Controversial Theologian Invited to Catholic St. Louis UniversityPosted by in Faith & Culture | Holiness & Prayer
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“Father Thomas, What is the deal with the recent controversy surrounding Saint Louis University’s decision to invite theologian Todd Salzman to speak?” —Mary
Todd Salzman is the chairman of the theology department at Creighton University in Omaha. He was recently invited by students at St. Louis University to give the keynote speech at its 6th annual Undergraduate Marriage and Dating Conference this coming April.
The controversy revolves around the views of this theologian and the appropriateness of giving him a platform to speak at a Catholic university.
This past September 15 the US Bishops’ Doctrine Committee issued a statement concerning the theological errors of a book on sexual ethics, coauthored by Salzman along with Creighton professor Michael Lawler.
The work is titled The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology and was judged by the Bishops’ committee to be based “on a methodology that marks a radical departure from the Catholic theological tradition.” According to the Bishops’ statement, this flawed methodology leads the authors to “a whole range of conclusions that are contrary to Catholic teaching.”
So the question is whether this theologian should be allowed to speak at a Catholic university.
As Pope John Paul II taught, theologians are obliged “to set forth the Church’s teaching and to give, in the exercise of their ministry, the example of a loyal assent” to the Magisterium’s teaching in the areas of both dogma and morality (see Veritatis Splendor, no. 110).
Theologians are not above the Church, but are themselves members of the faithful, and bear the special honor and privilege to expound on the Church’s teaching and make it alive and comprehensible to their brothers and sisters. They cannot, however, use this privilege to teach doctrine that is foreign to the faith of the Church. While there is much legitimate diversity among theologians, they must still remain true to the faith of the Church, since they speak in her name.
It is the role of the bishops, on the other hand, to protect the rights of the faithful to receive authentic Catholic teaching that corresponds to the Church’s doctrine. According to the Second Vatican Council, Bishops are to defend the faithful from false teaching, “vigilantly warding off errors that are threatening their flock” (see Lumen Gentium, no. 25). One of the ways they do this is by making sure that schools and universities bearing the name “Catholic” teach in accordance with Catholic belief (see Ex Corde Ecclesiae, art. 5, 2). Another way they do this is by warning the faithful about texts that distort true Catholic teaching.
According to the US Bishops’ statement, the theology set forth in the book by Lawler and Salzman “leads to many positions in clear conflict with authoritative Church teaching.” For instance, the Bishops continue, according to Lawler and Salzman, “a sexual act of virtually any physical description” can be justified “if this act has a suitable meaning in the minds of those involved.” So the authors end up defending the moral legitimacy of homosexual acts, premarital sex, masturbation, artificial insemination and contraception.
The bishops concluded that the ideas in The Sexual Person are
“clearly in contradiction to the authentic teaching of the Church, cannot provide a true norm for moral action and in fact are harmful to one’s moral and spiritual life.”
Obviously, there is a big difference between a ban on a theologian and problems with a particular work of a theologian. The Church will in certain rare cases, for grave reasons, remove a professor’s permission to teach as a Catholic theologian, since a theologian presumably teaches within the faith of the Catholic Church, and not in opposition to it. This is not the case here, where the Bishops have simply put the faithful on guard with respect to the ideas set forth in The Sexual Person.
On the other hand, one wonders why a Catholic university would choose to invite a theologian whose work was so recently judged doctrinally deficient to provide the keynote address at an academic conference dealing with the very topic for which he was rebuked. Salzman’s visit to SLU’s campus will mark his first talk at a Catholic university since the U.S. Bishops’ Conference issued its September statement.
In a work entitled The Nature and Mission of Theology (Ignatius Press, 2005), then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered an insightful reflection regarding the special responsibility of theologians. He noted that when a theologian accepts the Church’s commission to teach in her name, he is entrusted with an authority that implies a special responsibility. He accepts the obligation to impose limits upon himself.
Ratzinger went on to say that when we hear of the abuse of power in the Church, we naturally think of the Church’s hierarchy. What we fail to realize, however, is that such abuse also occurs on the part of theologians, when they use the teaching authority they have been given to express private opinions contrary to the Church they represent. This involves “the exploitation of the readiness to listen and trust” of the faithful.
One thing is legitimate academic freedom. Quite another thing is holding up as models and teachers those who misrepresent the very institution in whose name and by whose authority they speak. The US Bishops’ Doctrinal Committee was courageous in its well-articulated critique of The Sexual Person, since the bishops knew full well that they would receive nothing but abuse for their efforts. Let’s hope to see similar courage exercised in other cases where the integrity of Catholic teaching is threatened.
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