[Editor’s Note: Richard Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. He is the author of By What Authority? Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church; the revised edition was just released by Liturgical Press, and An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism. Last month he was awarded the Yves Congar Award for Theological Excellence by Barry University. He spoke to Charles Camosy.]

Camosy: If you were to boil down your lecture into a 2-3 sentence thesis, what might it be?

Gaillardetz: One of the more daunting challenges facing the Church today comes from many young adults, in particular, for whom the idea of adhering to a normative religious tradition appears both unnecessary and irrelevant to their lives. The Church needs to offer an account of its tradition that makes evident the authentic human flourishing that tradition makes possible while affirming the value of questioning, doubt and disagreement. Such an account might build on the biblical metaphor of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel in the book of Genesis to propose what it might mean to “wrestle “with the Church’s normative tradition.

This has the potential to be a very unifying thesis — one that could bring Catholics with quite different views together for fruitful discussions. But there are some in the theological and religious studies academy who resist this kind of approach; people who believe that doctrine actually is merely about power. How difficult is it to hold the positions you do when the very foundations of the Church come under such scrutiny?

Yes, the challenges that a coherent religious tradition like Catholicism faces today come from multiple directions. There is the challenge presented by our larger western culture that, as I noted in my lecture, has a default hostility toward institutions of all kinds and views religion according to the interpretive habits of consumerism. There is the challenge presented by the Church’s own pastoral complacency that has impeded its attentiveness to the spiritual needs and concerns of young people today. And finally, as you noted, there is the challenge that comes from a certain segment of the academy, those who rely perhaps too much on critical theory and the power analysis associated with Michel Foucault, which can reduce normative doctrinal truth claims to mere power politics.

The difficulty we must face is that this analysis is not entirely wrong. Anyone who has studied Church history, or the dynamics that governed many an ecumenical council, knows the extent to which power politics played a role in the formulation of Church doctrine. It does the Church no good to deny or whitewash this feature of our tradition.

Nevertheless, for Catholic Christians, doctrine cannot be reduced to those power dynamics. Why? Because, for all of the inevitable entanglements of doctrine in the sinfulness, bias and finitude of humanity, it is still tethered to the primordial event of revelation manifested in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The challenge is for the Church to offer an account of doctrine that doesn’t reject its authentic witness to revelation while at the same time acknowledging its inevitable limits.

As I stated in my lecture, I think normative doctrine continues to play an important role in the life of the Church, but if that doctrine is to be seen not as oppressive but life-giving, then it needs to be subject to a stringent reform regarding both the manner in which it is proposed and the forms of engagement it encourages.

There is most certainly a disturbing trend toward post-Catholicism in a fast-growing number of young people in the US. You likely, however, have come across arguments which try to put this trend into context—often by claiming one or more of the following: (1) the Christian faith has hard sayings and, tragically, we must expect that a certain number of people go away sad, especially if they have many possessions; (2) the churches/parishes in the United States which are taking a more “liberal” approach (for lack of a better word) are generally the ones losing members while the more “conservative” ones are generally growing; (3) in areas outside the developed West—poorer places, less white places, places with less focus on the individual—Catholicism is often growing quite rapidly. What do you make of such arguments?

I think these arguments describe a complicated global context for considering the flourishing of religion, one that precludes a “one size fits all” account. The factors that contribute to the growth of the Church in other parts of the world are quite distinct and can’t easily be transferred to our North American context. Moreover, even in global contexts where we see the Church growing dramatically, as in Africa, that growth is not without its own pastoral and theological challenges. My lecture was focused primarily on the North American context, although I think it has much to offer the churches of western Europe and Australia, churches that are subject to similar cultural and ecclesial dynamics.

Essentially, my argument is focused on the need for a more dynamic understanding of the Church’s tradition and the role of normative doctrine within that tradition. I do not see the project I am proposing as part of some “liberal” effort to water down the Church’s teaching in order to make it more attractive and less demanding.

I readily acknowledge that there are some “hard” truths that lie at the core of our Catholic Christian tradition concerning the revelation of the scandalously generous and inclusive love of God that has come to us in the Incarnation of the Word by the power of the Spirit, the offer of salvation in the face of real personal and social sin, the transformative self-gift of Christ in the Eucharist, and so on (and is there anything “harder” than loving our enemy or forgiving those who have deeply hurt us?)

Adherence to such teachings would seem to be pretty fundamental to authentic Christian belonging. However, it is important that we get those “hard teachings” right. There are many who would grant to any number of particular teachings a centrality that I am not sure is warranted by the core Christian kerygma or what Vatican II called the “hierarchy of truths” (The Decree on Ecumenism, 11). I also agree that in the face of the challenges of the Gospel, some will be inclined to “go away sad” but if so, that ought to be their own decision, not something we compel through our own judgmentalism and haughty certitude.

