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March 16, 2012

Overview of new report by International Theological Commission on theologians -- their roles, responsibilities and needed contributions

In this edition:
1. Theology's importance today.
2. Theology in the decades after Vatican II.
3. Theology in a world of change.
4. Unity and diversity in theology.
5. Quotes from ITC report:
a) Scripture and tradition;
b) Faith and reason.
6. Criteria of Catholic theology.
7. Relationship of theologians and bishops.

1. Theology's Importance Today

A lengthy report just released by the International Theological Commission examines theology's role and importance today. This edition of the jknirp.com newsletter is devoted to an overview of key themes in the report, which is titled "Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria."

Theology, after all, is not the reserve of professional scholars. It reaches far into the life of dioceses and parishes, influencing pastoral activities for all age groups. Homilies, catechetics, adult study, sacramental preparation are shaped in important ways by theology, which also interrelates with the spiritualities pursued by priests, religious and laity.

Of course, theology is the object of much debate and contention in these times of polarization. At the same time, theology in one form or another represents a major resource for Catholic life.

And theology has a way of pointing out the overlooked riches of faith and reminding Catholics in all forms of life that there may be vital dimensions of the Gospel and church tradition that need greater attention.

It seemed worthwhile, then, to read through the report and to highlight some of its principal insights and proposals.

The commission behind the report is made up of theologians appointed by the pope, who serve the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in an advisory capacity. The report is based on discussions in Rome between 2004 and 2011.

According to the commission, the report was "written by theologians" in hopes of serving their "theologian colleagues," as well as others with whom theologians "engage in dialogue."

The report accents the positive role of theology in the Catholic Church, along with the criteria that guide the work of theologians. It was written, it says, "with respect for all who pursue theological inquiry and with a profound sense of the joy and privilege of a theological vocation."

The report was published in the March 15 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. A pdf of the entire report may be read free of charge on the CNS website (www.catholicnews.com).

2. Theology Since Vatican II

Recent decades, following Vatican Council II, "have been extremely productive for Catholic theology," the ITC report comments. It notes that during this period "new theological voices, especially those of laymen and women," have been heard.

Moreover, this period witnessed "theologies from new cultural contexts, particularly Latin America, Africa and Asia" along with "new themes for reflection such as peace, justice, liberation, ecology and bioethics."

The report calls attention to the "deeper treatments" given during this time period to former theological themes due to the renewal "in biblical, liturgical, patristic and medieval studies." Another reason this was a productive time for theology is that "new venues for reflection" opened up, "such as ecumenical, interreligious and intercultural dialogue."

These, the commission said, "are fundamentally positive developments." Catholic theology sought "to follow the path opened by the council, which wished to express its 'solidarity and respectful affection for the whole human family' by entering into dialogue with it."

At the same time, the report's authors observe that the decades since Vatican II witnessed "a certain fragmentation of theology." Entering into dialogue with the human family challenges the field of theology to maintain "its own true identity," it says.

Yet, theology remains a field of great importance for people. The report explains:

"Placed in possession of 'the boundless riches of Christ,' by faith believers seek to understand ever more fully that which they believe.'

"Led by the Spirit and utilizing 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."

3. Theology in a World of Change

Theologians frequently have the task of giving "an initial articulation of 'faith seeking understanding' in new circumstances or in the face of new issues," the ITC report says.

Due to the rapid pace of change in the world, theologians often find themselves working "at the frontiers of the church's experience and reflection," the report observes. It says that "what is happening in the world at large, good or bad, can never be a matter of indifference to the church."

For, "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."

In their daily lives, Christians "face the challenge of interpreting the events and crises that arise in human affairs," the report says. In the conversations and debates of daily life, Christians discover that "faith is questioned and a response is needed."

In fact, the report states that the entire church now lives "at the interface between the Gospel and everyday life."

In our times, it says the field of theology has the important task of helping "the faithful and the magisterium to see the importance of developments, events and trends in human history, and to discern and interpret ways in which, through them, the Spirit may be speaking to the church and to the world."

The church profits from its surrounding cultural environment, the report explains. At the same time, it says "the world of human culture profits from the activity of the church."

4. Unity and Diversity in Theology

"Diversity in unity and unity in diversity" are appropriate characteristics of Catholic theology, the ITC report affirms. Unity - "a certain common discourse" - is needed. But unity should not be "confused with uniformity or a single style," it says.

What does the field of theology do? It reflects in a scientific way "on the divine revelation, which the church accepts by faith as universal saving truth," the commission explains. But it adds that "the sheer fullness and richness of that revelation is too great to be grasped by any one theology."

In fact, its richness "gives rise to multiple theologies" as revelation is "received in diverse ways by human beings," according to the report. Still, in its diversity "theology is united in its service of the one truth of God."

If the unity of theology "does not require uniformity," it does require "a single focus on God's Word and an explication of its innumerable riches by theologies able to dialogue and communicate with one another," the report says.

It suggests it is not surprising to find a diversity of theologies in a church that lives by tradition passed on from generation to generation. Tradition is "something living and vital, an ongoing process in which the unity of faith finds expression in the variety of languages and the diversity of cultures. It ceases to be tradition if it fossilizes," the commission comments.

A "plurality of theologies is undoubtedly necessary and justified," according to the report. This plurality "results primarily from the abundance of divine truth itself," which human beings can never grasp definitively, nor can they grasp it "as a whole."

Theological diversity results both from "the objects [theology] considers and interprets (e.g. God, human beings, historical events, texts) and the sheer diversity of human questioning," the text adds. It says, "The plurality of theologies reflects, in fact, the catholicity of the church, which strives to proclaim the one Gospel to people everywhere, in all kinds of circumstances."

