New Vatican Theological Commission Document: Some Preliminary Reflections (Part 2)

In yesterday’s post, the first in a three-part series on the new document released yesterday by the International Theological Commission (ITC) titled, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and CriteriaI presented the first four of twelve “criteria for Catholic theology” presented in the text. In this post I want to look at the next four criteria, offering some preliminary thoughts and commentary on each criterion along the way.

5. Fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition

 Fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition is a criterion of Catholic theology. This fidelity requires an active and discerning reception of the various witnesses and expressions of the ongoing Apostolic Tradition. It implies study of sacred Scripture, the liturgy, and the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and attention to the teaching of the magisterium. [no. 32]

Like the normative role of Scripture, the adherence to what is termed “the Apostolic tradition” is a criterion with which one would be hard-pressed to disagree. The paragraphs proceeding this summary statement on the nature of this fifth criterion makes mention of the relationship the ITC sees among Scripture, Tradition and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church. Additionally, it is prudently acknowledged that this ecclesial teaching authority varies in weight depending on the content, mode and presentation (for example, the difference between the authority of this text versus the authority of a text promulgated by an ecumenical council is quite significant).

One point of concern raised in paragraph no. 31 is the statement, “While criticism is not appropriate with reference to Apostolic Tradition itself, traditions must always be open to critique, so that the ‘continual reformation’ of which the Church has need can take place, and so that the Church can renew herself permanently on her one foundation, namely Jesus Christ.” The reason a concern should be noted here centers on the ambiguity of what the “Apostolic Tradition” concretely means, or more to the point, what the content of that Tradition (note the capital “T”) is and what it is not. It goes without saying that there are features of the earliest teaching that have remained constant from the first century onward, but what constitutes what is content and what is expression of that content, and how these two dimension of the Tradition relate to this thing called “Apostolic Tradition,” remains unclear. To the ITC’s credit, this seems to be acknowledged in subtle ways throughout this section, but the summary statement on “Fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition” as a criterion of Catholic Theology suggests that this lack of clarity does not exist.

6. ‘Attention’ To the Sensus Fidelium

Attention to the sensus fidelium is a criterion for Catholic theology. Theology should strive to discover and articulate accurately what the Catholic faithful actually believe. It must speak the truth in love, so that the faithful may mature in faith, and not be ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph 4:14-15). [no. 36]

This criterion is both exciting — in that theologians, particularly ecclesiologists, have been highlighting this often underemphasized dimension of Catholic theology for decades and it now is ostensibly getting its due attention — and frustrating. The excitement rests in the fact that there is a clear exhortative call for theologians to engage the faith of the faithful (sorry to be so redundant in term). In identifying one of the characteristics of the theological vocation, the ITC writes:

Theologians help to clarify and articulate the content of the sensus fidelium, recognising and demonstrating that issues relating to the truth of faith can be complex, and that investigation of them must be precise. It falls to them also on occasion critically to examine expressions of popular piety, new currents of thought and movements within the Church, in the name of fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition. [no. 35]

Perhaps another way to look at this first of these two elucidative statements about the role of the theologian is to talk about contextual theology or a theology “from below” as methods that are fully in keeping with authentic Catholic Theology. What the lived faith experience of a people reveals about the tradition is vitally important to the broader work of the Church’s theologians. There is theological insight that is not simply delivered top-down, but found in the popular theological inquiry and reflection of the People of God.

Additionally, it falls to the theologian engaged in Catholic Theology to critically respond to the errors that might be found in the practice of faith in a given community or population. This arises, presumably, from the scholarly and rigorous study of the tradition and of the practice of the faithful. Both of these dimensions must be held in balance lest the role of the Catholic theologian becomes entirely constructive without regard for the tradition or becomes entirely corrective without regard for the work of the Spirit in the lives of the Body of Christ.

What is perhaps frustrating about the summary statement on this criterion is the lack of assertiveness that could have been made (as compared with some of the other criteria) about the importance and centrality of the sensus fidelium in the work of the theologian and in the articulation of Catholic theology. What does it mean to talk about “attention to” as a criterion of Catholic theology?

7. “Responsible Adherence” to the Magisterium

Giving responsible adherence to the magisterium in its various gradations is a criterion of Catholic theology. Catholic theologians should recognise the competence of bishops, and especially of the college of bishops headed by the pope, to give an authentic interpretation of the Word of God handed on in Scripture and Tradition. [no. 44]

The primary source for this summary statement on the relationship (or obedience) to the ecclesiastical leaders of the Church in the exercise of Catholic theology comes from Lumen Gentium 22 and 25. It is no. 25 that most directly supports this criterion, namely with regard to the teaching authority of the bishop, college of bishops and the bishop of Rome.

