INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION
Chapter 1: Listening to the Word of God
1: The primacy of the Word of God
2: Faith, the response to God’s Word
3: Theology, the understanding of faith
Chapter 2: Abiding in the Communion of the Church
1: The study of Scripture as the soul of theology
2: Fidelity to Apostolic Tradition
3: Attention to the sensus fidelium
4: Responsible adherence to the ecclesiastical magisterium
5: In the company of theologians
6: In dialogue with the world
Chapter 3: Giving an Account of the Truth of God
1: The truth of God and the rationality of theology
2: The unity of theology in a plurality of methods and disciplines
3: Science and wisdom
The study of the theme of the status of theology was already begun by the International Theological Commission in the quinquennial session of 2004-2008. The work was done by a subcommission, presided by Reverend Santiago del Cura Elena and composed of the following members: Most Reverend Bruno Forte, Most Reverend Savio Hon Tai-Fai, S.D.B., Reverends Antonio Castellano, S.D.B., Tomislav Ivanĉić, Thomas Norris, Paul Rouhana, Leonard Santedi Kinkupu, Jerzy Szymik and Doctor Thomas Söding.
Since, however, this subcommission had no way of completing its work with the publication of a document, the study was taken up in the following quinquennial session, on the basis of the work previously undertaken. For this purpose, a new subcommission was formed, presided by Monsignor Paul McPartlan and composed of the following members: Most Reverend Jan Liesen, Reverends Serge Thomas Bonino, O.P., Antonio Castellano, S.D.B., Adelbert Denaux, Tomislav Ivanĉić, Leonard Santedi Kinkupu, Jerzy Szymik, Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., and Doctor Thomas Söding.
The general discussions of this theme were held in numerous meetings of the subcommission and during the Plenary Sessions of the same International Theological Commission held in
from 2004 to 2011.
The present text was approved in forma specifica on 29 November 2011 and was
then submitted to its President, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who authorized its publication. Rome
1. The years following the Second Vatican Council have been extremely productive for Catholic theology. There have been new theological voices, especially those of laymen and women; theologies from new cultural contexts, particularly Latin America, Africa and Asia; new themes for reflection, such as peace, justice, liberation, ecology and bioethics; deeper treatments of former themes, thanks to renewal in biblical, liturgical, patristic and medieval studies; and new venues for reflection, such as ecumenical, inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. These are fundamentally positive developments. Catholic theology has sought to follow the path opened by the Council, which wished to express its ‘solidarity and respectful affection for the whole human family’ by entering into dialogue with it and offering ‘the saving resources which the Church has received from its founder under the promptings of the Holy Spirit’. However, this period has also seen a certain fragmentation of theology, and in the dialogue just mentioned theology always faces the challenge of maintaining its own true identity. The question arises, therefore, as to what characterises Catholic theology and gives it, in and through its many forms, a clear sense of identity in its engagement with the world of today.
2. To some extent, the Church clearly needs a common discourse if it is to communicate the one message of Christ to the world, both theologically and pastorally. It is therefore legitimate to speak of the need for a certain unity of theology. However, unity here needs to be carefully understood, so as not to be confused with uniformity or a single style. The unity of theology, like that of the Church, as professed in the Creed, must be closely correlated with the idea of catholicity, and also with those of holiness and apostolicity. The Church’s catholicity derives from Christ himself who is the Saviour of the whole world and of all humanity (cf. Eph 1:3-10; 1Tim 2:3-6). The Church is therefore at home in every nation and culture, and seeks to ‘gather in everything for its salvation and sanctification’. The fact that there is one Saviour shows that there is a necessary bond between catholicity and unity. As it explores the inexhaustible Mystery of God and the countless ways in which God’s grace works for salvation in diverse settings, theology rightly and necessarily takes a multitude of forms, and yet as investigations of the unique truth of the triune God and of the one plan of salvation centred on the one Lord Jesus Christ, this plurality must manifest distinctive family traits.
3. The International Theological Commission (ITC) has studied various aspects of the theological task in previous texts, notably, Theological Pluralism (1972), Theses on the Relationship between the Ecclesiastical Magisterium and Theology (1975), and The Interpretation of Dogma (1990). The present text seeks to identify distinctive family traits of Catholic theology. It considers basic perspectives and principles which characterise Catholic theology, and offers criteria by which diverse and manifold theologies may nevertheless be recognised as authentically Catholic, and as participating in the Catholic Church’s mission, which is to proclaim the good news to people of every nation, tribe, people and language (cf. Mt 28:18-20; Rev 7:9), and, by enabling them to hear the voice of the one Lord, to gather them all into one flock with one shepherd (cf. Jn 10:16). That mission requires there to be in Catholic theology both diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Catholic theologies should be identifiable as such, mutually supportive and mutually accountable, as are Christians themselves in the communion of the Church for the glory of God. The present text accordingly consists of three chapters, setting out the following themes: in the rich plurality of its expressions, protagonists, ideas and contexts, theology is Catholic, and therefore fundamentally one, if it arises from an attentive listening to the Word of God (cf. Chapter One); if it situates itself consciously and faithfully in the communion of the Church (cf. Chapter Two); and if it is orientated to the service of God in the world, offering divine truth to the men and women of today in an intelligible form (cf. Chapter Three).
