'Catholic theology must be grounded in lives of the faithful'

by Thomas C. Fox

View Author Profile


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

In a novel presentation that received wide acclaim from their colleagues, theologians Catherine Clifford of St. Paul University in Ottawa and Richard R. Gaillardetz of the University of Toledo co-authored and co-presented a paper at the Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual gathering entitled, “Beyond Presumption: Reimagining the Ecclesial-Prophetic Vocation of the Theologian.”

What follows is an edited outline of their talk. The authors spoke in tandem.

They began by noting the many positive signs of vitality they see in the theological community today, a more diverse and representative body of scholars.

“As we reflect on the vocation of the theologian today there is much to celebrate,” they stated. “If we but consider the membership of our own theological society, we have witnessed - in the span of our own lifetime - a shift from a membership that was once exclusively male and clerical, most often white and dedicated primarily to seminary education, to a membership which better reflects the diversity of the people of God in North America. Today, more than half of the theologians belonging to the CTSA are lay men or women. Our members, both lay and ordained, come from a much broader range of social and cultural backgrounds of theology in today's church.”

They then went on to say that one of the anomalies of our current theological context is that "while Catholic theology has never been as diverse in perspective and seldom as rich in content," it continues to be dominated by episcopal suspicion.

They traced this suspicion to attitudes already at play in the eleventh century and visible in various manifestations since, most notably in the last 20 years.

“Sadly, too many theologians report that they are seldom consulted by their local bishops on theological questions,” they authors said.

According to the authors, “Theology’s prophetic task demands that its primary loyalty be to the Word of God. Consequently, it can exhibit loyalty to the magisterium only insofar as the magisterium exhibits its own proper service to God’s Word.”

They added: “Moreover, if theology’s prophetic task lies in its service to the Word, then any adequate account of the ecclesial and prophetic character of theology must be oriented toward the discernment of that Word in the people of God’s corporate exercise of the sensus fidei. …

“The true prophet is a humble servant of the Word, ‘one who speaks for another.’ The genuine prophet is not interested in popular opinion or worldly measures of success, but acts as a self-effacing interpreter of the divine intention for the people of God. …

“For the prophet is deeply attuned to the divine pathos and seeks to express the divine concern for humanity. This pathos is an integral element in the structure of prophetic consciousness. …

Tradition and the Word of God ground the church in faith, the authors stated, adding, however, that critical studies have shown that tradition “can distort as well as disclose, it can reveal and conceal aspects of the Word and has at times been co-opted to convey the values of ideology and dominant self-interest.”

Doctrinal teaching, they state, “is but a partial expression of the faith of the church and is completed by the living faith of the whole community. The multiple witness of the church on earth, expressed diversely in the authoritative teaching of the magisterium, in the reflections of theologians, and in the teaching and witness of all the baptized coalesce into a ‘symphony.’ The dialectical interplay of each section of the orchestra contributes to the harmonious proclamation of the divine Word. …

“Within the communion of all the faithful, some – the bishops – are called by virtue of their office to serve as authoritative custodians of the apostolic faith; still others - theologians – place their knowledge and study of Scripture, tradition, and contemporary sciences at the service of the Spirit.”

Drawing on the French Dominican, and Second Vatican Council advisor, Yves Congar, the authors went on to say that in Congar’s schematization, all three: “the baptized faithful, theologians, and bishops, exercise the teaching office in a unique manner and contribute to the ongoing reception of the Word in the life of the church. All three help maintain the church in the truth. Further, a true knowledge and reception of the truth of the Gospel depends upon the dynamic interplay and organic relationship among them.”

The prophetic roles of the magisterial teaching office and of the theologians, the authors stated, are to be exercised “within the communion of, and in service to, the prophetic witness of the whole body. The entire body of the baptized, in turn, receives from, and actively contributes to, the apostolic witness of the church.”

Stated the authors: “What we find in the work of Congar, the theological vision of Vatican II, and the witness of many ecumenical conversations is the recognition that no theology of tradition can be adequate, which is not at the same time a theology of the reception by the whole church of God’s Word mediated in history. …

“In this daily ‘birthing’ of the church the prophetic vocation of the theologian takes the form of a humble midwifery, applying the skills of our craft to the birthing of the Word both within the life of the church and in the church’s witness and mission to the world. Theology does this, first of all, by preserving the priority of the lived faith of the church over its doctrinal formulations. Simply stated, kerygma precedes and informs doctrine. This means that the primary act of ecclesial reception is not that of the faithful obediently embracing the decrees of the magisterium, but the humble reception by the magisterium of the pluriform witness to the Gospel by the whole people of God.”

The authors stated theologians need to remain a sense of humility in their work.

"What is demanded of those who place themselves in the service of God’s Word, of both the schola theologorum and the magisterium, is an eschatological humility in the face of a truth that is always, to a certain extent, beyond our grasp," they stated. "It is a humility that recognizes that we cannot exercise our proper vocations within the life of the church without the willingness of bishops, theologians and the entire Christian faithful to engage in the sometimes painful askesis of respectful conversation, critical inquiry and mutual correction.

"Finally, this humility requires us to join with the teaching office in the recognition that as we move from fundamental principle to concrete prudential judgments regarding the specific application of gospel values, our claims must become more and more modest. Many of us have complained of the disturbing failure of the U.S Bishops’ Conference to honor the necessary limits of moving from principle to complex public policy evaluations in its contributions to the recent health care reform debate. However, we theologians are often guilty of the same lack of modesty when, assuming an unassailable prophetic tone, we denounce concrete public policy on war in Afghanistan or immigration without recognizing the limits of our own prudential judgments."

The authors concluded their remarks saying that the task of the theologian lays not so much “in extending the magisterium’s teaching ministry, but in assisting it in its obligation to attentive listening. … Theologians assist the birthing of the Word in the pluriform witness of the people of God by identifying fresh receptions and articulations of the Gospel that will nourish and enhance the effective proclamation and witness of the Gospel.”

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters