Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Luke Timothy Johnson disinvited from the Diocese of Belleville

The editorial in the latest Commonweal is the first (and only time) I'm hearing about this incident. Apparently, Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, a Catholic Scripture scholar (who teaches at Emory in Atlanta) was supposed to speak at a Newman Center in the Diocese of Belleville, IL. The event was canceled after Bishop Braxton dis-invited Dr. Johnson, because of his publicly stated views dissenting from important magisterial teaching.

The editorial draws a parallel to the recent incident at Rome's LaSapienza university, where enraged liberals (leftists) protested the Pope's visit, which he canceled.
Conservative Catholics were quick to point out the irony of this illiberal resort to censorship by those who think of themselves as guardians of rationality and open debate. Surely liberals and conservatives, both within and outside the church, can agree that it is better for opponents to hear one another out than to foreclose a respectful exchange of views. Whatever the content of his address, Benedict never posed a threat to academic freedom.

Regrettably, however, censorship is alive not only among secularists at La Sapienza, but also among some bishops who seem to think the best way to obey Benedict's call to strengthen the boundaries of Catholic identity is to marginalize those who question any magisterial teaching.
Of course, any Bishop is well within his bounds in taking the action that Bishop Braxton did: it is the duty of a Bishop to take steps to defend the faith.

That said, I find myself a bit sympathetic with the stance of the editors of Commonweal. The thing is, I wonder often if this is the best way to achieve that end. What message does the dis-invitation of a well-regarded Scripture scholar send? Does it not, yet again, seem to portray the Church as a repressive institution, fearful of open discussion? The arguments and ideas are short-circuited; instead, one gets apologists and opponents of the Bishop's actions.

True, we have seen much -- way too much -- dissent in the past few decades, masquerading under the banner of liberty, progress and creativity. Dissent that has been corrosive to tradition, in the literal sense, of the ability to pass on the faith. (Just take an informal poll of more left-leaning Catholics to see how many of their children still practice Catholicism)

However, reducing fidelity to the Magisterium to some kind of external litmus test to a party-line i.e., to authoritarianism, is not the answer; and, I suspect, that is exactly what these kinds of actions do. The question I ask myself is: how do people come to trust the Church's authority, especially when it seems to contradict their own experience, and flies in the face of a culture that is distrustful of institutional claims to authority to begin with?

Let there be debates! (Johnson and Even Tushnet had a memorable exchange in the pages of Commonweal a little while back, on the vexed question of homosexuality) Let different ideas battle it out! If Johnson was going to speak on subjects where he expresses dissent, find someone else to respond! This was supposed to be a University setting, after all. Let's not appear to be timid about defending what we believe. Ours is, after all, a reasonable faith.

Seeming to shut up the opposition, does not, in the long run, help the cause of truth, or of fidelity to the Magisterium, and seems, at least on the surface, to confirm the fears (expressed mainly in more liberal Catholic circles) that all the rhetoric about the truth being proposed and not imposed is just empty rhetoric.

[Disclaimer: This reflection is based entirely upon what I've read in the Commonweal editorial. I have no other knowledge of the incident.

Additionally, this is not to say that simply any perspective can be tolerated in a Catholic setting, or promoted as Catholic: the question of identity, and boundaries is very important, particularly after decades of so much dissent. For instance, questions about human life, especially abortion, are clearly of a different order of magnitude.

Actually, I would think that in a Catholic setting, inviting only a speaker who is going to speak on a topic and present a dissenting perspective would be inadvisable, and even wrong. Some might say that presenting a debate between a dissenting position and an orthodox position might seem to suggest that both positions have the same claim to authority. This is a valid criticism. However, in some contexts, such discussions and debates are warranted -- a University or college setting might be one of those contexts. In fact, anything that encourages a return to discussion and argument about matters of truth, rather than simply treating everything as a matter of opinion or politics, i.e. power, is to be welcomed, IMO.

Just some initial reflections. Feedback more than welcome.]


