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Theologian Warns of Parallel Catholic Universes

Jeffrey Bruno

Matthew Archbold - published on 08/02/13

The difference between books by cleric-led theology and lay-led theology might be indicative of a larger problem facing the Catholic Church in America, particularly in the form of "parallel Catholic universes" which do not intersect.

Books by Catholic theologians you might find for sale at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., are vastly different from those you might find for sale at a college bookstore or a Catholic Theological Society of America convention.

That difference is indicative of a larger problem facing the Catholic Church in America, says David Cloutier, associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University, in a piece at Catholic Moral Theology. In fact, he says it’s an indication that there are currently “parallel Catholic universes” which do not intersect.

While some lay Catholics do teach in seminaries and attend groups like the Academy of Catholic Theologians, these institutional settings feature many more clerics. Participants in these spheres, both in their training and their driving concerns, are far more oriented to the Church than to academic success and social influence. They increasingly have access to an alternative universe of publishers, diocesan and parish formation programs, and the like. One can browse through the bookstore at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC and find the entire moral theology section dominated by authors and publishers completely different from (say) the tables at the annual CTSA convention. The peculiarity here goes beyond an aim at different audiences – increasingly, what exists are parallel Catholic universes which do not intersect.

Cloutier writes that moral theologians have “virtually no ecclesiastical oversight or guidance” from the Church. He adds that while that independence can lead to innovative ideas, it also leads to problems.

He points out that with the shift from cleric-led theology to lay-led theology, the subject is very rarely put into practice in any form anymore. “The radical decline in the sacrament of reconciliation has not been matched by the rise of alternative forms of practice, such as small discernment groups, spiritual direction, or even intentional and intensive social justicework,” he said.

Theologians employed at colleges primarily deal with college students, said Cloutier, and that offers them a somewhat myopic view of Catholics. “On the one hand, the extended opportunity to engage in study and dialogue with a real variety of students, enhanced by the ‘enforcement power’ of grades, is something that pastors and religious educators might envy,” wrote Cloutier.

“On the other hand, it must be kept in mind that most of the Catholic Church does not consist of 18-22 year olds.”
Cloutier states that he believes moral theologians care about serving the Church, but believes the question facing them is “how does one do it?”

Cloutier believes that Catholic theologians today must overcome the divisions which separate them or Catholicism may experience drastic losses similar to those experienced by mainline Protestantism.

Originally published at Catholic Education Daily on 1 August 2013.

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