Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 1, 2015

The Body of Christ

thumbRNS-FACES-JESUS-139-426x640By my theological reckoning, there are three ways in which Christians speak of “the body of Christ.” Each is related to the others, but each is also distinct. The topic of Christ’s body has caused untold division throughout the church’s history, and that division is still to be seen when one surveys the multitude of communities and communions that make up contemporary Christianity. An appreciation of the distinctiveness of each way of speaking of Christ’s body would go a long way toward ending the divisions that divide Christians from one another.

1. The first way of speaking of Christ’s body actually serves as the foundation for the other two and is known as the Incarnation. In Christian understanding, God became human through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As traditionally understood in the western Christianity, he is both fully divine and fully human. Using the language of the early christological councils, he is homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father in his divinity and homoousios with us in his humanity. To break down this confusing philosophical language just a bit, the point is that in the one person we encounter someone who is fully and completely divine while simultaneously being fully and completely human. He is not just God “in the flesh,” but God become flesh (incarnatus in Latin), a statement intended to mean that he is become fully human, like us in all things but sin. (Interestingly, you can see in the Latin word the root for the Spanish, Portugese, Italian and Romanian words for “meat,” carne.)

What we are speaking of in this case is, of course, the physical or natural body of Christ. To be human requires a physical body because humans are embedded in time and space. At any given moment we are locked in one particular place, at least physically. This is an expression of our finite nature. For instance, as I sit at the computer I often find my mind wandering back to my years of study in Rome, Italy. I’d like to return to Italy and plan to do so one day. But I cannot be there while also being here. My natural way of being human is limited by the reality of physics. I believe that this human fact of being finite and thus also being mortal (a limitation on the amount of time I can spend in the “here” and “now”) is the cause not only for much human anxiety but also the source for religion. And it is the nature of religion that it gives us the hope, perhaps even the expectation, that we can transcend the profound limits placed upon us as mortals.

2. A second way of addressing the topic is to be found in the Lord’s supper, also known as “holy communion” or eucharist (that latter term being derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving” or “gratitude,” eukharistia). This is the sacred meal of Christianity, intended as a source of unity and fraternity. Here is was intended from the earliest times that Christians would commune not only with Christ, but with one another. Yet this sacrament has become the greatest of scandals due to the divisions among us related to our differing explanations of what is that we do when we gather for this event.

Here’s the eucharistic problem in a nutshell:  while all Christians agree that Christ is present at his supper with us, we disagree over the details of how that presence in accomplished, or how it should be explained. For some, these details have become an excuse to avoid the hard work of ecumenical dialogue. In addition, we often exaggerate the differences between us or misrepresent those differences (a common phenomenon from the eucharistic debates of the Reformation).

Whatever the eucharist is, and however we prefer to speak of it, the fact is that it’s a sacrament of transcendence. Christ whom we encounter there is the resurrected Christ. He is the same Christ who walked the Galilee, but he is not of the same condition as when he walked there. He has transcended all the finite limitations of his earthly, historical life. He now lives beyond mortality and beyond history. His presence in our eucharistic celebrations is as unlimited and as immortal as the fullness of his resurrected life. There is not even a way for humans to fully understand this reality, or to speak of it. Until we grasp this fact there is little hope of ecumenical advancement with regard to holy communion. We should be faithful to our own models of Christ’s eucharistic presence, but we must also realize that it’s a tragic error to lock his transcendence in the small boxes of our doctrinal understanding. No human conception of the divine can completely describe the divine.

3. In my opinion, the third manner of discussing Christ’s body is the most important because the first two were established in support of the third. And here is to be found the point of this blog post: the church is the body of Christ. It is the resurrected Christ who incorporates us as members of his body. It is Christ who continually strengthens and deepens that corporate identity with us through the eucharist. Speaking of the mystery that is eucharist, our focus should be upon what the eucharist accomplishes in us. Only during the second millennium did the focus change to emphasize how the church makes eucharist (rather than how eucharist makes the church).

This insight drives the requirement of ecumenical cooperation. None of us can be so parochial or insular that we fail to recognize the other parts of the body of Christ. St. Paul explicitly condemns this failure in 1 Corinthians 11:29. If we gather for eucharist but fail to recognize the body of Christ, he wrote, we gather for damnation. What was Paul saying to this community?

To understand his words to the Christians in Corinth, we must understand the situation of the community. Like many of our own churches today, the Corinthian church was composed of people of differing economic status. Eucharistic gatherings included the sharing of common food in a meal that was intended to bring them closer together in a bond of sacrificial charity (agape). Sadly, economic and social differences got in the way. The wealthier members of the community gathered earlier than the rest, empowered by their better economic situation to enjoy more leisure time, and to purchase food and wine of a higher quality.

Unable to complete their work until later in the day, the poorer Christians arrived to a celebration that was already in full swing. The inner rooms of the host’s home were already full, the best food and wine was being enjoyed by the rich, and the poor were left to their own devices in the outer rooms. If not explicitly rejected, they and their plight were certainly ignored by the wealthier Christians already filling their bellies and sipping wine. Paul insists that in this situation it was not the Lord’s supper being celebrated, but a private party where the poor were mostly overlooked and hungry while the wealthy were drunk (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

Paul’s admonition to the wealthy was this: take note of the entire body … see the rest of the community! Eucharist enlivens, strengthens, and celebrates the fact that we are one body in Christ but we eat and drink a lie if our actions do not confirm this. If some Christians are ignored by others, how is the body recognized? How can it be built up? Paul’s particular point had to do with economic and social disparities, but his message rings true concerning other differences as well.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (1 Corinthians 11:33, NIV). This is the simple order given by Paul to the Corinthians. Wait until everyone is present, then share the food and wine together. In this way you will symbolize to the world what you already are in Christ.

Remember the old adage? “You are what you eat.” The early church could have coined that phrase. And although I have listed in this post three ways of speaking of Christ’s body, the fact is that they all represent parts of a unified whole. Christians are baptized into Christ’s body, made an intimate part of him, christened with holy oil and washed with holy water. We are “little christs” to the world, called to do as he did and to live as he lived. Christ acts upon the world through us. We are his hands. We are his feet. We are his heart, beating for the good of all. Christ is no longer in the world physically. His body is us. In eucharist he feeds, purifies, strengthens, perfects his body on the earth.

