New Vatican Theological Commission Document: Some Preliminary Reflections (Part 3)
In the earlier posts, the first two in a three-part series on the new document released last week by the International Theological Commission (ITC) titled, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria, I presented the first eight 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.
9. Dialogue with the World
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be in constant dialogue with the world. It should help the Church to read the signs of the times illuminated by the light that comes from divine revelation, and to profit from doing so in its life and mission. [no. 58]
These last four criteria for Catholic theology are undoubtedly my favorite and ones that should garner much more attention than I’m afraid they will. This ninth criterion emerges directly from the Conciliar documents, particularly Gaudium et Spes, and is a positive sign of the ecclesial-theological communities recognition that what is done in theology must traverse the strictures of insularism and parochialism. Theology is indeed a discipline and practice that needs to be in dialogue with the world, with particular regard for the lived experiences of men and women of each age and in each culture. This is also a promising sign of a new outlook on the relatively new sub-disciplines of Catholic contextual theology.
One of the more interesting dimensions of this section is the ITC’s attempt (and a reasonable one at that) to define or explain the at-times amorphous phrase “signs of the times,” which comes, of course, from Gaudium et Spes.
The ‘signs of the times’ may be described as those events or phenomena in human history which, in a sense, because of their impact or extent, define the face of a period, and bring to expression particular needs and aspirations of humanity at that time. The Council’s use of the expression, ‘signs of the times’, shows that it fully recognised the historicity not only of the world, but also of the Church, which is in the world (cf. Jn 17:11, 15, 18) though not of the world (cf. Jn 17:14, 16). What is happening in the world at large, good or bad, can never be a matter of indifference to the Church. The world is the place in which the Church, following in the footsteps of Christ, announces the Gospel, bears witness to the justice and mercy of God, and participates in the drama of human life. [no. 54]
It is curious that in the paragraph dedicated to the explication of the phrase “signs of the times” no additional text is cited apart from the Gospel of John.
Perhaps the most exciting parts of this section on dialogue with the world is the rather optimistic (if not entirely acquiescing in positive regard) take on the intellectual, social, political and cultural trends of the last several centuries. I don’t know of another ecclesiastical document in which the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and other events have been hailed as positive moments in history whose trajectories must be considered dialogue partners for authentic Catholic theology. There is an admittance on the part of the ITC of the Church’s oftentimes reluctance to take seriously, to engage positively or to even recognize such events and movement, but there is also a claim here that Catholic theology can no longer justify such a stance toward the world. “A better discernment in the light of the Gospel has been made, with a greater readiness to see how the Spirit of God may be speaking through such events” [no. 55].
Again following the Second Vatican Council, the ITC also reemphasizes the Church’s position that Truth can be found in “other persons, places, and cultures” [no. 57] to varying degrees.
10. Beyond Fideism: Theology as an Authentic Intellectual and Academic Pursuit
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should strive to give a scientifically and rationally argued presentation of the truths of the Christian faith. For this, it needs to make use of reason and it must acknowledge the strong relationship between faith and reason, first of all philosophical reason, so as to overcome both fideism and rationalism. [no. 73]
This is the first criterion of the final third of the document. This rather lengthy section is, in its at times wordy way, both a survey of the history of theology and reason as well as an exhortation to theologians that theology must take seriously the intellectual discoveries and developments of allied fields of scholarly inquiry. This comes across most relevantly in terms of theology’s relationship to philosophy. Without rehearsing the entire section, let me simply point to paragraph no. 71 in which the ITC raises the ‘boogeyman’ postmodern philosophy. While there is at first a meandering and rhetorically questioning approach to this line of inquiry and questions of “truth,” ultimately — and, perhaps a little surprisingly (in a good way) — the ITC endorses Catholic theology’s engagement with all forms of philosophy, including those diverse strains that fall under the aegis of the “postmodern.” One of my favorite parts of this whole document appear in the following three lines: “There is therefore a problem in that the metaphysical orientation of philosophy, which was important for the former models of Catholic theology, remains in deep crisis. Theology can help to overcome this crisis and to revitalise an authentic metaphysics. Catholic theology is interested, nonetheless, in dialogue about the question of God and truth with all contemporary philosophies” [no. 71].
