A New Relationship: Bishops, theologians and the new evangelization
At an overflow audience at The Catholic University of America in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI was greeted with sustained and vigorous applause as he spoke to the presidents of Catholic universities and colleges from across the nation. During his talk, the pope emphasized that “education is integral to the mission of the church to proclaim the good news. First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”
This year, as Catholic universities and the bishops observe the 10th anniversary of the application of “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” for the United States, it seems appropriate to reflect on the role of institutions of education and their participation both in the communion of the church that “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” highlighted so strongly and, consequently, in her great teaching mission. The invitation for a renewed collaboration in the proclamation of the faith comes at a new moment—the new evangelization.
It is well recognized that many have fallen away from the practice of the faith and lack a foundation in the essentials of the faith. Pope Benedict addressed several concerns about matters of faith when he spoke to the U.S. bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception during the same week as his address to educators in April 2008.
For many, the Gospel has lost its taste, its freshness and its luster. We live in a time guided by a secularism that treats religion as a purely private matter. It is a time guided by an ingrained consumerism and materialism, by an isolating individualism and a pervading relativism that erode confidence in the truths of faith and in human reason itself. For too many people, their religious instruction failed them at several levels. Something went wrong.
But we are not without hope. At the same time, this is an age when many, especially the young, are experiencing a surge of interest in enduring values and a yearning for meaning, purpose and a spiritual life. In my ministry as the archbishop of Washington, D.C., I see evidence of this work of the Holy Spirit every day. Young people ask for the wisdom of the church and seek an introduction to Christ. One particularly powerful sign of this openness to the Gospel occurs annually at the Rally for Life in Washington, when youth from all over the nation—in an increasing number every year—celebrate the dignity of human life, the Gospel of Life. This past year we hosted nearly 40,000 young people, who represent a vibrant future for the church in our country.
There are convincing signs that for many the church stands at a cultural crossroads. As we look to the future, we can follow a pathway indicated by voices of this age that draw much of their inspiration from sources alien to the Gospel, or we can respond with a deeper appreciation of our faith and spiritual heritage and with the confidence that imbues generous and apostolic hearts. This is the new evangelization that Pope Benedict described as “re-proposing” the Gospel to those who are convinced that they already know the faith and that it holds no interest for them. It is the courage to invite our contemporaries to hear the message of Christ all over again, as if for the first time.
Recently, as I celebrated Mass at one of our Newman centers, I was pleased to find the church packed. The students explained that the chaplain had encouraged them to invite their friends. The students thought of themselves as apostles on a campus where witnesses to Christ are few. The new evangelization is all about knowing our faith, having confidence in it and sharing it with others.
Collaborators in the New Evangelization
The new evangelization must be rooted authentically in the good news. This saving message of the Gospel finds its home in the church. Its pastors provide the authentication of the message and verify its life-giving application to the circumstances of our day. Our confidence in the teaching office of the church is grounded in the fact that Christ’s message has been handed down, generation by generation, preserving its integrity and its vitality only through the church that he himself founded, beginning with the apostles and carried on in each age by their successors, the bishops. It is through the teaching office of the church that we can be sure of the authenticity of the message that we proclaim.
The effort of the bishops to work more collaboratively with teachers, catechists and theologians at all levels of education can be seen in the cooperation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with the publishers of catechetical materials to ensure that those materials are comprehensive and faithful to the magisterium. Much of the catechetical revival that we are experiencing across our country can be traced to this successful initiative in which the bishops studied catechetical texts over a number of years and identified 10 doctrinal deficiencies that have hindered the formation of so many in recent decades. Adjusting those texts has already borne significant fruit in the formation of young Catholics.
Bishops, however, do not carry out their ministry in isolation. Among bishops’ valuable collaborators are theologians, whose privilege it is to explore systematically the truths of our faith according to the ancient adage fides quaerens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. As every student of church history knows, theologians have proven invaluable through the centuries in the refinement and deepening of our understanding of the Gospel. Their contributions are most evident when the explorations of theology build upon the insights of previous generations and are fruitful only when they begin from the known truths of received revelation. Identifying those boundaries of authentic faith, the building blocks of genuine theological progress, constitutes a significant task of the church’s magisterium.
There is a powerful and symbiotic relationship, then, between the bishop and the theologian when both appreciate their respective roles in understanding and transmitting the faith. As Blessed Pope John Paul II explained in “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” (No. 29):
Bishops should encourage the creative work of theologians. They serve the church through research done in a way that respects theological method.... At the same time, since theology seeks an understanding of revealed truth whose authentic interpretation is entrusted to the bishops of the church, it is intrinsic to the principles and methods of their research and teaching in their academic discipline that theologians respect the authority of the bishops, and assent to Catholic doctrine according to the degree of authority with which it is taught.
The vibrancy of Catholic theological development is not hindered by the exercise of the magisterium. Rather, it is the very teaching office that authenticates the fruit of theology.
Given that college- and university-level theological instruction takes place in the real circumstances of today’s diminished faith formation, it is necessary to recognize that the student entering the “groves of academe” too often comes in need of evangelization and faith formation more than theological speculation. The sharp blade of precise theoretical investigation and speculation should be affixed to the handle of basic, firm faith formation.
To be sure, as in every academic field, theologians enjoy a legitimate autonomy, but it is an autonomy defined by the standards of their discipline and the boundaries of what is known with certainty. In the case of theology, it is precisely the truths of faith, taught by the magisterium, that constitute the subject matter of their work. It is an academic freedom, like any freedom, that is ordered to the truth and to human flourishing. As the pope affirmed in his talk at Catholic University, appeals “to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission, a mission at the heart of the church’s munus docendi [teaching responsibility] and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.”
When bishops individually or collectively disagree with a specific theological position or methodology, it is not because they do not understand the task of theology. It is because they do and also recognize their own unique and necessary role.
Catholic Universities at the Meeting Point
During his 2008 talk at The Catholic University of America, the pope observed that a “university or school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?”
As we respond to the call for the new evangelization, there are growing signs of new, constructive cooperation between bishops and theologians at Catholic universities. The bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, in collaboration with Catholic University, for instance, has planned a conference in September for bishops and theologians on the intellectual tasks of the new evangelization. As I write, I hope one of the outcomes of this multi-day meeting will be to refocus on the great mission of the church to bring Christ to the world. Another instance of fruitful cooperation, sponsored by both the Committee on Doctrine and the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame in February 2012, will deal with celibacy and the priesthood. Here again bishops and theologians, including scholars from both seminary and university faculties, will explore an element of Catholic faith and practice in a way that probably would not be experienced in any secular university setting.
One can envision similar efforts bringing the best of the church’s theological expertise to significant issues today from the faith-filled and life-giving Catholic tradition on matters as timely as protecting innocent human life, legitimate types of stem-cell research, marriage, the environment, freedom of conscience and institutional religious freedom. Catholic campuses all over the nation can be centers for the new evangelization providing, in communion with the local bishop, the reasoned exposition of the truth of the church’s teaching.
As we seek to make our way through the current cultural crossroads, there are many signs of hope and renewal. Among those signs, bishops and theologians are taking a new look at their relationship and the possibilities offered by their constructive collaboration, as these two examples of academic gatherings demonstrate. When their respective contributions are ordered to the proclamation of the Gospel, grounded in the truths of our faith and the teaching of the church that Jesus founded, bishops and theologians offer a profound contribution to the new evangelization and an irreplaceable gift to our contemporaries: a rejuvenated, fruitful and faithful exposition of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Bishops and theologians discuss the role of theology and catechesis.