Over the years, I have often heard pastors and teachers say, apologetically, that they were not theologians or academics or that they did not fully understand a book written by some theologian. Such humility may be commendable, but it is misplaced. Let me explain why.
In today’s big graduate theology programs, one sometimes encounters a status snobbery regarding the various theological subspecialties. Dogmatic or systematic theology is assumed to be for the brightest graduate students, those philosophically inclined and willing to tackle how all the doctrines ought to be connected and understood. Then there are people who are not drawn to “big ideas” but take up scriptural and historical studies; they like to focus on specifics and details. And those who go into ethics want to resolve difficult moral situations, to have an immediate impact by addressing particular contemporary problems.
I have often heard from faculty who want religious education disassociated from the theology department, saying, “We teach theology, not catechetics.”
At the bottom of the intellectual talent pool, according to this view, are students of pastoral theology. They are the “people people,” not the critical thinkers. They will not be the ones, it is assumed, who will reorient the theological enterprise. After all, they are called to busy themselves with applying whatever they are able to understand. They work in parish programs and teach catechism, help people through rough patches in their lives and lead Bible study groups. That does not take a lot of intelligence, some assume, just a caring heart.
I remember one professor at a large Midwestern university commenting, “I am not into hand-holding” when he was invited to help out with a campus ministry program. Another dismissed a course that I proposed on the Christian tradition of prayer: “This is not a seminary, you know.” Over the years I have often heard from faculty who want religious education disassociated from the theology department, saying, “We teach theology, not catechetics”—as if theology and catechetics were not fundamentally interdependent.
What is wrong with this picture? I think the highest level of theology is, indeed, pastoral theology. Why? Because to be a good pastoral theologian, you have to be well acquainted with doctrine, be able to put it in its historical and biblical context, and acquire a genuine understanding of what ought to be said to someone confronted with a complex human situation. In other words, competent pastoral theologians understand that all these subspecialties need to be integrated.
Pastoral theologians need to be attentive to the sensus fidelium, the actual experience of believers trying to live their Christian lives.
Moreover, pastoral theologians not only need to pay attention to doctrine, Scripture, tradition and ethics, they also need to be attentive to the sensus fidelium, the actual experience of believers trying to live their Christian lives in the push-and-pull of their own time and place. Pastoral theologians, like Karl Rahner, S.J., pay attention not only to all the subspecialties but also to their growing edge, remaining ever sensitive to the development of doctrine and ready to discern humbly in what direction the Spirit is blowing. (Rahner did not, it must be admitted, write for ordinary people.)
Scholastic philosophy and theology dominated church thinking for centuries, especially in the United States, until the Second Vatican Council. Scripture was often cited simply to support what theologians and philosophers had already established on their own. Aware of this emphasis on an overly philosophical theology, Vatican II encouraged theologians to pay greater attention to Scripture and history. What is needed now is balance, interplay and a constant awareness of the importance of both Scripture and theology, and how they enrich each other.
One of the gifts of competent pastoral theologians is their ability to understand the people with whom they work. They need to discern and value their lived experience. That requires much listening and reading of the signs of the times in light of the Gospel. Good pastoral theologians must be, therefore, the most skilled persons of all the “subspecialties.” A pastoral theologian combines them all and knows how to communicate the Gospel effectively to ordinary people. Few scholars know how to do that. Good pastoral theologians do. Their great value to the church should be lifted up and acknowledged, and they should not be dismissed as B-level academics.