New Vatican Theological Commission Document: Some Preliminary Reflections (Part 1)
There is so much to be said about the English document released Thursday March 8, 2012, by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission (ITC) titled, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria. The text was simultaneously published by the American news wing of the USCCB, Origins, as well as in L’Osservatore Romano and on the Vatican website (see link above). Given the sorts of statements about the relationship between the Church and theologians that have come from USCCB and various other corners over the course of the last year or so, one might readily appreciate the incredulity and predictable apprehension I had in approaching this text from the ITC. Yet, I must say from the outset, this is an ostensibly refreshing and hopeful document. Others might disagree with me on this point, but at worst the text seems innocuous, at best, it could be used to more authoritatively highlight the vocation and value of theological scholarship apart from rote fideism.
There are likely several reasons for that, each of which is a contextual clue necessary to better appreciate the environment out of which this text arises. The first is that it is actually written by theologians. This is not a slight against the bishops and the consultants that advise the USCCB committee on doctrine (most notably remembered in recent months for its ‘notices’ on Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, PhD). However, there is a difference between an international, diverse committee of practicing academics and a committee that represents a very particular interest and vantage point.
The second contextual element of import is that this text was well underway before the latest theologian-bishop discussions in the United States following the Johnson reports and subsequent responses. The “Preliminary Note” attached to the body of the text highlights the history of the ITC’s work on this text dating back to 2004, its initial inability to produce a usable document and the reformation of the submission tasked with drafting this text. While I have individual or personal theological differences of opinion with some work done by individual members of the ITC submission over the years (as I’m sure others do with me), I do have great respect for the collective body of scholars assembled and that respect has been raised in light of the document they have produced. I imagine a lot of credit goes to Msgr. Paul McPartlan, the British priest who currently teaches theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. I know many of his colleagues and students and I can presume that his insight, work ethic and commitment to the vocation of theology helped bring to conclusion what the previous submission could not complete.
The third contextual point to note is a something of a “mixed bag” (to borrow one of my best friend’s favorite term). Given the relative hierarchy of authority ascribed to different levels of Church teaching — a principle that is in fact cited in this text — it is important to note the relatively lower authority this text has among curial, papal and conciliar documents. In dicastery terms, it doesn’t come from a congregation, but rather from a curial commission (nonetheless, another significant text, the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 1993 Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, a text of comparable authority, remains one of THE most important Catholic theological texts in the postconciliar era). That said, it is also important to note that this text is more authoritative than notices or other documents that are released from committees of the USCCB, such as those in response to Johnson’s Quest for the Living God. The ITC’s work has universal relevance and is not limited to a geographic area or local church.
The final contextual note I wish to highlight (there is much more that could be said about the context) is the breadth of sources cited in this document. Not only does the text rely on multiple Conciliar documents (and not just the requisite Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium, but many, many others), but it includes a variety of Patristic writers, Bonaventure (who appears before Thomas!), Richard of St. Victor, Eastern Christian theologians, other dicastery texts, contemporary theologians like DeLubac (who is the 3rd source of the text!), Congar, Möher and others. I cannot adequately express my pleasure in examining the 163 footnotes contained in this 100-paragraph document — the sources are very good, especially by Vatican-document standards.
Given the limitations of time, space and, most importantly, your patience, I want to offer here some preliminary reflections on the twelve criteria that the ITC presents for “Catholic Theology.” This will be a three-part series, here you can find the first installment: Criteria One through Four.
For each of the criteria presented in the document, I will offer a heading, the primary text in which the criteria is summarized and a few comments on that theme. Stay tuned for the next two installments!
1. The Primacy of the Word of God
A criterion of Catholic theology is recognition of the primacy of the Word of God. God speaks ‘in many and various ways’ – in creation, through prophets and sages, through the holy Scriptures, and definitively through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (cf. Heb 1:1-2). [no. 9]
You will not find a Christian theologian who will disagree with this first criterion of Catholic theology. In fact, all theologians committed to the elucidation of the Christian faith hold that Scripture is the normative source for theological reflection. The exceptions to that rule (here I’m thinking of some process theologians and others) quickly run into additional problems that make their theological inquiry challenging. It is important to note that the ITC maintains the centrality of Scripture in reaffirming its place in the practice of theology.
