- "through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts";57 it is in particular "theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth".58
- "from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which [believers] experience",59 the sacred Scriptures "grow with the one who reads them."60
- "from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth".61
Paragraph 94 describes the process by which the faith of the Church grows. The Christian Church of our own time—and I include all its various branches—has come a long way from the tiny band of believers who witnessed the resurrected Jesus on Easter. As an institution, it is certainly more complex, not simply because of sheer numbers of members, but also in terms of its understanding of Sacred Revelation. As para. 94 itemizes, there are multiple components of the growth progress, most important being “the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” Given God’s animation, the Church has developed in three tracts: (1) theological research of religious experience and the sacred texts of scripture; (2) the collective interior faith of all believers who reflect upon Sacred Scripture; and (3) the preaching of bishops in the Apostolic succession.
What I find remarkable in this text is the emphasis upon theologians, in the present tense. Theologians have enjoyed a place of honor in the Church for most of its history—the evangelists themselves were theologians, each providing a specific aspect of the meaning of Christ. After the apostolic era, certain Catholic churchmen—and more recently, a few church women—became revered for their extraordinary contributions to the creed and beliefs of Christianity. On Monday’s post, I alluded to Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461 A.D.) and his explanation of the unity of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. The title “doctor of the Church” has been applied to such theologians, and in the high middle ages clerics looked to academic centers such as the University of Paris, for insight into matters of faith and morals.
The scope of the theologians’ responsibilities rests chiefly in scholarly and orderly investigation of Scripture, the Church’s history, the experience of present day circumstances, and in recent times, the relationship of the Catholic tradition to other Christian denominations, other world religions, and men and women of good will throughout the world. In the ideal world, theologians inform the rest of the Church—including popes and bishops—of the depths of religious experience and truth, but also the parameters of what the Church can say without drifting into error.
After the Reformation, and certainly after the Enlightenment, the papacy became less enthused with the input of theologians; the Vatican came to define the theological sciences as buttresses of teachings already established, and the more adventurous or cutting edge religious thinkers found themselves under considerable suspicion. In some ways, this is quite understandable, as Rome feared the encroachments of Protestant thinking, and later the explosion of knowledge and temperament of “modern times.” The doctrine of papal infallibility declared at the council Vatican I in 1870 was defined as something of a hedge against new ideas of democracy, freedom of conscience, scientific study of the bible, etc. Seminaries in and around Rome embraced a theological methodology of classical preservation, with the thirteenth century writings of St. Thomas Aquinas forming the backbone of theological work.
However, beyond the Alps the work of theologians was less inhibited, and as early as 1800 attention turned to the methods by which the Bible was studied. The history of biblical research is a long and complicated one, but suffice to say that scholars of all religious schools began to address the bible as literature, with the same methods that other classical works came under scrutiny. The goal of this work was the search for the intent of the sacred authors, resulting in clearer understanding of how the bible might be interpreted and read by the faithful. The application of science to matters of religion was something of a quantum leap; contemporaries of Galileo had been reluctant to turn telescopes up toward the skies, fearing they were intruding into “God’s private domain.”
In 1943 Pope Pius XII issued Divino Afflante Spiritu, which not only gave permission for Catholic biblical theologians to embrace the newer methods of their Protestant colleagues in study of the Scripture, but also encouraged greater reading of the bible by the faithful and expertise among parish priests. Theologians of other Church disciplines were adopting similar expansive methodologies. Liturgical theologians, for example, studied the sacramental life of the early Church, particularly the Eucharist and the Initiation Sacraments, for indications of how the Tridentine rites might be simplified and reformed. Systematic theologians delved into the works of modern philosophers to develop new terminologies and new understandings of concepts such as grace, redemption, and the nature of man.
Thus, by 1962 and the opening of Vatican II, theologians from the West could lay the groundwork for reforms of many aspects of the Church’s life. I need to add here that the theological input from Eastern Churches in communion with Rome was inadequate for many reasons; it is fair to say that the next council, whenever that might be, will feature the theological work of Catholic scholars from Asia, Africa, South America, and the Pacific rim.\
And women. There were no Catholic women theologians involved in the work of Vatican II; in fact, Catholic universities did not generally admit women into programs of advanced theological degrees until well into the twentieth century. Today the number of successful women theologians is considerable, but there is no denying that the feminine perspective of Catholic theology is sometimes jarring, in the fashion that St. Paul’s teachings on Gentile converts jarred the Jerusalem Church in the late 40’s A.D.
Those of you familiar with the “Catholic blogosphere” are no doubt aware that about 98% of “Catholic sites” are the product of individuals and organizations who are troubled by the direction of Catholic theologians over the post-Council years, and lay the decline of Western Christianity at the feet of theological academicians. In truth, the forefront of theology can be intimidating. In 2008 Sister Margaret Farley, a moral theologian, was censured for her publication Just Love. I read it and reviewed it with some difficulty, but I made the point that the book was a hypothesis, probably intended for other Catholic academics. It was the Vatican’s censure that shot its sales through the roof. In medieval times theological debates could be, though not always, contained to the hallowed halls of the universities.
I don’t think the Church has been damaged by modern theologians. Rather, it has been wounded by the contemporary absence of reading any challenging theology.