The topic covered in this collection of essays constitutes one of the most pressing matters of discussion within the Catholic Church today. In the American context especially, there exists a great deal of tension between ecclesiastical authorities and theologians working in universities. When the Magisterium Intervenes attempts to identify some of the underlying causes of this tension, while also sketching out concrete proposals for a more fruitful relationship between theologians and the magisterium. Even though the contributors are mostly critical of recent magisterial interventions, they admit upfront that such interventions are sometimes necessary. In the words of the volume’s editor: “As Catholic theologians, all of us accept, in principle, the authority of the pope and bishops to pronounce on church doctrine as a means of preserving the integrity of the apostolic faith” (vii). Their criticisms, then, focus not so much on the magisterium’s decisions to intervene, but on how such interventions have generally been conducted—for example, with a high level of secrecy and hardly any dialogue between the accused party and those who are conducting the investigation.
As is often the case with volumes that bring together multiple contributors, some of the essays stand out above others. In my view, the most essential essay in the volume is Vincent J. Miller’s contribution, “When Mediating Structures Change: The Magisterium, the Media, and the Culture Wars” (154-174). Miller helpfully shows how digital immediacy has revolutionized the way in which magisterial teaching is received. From his perspective, our contemporary cultural ecology—one characterized by deterritorialization and identity politics—“systematically favors extreme rhetoric and contrastive identities” (167). Within this context, special agenda organizations often wield more influence among lay Catholics than does the hierarchy. Moreover, “[b]ishops who function according to the rules of special agenda organizations are much more effective in the mediascape” (171). In the conclusion to his essay, Miller writes that church leaders must resist the temptation to mimic popular forms of cultural discourse, so as to accomplish “the less gratifying work of holding the complex whole of the faith together” (174).
Richard Gaillardetz’s concluding essay builds on Miller’s insights by offering some concrete suggestions as to how the magisterium can more faithfully fulfill its responsibilities. From Gaillardetz’s vantage point, bishops and members of the curia would be well served to practice more patience in their oversight of the theological discipline. Within this discussion, Gaillardetz draws upon the outlook of John Henry Newman: “As Newman once noted, truth ‘is the daughter of time.’ The current magisterial tendency to rush to doctrinal judgment with every new theological foray forgets Newman’s important insight: divine truth emerges only slowly, patiently, and always with a certain tentativeness” (285). Furthermore, when ecclesiastical authorities deem that intervention has become necessary, this process should be characterized by “a genuinely reciprocal and dialogical relationship” (288). The unwillingness of the magisterium to foster such a relationship seems to be the source of greatest complaint among the contributors to the volume.
Undoubtedly, there is much to criticize in the “record of magisterial activism” (vii), particularly in recent decades, and many of the criticisms in this volume reach their target. On the flip side, one can easily envision the benefits of a companion volume that would draw attention to the ways in which theologians could improve upon how they relate to the magisterium. As an example, could there be instances in which it would be beneficial—precisely for the sake of a healthier cultural ecology—for theologians to scale back the fervor of their resistance to a particular magisterial teaching (say, the inadmissibility of ordaining women to the sacramental priesthood)? Along these lines, how might the relationship between theologians and the magisterium be improved if more theologians conducted their work with the spirit of Newman, who concluded his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk with the following confession: “I say there is only one Oracle of God, the Holy Catholic Church and the Pope as her head. To her teaching I have ever desired all my thoughts, all my words to be conformed; to her judgment I submit what I have now written, what I have ever written, not only as regards its truth, but as to its prudence, its suitableness, and its expedience.” While Gaillardetz and company primarily hone in on ways in which the magisterium could reform its practices, I left this volume with the conviction that there remains significant room for improvement on the part of theologians as well.