Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Reclaiming Catholic theology Pt 4:

You might recall that I've been presenting a series paraphrasing and plain-Englishing an important new paper by the International Theological Commission on the nature of Catholic Theology.

Here is the last part in the series, dealing with chapter three of the paper, which is entitled 'Giving an Account of the Truth of God', which covers the last three of the twelve criteria the paper presents for judging whether or not something is authentic Catholic theology.

Criterion 10: Theology involves the use of reason illuminated by faith (paras 61 – 73)

Theology, the paper argues, is about faith seeking understanding – and in order to achieve that understanding, it seeks to operate in a rational, reasoned and intellectual way, employing analysis and investigation. As such, it claims the label of being a ‘science’.

It starts from faith, but a faith that causes us to reason, to ask questions, see connections, and strive for understanding. For this reason, there is a necessary engagement between theology and philosophy in order to avoid fanaticism, superstition, ‘fideism’ or scepticism’.

Paragraphs 65 to 71 of the paper sketches some of the main lines this engagement has taken in the past, such as the encounter with Greek pagan philosophy; scholastic methodology; the Reformation and Enlightenment critiques; and the challenge posed by post-modernism.

 Criterion 11: Theology is unified in the sense of being about the study of God from a perspective of faith, but there can be many theologies in the sense of focusing on different areas of subject matter, and employing different sources, methods and frameworks.(paras 74-85)

The paper argues that the proper subject of Catholic theology is God and his mysteries, approached by the use of reason enlightened by revelation. Theology differs from religious studies in that it reflects from inside the Church and its faith, whereas religious sciences/studies starts from the outside.

 Theology is unified by virtue of being a common search for truth, a common service for the Church, and through common devotion to the one God. But we can talk about there being ‘theologies’ in the sense of the different approaches used by different authors, periods or cultures, which have characteristic concepts, significant themes and specific perspectives. These distinctions can take the form of:
  • different specializations (eg biblical, moral, etc);
  • external influences (eg transcendental theology, liberation, etc); and
  • different sources, methods and disciplines/tasks (law, history etc).
There is nothing wrong with this as such, provided that firstly legitimate diversity is not confused with relativism, heterodoxy or heresy. Secondly, the different theological disciplines must also be able to interact meaningfully with each other. That can be achieved by: 
  • insisting on reference to the ecclesial tradition of theology (in particular the writings of the Fathers and St Thomas Aquinas);
  • sub-disciplines talking to each other and working on interdisciplinary projects;
  • critically assessing the methods and assumptions of other disciplines from a faith perspective rather than adopting them uncritically and allowing other disciplines to impose their frameworks on theologians (there seems to be an implicit attack on historico-critical approaches to texts, tainted by rationalism, in particular). Attention to philosophical frameworks can be helpful here.
The paper attacks the received definition of ‘science’ employed by most Universities, suggesting that theology has a role to play in helping “other sciences to liberate themselves from anti-theological elements acquired under the influence of rationalism”. It argues that rationalism and positivism have reduced the scope and power of the sciences themselves, leading to a ‘self-absolutisation’ of the sciences and their impoverishment.

 Criterion 12: Theology is not only a science but also a body of wisdom that should impact on all other disciplines (paras 86-99)

 The search for wisdom, for a unified understanding of the final truth of all things and of human life itself is important to theology and its broader role in relation to other academic disciplines. Catholic theology invites everyone to recognise the transcendence of the ultimate Truth, and to recognize that God’s wisdom is at work in creation and in history and that those who appreciate that will understand the meaning of the world and of events.

In order to do that it starts from the ‘Fear of God’, or the right attitude in the presence of God so that our understanding of the world and orientation of our lives is grounded in devotion to God, and is revealed in the person of Christ. The primary reference points for theology is revelation, and particularly the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 We need to distinguish between theological wisdom, gained through intellectual contemplation and rational labour, and the mystical wisdom or ‘the knowledge of the saints’, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit which comes from union with God in love. There are links between the two, including that both require charity, and both must be a lived expression of faith, but they are distinct in character.

In particular, mystical theology, and particularly the ‘via negativa’, or sense of awe before the mystery of the Trinity, reflects the limits of positive theology, since ‘between creator and creature no similarity can be noted without noting a greater dissimilarity’, and we can never fully comprehend God.


I hope these notes prove of use, and spur you on to read the original paper, and google any terms you come across but don't fully grasp!

1 comment:

Antonia Romanesca said...

Great, thanks Kate. I got the whole doc down from the Curial corner and am into it - fair bit of printing but worth it - used both sides of paper, so as not to feel extravagant! A Blessed and Holy Easter to you!