New Zealand’s Catholic intellectual leadership is now called to act

In his new motu proprio Ad theologiam promovendam, 1 November 2023, Pope Francis called for “a paradigm shift” in contemporary theology.

He signalled how this shift must take place, through “transdisciplinary dialogue with other scientific, philosophical, humanistic and artistic knowledge, with believers and non-believers, with men and women of different Christian confessions and different religions.” (n.9)

As a consequence, the persons who carry New Zealand’s Catholic intellectual leadership are now challenged from the top.

They are called from the Pope himself to engage theologically in ways that respect the beliefs, customs, practices, values and even experiences of other faiths and cultures.

The importance of Ad theologiam promovendam for New Zealand’s Catholic intellectual voice is that it is now the approved new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

This means Ad theologiam promovendam is now the framework for standard Catholic theology worldwide.

Although Francis provided no theological method, something still to be developed by theologians, his framework is clear – dialogue, relationship building, inclusion, engagement, and even experience in a spirit of intellectual charity and prayerfulness.

He called Catholic theology institutes to “weave a network of relationships with other training, educational and cultural institutions, professions and Christian communities that know how to penetrate, with originality and a spirit of imagination, into the existential places of the elaboration of knowledge.” (n.7)

Calling especially directors of Catholic theology academies to task, Francis signalled how important it was that “institutional places exist to live and experience collegiality and theological alliance.” (n.6) This would mean Catholic theology institutes in New Zealand accepting invitations to dialogue.

Francis referred back to his Address to the Members of the International Theological Commission on 24 November 2022: “Ecclesial synodality commits theologians to do theology in a synodal form, promoting among them the ability to listen, dialogue, discern and integrate the multiplicity and variety of requests and contributions.” (n.6)

We can now hold Catholic theology schools that refuse to offer theological inquiry across religious borders as unsafe places to study today. They risk, as Francis stated, “closing in self-referentiality, isolation, and insignificance.” (n.5).

Instead, Francis called for his theology academies to be “inserted in a web of relationships, first and foremost with other disciplines and other knowledge.” (n.5) Herein lies Francis’s universalist approach.

But rather than a weak interdisciplinary dialogue such as the multidisciplinary style in which diverse viewpoints can still remain detached, Francis emphasised the transdisciplinary approach.

This not only favours a better understanding of the object of study from multiple viewpoints, but “the placement and fermentation of all knowledge within the space of Light and Life offered by the Wisdom that emanates from Divine Revelation.” (n.5)

To counter potential traditionalist criticisms, this call is actually close to the classical idea of the university from Latin universum, all things, everybody, all people, the whole world, literally, “turned towards the one,” from unus “one” and” versare “towards.”

From this we get universus meaning “all together, all in one, whole, entire, relating to all,” which seems to be the impulse for Francis’ universal outreach.

Hence, Francis has not dismissed any source but encouraged them all, sacred and secular, inside and outside religion, especially the concrete situations in which we are inserted, our basic human experiences.

What is new in Ad theologiam promovendam is Francis’s push for the personal experience of the religious other and of difficult things we too often want to ignore such as global warming, poverty, homelessness, and suffering.

Francis made the point that we are living in very different times from when Irenaeus, Augustine, the Apologists, Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cappadocians, Athanasius, and Cyril of Alexandria, did theology.

The same can be said for Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the entire scholastic tradition, and even the moderns such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Thomas Merton, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Therefore, constant return to these Church writers may not necessarily help contemporary theologians respond effectively to current situations.

The Pope’s call for greater experiential knowledge of each religion means that a new and effective theological method is now required.

Perhaps Robert Cummings Neville’s trans-religious approach might be a good place to start.

In 2017, Neville offered a way to theologise across religious borders by exploring faith-content, what is believed in diverse religions, the “fides quae creditor” that Augustine deftly distinguished from the actual believing or faith proper. Neville’s approach was comprehensive and non-critical.

This may also warrant a new definition for theology, one that moves beyond “faith seeking understanding” to signify a competency to converse globally on theological ideas and worldviews, as Francis said, “openly engaging with everyone, believers and non-believers.” (n.4)

Neville used the expression “intellectual side of religion” to describe such a theology that brings together insights from all over to develop mutual understanding amongst diverse faith traditions.

The theological possibility of recognizing the equality of theological ideas may be obtained by a methodical modification of specific faith-content to obtain mutual theological concepts which understand and respect the relative points of separation between religions while remaining faithful to one’s own home tradition.

The curious consequence of such an approach is the possibility of knowing different ideas about the same theological topics while still believing in those topics.

This is an extraordinary proposition, an outstanding insight into the prospect of a universally relational theology of dialogue and encounter, as Pope Francis has promoted.

Yet the ultimacy of Francis’s new approach to Catholic theology lies in being undertaken with intellectual charity because, “it is impossible to know the truth without practicing charity,” and also “developed on one’s knees, pregnant with adoration and prayer.” (n.7)

Let us hope Francis’s initiative gives New Zealand’s Catholic intellectual leadership time to pause and reflect and open to engage and build relationships across religions and worldviews.

Let us hope that local leadership will support their universal leader’s promotion of theology along this journey of dialogue in charity and friendship. With Francis’ momentum, maybe they will feel more encouraged to do so.

Dr Christopher Longhurst is a Catholic theologian, Fellow of KAICIID, and lecturer in theology at Te Kupenga Theological College of Aotearoa New Zealand. The English translations of Ad theologiam promovendam are his.

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