The public has been bombarded with the media’s assessment of nuns, church, the sexual abuse crisis, fidelity to the Lord, and the like. In some ways the media looks at the life of the Church and picks out the obvious problems of coherence. No doubt we have matters of concern that we have to work to correct; the adage: “the Church always needs renewal” is very true today. We rely on the Holy Spirit and the good work of Pope Benedict. The other day I found this review of a document written by members of the International Theological Commission (ITC), a group of theologians organized by the Pope to advise him on certain questions of theological questions of importance. Even the Pope needs advice! The ITC group is made up of a diversity of peoples from around the world. The ones I know personally are fine men and women, credible witnesses of the Lord. The review of Theology Today that follows is written by Father Paul McPartlan in which he synthesizes the document giving us the broad view of the work of Catholic theologian. What he highlights sits in contradistinction to what we’ve heard about the recent work of Sr Margaret Farley and other theologians who see themselves in a different light. I prefer to put my money the ITC and not on “envelop pushing, agenda driven” theologians. You?

Following its examination, in Chapter One, of the fundamental nature of theology, as the rational exploration of that faith which is a response to the proclamation of the Word of God, and prior to its extended reflection, in Chapter Three, on significant aspects of the rationality of theology, the new International Theological Commission (ITC) text, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria, carefully considers the ecclesial context of theology in Chapter Two. “The ecclesiality of theology is a constitutive aspect of the theological task, because theology is based on faith, and faith itself is both personal and ecclesial”, it says, emphasising that “it is through the Church that theologians receive the object of their enquiry” (n.20). Theological enquiry is therefore properly conducted within the living and life-giving milieu of the leiturgia, martyria and diakonia of the Church (cf. n.7). In short, as the chapter’s title indicates, it is necessary for theologians to abide in the communion of the Church.

What this actually means is described in six sections, the sequence of which is significant, as follows: ‘The study of Scripture as the soul of theology’, ‘Fidelity to Apostolic Tradition’, ‘Attention to the sensus fidelium‘, ‘Responsible adherence to the ecclesiastical magisterium’, ‘In the company of theologians’, and ‘In dialogue with the world’. The sections examine reference points, relationships and commitments that are essential for the theologian as someone in service ‘to the Church and to society’ (cf. n.100), and, in accordance with the general pattern of the text as a whole, each section ends with a summarising criterion.

The first section focuses on Scripture and opens with a reminder of the Second Vatican Council’s ‘core affirmation’ with regard to theology, namely that the ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the ‘very soul of sacred theology’ (n.21; cf. Dei Verbum, 24). It stresses that this applies to all of the theological disciplines. In theological expositions, ‘biblical themes should have first place’ (n.23, cf. Optatam Totius 16). Exegesis must use ‘all the appropriate philological, historical and literary methods’ in order to understand Scripture, but it must do more besides in order to achieve a truly ‘theological’ interpretation of Scripture, recognising that Scripture is divinely inspired and directed to our salvation. The text recalls the profound teaching of the Council that Scripture must be ‘read and interpreted in the same Spirit in which it was written’ (Dei Verbum, 12), and that exegesis must therefore take account of ‘the unity of Scripture, the witness of Tradition, and the analogy of faith’. Exegesis thus seeks the literal sense of Scripture but also ‘opens itself to the spiritual or fuller sense (sensus plenior)’ (n.22). Anchored in the Word of God, theology ‘should endeavour to open wide the Scriptures to the Christian faithful’ (n.24).

The following section highlights the bond between Scripture and Tradition: ‘sacred Scripture belongs to the living Tradition of the Church as the canonical witness to the faith for all time’. It notes, with the Council, that Scripture and Tradition make up ‘a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church’, and that the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether in the form of Scripture or Tradition, properly pertains to ‘the living teaching office of the Church alone’ (n.30; cf. Dei Verbum, 10). An important nuance of this conciliar teaching is reflected in the ITC text, which, in its next two sections, treats first the relationship between theology and the sensus fidelium of the Church as a whole before specifically focusing on the relationship between theology and the ecclesiastical magisterium. Lumen Gentium likewise teaches on the People of God as a whole in chapter two prior to chapter three on the hierarchy and the episcopate.

