“When Taken Unreflectively” ?

You may have heard that the most recent round of dialogue between the LCWR and the CDF included a particular condemnation of “conscious evolution” as a recurring theme in the sisters’ workshops and newsletters. Conscious evolution is something I’d never heard of, but based on a quick internet search, it seemed not too dissimilar from Teilhard de Chardin. The Progressive Catholic Voice comes to a similar conclusion in their discussion, but what caught my eye in their blog post was the bit I’ve bolded here:

“I apologize if this seems blunt, but what I must say is too important to dress up in flowery language,” Müller declared. “The fundamental theses of conscious evolution are opposed to Christian revelation and, when taken unreflectively, lead almost necessarily to fundamental errors regarding the omnipotence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the reality of original sin” and other matters of church dogma.

“When taken unreflectively”? Is that the standard? Why is that the standard?

Does the archbishop assume that the sisters of the LCWR are taking their presentations and newsletter material unreflectively? Why does he think that? These women appear to me to be among the most reflective, thoughtful, discerning Catholics human beings I have ever heard about.

It just seems very odd to me. Maybe I’m biased by hanging around with theological types, but

who doesn’t reflect on theological ideas, especially new ones, in order to discern whether and how they are congruent with what one already believes or has heard before?

And taking the question from the other side, aren’t there an awful lot of Catholic doctrines which, when taken unreflectively, lead to fundamental errors about the characteristics of God, the nature of Christ, the means of our salvation, and other matters of dogma? Isn’t that one of the things we can deduce from the tremendously large number of ex-Catholics in this country? Heck, isn’t it something we can deduce from the Protestant Reformation??

I find this a very puzzling basis for condemnation of a theological idea. At the same time, perhaps this clause illuminates a fundamental source of miscommunication between the bishops on the one hand and the vowed religious and trained theologians on the other. If the bishops are assuming that we take theological ideas unreflectively, and if it would never occur to us that anyone could possibly take theological ideas unreflectively, then that’s a pretty fundamental communications breakdown right there.

I can see why the college of bishops, charged with the spiritual wellbeing of all the faithful, might want to use “when taken unreflectively” as a measure of the degree to which new theological ideas can be legitimately discussed and embraced by Catholics. And that worked okay when theology was only being done by bishops, and then only in monasteries, and then only by clergy in universities, and when laypeople were only meant to memorize the catechism.

But that world is gone. The academy doors are open, and even its walls are thinning, thanks be to God, for the enrichment and animation of the church. We need a new paradigm, a new means by which the tension between proper concern of theologians for the exploration and development of doctrine on the one hand, and the proper concern of bishops for potential confusion among the faithful on the other hand, can be managed.

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3 Responses to “When Taken Unreflectively” ?

  1. This post reminds me a bit of a podcast I heard by Mormon feminists. In the 1990’s, they excommunicated at least six Mormon intellectuals for questioning the official Mormon church stance on history, women, etc. The podcast briefly talked about how they do not seem to have the large scale excommunications that there were in the 1990’s. The answer was, “I think that the LDS church realizes that, with the advent of the internet, they’ve lost control of the narrative.”

    It’s not a perfect analogy for what is happening in the Catholic Church. The Mormon religion is incredibly young, so as someone once said, “They cannot hide in the mist of time.” Still, I think this is a fair analogy It is far easier than ever for a person to actually read Church history, the writings of the Early Church Fathers, and theologians throughout the centuries. We also have access to Biblical historical criticism that most previous generations did not have.. I learned about the Documentary Hypothesis from Nova’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets.

    The surprising thing is that priests are taught some of this, at least in my diocese. I knew a man who was in the seminary for a bit, and he talked about the Documentary Hypothesis. I’ve never heard a priest mention it. They refer to Moses writing the Torah. There seems to be an attitude of “Don’t confuse people.”

    But as you said, the days when theological debate would only take place behind closed doors and the laity could subsist entirely on pious observance of rituals and obedience to authority are long gone. (This is likely a bit of oversimplification, but I still think that there is some truth in this characterization. Richard Rodriguez talks of his childhood education of the faith (in the 50’s) in these kinds of terms.)

    This is the major question for many churches at this point in history. “What do you do when you lose control of the narrative?”

    • Ironically, after posting this, I discovered that a prominent Mormon feminist is, in all likelihood, facing excommunication. (Point of information: Mormons believe that excommunication cancels baptism.)

  2. Thanks for your comments, and comparisons to situations in the LDS church. Anxiety over losing control of the narrative is indeed part of what is going on here.

    I agree with you about clergy not wanting to share some of this information with the folks in the pews: I blogged about this a bit last summer in Doubt in the Academy, the Seminary, and the Pews; Dr. Val Webb used very similar language. I’ve heard a historical-critical approach from the pulpit often enough that I’m not surprised when I do — but I’m not that surprised when I don’t, either.

    To be fair, I am extremely sympathetic towards the position of clergy who need to preach to and shepherd folks with a wide variety of education and attachment to traditional catechesis: it’s hard to know how to talk about contemporary views without scandalizing those who are devoutly attached to the simple catechism they learned in childhood. Especially if the sermon is essentially your only opportunity.

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