In the Mass, at which I was privileged to be a concelebrant, recently celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at the close of the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which had as its theme, “the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian faith,” the Holy Father reflected on the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus. Pope Benedict said that this “is the last miraculous healing that Jesus performs before his passion, and it is no accident that it should be that of a blind person, someone whose eyes have lost the light.... It represents man who needs God’s light, the light of faith, if he is to know reality truly and to walk the path of life.” The Holy Father observed that Bartimaeus represents “those who live in regions that were evangelized long ago, where the light of faith has grown dim and people have drifted away from God, no longer considering Him relevant for their lives.” The “new evangelization” that is needed especially in those regions, the pope remarked, “applies to the whole of the Church’s life.” The synod thus offers us the opportunity to reflect upon the role of the church, “the whole of the Church’s life,” including that of bishops and theologians, in the great work of the new evangelization that seeks to heal the deepest blindness of all, groping in the dark “where the light of faith has grown dim.”
It is in that light that the synod spoke of the theological task of the new evangelization and how theologians share in the church’s primary mission of passing on the faith. As the synod’s Proposition 30 states: “Theologians are called to carry out this service [dialogue between faith and the other disciplines and the secular world] as a part of the salvific mission of the Church. It is necessary that they think and feel with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia).
Ecclesial Task of the Theologian
The particular role of the theologian presupposes but goes beyond a catechetical presentation of the faith, “beyond” not by contradiction—authentic theology does not presume to generate new teachings—but “beyond” in depth, in intensity and in precision. It is the privilege of theologians to delve more profoundly and systematically into the meaning of the faith, according to the ancient adage, fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the faith of the church is enriched through “the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts” and in particular “theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth” (No. 94).
The synod offered its support to what Pope Benedict referred to as the correct hermeneutic of theological development. Proper theological investigation must come out of a continuity and connectedness with the living apostolic tradition of the church. As the synod’s Proposition 12 states, “The Synod Fathers recognize the teaching of Vatican II as a vital instrument for transmitting the faith in the context of the New Evangelization. At the same time, they consider that the documents of the Council should be properly read and interpreted. Therefore, they wish to manifest their adherence to the thought of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who has indicated the hermeneutical principle of reform within continuity, so as to be able to discover in those texts the authentic spirit of the Council.”
Theology, then, is neither simply catechesis nor a radically independent academic discipline. It is always tethered to the faith taught by the church, much as a natural scientist’s work is tethered to the facts of physical laws. Theology enjoys a legitimate autonomy, but an autonomy bounded by the standards of the field and the boundaries of what constitutes spurious or fruitless investigation. There is a broad field for theological exploration and critique, for instance, from the “underlying assumptions and explicit formulations of doctrine...to questions about their meaning or their doctrinal and pastoral implications, to comparison with other doctrines, to the study of their historical and ecclesial context, to translation into diverse cultural categories, and to correlation with knowledge from other branches of human and scientific inquiry” (The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop). These investigations, however, are not made in isolation from the received faith of the church, but are made presuming that faith, and in light of that faith.
It is essential for the health and progress of theology, then, that it take place within the context of a clearly cohesive community of faith, that its creativity be channeled and maximized by boundaries delineated by the received revelation. Identifying these boundaries of the authentic faith constitutes the bishop’s contribution to the flourishing of the theological sciences. Theirs is the duty to see that the noble enterprise of theology is integrated into the overall mission of the church to transmit the good news.
It follows that theological opinion can never be placed on an equal footing with the authoritative teaching of those to whom Christ has entrusted the care of his flock. Nevertheless, the bishop and the theologian have a special relationship that can and should be reciprocally enriching. “The Church cannot exist without the teaching office of the bishop,” The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop states, “nor thrive without the sound scholarship of the theologian. Bishops and theologians are in a collaborative relationship. Bishops benefit from the work of theologians, while theologians gain a deeper understanding of revelation under the guidance of the magisterium. The ministry of bishops and the service rendered by theologians entail a mutual respect and support.” This same idea is found in the text of the International Theological Commission, “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria,” where we read that “the magisterium needs theology…[and] also theological competence and a capacity for critical evaluation…. On the other hand, the magisterium is an indispensable help to theology…” (No. 39).
The Challenge of Theologians
An article in this publication (“The Road Ahead,” by Richard Gaillardetz, 9/24/12) laments that a recent intervention by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not respect the “critical exploratory function of theology” in “challenging faulty arguments, raising difficult questions and proposing alternative frameworks for the church’s prayerful discernment.” Much of the work of theologians, the article states, “can be supportive of the magisterium,” but then concludes that “the work of theology cannot be limited to this.” If authoritative teaching does not withstand the challenges of theologians, the article concludes, then “perhaps honest theological exploration will yield insights for a development or even a substantive change in the teaching.”
