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Charles Davis still feisty after 30 years: theologian asks how to live authentically in the midst of change.

I met Charles Davis where much of the world might not now expect to find him -- at Mass.

Davis, a former English Jesuit who startled the world when he left the priest, hood in the 1960s, was sitting in front of me in the Catholic chapel at Cambridge College in England.

A renowned theologian and incisive critic of a rigid and inexorable pre-vatican II church, Davis holds the title professor emeritus of religion from Concordia University in Montreal.

He left the priesthood in response to Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical banning contraceptives, in the tumultuous and precipitous 1960s when vision far exceeded the rate of change provoked by the council. The reigning assumption at the time was that those who depart from church offices or protocols also depart from the faith.

The truth may be that those who question are those who have a faith deep enough to care.

In that case, finding Charles Davis at Sunday Mass makes perfect sense. He is indeed a man of living faith and probing mind. His work has been a light to many across the years, challenging protocol and requiring faith of all of us.

The Promise of Critical Theology: Essays in Honour of Charles Davis, edited by Marc P. Lalonde, is described as a tribute to one of North America's most impressive religious thinkers.' Thinking, in fact, is Charles Davis, calling. In his 70s now and battling Parkinson's disease, Davis continues to work on the reconstruction of theological thought every day of his life, not because he does not love the faith but precisely because he knows that old answers to new questions fail to persuade in the presence of postmodern science, society and philosophy. Both the world and organized religion, he knows, are clearly in the process of reconstruction, but to what and out of what values and from what perspective is yet unclear.

He's working on that.

My interest in his attitudes and insights are derived from a different viewpoint. Seeing him at Mass, at the supper table, in lecture halls and in the small English row house with its tiny living room lined with books where he and his wife, Florence, an equally avid thinker, live in Cambridge, I wanted to know how he views and responds to the Catholic world at the present time. What does it look like to him now?

Thirty years after his public separation from the church as priest and theologian, what does Davis think about the church and its present directions? His answers were as straight and clear as his life would lead us to expect. No posturing, no dazzling, no masquerading. Just straight answers.

NCR. Thirty years ago, a renowned theologian and respected teacher, you removed yourself from the institutional definitions of the Roman Catholic church.

How would you describe what you did and why you did it and what would you say to someone considering a similar move today?

Davis: I would describe what I did as a protest against the imposition of the hierarchic structure of the church as being of divine law. This imposition is to ignore the development of democracy in modern societies and to insist upon an obsolete constitution of the church.

The reason I protested when I did is that I experienced in both my intellectual and pastoral activities a twofold corruption flowing from this obsolete concept of the church. The first corruption was the development over the centuries of what can be called "the institutional man." To give an example of the total indentification of a person with the institution: A member of the hierarchy agreed with me on the birth control issue but said that if the pope came out with a statement condemning birth control he would have to go on television and support the pope. This hierarch was not in the least concerned with the truth of the issue.

The second cause of corruption was the distortion created in the laity. They suffered an agonizing confusion, being caught in a conflict they could not solve. On the one hand, their conscience approved their actions; on the other hand, on a number of issues they found themselves in contradiction to the official teaching.

What about the situation of people today?

The situation has changed radically although not entirely. People today stand away from the church, they feel free to differ with the church in important matters such as contraception, women pries intercommunion. They can openly reject the official teaching without breaking with the church.

While I recognize there are some people, especially priests, who find them selves in a situation similar to mine there are many who can follow their conscience while remaining in the church. So, I could say that I have overemphasized the negative. What needs further discussion is a development of a genuine constitutional structure for a modern church. In the present day if one finds the institutional church weighs on one, taking away personal freedom, one simply leaves the priesthood, for example, and that is accepted and understood as a personal option by most Catholics. The community aspect of the church has become more important than an institutional regularity.

Please compare the church of the '60s with the church of the '90s. How would you characterize each?

I think of the '60s as spring. It was rich in many aspects. New movements such as liberation theology, ecumenism, the biblical movement, the lay apostolate showed an enthusiasm for the church on the part of clergy and laity. In the '90s everything has been dampened down. Admittedly there is a certain balance and maturity. But it all seems dead or running by the force of its past momentum.

In your opinion what are the greatest challenges, questions, issues facing the church at the present time?

My answer will surprise many, but I regard the most important task at present a juridical one, namely, the establishment of a demodratic constitution for the church. In this respect we are worse off than those states with only an unwritten constitution because in the church we not only have no written constitution but the papal claims block the path to the formation of a democratic constitution of the church.

