Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus teaching in Capernaum. Those listening were “astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” (Luke 4:32) Many years ago, I was studying towards a Catechetical Diploma from a conservative distance university. This line was quoted often to us students. We were promised the gift of teaching “with authority” based on the orthodoxy of our learning. Our authority came from being able to say “this is the teaching of the Church.” At the time I thought it was cool.
I spent three and a half years learning the foundational doctrine of our Church. There was no dialogue with course readings. Course marks were based on your ability to repeat what was read and memorized. The writings of past saints and recent popes, the documents of Vatican II, and catechisms were all studied and used as apologetic ammunition. Got a question about Catholic doctrine? Here’s the answer and the proof. It became a game to “spot the heresy” in homilies and writings.
As I was finishing the program, I went through a personal experience with our local church that side-swiped me off the orthodoxy road. As I began to question the integrity and authority of my pastor and bishop, I also began questioning the integrity and authority of what I had learned. My faith was no longer black and white, and a black and white theology could no longer nurture me. I’ve been entrenched in the greyness of questioning and seeking ever since.
The Catholic faith, at its finest, unabashedly uses our God-given gift of reason to seek understanding. We need the foundation of scripture and tradition. We need to understand doctrine in order to have an informed conscience. But, we also need to be in constant dialogue with church teachings to discern that which is built on rock and unchangeable, and that which is organic. This is the job of our theologians. They are taught the specialized skills needed to explore all aspects of our faith. As with all academic specialties, they are accountable to their peers to ensure that integrity is maintained within the theological community.
Unlike other academics, they are also accountable to a higher power – one that sometimes leaves little recourse for self-defense or dialogue. Recent news has centered on the silencing of Elizabeth Johnson`s book, Quest for the Living God. This week the focus of attention is on the English language theological journal, Theological Studies.
People listened in awe to Jesus because he spoke with authority. It’s worth a moment to consider his style of authority. Where did it come from? Is it reflected in the authoritative stance of some of our teachers and leaders?