Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

Building Up a Church Where #BlackLivesMatter – Br. Thomas-Martin Miller

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Building up the Body of Christ

While consecrated religious may be first responders of a sort, I have arrived at the fast-burning Twitter brushfire of HeresyLetterGate (wherein Ross Douthat suggested that Massimo Faggioli might be a heretic and Faggioli in turn questioned Douthat’s credentials) at a more medieval pace. While the thorns have now burned away, leaving only scorched grass that withers and fades, I remain consumed by Katie Grimes’s powerful coda to the affair, in which she rightly exhorts us to “build a church in which black lives truly matter and to whom white supremacy appears anathema.”  Indeed our guilt must be set out and we must gain wisdom of heart, but I would like to turn Catholic theologians’ attention to the specifically Christological and ecclesiological terrain of Grimes’ exhortation.  In order for teachers of theology to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12 NRSVCE), we must be able to distinguish the place of teaching among the other gifts of Christ with regard to the end that “all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (v13).   A body wracked and bent by racism is far from full stature, but what are the contributions of theology to its maturation? This is closely related to Rod Dreher’s question:

Why study academic theology? Does one do it to shore up the master’s house, and maybe to add new rooms onto it, based on the experience of living in it during a different time? Or does one study academic theology to tear the house down and build something more modern on the footprint?

Only in light of the aims of theology can we understand its nature well enough to ascertain who should be doing it and what rules are necessary for its mature practice in a way that transcends the narrative of polarization.

The knowledge of the Son of God

Kevin Ahern reminds us that “Catholic theologians, as with all other Christians, are called to serve God with all our hearts, minds, and actions in life,” but notes that this “does little to really guide the specific responsibility or vocation of the academic theologian.” Given Katie Grimes’s affinity for his thought, I suggest that “specific responsibility” can be elaborated with reference to Aquinas’s principle that theology, or

Sacred doctrine, being one… considers in each [thing] the same formal aspect, namely, so far as they can be known through divine revelation. Hence…sacred doctrine includes both [speculative and practical aspects]; as God, by one and the same science, knows both Himself and His works…it is more concerned with divine things than with human acts; though it does treat even of these latter, inasmuch as man is ordained by them to the perfect knowledge of God in which consists eternal bliss.

Theologians thus aim at knowledge given by God, both for the sake of union with God and the salvation of humans, made possible by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Word who is God.   Indeed Katie Grimes, Ross Douthat, and Rod Dreher all yearn for eternal bliss, the fullness of friendship with God, both for themselves and for others.

The unity of the Faith

If, as Katie Grimes clarifies, theology is not limited purely by academic credentials, we need this understanding of the aims of theology to resolve Elissa Cutter’s question “about who has the authority to teach in the modern Catholic Church”—one shared by the Cardinal Newman Society. In the body of Quodlibet III, q4, a1, Thomas Aquinas says that because the theology professor does not receive pre-eminence, but only an opportunity to convey their knowledge, it is eminence of knowledge that is required for the theologian, and seeking to teach without knowledge makes a theologian presumptuous. That certainly justifies Grimes’s call for real expertise, but since theological knowledge is of divine things, it exceeds what can be known by the natural light of intelligence and therefore, according to Aquinas, “it proceeds from principles [the articles of faith] established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed” which we know only by special revelation. In order to be truly theological, then, expertise must include knowledge of the faith, held by faith.

This knowledge criterion, rather than being used to exclude, is the basis for Aquinas’s strident argument against theology being restricted to those of one particular state of life. He says that restriction “deserves censure inasmuch as it detracts from that unity in the Church” since per the Gloss (on Rom 12:5) “we are of service to each other, and are in need of the assistance of one another”…“for among many students some will know or understand that, of which others are ignorant.” As Vanessa White puts it, “The moves to visibility, the return of peoples’ ‘stuff,’ the release of entrapped necks begins in our classrooms…It begins with the challenge to be attentive to whose voice is not a part of the conversation, whose face is not a part of the movement, whose perspective is lost in the process.“

Equipping the saints for the work of ministry

Having established the aims of theological discourse and who should participate, what rules ought there be for such discourse? Daniel Cossachi and Kevin Ahern give three criteria for successful theological work:

  • “thorough argument” supported with “ample evidence”
  • “faith seeking understanding” by “adding to the literature in provocative ways” while sticking “close to the tradition”
  • calls for conversion from injustice

These are excellent heuristics, but must be understood more richly than Cossachi and Ahern elaborate. The ample evidence necessary for theological claims can only be, foundationally, that of revelation. Furthermore, the gift of the Holy Spirit to understand and expound this revelation comes with criteria stricter than merely sticking “close to the tradition”; as Aquinas notes, commenting on 1 Pet 4:10-11: “Let him stand in fear, lest he teach anything contrary to the will of God, the authority of Scripture, or the good of his brethren; or, lest he be silent, when he ought to speak.” To fail to speak according to the will of God, the authority of Scripture, or the good of the brethren is in some real sense to not know how to speak, since theological knowledge cannot be attributed to oneself, and the faith itself is one.

In breaking these rules of theological discourse, a theologian corrupts the aim of theology and disqualifies themselves from the expertise needed to speak. Furthermore, they separate themselves from the body of Christ in which we are members “under our Head, the Roman Pontiff” from whom “must we learn what we are to believe and uphold” as Aquinas (probably mistakenly) quotes Cyril of Alexandria (ad 8). Those unjustly silent should also fear this fate, as when theologians ignore the racism that shackles black bodies and has been repeatedly condemned by the Holy See. Aquinas justifies this further insofar as theologians, in virtue of their gift of knowledge, have a duty to the whole body of Christ:

Now as in the physical body there are eyes, so in the mystical body of the Church there are teachers. Hence the Gloss understands the text in the Gospel of St. Matthew (18:9): “If your eye scandalizes you” etc., to refer to ecclesiastical doctors and counsellors. Physical eyesight is useful to the whole body alike, and one limb serves another in its functions. For, as St. Paul says (1 Cor 12:21), “the eye cannot say to the hand: I need not your help; nor again the head to the feet: I have no need of you.” Therefore, everyone who undertakes the office of teaching must perform it for the benefit of all men, of whatsoever condition they may be.

Indeed, as Fr. James Martin points out, this duty towards charity and against injustice must also be extended to other theologians.

The call to convert from injustice cannot only, however, be for the benefit of both sinners and those human persons they sin against. The greatest injustices from which we must convert are those committed against God who “infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way” in sins against religion. The first and greatest commandment of Jesus is to love God—but love of neighbor is like it, and “on these two commandments hang all the law” (Mt 34:40). There can thus be no competition between on the one hand resisting “every wind of doctrine,” “people’s trickery,” and “their craftiness in deceitful scheming” and on the other “speaking the truth in love” whereby “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:14-15).

May God give success to the work of our hands as we join M. Shawn Copeland this Lent in a praxis of redemptive love (“other-regarding, neighbor-loving, selfless to the point of self-sacrifice, fearless and loving in the face of persecution, open, and hopeful”) “sustained only through prayer, self-discipline, and remembrance of the Body of Christ broken for the world. This is another expression of solidarity in the here-and-now anticipating the eschatological healing and building up of the broken body of God’s people.”

Br. Thomas-Martin Miller, O.P. is a cooperator brother of the Province of St. Joseph, in the studentate at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.

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