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  • The Practice of Catholic Theology: A Modest Proposal by Paul J. Griffiths
  • James J. Buckley
The Practice of Catholic Theology: A Modest Proposal. By Paul J. Griffiths. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016. Pp. xiii + 142. $29.95 (paper). ISBN: 978-0-8132-2890-7.

Paul Griffiths’s The Practice of Catholic Theology steps into the battlefields over Catholic theology with “a modest proposal” that will be of interest both [End Page 600] to those just learning to be and to those already practiced in Catholic theology. With characteristic clarity, originality, and compactness, he gives dozens of very helpful “how-to” (xi) tips on practicing Catholic theology. He also develops a concept of Catholic theology that is, in at least one crucial way, explicitly a “minority” proposal. I highly recommend the many helpful tips to all, those learning to practice as well as those practiced in Catholic theology. But I will also offer a reading of his minority proposal that registers some minor dissents on the way—all presuming, of course, that I have read him correctly.

Griffiths’s book began as an invited lecture on “theological disagreement” at the 2014 annual convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (published in the CTSA Proceedings). There Griffiths identified three tasks that belong to the work of Catholic theology: discovery (under the authority of Catholic bishops, obviously including the bishop of Rome), interpretation, and perhaps most importantly, speculation. He then argued that, by not making such episcopal discovery an explicit part of its mission, the CTSA (in contrast to the Academy of Catholic Theology) was promoting a kind of disagreement that undercut the disagreements over interpretation and speculation essential to Catholic theology. Needless to say, the talk was intended to be and is controversial.

That 2014 talk is now located “in a broader consideration of what theology is and how it should be learned and performed” (xi). The earlier claim about the episcopal establishment of church doctrine is legible in the book (132–34), but not the particular polemical edge of the published talk—although Griffiths persuasively insists that the practice of Catholic theology always involves agon (struggle) and periodically antagonism (argumentative polemic) (125–29). To use an analogy that Griffiths does not, his earlier polemic is a kind of rhetorical “just war” and therefore presumes a range of conditions and ends, lest it be confused nowadays with a kind of “total war.” Griffiths’s range of conditions and ends is here organized as a series of forty-one brief, readable sections, averaging about three and one-half pages, each a nugget of insight and information. Here I merely take the reader through what I read as the book’s three main movements, raising some questions on the way.

Griffiths’s first movement unpacks a “stipulative definition . . . of theology” as a species of “reasoned discourse” (2). It is generically “reasoned discourse about god (or the gods)” and specifically Christian “reasoned discourse about the god who is the triune LORD, the god of Israel who became incarnate as Jesus the Christ” (ibid.). Theology, both generically and specifically, aims at “cognitive intimacy” with what or whom (in the case of Catholic theology) it is about (ibid.). This might sound to incipient practitioners like a relatively traditional Catholic distinction between natural and revealed theology. But it is not identical to Vatican I’s distinction between a twofold object of knowledge distinct in principle and object. Griffiths does not, of course, deny such a distinction in its appropriate context, although this is not the only time [End Page 601] some will wish for more comparison of his positions with precursor traditions—in Griffiths’s terms, more “interpretation.”

In any case, getting a grip on this opening distinction requires keeping in mind the book’s dedication and summary conclusion. Griffiths’s dedication offers the book not only “to the church of Jesus Christ, which subsists in the Catholic church” and “to the LORD” but also “to those who think and write about the LORD in the church’s service” and “to those who think and write about the LORD outside the church” (v). And his summary coda emphasizes...


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