In other words, since the 15th century the church as a community has been struggling to embody the Christian values in a juridical constitution that is based on an absolute monarchy.

What are the major developments in theology at tins time and how sire they affecting the church, if at

There are no major developments in theology, as far as I can see. I am speaking of theology proper, with its doctrinal content. What has led to its replacement is the fact that the existential questions are now treated in a philosophy of the concrete. Continental philosophy has taken over systematic thought. So this is where the interesting questions are being discussed not in the treatises of theology. In its turn, philosophy has been transformed to become concrete. The interest now is in becoming, not in being. Nor is it permissible to use the absolute as saving the traditional content. To put it in another way, the concern is to reassess Nietzsche. The philosopher of the modern world is not Plato but Nietzsche. The most important question for reflection is, How can one live authentically in the midst of change and with the recognition that human knowledge is always conditional, subject to error, changing, particular and concrete, not universal.

Please respond to a number of names and elements. Each of them is deeply embedded in some facet of the tradition. In what way does their contribution affect the development of the church at this time?

Mother Teresa.

My own work in theology and political society means I could not accept Sr. Teresa's nonpolitical stance.

Hans Kung.

He is one who has shown us how we can use all techniques to advance the study of theology. I could not agree with those who deny him the title of Catholic theologian. I wonder why he cares about having such a title. The official mandate is meaningless.

Rosemary Ruether.

He emphasis is on justice. She is highly sensitive to justice and injustice. She has been in the forefront of the examination of racial issues, women's issues the justice of the Palestinian position When she sets out to investigate injustice, she is relentless in pursuit of the truth.

Daniel Berrigan.

He is known for his emotional and poetic approach but at the center there is a rod of iron. He did not give way regarding the protest against Vietnam and the peace issue in general although he was forced to endure long periods of imprisonment.

Pope John Paul II.

Some unfortunate individuals are the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Basil Hume.

He is without personal ambition. This makes him the splendid leader he is. Goodness emanates from him without falsity or pretense. One is able to admire him as the leading member of the hierarchy in Britain.


Ecumenism has changed in this sense. People remain at the Eucharist, seeing this as a way of preserving each individual tradition. There is a deep inconsistency in proclaiming unity in Christ but without sharing together in the Eucharist.


There is a difficulty with globalism. With economic globalism one sees the issues most precisely. We cannot have economic globalism unless some are left out of the main lines. The global economic order has passed from a pluralist regime where differences were accepted to a universal order where differences are flattened. Modem economic globalism leaves behind those who have not been able to keep up with the dominant development.


The most important movement in the church today. It offers a healthy critique of attitudes and practices in the church. Clearly the role of women in the church is not yet appreciated. The to the call for women priests shows an attitude that rejects equality. Feminist research has demonstrated the church's refusal to acknowledge sins of the past in the treatment of women. Society is only hypocritically free for women.

For what would you want to be remembered by generations to come?

I want to be remembered for having had a spiritual influence. I shall give you an example. One busy Saturday afternoon my wife and I were walking in downtown Cambridge when a young woman approached us. You are Professor Davis, aren't you?" she said. She identified herself as a former student of mine in Montreal. You wont remember me," she continued. "I didn't talk much in class or stand out in any way. But, I want you to know that you changed my life. I shall always be grateful to you." From many others I have received the same message. Some were seminarians I taught at St. Edmund's, students, people I met on lecture tours, friends have told me that I helped them. The ability to change a person's life is a gift from the Holy Spirit.

Not scholarship, not organizing ability, but the, gift, of changing a person's life, that is what I want to be remembered for.

Is there anything I did not ask here that you would like to talk about?

I would like to discuss my personal history and the relation of that to Quebec. I was really not able to take part in the life of Quebec. When I was there, I became a citizen but did not really take advantage of all Montreal, our home, offered. I received more than I gave. Looking back on my life now I have come to appreciate the richness of Canada.

I am particularly sorry not to have entered more deeply into the French society of Montreal where I was warmly welcomed when I first arrived there. French Canada has a rich cultural heritage that we left aside. Many like myself come to Canada for a job but do not realize the deeper experience that is Canada.

Charles Davis is, as Lalonde said, "one of North America's most impressive religious thinkers." He may also be one of its simplest and most honest. He is certainly a sign to the rest of us not to confuse intellectual legerdemain with the orientation of our souls. Ideas, the best of them, are at the mercy of power but the spiritual life is impervious to the forces of opposition. As far as Charles Davis is concerned, faith is one thing; institutions are another.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Davis leaving the Catholic Church
Author:Chittister, Joan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:Feb 28, 1997
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