Pope Francis’ new relational theology

Theology and Pope Francis

On November 1, 2023, Pope Francis issued the “Motu Proprio” Ad theologiam promovendam indicating how theology today “is called to a turning point, to a paradigm shift.”

The Pope signalled how this shift must foster a “fundamentally contextual theology” based on a nexus between relationships, experience, and no longer being self-referential.

The following offers a brief exploration of these features to help appreciate Francis’ call for a more open and forward-thinking theology today.

Theology’s new relational basis rests – dialogue

According to Francis, theology’s new relational basis rests in dialogue.

He said theology “cannot but take place in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly confronting all, believers and non-believers.”

This perspective has significant consequences.

The central presupposition of a theology of dialogue is that anyone can understand what is believed about God more deeply when they open themselves to the truth statements of all religions.

However, not only has Francis promoted the importance of theology across religious borders, but for him, theology is no longer only “faith seeking understanding.”

Non-believers or people without faith are to be involved.

Therefore, Francis has not only cast the Catholic theology net into the fresh waters of other faith traditions, but he has also overcome the risk of excluding people who do not have faith.

For Francis to undertake this theology across religious borders, we “will have to face the profound cultural transformations” that society is undergoing.

Those transformations affect us all. Intentionally or not, the Pope has made theology relevant for everyone.

A theology

whose sources remain within its own system

is a closed theology

that will eventually become irrelevant.

Concrete human experience

The Pope has emphasised another source for theology, namely, human experience, the concrete situations in which we are inserted, and knowledge of things gained through our involvement in them.

This is really not revolutionary because experience has been a theological source in the Catholic tradition for quite some time.

However, what is new is Francis’s push for the experience of the other.

He is clearly seeking that theology reaches into “the open wounds of humanity and of creation and within the folds of human history, to which it prophesies the hope of a unique fulfilment.”

Pope Francis proposes human experience and theology

Perhaps Pope Francis’ emphasis on broad interfaith experience, even for non-believers, is probably the document’s most revolutionary aspect.

He has encouraged a search for the wisdom of the world, call that Wisdom whatever you want – in the Catholic tradition, it is the divine Logos Jesus Christ, to be more clearly a common trans-religious source of theological understanding.

In other words, Francis’s new theology is simply a nuanced comparative and intercultural theology.

This new theology’s existential basis is signalled by fostering a “fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily.”

Still, despite Ad theologiam promovendam’s revolutionary undertone, Francis’s argument in favour of an existential theology across religious borders is actually rooted in the biblical command to love our neighbour.

He affirmed that “it is impossible to know the truth without practising charity.”

Obviously, this requires engagement and connection; therefore, he has linked dialogue and experience-based knowledge because we cannot love what we do not know.

This may be the document’s most outstanding and transformative feature.

Theology: a free search for truth

The Pope also made the case for theology no longer being self-referential, that is, a defence of already held positions.

The Motu Proprio begins: “To promote theology in the future we cannot limit ourselves to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past.”

Theology search for truth

Francis has indicated that for theology to be worthwhile today, it must reach beyond its own methods and engage with other branches of knowledge.

Rather than proving its own presuppositions, it must be the free search for truth “as part of a network of relationships, first of all with other disciplines and other knowledge.”

In other words, theology must be transdisciplinary, that is, “the pooling and fermentation of all knowledge in the space of Light and Life offered by the Wisdom that flows from God’s Revelation” (Veritatis gaudium, 2018).

Further, according to the Pope, contemporary theology must present itself as “a true knowledge, as sapiential knowledge, not abstract and ideological, but spiritual, elaborated on its knees, full of adoration and prayer.”


has catapulted Catholic theology

into the open space

of no longer determining its own position

solely from the sources of Scripture and Tradition.

In this sense, Pope Francis has blurred the fundamental distinction between theology as knowledge-based inquiry and religion as faith-based practice.

For the Pope, theology is no longer just an academic pursuit.

While prior Magisterial teachings have already affirmed that we can know something decisive about God through other faith traditions (Nostra aetate, 1965), Francis has catapulted Catholic theology into the open space of no longer determining its own position solely from the sources of Scripture and Tradition.

For Pope Francis, a theology whose sources remain within its own system is a closed theology that will eventually become irrelevant.

But a theology that goes beyond its own borders develops friendship with all, therefore being highly relevant for all times.

Evolving consequences

With these hallmarks, Pope Francis has promoted an open theology focused on dialogue and human experience. He has indicated how these are meaningful sources of theology, places we must go to understand more fully God, ourselves, and the world.

With Pope Francis now onboard, we can say that theology schools which do not allow theological inquiry across religious borders are not safe places to study today. They risk exclusivity, isolation, and the production of Francis’ “little monsters” – priests and seminarians, even some laity more concerned about defence propositions for what they know little about.

Consequently, opportunities for theology students must exist in Catholic theology schools to study theology beyond a single faith tradition.

Let us hope that any future Catholic Chair of Theology at one of New Zealand’s universities will embrace Francis’ call for a forward-thinking, experience-based theology of dialogue and relationship.

In sum, Ad theologiam promovendam has promoted an open theology that seeks to understand its own content in a relationship with the people and content of other faiths.

This is more in line with what theology really is, a seeking of understanding, and this is why it is important also for people who do not have faith, and especially important in a country like New Zealand, which has a remarkably high religious diversity with little means to manage that diversity.

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