Michael Lawler has written a sprawling, ambitious book that comes in under 200 pages, a feat for which he should be praised, and an example which ought to be followed by other scholars. In What Is and What Ought to Be, Lawler tackles several interrelated issues often not explored by theologians, in particular the relationship of sociological knowledge to theology. Because the issues he raises are so vital to almost any theologian working today, the book should be required reading. However, in covering such a sprawling terrain, Lawler's work fails in certain key respects, though these errors are as constructive as many of his insights.
Lawler begins with three largely epistemological chapters. The first lays out understandings of what theology and sociology (and the subject doing each) are, the second engages several contemporary projects that have tried to relate sociology and theology, and the third provides an extended account of the sociology of knowledge, aimed at presenting a "relational" view of truth, a view that is neither relativistic (in a nihilist sense) nor unconditioned. These chapters present key themes and ideas, which are then utilized in the four following chapters—on scripture, church, the notion of reception, and specific moral issues.
Strongly arguing for the importance of Rahner's supernatural existential view of the primacy of uncreated grace, Lawler suggests (via much of Lonergan's epistemology) that "the task of practical theology is both description and evaluation of the present world and ecclesial situation. For description, theology relies on social science; for evaluation of the present situation, theology distills this description in the still of ecclesial and theological perspective" (p. 42). This preference for a correlational method where each discipline is allowed to pursue its specialized tasks is then further qualified by the sociological argument for the constructed, province-specific character of all knowledge about humanity, suggesting a required humility in the theological task of "distillation", reflecting Mannheim's "openness to totality." The theological chapters that follow make less specific use of some of this earlier theoretical material, but proceed to demonstrate through use of selected ideas the fundamental point that the moral teaching of the church must be open to ongoing interpretation and reception by the whole church, and that sociology can both help with the empirical task of trying to discern reception and the theoretical task of understanding why reception is necessary. Because of the nature of Christian scripture, because of the developed ecclesiology of Vatican II, and because of the long-standing notions of reception and sensus fideli, the "teaching" church must be alert to the data and the necessity of reception.
Obviously the book's extraordinary breadth is to be welcomed. It is particularly important for moral theologians, because it ties together many theoretical issues that are often covered in isolation or inadequately. In the Epilogue, Lawler forcefully and effectively places his text "in the category of quaestio disputata," rather than as preaching or pastoral theology. As with his previous volume on specific question on marriage, Lawler is very faithful to this format; his writings are not manifestos, but well-honed arguments. And as such, they are very welcome; any reader, whether they agree with Lawler's conclusions or not, will need to consider his argument.
Having said that, in the spirit of dialogue, let me offer some criticisms. First and foremost, Lawler has a tendency to rely uncritically on dualisms—such as that between "classicist" and modern, historically-conscious knowing, or between an "exclusively juridical" view of church and a communion view—that fail to reflect his initial desire to be "part of a painstaking and strong center" (p. 1). These dichotomies operate to prejudice the argument in his favor. Moreover, even his own text renders them problematic. For example, after spending several pages suggesting that the "exclusively juridical" view of the church dominated Catholic ecclesiology for nine centuries prior to Vatican II, he then further on reminds us that the dominant ecclesiology going into Vatican II was that of the Mystical Body of Christ, an image that is not easily understood as "exclusively juridical." Perhaps the most problematic dualism is that of "unconverted" and "converted" theologians, categories whose use in other hands would likely not be very kind to Lawler.
Secondly, Lawler's own theology, so heavily reliant on Rahner and Lonergan, is never called into question. He admirably defends his project over against the anti-sociological project of radical orthodoxy, but does not ask whether the transcendentalism of Rahner and Lonergan should be accepted over the more concretely Christological theologies of a von Balthasar or a Barth. This is especially important because Lawler's whole project relies on the idea that the mystery of God is revealed through history, not a specific salvation history, but through all aspects of history and human existence. If this claim is false—that is to say, if some parts of history (while remaining historical) are privileged sources of revelation—then both his perspectivism and his reliance on sociology as pre-revelatory must be heavily qualified. While few if any distinguished Catholic theologians would claim some sort of an ahistorical fundamentalism, many have argued against the formulation of the supernatural existential. Here again, Lawler's tendency to create false dualisms is misleading.
Thirdly, it later seems as though the Church (understood as communion, and not simply the magisterium) is in fact a privileged "province of meaning," because of its character as a light to the nations. Lawler very nicely explains Lumen Gentium in this manner, but never raises the question about whether this theological claim must then necessarily qualify the sociological claim of perspectival truth.
Fourthly, it seems as though Lawler himself is often guilty of ahistorical reading, as he projects onto the (mostly Jewish) New Testament authors a thoroughly modern notion of pre-reflexive revelatory experience of Jesus. After spending several helpful sections telling the reader that the scriptures are constructed within a historical context, one would have thought that projecting a completely modern notion into the heads of the biblical authors would have been avoided. But here Lawler perhaps reveals a tension in his own project: a reliance on a certain theology and epistemology, without sufficient attention to his own sociological context.
Finally, on the particular questions that Lawler takes up (divorce/remarriage and contraception), there is some unclarity on what exactly we are to make (in a normative sense) of the "non-reception" of these teachings. As he notes, the sociological data indicating non-reception or re-reception "proves nothing theologically. It does, however, raise questions that converted theologians cannot ignore without fulfilling contemporary" prophecies that theologians ignore the "real world" (p. 170). I agree. Of course, the non-reception of just war principles, capital punishment, or premarital sex simply raises questions, and does not of itself argue for development. But then, what has sociology added to the basic theological arguments on these issues? Aren't we (as the last chapter seems to demonstrate) simply referred back to the moral arguments, so that what really matters on the contraception issue is whether marital union is in fact the primary end (as Lawler seems to argue), or whether Pope Paul VI and the 1983 Code accurately reflected the development of Vatican II in teaching that there is no hierarchy of ends, but simply an inseparability? Lawler effectively inquires into the basic contours of the history and development on these teachings, but what would seem necessary (in a "disputed questions" format) is to explain why it is that defenders of the current magisterial teachings on these issues have fully converted to personalism, and yet have not "seen the light" that many of the faithful have seen. Indeed, defenders of the magisterial teachings have forwarded sociological explanations for the difficulties such teachings have faced. As in the case of the first criticism above, Lawler would serve himself well by focusing his powerful lens more pointedly on contemporary arguments defending the magisterial teachings, rather than rehearse the well-known story of how the teaching has developed.
Having said all that, this is a very, very important book, which raises real issue. This text, along with Terry Tilley's Inventing Catholic Tradition, begin to outline a trajectory forward for those of us younger Catholics who find ourselves desiring more tradition than some post-Vatican II theology gives, and yet who find the idea of unchanging and authoritarian tradition completely in-credible in today's church and world.