There can be little argument that some within the Church look at theologians with a certain degree of suspicion, as if the belief is that theologians, and particular theologians who are seen as being “liberal”, are tasked with destroying the Church’s faith rather than seeking to foster a greater understanding of that same faith. Writing for Commonweal, Massimo Faggioli comments on the phenomenon present in the US Catholic Church in particular of the danger of the increasing anti-liberalism that is becoming increasingly part of that portion of the Church.
Faggioli summarises the issue thus:
The work of Catholic theologians became less and less important to many Catholic leaders (bishops, public intellectuals, big donors), who instead turned their attention to initiatives that addressed the “culture wars.” But even apart from ideology, there was a real turn away from contemporary Catholic theology toward Catholic culture. This means that many Catholic students in America learned about Catholicism not from theology professors, but from Catholic professors of literature, the arts, history, and politics. Such students likely do not appreciate the importance and coherence of theological thinking as such. The influence of the Catholic intellectual tradition on all the disciplines, not just theology, was one of the themes of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. But to many, this meant that one could get a Catholic education without studying much—or indeed any—current Catholic theology. Because of the left-right split that widened during the pontificate of John Paul II, many Catholics, including intellectuals and even academics, wrote theology off as a discipline corrupted by “liberal opinion.” Catholic scholars of literature, art, history, etc., could teach a kind of Catholic studies that focused on the high cultural ideals of the Christian West and largely ignored or rejected post-conciliar theology.
The thrust of Faggioli’s argument is that those theologians who are primarily engaged in the pursuit of academic theology in universities and colleges cannot do so in isolation from the Church but, rather, must find the fulfilment of their true vocations as theologians within the body of the Church. This, of course, sounds easy to do in theory; the practice might be more problematic, particularly in the US Church where the “culture wars” seem to be both more explicit and more vehement in expression. As Faggioli concludes:
… ecclesial commitment in the sense I have in mind is not only about church membership. At a minimum, theologians and religious studies professors should be more aware of their duty to respond to questions that traditionalist or conservative Catholic students have and for which they often find no answer in liberal-progressive theology departments. More generally, theologians and religious-studies professors teaching on Catholic campuses ignore at their own peril the big shifts happening in church politics and in the relations between the institutional Church and Catholic higher education. I believe that liberal Catholic theologians have to offer an alternative to the current neo-traditionalist vision of the Catholic tradition. But if we want to do that, we’ll need to take into account the ecclesial dimension of what we do. The idea that Catholic academic theology can thrive or even survive independently from what happens in and to the church is an illusion.