LISTENING TO THE WORD OF GOD
4. ‘It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will (cf. Eph 1:9)’, namely that all people might ‘have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature (cf. Eph 2:18; 2Pet 1:4)’. ‘The novelty of biblical revelation consists in the fact that God becomes known through the dialogue which he desires to have with us.’ Theology, in all its diverse traditions, disciplines and methods, is founded on the fundamental act of listening in faith to the revealed Word of God, Christ himself. Listening to God’s Word is the definitive principle of Catholic theology; it leads to understanding and speech and to the formation of Christian community: ‘the Church is built upon the word of God; she is born from and lives by that word’. ‘We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1Jn 1:3). The whole world is to hear the summons to salvation, ‘so that through hearing it may believe, through belief it may hope, through hope it may come to love’.
5. Theology is scientific reflection on the divine revelation which the Church accepts by faith as universal saving truth. The sheer fulness and richness of that revelation is too great to be grasped by any one theology, and in fact gives rise to multiple theologies as it is received in diverse ways by human beings. In its diversity, nevertheless, theology is united in its service of the one truth of God. The unity of theology, therefore does not require uniformity, but rather a single focus on God’s Word and an explication of its innumerable riches by theologies able to dialogue and communicate with one another. Likewise, the plurality of theologies should not imply fragmentation or discord, but rather the exploration in myriad ways of God’s one saving truth.
1. The primacy of the Word of God
6. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (Jn 1:1). The Gospel of John starts with a ‘prologue’. This hymn highlights the cosmic scope of revelation and the culmination of revelation in the incarnation of the Word of God. ‘What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (Jn 1:3-4). Creation and history constitute the space and time in which God reveals himself. The world, created by God by means of his Word (cf. Gen 1), is also, however, the setting for the rejection of God by human beings. Nevertheless, God’s love towards them is always infinitely greater; ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it’ (Jn 1:5). The incarnation of the Son is the culmination of that steadfast love: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14). The revelation of God as Father who loves the world (cf. Jn 3:16, 35) is realised in the revelation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the Son of God and ‘Saviour of the world’ (Jn 4:42). In ‘many and various ways’ God spoke through the prophets in former times, but in the fullness of time he spoke to us ‘by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds’ (Heb 1:1-2). ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (Jn 1:18).
7. 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”’. The gospel of God is fundamentally testified by the sacred Scripture of both Old and New Testaments. The Scriptures are ‘inspired by God and committed to writing once and for all time’; hence, ‘they present God’s own Word in an unalterable form, and they make the voice of the Holy Spirit sound again and again in the words of the prophets and apostles’. 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.
8. St Augustine wrote that the Word of God was heard by inspired authors and transmitted by their words: ‘God speaks through a human being in human fashion; and speaking thus he seeks us’. The Holy Spirit not only inspired the biblical authors to find the right words of witness but also assists the readers of the Bible in every age to understand the Word of God in the human words of the holy Scriptures. The relationship between Scripture and Tradition is rooted in the truth which God reveals in his Word for our salvation: ‘the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures’, and through the ages the Holy Spirit ‘leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness (cf. Col 3:16)’. ‘[T]he word of God is given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation; together with the Church’s living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith.’
9. A criterion of Catholic theology is recognition of the primacy of the Word of God. God speaks ‘in many and various ways’ - in creation, through prophets and sages, through the holy Scriptures, and definitively through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (cf. Heb 1:1-2).
2. Faith, the response to God’s Word
writes in his letter to the Romans:
‘faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of
Christ’ (Rom 10:17). He makes two important points here. On the one hand, he
explains that faith follows from listening to the Word of God, always ‘by the
power of the Spirit of God’ (Rom 15:19). On the other hand, he clarifies the
means by which the Word of God reaches human ears: fundamentally by means of
those who have been sent to proclaim the Word and to awaken faith (cf. Rom
10:14-15). It follows that the Word of God for all time can be proclaimed
authentically only on the foundation of the apostles (cf. Eph 2:20-22) and in
apostolic succession (cf. 1Tim 4:6). St Paul
11. Since Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, ‘is himself both the mediator and the sum total of Revelation’, the response that the Word seeks, namely faith, is likewise personal. By faith human beings entrust their entire selves to God, in an act which involves the ‘full submission’ of the intellect and will to the God who reveals. ‘The obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5) is thus something personal. By faith, human beings open their ears to listen to God’s Word and their mouths also to offer him prayer and praise; they open their hearts to receive the love of God which is poured into them through the gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 5:5); and they ‘abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 15:13), a hope ‘which does not disappoint’ (Rom 5:5). Thus, a living faith can be understood as embracing both hope and love. Paul emphasises, moreover, that the faith evoked by the Word of God resides in the heart and gives rise to a verbal confession: ‘if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved’ (Rom 10:9-10).
