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Paul Griffiths, Michael Sean Winters and the practice of theology

Monday's essay by Michael Sean Winters in his Distinctily Catholic column is a discussion of the lecture by Paul Griffiths on theology, as related by two other theologians. Please read Michael's essay, which is as much about the practice of theology his view as the talk - as well as the links to those who were there. You can get that informaton at My discussion is third hand and has nothign to do with Paul's talk but everything to do with both the comments and the overall practice of theology in the Catholic Church.

Talking about Paul Griffiths talk is an interesting way to start the week. The main question seems to be what is the purpose of modern theology and who does it serve. The bishops are very clear that they want it to serve tradition - from St. Piux X's condemnation of modernism to requiring that Catholic university theology teachers have a mandatum from the local bishop. Ultimately, however, the Church is not just the clergy, but all of the people. Now, a big part of this is training priests - but the majority of theologians are not working in seminiaries.

If theology as a study is to ever rescue the Church from backwardness, it must integrate tradition with the rest of modern thought - including demystifying Adam and Eve and representing that story as a parable about human nature (and marriage) and not as a historical account about a golden age that we now know did not occur, given the archeological and anthropological records.

As far as moral theology - from sex to economics - it is time for the Church to abandon its claims of superiority in natural law. Indeed, MSW mentions basing morality on what was written by a pagan - but if memory serves Aristotle is given great weight in Thomistic thought and the ethics taught in pre-seminary (which I took). Indeed, natural law must mean that all fact is on the table - even the inconvenient ones about how homosexuality is not really a disease or a disorder and those areas where Marx got it right (which Benedict did not seem to have any problem repeating in Caritas in Veritate).

A bit of proof texting adds to this debate, however. Many who favor a strict morality glom onto the phrase "Be perfect as your Father is perfect," however when Jesus says this, he is talking about how we love - not whether we take too much pleasure in a bowl of ice cream or surf erotic websites. Of course, loving people perfectly is actually a harder demand than simply following a set of moral rules and sometimes moral rules come into play when selfishness decreases our ability to love or robs someone of a decent wage.

Another moral precept from the Master is that he "is gentle and humble of heart, (his) yoke is easy and his burden is light." This essentially means that the morality we teach must make life better than any other set of teachings - and never an impossible quandry. That means that promiscuity is always wrong (gay or straight) while marriage is always shared love and is of God (gay or straight). We don't kill because we don't want to be killed. We also should not prohibit a late trimester abortion if the child has the kind of condition that will never allow it to survive and carrying the pregnancy further would provide no gain and considerable risk. I know that is against Catholic teaching, but sometimes we must tell the truth regardless of what teaching is.

A final biblical insight that has to do with both human morality and theology. (Many have heard this one already - but it always bears repeating). On Holy Thursday, Jesus promised after instituting the Eucharist to not drink of the fruit of the vine he would do so in his Father's kingdom. When first crucified, he did not. At around 3, he hold his mother that he was dead and that John would take care of her - and likewise told John to take care of his grandmother (John was Salome's son - Salome was his sister) - with no mention of baptizing the world. In doing so he both rejects his Godhead (as first told to him by Mary) and his mission. This causes him to cry out in grief and feel what we feel - and he then says I thirst and is given some kind of fruit of the vine. In other words, salvation was a divine vision quest - not a bloody death (his death was in solidarity with us, not some kind of cosmic payment to himself).

This final scenario - entirely theological - is perhaps the most important in moral theology. It means that God is not going to damn us for getting it wrong - unless of course getting it wrong hurts people. He is not some divine Ogre but someone who loves rather than desires punishment (the only one damed in the Gospel was rich and ignorant of poverty on his door). Indeed, the entire Jewish prophetic tradition has God punishing Israel and Judea for their treatment of the poor and vulnerable.

This is why we need not fear the wrath of God if we use a bit of sanity rather than fear in dealing with certain abortions - while still condemning abortion - not just for their injustice to the unborn but the usualy economic and social injustice visited on women who have them because they are forced by circumstance. This means chaing the circumstances - giving a much larger child tax credit to families, enabling young families to continue education (both parents) without having to abort their child and changing how we respond to teen sexuality - which is evolutionarily natural and has been since before we came down from the trees. We have made children, especially daughters, property of their parents. We need to stop doing that. God's opinion is not the purity is essential. He did not make us that way and we need to stop putting words into his (or her) mouth. Of course, that is another question that I am sure the Church does not want to address regarding the Holy Spirit.

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