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Political Theology, An Encounter in History: A Further Response to Paul Griffiths

In my post last Friday, I briefly summarized Paul J. Griffiths’ address to the recent Catholic Theological Society of America convention outlining the proper method for Catholic theology and what he views as an adequate basis for theological disagreement. I then presented two criticisms of the address: its failure to fully take into account the role of personal faith in doing theology, and the absence of the notion that theology is reflection on the faith of all the faithful, not just on magisterial doctrine.

In this post I will explain how, although not explicitly doing so, Griffiths’ address offers a critique of political theology. Then, building on my criticisms from the earlier post, I will provide a defense of Catholic political theology, while taking into consideration the challenge posed by Griffiths’ critique.

First, it is important to define what we mean by political theology. It is a term with several meanings. In the broadest possible sense, political theology refers to “the use of Christian theological arguments in political discussion,” as Oliver O’Donovan and Jean Lockwood O’Donovan phrase it in the introduction to From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (xv). In the late twentieth century, however, political theology took on a more specific meaning, referring to a particular approach to doing theology. Political theology in this sense refers to theology that is self-aware of its historical context, and in particular its political context; theology, whether directly or indirectly, legitimizes or critiques the state and other sources of power, such as class, race, or gender, although I share Stephen Long’s critique that the “political” cannot be reduced to an analysis of power, but must also include truth and goodness (Long, “What Makes Theology ‘Political’?: ‘Come Let Us Reason Together’,” Political Theology 5 (2004): 393-409).

So what is Griffith’s critique of political theology? In probably the most critical passage, Griffith writes:

 It is easy, and common, for theologians to find themselves serving and seeking other goods—social justice, perhaps; or world peace; or the preservation of the created order—as if pursuing these things were theology’s primary task. But it is not. These topics, and many others like them, are theological only to the extent that treatment of them flows from and is integrated with theology’s response to what the LORD has given us of himself. (14)

Although I agree with much of her critique, to which I will return later, I believe Meghan Clark overstates her case when she writes that “Whether it was the speaker’s intention or not — he simply defined my field – Catholic social thought – out of what theology properly does.” But Griffith clearly does make room for political theology, including Catholic social thought, in the broad sense defined above, if one understands that it “flows from and is integrated with” God’s self-revelation. Also, I don’t think Griffiths excludes theologians from drawing on non-theological sources, such as economics, law, or political science, as long as their primary task is to integrate that material with theological reflection.

Rather, Griffith’s point seems to be that those theologies that take on political aims, in particular by drawing on the experience of living within a particular social and political context, risk failing to do theology properly speaking; as David Cloutier rightly puts it, “the contested point is whether experience is used in ways that trump established authoritative teaching.” In other words, political theology risks baptizing with theological language a political agenda arrived at by non-theological means, rather than subjecting that agenda to the infinite mystery of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

As I explained in my previous post, magisterial teaching itself defines the faith of the church as the faith of all believers, with the magisterium playing a specific, guiding function within the church, a point which Griffiths neglects. Now the church is rightly described as a body, and when one considers the faith of this body as the starting point of theology, it becomes harder to ignore that this faith is lived out in physical, historical existence. As Pope Francis writes in Lumen Fidei, Christ reveals to us “a God who is so close to us that he entered our human history” (#18), and who is known by the believer through “an encounter which takes place in history” (#38).

Undoubtedly, the historical moment in which the church finds itself today, like any time, is one marked by inequalities and injustices. What political theology proposes is, first of all, that if the person who encounters Christ is truly “in history,” then they encounter Christ from within, and to one degree or another implicated in, the cultural, political, and economic systems at the root of those inequalities and injustices. Second, political theology proposes that how one responds to this encounter with Christ is integrally linked with how one responds to the cultural, political, and economic realities constitutive of one’s existence. By downplaying how theology ultimately flows from the personal encounter with Christ, Griffiths’ account also ultimately neglects how theology must arise from a response to Christ present in the poor and marginalized, and from our own repentance for our participation in the crucifixion of this Christ.

The church is universal in its nature as the body of Christ and aspires to universality in its lived existence, including both men and women, and all classes, ethnicities, and cultures. Undoubtedly, however, the different contexts from which the faithful encounter Christ shape their experience of that encounter. And, since the world in which the church finds itself is marked by conflict, to some extent those conflicts will extend into the church and mark the faithful’s understanding of their faith.

