Bishops, Theologians and the Hermeneutical Helix

 

This guest blog comes from Msgr. Steven C. Boguslawski, O.P., the president of The Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.:

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I am grateful for the clarity of Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl’s analysis of the role of bishops and theologians in the crucial task of the new evangelization (“The Noble Enterprise,” 2/4).It contextualizes their respective urgent tasks within the larger context of (re)evangelization of cultures and peoples as the church’s primary mission: to make Jesus Christ known. 

As I pondered Proposition 30 from the recently concluded Synod of Bishops, No. 39 of the International Theological Commission’s “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria” (Origins, 2012), The Teaching Ministry of the Diocesan Bishop(USCCB, 1992), and “Magisterium and the Faithful,” by Richard Gaillardetz (Am. 9/24/2012)—which His Eminence succinctly and accurately represents, no minor feat in so few words—I recognized that the seeming impasse expressed by some professional theologians in the academy might be overcome by a constructive hermeneutical proposal. I was deeply impressed by Cardinal Wuerl’s assertion that the theologian’s vocation “is not simply…catechetical…; it is precisely their vocation to deepen our understanding of the church’s faith that renders their work especially needful of robust accountability” measured by the received faith of the church in tandem with “the authoritative teaching of those to whom Christ has entrusted the care of the flock.”

In response, I offer an interpretive image grounded in Cardinal Wuerl’s assertions concerning the vital interplay among the theologian’s vocation, the received faith and the magisterium: the “hermeneutical helix.” This helix admits of multiple strands, representing the interplay of textual analysis (Scripture and Tradition), philosophical and theological reflection (systematic or thematic) and the indispensable doctrinal teachings of the magisterium that determine the “boundaries of the authentic faith.” In this hermeneutical helix, there are multiple points of intersection among the strands (some simultaneous) as it continues to Infinity.

The synthetic understanding that the theologian seeks in the “hermeneutical helix” admits of objective norms, as well as speculative, practical and experiential components. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the methodology of any “science”—whether specifically philosophical, historical critical, etc.—is subalternated to the integrity of sacra doctrina(ST 1a.1.1). For Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan, the Renaissance Thomist commentator, sacra doctrinarepresents something quite comprehensive, namely all knowledge taught us by God’s grace.  Theology remains a single science—enjoying a single formal light, to use Cardinal Cajetan’s expression. 

In sum, our being taught by God is prior to the establishment of distinct theological disciplines or crafts. To state the matter succinctly and perhaps in an overly simplistic way:  In the case of historical critical analysis, for example, the method arrives first at what the text states; not however, necessarily what it means. A biblical theologian might take up the next task, answering the question:  How is this specific discourse (logos) about God (theos) revelatory and saving?  The systematician might next pose the question: How is this particular text coherent with the whole of the sacra doctrina, including Tradition and subsequent magisterial teaching? But, still, all such approaches do not yet guarantee the subjective appropriation by the individual of the Truth revealed, that is, its significance pro me. All the while, the exercise of the magisterium engages and judges such “scientific expositions” to be (or not be) in conformity with the church’s faith and to temper the subjectivist threat to privatize the meaning of the authoritative text(s) whereby the outworking of faith is hindered or precluded. Without this essential magisterial strand of the helix, the text(s) or derivative theology might be rendered a “dead word.” The “dynamic vision” of theology demands direct attention to the text, to be sure, but especially direct attention to the realities themselves, which the text—especially Sacred Scripture—reveals by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why faith is not “an impediment to objective and fruitful theological work, but rather its prerequisite,” as Cardinal Wuerl writes. The hermeneutical sketch presented here is not a pre-critical retrenchment, because faith is a legitimate mode of knowing and the array of subalternated sciences must be employed in pursuit of the sacra doctrina. The practitioner who is an unbeliever (or who excludes the role of faith a priori) would be better described as a historian of or commentator on religious studies rather than a theologian. By contrast, vibrant collaborators with the bishops, “to be agents of the new evangelization,” writes Cardinal Wuerl, “must first perceive themselves as such, as important cooperators in the work of the church, as credible and convicted believers.”

The methodological approach as a “hermeneutical helix” is both simple and ambitious. It might serve as a provisional “working model” that requires the mutual collaboration of theologians and bishops without compromising the theologian’s quest for a deeper understanding of the faith in a contemporary context, nor the exercise of the church’s teaching office that provides “sure guidance on the way to eternal life with Christ” as well as “judgments…determinative of good theology” arising “within the context of a clearly cohesive community of faith,” as Cardinal Wuerl writes. Otherwise, how shall we effectively re-propose the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our day?

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Michael Casey
4 years 7 months ago
Very enlightening, thank you. The only logical glitch I can find is the question of where the "buck stops", so to speak, in this helix. A theologian is a theologian until her theology is judged not in conformity by the Magisterium, at which time she becomes a historian (or just scholar). Conformity is determined as starting a priori with acceptance of the "bounderies of authentic faith" as determined by...the Magisterium. So far, so good. But the pressing question of course is, who keeps an eye on the Magisterium? This seems like a system of checks and balances that seriously breaks down at the Magisterium level, unless I'm missing some of the argument. And it is precisely this Magisterium that worries people the most, as the lack of proper oversight (of It) has led to some scary, irresponsible decisions (to put it quite mildly) in recent years. I don't know if Cardinal Weurl is part of said Magisterium, but if so, this puts further suspicion upon his claim. So, help me here. If the helix works by the Magisterium keeping watchful limits on theologians and textual analysts, who is keeping watch of the Magisterium? Is it the theologians? Scholars? People in the pews? Without that link, the helix breaks down into what can easily become a dysfunctional autocracy.

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