Perhaps it was said best by St. Augustine of Hippo. Pointing to the bread and wine upon the altar, he proclaimed: “Behold what you are. Become what you behold.” Amen.

The photograph on this post is by artist William Zdinak and is entitled “In His Image.” All rights are reserved to the artist. I believe Mr. Zdinak has beautifully captured in his portrait the mystery of the body of Christ.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | December 29, 2014


Christ08-Jesus Christ Our Great High PriestIn recent weeks I’ve been reflecting on the nature of Christian priesthood. For some, these reflections won’t be traditional enough. For others they’ll probably be too traditional. I’m sure to land in some hot water, but I’ll forge ahead and adopt as my own the terrific insight of G. K. Chesterton: “I believe in getting into hot water. It helps keep you clean.”

Let’s begin with an historical perspective and confess the obvious. The first Christians had no priests, unless of course there were Jewish priests who had joined the Jesus movement. Gathering around the tables in their homes, the earliest followers of Jesus would not have recognized any notion that they were making a sacrificial offering of bread and wine to God. They gathered for fellowship and to remember the Lord Jesus (Luke 24:30-35). The only priests who appear in the canonical gospels are Jewish priests. Although pious tradition points to the Last Supper as the time when the Christian priesthood was instituted, that claim cannot be substantiated historically. It’s an interpretive tool overlaid onto the Last Supper in the light of later theological developments.

Despite this fact, an honest assessment must recognize that what Christ Jesus is portrayed to have done in the gospel accounts is very priestly. He made a sacrifice of himself in view of his understanding of the divine purpose. If you have ever sacrificed your own desires for a spouse, a child, or a beloved friend, you may have some small inkling of what it meant for Jesus to make this offering of self. Given the Jewish context of the life and ministry of Jesus and the temple worship prevalent in Jerusalem at the time, it’s no stretch to recognize that sacrificial imagery would readily present itself to early Christians reflecting on their faith.

Thus we must take note of the Epistle to the Hebrews (really an early Christian sermon) and the First Epistle of Peter (which was written considerably later than the life of Peter). These delightful canonical texts give us evidence of what surely must be some of the earliest strands of insight regarding the Christian understanding of priesthood. The Epistle to the Hebrews applies the Jewish idea of the high priest to Christ and to his salvific work. Christ is “exalted above the heavens” because he made the perfect sacrifice of his life in obedience (see Hebrews 7:26-28). 1 Peter concentrates on a spiritual priesthood and situates it in the entire Christian community. All believers share a priestly dignity. Christians are “living stones” who are “built into a spiritual house” intended as “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Furthermore, they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” and “God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9).

These early strands simply cannot be dismissed. This fact was recognized by the bishops of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Writing in Lumen Gentium (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), the bishops reminded Catholics of their status as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (LG 9). In an amazing admission that is often overlooked by those who are not Catholic, the bishops insisted that there are two forms of priesthood in the church, the baptismal priesthood shared by all believers and the hierarchical priesthood exercised by the ordained. The two forms of priesthood are distinct and differ in essence, they wrote, but they remain interrelated (LG 10).

It is my belief that this renewed appreciation of the baptismal priesthood goes a long way to break down the walls of division left to us by the Reformation. It recognizes that the Protestant reformers had a valid point when they argued for the priestly nature of the baptized community as a whole.

Perhaps when speaking of the Christian understanding of priesthood we can validly speak of a certain tension that exists–a creative tension. This would appear to be true for communities that speak of ordained priests. The earliest term for this office was presbyter (presbyteros in Greek, meaning “elder”). Jewish synagogues in Greek-speaking cities had elders, presbyteroi, reminding us of the roots of Christianity. Another reminder of this early term can be found in the “presbyteral councils” of the Roman and Anglican communions.

Later developments imposed a hierarchical notion of priesthood upon the presbyteral office, one that emphasized the ordained priest as a necessary mediator between God and the faithful with a special power to consecrate the eucharist. Excessive emphasis on the priestly office of the ordained eventually resulted in a sad state of affairs where the laity rarely received from the eucharistic table and performed their own private devotions at mass, nearly oblivious of what was taking place in the sanctuary. This gave rise to some unusual developments, such as the ringing of bells (to alert the faithful that Jesus had suddenly become present on the altar) and attempts to visit as many churches and chapels as possible to see Jesus lifted up for adoration (a form of eucharistic piety that lost all resemblance to the early fellowship meal of the first Christians). It was just such abuses as these that were rejected by the Protestant reformers and even by reformers within the Catholic Church at times.

Where does this leave us with regard to today’s understanding of the priesthood? Does the priesthood of the ordained make sense any more? I sincerely believe that it does, but we must speak carefully. We must honor the apostolic tradition as found in scripture while appreciating the legitimate development of tradition. For my own understanding of ordained priesthood I am indebted to L. William Countryman for his insightful book, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. What follows is a blend of his insights, along with my own.

Let’s start by defining what a priest does. I enjoy asking about this in my college theology classes. “What is a priest? What makes a priest a priest?” My students readily offer up all sorts of replies, to which I usually must answer that they are correct, but still on the periphery. What it is that makes a priest a priest, not just a Christian priest, but any priest? What one thing is central to the priesthood of anyone who considers himself or herself to be one? The answer, of course, is sacrifice.

A priest offers sacrifice.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives a definition for sacrifice that is particularly good. It’s described as “an act of offering to a deity something precious.” If all baptized Christians are priests, what precious thing are they called to offer? They offer their lives, their work, their struggles, their love for God and for others. Their sacrificial tables–their altars–are all around them. An accountant’s desk can be her altar. A teacher’s white board or chalk board can be his altar. A mother who lovingly changes a baby’s diaper stands at an altar of service for her child. The altars on which we offer up our lives are all around us. Our days on earth are numbered; our lives are the precious things that we offer. In our baptismal covenant with God in Christ Jesus we are members of the body of Christ, joining our existence and our work with his. In light of this everything takes on new significance. What is already precious becomes all the more obvious to us, and so its preciousness is increased.

