Are bishops and theologians at odds?

    Marianist Father James Heft is not optimistic about the future of Catholic universities, but don’t take that the wrong way.
     “I am a person of hope,” he told a crowd at Loyola University on Jan. 16. “I am not an optimist because optimism and despair already know the story. Hope is open, confident, almost cocky about the future. I am confident in the future.”
    Father Heft spoke as part of Loyola’s Presidential Centennial Guest Series, and he shared his message of hope during a talk titled “The Church, Bishops and Theologians: A Dynamic Tension.”
    Father Heft, a theologian himself, is president of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California. Although he did highlight  the important role of U.S. Catholic universities – 20 percent of Catholic colleges in the world are in the United States – his lecture focused mainly on the relationships between bishops and theologians in the life of the church.
    “We live in a time of heightened polarization, polarization that often ends in standoffs,” he said. “Can these standoffs be turned into dynamic tension, which leads all to serve the common good?”
    That, he said, is a question worth exploring.
    Before exploring the question, Father Heft gave a quick history of the evolving relationship between theologians and bishops, relationships that have been “complex and highly contested.”
    In the early church, bishops and theologians were one and the same, and theology was tied to pastoral issues of the day. It was a theologically creative period, Father Heft said.
    The 6th century brought the rise of monastic life and the ways of asceticism. By the 12th and 13th centuries, he said, the establishment of universities brought about academic theology, with debates rising up about the newly translated works of Aristotle.
    “By that time,” Father Heft said, “few theologians were bishops,” and theologians carried considerable weight in the church. That influence continued even after the “turmoil of the Protestant Reformation” of the 16th century and through the Council of Trent.
    Two centuries later, he added, things began to change as theologians came under more scrutiny from bishops due to the Enlightenment and the influence of secularization. The influence of theologians continued to be minimal, Father Heft said, until Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council in 1959.
    “During Vatican II, the bishops recognized the importance of the work of theologians,” Father Heft said. During the council, there was more dialogue between the two groups. “They were learning from each other.”
    In the 50 years since the council, Father Heft said, there have been “new strains and difficulties.”
    How, then, does he see the dynamic tension used creatively?
    Father Heft pointed to the ideas of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Cardinal Avery Dulles and theologian Yves Congar.
    “They each recognized the distinctive roles but did not see them as being opposed,” he said. Bishops, theologians and the laity, Father Heft said, “need to be open and receptive to each other.” And all should be grounded in the common spirit: “All theological research should focus on life in the truth of Jesus Christ. … All are called to be obedient to the truth.”
    Relating this all to the mission of Catholic universities, Father Heft cited Pope John Paul II’s document, “Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” which calls for preserving academic freedom “within the confines of truth and the common good,” adding that the document states: “Catholic theologians should recognize the bishops’ authority.”
    While Father Heft used the words of Cardinal Newman, hoping that university theologians would have “the necessary elbow room” to do their work, he expressed the desire that bishops and theologians, in their distinct callings, would “respect one another’s competencies.”
    There will always be tension, Father Heft said, but he has hope that tension can be used for the common good. And that will benefit the mission of Catholic universities, where “the most productive theologians are found.”
    Karen Baker can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
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