11. Authentic Catholic Theological Method is Manifold
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it attempts to integrate a plurality of enquiries and methods into the unified project of the intellectus fidei, and insists on the unity of truth and therefore on the fundamental unity of theology itself. Catholic theology recognises the proper methods of other sciences and critically utilises them in its own research. It does not isolate itself from critique and welcomes scientific dialogue. [no. 85]
There is little commentary needed for this criterion of Catholic theology. The ITC should be lauded for its efforts to drive home the point that theology is not simply a fideistic enterprise of a repetitious nature (USCCB committee on doctrine, take note!). Instead, theology is an authentic scholarly discipline that has myriad methodological approaches and correlative projects. Here we also read of the relationship that Catholic theology might have to its closest allied fields, such as religious studies and the study of religion conceived more broadly. There is also, if I’m reading between the ITC’s expressed lines, an anti-Radical-Orthodoxy-like move latently present in this section. The social sciences, the natural sciences, the allied fields of liberal arts, and the like, are to be respected and viewed as properly autonomous [no. 84]. Yet, on the other hand, there is something of a sympathetic movement toward the end of this section that critiques the total independence of the academy from theology, noting, following Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, that “theology and theologians at the heart of university life and the dialogue this presence enables with other disciplines help to promote a broad, analogical and integral view of intellectual life” [no. 84].
12. The Wisdom of God, Not the Wisdom of the World
A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should seek and delight in the wisdom of God which is foolishness to the world (cf. 1Cor 1:18-25; 1Cor 2:6-16). Catholic theology should root itself in the great wisdom tradition of the Bible, connect itself with the wisdom traditions of eastern and western Christianity, and seek to establish a bridge to all wisdom traditions. As it strives for true wisdom in its study of the Mystery of God, theology acknowledges God’s utter priority; it seeks not to possess but to be possessed by God. It must therefore be attentive to what the Spirit is saying to the churches by means of ‘the knowledge of the saints’. Theology implies a striving for holiness and an ever-deeper awareness of the transcendence of the Mystery of God. [no. 99]
While I stated above that the three lines addressing postmodern philosophy and its capability with Catholic theological inquiry were among my favorite of this ITC document, this final criterion is by far my favorite of all the criteria. The early part of this again lengthy section is a survey of scriptural and historical perspectives on the relationship between theology and wisdom over the course of Christianity’s history. But the bottom line, in a pragmatic or constructive sense, is that theologians must also recall that what is meant by Christian wisdom is not to be confused with the agendas or “wisdom” of the world. This is something I like to hammer-home in speaking from time to time: Christianity, plain and simple, by the standards of the world, is entirely illogical. From the theological or metaphysical axiomatic claims upon which we ground our doctrines to the ethical mandates confessed, there is nothing sensible about Christianity: God becoming human, forgiving the unforgivable, loving the unlovable, bread and wine becoming the Sacramental presence of Christ, and so on. The illogic of Christianity is precisely the freedom from the worldly confines of the status quo to imagine the world and reality more broadly as God intends. Theology must be aware of this.
The other thing worth noting about this section of the document is the place of the vocation of the theologian. There is an inherently dignified presentation of what it means to be a professional theologian in the Church and what that means for the People of God: “Theologians have received a particular calling to service in the body of Christ. Called and gifted, they exist in a particular relationship to the body and all of its members” [no. 94]. In a way that sounds very Augustinian, the ITC connects the practice and ministry of theology with the Sacramental life of the Church — not a bad reminder!
In order to wrap up this commentary, I think it best to let the ITC and its document speak for itself. Here is the conclusion of Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Critera, which happens to be the last paragraph of the text.
As theology is a service rendered to the Church and to society, so the present text, written by theologians, seeks to be of service to our theologian colleagues and also to those with whom Catholic theologians engage in dialogue. Written with respect for all who pursue theological enquiry, and with a profound sense of the joy and privilege of a theological vocation, it strives to indicate perspectives and principles which characterise Catholic theology and to offer criteria by which that theology may be identified. In summary, it may be said that Catholic theology studies the Mystery of God revealed in Christ, and articulates the experience of faith that those in the communion of the Church, participating in the life of God, have, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church into the truth (Jn 16:13). It ponders the immensity of the love by which the Father gave his Son to the world (cf. Jn 3:16), and the glory, grace and truth that were revealed in him for our salvation (cf. Jn 1:14); and it emphasises the importance of hope in God rather than in created things, a hope it strives to explain (cf. 1Pet 3:15). In all its endeavours, in accordance with Paul’s injunction always to ‘be thankful’ (Col 3:15; 1Thess 5:18), even in adversity (cf. Rom 8:31-39), it is fundamentally doxological, characterised by praise and thanksgiving. As it considers the work of God for our salvation and the surpassing nature of his accomplishments, glory and praise is its most appropriate modality, as St Paul not only teaches but also exemplifies: ‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen’ (Eph 3:20-21). [no. 100]