Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Theology goes out with the tide


Last week, Pope Francis issued a short Apostolic Letter revising the scope of a Vatican Institute. It seemed hardly newsworthy. The Pontifical Institute of Theology was founded in 1718 for the theological formation of priests, and later for bringing theologians together to discuss theological topics. More recently it has held an occasional conference, mainly with Italian contributors, and has issued occasional publications. The document is of interest, however, because it clarifies the place within the Catholic Church which the Pope ascribes to theology and consequently to theologians and theological colleges. In doing so, it summarises his more detailed treatments of the subject and also illuminates the different ways of viewing the Catholic Church which separate him from many of his critics.

In describing the place of theology in the Catholic Church, the Pope appeals to the same metaphors that he applies to the Church. It is to be outgoing, to work at the frontiers of church, and to be open to the world it enters. He contrasts this with a church and theology that are self-referential, inward-turned, and stand over and against the world.

This openness implies that theology will be attentive to its context and not self-contained. Theologians should reflect on faith from inside their engagement with the world and not from above it. It follows that theology will take the natural form of dialogue in which it engages with in the language of the cultural frameworks it enters. In the Pope’s vision it is not interdisciplinary but transdisciplinary. 

The emphasis on dialogue in theology corresponds to Pope Francis’ understanding of synodality within the Church. It naturally flows into communal practices of listening and discernment among theologians, which will also be reflected in their teaching and formation of ministers. 

The centrifugal mission of theology to proclaim and articulate faith in dialogue with the non-Christian world also demands also a corresponding centripetal movement. Pope Francis defines this as the search for wisdom. Theology must begin on bended knees in adoration, turning naturally to love for people in need and in reaching out to them. 

Finally, he describes Catholic theology as inductive, in that it begins with the concrete situations of people and there finds and discerns the proclamation of the Gospel.

This outline echoes other reflections by Pope Francis on the place of theology in the Catholic Church. It raises five questions. Why does he see it as important? Why is it controversial in the Catholic Church?  What are its limits? What does it take for granted? How does it hang together? 


'Discernment through prayer nurtured by the Gospel and by life within the Church is the centripetal force that holds together the going out to and entering of other worlds.' 


First, the Pope sees Catholic Theology as part of a larger reform of the Catholic Church guided by Vatican II. The mission of the Church at all levels is to proclaim the Good News to people at its margins and allow the Gospel to speak to them. This means engaging with different cultures on their own terms. For this to happen Catholics at all levels need to listen and to discern where God is leading them. Pope Francis embodies this way of being Church in the idea and practices of synodality. Within the Catholic Church, theologians and theological institutions in which priests are educated are central in this process of listening to the Word of God through the lives of other Catholics and through the world views of those to whom they reach out, especially the poor.

Second, this understanding of theology and its place in the Catholic Church is not shared by all Catholics or theologians. It is inductive, in beginning with the world to which we go out and allowing the Gospel to illuminate and be illuminated by it. Many theologians begin with the understanding of faith and ask about its ramifications for the world. Their approach is more deductive. 

Such disputes about theological method and conclusions are common in Catholic as in other theology. The parties usually coexist more or less amicably, allowing the non-committed or less rigorous to borrow from each of them. In the Catholic Church today, however, a relatively small number of theologians, high Church officials and lay Catholics regard Pope Francis’ theology and the practices he is introducing as a betrayal of the faith that has been handed down to him. Pope Francis, in turn, has accused them of rejecting the authority of the Spirit in Vatican II, of being narrowly concerned with the internal life of the Church, and of separating themselves from the Church.

In many Catholic communities around the world, however, Pope Francis’ vision of the Church also faces immobility in which many bishops and priests, including younger ones, do privilege the inner life of the Church and its hierarchies and boundaries over engagement. Pope Francis describes this attitude as clericalism. This resistance is often less theologically than personally based. For that reason, the Pope sees the importance of the formation of priests and of local congregations in a synodal rather than hierarchical vision of their ministry.

