It is time to get past the snobbery against pastoral theologians

What is needed now is awareness of the importance of both Scripture and theology, and how they enrich each other. (iStock/aaron007) What is needed now is awareness of the importance of both Scripture and theology, and how they enrich each other. (iStock/aaron007)

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.

Charles Erlinger
1 week ago

This article could have been prefaced by the declaration "there is no such thing as a dumb question," because it just answered one of mine.

6 days 14 hours ago

Hear! Hear!

Tom Corrigan
5 days 21 hours ago

Thanks for challenging my ideas about a dichotomy between the two areas. I now need to read more. Keep up your work of expanding our vision. Your bro, Tom Corrigan

Henry George
5 days 19 hours ago

Karl Rahner as an example of a Pastoral Theologian...if you say so.

Yes, it is Academic Theology that should have its sails trimmed.

By the way the view that before Vatican II all theology was academic and

not pastoral is simply not true. Sadly many of the books written on

Pastoral Theology were considered out of date, after Vatican II,

but they have many valuable things to say. Not to mention, Bishop Fulton

Sheen - lot of valuable insights there - all Pre-Vatican II.

Michael Barberi
4 days 19 hours ago

A good article but it is a little too narrow for me. It is true that we need more pastoral theologians. However, what we really need is an effective 'listening Church'. For example, on the one hand if a pastoral theologian merely applies Church teachings to the moral dilemmas of everyday families and individuals, especially in the area of sexual ethics, they are no better than catechetics. On the other hand, many parish priests use pastoral theology to bridge the gap between the letter of the law (or doctrine) and the pastoral application of the law (or the spirit of the law).

A case in point is the teaching on contraception. Most priests I have ever met allow married penitents to receive the Eucharist even though they practice contraception for good reasons. It is a known fact that about 80% of Catholics do not receive this teaching (e.g., Humanae Vitae). They don't believe taking the pill is a sin, especially after they had children and want no more for good reasons. Most don't confess it as a sin or even mention i in confession. Some do, but this is often only said initially to preclude a repeating of it every time they go to confession. Priests deal with this specific issue every day. They apply the principle of 'graduation', mercy and the theology of conscience to the circumstances and ends of the person and in almost every case permit the parishioner to receive the Eucharist. Some say contraception is a sin but the priest is not holding the individual culpable for various reasons. I find such a statement to be disingenuous and an attempt by the Church to avoid coming to grips with controversial teachings.

What we need is adequate and effective channels of communications between the 'people of God' inclusive of ordinary parishioners, theologians, priests, bishops, the Curia and the Pope regarding the sensus fidelium. Today, we do not have any effective channels, procedures or processes. All we have is a one-way, top-down flow of information and teachings. It is not a two-way communication channel but a one-way avenue. We often talk about this issue a lot, but very little is done about it.

The good news: Pope Francis is trying to change the pyramid structure of the Church and implement true synodality and collegiality. He also wants priests and bishops to be servants of the people not princess of the Church. He does not want them to throw stones at people in difficult circumstances because they are not following Church teachings. This means more listening, understanding and the integration of a more merciful pastoral theology in the praxis of the Church. The bad news: it will take time.

Philip Endean
4 days 17 hours ago

I'm very much in sympathy with the idea behind this article. But I think it sells the issue short if we accept that pastoral theologians are just one sort of theologian, a sort that ought to be higher up the pecking order. Rahner was a great theologian precisely because he saw the link with ongoing commitment that should inform ALL theology worthy of the name -- whatever the tensions this conviction generates with the modern university. For me, it's time to recognise that all theology is about what Ignatius Loyola called helping souls. Beefing up our esteem for 'pastoral theology' is a poor second-best to that.

Nick Steffen
4 days 10 hours ago

Jim, which current pastoral theologians do you think should be better known today?

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