The job of the ordained priest is not to give meaning to this. The meaning already exists and is rooted in Christ. The ordained priest doesn’t deliver holiness or stand between the believer and God. The job of the ordained is to help fellow believers see and appreciate what is already present in their lives. The ordained person is not some “super believer” who is better, holier, or more perfect than the rest (though obviously we hope that an ordained person avoids being a cause of scandal). The ordained serve as our gatherers, helping us to channel our strengths and vocations into a common effort for the Kingdom of God. Like conductors of great orchestras, they direct our efforts toward a melodious harmony that works only because the note produced by each instrument is different.

The most splendid sign of this is when the faithful–God’s chosen people and royal priesthood–gather for worship around the table of Christ, celebrating eucharist, making eucharist, being eucharist together. At the end of each festive gathering we are sent out to see Christ in the world, and to be Christ in the world.

As explained elsewhere in this blog, I have long felt a call to the ministry of ordained priesthood. It’s not because I feel holier than anybody else. To the contrary, I feel uneasy with my weaknesses and oddly enough as an extrovert, I rarely enjoy being the center of attention. My aspirations for ordination to the priesthood arise from a desire to liberate people, to empower them in every way that such empowerment can strengthen and embolden them for living lives of meaning, authenticity, justice, and service to others. My own weakness and sinfulness provide a stimulus for this vocational desire.

As Countryman has suggested in his book, sacramental service doesn’t make much sense unless the ordained priesthood is understood in the wider context of the baptismal priesthood. “Priestly life,” he correctly writes, “is nothing more nor less than the fulfilling of our deepest longings, rooted in our capacity for being human” (175). If the ordained priesthood can’t advance the human fulfillment of everyone (believers and non-believers alike), then what’s the use of an ordained priesthood at all?

Suggestions for Further Reading:

L. William Countryman, Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All. Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Gary Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. Viking Penguin, 2013.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | November 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

jesus_knocking_on_door_business_card_templates-rd3a5573453f844f99ed68f54d48c71ab_i579t_8byvr_512In my Theology 101 class for college freshmen, I deal with lots of basics. After all, it’s an introductory course. Two words I introduce to the students are “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy.” The late Greek word orthodoxia means “right opinion,” while heterodoxos signifies “another opinion,” or “different opinion.” Gratefully, we theologians don’t spend much time accusing people of heresy anymore. It’s much more humane–and honest!–to speak of differences of belief rather than accusing people of being heretics. That doesn’t mean that no one uses the term, of course. There are diehard enthusiasts who insist on it.

The problem with the accusation of heresy is that this word is rooted in the Greek term for choosing or seizing. It seems to imply, at least to my mind, that the so-called heretic has chosen intentionally by taking a religious pathway that is obviously wrong. But the fact is that people never choose to be wrong. They choose a different path because they believe that path is the right path. And this insight brings us right back to the discussion of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. You see, one person’s orthodoxy is another person’s heterodoxy.

Before you read on, let me clarify something. I am not suggesting that all beliefs are the same or that all doctrines are equally valid. That is a simpleton’s creed. I am addressing something much more subjective, something more directly related to the personal experience of meaning-making. For all the experiences that humans have in common (eating, drinking, resting, and even as Martin Luther would remind us, evacuating our bowels), the fact is that we do not all interpret the meaning of these experiences in the same way. So how do we find what is true … and what is right? It appears that we do this in common, by joining religious communities that pursue the project together.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) addressed this fact in its Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) when it stated that “religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of humans and of religion itself” (DH 4a). The document goes on to insist that all people are bound to seek the truth, and once they find the truth, or find what they think is true, they are bound by conscience to adhere to it (DH 3b). This is an amazing admission for the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to make.

Regarding the search for true doctrine, there is an ancient adage to help along the way. To the question of how one can know the proper catholic (universal) doctrine of the church, a Latin precept proposes that we should believe quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“that which has everywhere, always, and by everyone been believed”). This dictum is known as the Vincentian Canon because it comes from the monk Vincent of Lerins who died around 445. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with this motto is that at no time in the history of Christianity have all Christians everywhere believed the same thing. And if Christians haven’t believed the same thing, then how do we expect all people of differing religions to believe the same thing? The only point I can imagine that Christians of all epochs and in every locale might have in common is the fact that Jesus is at the center of their faith. Past that, it’s hard to find something that every Christian actually has in common. Even when it comes to the role and significance of Christ we have not all agreed! (Think of the Donatists, Docetists, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians, etc.)

Of course, facts have never prevented some people from believing in fanciful doctrinal formulations that have little foundation in history. This is probably why I receive such enjoyment studying the leadership style of Pope Francis and seeing the reaction of so many Roman Catholic clerics to his roving commentaries. It’s refreshing to hear the bishop of Rome speak honestly, and from his heart, cutting past the need to bolster old ways of thinking.

Vatican II opened Catholic doors and windows that had been closed for some time. A fortress mentality had developed since the time of the Protestant Reformation. At Vatican II new breezes began to flow into the church and people became excited about the connections they could make with others, even those outside the church. But nearly as soon as those breezes began to flow and the faithful began to enjoy the fresh air, certain influences began suggesting that the doors and windows had been flung open too far. During the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, there was a decided effort to close a number of those portals. Many of them were even bolted tight. The motto Semper Idem (“Always the Same”) returned as a description for the church and its beliefs. For those who were scandalized or at least frightened by the openness of Vatican II, these were the glory days of revanchism, the recovery of lost territory.

Don’t get me wrong: John Paul II was a nice guy and a committed Christian. I met him on more than one occasion and served mass with him. But he was decidedly in the camp of those who wanted to reign in some forms of openness that lingered from the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued this process of “reforming the reform.” And now, entered from stage left, is Pope Francis the Jesuit. He has a papal hammer in his hand and he’s prying open some of those doors and windows that his recent two predecessors had nailed shut.