2. The Faith of the Church as “Source, Context and Norm.”
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it takes the faith of the Church as its source, context and norm. Theology holds the fides qua and the fides quae together. It expounds the teaching of the apostles, the good news about Jesus Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1Cor 15: 3, 4), as the rule and stimulus of the Church’s faith. [no. 15]
While this section, immediately following the reaffirmation of the centrality and normatively of Scripture as theological source, is not couched in the rhetorical vitriol of allied debates in the United States in recent months, I imagine the ambiguity in the presentation of this particular criterion will raise a number of questions and concerns among theologians and pastoral ministers alike.
This very issue was a “flash point” between the USCCB and Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. One of the USCCB Committee’s accusations was precisely that Johnson did not begin with what it judged to be “the faith of the Church.” Now, this is a matter of interpretation, something about which Blessed Pope John XXIII would have certainly disagreed with vis-á-vis the USCCB committee. There is a difference to be made between the “faith of the Church” and the “manner in which that faith is articulated or expressed.” On this point, the criterion offered by the ITC is too vague to be of particular use. My sense is that it will be a source of some controversy in interpretation. That said, depending on how one understands it, it could certainly be presented in a non-problematic way.
3. Fides Quaerens Intellectum
A criterion of Catholic theology is that, precisely as the science of faith, ‘faith seeking understanding [fides quaerens intellectum]’,  it has a rational dimension. Theology strives to understand what the Church believes, why it believes, and what can be known sub specie Dei. As scientia Dei, theology aims to understand in a rational and systematic manner the saving truth of God. [no. 19]
On the surface it is very difficult to disagree with this point: theology is a rational science. True. You’ll get no disagreement from me on that matter. Even more so, I think the ITC does a service to the reader in refocusing our collective attention on the fact that it is the Spirit that inspires theologians, in light of their vocation, to seek understanding of their faith: “Led by the Spirit and utilising all the resources of their intelligence, they strive to assimilate the intelligible content of the Word of God, so that it may become light and nourishment for their faith” [no. 17].
This facet of the practice of theology is often overlooked on all sides. Bishops tend to think that theologians are “out to subvert the faith” or something of that sort, while theologians can at times think that leaders in the church “wish to limit the scholarly study of Christian doctrinal claims.” One way to look at this criterion of Catholic theology is to recognize that, although it is a rational science rooted in the Word of God as indicated previously, it is an exercise inspired by God’s Spirit and that should not be forgotten.
4. The Preaching of the Canonical Scriptural Witness
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should draw constantly upon the canonical witness of Scripture and should promote the anchoring of all of the Church’s doctrine and practice in that witness, since ‘all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture’. Theology should endeavour to open wide the Scriptures to the Christian faithful, so that the faithful may come into contact with the living Word of God (cf. Heb 4:12). [no. 24]
This criterion seems a lot like the very first: the centrality of Scripture. And, to a certain extent, that might be the intention of the ITC’s authors. Each of the three chapters that compose this document return to some Scriptural theme as the starting point of the respective section. What is different in this criterion isn’t the focus on Scripture so much as the admonition presented to the theologian inherently contained within the criterion. The theologian is not, it would seem, supposed to stay isolated in a world of colleague academic discourse, but instead help the broader community of the faithful to understand the faith they profess.
This is done, obviously, in light of the primary and normative source for theology — Scripture. Yet, the way I read this particular criterion is to see popular theologizing and preaching as a constitutive part of the vocation of the theologian in the modern world. “Theology should endeavor to open wide the Scriptures to the Christian faithful, so that the faithful may come into contact with the living word of God.”
Stay tuned for the next two installments of this series…