Brad Rothrock, writing at Daily Theology, criticizes Griffiths’ address with a similar point:

 This is a contextless and ahistorical understanding of theology, profoundly oblivious to the social, political, economic, and cultural situations in which it is practiced. Further, it lacks any sense or understanding of power and the ways in which various interests are caught up in discovering, interpreting, and speculating on the Tradition. The interests of the magisterium in this understanding are also defined in narrowly reductive and privatized terms – as if the Church and its teaching authority float above the conditions of historical existence.

I believe that at the root of many of the criticisms of Griffiths’ talk is this sense that the church’s teaching authority floats above the conditions of historical existence, and I think this problem arises because of Griffiths’ ambivalence about the role of faith in doing theology and his lack of a fully ecclesial sense to theology. Isn’t the task of theology in some cases to draw on the faith of the whole church in order to inform the magisterium’s articulation of doctrine, rather than simply beginning with that doctrine? In some limited cases, can theology in fact critique the magisterium’s teaching in light of the lived faith of the church’s members?

These concerns are of direct relevance for Catholic political theology. In its articulation of doctrine, has the magisterium, either inadvertently or not, privileged the faith experience of the powerful and influential and ignored the faith experience of the marginalized? Can the faith experience of the marginalized inform, or even correct, the church’s understanding of its teaching?

As an example, in his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, Bryan Massingale painfully describes how throughout our nation’s history, the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently fallen short in their response to the injustices surrounding race. Not only did the bishops fail to speak with a united voice against the evil of slavery, and later Jim Crow, but the Catholic Church under their leadership became complicit in these evils, through the ownership of slaves, participation in segregation, the failure to nurture African-American clergy and lay leaders, etc. Although one could argue that this moral failure was the result of a failure to adequately apply the faith they taught to the pressing issue of their day, political theology would suggest that we cannot so easily separate faith from its application. The Catholic Church’s failure to respond to racial injustice was so systematic, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the bishops’ understanding of their faith was shaped by, and in turn used to justify, their participation in racial injustice. A more attentive listening to the faith experience of black Catholics, and African-Americans more generally, could have helped the church articulate a more adequate vision of God, and Massingale argues that the church today continues to need to listen to the religious experience of African-Americans if it is to remain faithful to the Gospel.

But what of Griffiths’ criticism that the appeal to experience, in this case the experience of the marginalized, makes theology beholden to a non-theological agenda? I think Griffiths points out a real danger here; to properly “do” theology, in some sense Christian faith must be normative. I can only express my thoughts here briefly, but I would like to propose two safeguards to ensure that political theology remains not only “political,” but also “theological.” First, political theology should be done quite explicitly from the context of the ecclesial community of faith, understood in the broad sense outlined above. Whatever claims a political theology makes, they should strive to be consistent with the broad narrative of Christian faith. The encounter with the historical Christ, in and through both the scriptural and liturgical life of the church and the life of the poor and marginalized, should be the starting point of political theology. Second, and probably more controversially, political theologians should be attentive to and willing to dialogue with theologians drawing on the diverse faith experiences contained within the Catholic Church. Of course, the corollary of this is that the Catholic Church, including Catholic theological societies, should create the space where such dialogue can take place. Returning to Meghan Clark’s post, I think she is right to insist on the necessity of intellectual humility, both in defining what theology is and what its proper conclusions should be.

In Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio, we can see that the magisterium itself is trying to wrestle with these issues. John Paul recognizes that “Human language may be conditioned by history and constricted in other ways,” noting even “the unavoidable historical and cultural conditioning of the formulas which express that truth,” but he then concludes that these doctrines nevertheless “formulate an unchanging and ultimate truth” because “Truth can never be confined to time and culture” (#95). John Paul insists that “it is possible to move from the historical and contingent circumstances in which the texts developed to the truth which they express, a truth transcending those circumstances”; I share this sentiment, but also believe that so far the magisterium has failed to provide an adequate account of how this process takes place. Too often the magisterium reverts to the ahistorical method proposed by Griffiths, avoiding the sort of patient and ongoing dialogue that will really be necessary to promote a better shared understanding of our faith. Describing a more adequate understanding of this process is one of the most important tasks facing Catholic theology, including Catholic political theology, today.


3 thoughts on “Political Theology, An Encounter in History: A Further Response to Paul Griffiths

  1. I found this to be a really helpful contribution to the conversation that Griffiths has sparked, especially the second of the two safeguards that you propose towards the end. Finding ways to recognize and engage with the incredible diversity that a worldwide church has to offer is definitely a complex challenge, but one that we now are better equipped than ever before to tackle if we can prudently make use of the opportunities that we have at this point in human history. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece!

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