If you know anything of the personalities behind Vatican II, you may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but let me explain. If we can speak of two tendencies at the council, we might point to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (an Italian) as a representative of the conservative voice of the bishops. He was head of what we now call the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then known as the Holy Office. His official motto, by the way, was the aforementioned Semper Idem. On the other side of the spectrum was Cardinal Augustin Bea (a German Jesuit and biblical scholar), who pushed for more openness to the world and to other religious believers. It is widely believed that Bea’s approach was supported, even encouraged, by the pope of the time, the warm-hearted John XXIII who condemned the “prophets of gloom” who were against the council from its inception.

Clearly, everything did not change at Vatican II. But some things did change. In other words, there were times when the bishops tended toward one direction and at other times they tended to move in the opposite direction. This is as it should be. The church needs both conservatives and liberals. In many ways, Francis appears to be a new expression of the openness of John XXIII. He prefers encouragement and example to condemnation and authority. He seems to agree with his predecessor John that the only acceptable form of force for a Christian is “the force of love.” And as before, two cardinals seem to have emerged as symbols of the two opposite tendencies seeking expression under the leadership of Francis.  On the conservative side we see Cardinal Raymond Burke (an American who has described the church under Pope Francis as a “rudderless ship”) and on the more liberal side we see Cardinal Walter Kasper (a German whose openness to others remarkably mirrors that of the earlier German, Cardinal Bea). One cardinal’s heterodoxy is another cardinal’s orthodoxy.

To those who languished under the tight leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is a great breath of fresh air. It will take time, but like his predecessors, Francis will change the culture of the church. It’s good to feel the renewed breeze from open portals as it blows once again. The Spirit moves where she wills.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | July 29, 2014

Consumed by the Cosmos

a5a4abeb0ed72edb629cff32db1641ddInsights about life’s meaning can arrive at any time if we allow them to come in for a landing. I spent much of this morning mowing grass. At one point I looked up to note a mockingbird who had landed nearby. I’m sure she was feasting upon the grasshoppers that had been churned up by the passing mower–now much more obvious to her eyes with the grass cut short. There was also a flurry of dragon flies overhead. I wondered if they were munching on the tinier winged insects who had been upset by the mower and the grass flying out from the spinning blades beneath me.

It was a classic circle-of-life moment: creatures eating and being eaten, green clippings falling in order to die and become the soil in which new grass will grow. A certain wondrous beauty seemed to linger nearby, along with a sense of comfort. But then a question emerged for me. What if I were the grasshopper being swallowed by that mockingbird? What if I were one of the tiny insects being hunted by the dragon flies?

Well, if truth be known, I am. So are you. From the moment of our existence we’re part of something much bigger, much greater than ourselves. We are startled into a world that we did not ask to visit; we are gifted into existence. That existence brings with it the process of aging, the experience of suffering and sickness, loss, and eventual death. The cosmos that brought us into life gradually consumes us. This happens naturally because we are part of the universe. We belong to the cosmos. We have a place within it.

Some great thinkers like to remind us that our existence is a continual movement toward death. I think it’s more accurate to speak of it as cosmic advancement. We’re moving inevitably toward the ultimate fulfillment of our place in the created order. We become so engrossed and overwhelmed with our desire to be that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) saw this desire for what it is: an overwhelming impulse that prevents us at times from finding joy in life. We Christians can learn from this insight.

We regularly pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” We’re trying to convince ourselves rather than God. Each of us is but a speck in a very large created order. For a reminder of just how small you are, watch this video from the American Museum of Natural History.

I have a friend who is struggling with incurable cancer. He has faced his predicament with courage and faith, but I wonder at times if he feels like the grasshoppers and other small insects in my yard who have become prey to other hungry creatures. It is perhaps much easier to think of death when we have no sense of its imminent arrival, but birth and death are simply two sides to the same coin. They are brief moments in a larger process whereby the cosmos grants us being and then consumes us. This consumption is not an act of destruction on the part of the cosmos but serves as its way of bringing us to an eternity of intimacy.

This eternal intimacy is the realm from which the resurrected Christ presides as Pantocrator, the ultimate ruler of all. Over and over in life we celebrate our birthday. At times those annual celebrations seem to be like talismans meant to ward off the supposed evil of eventual death. It seems unfortunate that we think this way. Death is not a departure but a fulfillment of the process of being consumed. It is a doorway to the larger life at the heart of all that exists. We don’t even realize that we yearn for this; we desire fulfillment and intimacy with the source of our creation. Perhaps St. Paul said it best: “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free” (Romans 8:22-23, The Jerusalem Bible).

You and I belong to the cosmos because we belong to God. And God is the One who simply is. God is no entity. God is no being in any sense like we use the word “being.” God is far beyond all of that. God is the great IS … the essence of is-ness, pure perfection of being. It would appear that in the divine plan the cosmos was granted the freedom to self-evolve, to develop not separately from God but within the plan of God. The Incarnation is God’s way of being present to us who are forever being consumed as the cosmos continually remakes itself. This is one more way that the universe demonstrates its catholicity.

So, as I mowed grass this morning in the midst of this mystery, I found cause to rejoice. I’m not just the mockingbird. I’m also the grasshopper.

This blog post is dedicated to my friend, James Henry LeBatard, who died of cancer on August 13, 2014.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | April 19, 2014

Jesus Didn’t Come to Die


"The Body of Christ in the Tomb" by Hans Holbein the Younger; oil and egg tempera on lime wood, painted between 1520-22

“The Body of Christ in the Tomb” by Hans Holbein the Younger; oil and egg tempera on limewood, painted sometime between the years 1520-22

A course that I teach regularly for the college is THL 101, Introduction to Christian Theology. Many professors don’t enjoy teaching “intro” courses, but I find it a rewarding challenge to open young minds not only to the topics of theology, but to the very proposal itself that they should be interested in those topics. “This course is about you,” I tell them: “how you make meaning of life, and how you make sense of your experiences. Religion, culture, philosophy–each of these is a tool for meaning-making” (the fancy term for this is hermeneutics).

