ST. LOUIS • The head of the Jesuit order in East Africa explained to other theologians gathered here last week that a simple gesture had different meanings in different cultures.
In the U.S., said the Rev. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, a man beating his hand against his chest is a liturgical expression of penance. Back home, he said, the same gesture is an expression of defiance.
"Perhaps," the Rev. William O'Neill said to his fellow theologians, "that's exactly what we should be signifying."
The audience, all members of the Catholic Theological Society of America, applauded O'Neill's aside with appreciation.
Defiance was top of mind at the group's annual convention downtown. One of their own had been targeted by the Vatican earlier in the week, and there was a sense in the Hyatt Regency ballroom that the Catholic bishops had finally gone too far.
Over the last 50 years, the practice of thinking theologically in the Roman Catholic Church has slowly shifted from a practical craft developed by clerics to train the next generation of clerics to a wider field of study that includes lay academics and employs perspectives from across the scholarly spectrum.
As Catholic theology has branched out, bishops — who have the ultimate teaching authority in the church — have struggled to curb theological thinking they consider a potential source of confusion for the lay faithful. As a result, in recent years the bishops have criticized the work of a number of prestigious American theologians. And in St. Louis last weekend, the theologians were girding for a fight.
They spoke in protest against the Vatican's denunciation of Sister Margaret Farley's 2006 book, "Just Love: A Framework for Christian Social Ethics" in which the bishops found "grave problems."
We must "learn to say 'stop' to those who abuse authority only to preserve it," O'Neill, of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, told the assembled scholars.
On June 4, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, released a five-page "notification" about Farley's book, saying her writing on sexual ethics did not conform to the teachings of the Magisterium, the church's teaching authority through the pope and bishops. Pope Benedict XVI had approved the notification March 16.
"Sister Farley either ignores the constant teaching of the Magisterium or, where it is occasionally mentioned, treats it as one opinion among others," the notification said. It declared the book could not be used "either in counseling and formation, or in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue."
On Thursday, the board of the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a statement supporting Farley, a past president of the group and a professor emerita at Yale Divinity School. The board said her work "has prompted a generation of theologians to think more deeply about the Christian meaning of personal relationships and the divine life of love that truly animates them."
The statement acknowledged, as Farley did in her own statement last week, that "Just Love" contained ideas that were contrary to church teaching. But, it said, Farley's purpose was to "explore questions of keen concern" to Catholics, which "is one very legitimate way of engaging in theological inquiry that has been practiced throughout the Catholic tradition."
The wider membership agreed with the board, later approving a motion to endorse the statement.
Last year, the group responded similarly after the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized the work of another theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson, a professor at Fordham University.
John Thiel, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University and the theologian group's president, said in the last year "there has been some tension between the Catholic theological community and the bishops conference."
Thiel said that while Catholic theologians take the teachings of the church seriously, their role is not simply to repeat those official teachings. "Sometimes Catholic theologians raise questions about that teaching and offer perspectives and new understandings of what the church's teachings might one day be," he said.
The Rev. Robert Schreiter, a professor at Catholic Theological Union, said Farley is the victim of a Vatican culture of control over the very nature of religious thinking.
"The issue is about understanding different dimensions of theology," he said. "Rome is berating Margaret for not doing the kind of theology they want done."
The Rev. Peter Phan, a Georgetown University theology professor whose work has also been investigated by the bishops, said "Just Love" is about Christian social ethics. "Margaret spent her career teaching at Yale, in an ecumenical context," he said. "Her duty as a theologian is to expand, not simply repeat."
At an evening session organized to discuss the Vatican notification, Farley spoke publicly about it for the first time, telling hundreds of her colleagues that the previous week had been the culmination of a 3 1/2-year debate with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — a conversation that had taken place entirely through the president of her order, the Sisters of Mercy, she said.
"The judgment was that the book was not consistent with valid expressions of Catholic theology," Farley said, "which implies that anything I write ought to be about that."
The Vatican said "among the many errors and ambiguities" of "Just Love" were "its positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage."
"There are terribly important questions, and other than to say that I have a defective knowledge of natural law, these were not addressed," Farley said.
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a theology professor at Boston College, said it was "appalling" that the bishops entirely ignored the book's treatment of violence against women, among other issues, and focused on what Farley called the "hot-ticket issues."
A "profoundly important" question for Catholic theologians, Farley said, is: "Should power settle questions of truth?"
In its notification, the Vatican had said its original purpose for investigating "Just Love" was because of "doctrinal errors" that are "a cause of confusion among the faithful."
Richard Gaillardetz, a theology professor at Boston College, said the bishops' use of the term "confusion of the faithful" was "infuriating" and "an ongoing problem we see in these statements."
"It's a mind-boggling step back from everything that has happened, or that we hoped would have happened, since Vatican II," he said.
Farley said that at the heart of the study of Catholic moral theology is an acknowledgement that "if we come to know a little more than we knew before, it might be that the conclusions we had previously drawn need to be developed, or even let go of."
To say that wasn't possible "would be to imply that we know everything we need to know and nothing more need be done."
Throughout her career at Yale, Farley developed a knack for finding herself in the middle of theological controversy, she said. Her students asked her all the time why she stayed in a church that so often pushed back against her work.
Because the church "is still a source of real life for me," she would tell them. "It's worth the struggle. It's worth getting a real backbone that has compassion tied to it."
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of the story reversed the symbolic meaning of beating one's chest in the U.S. and east Africa.