan. 29, I received a faint message on my answering machine from Clare Davis, calling from Scotland. She said, “I want to tell you that my father has died. Would you write an article about his life?” My initial response was to suggest that Clare, herself a theologian completing doctoral studies at the University of Edinburgh, should write about her father, Charles Davis, 76, the English theologian who formally left the Roman Catholic church in 1966. I hope someday she will do so, but in the meantime I have consented to put down some immediate reflections.

Charles Davis was the budding star of British Catholic theology in the 1960s. He was seen as one of a brilliant cohort of Vatican II theologians that included figures such as Gregory Baum and Frs. Hans Küng, Edward Schillebeeckx and Karl Rahner.

Trained at the Gregorianum in Rome, Davis taught at St. Edmund’s College and Heythrop College in England. In December of 1966 he startled the Catholic intellectual world and particularly his own theological colleagues with the announcement that he was leaving the Roman Catholic church.

In the book he wrote and published in 1967, A Question of Conscience, Davis made clear that he was not simply leaving the priesthood to marry, although he had decided to marry and build a new life with Florence Henderson, whom he had come to know and love. He was seeking not simply laicization and a change in how he related to the church but had decided to renounce his membership. The reason was a conviction that the manner in which the magisterium claimed a monopoly on truth was fundamentally false, unsubstantiated biblically and historically, and stifled the search for truth and the formation of communities of love and justice.

For himself, Davis was saying, Roman Catholicism as an institutional structure was a “zone of untruth.” The only way he could function as a Christian theologian was to repudiate these institutional claims through formal disaffiliation.

This decision evoked a storm of consternation among fellow Catholic theologians, many of whom recognized that they shared the same critique of papal power. But, unlike Davis, they felt they could privately disagree without making a public announcement. Davis’ decision put their own integrity in jeopardy.

I, myself a young theological writer who had just published The Church Against Itself, was challenged by Davis’ decision. In a letter published in NCR in December 1966, I suggested that Davis was compelled to make his decision not because he was a radical but because he was a moderate theologian.

“He was under the impression that what he said he was supposed to believe had something to do with what he should believe. ... We [radical Catholic theologians] have ‘reinterpreted’ all those ideas out of existence, and so the reality of the church has lost its power to scandalize us. He tried harder.”

Davis quoted these remarks in A Question of Conscience as part of his reply to critics who said that rejecting papal infallibility was no reason to leave Roman Catholicism.

Davis was clear that he both continued to be a Christian and a theologian and had no interest in joining another denomination. He grappled in the last section of his book with how to define being a Christian in “creative disaffiliation” from denominational churches. The problem of the use of magisterial power to stifle the authentic search for truth, he felt, was a particular problem of the Roman Catholic institutional system. But Davis saw problems with church institutions generally that barred him from simply transferring to another denomination, such as the Church of England.

He sought to define a new way of being Christian in small faith communities that intertwine with daily life immersed in the world, rather than setting off church from society as a separate sphere.

Davis envisioned two key intellectual problems that Christians must confront today: how we can understand knowledge of God in relation to modern philosophical thought and how the uniqueness of Christ can be affirmed in relation to the plurality of world religions.

Davis’ subsequent books can be read as an ongoing exploration of these key issues of the meaning of Christian faith today. Books such as Christ and the World’s Religions (1970), Temptations of Religion (1973), Theology and Political Society (1980), What is Living, What is Dead in Christianity Today (1986) and Soft Bodies in a Hard World (1990), testify to Davis’ creativity as a theologian working ecumenically within the Christian community but outside church structures.

How can we reject false claims to doctrinal certitude while embracing the existential truth of relation to God as the transcendent basis of love and justice? How can we affirm the centrality of Jesus Christ and still acknowledge the truth of other religious traditions? How can we understand religious claims as permeating the way we live practically in society, not in a special ghetto unconnected with the rest of our lives? These are the key questions explored in his work.

This journey of faithful theological reflection for the Christian community writ large ended Jan. 28. On that day — the feast of Thomas Aquinas, as his daughter Clare noted in her phone call to me — Charles Davis died in Edinburgh, surrounded by his family. His wife, Florence, his daughter, Clare, and son, Anthony, and friends gathered around his deathbed to celebrate a last Eucharist.

Davis died as he had lived, a Catholic Christian seeking to witness to the truest meaning of faith. Catholics of the Roman communion still need to confront the depths of his critique and to take his witness seriously.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999