Vatican warning system locks on social teaching, nature of theology

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Rome -- Since its creation by Pope Paul VI in 1969, the International Theological Commission, composed of 30 theologians from around the world who advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, often has functioned as a sort of early warning system for the Vatican’s doctrinal concerns. When the commission kicks around a topic, it can be a hint of things to come – an encyclical, a doctrinal instruction, or something else with real teeth.

For just that reason, it’s always worth keeping the ITC on the radar screen.

Last week, the commission held its annual working meeting. (Members had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI on Friday, Dec. 3.) At the moment, three sub-commissions are pondering the following themes:

  • Method in theology, with the accent on theology’s relationship with the church. (The sub-commission is led by Fr. Paul McPartlan, a British ecclesiologist and ecumenist who teaches at the Catholic University of America.)

  • The question of the one God in relationship to the three monotheistic religions (led by Fr. Philippe Vallin of the University of Strasbourg, who served from 2003 to 2007 as secretary of the doctrinal commission of the French bishops’ conference.)

  • Integration of the church’s social teaching into the rest of Christian doctrine (led by Italian Fr. Marco Doldi of the Theology Faculty of Northern Italy, whose specialty is bioethics. Doldi is an advisor on bioethics to Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan.)

While members are invited to suggest topics, the themes for each five-year term of the commission (known as a “quinquennio”) are chosen by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and ratified by the pope, so they’re a fairly reliable guide to what church authorities are thinking about.

Depending on how things develop, the sub-commissions could generate draft documents to be submitted to the full commission. Though documents of the ITC in themselves don't carry weight as church teaching, they could lay the ground work for an official act or document from the doctrinal congregation, or even the pope himself, somewhere down the line.

Yet it’s one thing to say the commission matters, and quite another to read its stirrings accurately. Speaking on background, one theologian who took part in the meeting last week said afterwards that it’s not clear, even to members themselves, what these sub-commissions might produce.

For one thing, the ITC these days is not quite what it used to be. In the beginning, the commission was an all-star team of Catholic theology; its initial roster in 1969 included Karl Rahner, Louis Bouyer, Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Bernard Lonergan, Joseph Ratzinger and Cipriano Vagaggini. While it’s never again been quite that loaded, the ITC until recently included a number of figures with strong international reputations, such as Bruno Forte of Italy, Georges Cottier (a Swiss Dominican and the former theologian of the papal household under John Paul II), Roland Minnerath of France, and Herman Pottmeyer of Germany.

Those luminaries are now gone (Forte and Minnerath were both made archbishops in 2004), and as a result, some observers say the prospects for strong leadership or new vision have been reduced.

(As a footnote, the foregoing suggests a keen irony: Benedict XVI is a theologian-pope, the first former member of the international theological commission to be elevated to the papacy. Yet a case can be made that the theological quality of the commission actually has declined on his watch.)

Two of the three topics also present their own difficulties.

In theory, a theme is supposed to be handled within a single “quinquennio,” but the project on theology and the church has been hanging around for seven years. At one stage a sub-commission under Forte produced a draft, which one source described as “mystical” and “lofty”, but it wasn’t completed.

Emphasizing that theology must be rooted in the life and faith of the church, and is thus not a self-contained academic enterprise, has long been a core concern of Benedict XVI. The pope underscored the point in his Dec. 3 remarks to commission members, insisting that “to be scientific, theology must argue in a rational way, but it must also be faithful to the nature of the ecclesial faith.”

Observers say the subject is a political hot potato, anything the commission says on the relationship between theologians and church authorities will be carefully read in the theological guild. One member expressed concern that if there’s no acknowledgment of the creative role of theology – its responsibility to ask new questions, and pursue new answers – other theologians may react negatively.

Meanwhile, the sub-commission on social teaching faces a different sort of headache – not so much what to say, but rather what’s left to say?

Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate dealt at length with the relationship between social teaching and the rest of Christian doctrine, in particular the nexus between the church’s pro-life positions and its peace-and-justice message. The introduction to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, published in 2005, also covers the same ground in fairly exhaustive detail.

Commission members say that if they’re going to put out a document, they have to push beyond what’s already been said – but it’s not clear what that “beyond” might look like.

One member said the sub-commission could be an opportunity to ponder an undeniably front-burner question these days, which is how to define and defend the Catholic identity of church-affiliated institutions such as hospitals, schools, and social service centers. That, however, is arguably more a question of governance rather than a strictly theological matter, so it’s not clear what contribution the ITC might be able to make.

In sum, the International Theological Commission still merits being tracked on Catholic radar, but it’s a little early to identify exactly what’s in the air.

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