12. Faith, then, is experience of God which involves knowledge of him, since revelation gives access to the truth of God which saves us (cf. 2Th 2:13) and makes us free (cf. Jn 8:32). Paul writes to the Galatians that, as believers, they ‘have come to know God, or rather to be known by God’ (Gal 4:9; cf. 1Jn 4:16). Without faith, it would be impossible to gain insight into this truth, because it is revealed by God. The truth revealed by God and accepted in faith, moreover, is not something irrational. Rather, it gives rise to the ‘spiritual worship [logiké latreía]’ that Paul says involves a renewal of the mind (Rom 12:1-2). That God exists and is one, the creator and Lord of history, can be known with the aid of reason from the works of creation, according to a long tradition found in both the Old (cf. Wis 13:1-9) and New Testaments (cf. Rom 1:18-23). However, that God has revealed himself through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of his Son for the salvation of the world (cf. Jn 3:16), and that God in his inner life is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, can be known only through faith.
13. ‘Faith’ is both an act of belief or trust and also that which is believed or confessed, fides qua and fides quae, respectively. Both aspects work together inseparably, since trust is adhesion to a message with intelligible content, and confession cannot be reduced to mere lip service, it must come from the heart. Faith is at the same time a reality profoundly personal and ecclesial. In professing their faith, Christians say both ‘I believe’ and ‘We believe’. Faith is professed within the koinonia of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2Cor 13:13), which unites all believers with God and among themselves (cf. 1Jn 1:1-3), and achieves its ultimate expression in the Eucharist (cf. 1Cor 10:16-17). Professions of faith have developed within the community of the faithful since earliest times. All Christians are called to give personal witness to their faith, but the creeds enable the Church as such to profess her faith. This profession corresponds to the teaching of the apostles, the good news, in which the Church stands and through which it is saved (cf. 1Cor 15:1-11).
14. ‘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). 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’. 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.
15. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it takes the faith of the Church as its source, context and norm. Theology holds the fides qua and the fides quae together. It expounds the teaching of the apostles, the good news about Jesus Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1Cor 15: 3, 4), as the rule and stimulus of the Church’s faith.
3. Theology, the understanding of faith
16. The act of faith, in response to the Word of God, opens the intelligence of the believer to new horizons.
writes: ‘it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has
shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in
the face of Jesus Christ’ (2Cor 4:6). In this light, faith contemplates the
whole world in a new way; it sees it more truly because, empowered by the Holy
Spirit, it shares in God’s own perspective. That is why St Paul St
Augustine invites everyone who seeks truth to ‘believe in order to
understand [crede ut intelligas]’. We have received ‘the Spirit that is
says, ‘so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God’ (1Cor 2:12).
Moreover, by this gift we are drawn into an understanding even of God himself,
because ‘the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God’. By teaching
that ‘we have the mind of Christ’ (1Cor 2:16), St Paul implies that by God’s
grace we have a certain participation even in Christ’s own knowledge of his
Father, and thereby in God’s own self-knowledge. St Paul
17. Placed in possession of ‘the boundless riches of Christ’ (Eph 3:8) by faith, believers seek to understand ever more fully that which they believe, pondering it in their hearts (cf. Lk 2:19). Led by the Spirit and utilising all the resources of their intelligence, they strive to assimilate the intelligible content of the Word of God, so that it may become light and nourishment for their faith. They ask of God that they may be ‘filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding’ (
1:9). This is the way of the understanding of faith (intellectus fidei). As St
Augustine explains, it unfolds from the very dynamism of faith: ‘One who now
understands by a true reason what he previously just believed is surely to be
preferred to one who still desires to understand what he believes; but if one
does not desire and if one thinks that only those things are to be believed
which can be understood, then one ignores the very purpose of faith’. This
work of understanding faith contributes in turn to the nourishment of faith and
enables the latter to grow. Thus it is that ‘Faith and reason are like two
wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth’. The
way of the intellectus fidei is the path from believing, which is its source
and permanent principle, to seeing in glory (the beatific vision; cf. 1Jn 3:2),
of which the intellectus fidei is an anticipation. Col
18. The intellectus fidei takes various forms in the life of the Church and in the community of believers in accordance with the different gifts of the faithful (lectio divina, meditation, preaching, theology as a science, etc.). It becomes theology in the strict sense when the believer undertakes to present the content of the Christian mystery in a rational and scientific way. Theology is therefore scientia Dei in as much as it is a rational participation in the knowledge that God has of himself and of all things.
19. A criterion of Catholic theology is that, precisely as the science of faith, ‘faith seeking understanding [fides quaerens intellectum]’, it has a rational dimension. Theology strives to understand what the Church believes, why it believes, and what can be known sub specie Dei. As scientia Dei, theology aims to understand in a rational and systematic manner the saving truth of God.