Anonymous said...


I have to disagree. I admire LTJ, but his disagreement is not a small one. He has said that what is authoritative is not Scripture or Tradition, but his (and his family's) experience. That has broad, broad implications. It's not just about homosexuality.

One can twist that line of reasoning to justify anything, and a college-age audience would.

I mean...why stop at homosexuality? Johnson's stance gives no guidance, again, other than his own feelings and experience.

What's too bad isn't that he was disinvited. What's too bad is that a fine scholar has decided that he is his own Church. Especially if you read "The Creed" and sees how strongly he defends the concept of tradition.


Fr. Andrew said...

Bishop Braxton's primary obligation before Jesus Christ is as chief shepherd of Belleville. Instead of assuming that BB concluded that LTJ didn't meet a litmus test, what if BB considered LTJ in all his aspects, then considered his flock, and then concluded that now is not the time and this is not the place for such discussion?

The only quote of Braxton's letter that Commonweal gives seems to suggest this: The reason is quite simple. I do not wish Catholic institutions or organizations to invite speakers into the diocese who have written articles or given lectures that oppose, deny, reject, undermine, or call into question the authentic teachings of the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

LTJ's main flaw, as Matt points out, is on the issue of authority- where does authority lie? In the individual Christian, Sola Scriptura, or in the Catholic vision. If LTJ no longer follows that vision then the scripture he so brilliantly defended is rendered relative to his personal experience.

You've sparked some thoughts that I might need to flesh out...

Gashwin said...

Thanks y'all. I need to think this through a bit more. I think part of it is that I admire LTJ a lot -- he was a huge influence when I was working on my Masters in Scripture.

Mattheus Mei said...

"Let there be debates!" This above anything else is Catholic Tradition stretching back to the Mega-Star of catholic Orthodoxy Thomas Aquinas and beyond to even Augustine and Jerome and others. Debating and dialogue are two quintissentially catholic activities.

I am inclined to believe what the Bishop did by disinviting LTJ is a slap in the face of one of our most hallowed traditions. And why did he do it? As a response to catholic liberalization? perhaps. As a response to his own scandal and an enfeebled effort to reassert his authority, perhaps. Only the bishop knows for certain. In either case, shame on the Bishop.

And I have to disagree with you matt (and Fr. Andrew), I don't believe: "What's too bad is that a fine scholar has decided that he is his own Church."
Just because you disagree with the church even publically on homosexuality doesn't mean that you yourself are declaring yourself outside of the church and your own church.

If that were the case then even some of the great Catholic thinkers of previous ages whom we've found our current magesterium in disagreement with over their teachings on other facets of our theology would be outside the church, something you'll find no one willing to say or anathematize over - especially when taking their entire corpus of work and teaching into consideration.

There's nothing wrong with dissent on what is arguable not a quintessential part of our faith. Let's face it, in the grand scheme of Christian faith and theology, if it came down to which is more important - transubstantiation of the host,the resurrection of the dead, the Trinity, the call to feed the poor, the idea that murder is a sin, the existence of Hell and Purgatory or homosexuality, homosexuality is simply not important.

WordWench said...

I think it's always more useful to allow a controversial person to speak and then provide some counterpoint to that person's views. Maybe allow this guy to speak and then have somebody else on the program who clarifies traditional magisterial teaching. I have a real problem with being told "Thou Shalt Not Hear somebody speak" because they aren't one hundred percent orthodox. Rather, in most cases, it's a better teaching moment for the faithful if they can hear both sides of the issue.

Gashwin said...

Hey Matty (i.e. Mattheus): Dissent on homosexuality (and by dissent I mean the kind of public dissent that LTJ has expressed, and not decisions that individuals might make in their conscience) is not trivial. (Not that conscience is trivial either!) We are dealing with issues that are tied to the deposit of faith.

I actually agree that the issue here is authority -- as I've articulated to you when we've talked: when there is a conflict between personal experience and the tradition, particularly Magisterial tradition, privileging personal experience over the teaching office isn't the Catholic way. That's what LTJ has done.