Throughout the text, the work of the Holy Spirit is emphasised. Tradition is a process ‘living and vital’, empowered by the Spirit who guides the Church ‘into all the truth’ (n.26; cf. Jn 16:13). It transmits an ‘integral way of life in the Spirit’ of which lex orandilex credendi and lex vivendi are ‘essential aspects‘ (n.25). The teachings of the fathers, ecumenical councils and popes play a key role in it, as do the dogmas in which the Church proposes a revealed truth definitively (nn.27-29). Catholic theology necessarily involves ‘an active and discerning reception’ of all the witnesses to and expressions of ‘the ongoing Apostolic Tradition’ (n.32).

The text exemplifies its own emphasis on the priority of the scriptural witness by its rich use of the Scriptures throughout. The third section begins by
recalling St Paul’s gratitude to God for the Thessalonians who welcomed the word of God ‘as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers’ (n.33; cf. 1 Thess 2:13). Anointed by the Spirit, the faithful have an ‘intimate sense of spiritual realities’ (n.33; cf. Dei Verbum 8) which is of great importance as a resource and reference point for theologians: ‘the faith that they explore and explain lives in the people of God’ (n.35). It is clearly necessary for theologians to be active members of the Church in order to be truly aware of the sensus fidelium, and within the Church they have a particular calling to help clarify and articulate the content of that senses.

The next section considers both frankly and realistically the ‘mutually respectful collaboration’ that is required between bishops and theologians. These two groups, while of course not themselves being fully distinct, nevertheless have ‘distinct callings’ and must ‘respect one another’s particular competence, lest the magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the Church’ (n.37). The text notes the ‘often good and trusting’ relationship that exists between bishops and theologians, but also the tensions that can arise. It recalls Blessed John Henry Newman’s celebrated analysis of the dynamic interaction of the three offices of Christ within the Church, and in particular Newman’s description of ‘chronic collisions and contrasts’ as ‘lying in the nature of the case’ (n.42). Tension can be seen as a ‘vital force’ and an ‘incentive’ to bishops and theologians to carry out their respective tasks ‘by way of dialogue’ (n.42).

‘Theologians are rightly conscious and proud of the profound links of solidarity that unite them with one another in service to the body of Christ and to the world.’ The next section considers those links, which ‘rightly extend in space and time, uniting theologians across the world in different countries and cultures, and through time in different eras and contexts. Theologians encourage and inspire one another, they serve as mentors and role models for those who are aspiring to be theologians, and it is Catholic theologians themselves who are best placed to assist one another ‘to give the best possible service, in accordance with the true characteristics of their discipline’ (n.45). The identification of those characteristics is the purpose of the present text, and it is certainly hoped that the text and the criteria it offers will itself be of particular assistance to those in formation as theologians.

The work of theologians is always provisional, and should be offered to the Church as a whole ‘for scrutiny and evaluation’ (n.47). Theologians perform the valuable service of ‘mutual questioning and correction‘, but this self-correcting mechanism is not always adequate, especially nowadays when ideas can spread rapidly beyond the theological community into the Church at large. The bishops who shepherd the Church can certainly act to censure theological work they deem to be harmful (n.48).

Vatican II famously taught that the Church must read the signs of the times and interpret them in the light of the Gospel (n.51, cf. Gaudium et Spes, 4), and that while the whole Church must undertake this task, guided by the Spirit, it particularly pertains to bishops and theologians to do so (n.52, cf. Gaudium et Spes, 44). The final section of chapter two deals with the specific responsibility of theologians in this regard. Through their ‘constant dialogue with the social, religious and cultural currents of the time’ and their openness to other sciences which examine the same phenomena with their own methods, theologians help the faithful and the magisterium to consider and evaluate the developments and events of their time, so as to discern how the Spirit may be speaking to the Church and to the world through them (n.53). The text notes that a deeper comprehension of the world and its needs enables a more penetrating understanding of Christ and the Gospel ‘since Christ is the Saviour of the world’ (n.55). Through their own constant dialogue with the world, theologians are able to facilitate and even pioneer the Church’s saving mission (cf. nn.47, 58).

Paul McPartlan

Catholic University of America

L’Osservatore Romano

May 4, 2012