Therein lies the difficulty. The magisterium, the church’s teaching office, does not assert that in its proclamation of the faith it has exhausted every development, nuance or application of the faith in the circumstances of our day. But the church does define that the authoritative teachers of the faith will not lead us into error and away from Christ. No one else can rightfully make that claim. We turn to the teaching of the church not for speculation, but for sure guidance on the way to eternal life with Christ. To suggest that a “substantive change in the teaching” of the church is a legitimate fruit of theological work underscores the different ecclesial view held by some theologians today. Such an approach to theology inevitably bestows on theological work the aura, at times even the explicit declaration, of a “parallel magisterium,” one that has the competence not simply to deepen our understanding of the faith, but to graft onto it teachings extraneous to the deposit of faith that Jesus entrusted to the church as its steward.
The true challenge of theologians is not their presumptive authority to challenge established teachings of the magisterium, but rather their vocation also to challenge themselves in exploring more deeply, more intensively, more prayerfully the truths of the faith handed onto us by Christ through the church. It is the challenge to accept as a starting point for their investigations the teachings of the church and the authority of those entrusted with passing on the faith and guarding it from erroneous intrusions. It is the challenge to resist the temptation to bend to the currents of every age, to accommodate Catholic teaching to the penchants of the times rather than penetrating the times with the wisdom of Catholic teaching. It is the challenge to realize that faith is ultimately a gift of grace, the bracing call to follow Jesus that comes directly from him, not the work of rendering Catholic teaching more comfortable and agreeable to our way of life.
Catholic theologians, whether or not their works are used as “textbooks” in Catholic institutions of learning, are collaborators in the teaching mission of the church, and cannot exempt themselves through appeals to a false and counter-productive freedom from accountability. To do so would in fact denigrate the noble vocation of theology. The great Catholic theologians of the past and present are remarkable not only for their profound insights and provocative theological speculation, but also for their humble recognition of their own fallibility and their acceptance, even desire, for the church’s appraisal of their work. This humility was grounded in their recognition of the important role they played in the church’s life and in the church’s teaching of the faith, whether or not their works were used in any official teaching capacity. As theologians themselves rightly remind us, theirs is not simply a catechetical vocation; it is precisely their vocation to deepen our understanding of the church’s faith that renders their work especially needful of robust accountability.
Theology and the New Evangelization
Theologians who embrace this vibrant vision of their role as responsible collaborators in the teaching of the church are well poised to contribute to the new evangelization urged by the Holy Father and the recent Synod of Bishops. There are numerous people, particularly in the Western world, who have already heard of Jesus. Our call as Christians is to stir up again and rekindle in the midst of their daily life and concrete situation a new awareness and familiarity with Jesus, to re-propose his Gospel in all its depth, its intensity and its transformative power. Theologians, in their efforts to penetrate more deeply our understanding of the deposit of faith, to draw new conclusions of that faith, to render more precise our understanding of the church’s teaching, to apply the truths of faith and morals to our time and our culture, and to find better approaches to proclaim the faith effectively to the people of today, play a crucial role in advancing the banner of the new evangelization.
This dynamic vision of theology within “the whole of the Church’s life” draws its vitality from the grace of faith. For theologians to be agents of the new evangelization, they must first perceive themselves as such, as important cooperators in the work of the church, as credible and convicted believers. Their personal faith is not an impediment to objective and fruitful theological work, but rather its prerequisite. In The Nature and Mission of Theology, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger observed that as “there is no theology without faith, there can be no theology without conversion…the opportunity for creative theology increases the more that faith becomes real, personal experience; the more that conversion acquires interior certainty.” It is faith that allows theologians to stand on the pillar of revealed truth, to sense the need for theological accountability, to perceive the magisterium as intrinsic to their work. Natural scientists are grateful for the existence of physical laws since their work is only sound, only fruitful, when it respects the foundational truths of those concrete boundaries. In a similar way, the church’s teaching office, when grasped in the context of faith, is a great assistance to the scholarly research of theologians since its judgments are determinative of good theology.
Bartimaeus, the Holy Father reflected in his homily at the close of the synod, represents “man who needs God’s light, the light of faith, if he is to know reality truly and to walk the path of life.” There is no more urgent task in the church today than shedding that light anew upon those thirsting for the truth, for the beauty, for the goodness of the Gospel. Bishops and theologians both contribute, powerfully and distinctly, to that momentous project. On their fruitful collaboration depends not only the renewal of vibrant Catholic theology, but to a large extent the renewal of the church herself and her readiness to meet the great commission of our day, the commission to re-propose the Gospel to a weary world with clarity, with joy and with conviction. On their fruitful collaboration depends, in great measure, the fruitful harvest of the new evangelization.