ARMCHAIR THEOLOGY HAS ITS PLACE

(Here is an article by a theologian warning of the dangers of armchair theology. Daniel P. Horan is a Franciscan friar and assistant professor of systematic theology and spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.)

During the last two decades, with the rise of widespread access to the Internet and the proliferation of search engines like Google and medical-information websites like WebMD, there has been an increasing trend of self-diagnosis by patients. One of the major — if under-recognized or appreciated — negative consequences is the false sense of confidence that accompanies those who have access to vast amounts of information, but who have little or no context, appropriate tools, or professional expertise to interpret or understand it accurately.

As the social psychologist Aleks Krotoski wrote in The Guardian eight years ago, “There is no doubt that the wealth of health information online has contributed to a more informed public, but this is an area in which I believe the expertise of the professional should not be undermined by the leveling power of the web.” Access to information, even sometimes the same primary resources professionals consult, does not equal informed knowledge or correct interpretation. We still need medical doctors, registered nurses, physician assistants, and all the trained and credentialed technicians necessary to sort through the information in a manner befitting the circumstances.

But it’s not just the medical field that has experienced this sort of phenomenon.

In writing about how the Internet has affected the general public’s approach to the natural sciences, Danielle Smiley wrote on Medium: “But here comes the problem; this constant access to information tends to make people think they are experts in whatever they Googled that day.” She continues, “I refer to them as ‘armchair scientists’  —  people who read a few popular science or journal articles written by a questionable source and then use this to form (and publicly spew) an opinion about a topic.”

The “hard sciences” are a domain that intimidates most people outside academic or medical guilds such that few are willing to claim they are actually as competent as the professional experts, even with the advent of vast online information, particularly when someone’s life or health is on the line. But this is clearly not the case with those who feel they can read a catechism online or find a digital version of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or explore the canons of the Council of Trent with an electronic search feature. Just as there are “armchair physicians” and “armchair scientists,” there are innumerable “armchair theologians” online and it’s a real problem for the church.

In an essay published in the 2012 collection When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church, Villanova University theologian Anthony Godzieba raises some key questions about church teaching that surface in an age of “digital immediacy.” He asks: “does this ‘digital immediacy’ influence the reception of these statements which in turn shapes the statements’ truth-value and their influence on the development of the Roman Catholic tradition, the reality of communion, and the very character of ‘teaching authority?’ “

The short answer is: yes. The longer answer is that this shifting context and increased availability of resources online has affected perception and interpretation of church teaching. Non-experts can feel empowered by a false-sense of democratized information, as if they were not in need of a “middle person” to make sense of church’s official teaching. They can go right to the perceived “source,” which the average person believes to be the pope who stands at the top of a centralized system of leadership or at least the trove of texts readily accessible online.

But that is not exactly how church teaching works. The pope is not analogous to the CEO of a company who singularly speaks for the corporation nor the sole arbiter of church teaching. Teaching authority is exercised in several ways and by several sources — by the pope, local bishops, ecumenical councils, as well as bishops’ conferences. Magisterial teaching and texts are not all of the same weight, nor are the meanings or implications of these teachings immediately clear without a professional grasp of church and conciliar history, the hierarchy of truths, various forms and conditions of the exercise of ordinary (and, rarely, extraordinary) magisterium, norms of Catholic moral theology, and numerous other principles necessary for authentic evaluation. Professional theologians and ethicists, many of whom are lay women and men, have spent years studying and teaching in their fields. They are needed to help people — both lay and ordained — understand what it is we say we believe.

Like the self-diagnosing armchair physicians who rely on web searches to justify their amateur evaluations, there are myriad Catholics who turn to the Internet and respond to material they happen upon instantly, without any awareness of the complex hermeneutical factors that must be considered when in engaging in such analysis. Furthermore, technical theological and philosophical terms, including words often used differently in popular parlance, are often not understood properly in a theological context. Perhaps because everyone who is a Christian has a presumed vested interest in the faith, there is a misplaced belief that the personal nature of Christianity or the practice of faith gives everyone equal weight in the conversation. This is especially true among the ordained, who certainly have some basic training in theology but are not professional theologians.

PAT SAYS

It is fair to point out that no one becomes an expert in any field by reading the WWW.

However, there is a difference between cardiology and theology.

Cardiology, to be properly understood requires a long period in universities and hospitals and a cardiologist will hone his skills through years of experience and continued in service training.

Theology, is the pursuit of the knowledge concerning the things of God and faith.

We benefit in progressing in faith by good theologians and indeed great theologians. Aquinas was a great theologian. I regard Hans Kung as the greatest living theologians. I appreciate the Theology of Liberation.

And indeed there is a place for the so called “magisterium” albeit that it is currently hidden under all kinds of caca.

However, we must remember that the Holy Spirit is the aboriginal theologian and The Spirit is in touch with the old lady fingering her beads in the kitchen armchair.

Archbishop John Charles McQuaid once remarked: “There is no greater theology than the child lisping the Hail Mary”.

