ACU theology: how orthodox, how accountable?

ACU theology: how orthodox, how accountable?

Michael Gilchrist

Unit outlines and books of readings for several theology units taught to student teachers at a Sydney campus of Australian Catholic University raise questions about their orthodoxy and accountability. If typical, they raise wider questions as to the calibre of theology generally at all ACU campuses, in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT.

Given that most in-coming student teachers are barely literate in the Catholic faith, their immediate, obvious need is for a "remedial" course of religious study based on the Catechism and other key documents, rather than early exposure to "theologies" that can be, at best, useless and, at worst, unhelpful to their faith as future committed Catholic teachers.

In the Introduction to Theology unit (Theology 102), for example, dissent against "non-dogmatic teachings" is presented as "always a possibility" provided the dissenter has "competence". Fr Richard McBrien's Catholicism (1984 edition) is cited as an authority. This book is an unreliable guide to the faith, with its favourable presentations of dissenting theologians, and was cautioned against by the Australian bishops at the time it was first published here.

In the same theology unit, an article by Robert Haight titled "Why Theology?" offers the argument that Church authority and doctrine should keep a low profile in the interests of ecumenism: "From the standpoint of the church, theology transcends the church. It deals with the whole sphere of reality itself from within the purview of the symbols of Christian revelation. Second, the church itself which is the natural home of theology cannot be restricted to any confessional communion today.

"The premises and values underlying the ecumenical movement, which reach back to the essence of apostolic faith, break open the necessary and legitimate role of authority within any particular Christian tradition ... Christian theology in this situation will attend to the faiths of other peoples and, being influenced by them, reformulate its self-understandings accordingly."

This line of argument is hard to reconcile with the message of Dominus Iesus as to the Catholic Church's particular claims to truth.

Another reading, from Creating Designs for Theological Reflection, by Killen and de Beer (1995), encourages students to become in effect home- spun theologians. The lecturer in charge prefaces the reading: "Understanding the basic framework for theological reflection helps us to facilitate it effectively. Learning to use the framework as a resource for developing creative designs for theological reflection is equally important. This chapter presents options and possibilities for designing theological reflection based on each section of the basic framework."

And in one of the more bizarre readings in the collection, titled "Daughters of the Church: the Four Theresas", Sr Mary Collins OSB incredibly equates the stature of dissenting American nun, Sr Theresa Kane - who confronted John Paul II during his first visit to the United States in 1979 with a call for women priests - with that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St Teresa of Avila and St Thérèse of Lisieux.

Religious pluralism

Another ACU religion unit, titled Studies in Religion and Philosophy (Theology 114) devotes much space to Semitic, Muslim and Indian religious perspectives and includes extracts from This I Believe edited by John Marsden (1996), which consists of interviews with various people of some, little or no belief in God - e.g., Stephanie Alexander, executive chef and co-owner of Stephanie's Restaurant, who admits, "I do not believe in any gods ... when I die, that is it ...". Another said: "Having lost my confidence in Catholic dogma by my late twenties, I am still searching about".

That seems to be basically the position of many teacher education graduates after being fed a diet of ACU theology units, to judge from the recent ACU survey of student teacher beliefs (see AD2000, May 2000, p. 3).

Topic 3 in this unit, titled "Religious Pluralism," includes a handout from Dissonant Voices (1991) which claims that "Vatican II clearly opened the door to a very different way of looking at other religions. For example, Lumen Gentium 8 makes it clear that no longer can the Roman Catholic Church be identified as the sole Church of Jesus Christ" - a misreading of Vatican II's teaching, as reiterated in Dominus Iesus.

Then, in an extract from The Problem of God by T. William Hall, we read: "[C]ritical believers and thinkers in our time might find it more rewarding to look toward newer approaches to the problem of God. These approaches will not focus on the traditional God problem. Rather, attention will be directed to issues of transcendence, as hinted at in religious language, in the depth of the psyche, and even in the rediscovery of experience. It may even be that the creative imagination of men and women in our time will lead to radically new and meaningful affirmations of God hitherto undreamed of."

A third theology unit, titled Church: A Communion of Believers (Theology 244) includes a book of readings with a decidedly liberal, feminist slant. The titles of some of the readings are fairly self-explanatory:

* "Rethinking Church Models Through Scripture".

* "The Community Called Church".

* "Empowering God's People at Grassroots Level" in Redefining Church: Vision and Practice ed R. Lennan (1995).

* WCC, "Ministry," in Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry, Geneva, WCC, 1982.

* A Theology of Ministry by John A. Coleman, who writes in his introduction: "In the last several years there has been a proliferation of excellent books and articles proposing a fundamental theology of ministry. Those by Edward Schillebeeckx, Bernard Cooke and Thomas O'Meara are among the best."

* "The Recasting of Marian Imagery" in Hail Mary?: The Struggle of Ultimate Womanhood in Catholicism (1995).

The theology unit states as its objectives:

* Identify and assess the historical, scriptural and theological developments in understanding ecclesiological paradigms;

* Evaluate the historical and theological significance of such perspectives in ecclesiology as they relate to issues of lay ministry and ecumenism, liberation theology and emerging ferminist critiques;

* Identify and critically assess the principal paradigms of the Church that have been proposed by contemporary ecclesiologies in relation to the needs of the local church;

* Identify and critically assess the models of ministry and authority that flow from and express these diverse understandings of the Christian Church.

The readings required for this theology unit are heavily "newchurch" in their slant.

While the full texts of Vatican II's Gaudium et Spes and Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church are included, Lumen Gentium cuts out before its Chapter Three, which is titled, "The Church is hierarchical," and strongly reaffirms papal authority. This Vatican II teaching would not have sat easily alongside views expressed in other readings for this theology unit.

Feminist critique

For example, we read in "The Recasting of Marian Imagery" by M. Hammington from Hail Mary?: The Struggle of Ultimate Womanhood in Catholicism (1995):

"Historical/critical methods, biblical scholarship, and modern social phenomenology contribute to the modern feminist critique of Marian images. The critique, and the current status of women in academics [sic] and in religious ministry, makes for a unique moment in history. In no other era has it been possible for feminist theologians to establish themselves as a significant constituency in the dynamic complexity of the Catholic Church, and therefore lay claim to women's voice in matters of spirituality ... Male theologians have historically exploited popular Marian piety to develop imagery that was useful to patriarchy. Solidifying papal power, subordinating women, maintaining moral controls ...

"The three images discussed in this book have brought forth a mandate for change in sexual morality, power structures, and definitions of good and evil. However, Mary represents the position of the official teaching of the Church. The same critiques and recommendations for change could just as easily be focused upon Catholicism. Institutional religious change does not come easily ... Catholic feminists merely seek to reclaim their Church."

In general, these theology courses with their accompanying readings could lead one to think that:

* The Catholic Church's claims to truth ought take a back seat in the interests of ecumenism.

* The views of theologians are equivalent to the Magisterium's.

* The Church's hierarchical character is to be understood more in natural rather than supernatural terms.

* A liberal, feminist, politically correct, "newchurch" line of thinking is the way to go for the Church.

* What the Church officially teaches, e.g., as set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, need not be emphasised or defended.

* Church teachings are often ambiguous and open to debate for Catholics.

* Students need to learn the theological ropes so as to critically "reflect" on these teachings.

The fact that such theology units are being taught at ACU indicates that the bishops should be taking a close look at what our future teachers in Catholic schools are imbibing.

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