One of the topics discussed in the course is soteriology, the study of salvation. The purpose of the unit is to introduce students to the fact that salvation is a much wider, far richer subject than they probably realize. Christians obviously believe that Jesus Christ is the source of their salvation, but how they understand that is multidimensional. To demonstrate the point in class we discuss several models of salvation. After all, there are many ways to understand the Christian notion of salvation; if this were not so, we couldn’t honestly refer to it as a mystery. Christ is our redeemer, our teacher, our victor, our high priest, our source of renewal and completion. In the study of soteriology, each of these titles becomes a salvific paradigm for exploring just what it is that we believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Each paradigm, in turn, offers us a layer of meaning or a lens through which to understand salvation. Although they are not mutually exclusive (each is helpful in its own way), some are better known than others. In particular times and places, some have been more popular than others. Sometimes they are misunderstood or they’re marred by poor theology.

If you ask a typical Christian in the United States how they are saved by Jesus, most of the time you’ll get some variant of a model known as the Satisfaction Theory. As popularly espoused by fundamentalist preachers and TV evangelists, this model proposes that God is angry with sinners who have offended divine righteousness. The sinner is in a “Catch-22” situation–stuck in a paradox of cosmic theological proportions. The sinner has offended God and should make amends. But because it is God who is offended, the sinful human is unable to make the necessary repairs to the offended party. In this model, God has a sizeable ego.

Making some very questionable interpretations of scripture, those who preach this understanding of salvation often quote Romans 6:23a. “The wages of sin is death,” they remind us, so someone has to die. For this reason the Father sent the Son to his death, an idea that is nothing short of divine filicide. This nasty misinterpretation is both dangerous and offensive. When speaking of the divine we should think harder, reflect longer, and speak more carefully.

Years ago I took a few courses with Stephen J. Duffy, a priest-professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. At the time I was completing an MA in religious studies. During a break several of us were continuing the class discussion outside with Fr. Duffy as we sipped our coffee and soft drinks. I asked him, “why did Jesus have to die?” I’ll never forget his direct and rather blunt reply:  “Jesus didn’t have to die. God sent him and we humans killed him.”

It was so simple that I was temporarily stunned. The truth had been right in front of my face for my entire life. I had not been listening to scripture all the previous years, I had been reading something into scripture that wasn’t there. Clearly, the earliest Christian tradition insists that Christ died and that his death was inflicted by an unjust political regime. Just as clearly, the tradition upholds the salvific nature of his death. But did God send him to die? That, I came to understand, is a proposition unworthy of God.

A helpful interpretation of Jesus’ death can be ascertained by reading the letters of Paul. We must allow ourselves to hear the authentic Paul and to discern his teaching without repainting him with the lens of our own misunderstanding. For Paul, Jesus is not the intended sacrificial victim. Instead, he is the perfectly obedient child of God who came to announce the good news of God’s kingdom. His mission was to share God’s own vision, God’s own hopes for the world. He was a living invitation to a divine feast. Given this insight, is it any wonder that he so often could be found eating and drinking with sinners? Is it any wonder that he still offers himself through the simple elements of bread and wine?

For Paul, Christ “emptied himself” in obedience. “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:7-8). It’s not that God desired his death. It’s that Christ was obedient to the desire of God that the divine message be proclaimed and not be derailed by human sin. When threatened, Christ did not cease his mission. When certain of impending death, he did not relent in his preaching. Jesus of Nazareth was the epitome of authenticity. A person of absolute integrity, his entire being was at the service of the truth as he understood it.

As God’s appointed agent of reconciliation, Jesus’ obedience becomes the sacramental activator of humanity’s renewed relationship with the divine. His faithfulness, even in the face of death threats, heals our unfaithfulness. His perfect willingness to serve, even if it meant death, repairs our broken wills. He died because of his faithfulness, not because God wished him to die. This is his witness and it becomes our way of salvation. In baptism we are incorporated into his body in a spiritual way that transcends the physical. As part of his body we share in what he has accomplished.  As part of him we participate in his faithfulness.

“We are justified by faith,” Paul tells us in Romans 5:1, but let us not presume that it is our faith that saves us. It is the perfect faith of Christ Jesus. It is the obedience and willingness of him who did not hesitate to pay the ultimate price in obedience to God’s dream for the world. And now the very brokenness that ended his life has been caught up in new life, new possibilities, and all because of a very old dream for the world–a dream which is as ancient as the divine life itself.

This post is dedicated to Marylyn, my sister in Christ.  Scriptural quotations are taken from the online edition of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Oremus Bible Browser.


Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | March 6, 2014

A Theologian’s Challenge for Lent

lent_6316cAre you still looking for the right Lenten sacrifice? Still wondering how you should mark this season of penitence? If so, you’ve come to the right place. But please don’t proceed any further unless you’re serious. Better to simply close the browser. Move along. There is nothing here for you.

Still reading? Good. Now be warned: this may be the toughest Lenten challenge ever bestowed upon you. But if you seriously give it a try and if you have only modest success, I believe you will have accomplished something good for the world. It will be much like the wonderful idea of our Jewish neighbors when they speak of tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” Surely such an idea animated Jesus as he taught his followers how to treat one another.

According to the gospels, Jesus placed a tremendous emphasis on love. But love is not a feeling. I’s a way of life that should transcend feelings. As Jesuit theologian William O’Malley has written, love is a conscious and active commitment to the well-being of others. Genuine love really does repair the world because it rises above the unpredictable vagaries of emotion. I can find nothing in the gospels to suggest that Jesus wanted us to feel good about each other all the time. Even he became aggravated with his disciples.

Now here’s your challenge. This Lent, respectfully engage someone with whom you have profound differences. Perhaps it will be a loved one with whom you have bickered in the past. Maybe it’s a person of another religion or another political ideology. It could be anyone with whom you disagree.

You won’t have to go looking for opportunities to try this. They come regularly, but too often we either run away from them because differences of opinion frighten us or we take the opposite tack and simply try to win a debate.

This Lent, I’m challenging you to engage others with a new intention. Seek only to understand. Inquire and then listen. Keep your own opinion to yourself unless it’s specifically requested. Even then, keep the focus on learning as fully as possible what your dialogue partner thinks and believes. Try to understand why they think as they do or how they came to believe as they do.