Of course, I respect theology as an ancient art.

But God, can, if he wants, bypass the magesterium and professional theologian and speak directly to the man or woman in the armchair.

In fact, I think God does that many times every day.

47 thoughts on “ARMCHAIR THEOLOGY HAS ITS PLACE

  1. While reading this blog, these words, in continuous rapid succession, crossed my mind: ‘It is the duty of the faithful to allow themselves to be led.’ (From ‘Vehementor Nos’, encyclical by Pope St Pius X, 1906). This could well be the mantra of theologians like Horan, who, I suspect, are ‘butthurt’ more than anything else that people today are much-better educated and, therefore, better equipped intellectually to evaluate for themselves even the finer tenets of Roman Catholic theology. When all is said and done, such tropes, really, are about intrusion by non-professionals on ‘experts’ territory; it is no more mature than this. And experts like Horan don’t like it one bit, this intrusion, since it tends to prick their overinflated sense of self-importance, and opens up, to all and sundry (especially sundry), the closed-shop world of their guarded little part of academe.
    Rarity creates an elite, and with academic elitism comes a sense of entitlement, privilege, status, and power. But the more a professional field opens up, through social media, to wider, non-professional debate, the more threatened its elite of experts can feel. But ‘expert’ does not mean ‘infallible’; in fact, the word’s Latin root means ‘to try’. Nominally speaking then, an expert is a trier; and triers often get it wrong, don’t they? Including Roman Catholic theologians, like, er, Horan himself (as the recent revocation of centuries-old teaching on the death penalty proves😆)?
    There is a seismic difference between non-professional medical self-diagnosis, and non-professional evaluation of theological concepts: the two are hardly on the same social level (nor are the inherent risks), and it was silly of Horan to make the latter seem supremely important by association with the former. But even had he succeeded in pulling this wool over our eyes, he would, sooner or later, have had to answer that most telling of proverbs: Everyone makes mistakes, but doctors can bury theirs.😕

    Like

    1. 1am in the morning. Ok

      Like

    2. MournemanMichael 5th Apr 2019 — 12:34 pm

      Excellent food for thought here Magna. You’re at your best writing like this.
      MMM

      Like

      1. Thanks, MMM.

        Like

      2. 12.34: MMM – both to be cynical (it’s beyond me!), but surely you meant “drink” for thought, since MC, your co-conspirator, wrote at 1.06…..his time for merriment and over the top verbiage..Don’t you think???

        Like

    3. Excellent piece Magna.

      Like

      1. Thank you, 3:06.

        Like

    4. 1:06am
      Great post, MC.

      Like

      1. Thanks, KC.

        Like

  2. The problem is that biblical fundamentalism and magisterial fundamentalism drowns out every other kind of theology on the www.

    Like

    1. 5:13
      Agreed.
      But I never let them away with it, so I don’t.😆

      Like

  3. Magna Carta's Mum 5th Apr 2019 — 7:47 am

    Magna darling, I think the bishop is right but it’s not only an information age phenomenon. Do you remember when our parish priest said in a homily that the council had told us we must have Mass with the priest facing us? – I think he’d read it in the Tablet. You threw your Liber Usualis at him and shouted ‘That’s b*ll*cks!’
    That one took some explaining – and a donation in bottles, of course.

    Like

    1. I do indeed, dearest. But I assumed he was referring to the local, county council and thought what a ^*$#@:^* cheek!😬

      Mind your own business! 😠 ( I’d nodded off at the time, on your lap, and awoke to hear just that one word, ‘council’. Well, you had been generous to the sanitation engineers at Christmas, and I just thought…😡)

      Like

      1. You need counselling not councilling.

        Like

  4. Fly On Th Wall 5th Apr 2019 — 7:49 am

    Theology is words about God hi. God seems to be the only one never mentioned but. It’s more like football with the Holy Spirit being the ball. Drop kick me Jesus through the goalposts of life but. Rubbish. God is person and life is relational. No wonder the church is in a mess smothered by the skirted soutanne swishers but

    Like

    1. MournemanMichael 7th Apr 2019 — 12:00 am

      Fly: I love that expression; ” Drop kick me ….etc ” Been in my mind all day and put into rhymes and verse. I’m working on it!
      MMM

      Like

  5. As for the armchair theology we receive in this blog – it’s makey up, unintelligent and misleading. Pat’s take on the meaning of Church, spirituality, ecclesiogy and theology are defined to suit his agenda and his alone. It is confusing, erroneous at times and contrary to age old, revealed truths. As for Magna – it would be easier to give us the references he quotes from Wikipedia and other websites. Then we could be spared his pontificating. God speaks through each of us if we are truly open to his Spirit but we cannot make up a belief system simply by a show of hands.

    Like

    1. 7:53

      Well, excuuuuuse me!😡 ×@*$^:@*!😠

      It was by a show of hands that you were created😕

      …and Holy Spirit abstained.😆

      Like

      1. 8.32: No Magna, I was lovingly created and a planned, wanted child. Thus, my normality and balanced humanity. I feel blessed each day by the Holy Spirit. And looking out at nature all around me I sense the tangible presence of God…..all inspired.

