Theology goes out with the tide

Last week, Pope Francis issued a short Apostolic Letter revising the scope of a Vatican Institute.

It seemed hardly newsworthy.

The Pontifical Institute of Theology was founded in 1718 for the theological formation of priests, and later for bringing theologians together to discuss theological topics.

More recently it has held an occasional conference, mainly with Italian contributors, and has issued occasional publications.

The document is of interest, however, because it clarifies the place within the Catholic Church which the Pope ascribes to theology and consequently to theologians and theological colleges.

In doing so, it summarises his more detailed treatments of the subject and also illuminates the different ways of viewing the Catholic Church which separate him from many of his critics.

In describing the place of theology in the Catholic Church, the Pope appeals to the same metaphors that he applies to the Church. It is to be outgoing, to work at the frontiers of church, and to be open to the world it enters.

He contrasts this with a church and theology that are self-referential, inward-turned, and stand over and against the world.

This openness implies that theology will be attentive to its context and not self-contained. Theologians should reflect on faith from inside their engagement with the world and not from above it.

It follows that theology will take the natural form of dialogue in which it engages with in the language of the cultural frameworks it enters. In the Pope’s vision it is not interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary.

The emphasis on dialogue in theology corresponds to Pope Francis’ understanding of synodality within the Church.

It naturally flows into communal practices of listening and discernment among theologians, which will also be reflected in their teaching and formation of ministers.

Pope Francis’ vision of the Church

also faces immobility

in which many bishops and priests,

including younger ones,

privilege the inner life of the Church

and its hierarchies

and boundaries over engagement.

Pope Francis

describes this attitude as clericalism.

The centrifugal mission of theology to proclaim and articulate faith in dialogue with the non-Christian world also demands also a corresponding centripetal movement. Pope Francis defines this as the search for wisdom. Theology must begin on bended knees in adoration, turning naturally to love for people in need and in reaching out to them.

Finally, he describes Catholic theology as inductive, in that it begins with the concrete situations of people and there finds and discerns the proclamation of the Gospel.

This outline echoes other reflections by Pope Francis on the place of theology in the Catholic Church.

It raises five questions. Why does he see it as important? Why is it controversial in the Catholic Church? What are its limits? What does it take for granted? How does it hang together?

First, the Pope sees Catholic Theology as part of a larger reform of the Catholic Church guided by Vatican II.

The mission of the Church at all levels is to proclaim the Good News to people at its margins and allow the Gospel to speak to them. This means engaging with different cultures on their own terms.

For this to happen Catholics at all levels need to listen and to discern where God is leading them. Pope Francis embodies this way of being Church in the idea and practices of synodality.

Within the Catholic Church, theologians and theological institutions in which priests are educated are central in this process of listening to the Word of God through the lives of other Catholics and through the world views of those to whom they reach out, especially the poor.

Second, this understanding of theology and its place in the Catholic Church is not shared by all Catholics or theologians.

It is inductive, in beginning with the world to which we go out and allowing the Gospel to illuminate and be illuminated by it.

Many theologians begin with the understanding of faith and ask about its ramifications for the world.

Their approach is more deductive.

Such disputes about theological method and conclusions are common in Catholic as in other theology. The parties usually coexist more or less amicably, allowing the non-committed or less rigorous to borrow from each of them.

In the Catholic Church today, however, a relatively small number of theologians, high Church officials and lay Catholics regard Pope Francis’ theology and the practices he is introducing as a betrayal of the faith that has been handed down to him.

Pope Francis, in turn, has accused them of rejecting the authority of the Spirit in Vatican II, of being narrowly concerned with the internal life of the Church, and of separating themselves from the Church.

In many Catholic communities around the world, however, Pope Francis’ vision of the Church also faces immobility in which many bishops and priests, including younger ones, do privilege the inner life of the Church and its hierarchies and boundaries over engagement.

Pope Francis describes this attitude as clericalism.

This resistance is often less theologically than personally based.

For that reason, the Pope sees the importance of the formation of priests and of local congregations in a synodal rather than hierarchical vision of their ministry.

Third, the mission the Pope gives to theologians and institutions within the Catholic Church is necessarily limited in its expression and scope. It takes for granted that Catholic theology will work within the developing tradition of the Church and not above it.

Many fine theologians, too, are not Catholic, and many theologians who are Catholic define their role by the canons of secular universities and not by the needs of the Catholic Church.

The mission given to theology, too, is also limited by the very argument made for it.

Pope Francis addresses the needs of a Church that he sees as tempted to be introverted, to be self-referential and not to communicate the joy of the Gospel. He also addresses a world on the edge of self-destruction.

In such a Church and in such a world, the task of theology is to model a way of engaging with faith and the wider world. In the future, other situations may demand other priorities.

Fourth, the account of the mission of theology is necessarily broad.

It understandably fails to mention the human factors involved in any large reorientation. Theologians must bring scholarship and specialisation to their understanding of the Gospel throughout the Christian tradition.

These qualities and the laborious development of them do not always lend themselves to going out to the boundaries of the Catholic Church and engaging in dialogue.

Nor do theological degrees always provide wisdom. Pope Francis’ desired reform, then, will demand a diversity of personal gifts, knowledge, experience and enthusiasms that cannot be regimented.

Finally, the central point and the test of success of Pope Francis’ hope for theology lie less in its method than in its sapiential character.

Discernment through prayer nurtured by the Gospel and by life within the Church is the centripetal force that holds together the going out to and entering of other worlds.

  • Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.
  • First published in Eureka Street. Published with the writer’s permission.
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