ABIDING IN THE COMMUNION OF THE CHURCH
20. 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. The revelation of God is directed towards the convocation and renewal of the people of God, and it is through the Church that theologians receive the object of their enquiry. In Catholic theology, there has been considerable reflection on the ‘loci’ of theology, that is, the fundamental reference points for the theological task. It is important to know not just the loci but also their relative weight and the relationship between them.
1. The study of Scripture as the soul of theology
21. The ‘study of the sacred page’ should be the ‘very soul of sacred theology’. This is the Second Vatican Council’s core affirmation with regard to theology. Pope Benedict XVI reiterates: ‘where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation’. Theology in its entirety should conform to the Scriptures, and the Scriptures should sustain and accompany all theological work, because theology is concerned with ‘the truth of the gospel’ (Gal 2:5), and it can know that truth only if it investigates the normative witness to it in the canon of sacred Scripture, and if, in doing so, it relates the human words of the Bible to the living Word of God. ‘Catholic exegetes must never forget that what they are interpreting is the word of God…. They arrive at the true goal of their work only when they have explained the meaning of the biblical text as God’s word for today.’
22. Dei Verbum sees the task of exegesis as that of ascertaining ‘what God has wished to communicate to us’. To understand and explain the meaning of the biblical texts, it must make use of all the appropriate philological, historical and literary methods, with the aim of clarifying and understanding sacred Scripture in its own context and period. Thus the historicity of revelation is methodologically taken into account. Dei Verbum 12 makes particular reference to the need for attentiveness to literary forms: ‘for the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetic texts, and in other forms of literary expression’. Since the council, further methods which can unfold new aspects of the meaning of Scripture have been developed. Dei Verbum 12 indicates, however, that in order to acknowledge ‘the divine dimension of the Bible’ and to achieve a truly ‘theological’ interpretation of Scripture, ‘three fundamental criteria’ must also be taken into account: the unity of Scripture, the witness of Tradition, and the analogy of faith. The council refers to the unity of Scripture because the Bible testifies to the entire truth of salvation only in its pluriform totality. Exegesis has developed methodological ways of taking account of the canon of Scripture as a whole as a hermeneutical reference point for interpreting Scripture. The significance of the location and content of the different books and pericopes can thereby be determined. Overall, as the council teaches, exegesis should strive to read and interpret the biblical texts in the broad setting of the faith and life of the people of God, sustained through the ages by the working of the Holy Spirit. It is in this context that exegesis searches for the literal sense and opens itself to the spiritual or fuller sense (sensus plenior) of scripture. ‘Only where both methodological levels, the historico-critical and the theological, are respected, can one speak of a theological exegesis, an exegesis worthy of this book.’
23. In saying that the study of sacred Scripture is the ‘soul’ of theology, Dei Verbum has in mind all of the theological disciplines. This foundation in the revealed Word of God, as testified by Scripture and Tradition, is essential for theology. Its primary task is to interpret God’s truth as saving truth. Urged on by Vatican II, Catholic theology seeks to attend to the Word of God and thereby to the witness of Scripture in all its work. Thus it is that in theological expositions ‘biblical themes should have first place’, before anything else. This approach corresponds anew to that of the Fathers of the Church, who were ‘primarily and essentially “commentators on sacred Scripture”’, and it opens up the possibility of ecumenical collaboration: ‘shared listening to the Scriptures … spurs us on towards the dialogue of charity and enables growth in the dialogue of truth’.
24. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should draw constantly upon the canonical witness of Scripture and should promote the anchoring of all of the Church’s doctrine and practice in that witness, since ‘all the preaching of the Church, as indeed the entire Christian religion, should be nourished and ruled by sacred Scripture’. Theology should endeavour to open wide the Scriptures to the Christian faithful, so that the faithful may come into contact with the living Word of God (cf. Heb 4:12).
2. Fidelity to Apostolic Tradition
25. 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).
26. Tradition is therefore something living and vital, an ongoing process in which the unity of faith finds expression in the variety of languages and the diversity of cultures. It ceases to be Tradition if it fossilises. ‘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’. Tradition occurs in the power of the Holy Spirit, who, as Jesus promised his disciples, guides the Church into all the truth (cf. Jn 16:13), by firmly establishing the memory of Jesus himself (cf. Jn 14:26), keeping the Church faithful to her apostolic origins, enabling the secure transmission of the Faith, and prompting the ever-new presentation of the Gospel under the direction of pastors who are successors of the apostles. 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’. The Church ‘in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes’.
27. ‘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 Tradition known and lived by the Fathers was multi-faceted and pulsing with life, as can be seen from the plurality of liturgical families and of spiritual and exegetical-theological traditions (e.g. in the schools of Alexandria and Antioch), a plurality firmly anchored and united in the one faith. During the major theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the conformity of a doctrine with the consensus of the Fathers, or lack of it, was proof of orthodoxy or heresy. For Augustine, the united witness of the Fathers was the voice of the Church. The councils of Chalcedon and Trent began their solemn declarations with the formula: ‘Following the Holy Fathers…’, and the council of Trent and the First Vatican Council clearly indicated that the ‘unanimous consensus’ of the Fathers was a sure guide for the interpretation of Scripture.
