Sunday, January 17, 2010

Catholic Theology and Theologians

I was a little smug in the last post, and a little unkind, about the members of the dissident theology group, it provoked a number of ad hominem comments naming individuals, so I have removed it.

There was a very serious issue here; it touches the nature of theology and theologians: what is it, what is their purpose?

St Thomas says that theology is faith seeking understanding.

An earlier definition of a theologian runs, "A theologian is one who prays, one who prays is a theologian".

In the late 20th century we tended to make theology an academic discipline, separating theology from faith and contemplation.

The problem with any academic exercise is that it pushes boundaries; it offers plaudits only for those who shake things up. When theologians are appointed by an academic institution they tend to search for those who pull more exciting rabbits out of hats. The problem for Catholic academic theologians is that they are limited by Revelation; they can only go so far, there are many theologians now who would describe themselves as "post-Catholic" or "post-Christian".

The nature of Catholic theology is that it is not an academic discipline but an ecclesial one. Its purpose is not to further research or push boundaries but to deepen faith and enhance mission, it cannot be separated from the Church, or from prayerful contemplation. Properly, theology belongs to the Church's bishops who are, or should be, faithful bearers of The Tradition".

For us theology doesn't make sense except with in The Tradition. Pope Benedict exemplifies the role of a Catholic theologian, what he contemplates he tries to explain. The ultimate forum for theology isn’t the university lecture hall but the pulpit. Von Balthazar saw in the Transfiguration the role of the theologian, he sees glory and mystery and tries to reveal it. St Thomas’ reported words, “All I have written is straw compared with what I have seen”.


John Kearney said...

The role of a Catholic Theologian is to explain the Revealed Faith of the Catholic Church. As this is Truth itself one would expect that with solid reasoning and logic it is difficult to go astray. The trouble is modern education. At University you read all the people who agree with your thesis, badn them together in an essay and convince the examiner you have proved your thesis. This is not classical theology however. In classical theology you have to examine every objection to your thesis and meet every objection. The failure in modern education to meet this requirement has meant that some of the most narrow thinkers in society are members of the professions.

Augustine said...

"Properly, theology belongs to the Church's bishops who are, or should be, faithful bearers of The Tradition"."

I should certainly hope not. Surely it is an intrinsic duty of all Christians, all who receive the Gospel, to contemplate God. All who have faith should seek understanding.

Independent said...

The first appointment to a Chair of Catholic Theology in England since the Reformation was at the University of Southampton. With full ecclesiastical approval a Radical Feminist was appointed. This would seem to illustrate your point that novelty was what was sought not fidelity to a religious tradition.

GOR said...

Well put, Father! Pope Benedict is the consummate theologian and the example to be followed by theologians and by everyone who seeks a deeper understanding of our Faith. People have come to view theologians as the academic experts – the ones who ‘know all the answers’. Unfortunately, many theologians - real or self-styled – seem to share that view.

In this they are like the so-called ‘climate experts’ who pontificate from on high on what we should believe and dismiss out of hand anyone who disagrees with them. They are the intellectual elite and the rest of us are the ignorant peasants, so what do we know?

The characteristic that has distinguished the great Doctors of the Church and something that the Holy Father has repeatedly admonished theologians about is, humility! A theologian may be very learned, with a string of letters after his name, but in the final analysis he is - or should be - a seeker after truth. His role is not to discover new ‘truths’, but to explain the Eternal Truths. And in the face of the Eternal Truths we are all like little children.

In his address to the International Theological Commission last December Pope Benedict hammered home this point. He noted that God has often concealed the great mysteries of faith from the wise and learned but revealed them to children, or to the child-like. It is a sobering reminder to all theologians and to all of us. We’re not as smart as we think we are – and God is infinitely smarter!

Fr Ray Blake said...

Yes, because everything should be done in communion with the bishop, and aimed at mission.
The Bishop should be the first thinker and teacher in the local Church

Independent said...

See John Henry Newman "On consulting the Laity in Matters of Faith" which lists pages of failure by bishops and some Popes to bear faithful witness to tradition.

The Bones said...

Shame you removed the post. The have had their day and it should be clear to all that the ones who guard the Deposit of Faith all hold high office in the Church.

It was pretty obvious by the pictures that those 'theologians' were amateurs.

In the Holy Father we have a great theologian and there is no need for those 60s/70s throwbacks.

Pope Benedict XVI and many who are in full communion with the Tradition of the Church bring out something new from something old, a representation of the Gospel, yet still the same Gospel.

Good homily on the Wedding at Cana today, Father.

Gregory the Eremite said...

Dear Fr. Blake

As a university academic (but not one in theology) I think you have identified the spurious “originality” that is one of the key problems for anyone attempting academic theology in this country. (Alas, it is a problem not restricted to theology!) It is a great shame that there is no Pontifical University in this country, where one might at least hope that the CDF’s instruction “donum veritatis” on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian would be greeted with some faint recognition.

Another aspect, perhaps related to the stifling nature of this problem, is the woeful state of academic theology (especially of the Catholic sort) in this country. With a few honourable exceptions, much that is published here is thoroughly mediocre (or just plain obviously wrong). Further, if one wishes to gain academic credentials in Catholic theology, it can be done in this country, but there is not much in the way of choice!

