Friday, 9 March 2012

Reclaiming Catholic theology (or, why you should stop reading NT Wright and learn to love the Fathers!)

A new shot in the war between ‘progressive’ theologians and orthodoxy has been fired today, in the form of a document put out by the Vatican’s International Theological Commission called Theology today: perspectives, principles and criteria.

The document seems to have been sparked mainly by on the one hand, the problem of dissenting theologians of the progressive ilk, and on the other, aspects of the SSPX critique, particularly of the concept of 'living Tradition'.  But it also touches on quite a few other subjects of note, making it essential reading I think for anyone with a serious interest in theology.

What Catholic theology is and isn't

This isn't, as I understand it, a magisterial document - the ITF is an advisory group to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. 

But it has been approved for publication by the Prefect of that Congregation, and it does looks to me to be an extremely important document, so I will probably devote a couple of posts to it.

Today, a bit of an overview and some selected highlights, with a particular focus on what it has to say about the vital concept of Tradition in the Church.

A lot of the document is a (re)statement of what ought to be bleedingly obvious - but that doesn’t seem to be to many!

Such as that Catholic theology should be, well, actually Catholic - that is, orthodox, grounded in both Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, and faithful to the Magisterium.

The h word: the problem of dissenting theologians

A lot of the document is clearly targeted at the problem of dissenting theologians, as exemplified last year in the US by the case of Sr Elizabeth Johnston. In particular it insists that authentic Catholic theology requires fidelity to the Magisterium, and rejects the claim that theologians can set themselves up in opposition to it:

"There is indeed in the Church a certain ‘magisterium’ of theologians, but there is no place for parallel, opposing or alternative magisteria, or for views that would separate theology from the Church’s magisterium...When it comes to the ‘authentic’ interpretation of the faith, the magisterium plays a role that theology simply cannot take to itself. Theology cannot substitute a judgement coming from the scientific theological community for that of the bishops." (paras 39-40)

Even more pointed is its use of the h word - good to see a modern Vatican  document using the word heresy, even though it initially puts it in inverted commas:

‘False prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions’ (2Pet 2:1).[21] The New Testament shows abundantly that, from the very beginnings of the Church, certain people have proposed a ‘heretical’ interpretation of the faith held in common, an interpretation opposed to the Apostolic Tradition. In the first letter of John, separation from the communion of love is an indicator of false teaching (1Jn 2:18-19). Heresy thus not only distorts the Gospel, it also damages ecclesial communion. ‘Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same’.[22] Those guilty of such obstinacy against the teaching of the Church substitute their own judgement for obedience to the word of God (the formal motive of faith), the fides qua. Heresy serves as a reminder that the communion of the Church can only be secured on the basis of the Catholic faith in its integrity, and prompts the Church to an ever-deeper search for truth in communion. (para 14)

The bulk of the text is actually a discussion of twelve principles for discerning what is and isn't authentically Catholic theology, and I'll have a go at plain Englishing them in subsequent posts.

Countering reductionist notions of Tradition

One of the key themes running through the document is the subject of what is the question of what the Church means when she talks about Scripture and Tradition.

One of the weaker parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in my view, is its treatment of the nature of Tradition and the relationship between it and Scripture. That’s unsurprising given the push by many in recent times to take a reductionist view of what Tradition actually means, and to suggest that our understanding of the Tradition doesn't just deepen and become clearer, but that the content of the Tradition can actually change.

The traditional view is that divine revelation comes part in the written Bible and part in tradition which we take to mean things that we believe that never got written down in the Bible – things implicit or explicit in the ‘monuments of Tradition’ such as the liturgy, the Fathers, iconography, creeds and so forth. The modern 'mainsteam' view generally advocates a ‘Prima Scriptura’ position: Tradition is really the living out of the written Word in the life and the practice of the Church, and in general, the so-called monuments of Tradition are no more than small t traditions that can be readily discarded and changed.  And the progressive position is more radical still, believing that the entire content of Tradition can change as it is 'updated' by absorbing insights from other cultures, religions, and modern thinking.

The document contains some clear statements on these topics that on first read at least, I think traditionalists within the Church will find very helpful indeed, though whether they go far enough for the SSPX is another question. Here's my first take on its key messages - I've quoted selectively however, and others may read it differently.  I also reserve the right to change my views following further reflection on the paper!

1.  It makes clear that the Apostolic Tradition itself cannot change in its fundamental content:

"The Acts of the Apostles describes the life of the early Christian community in a way that is fundamental for the Church of all times: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42; cf. Rev 1:3). This succinct description, at the end of the account of the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit opened the mouths of the apostles to preach and brought many of those who heard them to faith, highlights various essential aspects of the Spirit’s ongoing work in the Church. There is already an anticipatory outline of the Church’s teaching and sacramental life, of its spirituality and commitment to charity. All of these began in the apostolic community, and the handing on of this integral way of life in the Spirit is Apostolic Tradition. Lex orandi (the rule of prayer), lex credendi (the rule of belief) and lex vivendi (the rule of life) are all essential aspects of this Tradition. Paul refers to the Tradition into which as an apostle he has been incorporated when he speaks of ‘handing on’ what he himself ‘received’ (1Cor 15:1-11, cf. also 1Cor 11:23-26)."