Nonetheless, plurality "has limits," the report says. For, "there is a fundamental difference between the legitimate pluralism of theology, on the one hand, and relativism, heterodoxy or heresy, on the other." Moreover, "the plurality of theologies should not imply fragmentation or discord."

Pluralism, it comments, becomes problematic "if there is no communication between different theological disciplines or if there are no agreed criteria by which various forms of theology are understandable … as Catholic theology."

5. Quotes From ITC Report

Scripture and Tradition: "The church greatly venerates the Scriptures, but it is important to recognize that 'the Christian faith is not a religion of the book; Christianity is the religion of the Word of God, not of a written and mute word but of the incarnate and living Word.' … The Scriptures are 'inspired by God and committed to writing once and for all time'; hence, 'they present God's own word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the Holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles.' Tradition is the faithful transmission of the word of God, witnessed in the canon of Scripture by the prophets and the apostles and in the 'leiturgia' (liturgy), 'martyria' (testimony) and 'diakonia' (service) of the church" (No. 7).

Faith and Reason: "The revealed truth of God both requires and stimulates the believer's reason. … The fruit of the believer's rational reflection is an understanding of the truths of faith. By the use of reason, the believer grasps the profound connections between the different stages in the history of salvation and also between the various mysteries of faith which illuminate one another. On the other hand, faith stimulates reason itself and stretches its limits. Reason is stirred to explore paths which of itself it would not even have suspected it could take. This encounter with the word of God leaves reason enriched, because it discovers new and unsuspected horizons. The dialogue between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy, is therefore required not only by faith but also by reason. … It is necessary because a faith which rejects or is contemptuous of reason risks falling into superstition or fanaticism, while reason which deliberately closes itself to faith, though it may make great strides, fails to rise to the full heights of what can be known" (Nos. 63 and 64).

6. Criteria of Catholic Theology: Overview

Each section of the more than 17,000-word report by the International Theological Commission incorporates a summing-up statement regarding the "criterion of Catholic theology" under discussion in the text at that point. Thus, one way to offer a quick overview of the report and understand the direction it takes might be to glean these criterion statements from the report and present them together.

With that in mind, allow me to excerpt 12 criterion statements from the report, covering the roles in theology of Scripture, tradition or the church's magisterium and examining the interaction of faith and reason, theological dialogue with the world and other points:

1. "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" (No. 9).

2. "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' (1 Cor 15:3, 4), as the rule and stimulus of the church's faith" (No. 15).

3. "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).

4. "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'" (No. 24).

5. "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).

6. "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).

(Regarding the point above, the report comments that "the 'sensus fidelium' does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture, nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium. The 'sensus fidelium' is the 'sensus fidei' of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors. So the 'sensus fidelium' is the sense of the faith that is deeply rooted in the people of God who receive, understand and live the word of God in the church.")

7. "Giving responsible adherence to the magisterium in its various gradations is a criterion of Catholic theology. Catholic theologians should recognize 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).

8. "A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be practiced 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).

9. "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).

10. "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).

11. "A criterion of Catholic theology is that it attempts to integrate a plurality of inquiries 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 recognizes the proper methods of other sciences and critically utilizes them in its own research. It does not isolate itself from critique and welcomes scientific dialogue" (No. 85).

12. "A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should seek and delight in the wisdom of God, which is foolishness to the world (cf. 1 Cor 1:18-25; 1 Cor 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).

7. Theologians and Bishops

The relationship of bishops and theologians "can be one of fruitful collaboration," the ITC report advises. It says "an understanding of the church as communion" offers a "good framework within which to consider" how such a relationship is possible.

"The first thing to acknowledge is that theologians in their work and bishops in their magisterium both stand under the primacy of the word of God and never above it," the report states.

While "the relationship between bishops and theologians is often good and trusting on both sides, with due respect for one another's callings and responsibilities," the report says that "inevitably, there will be tensions at times in the relationship."

The report recalls something the ITC said in 1975 with regard to tensions between theologians and the magisterium, namely that "wherever there is genuine life, tension always exists." However, such tension does not have to be "interpreted as hostility or real opposition."

It is theology's role to investigate and articulate the church's faith, and it is the magisterium's role to proclaim the faith and authentically interpret it, the report says. In light of this, it says "theology cannot substitute a judgment coming from the scientific theological community for that of the bishops." Theologians, moreover, "should always recognize the intrinsic provisionality of their endeavors."

However, the report notes that "not all magisterial teaching has the same weight." The different levels of teaching "are described by what are called 'theological qualifications or notes,'" it points out, adding:

"Precisely because of this gradation, the obedience that theologians as members of the people of God owe to the magisterium always involves constructively critical evaluation and comment. While 'dissent' toward the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology, investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfill its task."

The report makes clear that in their relationship, "bishops and theologians have distinct callings and must respect one another's particular competence." Otherwise, the magisterium risks reducing theology "to a mere repetitive science," and theologians risk presuming "to substitute" for "the teaching office of the church's pastors."

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," the report urges. It says that "in this way theologians fulfill their proper task, and the teaching of the magisterium is not reduced to mere decorative citations in theological discourse."

In two points regarding the magisterium, the report comments that:

-- "The magisterium is an indispensable help to theology by its authentic transmission of the deposit of faith"; this is particularly the case "at decisive times of discernment."

-- "The magisterium needs theology in order to demonstrate in its interventions not only doctrinal authority but also theological competence and a capacity for critical evaluation." Thus, "theologians should be called upon to assist with the preparation and formulation of magisterial pronouncements."

The report notes that "the freedom of theology and of theologians is a theme of special interest." Investigating issues related to this freedom "is itself part of the theological task." The report indicates that a goal in these investigations is "to see the freedom of theology within the horizon of the design and will of God."