Third, the mission the Pope gives to theologians and institutions within the Catholic Church is necessarily limited in its expression and scope. It takes for granted that Catholic theology will work within the developing tradition of the Church and not above it. Many fine theologians, too, are not Catholic, and many theologians who are Catholic define their role by the canons of secular universities and not by the needs of the Catholic Church. The mission given to theology, too, is also limited by the very argument made for it. Pope Francis addresses the needs of a Church that he sees as tempted to be introverted, to be self-referential and not to communicate the joy of the Gospel. He also addresses a world on the edge of self-destruction. In such a Church and in such a world, the task of theology is to model a way of engaging with faith and the wider world. In the future, other situations may demand other priorities.

Fourth, the account of the mission of theology is necessarily broad. It understandably fails to mention the human factors involved in any large reorientation. Theologians must bring scholarship and specialisation to their understanding of the Gospel throughout the Christian tradition. These qualities and the laborious development of them do not always lend themselves to going out to the boundaries of the Catholic Church and engaging in dialogue. Nor do theological degrees always provide wisdom. Pope Francis’ desired reform, then, will demand a diversity of personal gifts, knowledge, experience and enthusiasms that cannot be regimented. 

Finally, the central point and the test of success of Pope Francis’ hope for theology lie less in its method than in its sapiential character. Discernment through prayer nurtured by the Gospel and by life within the Church is the centripetal force that holds together the going out to and entering of other worlds. 




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: A child plays with a rosary atop his father's shoulders while Pope Francis delivers prays for peace in Fatima, Portugal. (Horacio Villalobos/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Theology



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for a succinct explanation of how Pope Francis is bringing the fruits of Vatican 2 to our contemporary world. I well remember the criticisms of the theology coming out of Latin American nations back in the 1970s. As I recall it they were criticised for eisogesis by starting with the context of the poor and looking at gospel parallels. Cardenal and Boff are two names that spring to mind. I’m certain I’m not alone in welcoming the Pope’s latest call to all who theologise.

Ern Azzopardi | 16 November 2023  

Thank you Andrew. Your comments and those of Pope Francis remind me of the late (Fr.) Thomas Berry's comment made in several places that '...we not try to write theology at this moment.' (eg, 'Evening Thoughts - Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community' (ed Mary Evelyn Tucker,2006 p 125). While I respect the depth of learning of, for example, (Sr.) Ilia Delio in her latest book, "The Not-Yet God', I think her thought direction distracts us from a deeper involvement with serious civilisational issues that are placing the global environment in ever-pressing danger, not to dwell on her adoption of a pro-techno mind-set that would see a post-humanist future.

Len Puglisi | 17 November 2023  

Pope Francis describes theologians who"privilege the inner life of the Church, its hierarchies and boundaries over engagement" as motivated by clericalism. Francis often speaks and occasionallly writes equivocally. His above negative reference to clericalism is not consistent with the latest Vatican document relating to parish reform, presuming any instruction, such as this, emanating from the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, would not be publicly released without Papal approval. If that approval was not forthcoming, this has not surfaced within the last three years.
This document re inforces the supremacy, in the parish, of the PP. The Parish Council's existence is reliant on the ordained one's approval.(I was tempted to write " the PP's whim.") In some cases that may be true.
The Council's role is merely consultative, although its role a

Grebo | 17 November 2023  

Andrew Hamiton references Pope Francis' description of theologians who "privilege the inner life of the Church and its hierarchies and boundaries over engagement," as being motivated by clericalism. Francis often speaks and occasionally writes sequivocally. His above negative allusion to clericalism is not consistent with the latest Vatican document relating to parish reform. I am presuming any instruction such as this from the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy would not be publicly released without Papal approval. If this was not forthcoming, such has not surfaced publicly in the ensuing three years.
The document reinforces the supremacy, in the parish, of the PP. The Parish Council's exitence is reliant on the priest's approval. (I was nearly going to write "the PP's whim"). In a significant number of cases that may be true. The role of the Council continues to be merely consultative although its presence and acknowledgement is "highly recommended."
In most doceses a financial council is a compulsory administrative unit. That the body devoted to pastoral matters does not have this status is, surely, little short of scandalous. Such privileging parades a strange set of values.
This document on "The Reform of Parish Communities" does little to diminish the now infamous, actual and potental evils of clericalism. If anythng, it reinforces them.