This is an important criterion and a controversial one at that. There is much to be said about this section of the document, perhaps a lengthier reflection at a later point is necessary, but for now it’s worth noting a few important points. The first is that the tone of the paragraphs [nos. 37-44] of this section is incredibly optimistic. Granted, this is a text written by theologians (with one bishop serving on the subcommission) and so an emphasis on the independence required for sound scholarship and need for cordial relationships of mutual respect between theologians and bishops is to be expected — and, I bet, sincerely desired (I, for one, can support that). However, I think the relationship between bishops and theologians, particularly as it has been strained in the United States in recent years, goes largely unaddressed. Here’s the description of the current state of affairs offered in no. 42:

The relationship between bishops and theologians is often good and trusting on both sides, with due respect for one another’s callings and responsibilities. For example, bishops attend and participate in national and regional gatherings of theological associations, call on theological experts as they formulate their own teaching and policies, and visit and support theological faculties and schools in their dioceses. Inevitably, there will be tensions at times in the relationship between theologians and bishops. [no. 42]

The picture painted is one of general collegiality, but in fact this is often far from the case. Certain bishops will align themselves with certain theologians of a particular ecclesiastical or civil disposition and then ignore or seek to subvert the legitimacy of scholars with whom they disagree. Perhaps that is what is meant by the singular line about “tensions at times” (an echo of the ITC’s 1975 document).

The second point worth noting is the discussion on obedience is placed within the realm of the entire faithful’s obligatory “obedience to the magisterium” by virtue of their being a member of the “People of God.” What’s more interesting is the mixed messages that follow:

While ‘dissent’ towards the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology, investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfil its task. Whatever the situation, a mere formal and exterior obedience or adherence on the part of theologians is not sufficient. Theologians should strive to deepen their reflection on the truth proclaimed by the Church’s magisterium, and should seek its implications for the Christian life and for the service of the truth. In this way, theologians fulfil their proper task and the teaching of the magisterium is not reduced to mere decorative citations in theological discourse. [no. 41]

While the ITC authors locate their source for this reflection in Donum Veritas, I would suggest that a complementary, if perhaps contradictory, approach is actually found in the Code of Canon Law (CIC). There, particularly clarified in the commentary by Fr. James Coriden in the English Canon Law Society of America commentary, we see what constitutes legitimate dissent within the context of Catholic Theology as governed by the CIC. To claim that “dissent towards the magisterium has no place in Catholic Theology,” is simply untrue. That is a blanket statement that varies in veracity depending on the degree of authoritative teaching and in what context. Here there is also no explanation of the degrees of assent (are we talking about Obsequium religious, are we talking about something else? It remains unclear).

A third point of interest is indeed a positive one. This centers on the “Freedom of theology and of theologians” as a matter of central importance in the legitimate exercise of theological inquiry and scholarship in the Catholic tradition. This is very well put. More can be said about this, but I will leave it for another time.

8. Catholic Theologians and the Theological Guild

A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be practised in professional, prayerful and charitable collaboration with the whole company of Catholic theologians in the communion of the Church, in a spirit of mutual appreciation and support, attentive both to the needs and comments of the faithful and to the guidance of the Church’s pastors. [no. 50]

There is far less about which to comment in this criterion as compared with the previous statement. This is a welcomed section of the text, highlighting the intra- and inter-disciplinary, ecumenical, and inter religious collaboration that is viewed by the ITC as a constitutive dimension of the Catholic theological enterprise. Among the many points highlighted in this section is the affirmation of the communal nature of theology and the need to work within the company of the theological guild.

There are some wise and there are some critical comments that make their way into this section. A wise point: “Theologians should always recognise the intrinsic provisionality of their endeavours, and offer their work to the Church as a whole for scrutiny and evaluation” [no. 47], which is based again on Donum Veritatis. A critical point: “The bishops who watch over the faithful, teaching and caring for them, certainly have the right and the duty to speak, to intervene and if necessary to censure theological work that they deem to be erroneous or harmful” [no. 48], based on the earlier ITC document The Interpretation of Dogma.

On this latter, critical point, this is not nuanced enough. The truth is that bishops, while exercising their rightful authority as the primary teachers of a local church, might not themselves know enough about theology to discern what is “erroneous or harmful.” An illustrative example is the Elizabeth Johnson affair in the United States wherein the USCCB’s committee on doctrine appeared to misunderstand what it was that one of the most respected systematic theologians in the Catholic Church was doing. I think there needs to be much more caution applied to statements such as that above, without diminishing the teaching authority of the bishops, the expert and specialist status of a theologian should be given greater credence than it appears in this statement.

One Response to “New Vatican Theological Commission Document: Some Preliminary Reflections (Part 2)”

  1. All of these categories of resources that theologians use to study and contribute to our understanding of faith and moral behavior are rooted in history and a culture (understanding of reality) very different from the present. Who can defend teaching today, the perspective of reality held by apostolic teachers, fathers, doctors, bishops, etc. of the Church even as recent as the last century? Yet it seems that theologians are constrained to do so to achieve credibility in the Church. No one today thinks, acts, communicates, with the same knowledge base as did our ancestors. It is in the failure to admit, study, and teach the truths of our faith filtered from the past cultural understanding of reality, in light of current and, yes, ever growing more accurate and truthful understanding of what Jesus taught (through using the culture of His day). We must try to do that using a far different culture of our day. Unfortunately in may cases the power that be (including some theologians) still want to put the new wine of truth in to the old wine skins and keep it there, with the predictable results.

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