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Baseball, theology, and guilds

There’s more than enough blame to parcel out in major league baseball’s steroids scandal. Ownership ignored the problem because juiced home-run numbers were reviving interest in the pastime after the 1994 strike, a debacle which managed a feat that had previously eluded the combined wickedness of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo — the cancellation of the World Series. Individual players — greedy, arrogant, vainglorious, and/or cynical — shredded the integrity of their sport, gave horrible example to young people (sometimes with lethal consequences), and put their own health at grave risk.

The players’ union was perhaps the most villainous of villains in this nasty drama, however. Time and again, the union obstinately refused to consider even cursory drug-testing, on the specious grounds that testing would violate the players’ civil rights. Until leaked grand jury testimony last year forced the union and Major League Baseball to agree on a testing program with serious penalties, the union was intransigently opposed to testing, holding the possibility of an anti-testing work stoppage over the owners’ heads like a sword of Damocles. Once again, as in the 1994 strike, the union acted as if the good of the game wasn’t its business.

The Major League Baseball Players Association is widely and accurately regarded as the most powerful of unions for professional athletes. It’s also the union with the narrowest understanding of its members’ interests and its own purpose. That a union must defend its own goes without saying. When a union defends only its own — when a union declares that the common good isn’t its concern — something is seriously awry.

Which brings us, by analogy, to the Catholic Theological Society of America.

Earlier this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Notification” on the book Jesus Symbol of God, by Father Roger Haight, S.J. The notification identified profound doctrinal problems in Father Haight’s understanding of the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, the saving character of the death of Jesus, the resurrection, and the uniqueness and universal significance of Jesus as savior of the world. The Congregation therefore concluded that until Father Haight brought his theology into line with the settled doctrine of the Catholic Church, Father Haight “may not teach Catholic theology.”

The board of directors of the Catholic Theological Society of America [CTSA] then issued a statement expressing its “profound distress” at the Congregation’s action. Jesus Symbol of God, the statement continued, “has done a great service in framing crucial questions that need to be addressed today.” (What these questions are went unremarked; in fact, little that Father Haight proposes in his book hasn’t been proposed before — in some cases, centuries ago.) Moreover, according to the CTSA directors, “the Congregation’s intervention will most likely discourage debates over the book, effectively stifling further criticism and undermining our ability as Catholic theologians to openly critique our colleagues.”

Forget the split infinitive in the last sentence and focus on what’s being suggested here: the CDF notification on Jesus Symbol of God will impede further theological critique of Father Haight’s work because few members of the theologians’ guild will want to be regarded as running dogs of the Vatican. This is a defense of the integrity of scholarship? No, this is the CTSA acting like the Major League Baseball Players Association, circling the wagons to protect its own (even when they’re wrong) and ignoring the common good. This is a scholarly association become a protectionist guild.

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The CTSA statement also deplored the prohibition against Father Haight being identified as a teacher of Catholic theology. Why? He manifestly isn’t proposing a Catholic understanding of core claims in the Creed. Father Haight is free to speculate ad infinitum about Christology, Trinitarian theology, and the theology of salvation at Union Theological Seminary, an ecumenical school where he now teaches. What the Congregation insists is that he not present these speculations as “Catholic theology” under the auspices of a Catholic institution. The theologians’ guild imagines this as repression. Others — especially parents paying $40,000/yr. at what advertise themselves as Catholic colleges and universities — might call it consumer protection.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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