28. Many of the Fathers were bishops who gathered with their fellow bishops in the councils, first regional and later worldwide or ‘ecumenical’, that mark the life of the Church from the earliest centuries, after the example of the apostles (cf. Acts 15:6-21). Confronted with the Christological and Trinitarian heresies that threatened the faith and unity of the Church during the patristic period, bishops met in the great ecumenical councils – Nicaea I, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Constantinople III, and Nicaea II – to condemn error and proclaim the orthodox faith in creeds and definitions of faith. These councils set forth their teaching, in particular their solemn definitions, as normative and universally binding; and these definitions express and belong to the Apostolic Tradition and continue to serve the faith and unity of the Church. Subsequent councils which have been recognised as ecumenical in the West continued this practice. The Second Vatican Council refers to the teaching office or magisterium of the pope and the bishops of the Church, and states that the bishops teach infallibly when, either gathered with the bishop of Rome in an ecumenical council or in communion with him though dispersed throughout the world, they agree that a particular teaching concerning faith or morals ‘is to be held definitively and absolutely’. The pope himself, head of the college of bishops, teaches infallibly when ‘as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful … he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals’.
29. Catholic theology recognises the teaching authority of ecumenical councils, the ordinary and universal magisterium of the bishops, and the papal magisterium. It acknowledges the special status of dogmas, that is, statements ‘in which the Church proposes a revealed truth definitively, and in a way that is binding for the universal Church, so much so that denial is rejected as heresy and falls under an anathema’. Dogmas belong to the living and ongoing Apostolic Tradition. Theologians are aware of the difficulties that attend their interpretation. For example, it is necessary to understand the precise question under consideration in light of its historical context, and to discern how a dogma’s meaning and content are related to its formulation. Nevertheless, dogmas are sure points of reference for the Church’s faith and are used as such in theological reflection and argumentation.
30. In Catholic belief, Scripture, Tradition, and the magisterium of the Church are inseparably linked. ‘Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church’, and ‘the task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone’. Sacred Scripture is not simply a text but ‘locutio Dei’ and ‘verbum Dei’, testified initially by the prophets of the Old Testament and ultimately by the apostles in the New Testament (cf. Rom 1:1-2). 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 member in the written tradition’. ‘Scripture is to be proclaimed, heard, read, received and experienced as the word of God, in the stream of the apostolic Tradition from which it is inseparable.’ This process is sustained by the Holy Spirit, ‘through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church – and through her in the world’. ‘Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. 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.
31. Vatican II distinguished between Tradition and those traditions that belong to particular periods of the Church’s history, or to particular regions and communities, such as religious orders or specific local churches. Distinguishing between Tradition and traditions has been one of the major tasks of Catholic theology since Vatican II, and of theology generally in recent decades. It is a task profoundly related to the Church’s catholicity, and with many ecumenical implications. Numerous questions arise, for instance: ‘Is it possible to determine more precisely what the content of the one Tradition is, and by what means? Do all traditions which claim to be Christian contain the Tradition? How can we distinguish between traditions embodying the true Tradition and merely human traditions? Where do we find the genuine Tradition, and where impoverished tradition or even distortion of tradition?’ 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.
32. Fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition is a criterion of Catholic theology. This fidelity requires an active and discerning reception of the various witnesses and expressions of the ongoing Apostolic Tradition. It implies study of sacred Scripture, the liturgy, and the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and attention to the teaching of the magisterium.
3. Attention to the sensus fidelium
33. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, St Paul writes: ‘We constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers’ (1Thess 2:13). These words illustrate what Vatican II referred to as ‘the supernatural appreciation of the faith [sensusfidei] of the whole people’, and ‘the intimate sense of spiritual realities’ that the faithful have, that is, the sensus fidelium. The subject of faith is the people of God as a whole, which in the power of the Spirit affirms the Word of God. That is why the council declares that the entire people of God participates in the prophetic ministry of Jesus, and that, anointed by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1Jn 2:20, 27), it ‘cannot err in matters of belief’. The pastors who guide the people of God, serving its faith, are themselves first of all members of the communion of believers. Therefore Lumen Gentium speaks first about the people of God and the sensusfidei that they have, and then of the bishops who, through their apostolic succession in the episcopate and the reception of their own specific charisma veritatis certum (sure charism of truth), constitute, as a college in hierarchical communion with their head, the bishop of Rome and successor of St Peter in the apostolic see, the Church’s magisterium. Likewise, Dei Verbum teaches that the Word of God has been ‘entrusted to the Church’, and refers to the ‘entire holy people’ adhering to it, before then specifying that the pope and the bishops have the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God. This ordering is fundamental for Catholic theology. As St Augustine said: ‘Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum sum christianus’.
