TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Appendix 3: How academic theology became secularized

The kind of change discussed in question H, which some wished to admit into Catholic teaching, had been advocated by some Protestant theologians for more than a century. With the development of Renaissance humanism into modern secular humanism in the eighteenth century, unbelief began to dominate the intellectual culture of the West; perversely, this movement was called the “Enlightenment.” By 1800, the Enlightenment, which had begun with the work of brilliant amateurs, became dominant in the universities of certain nations, especially Germany. Protestant theologians belonged to the academic world, and they found themselves in a difficult situation.

Modern scientific and historical studies had raised fresh questions for Christian faith, and theologians had to try to find answers. Rationalism had become dominant in theology, with the damage to Catholic theology described in chapter one. The effect on Protestant theology was even worse, since the Reformation had rejected the Catholic Middle Ages, and thus left Protestant theologians with an even poorer store of philosophical resources. Protestant theologians also were burdened with the difficulties inherent in the opinions of the Reformers to the extent that these opinions fell short of the fullness of Catholic truth.

For example, the development of historical and literary studies caused special difficulty for those committed to sacred Scripture alone as the norm of faith, and the theory of private interpretation made it difficult for an individual theologian to take advantage of the difference between his or her own faith and the faith of the Church universal. (This difference allows a Catholic in difficulties to suppose that while the Church’s faith is true, it is sometimes hard to discern what it is.)

Moreover, having rejected the vows and religious life, Protestant theologians lacked the support Catholic theologians often received from their religious confreres. It is a truth of social psychology that an individual under pressure from one community important to his or her identity hardly can resist the pressure and continue to function in the community without great moral support from another community of similar or greater importance for his or her identity.

Under these conditions, it is not surprising that many Protestant theologians in the nineteenth century developed positions by which they intended to protect Christian faith but which in fact compromised it. Nor is it improbable that some such theologians substituted another fundamental commitment—to the assumptions of the Enlightenment—for Christian faith, and changed theology into a philosophy, perhaps even without realizing that they were doing so.

Their dialectic changed from one in which the truths of Christian faith could not be contradicted to one in which the ideology of the Enlightenment could not be contradicted, but otherwise things could seem to remain much as they had been. They still could treat Scripture with reverence, very much as philosophers treat the works of Plato with reverence. They still could call their courses “theology,” publish books on theological topics, train young men for the ministry, and take for granted much of what Christians believe—as much of it as seemed at a given time to be unproblematic.

In this situation, many Protestant theologians began a process often called “reinterpretation.” Much or all of the factual content of faith was denied; the residue was defended and explained much as any philosopher would defend his or her philosophy, but with the difference that this philosophy was claimed to be the “core” of the tradition: what Christian faith really means. Hegel provided the greatest example of this strategy, and he carried out his project so ingeniously that many philosophers since his time have been convinced that Hegel’s philosophy contains all the claim to truth in Christianity that one need consider.

These remarks are intended neither as a polemic against Protestants nor as a condemnation of anyone. Many Protestants resisted the trend, and one hopes that those who did not, acted in accord with sincere consciences. Catholics also must admit that they did little to help their brethren face the challenge of the Enlightenment; indeed, Catholic theology only recently began to face this challenge, with results thus far quite mixed.

Until after World War II, the Catholic theological community was largely separated from the Protestant theological community and from the secular academic world in general. But a gradually growing movement toward academic professionalism, begun in Catholic theology much earlier, suddenly crystalized after World War II. Most Catholic theologians who wished to engage in scholarly research and writing wanted to be respected members of the academic profession; in theology this demanded status in the single theological community recognized as legitimate by the secular academic world.

It is not to be supposed that Catholic theologians thereupon rushed to sell their souls for academic respectability. The process was both subtler and, subjectively, more creditable. One became a member of a group, identified with it, accepted its ideals and methods. One then sincerely took a new look at the Church’s received teachings, found them a burden not simply to oneself but to many other contemporary men and women who also more or less fully identified with secular humanistic values, and zealously undertook to renew and reform the Church to bring it into the twentieth century.

At the same time, the secularized theologian continued to have a loyalty to his or her Church. Many aspects of its faith and life—at least many aspects of its communal reality—remained important. These were defended by respectable theologians with considerable ingenuity and effort against secular humanism, which would have totally destroyed Christianity. Because of this work in defense of the faith, theologians who went very far toward secular humanism nevertheless sincerely believed themselves to be true moderates. They were fighting a hard fight on two fronts: against the obscurantism (as they saw it) of conservatives on the one hand and, on the other, against the irreligion of those who rejected the “core” of Christianity.

Protestants could proceed in this fashion without destroying their personal faith and their ecclesial communities, because Protestants considered faith essentially an individual experience. The only objective norm of faith accepted by orthodox Protestants was the Bible, and the Bible could always be interpreted to mean what it must and not to mean what it must not. By itself, the Bible is just a book; it cannot fight back.

A Catholic, however, could not proceed as secularized Catholic theologians proceeded without quickly getting into deep trouble. For a Catholic, the Church’s faith is prior to each individual member’s faith, and the Church’s faith is articulated and defended by the living magisterium. Hence, the radically dissenting Catholic theologians set themselves in contradiction to the norm of their faith which, all the same, they nevertheless wished to acknowledge. Otherwise they would have had to admit to themselves and to the Church at large that they were no longer Catholic theologians.