Place your own needs into the background for a while. You don’t always have to be right. You don’t always have to get your point across. And you certainly don’t have to agree.

I warned you that this would be difficult. You may already be imagining a thousand reasons to avoid this Lenten discipline. Once you have gone through the many reasons not to try this, start a new list. Imagine all the good things that might come out of it. Then report back, will you? I look forward to hearing from you. I’m not just challenging you; I’m also challenging myself.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | December 31, 2013

Why I Became an Episcopalian

thGOMFQ45G“O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
And now that I am old and gray-headed,
O God, do not forsake me, till I make known your strength to this generation
and your power to all who are to come” (Psalm 71:17-18).

This post has been a long time coming. There are things about the human heart that can’t be rushed. The spiritual autobiography of Augustine of Hippo, entitled Confessions, reminds us that “our hearts are restless, O God, until they rest in you.”

All of my life I have been beset by this restlessness for the One whom Augustine calls the “Beauty ever old, ever new.”

I’ve seen the black-and-white photographs of my baptism at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.  That was August of 1960.  The baptismal font was located in the old parish church building, now gone, demolished years ago to make way for a school expansion and parish hall.  I still remember that as children in summer religious education programs we were able to go into “the old church” to snoop around. It was used for raucous youth gatherings deemed inappropriate for “the new church.”

It was in the newer sanctuary that I served as an altar boy, and in which I celebrated the other sacraments. I have fond memories from years of worship in that yellow-brick building with its small, square windows of stained glass and its candle-lit alcove dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Above the altar there hangs a large, gold-colored figure shaped like a descending dove. I remember asking my mother about it at mass one day when I was very young. “That’s the Holy Spirit,” she informed me.

I grew up feeling God’s presence always in my life. It was as natural as breathing.

Two realities brought me to the conviction that God had called me to the ordained priesthood. One was the experience of celebrating faith through the rituals of my parish; the other was my own reading and study of human religiousness and the fulfillment that it brings. As a young teen I was captivated by books on early Christianity but also by Huston’s Smith’s The Religions of Man (which has since been aptly re-titled as The World’s Religions). My own sense of personal vocation was accompanied by a parallel recognition that there are others in the world whose faith differs from mine but in whom God surely is at work.

Since that time I have never not known that I was called to sacramental service as a priest. The leaders of my beloved Roman Church agreed. Studying in the US and in Italy, I was prepared for the day of my ordination to the transitional diaconate. It was planned for May 1987 and was to take place at the Altar of the Chair in the Basilica of St. Peter, Rome, in accordance with the tradition of the Pontifical North American College (the American seminary in Rome). Plans were also in the works for a year later when I was to be ordained to the priesthood. Bishop Joseph Lawson Howze, my bishop (Ordinary for the Diocese of Biloxi at that time), had decided that the priestly ordination should take place at St. Alphonsus rather than in the cathedral in Biloxi. He thought it would be a fine way to recognize the wonderful people of the parish who had inspired me to study for ordination in the first place. I heartily agreed.

But loneliness got in the way. Like many men in the Roman Church, I believe I have a vocation to the priesthood–but I don’t have a vocation to a life of celibacy. Are there thousands of others who would agree? I suspect so.

I departed Roman Catholic seminary in the fall of 1986. Two years later I was married to my talented chef-wife, Patsy, and we have just celebrated twenty-five years of marriage. But my religious vocation has never left me.

In the days of my youth I relished the experience of being a Boy Scout in Ocean Springs. Troop 210 met at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Though I had occasionally wandered in to the parish sanctuary and noticed how “catholic” it felt, I did not attend an Episcopalian celebration of eucharist until I was in seminary in Covington, Louisiana. One of our classes took a Sunday field trip to the local Episcopal church. I don’t remember all the feelings and thoughts that crossed my mind that day, but I do remember the communion song. It was the haunting melody known as Picardy, carrying the words of the fourth-century Liturgy of St. James:

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.”

In some way that I did not understand at the time, I embarked on a new journey that day. Years later, cut off from a lifelong sense of vocation for no other reason than the fact that I was married, I would venture again into an Episcopalian church. There I would find another community that was faithfully catholic–one that didn’t imagine that God only calls celibate men to the priesthood.

Since at least the late 1990s I’ve had what I affectionately call an “affair with two sisters,” referring to the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion (to which the Episcopal Church belongs). In a visit with Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury in 1966, Pope Paul VI spoke of the Anglican Communion as “our beloved sister church.” Nonetheless, it still seemed impossible to my mind for me to be anything but a Roman Catholic.

That changed about a year ago. Spiritual discernment is a funny thing. We pray. We study. We yearn. We inquire of the divine. We wait. Then, one day, sometimes … a clear answer emerges. For me it was the very quiet voice of Christ: “John, what are you waiting for?”

On June 9, 2013, I was received into the Episcopal Church at St. John’s in Ocean Springs. After renewing my baptismal covenant–the same vows I had often repeated in the Roman Church–Bishop Duncan M. Gray III of the Diocese of Mississippi received me with these beautiful words from The Book of Common Prayer: “we recognize you as a member of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, and we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion.”

If the good people of the Episcopal Church will have me, I intend to fulfill my vocation as a priest in their midst, as a sacramental servant. To those who would ask why I left the Catholic Church I would happily reply that I haven’t left anything at all. I have simply discovered that the Catholic Church is quite a bit bigger than I realized before. God really does write with crooked lines. I’m living proof of that.

What I have done has not been out of anger. I have no axe to grind. Like Christ himself, the church is not only divine. It is also human. As such, it exists in time and in space, and with all the mortality and limitations that this implies. When God offers a vocational invitation, it is offered in an historical setting. I shall be here for only a brief period and then I shall be gone. I am responding to God’s call as I am able, hoping all the while that my life will be a bridge toward future ecumenical cooperation and perhaps full church unity.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | May 31, 2013

Ministry is for Liberation

untitledBetween 1978 and 1987 I spent a great deal of time in Catholic seminaries, both in the US and in Rome. During the later years of this period I finally became cognizant of a pattern among candidates for the priesthood that I notice among clergy to this day–an unhealthy pattern that has become even more prominent since then.