That doesn't put him outside the Church necessarily, as in a formal excommunication: note that Braxton didn't excommunicated him; no one has claimed that he isn't Catholic, and so on. That wasn't the issue at all, for me.

However, this kind of privileging of personal experience is basically a Protestant impulse. I think that's what might be meant by "making his own church."

My call for debate and discussion wasn't what one hears from more left-leaning types about "dialogue" -- i.e. we need to discuss things because the truth isn't clear, or that we can establish the truth somehow by committee.

It was more a sense: these kinds of actions tend to reinforce an image of a church that is afraid of disagreement on contentious issues, and tends to reduce orthodoxy to an imposed party line. It tends to create defensiveness, and the actual issue at hand gets obscured.

That's what I want to think through a bit more and see if there is a different way to deal with such dissent.

Also, for me, the fact that it was Braxton (who's had a rocky record in his diocese) wasn't the issue per se.

pritcher said...

I'm torn about this as well (and what you've written is the only thing I've read on this, so my reaction is more general than to anything specific to this case). So here's my dos centavones.

I know (from my own experience) that the impulse to silence those who one knows to be teaching error can stem from a fear that the truth isn't strong enough to take it. But isn't that naive? Doesn't God say to that attitude, "Get behind me, Satan"?

God became man and turned the other cheek. And cheek-turning is not the rhetorical slam-dunk we often think ought to be our response to error. We don't want a God that lets Himself get dissed.

But we also know that in the long run God won't be dissed. I mean, if we honestly search for The Truth, we'll get God, so of course open and honest debate is fine--necessary, in fact. If we wrestle with God (and we ought to), God's gonna win.


That qualifier "honestly" is a big one, and so often error is so much more appealing on its surface than the truth. Too often we're willing to be dishonest with ourselves and believe something because it suits us or makes us immediately happy rather than because the evidence points to it. We don't really want to wrestle.

So is a speaker in a situation like this really coming to wrestle? If, by dis-inviting a speaker whose attractive message of ultimate self-determination very possibly may lead souls away from God, a shepherd can keep even one soul from turning its back on God, isn't that worth it?

To put it another way, which do we value more: souls or their freedom?

Ultimately I think the answer to this has to be "yes"--the classic Catholic both/and--I'm just not sure what that looks like in this case, how that's not just sophistry.

Well lookee here, square one.

Mac said...

Much though I favour the principle of hearing all sides of issues and not stifling diverse opinion, I have to say that the ongoing controversy in the Anglican Church is becoming so boring that a little bit of peremptoriness on the part of the keepers of the flame of tradition wouldn't be at all unwelcome. I wonder how Eastern Orthodoxy, which is similarly autocephalous in polity, manages to keep its prelates and theologians in line.

WordWench said...

I still favor the idea of presenting this type of "dissenting" speaker in a debate format where you also feature another speaker who presents the authentic magisterial teaching. While I can't remember the exact speakers involved, we had a similar speaking situation in South Carolina several years ago and I remember coming away from the experience feeling I knew much more about how and why the Church teaches what it does than I would have if i had just heard one side of the story presented. Sometimes the truths of the Catholic faith are much more effective and have much more meaning when they are presented in the light of what dissenting or secular voices offer.
Just an opinion. Again, my biggest problem is feeling that someone from on high is pronouncing what all Catholics can and cannot hear in a forum of discussion. Perhaps this speaker could, as Gashwin noted, come to the area as a speaker at a college or university rather than at a diocesan function. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

LTJ is a faux intellectual dressed upon the robe of dissent. It is easy to charge those in authority with discrimination and the like, but it is another to discuss the intricacies of the truth, to listen to the magisterium, and not to be a scandal to others. I tire of the like of LTJ and old claim that those who claim authority over these institutions are simple minds of days gone by. Amazingly, this gentleman LTJ's writings are simple illogic.