2. What does change is our understanding through reflection under the guidance of the Holy Spirit

"The Tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the Church, with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on…. Thus, as the centuries go by, the Church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in her."


"Vital components of Tradition are therefore: a constantly renewed study of sacred Scripture, liturgical worship, attention to what the witnesses of faith have taught through the ages, catechesis fostering growth in faith, practical love of God and neighbour, structured ecclesial ministry and the service given by the magisterium to the Word of God. What is handed on comprises ‘everything that serves to make the People of God live their lives in holiness and increase their faith’.

3.  It rejects the 'prima Scriptura' view that argues that the monuments of Tradition are not part of the Tradition itself

“The Church greatly venerates the Scriptures, but it is important to recognise that ‘the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book”; Christianity is the “religion of the word of God”, not of “a written and mute word, but of the incarnate and living Word”’…Tradition is the faithful transmission of the Word of God, witnessed in the canon of Scripture by the prophets and the apostles and in the leiturgia (liturgy), martyria (testimony) and diakonia (service) of the Church.”


"Having arisen in the midst of the People of God, and having been unified, read and interpreted by the People of God, sacred Scripture belongs to the living Tradition of the Church as the canonical witness to the faith for all time. Indeed, ‘Scripture is the first [but impliedly not only] member in the written tradition’...And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching. Thus it comes about that the Church does not draw her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone’. She draws it also from the Apostolic Tradition, because the latter is the living process of the Church’s listening to the Word of God.

4.  It restores the place of the Fathers and Theologians as a criteria for orthodoxy

‘The sayings of the Holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of … Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.’] Because the Fathers of the Church, both East and West, have a unique place in the ‘faithful transmission and elucidation’ of revealed truth, their writings are a specific reference point (locus) for Catholic theology."


"...The existence of a common theological tradition in the Church (which must be distinguished from Tradition itself, but not separated from Tradition is an important factor in the unity of theology. There is a common memory in theology, such that certain historical achievements (e.g. the writings of the Fathers of the Church, both East and West, and the synthesis of St Thomas, Doctor communis), remain as reference points for theology today. It is true that certain aspects of prior theological tradition can and must sometimes be abandoned, but the work of the theologian can never dispense with a critical reference to the tradition that went before.

5.  It clarifies to some degree the difference between big T Tradition and small t traditions (that can be changed)

...On one hand, theology must show that Apostolic Tradition is not something abstract, but that it exists concretely in the different traditions that have formed within the Church. On the other hand, theology has to consider why certain traditions are characteristic not of the Church as a whole, but only of particular religious orders, local churches or historical periods. While criticism is not appropriate with reference to Apostolic Tradition itself, traditions must always be open to critique, so that the ‘continual reformation’ of which the Church has need can take place, and so that the Church can renew herself permanently on her one foundation, namely Jesus Christ. Such a critique seeks to verify whether a specific tradition does indeed express the faith of the Church in a particular place and time, and it seeks correspondingly to strengthen or correct it through contact with the living faith of all places and all times.
Ecumenism and protestant theology

The paper also has some important things to say about (false) ecumenism and the theological enterprise, such as that:

"The proper place for theology is within the Church, which is gathered together by the Word of God. The ecclesiality of theology is a constitutive aspect of the theological task, because theology is based on faith, and faith itself is both personal and ecclesial."

It doesn't rule out ecumenical collaboration when it comes to theology, but it does insist that Catholics engaged in it should see themselves as ambassadors presenting the Catholic tradition to others. 

More to come...

There are lots of other important issues dealt with by the document, such as the nature of the sensus fidei so often appealed to by dissenters, and the way that the Church has and should engage with modernity and post-modernity. 

You can find the next post in this series here.


Victoria said...

. I began to read the document last night and because I am not the brightest bulb on the tree I am finding it heavy going. Thank you for making my reading and understanding a little easier.

Kate said...

Yes I'm afraid it is not exactly light reading!

It really does assume a fair amount of theological knowledge, including of some current trends.

But fear not, I will continue with the short version shortly!

SCEcclesia said...

So where exactly does the document recommend that we "should stop reading NT Wright", Kate?

You are presenting a false alternative in your headline. I read Wright in order to discover lines of connection between modern scholarship and the ancient fathers.

Kate said...

David - I'd suggest a reread with an open mind.

The paper stresses the fact that theology needs to be done within the Church and by reference to its ecclesial tradition. Doing theology, it says is both personal and ecclesial, and when it loses that ecclesial dimension, it becomes problematic.

The work of non-Catholics may be relevant in the context of working to draw them to the fullness of the truth. But if it doesn't use the reference points that define catholic work - such as the Fathers, St Thomas and do forth; the liturgy and other monuments of tradition; when it isn't faithful to the Tradition guarded by the Magisterium it is, in short,not the practice of catholic theology.

SCEcclesia said...

The work of non-Catholic theologians and scripture scholars is not irrelevant to the doing of Catholic theology, Kate. Of course, the important thing is that such work is used critically, and that judgements and connections are made appropriately in the light of the Catholic magisterium. I don't see anything in this admirable document that in any way discourages or forbids the reading of non-Catholic theologians, even in the sense that you define them. As you are quite aware, even the work of "catholic" theologians needs to be judged according to the Magisterium and Tradition. As an educator in the Catholic faith, I will use what ever tools and sources best help my students come to grip with the faith, wherever I find them.