34. The nature and location of the sensusfidei or sensusfidelium must be properly understood. The sensus fidelium does not simply mean the majority opinion in a given time or culture, nor is it only a secondary affirmation of what is first taught by the magisterium. The sensusfideliumis the sensus fidei of the people of God as a whole who are obedient to the Word of God and are led in the ways of faith by their pastors. So the sensusfideliumis the sense of the faith that is deeply rooted in the people of God who receive, understand and live the Word of God in the Church.
35. For theologians, the sensus fidelium is of great importance. It is not only an object of attention and respect, it is also a base and a locus for their work. On the one hand, theologians depend on the sensusfidelium, because the faith that they explore and explain lives in the people of God. It is clear, therefore, that theologians themselves must participate in the life of the Church to be truly aware of it. On the other hand, part of the particular service of theologians within the body of Christ is precisely to explicate the Church’s faith as it is found in the Scriptures, the liturgy, creeds, dogmas, catechisms, and in the sensus fidelium itself. Theologians help to clarify and articulate the content of the sensus fidelium, recognising and demonstrating that issues relating to the truth of faith can be complex, and that investigation of them must be precise. It falls to them also on occasion critically to examine expressions of popular piety, new currents of thought and movements within the Church, in the name of fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition. Theologians’ critical assessments must always be constructive; they must be given with humility, respect and charity: ‘Knowledge (gnosis) puffs up, but love (agape) builds up’ (1Cor 8:1).
36. Attention to the sensus fidelium is a criterion for Catholic theology. Theology should strive to discover and articulate accurately what the Catholic faithful actually believe. It must speak the truth in love, so that the faithful may mature in faith, and not be ‘tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine’ (Eph 4:14-15).
4. Responsible adherence to the ecclesiastical magisterium
37. In Catholic theology, the magisterium is an integral factor in the theological enterprise itself, since theology receives its object from God through the Church whose faith is authentically interpreted by ‘the living teaching office of the Church alone’, that is, by the magisterium of the pope and the bishops. Fidelity to the magisterium is necessary for theology to be the knowledge of faith (scientia fidei) and an ecclesial task. A correct theological methodology therefore requires a proper understanding of the nature and authority of the magisterium at its various levels, and of the relations that properly exist between the ecclesiastical magisterium and theology. Bishops and theologians have distinct callings, and must respect one another’s particular competence, lest the magisterium reduce theology to a mere repetitive science or theologians presume to substitute the teaching office of the Church’s pastors.
38. An understanding of the Church as communion is a good framework within which to consider how the relationship between theologians and bishops, between theology and the magisterium, can be one of fruitful collaboration. The first thing to acknowledge is that theologians in their work and bishops in their magisterium both stand under the primacy of the Word of God, and never above it. Between bishops and theologians there should be a mutually respectful collaboration; in their obedient listening to this Word and faithful proclamation of it; in their attention to the sensus fidelium and service of the growth and maturing of faith; in their concern to transmit the Word to future generations, with respect for new questions and challenges; and in their hope-filled witness to the gifts already received; in all of this bishops and theologians have their respective roles in one common mission, from which the magisterium and theology each derive their own legitimacy and purpose. Theology investigates and articulates the faith of the Church, and the ecclesiastical magisterium proclaims that faith and authentically interprets it.
39. On the one hand, the magisterium needs theology in order to demonstrate in its interventions not only doctrinal authority, but also theological competence and a capacity for critical evaluation, so theologians should be called upon to assist with the preparation and formulation of magisterial pronouncements. On the other hand, the magisterium is an indispensable help to theology by its authentic transmission of the deposit of faith (depositum fidei), particularly at decisive times of discernment. Theologians should acknowledge the contribution of magisterial statements to theological progress and should assist with the reception of those statements. Magisterial interventions themselves can stimulate theological reflection, and theologians should show how their own contributions conform with and carry forward previous doctrinal statements of the magisterium. 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.
40. 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. Acceptance of this function of the magisterium in relation to the authenticity of faith requires recognition of the different levels of magisterial affirmations. These different levels give rise to a correspondingly differentiated response on the part of the faithful and of theologians. Not all magisterial teaching has the same weight. This itself is relevant to the work of theology, and indeed the different levels are described by what are called ‘theological qualifications or notes’.
41. Precisely because of this gradation, the obedience that theologians as members of the people of God owe to the magisterium always involves constructively critical evaluation and comment. While ‘dissent’ towards the magisterium has no place in Catholic theology, investigation and questioning is justified and even necessary if theology is to fulfil its task. Whatever the situation, a mere formal and exterior obedience or adherence on the part of theologians is not sufficient. Theologians should strive to deepen their reflection on the truth proclaimed by the Church’s magisterium, and should seek its implications for the Christian life and for the service of the truth. In this way, theologians fulfil their proper task and the teaching of the magisterium is not reduced to mere decorative citations in theological discourse.
