Synodal virtues: Theology as a resource in Christian discipleship

shaping the assembly

The synodal vision that is emerging in region after region of the Catholic Church worldwide stresses that many different voices need to be heard if we are to fulfil our vocation to be the pilgrim People of God.

A door to a synodal Church

But if voices are to witness to the truth, the speakers must seek to be as informed as they can be.

In matters relating to faith, an essential part of that personal equipment is to be theologically literate. Viewed in this light, we can see the study of theology as a doorway to a synodal Church.

But there are three obstacles to such widespread literacy.

First, among Roman Catholics, “theology” was historically confined to the ordained. Many Catholics have simply never thought that taking a serious interest in theology is any of their business.

The old attitude of the “the clergy speak, the laity listen” is still alive as we reach the 60th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II (1962-65).

Second, there has been a marked swing away from the teaching of theology in many universities.

The emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM Subjects”) means that theology is excluded as somehow useless, a confessional matter, or as a poor use of resources.

Third, many highly committed Catholics – both lay and clerical – have never considered how the formal study of theology can be a resource for the Church and the world.

While individual academic subjects strive to say everything about something, theology strives to say something about everything.

Therefore, what follows is the case for getting more and more Catholics to take up theological studies as an aspect of the synodal path we have no upon.


Words have a sparkle as well as a meaning.

For many Christians today the word “discipleship” – a notion that has a very wide range of meanings – has a very positive sparkle.

It captures a sense of personal commitment, of life as a movement of growth and learning, and seems to fit very well with a sense of belonging within a Church that imagines itself as the pilgrim people of God.

“Theology”, by contrast, has little sparkle; indeed, it seems a dull word relating to a rather boring and obscure academic pursuit.

When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers’ (Ps 8:3): the wonder of the universe – which we today see in greater detail than ever before – has always been a starting point for theological questioning.

But let us look at a series of situations – scenes that confront us as Catholic Christians every day – and see if looking at them with the resources of theological speculation can help us to do three things.

First, theology can help to reposition these problems so that they might be seen as opportunities rather than roadblocks.

Second, theology can help us to relate to them differently as individual disciples and as a community of disciples, the Church, and thus find ways “through” the problems.

Third, theology can provide us with alternative ways of talking about what we hold precious as disciples and so help us in the task of evangelization.

What is theology?

What exactly do we mean by theology?

Most Christians think of theology primarily as an academic subject. It’s a body of information that exists “out there”, something that’s difficult to get one’s head around and must be absorbed by religious experts. And, so, it is really the business of the clergy.

It is like the religious equivalent of physics. Physics is complex and seems to be awfully important. So we are glad that there are egghead off in some university somewhere who work on it, but we can get on with life quite well without it!

Just so with theologians. No doubt they are useful, but just as the egg still boils whether or not you understand the physics, so faith keeps going and God is still “above us all” whether or not you have read a theology book!

But, actually, theology is not really like physics. It is far more like cookery: the more you know about cookery, the easier everyday cooking – and cooking is not only unique to human but affects us every day – becomes.

‘Wisdom is calling out in the streets and marketplaces’ (Prov 1:20): wherever humans come together, there are latent theological questions. Theological questions are as close as the local weekly market.

This might seem a little bit arrogant but think of the number of times either religious questions or questions with a religious dimension come up in everyday conversation.

A person is knocked down on the road and someone says: “If your number’s up, your number’s up!” Do you accept that life is so determined? Even if you do – and there have been many deterministic religions – don’t you still look both ways before crossing the road?

One athlete on winning a race bows to the ground and thanks Allah; another blesses herself; a third does nothing because he thinks that is superstition. Are there different gods or if just one God, why so many arguments. Or is it all hocus pocus?

As I write this I recall the bomb thrown into a church in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday a couple of years ago, another bomb that exploded in Kabul in a dispute between Sunni and Shia, and the tensions in the United States that arise from some of the apocalyptic ideas held by members of the fundamentalist “Christian” right who deny climate change and imagine they can predict the future by stringing together a few biblical texts.

All three stories set me thinking. Perhaps religion is bad for human beings. Should it perhaps be consigned to the dustbin of failed stupidities? That is a basic theological question.

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ (Mt 6:28-9): the beauty of the world around us is another starting point for theological reflection.

Religion produces discord but could it also be the sponsor of discourse between groups since societies always develop religions, even if today they are usually god-less religions. That too is a theological question.

Discord or discourse
All religions argue about what their “original” texts/stories or founders meant/ said/wanted.

Are there better ways of looking at these questions that might generate more light than heat, and are there ways of pursuing these questions that are creative rather than destructive?

Once again, we have theological questions.

If we are encountering these questions, then as a community we might seek to address them in a careful, considerate manner – and we have a noble goal: replacing discord with discourse.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Discipleship and Society in the Early Churches.

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News category: Analysis and Comment, Special, Synodality2.

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