Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Theology is entering new age of diversity


Dr. Richard Gaillardetz studied Catholic theology after spending a brief interlude as an evangelical Protestant.

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In some ways - five of them to be exact - Dr. Richard Gaillardetz represents the changing face of theology in the Roman Catholic Church.

A generation ago, the husband and father of four sons would have been an oddity in a profession dominated by celibate priests.

Today, he has plenty of company in the membership of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which counts a growing number of lay people among its 1,300 members.

Dr. Gaillardetz, who was recently appointed to fill the chair in Catholic studies at the University of Toledo, said that although lay theologians with families aren't able to devote their lives to study as clergy and religious often do, they bring a different point of view to theology's thorny issues.

“It's no longer simply the perspective of the male cleric or celibate man or woman, but that of married life, and both genders. ... So there's a lot more diversity in the life of Christian living that's now being brought into Catholic scholarly reflection.”

An author and former associate professor of systematic theology at St. Mary's Seminary, Houston, Dr. Gaillardetz, 43, came to the study of Catholic theology after a brief interlude as an evangelical Protestant.

Through an encounter with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Texas in Austin, he had what he describes as a powerful conversion and briefly left Catholicism to attend several evangelical Bible churches.

“I have to say that was actually a very good experience,” he said. “I encountered a kind of vibrant, vital Christianity - people who took their faith seriously, people who found the Bible spiritually nourishing.”

On the other hand, he said, he was troubled by an attitude of anti-intellectualism that he would run into from time to time. “Though I admired many of the people in leadership, I would sometimes ask tough questions and felt like the answers were evasive, or at least not intellectually satisfying.”

When he signed up for a biblical studies course at a Catholic student center on campus, he said, “I saw a way to study the Bible that was intellectually credible, but also spiritually fulfilling and satisfying. That began my road back to the Catholic Church.”

After graduation, Dr. Gaillardetz spent two years setting up a campus ministry program in Denton for the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese, and then enrolled at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, where he served as a part-time campus minister while studying for a master's degree in theology. In 1984, he returned to work for the Fort Worth Diocese as associate director of religious education.

But by then, his interests in writing and teaching had been piqued. Still single (“I could afford to be a poor graduate student”), he decided to continue his theological work at the University of Notre Dame, where, after a year of preparatory language work, he did four years of study leading to master's and doctoral degrees in theology.

Dr. Gaillardetz's specialty is ecclesiology, the study of the church, and in particular, authority and leadership, both hot issues as the church enters the third millennium amid clashes between bishops and theologians and between the Vatican and bishops over whose authority holds sway.

The author of Teaching with Authority and Witnesses to the Faith, both of which deal with various aspects of the Magisterium, the teaching office of the pope and bishops, Dr. Gaillardetz said he thinks that the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965, set the church on a course for structural reform by recognizing that authority resides in the people of God, the individual conscience, and in scholars and theologians, in addition to the traditional offices of bishop, priest, and deacon.

“I think the question of authority today is much more complicated than it was in times past because we're aware that there are different kinds of authority in the church. They need not be understood as competing with one another ... but as complementing one another.”

The challenge today, he said, is not to do away with any one structure, but to find a framework in which each can find a place.

Although the council's agenda, which also included liturgical and other reforms, has yet to be fulfilled, he said, much change already has taken place and many who are uneasy with it would probably like to roll some of it back.

Dr. Gaillardetz is confident that they will not win the day.

“I think the forces of change that were unleashed with the Second Vatican Council are by and large irreversible. You can brake them, you can slow them down, and I think somebody could make a good case that maybe we needed to slow things down a little bit. Maybe the forces of change were moving so quickly that we weren't thinking enough about what we were doing. But I think it's undeniable that the reform and renewal that the council called the Catholic Church to needs to continue.”

Dr. Gaillardetz said much of the controversy in the church today is not whether Catholics are for or against the Second Vatican Council, but over how the 16 documents the council produced should be interpreted.

“Those on the Catholic left focus very much on the need for structural reform in the church. The voices on the right would say, `Well, there was a kind of course correction that was called for by the Second Vatican Council, but really we've addressed that problem and now we need to turn to a kind of spiritual renewal.' I'm not convinced it's either-or. I think both of those things need to happen.”

For many Catholics, Dr. Gaillar-detz said, Vatican II has become a buzz word that is easily invoked by those who have only a superfi cial understanding of what the council taught.

“To some extent that's because the council taught so much. Its 16 documents constitute almost a third of the total pages of all the 21 ecumenical councils of 2,000 years. It's a huge amount of documentation. As a result, very few people have fully assimilated what the council taught and what they do is pick little passages. ... It's the same thing people can do with the Bible. You can find passages in the Second Vatican Council that will support whatever position you want.”

As a Catholic theologian teaching on the campus of a state university, Dr. Gaillardetz said he will function as a scholar, not as a “churchman who indoctrinates people in the faith.”

“I may wear that hat in other contexts, but here my hat is to be a scholar in the area of Catholic studies, to help a community of learning look at a particular collection of tradition, that of Roman Catholicism, and to assess according to the canons of the academy its contributions to the development of western civilization and intellectual thought.”

Under church law, he said, he is not required to obtain a mandatum, a document attesting that he is teaching in full communion with the church.

Dr. Gaillardetz said he has written a letter of introduction to Bishop James Hoffman, head of the Toledo Diocese, and hopes he can serve the local church in some capacity.

As a member of the United Methodist-Roman Catholic Dialogue, he also hopes to establish a relationship with a local United Methodist congregation.

“I have a strong commitment to the need for ecumenical dialogue and I think that while I hold the chair in Catholic studies, a big part of what I want to do is help facilitate the very important ecumenical conversations that need to go on in the Christian communion and the important conversations that have to take place in interfaith dialogue.”

Dr. Gaillardetz will teach two classes during the fall semester, one on the foundations of Catholic belief and the other on suffering and evil as a theological and philosophical problem. In addition, he will give several lectures, including one that is open to the public at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at Corpus Christi Parish, 2955 Dorr St., on “The Church as Leaven in Society.”

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