I was reading Robert Strimple’s outstanding article on modern Roman Catholic theology (in the book on Roman Catholicism edited by John Armstrong), and I was faced with a whopping conundrum. That conundrum can be simply phrased: who speaks for Roman Catholicism? For many people, that answer is simple: the magisterium speaks for the church. The problem is that the magisterium is becoming increasingly liberal. One only has to look at the state of Roman Catholic education in the United States to see this. The vast majority of the major voices in American Roman Catholic education are liberal. It is only a matter of time before the Pope is a liberal, and there are some who are claiming that Francis is a liberal.
The problem it creates for Protestants like me, who wish to write on Roman Catholicism, then, is which documents and writers to engage? David Wells, in his book Revolution in Rome (written quite a while ago!), believed that the future of Roman Catholic theology was liberal, not conservative. And so, he decided to engage the liberal Roman Catholicism. What seems to me to be happening is that the conservative element in the magisterium is becoming increasingly isolated and marginalized. If I decide to use the historical documents of the RCC as the basis for engagement, then I won’t engage the majority of Roman Catholic authors who are writing today. If I engage the McBriens of Catholicism, then I risk being accused of distorting the Roman Catholic faith. While it is true that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a very authoritative document (indeed, one of the few lynch-pin documents available today that seems to be well-loved and well-used by all Roman Catholics), it still doesn’t seem to be getting at the disagreements between the liberals and the conservatives. It is, despite its length, a fairly basic document. That is not a criticism of it, per se. It is a catechism. Catechisms are supposed to be basic! But that limits its effectiveness in solving the problem I have just outlined. The effect of the problem on writing, then, is that I would almost have to write two books, one on historical Roman Catholicism, and the other on Roman Catholic theology today. If I wrote only one, then I would have to choose, or else risk writing a disjointed book that would have two different sections, and that would involve a lot of repetition wherever the historical Roman Catholicism and the modernist Roman Catholicism overlapped.
Equal to the effect this bifurcation in Roman Catholicism would have on my writing is the effect this would have on the readership. The majority liberals would probably not be terrifically interested in a Protestant book on historical Roman Catholicism. They would just respond by saying, “But he doesn’t engage modern thinkers like Rahner and Schillebeeckx.” If I engage Rahner and Schillebeeckx (and that’s only the tip of the iceberg, of course), then the conservatives will retort, “But that is not the magisterium, that’s only individual theologians, who don’t speak for the magisterium.” Again, the problem is this: who speaks for Rome? Technically speaking (de jure), the magisterium does speak for Rome. Practically speaking, the magisterium is becoming increasingly ignored, such that (de facto) the liberal theologians speak for Rome. I know that the Called to Communion folk would probably advise me to ignore Rahner and Schillebeeckx. They have already advised me to ignore McBrien. I don’t think I can do that. But it might mean two books, not just one. They could profitably be divided according to the Roman Catholic distinction between the magisterium and theology (which distinction Strimple helpfully points out as one which evangelicals often ignore, to their great detriment).
The last question is this: what caused this problem and division? Strimple believes that the floodgates were opened with Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante Spiritu (1943). This encyclical, while including some conservative-sounding language about Scripture, stressed the need for biblical criticism. Whether Roman Catholic biblical theologians were rightly interpreting it this way or not, the effect was a mass transit to the methods of modern biblical criticism. I would argue that this change was the largest change in Roman Catholic history, and resulted in a great fragmentation of Roman Catholicism into many different groups (a fragmentation largely paralleled in Protestantism, of course). I think that discussion about whether Vatican II changed Rome is actually a moot question in the light of the far larger sea-change that happened after that encyclical. It is, of course, far easier to time-stamp Vatican II than it would be to investigate the changes that modernist biblical methods brought about, but it seems to me that anything that did “change” with V2 is dependent on the prior change of modernism. I would certainly refer the new ecumenical stances in Roman Catholic theology and even magisterial documents to these changes. Having read two histories of V2 so far (Faggioli and O’Malley), the struggle between the curia and the majority of the bishops over the agenda of V2 seems to bear out this thesis.