Grebo | 18 November 2023  

The purpose of a genuine theologian is to clarify the Christian message. To do this he or she needs to keep close to its original sources. In the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Tradition they always look to an illuminated Mystical Theology, not separate from the Divine Liturgy and the Jesus Prayer. In some universities and theological colleges in the West theology seems to have become a sort of intellectual chess, with no relevance to reality. Soren Kierkegaard deplored this many years ago. I find few contemporary theologians have the graced insight of the late Seraphim Rose. They need to get back to roots, as he did. If Christianity gets back to its roots all else will follow.

Edward Fido | 18 November 2023  
Show Responses

Dialogue, of its nature, presupposes the willingness of its participants to engage.

Since Vatican II, the Church has encouraged a dialogue with modernity - including religions other than Christianity and non-believers - in the interests pursuing truth and the common good of all humanity.

On the Christian side of dialogue, primary sources, not least the Scriptures, Church Fathers, and Doctors are necessary contributors to the conversation. However, since many today - if letters to editors of newspapers and some best-selling authors are an indication - are outrightly dismissive of these sources as "superstitious", "sexist" and "delusional", it seems that apologetics will, increasingly, need to be components of worthwhile dialogue; as will the recognition that some concepts and terminology, (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, Divine Revelation, Sin, Grace, Sacrament) are necessary in the sharing of the Catholic faith, its doctrinal tradition and its practices.

Failing this, its transcendent origin, denoted by the word "God", the basis of all theological enterprise, will be swamped and effectively side-lined by secular media disseminated neologisms of ideologies that increasingly claim 'science' as the only admissible heuristic instrument in serious thinking, conversation, and endeavour.

Moreover, Andrew's final paragraph is a timely reminder of an essential requisite for the Christian participant.

John RD | 20 November 2023  

'....final paragraph is a timely reminder of an essential requisite for the Christian participant.'

The paragraph is true for diplomats. What is the meaning of 'prayer nurtured by the Gospel and by life within the Church'? You can pray for the Holy Spirit to bless proceedings while having a Pachamama idol as a centrepiece. Obviously, the mentality of the participants concerning what is Gospel and what the life of the Church should be is important to context. The question is how do we know that the mentality of the participants is sapient. And for that, as you mention, we need to know whether the heuristic being employed is transcendence or interpretations of the natural sciences by some social scientists.

roy chen yee | 21 November 2023  

I don't see how any "idol" can be a "centrepiece" of Christian prayer or dialogue as understood and encouraged by any Pope, Roy.
The heuristic issue in the context of dialogue comes down to whether the Christian participant accepts as axiomatic that God has conveyed an historical Self-revelation uniquely in the person of Christ; and that this divine initiative, while ultimately mysterious, is sufficiently knowable and communicable - an implication of which is that truth and its authority transcend the subjectivity of exclusively human construction and scope.

John RD | 22 November 2023  

'Dialogue, of its nature, presupposes the willingness of its participants to engage'. True, but does genuine dialogue also presuppose the willingness of the participants to admit error and change their minds? It seems to me John that unless one is prepared to accept that one's deepest beliefs and most firmly held positions could actually be in error, then any 'dialogue' that one seeks to enter will necessarily be limited in depth and in danger of turning into a 'talking at' rather than a 'talking with'.

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2023  

Perhaps our current theologians have lost the plot Edward. According to the writer of Matthew's gospel, Jesus had a pretty simple but concise answer to the theologians off the day when they asked about the 'greatest commandment'. His answer: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ " The rest (law, prophets, creeds, sacraments, vocations, governance models?), he said, is subordinate to (hangs upon) these two core principles.

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2023  

Similar Articles

The real enemy is war

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 23 November 2023

Those who declare that the real enemy is war and who advocate for peace are usually criticised for being naively optimistic. But it is possible to recognise war to be the real enemy, while simultaneously recognising the complex challenges involved in avoiding war and encouraging peace.


Revisiting an ancient call to uphold justice for the vulnerable

  • Constant Mews
  • 21 November 2023

From the eyes of history, the current cycle of violence, sharpened by each side claiming that it had suffered the greater injustice, is itself the product of a much older cycle. In our own, multi-religious society we must all recognise the need to implement justice for all the vulnerable in society. Violence does not work. Justice must prevail.