        Like

    2. 7:53

      You were planned? And lovingly created?

      Lucky you.

      My presence was entirely random: I was found me at the bottom of my folks garden, under a cabbage leaf, among the slug pellets. The couple took me in cos they had nothing better to do that day. Charming. You’d think they might have told a white lie instead, to spare my feelings.😕

      Like

      1. 12.33: Under a cabbage leaf! It must have had many stickly thorns and rough edges as you are a stickly, thorny rough old leaf!! Go back to your origins, slugs, slugs, slugs………you know….just sayin’…

        Like

      2. Magna Carta's Mum 5th Apr 2019 — 3:16 pm

        Magna darling, I did! I told you you were the bishop’s love child!
        And it was a gooseberry bush.

        Like

  6. The ‘church’ clergy and hierarchy have created enough ‘real problems for the church”, than to be concerned about online armchair theologians.
    R.i.c.o. legislation is likely to be implemented against the church in America, and, if so, that will be another real, major problem, for the ‘church’!

    Like

    1. Yes, the episcopacy there is shredding documents as we spe…type.😕

      Like

  7. I sometimes get lost in the endless Theologocal debates.

    I recently started praying the Ignatian Examen (Fr James Martin has it on Spotify: would highly recommend) and I have found it a useful tool of discernment to see where God is operating in my Life. Also where he’s not. It has surprising results.

    Like

    1. @8.49
      Hasn’t done the homo-heretic jammy Martin any good.

      Like

    2. Fr James Martin likes useful tools.

      Like

  8. Daniel Horan is 35.

    Like

    1. I thought he was a peevish precocious teenager in a fit of pique.😕

      Like

      1. 9.12: Magna, you are the one who excels beyond compare to frequent peevish, precocious teenage fits!! Pot, kettle…black…🦍🦍🦍😶😶😆🤣😅🐱🐱🐃

        Like

  9. Surely you mean John Sweeney. Rev John Campbell is still in ministry and our PP in Cumbernauld.

    Like

  10. You know, when I was a parish priest and was speaking to the family about the funeral of a loved one, I told them that it was their funeral, and I would do whatever I could to facilitate their requests. I never had mad or idiotic requests; people wanted a funeral service or Mass that was respectful and according to the Church’s rites. Otherwise, they knew that they could go elsewhere, if they wanted. But they accepted the format of the Church’s rites. As to a personal eulogy on behalf of the family, of course there is room for that. Usually at the end of the funeral Mass before the last prayers and dismissal. I would ask for it to be written so that the speaker did not just ramble, and would ask to have sight of it, just to check that it was within bounds. I never had a problem. People were respectful of themselves, the deceased, the Church and me.

    Like

  11. It seems you have big unresolved issues with Glasgow. Instead of moaning incessantly on this sewer of a blog why don’t you have the balls and take your concerns to Glasgow. You clearly jave ulterior motives and probably are a reject of Glasgow if truth be known. So stfu because the chip on your shoulder is becoming very apparent.

    Like

    1. Hello 1.53. It is that much a sewer of a blog that you regularly post and read it! Double standards! Oh and you remain anonymous.

      Like

  12. 1 53: Well said. That Big Jim definitely has a ton weight chip in his shoulder. These pygmies who moan about everything are cranks, jealous, unfulfilled, disappointed with life, full of begrudgery…and they resent other people’s success, work and enjoyment. Grow up Big Jim…take your issues to the appropriate authorities, that’s if they’re true!!

    Like

    1. Appropriate authorities? Like who? Good luck with that.

      Like

  13. Why won’t the bishops allow family members to speak at relatives’ funerals?

    Like

  14. 12.49. Reference by blog at 1.04. Yes, sorry. Fr John Campbell is a gem of a man. I was referring to Fr Jim Sweeney and note I used the word alleged. Google his name and the story is there. Perhaps Bish Pat will amend my blog with apologies. PS I have no axe to grind with Glasgow. I am retired and I am glad to be out of it. I just feel that the double standards aren’t being addressed. Some of the things I could tell you!

    Like

    1. Richard Nixon 5th Apr 2019 — 2:46 pm

      It’s John Sweeney not Jim

      Like

      1. He answers to both. We called him Jim at sem

        Like

  15. Deacon Michael 5th Apr 2019 — 2:45 pm

    Hi Fr Jim. Lay off the sauce. John Campbell is doing well, John Sweeney is still suspended as you say and is innocent and this will be proved soon .

    Like

    1. I’m glad. Be good yo see him return to Ministry

      Like

  16. Soy bai

    Like

  17. Richard Nixon 5th Apr 2019 — 3:32 pm

    I though John Sweeney married that girl?

    Like

    1. Ben Doonagain 5th Apr 2019 — 2:40 pm

      Oh dear. I thought she was a vulnerable young lady who he was giving spiritual comfort to

      Like

      1. What does spiritual comfort consist of?

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close