Theology and the marketplace of ideas

The world of Catholic theology in the United States (or at least, that portion of it that exists online) has for the past 10 days been debating the most fundamental question of the academic discipline: What is theology? The debate was prompted by a plenary address by Duke Divinity School professor Paul Griffiths at the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in San Diego. The address was ostensibly on the topic of theological disagreement, but most of the ensuing discussion has focused on Griffiths’s definition of theology, which many commentators have found narrow and reactive.

Since the conference, I’ve been thinking through two things prompted by Griffiths’s talk. One concerns his definition of theological method, and the other concerns the role of theology (as Griffiths defines it) in an organization like the CTSA.

First, Griffiths argues that theology operates according to a three-step process: discovery, interpretation, and speculation. For him, “discovery” means discovering what the Church has already taught on the topic of investigation. That has to be where academic theologians begin today. For Griffiths, theology does not begin with an ideological commitment to environmentalism, feminism, or social justice. Any inquiry that does begin there cannot be called theology, and therefore, it has no place within theological institutions like seminaries, academic departments, or the CTSA.

But, I argue, the teachings do not have to be rediscovered anew every time. When theologians cite earlier scholars, they are saying that some of the discovery has already been done, and then inquiry can begin at a higher level. (This is not to say that theologians need not return to Church teaching; fresh discoveries are often made by going back to more fundamental sources.)

In addition, while Griffiths is right that a commitment to environmentalism should not precede the discovery of Church teaching, we might discover just such a commitment within the teaching itself—indeed, in places we had not at first expected to find it. In fact, discovery cannot really be done in isolation from interpretation, because we always have to make judgment calls about what teachings are relevant to the topic at hand. Part of the process of discovery involves rummaging around in the the doctrines to see if there is anything there that can be put to a new use.

The second thing I’ve been thinking about is a question: What if Griffiths is right? What should an organization like the CTSA do, if theology is defined strictly as speculation based upon the interpretation of official Church teaching? Griffiths seems to think that the CTSA should then cast aside half of its program, because, on his view at least, CTSA members often do not begin their inquiry within the bounds of official teaching.

That conclusion does not follow, however. Even if theology is as Griffiths describes it, then there is no reason that the CTSA cannot also play host to discussions that do not fit the strict definition of theology. (Cathleen Kaveny has made a similar point.) We might compare the CTSA to an Athenian marketplace. The marketplace is defined by the commerce that occurs within it, but it is also a good place to do other things, as Socrates discovered. So even if the CTSA’s members accepted Griffiths’s definition, they might not thereby want to restrict the conference program to work that fits that definition. As an organization of Catholic scholars well-versed in the life and teaching of the Church, the CTSA might be a place where the Church does some of its thinking—including on topics that are not, strictly speaking, theological.