Faith & Thought

The Importance of Theology In a Growing Secular World

When I read in the April issue of Commonweal Peter Steinfels’ excellent review of Sarah Shortall’s Soldiers of God in a Secular World: Catholic Theology and Twentieth Century French Politics (Harvard University Press, $49.95, 352 pp.), I knew I had to read the book. Even reading Steinfels’ review took me on a short trip down nostalgia lane. 

Some of the thinkers that Shortall discusses are authors whose works I read when I was in the seminary back in the 1950s. At the time, I was completely unaware of the background against which they were writing and theologizing. Near the end of his review, Steinfels offers the following comment: “Soldiers of God in a Secular World is an outstanding book by a young and brilliant historian, well –launched into a career of integrating religion and theology into intellectual and political history.” 

I agree completely with Steinfels’ view of the book. Whenever I read a book that I think is special, I want to spread the word to friends. But with Shortall’s book I have a problem: I think that unless someone knows a great deal of philosophy and Catholic theology, the book might be a very difficult read. I don’t think this is due to any lack of knowledge or skill of the author but rather due to the complicated history she is presenting. 

Let me oversimplify by indicating that Shortall does a wonderful job of showing how theologians such as Henri Delubac, Jean Danielou, Yves Congar and Teilhard de Chardin were censured during the 1940s and forbidden to publish, but during the 1960s saw their theological insights become very influential during Vatican 11 (1962-1965). That is a very important story for anyone interested in the history of the Church leading up to Vatican 11. 

One of the insights that I take away from Shortall’s book is the extremely important role that theologians play in the life of the Church. While I was reading Shortall’s book, the 21st Century theologian, Michael Himes, who most influenced my thinking, died. There was a marvelous essay about Michael in the National Catholic Reporter (July 8-21, 2022) by Steve Miller. The essay was entitled “Father Michael Himes: A Theologian and Friend Who Shaped So Many Lives.” The following are the first two paragraphs of Miller’s essay: 

“If you ever had the privilege to hear a homily from Father Michael Himes, or attended one of his lectures, you never forgot him. Just ask any student or faculty member at the University of Notre Dame in the late ’80s and early ’90s, or at Boston College in the last three decades. The insight and brilliance of his thought made an immediate impression. 

“However, long after the recollection of his words faded, you remembered how he made you feel: that you were loved beyond imagination, and you had something special to offer the world. My good friend passed away on June 10 just a few weeks after celebrating his 75th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood.” 

Anyone who reads my column knows the story of my relationship with Michael Himes. I met him immediately after his graduation from grammar school when I had been a Catholic priest for little more than a month. How could I have ever guessed that this bright young man who later in his life became an outstanding theologian and an incredibly gifted teacher would profoundly influence my thinking and my life? His name has appeared frequently in this column and in books that I have written. More than any other 21st century Catholic theologian, Michael has influenced my thinking. If there is anyone reading this column who has never heard Michael speak, I recommend a lecture he gave many years ago entitled “The Last Lecture of Michael Himes.” It is available on YouTube. The last time I checked, it had received many thousands of hits. I also strongly recommend his book Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service (New York: Paulist Press, 1995, pp. 152, $12. 95). 

Steve Miller must have been a very close friend of Father Himes. His essay is an exceptionally accurate depiction of Michael. Anyone who heard Father Himes lecture could have written an essay praising his extraordinary talent as a teacher, but Steve’s essay accurately portrays Michael as a person and a priest. As I read the essay I found myself frequently assenting to Steve’s depiction. His friendship with Father Himes dramatically changed Steve’s life. I am certain Michael deeply influenced the lives of many. I count myself among that number. When I finish writing this particular column about the importance of theology in the Church and the special gift that Father Michael Himes was to many, I am going to start re-reading Doing the Truth in Love. I am certain that the wonderful, positive influence that Michael has had in my life will not stop with his death. 

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.