WASHINGTON — Seeking to reverse a generational breakdown in the transmission of faith, the U.S. bishops have targeted a potential ally — young theologians.
In an effort to build bridges between Church leaders and departments of theology and religious studies, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the chairman of the Committee on Doctrine at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, organized a gathering to foster dialogue between two camps with distinct but complementary missions.
“The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization,” a symposium held here at the Washington Court Hotel, provided a forum for 54 untenured theologians from across the country to engage with Church leaders and prominent theologians, including Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; John Cavadini, a top theologian at the University of Notre Dame, and Janet Smith, a moral theologian at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.
In a homily that introduced a note of urgency, Cardinal Wuerl suggested that theology departments and religious studies departments address both the needs of cradle Catholics who never learned “the essentials of the faith” and the disaffection of mainstream society, for whom “the Gospel has lost its taste, its freshness, its luster.”
Sounding a theme echoed in other presentations over the weekend, Cardinal Wuerl asked the academics — most of whom had completed their doctorates within the past five years — to embrace their professional responsibilities as a spiritual calling, embodying the teachings they transmitted.
The symposium marked a renewed focus on the New Evangelization by Church leaders throughout the world.
“Vast horizons are opening to the announcement of the Gospel, while regions of ancient Christian tradition are called to rediscover the beauty of the faith,” stated Pope Benedict XVI in a Sunday Angelus address delivered Sept. 18.
In his address, Archbishop DiNoia explored related themes in an often passionate address. The work of a Catholic theologian “is not simply an academic vocation. It is an ecclesial vocation,” he stated. The task at hand required an affirmation of the “doctrinal core of the Catholic faith” and a concerted effort to address the “internal and external factors” that impede the New Evangelization.
He counseled his audience not to allow academic specialization and speculative work to lead them to ignore the fullness of the Church’s teaching.
A Dominican, Archbishop DiNoia observed that St. Thomas Aquinas mastered every aspect of Catholic theology and would never have divided it up into patristics, systematic theology, bioethics and other areas of specialization.
The fragmentation of theological work has resulted in the weakening of the holistic vision and power of Revelation, he said. “You have to keep asking yourself: What does this have to do with … the central doctrines of the faith?” he said. “The part you specialize in relates to the whole.”
Archbishop DiNoia touched on the sensitive topic of episcopal oversight of theology departments at Catholic universities and colleges. While acknowledging that scholars “have an instinctive allergy with regard to any censorship of thought,” he insisted that the Church had an obligation to confront theological dissent.
The native of New York noted that the need for intervention by Church authorities has increased over time: “The more theologians are no longer reliably able to affirm what the doctrine means, the more the magisterium intervenes.”
A central obstacle to the New Evangelization, he asserted, was the “internal secularization of the Church. The enemy occupies our territory.” The steady advance of secularism has fueled doubts about the intelligibility of the faith, resulting in an “apologetic apologetics.”
In contrast, Blessed Pope John Paul II “muted nothing,” the archbishop said. And Pope Benedict XVI’s public witness reflects the conviction that Catholic teaching presented in its “entirety can’t fail to attract.”
Janet Smith, a leading moral theologian and author who has emerged as a prominent exponent of Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body, examined how his emphasis on personalism contributed to the contemporary appeal of moral theology. The late Holy Father focused not only on general truths, but on challenging each person to realize that they need to live in accord with the truth.
She asked her audience to take a closer look at the late Pope’s emphasis on “lived experience.” In a world that expresses a “need for community but also an internal need for intimacy,” his message resonates with young people, leading them to reassess their relationships and learn self-mastery for the good of another person.
Smith likened her students’ encounter with Blessed John Paul II’s seminal work Love and Responsibility to an “examination of conscience.” The theology of the body “establishes that man can learn from the makeup of his own body and ... that man is meant to be in a loving relationship of persons” imaging the communion of the Trinity.
Smith encouraged her audience to present the countercultural truths contained in Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) in an engaging manner that would lead students to ask themselves: Am I speaking the truth of the body with my acts?
While Smith mined the legacy of a 20th-century pope, John Cavadini, a leading American theologian who stepped down last year as the chairman of the University of Notre Dame’s theology department, focused on the enduring insights contained in ancient texts of Catholic apologetics.
Cavadini began his presentation with a quote from Contra Celsum by Origen, the leading theologian of the early Eastern Church: “Our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ was silent when false witnesses spoke against him and answered nothing when he was accused; he was convinced that all his life and actions … were better than any speech in refutation of the false witness and superior to any words that he might say in reply to the accusations.”
Origen’s insight provides worthy guidance for advancing the New Evangelization because it “lifts apologetics far beyond mere defensive tactics and into an offensive strategy that lays out a new vista for the theological imagination,” Cavadini suggested.
“Origen’s argumentation serves not to substitute for the peculiar power of the Gospel, but to make distinctions so that the way can be cleared for the weak Christian or the non-Christian to encounter and contemplate that power” on their own. He continued, “Origen’s apology is very aptly compared to the painting of an icon which is intended, in later Greek Christianity, to mediate an encounter with the Person of Christ.”
Cavadini asked his audience to “reread and study the great classical and medieval apologetic treatises, specifically with a mind towards discerning their apologetic strategy as a useful resource for today.” The recommended texts included: “Justin Martyr’s two Apologies, the Contra Celsum of Origen, the City of God of St. Augustine [and] the Summa Contra Gentiles of Thomas Aquinas.”
In an interview during a break in the proceedings, Cardinal Wuerl described the symposium as an opportunity for “building relationships among bishops and the theological community in an atmosphere of theological discussion. The New Evangelization is calling for us to take a look at how we re-propose the Gospel message to people who may feel they have already heard that message and it has nothing to say to them.”
Chad Pecknold, an assistant professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America and the author of Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History, published in 2010, was among the invited participants who represent a new generation of theologians who are prepared to take the New Evangelization to heart.
In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, he said, during an interview, theologians sought to dislodge the doctrinal certainties that anchored the faith of their students and “open” them up to new insights.
But today, there is no longer a “sense that the Second Vatican Council constituted a break with the past. The intellectual task of the New Evangelization is to think through the continuity of evangelization.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.