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September 2017
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I am working on a journal article on the emergence of what I characterize as a strong “secular Catholicism” in the United States, and that work has me thinking a lot about which realities theological authorities in church and academy are willing and able to recognize. I have been aware since the beginning of Rock and Theology that, for myself only, part of the theological significance of this project is its attempt to abandon itself to dealing with what is. To my mind, a lot of the Catholic theology being done today in the United States overestimates or almost willfully misreads what Catholics are willing to care about, consent to, find useful, helpful or interesting. It is not enough to claim that the academic theological vocation is a “prophetic” one — the usual backstop erected just in time — as an excuse for this disconnection from the lived Catholicisms before us. I see that part of what needs to happen, is happening and will happen among Catholic theologians in the United States is a profound rethinking of what it means to be a theologian in relation to an institutional church that is collapsing quickly. More people are walking out than walking in, and without recent immigrants, the decline would be even more evident. At best, the near-inevitable can only temporarily be forestalled. This is a genuinely “new situation” here in the States, one hardly admitted — much less negotiated or integrated — in polite theological circles.


Unless one wants to posit that all these “nonpracticing,” “recovering,” “fallen away” or “bad” Catholics are mired in a false theological consciousness, it will be of the essence of a truly prophetic theology to operate as if from within on what real, actual, living Catholics and others take to be central to their own lives, because such a placement for the generation of theology is the only path, positively, to a credible theology for the Catholic present in Western and secularizing contexts, and negatively, to check the incitement to negate the reality of people’s practices and the sacramental fetishism (read: fantasied overestimation of the stability, coherence and effectiveness of the sacramental system) that are part of the heritage of the Catholic theological tradition. It is for this reason, among many others, that I am grateful to the late theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid for valorizing the notions of obscenity and indecency for theology. By these terms, she means to bring in the riot of weirdness and uncontainable desiring life that are within each of us and within our so-regimented scriptures. Theologians have cast too many safety nets between our lives and those texts.


There are many things to surrender along the way of an academic theological life, but there has to be another role for theologians. We have strong incentives and pressures to a kind of premature theological mortality. Let’s not die young.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

1 Comment »

  1. Tom,
    Thank you for this powerful statement. As a psychoanalyst and professor of Pastoral Counseling, I am particularly motivated by the need to be present to people “where they are.” In my practice, I am often called to be present to the sorrow and confusion of Catholics who have felt summarily rejected by the church and its rhetoric of coherence. The denial of persons is in no way prophetic, and the insistence on seamless coherence is a denial of the psychological and spiritual experience of multiplicity which reflects the “weirdness and uncontainable desire” in each of us. Donald Winnicott wrote that our “true self” is not a coherent thing or place, but a “feeling of tissue aliveness” in all that we do. Fetishism is by psychoanalytic definition a “deadening” defense, constructed to control our desire. When our theology succumbs to fetishism it is truly deadening and dead. When it stimulates “tissue aliveness” (read: embodied connection and FEELING), then it is prophetic. In this time of celebrating incarnation, let’s stay present to the bodies and desires of ourselves and others. Lisa

    Comment by Lisa Cataldo — December 18, 2009 @ 8:29 am

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