Open theology in a synodal, missionary, and open Church

Sacrosanctum Concilium,

A synodal, missionary, and open Church can only speak to the world through an “open” theology. Ad theologiam promovendam (November 2023)

Pope Francis’s revision of the statutes of the Pontifical Academy of Theology is an important development within the discipline of contemporary theology.

Francis emphasises the need for an open theology within a synodal, missionary, and open Church.

Updating the statutes also encourages a robust exchange with various sciences and fosters an inter- and transdisciplinary approach to theological investigations. It is an invitation to scholars from diverse denominations, religions, and academic disciplines to participate in the life of a church that is “open” and engaged in in contemporary questions.

Antonio Stagliano, the Academy President, expressed enthusiasm for this new mission, emphasising the goal of promoting dialogue across all knowledge areas.

For him, the objective is to engage the entire people of God in theological research, transforming their lives into theological experiences.

Theologians wishing to pursue this line of reflection would do well to consider the theological and social perspective of the German Reform theologians of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

More specifically, they should consider the work of Romano Guardini (1885-1968), whom Pope Francis references both directly and indirectly in his writings.

With his first major work, “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (1918), he set standards for the Liturgical Movement and liturgical renewal and contributed to the shape of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council.

Two other books among his many publications, “Liturgie und liturgische Bildung” (1966) and “Das Ende der Neuzeit” (1950) are also seminal for contemporary theology.

Industrial society of the late 19th century

Guardini’s perspective reflects the significant process of change that occurred from the late 19th to the mid-20th century.

He pays attention to the impacts of:

  • social transformation through industrialisation, war, and new and often unstable republics;
  • the philosophical movements of rationalism and the critiques of positivism and Neo-Kantianism, through Life-philosophy and Existentialism and
  • reform theology movement’s critique of Neo Scholasticism.

Life-Reform Movement

The Life-reform Movement (Lebensreform) movement was a politically diverse social reform movement in France and Germany that found renewed interest in the Romantic movement.

Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), a leading German proponent, differentiated between the individual’s life and life as a whole, emphasizing that understanding life required accessing the full, unblemished experience.

He criticised the traditional modern philosophy, focusing on rationality that neglected dimensions of will and emotions.

Like Dilthey, Guardini placed experience at the centre of his reflections on liturgy and life.

While Dilthey argued against limiting sciences to deterministic natural scientific methods, Guardini criticised the restriction of theology by Neo-Scholasticism.

Guardini’s criticism of modernity and Neo-Scholasticism mirror each other insofar that an industrial model of living fundamentally changes people’s perception of time and alters how individuals relate to others, to their bodies, to society and to nature:

  • Industrialisation also brought about a significant change in the human-earth or human-nature relationship.
  • Nature became a resource to be exploited, not a “brother” or “sister” or “mother” to be cherished and cared for as we read in Laudato Si’.
  • Theologically, God and belief became functions of each other in a mechanism of ritualisation.

The issue for Guardini with respect to theology is that the systemisation of theology (as an academic discipline) especially through Neo-Scholasticism has resulted in theologies loss of contact with its base: namely how people live, work, pray and believe.

Catholic Reform Theologians

Catholic reform theology explored a heightened synthesis of theological and religious knowledge, and Guardini’s primary focus was the youth movements of Juventus and Quickborn.

The Catholic youth movement continued the broader movement that emerged at the beginning of the German Empire, emphasizing the importance of educational reform, body, and self-improvement.

Although initially apolitical, it was still exposed to contemporary ideological currents and oriented itself accordingly.

The First World War and the politically polarized phase of the German Youth Movement were transformative events.

The Nazi seizure of power in 1933 forced all other youth organisations into compulsory integration into the Hitler Youth or dissolution.

Theology and life

Among the Reform theologians, Guardini represents the openness to the world and questions of faith posed in the context of culture, that the Pope has offered to theologians.

Guardini advocated for reforming Catholic believers through liturgy, using a liturgical experience that would address the true essence of humanity and not stunt it through tired ritualisation.

True liturgical encounter awakens and glorifies life through the liturgical act when it is intimately connected to the life of God present and active in the whole of creation.

Like Guardini, and as Pope Francis has written, we live in a “change of epoch” that requires deeper theological engagement with societal and cultural changes that mould our understanding of faith, worship, salvation and God.

Just as Guardini’s work focused on the relationship between liturgical practice, lived faith and an openness to the world in the Catholic Church, today’s cultural context is as central to theological reflection as Scripture and Tradition.

Guardini proposed that liturgy and life are fundamentally connected experiences, and it is the person, as a whole, integral being who prays and lives.

The notion of context is central to theological reflection. Culture is a third source of theology.

To do theology — in any context that considers how people believe and how they pray — theologians must use Scripture, the Living Tradition of the Church and Culture as their sources of reflection when considering how a transformative event becomes a theological experience.

In the context of contemporary theological reflection is seen in an openness to the world and questions of faith and culture.

Paralleling Guardini’s focus on the relationship between liturgical practice, lived faith, and an openness to the world Pope Francis emphasises the importance of theological engagement with societal and cultural changes.

Canon Law – not the answer

Francis has set a new direction in the discussion of key theological debates around ordination, blessings of couples and questions of sexuality and gender that the juridic discipline of Church Law cannot answer because it is not a theological discipline.

Starting with Canon Law to solve these theological questions only ends in frustration.

Instead, starting with what people do when they pray when they call on God’s name or when they praise God is an utterly theological starting point because it is thoroughly incarnational.

In the end, all theological questions of any significance concern the relationship between what is believed and what is prayed.

Thus, all important theological questions are essentially liturgical questions that refer back to the interrelationship between living, praying and believing as transformative experiences of God’s Grace.

  • Dr Joe Grayland is a priest and theologian in the Diocese of Palmerston North. Currently on Sabbatical, he is lecturing at the University of Tübingen, Germany.
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