42. The relationship between bishops and theologians is often good and trusting on both sides, with due respect for one another’s callings and responsibilities. For example, bishops attend and participate in national and regional gatherings of theological associations, call on theological experts as they formulate their own teaching and policies, and visit and support theological faculties and schools in their dioceses. Inevitably, there will be tensions at times in the relationship between theologians and bishops. In his profound analysis of the dynamic interaction, within the living organism of the Church, of the three offices of Christ as prophet, priest and king, Blessed John Henry Newman acknowledged the possibility of such ‘chronic collisions or contrasts’, and it is well to remember that he saw them as ‘lying in the nature of the case’. ‘Theology is the fundamental and regulating principle of the whole Church system’, he wrote, and yet ‘theology cannot always have its own way’. With regard to tensions between theologians and the magisterium, the International Theological Commission said in 1975: ‘wherever there is genuine life, tension always exists’. ‘Such tension need not be interpreted as hostility or real opposition, but can be seen as a vital force and an incentive to a common carrying out of [their] respective tasks by way of dialogue.’
43. The freedom of theology and of theologians is a theme of special interest. This freedom ‘derives from the true scientific responsibility of theologians’. The idea of adherence to the magisterium sometimes prompts a critical contrast between a so-called ‘scientific’ theology (without presuppositions of faith or ecclesial allegiance) and a so-called ‘confessional’ theology (elaborated within a religious confession), but such a contrast is inadequate. Other debates arise from consideration of the believer’s freedom of conscience, or of the importance of scientific progress in theological investigation, and the magisterium is sometimes cast as a repressive force or a brake on progress. Investigating such issues is itself part of the theological task, so as properly to integrate the scientific and confessional aspects of theology, and to see the freedom of theology within the horizon of the design and will of God.
44. Giving responsible adherence to the magisterium in its various gradations is a criterion of Catholic theology. Catholic theologians should recognise the competence of bishops, and especially of the college of bishops headed by the pope, to give an authentic interpretation of the Word of God handed on in Scripture and Tradition.
5. In the company of theologians
45. As is the case with all Christian vocations, the ministry of theologians, as well as being personal, is also both communal and collegial; that is, it is exercised in and for the Church as a whole, and it is lived out in solidarity with those who have the same calling. Theologians are rightly conscious and proud of the profound links of solidarity that unite them with one another in service to the body of Christ and to the world. In very many ways, as colleagues in theological faculties and schools, as fellow members of theological societies and associations, as collaborators in research, and as writers and teachers, they support, encourage and inspire one another, and also serve as mentors and role models for those, especially graduate students, who are aspiring to be theologians. Moreover, links of solidarity rightly extend in space and time, uniting theologians across the world in different countries and cultures, and through time in different eras and contexts. This solidarity is truly beneficial when it promotes awareness and observance of the criteria of Catholic theology as identified in this report. No-one is better placed to assist Catholic theologians in striving to give the best possible service, in accordance with the true characteristics of their discipline, than other Catholic theologians.
46. Nowadays, collaboration in research and publication projects, both within and across various theological fields, is increasingly common. Opportunities for presentations, seminars and conferences that will strengthen the mutual awareness and appreciation of colleagues in theological institutions and faculties should be cultivated. Moreover, occasions for inter-disciplinary encounter and exchange between theologians and philosophers, natural and social scientists, historians, and so on, should also be fostered, since, as is indicated in this report, theology is a science that thrives in interaction with other sciences, as they do also in fruitful exchange with theology.
47. In the nature of their task, theologians often work at the frontiers of the Church’s experience and reflection. Especially with the expanded number nowadays of lay theologians who have experience of particular areas of interaction between the Church and the world, between the Gospel and life, with which ordained theologians and theologians in religious life may not be so familiar, it is increasingly the case that theologians give an initial articulation of ‘faith seeking understanding’ in new circumstances or in the face of new issues. Theologians need and deserve the prayerful support of the ecclesial community as a whole, and particularly of one another, in their sincere endeavours on behalf of the Church, but careful adherence to the fundamental criteria of Catholic theology is especially important in such circumstances. Theologians should always recognise the intrinsic provisionality of their endeavours, and offer their work to the Church as a whole for scrutiny and evaluation.
48. One of the most valuable services that theologians render to one another is that of mutual questioning and correction, e.g. by the medieval practice of the disputatio and today’s practice of reviewing one another’s writings, so that ideas and methods can be progressively refined and perfected, and this process generally and healthily occurs within the theological community itself. Of its nature, however, it can be a slow and private process, and, especially in these days of instant communication and dissemination of ideas far beyond the strictly theological community, it would be unreasonable to imagine that this self-correcting mechanism suffices in all cases. The bishops who watch over the faithful, teaching and caring for them, certainly have the right and the duty to speak, to intervene and if necessary to censure theological work that they deem to be erroneous or harmful.
49. Ecumenical dialogue and research provides a uniquely privileged and potentially productive field for collaboration between Catholic theologians and those of other Christian traditions. In such work, issues of faith, meaning and language are deeply pondered. As they work to promote mutual understanding on issues that have been contentious between their traditions, perhaps for many centuries, theologians act as ambassadors for their communities in the holy task of seeking the reconciliation and unity of Christians, so that the world may believe (cf. Jn 17:21). That ambassadorial task requires particular adherence to the criteria outlined here on the part of Catholic participants, so that the manifold gifts that the Catholic tradition contains can truly be offered in the ‘exchange of gifts’ that ecumenical dialogue and collaboration more widely always in some sense is.
50. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be practised in professional, prayerful and charitable collaboration with the whole company of Catholic theologians in the communion of the Church, in a spirit of mutual appreciation and support, attentive both to the needs and comments of the faithful and to the guidance of the Church’s pastors.
6. In dialogue with the world
51. ‘The people of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole world’. The Second Vatican Council said that the Church should therefore be ready to discern in ‘the events, the needs and the longings’ of today’s world what may truly be signs of the Spirit’s activity. ‘At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times [signa temporum perscrutandi] and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task. In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which [people] ask about the meaning of this present life and of the life to come, and how one is related to the other. We must be aware of and understand the aspirations, the yearnings, and the often dramatic features of the world in which we live’.
52. As they live their daily lives in the world with faith, all Christians face the challenge of interpreting the events and crises that arise in human affairs, and all engage in conversation and debate in which, inevitably, faith is questioned and a response is needed. The whole Church lives, as it were, at the interface between the Gospel and everyday life, which is also the boundary between the past and the future, as history moves forward. The Church is always in dialogue and in movement, and within the communion of the baptised who are all dynamically engaged in this way bishops and theologians have particular responsibilities, as the council made clear. ‘With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the whole people of God, particularly of its pastors and theologians, to listen to and distinguish the many voices of our times and to interpret them in the light of the divine Word, in order that the revealed truth may be more deeply penetrated, better understood, and more suitably presented’.
53. Theology has a particular competence and responsibility in this regard. Through its constant dialogue with the social, religious and cultural currents of the time, and through its openness to other sciences which, with their own methods examine those developments, theology can help the faithful and the magisterium to see the importance of developments, events and trends in human history, and to discern and interpret ways in which through them the Spirit may be speaking to the Church and to the world.
54. The ‘signs of the times’ may be described as those events or phenomena in human history which, in a sense, because of their impact or extent, define the face of a period, and bring to expression particular needs and aspirations of humanity at that time. The Council’s use of the expression, ‘signs of the times’, shows that it fully recognised the historicity not only of the world, but also of the Church, which is in the world (cf. Jn 17:11, 15, 18) though not of the world (cf. Jn 17:14, 16). What is happening in the world at large, good or bad, can never be a matter of indifference to the Church. The world is the place in which the Church, following in the footsteps of Christ, announces the Gospel, bears witness to the justice and mercy of God, and participates in the drama of human life.
55. Recent centuries have seen major social and cultural developments. One might think, for instance, of the discovery of historicity, and of movements such as the Enlightenment and the French revolution (with its ideals of freedom, equality and fraternity), movements for emancipation and for the promotion of women’s rights, movements for peace and justice, liberation and democratisation, and the ecological movement. The ambivalence of human history has led the Church at times in the past to be overly cautious about such movements, to see only the threats they may contain to Christian doctrine and faith, and to neglect their significance. However, such attitudes have gradually changed thanks to the sensus fidei of the People of God, the clear sight of prophetic individual believers, and the patient dialogue of theologians with their surrounding cultures. A better discernment in the light of the Gospel has been made, with a greater readiness to see how the Spirit of God may be speaking through such events. In all cases, discernment must carefully distinguish between elements compatible with the Gospel and those contrary to it, between positive contributions and ideological aspects, but the more acute understanding of the world that results cannot fail to prompt a more penetrating appreciation of Christ the Lord and of the Gospel since Christ is the Saviour of the world.
56. While the world of human culture profits from the activity of the Church, the Church also profits from ‘the history and development of mankind’. ‘It profits from the experience of past ages, from the progress of the sciences, and from the riches hidden in various cultures, through which greater light is thrown on the mystery of man and new avenues to truth are opened up’.The painstaking work to establish profitable links with other disciplines, sciences and cultures so as to enhance that light and broaden those avenues is the particular task of theologians, and the discernment of the signs of the times presents great opportunities for theological endeavour, notwithstanding the complex hermeneutical issues that arise. Thanks to the work of many theologians, Vatican II was able to acknowledge various signs of the times in connection with its own teaching.
57. Heeding God’s final Word in Jesus Christ, Christians are open to hear echoes of his voice in other persons, places, and cultures (cf. Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-28; Rom 1:19-20). The council urged that the faithful ‘should be familiar with their national and religious traditions and uncover with gladness and respect those seeds of the Word which lie hidden among them’. It specifically taught that the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is ‘true and holy’ in non-Christian religions, whose precepts and doctrines ‘often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens’ all people. Again, the uncovering of such seeds and discernment of such rays is especially the task of theologians, who have an important contribution to make to inter-religious dialogue.
58. A criterion of Catholic theology is that it should be in constant dialogue with the world. It should help the Church to read the signs of the times illuminated by the light that comes from divine revelation, and to profit from doing so in its life and mission.