What I propose would in fact require that we elevate demanding teachings that are too easily ignored like our fundamental obligations to the migrant, the stranger, or our enemy. But it would also require that we acknowledge that there are also doctrinal claims that seem increasingly problematic because they depend on contingent knowledge. Here I have in mind, the Church’s teaching regarding the intrinsically disordered character of a same sex orientation. As a Catholic I must allow myself to be “troubled” by such a teaching but I must also acknowledge that such teachings are so entangled with contingent understandings of human sexuality that they must be offered with much greater care and modesty.

Put simply I want the Church to be attractive for the right reasons: Not because it demands nothing of believers but because it witnesses to the intrinsic beauty of the love of God come to us in Jesus of Nazareth by the power of the Spirit. But I also want it to be unattractive for the right reasons: Not because its message seems harsh or irrelevant and its community life uninviting but because authentic Christian discipleship will inevitably require conversion, something few of us embrace eagerly.

At the end of the lecture you offer some principles which point toward wrestling with the tradition as better than an uncritical and ahistorical doctrinal legalism. This seems profoundly correct, but do you believe such a method can be employed (again, for lack of a better way of saying it) by both liberals and conservatives? If folks with views like those of Nancy Pelosi, get to (genuinely) wrestle with Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae and remain good Catholics, do folks with views like Paul Ryan’s also get to (genuinely) wrestle with Populorum Progressio and Laudato si’ and remain good Catholics?

We must invite people from across the ideological spectrum into the “wrestling” that authentic, critical, Christian belonging requires. I cannot look into the heart of either Nancy Pelosi or Paul Ryan. Only they can know the extent to which they have genuinely wrestled with the demands of the Catholic faith. Remember that an essential feature of such “wrestling” is that one must allow oneself to be “troubled” by controversial teaching and to be open to the possibility of conversion.

To the extent that we have figures on both the left and right who seem rather alarmingly “untroubled” by their disagreement with the Church’s tradition on both the rights of the unborn and the rights of those judicially condemned to death should be a matter of real concern. However, and this is where things get complicated, even as we demand that people have the courage to be “troubled” by the challenging elements of the tradition, we must also reckon with the possibility that figures on both the left and right might genuinely “wrestle” with a given teaching of the Church and come away from it convinced that the tradition, while challenging and even inspiring in so many ways, may in a particular instance be defective.

Many giants of our faith have, in the course of two thousand years, came to a similar conclusion, including of course Yves Congar. I’d feel a lot better about the Catholic witness of both Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan if I saw more evidence of their being troubled and humbled in the face of the teaching of their faith.

I believe in the question and answer after your talk you referred to yourself as the “loyal opposition” to the previous two popes. I’ve been a huge fan of Pope Francis (though at the time this goes to press I remain quite concerned about his response to the sex abuse crisis around the world), but some good and kind people I know would consider themselves the “loyal opposition” to our current pope. Do you have advice for those navigating these waters? How might someone remain “loyal” despite having profound problems with the current papacy? 

I might have succumbed to a bit of rhetorical excess in my response to that question! My point was that as a Catholic ecclesiologist I often found myself disagreeing with key actions, policies and teachings that were associated with the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I took no pleasure as a committed Catholic in criticizing the papal leadership of that time. I find it a lot more satisfying as a loyal Catholic to be able to enthusiastically celebrate the pastoral initiatives and ecclesiological vision of our current pope.

However, during the two prior pontificates, even when I felt compelled as a theologian to offer criticism, while I did not always succeed, for the most part I strove to affirm what appeared to me to be good and true in their teaching and practice, to disagree only reluctantly and, when I disagreed, to do so with humility and an openness to challenge. I made sure my arguments were, as much as possible, grounded in solid theology and were well informed by Church history and a knowledge of our Great Tradition. I sought to avoid ad hominem arguments and dismissive characterizations. I would encourage the same of those who are critical of Pope Francis.

Finally, I want to add that being a fan of Pope Francis, as we both are, doesn’t mean being a booster. For all of his many accomplishments, I remain deeply saddened by his two great blind spots: 1) his failure to see that compassion for clerical sexual abuse victims is necessary but not sufficient; there must also be a clear commitment to bring episcopal enablers to justice. 2) his criticism of “gender theory” and Christian feminism which strikes me as lacking in both understanding and nuance.

The responsibilities incumbent upon the “loyal opposition” are great. One must avoid trumpeting one’s own “prophetic” stance and remain committed to the humble service of the gospel, our Church and its mission to be a living sacrament of God’s saving love.