The universities of many other countries have their own problems with modernism, for example the USA, but one can at least find theology being practiced at a high level.

Michael Petek said...

It seems to me that the role of the academic theologian is analogous to that of the academic philosopher: to demonstrate the logical coherence of Catholic faith and teaching.

The activities of research and 'boundary pushing' are of a piece with the primary objective of the University, which is the pursuit of truth for its own sake, or rather for the sake of the life of the mind.

Anagnostis said...

The role of philosophy and metaphysics is, or should be, strictly subordinate and ancillary. You cannot "do theology" merely by mastering a vocabulary or methodology. When people set out to "do theology" who have not first learned to keep the commandments and overcome the passions, the result is always a total disaster. One cannot "see" the Subject of theology in the absence of purity of heart. "No illumination without purification". True theology is thus primarily the fruit of prayer and repentance, not the result of logical or metaphysical reasoning. It is inseparable from ascetical struggle and "total immersion" in the Tradition and the Mysteries of the Church. The bishop is the witness par excellence to the Tradition (of which all the baptised are bearers), but he need not, strictly speaking, be a theologian himself.

The Tradition is alive - it "grows", but remains always the "word delivered in the beginning"; there are, in other words, absolutely no "undiscovered Everests". True theology is not a search, by rational calculation, for undiscovered Truths about God.

nickbris said...

I have always liked the story of the Wedding Feast because it has always made me wonder what my Mother would have done if I didn't obey her immediately,probably wouldn't have reached puberty.

Norah said...

Couldn't you just have deleted the ad hominums and left the rest? I thought that Francis made a very precient comment - lucky I saved it.

Fr Ray Blake said...

Norah, there were so many of them, the post was obviously not leading people to heaven!

berenike said...

International Theological Institute. So the chancellor's Schoenborn, but he doesn't teach there. And despite its name, there's not much more theology of the body than in any other theology degree.

JARay said...

Having removed my first post on this subject, may I say, once again that I agree with Moretben, yet again!
How's that Ben!?Twice in one year!
Happy new year Ben.

Unknown said...

Your comment about pushing boundaries chimes with my experience at a Catholic third-level institution, but I don't think Revelation should be regarded as a limitation because it has infinite depth. More emphasis on exploring the depths than 'pushing boundaries' would give theologians a worthwhile aim.

Anagnostis said...

Thank you, John. Happy New Year!

Augustine said...

Yes, because everything should be done in communion with the bishop, and aimed at mission.
The Bishop should be the first thinker and teacher in the local Church"

Perhaps I misunderstood you. Of course it should be in union with the Bishop. What I meant was, that we shouldn't always leave our bishops to take the initiative. Sometimes a real firebrand is needed to maintain the radical orthodoxy to which the church is called. St. Athanasius was not a bishop when he first confronted Arius.

He didn't wait around for his bishop, Patriarch Alexander, to solve the problem on his own authority. He intervened with the full weight of Scripture and Tradition behind him.

Deacon Stephen Morgan said...

The 'faith seeking understanding' quotation you attribute to the Angelic Doctor, should rather be laid to the credit of St Naselm.

Astride said...

Moretben and all,

Is "no illumination without purification" a quote? Can you trace it?

On the question of being a theologian in a university, I differ somewhat from Moretben and Gregory, I think.

The universities' emphasis on new work is important to maintain standards. A Catholic theologian can express truths in a new way, or even venture on new lines of thought along a particular trajectory.

On the other hand, the requirement to 'publish or perish' can harm Catholic theologians, as it may encourage a lack of thoroughness. This may clash with a Catholic's academic conscience.

Anagnostis said...


"No illumination without purification"

The Cappodocians notably, St Gregory Nazianzen in particular, and the tradition of the Eastern Fathers in general.

"Whoever wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms our nature, then exercise his natural powers mentioned above: by praying, to receive restoring grace; by a good life, to receive purifying justice; by meditating, to receive illuminating knowledge; and by contemplating, to receive perfecting wisdom."
- St Bonaventure

Anonymous said...

Is "no illumination without purification" a quote? Can you trace it?

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8)

Astride said...




P.S. I think the Cappadocians had a different 'illumination' in mind from that of Bonaventure. What I mean is, I want to make a distinction between the kind of theology that has been taught at universities since their foundation and the illumination of the mystical ascent to which Bonaventure refers.

Anagnostis said...


I think the Cappadocians would have been completely at home with St Bonaventure's idea of illumination; and deeply uneasy with "the kind of theology that has been taught at universities since their foundation".

Unknown said...

There is an excellent article on "What is Theology" by Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia.

Following St Gregory Palamas, he distinguishes between three levels of theology. {1) The saints, who possess full personal experience of God. (2) Those who lack such fullness but who trust the saints. (3) Those who lack such fullness and do not trust the saints. The third sort is bad theology or, more precisely, not theology at all. However, he says that "Theology on this secondary level is not impossible even in a modern secular university: with scholarly exactness we can transmit to those around us the message of the saints."

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