The Int'l Theo Commission's New Document

by Michael Sean Winters

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The International Theological Commission issued a new document yesterday entitled “Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria.” I scanned the text yesterday, and I liked what I was reading. As a reality check, I emailed a friend who, unlike me, is a theologian and asked what he thought of the text. “Good stuff!” he replied, and indeed it is. I woke up early this AM to re-read it, and I like it even better on the second reading.

Perhaps because I spent much of the last five years researching and writing about fundamentalism, the opening line of #7 in the text warmed my heart: “The Church greatly venerates the Scriptures, but it is important to recognise that ‘the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”; Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word.”’” (Sorry for the treble quotation marks.) This is, to my mind, one of the key limiting factors in Catholic ecumenical dialogue with fundamentalists: They really do see Christianity as a religion of the book, and then proceed to understand that book in a way it was never meant to be understood!

One of the central themes of the document, as you would expect, is the relationship between faith and reason. I can scarcely think of a more urgent point for catechesis in our day than this. The principal influences on American culture both affect the issue in harmful ways: Protestantism has always been suspicious of reason and the Enlightenment exalted a particular kind of reason, while ignoring and demeaning religious knowledge. #12 in the document states, “Faith, then, is experience of God which involves knowledge of him, since revelation gives access to the truth of God which saves us (cf. 2Th 2:13) and makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32).” And, #62 states, “Created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27), the human person is capable, by the light of reason, of penetrating beyond appearances to the deep-down truth of things, and opens up thereby to universal reality. The common reference to truth, which is objective and universal, makes authentic dialogue possible between human persons.” In reading those passages, I was reminded of a conversation I had at luncheon on Monday with a dear friend, who is both very smart and a confirmed rationalist. We were discussing Mormonism and he offered that he didn’t think they really believed their own practices anymore than I really believed that the bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ at Mass. I replied that of course I do believe that the bread and wine were turned into the body and blood of Christ at Mass. He suggested that chemical molecular analysis could prove otherwise. I pointed out that chemical molecular analysis, if applied to me, could tell him something about my physicality, but it could not disclose that I was delighted to see him, was enjoying my sandwich, or that I was as thoroughly uninterested in the findings of chemistry at 50 as I was as a teenager in high school. Science does not get to the “deep-down truth of things” at least not to the deep-down truths that I care about in my daily life.

I was delighted that the text was not afraid to discuss a word our tolerant cultural ethos finds a bit too bracing: heresy (#14). Delighted, too, by the document’s explication of Tradition (“Tradition is therefore something living and vital, an ongoing process in which the unity of faith finds expression in the variety of languages and the diversity of cultures. It ceases to be Tradition if it fossilises.”) found at #26. The text’s nuanced understanding of the sensus fidelium (#34) and of the specific relationship between theologians and the sensus fidelium (#35) showed an appropriate understanding that faith can die if it is not taking root in people’s lived experience but, also, that we can’t just take a poll to figure out what the sensus fidelium is.

The document deals with the often contentious issue of the relationship between theologians and the Magisterium. “The freedom of theology and of theologians is a theme of special interest. This freedom ‘derives from the true scientific responsibility of theologians’. The idea of adherence to the magisterium sometimes prompts a critical contrast between a so-called ‘scientific’ theology (without presuppositions of faith or ecclesial allegiance) and a so-called ‘confessional’ theology (elaborated within a religious confession), but such a contrast is inadequate.” I think the choice of the adjective “inadequate” is exactly spot-on. As the text makes clear at many points, theology is not religious studies (cf. #83), that theology has a distinctive ecclesial component. “The ecclesiality of theology is a constitutive aspect of the theological task, because theology is based on faith, and faith itself is both personal and ecclesial. The revelation of God is directed towards the convocation and renewal of the people of God, and it is through the Church that theologians receive the object of their enquiry,” the text states at #20. The document also considers that this essential ecclesial link calls for a specific spirituality for theologians (#93), stating “Integral to the spirituality of the theologian are: a love of truth, a readiness for conversion of heart and mind, a striving for holiness, and a commitment to ecclesial communion and mission.” Indeed, the words “striving” and “searching” are among the most common throughout the text. There is nothing triumphalistic about the document and it shows just how deeply the entire Church has drunk from the well of Vatican II’s insight that the Church is the pilgrim people of God, that we are still moving forward toward the goal of communion with God, we have not arrived.

#70 contains a straight forward criticism of post-Reformation and pre-Vatican II theology: “In many cases, Catholic theology reacted defensively against the challenge of Enlightenment thinking. It gave priority to apologetics rather than to the sapiential dimension of faith, it separated too much the natural order of reason and the supernatural order of faith, and it gave great importance to ‘natural theology’ and too little to the intellectus fidei as an understanding of the mysteries of the faith. Catholic theology was thus left damaged in various respects by its own strategy in this encounter.” The word “sapiential” is a bit jargony for my taste but, mercifully, and unlike way, way too many theological tracts published today, that bit of jargon is the exception, not the rule, in this document. The writing is accessible and clear, and almost completely free from the silly neologisms that some theologians like to employ.

I will be curious to see what reaction others have to the document. But, at a time when religion is reduced in our public discourse to something sentimental, certainly not something that would influence how we think about the world, it is refreshing to contemplate the Catholic Church’s long theological tradition. Also humbling. Also challenging. Because we Catholics do not divorce faith and reason, we often have a tough time finding ways to speak in a public square that assumes we don’t really believe what we really believe, or sees no relevance for faith in one’s intellectual or political life. This document is addressed to theologians per se, but it has something to say to all of us.

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