For too many members of the clergy, ministry appears to be about control. They speak to parishioners and go about their clerical duties as if people, ideas, beliefs, proposals, and actions all have to be closely monitored for the possibility of sin or error. For them, the sermon is an opportunity to correct people, to set the record straight, to condemn ideas and activities with which they disagree. Their message is one that concentrates on all the things people shouldn’t be doing. The words of 1 Peter 5:8 seem to explain their ministry as they warn us that “the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

These priests are the ones who refuse to baptize a child if the parents haven’t been to mass for a while. Their concern is a genuine one, no doubt, but their refusal does more damage than good. There are many ways to encourage a young couple to return to active participation in the parish. Refusing to baptize their baby isn’t one of them. Such priests often run their parishes like small fiefdoms, jealously guarding whatever spiritual or ecclesiastical power they believe to have been bestowed upon them by the sacrament of ordination.

It’s almost as if they want to keep God in a box. When the Spirit breaks forth and does something liberating, they scurry to control the divine outbreak as if it were a deadly virus.

Sadly, this same attitude infects many deacons as well. They seem to be imitating the predominant ministerial model at work around them. Unfortunately, it’s rare that I meet one who projects himself as a servant instead of a sergeant. Rules and orders are important, but do they really need to claim the central place of honor in one’s faith or ministry?

I remember standing in the hallway of my seminary when I finally recognized the choice before me. I was sharing with another seminarian the challenges and joys associated with our chosen ministries. He was disappointed while I was elated. As I walked away from the conversation I realized why this was so. He sought to control and correct those he served. I prayed as I walked to my room. “I don’t want to control people, Lord–I want to liberate them.” The insight inspires me still.

Controllers see dangers and problems. Liberators see opportunities. Controllers want to stamp out sin. Liberators want to raise awareness and increase holiness. Controllers emphasize rules. Liberators emphasize grace. One of these approaches is very Roman while the other is very Catholic. The dichotomy offers us a choice–the same choice highlighted with the first post of this blog. It needs to be faced by everyone who serves in the church, from the lay minister to the bishop.

Recent remarks by Pope Francis provide a good example for explaining both approaches. During his homily at mass a few days ago, he was inspired by a passage from the Gospel of Mark.  “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the blood of Christ,” he said.  “Even the atheists.”

This is a remarkable expression of liberation, especially for a pope, but it greatly disturbed the controllers in the church. A Vatican spokesman didn’t need long to offer a water-tight clarification: “People who know the Catholic Church cannot be saved if they refuse to enter or remain in her.” I’ve been told that something similar happened in my own diocese as an official came forward to offer clarification.

What is the unspoken motto of the controllers?  Perhaps it’s something like this: “Follow the rules and do as those rules tell you to do.” For me, I prefer the admonition of St. Augustine of Hippo:  “Love and do what you will. If you keep silence, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love. If you refrain from punishing, do it out of love” (Homily 7: On the First Epistle of John).

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | March 14, 2013

Pope Francis, the Jesuit

Pope-Francis-I-appears-on-006As the first full day of his pontificate opens, the entire world seeks clues about the leadership to be expected from Jorge Brogoglio, Pope Francis. For now there are only two places to look. First, his past leadership experiences as head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina (better known as “Jesuits”) and as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Second, his choice of a papal name. In both categories there is much upon which one might offer comment.

As a professor at Spring Hill College, I can report that there was a special sense of pride evident on campus yesterday as the announcement was made of the papal choice. Founded in 1830, Spring Hill is the third oldest among Jesuit establishments of higher learning in the United States. Those venerable institutions make up the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (the AJCU), currently led by Fr. Gregory Lucey, SJ, former president of the college who will soon be returning as its chancellor.

The Society of Jesus is an organization of Catholic men who pledge their lives to the service of evangelization, education, and service to the poor. It is often hailed as the largest religious order in the Catholic Church; its power is best understood not in terms of membership numbers but in the good work that it accomplishes globally. Like most members of professed Catholic orders, Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to their superiors. But they also take a fourth vow: that of mission obedience to the pope. This is often portrayed as something fanatical or unreasonable, but it simply means that Jesuits are available to the pope if he should desire to increase the presence of Catholic missionaries in a particular locale.

The founder of the Jesuit order was Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a man reckoned by the Catholic Church as a saint. His spirituality was marked by simplicity, service, passion for the gospel, and an openness to God’s presence in all aspects of human life. One might imagine that such characteristics will mark the papacy of Pope Francis. For me, there are two Latin “rallying cries” that particularly recall the beauty of Jesuit spirituality: cura personalis (“care for the whole person”) and magis (“the more”–as in doing more than is expected, or doing what is really necessary no matter the cost). Both ideals are closely related to the Jesuit precept, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God.” This latter is often abbreviated simply as “AMDG.”

As a sign of his own practice of Jesuit piety, the new pope is known to have lived quite simply as an archbishop. He is said to have avoided the archbishop’s palace (preferring a simple apartment instead), to have prepared his own meals, and even to have utilized public transportation instead of a personal vehicle. Such characteristics bode well for the man who now fills an ecclesiastical office that often looks more like a cross between an emperor and a powerful medieval bishop. He was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 2001. It is said that he encouraged his fellow Argentinians not to spend money on a trip to Rome at that time, but to use it for the betterment of the poor.

The fact that he is not European is also of interest. Brogoglio’s parents were from Italy but he was born and reared entirely in Argentina. He has served on a number of Vatican commissions, so he is undoubtedly familiar with how things work in that small, sometimes mysterious enclave. But that doesn’t mean that he’s a Vatican “insider.” Far from it. He has spent most of his time as a shepherd and leader in his native land of Argentina. It is possible that he may set about doing the quiet work of a bureaucratic reformer–adjusting the power balance that currently prevails in Vatican City.

Catholic dogma, you see, maintains that the Church is governed by the pope and the bishops, not by the papal bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. Traditionally, the pope is understood as the symbolic embodiment of Peter while the other bishops of the church represent the college of the Apostles. The pope is most often the one referred to as “pontiff,” but Catholic doctrine holds that every bishop is pontiff of his own diocese, or ecclesiastical district. Although the Catholic Church is a truly global communion when considering its more than 1 billion members, it has quite often functioned more like a European institution enforcing Roman centralization.

Pope Francis may be a leader willing to reverse that unsatisfying trend. Like your humble blogger, perhaps he’ll be “less Roman, more Catholic.” He is the first pope of non-European origins since 731. That year saw the selection of Gregory III to lead the Catholic Church. He was of Syrian origin. We probably need no reminder that none of the original Twelve Apostles was European. They were all Jews from the land we now call Israel.

Jesuits aren’t the only members of a religious order rejoicing today. Franciscans are probably celebrating as well, given the name chosen by the new pope. Perhaps there is no Catholic saint more beloved or remembered than Francis of Assisi. As a young seminarian in the 1980s I often went on retreat to the city of Assisi. Except for the electric wires and light posts, its oldest neighborhoods to this day look much like they did in the time of Francis.

In a dilapidated sanctuary dedicated to St. Damian (San Damiano), Francis was stirred by a call that he perceived as a command of Christ: “Frances, repair my church.” He originally interpreted this internal inspiration to be an order to rebuild the sanctuary. He later expanded his comprehension and his mission so that he became a universal preacher calling others to follow Christ in humility and service. At times he is even portrayed preaching to animals. To this day the people of Italy often refer to Francis as “the poverello (the poor one) of Assisi.”

As I look at the papal office since my days in Rome (1983-1986), I am tempted to describe the papacies of those who sat in the Chair of Peter with a few adjectives. Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) seems to me to have been an energetic but at times demanding pope. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) might be described as a learned and studious pope. How will we find Jorge Brogoglio? We can’t yet be sure, but my guess is that he’ll be a very traditional pope of great humility. Like all popes, he’ll leave his mark on the Catholic Church. There are bound to be a few surprises.

Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | March 9, 2013

Theology: Being Critical of God

ID-100138133Have you ever heard someone interject into a conversation the statement that they don’t mean to be critical, but …?  Perhaps if they understood the meaning of our word “critical,” they might not be so hesitant.  Being critical is not the same as being negative.  In fact, excessive negativity is actually the opposite of being authentically critical.  This should come as no great surprise if you’re familiar with the entertainment section of your favorite news source because you’ll realize that critics of movies and plays can have a positive or a negative opinion of the works they review.

Although the word is often misused, our word “critical” actually means being able to look deeply and discerningly at something:  a movie, a textbook, a political stance, or even a religious doctrine.  It comes to us from the Greek adjective, kritikos, meaning “able to discern.”  When we theologize, we use our critical thinking skills to analyze our doctrines—including the historical situations in which they arose, the controversies that swirled around their origins, their subsequent development, their consequences, and the reaction of great thinkers to all of these varied realities.  To do theology well we must engage as deeply as possible our skills of reasoning.  Like all scientific and academic forms of inquiry, theology is aided not only by experience, but education and training as well.

As early as the eleventh century, St. Anselm of Canterbury described theology as fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding.”  He himself was no theological slacker, but he was also a monk who eventually served as archbishop of the See of Canterbury.  From deep within our historical past, Anselm seems to be reminding us with his definition that there are many sides to the human person:  psychological, physical, emotional, spiritual, and also cognitive.  Our thinking skills are a gift of our Creator and there is no reason to think that they must be neglected in matters of faith.  We should note as well that, for Anselm, theology presumes faith.  In other words, theology is an exercise of faith; it is a way of being faithful and a way of living one’s faith.  It is not synonymous with catechesis, passing on or instructing others in faith.  This is because one who does theology has presumably already been catechized and convinced of the truth of Christian faith.

Furthermore, if we take this to its logical conclusion, one might say that the theological scholar differs from the religious scholar because of the place from which they investigate their areas of expertise.  Theoretically, the scholar of religion studies human religiousness from “outside” religion, attempting as much objectivity as can be mustered, and without reference to personal religious identity.  The theologian, on the other hand, operates from “within” his or her Christian tradition, freely professing that faith and identifying fully with its values.  The Greek origins of our word “theology” seem to remind us of this:  theos (“God”) and logos (“word”).  In the fullest sense, perhaps theology can best be understood as the act of thinking deeply about the God we profess.  Being critical of God, therefore, really means to take God quite seriously.

Objectivity is still important, and one might argue that it becomes even more difficult in this situation.  However, I tend to agree with those who say that the best way to seek objectivity in scholarship is to honestly embrace one’s beliefs, openly and in dialogue with others.  In this way the academic pursuit of theology becomes an example for scholars of all areas of expertise.  Since we each have our agendas and value commitments, we best serve the pursuit of truth when we place those ideals on the table for consideration.

When combined with the critical assessment of doctrine, such honesty can sometimes place a theologian into metaphoric “hot water” with the hierarchical teaching authority of the Church.  This tension seems inevitable if we take seriously the respective jobs of the bishop (as chief catechist) and the theologian (as critical assessor).  They are two very distinct, yet interrelated vocations, and each is in need of the other.  The reminder of this truth is to be found in the fact that theologians were traditionally understood as an important part of the Church’s teaching authority.  St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to speak of two “chairs” of ecclesiastical authority:  the pastoral chair of the hierarchically ordained, and the teaching chair held by theologians.  It would be a healthy development to see this doctrine reclaimed and reinvigorated so that controversial theologians might receive a fair hearing in the contemporary Church.

Although we professional theologians do our work as part of our careers (usually in colleges and universities), all believers spend a certain amount of time “doing” theology.  As one might expect, this happens when we ponder the great questions of life’s meaning in the context of our Christian beliefs.  The Benedictine monk and missionary Bede Griffiths is reported to have said that anytime we pray we are doing theology, and he was probably right in his assertion.  All theologizing is not of equal value, however, and it is the job of the professional theologian to help us critically assess whether our theological notions are faithful to the gospel of the Carpenter of Nazareth—and whether or not they spur us to live that gospel in our daily lives.

An edited version of this article appeared in US Catholic magazine in the spring of 2010. Photo courtesy of franky242/

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