The Study of Theology and the Year of Faith

Dr Dudley Plunkett FAITH Magazine November – December 2012

Dr Dudley Plunkett brings out how the Church expects theology to done in the context of the virtue of faith. He gives some living examples which have borne fruit. One is reminded of an editorial of ours exactly 25 years ago, "The Theologian: Must he be a Saint?", reprinted in "Perspectives in Theology" (Family Publications), which is available from our subscriptions address or downloadable from our website for free. Dr Plunkett is senior academic tutor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham.

The Study of Theology and the Year of Faith

The Church opens the Year of Faith [1] with a Synod on the New Evangelisation at a time when, in England, there are a number of issues about the adequacy of theology programmes in preparing their students for the task of evangelising. There was clearly a call from Vatican II for the development of doctrine in response to the needs and signs of the times, but the varying interpretations of these which have ensued must first be recognised without becoming involved in polemics. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) calls for openness, yet the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) strongly affirms traditionally held beliefs concerning the Church's structure and authority. Progress needs tobe made towards an evolving synthesis of Catholic teaching which is both open to current concerns in theology and faithful to the tradition.

What then should be the main purpose of Catholic theology programmes? They must surely transmit Christian revelation and the evolving tradition of Church teaching such that theology students have the opportunity to appropriate this teaching and the capacity to transmit it in their own ministries, ordained or otherwise, in effective evangelisation, catechesis and adult formation.

Some Issues for Reflection by the Theological Institutes

This has a number of implications for Catholic institutions that teach theology. First, can it be acknowledged that the proper goal of Catholic theology is to serve the missionary mandate of the Church (cf. Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, CDF 1990)? If so, proposals concerning curriculum content, division of labour among institutions, or rationalisations of human and financial resources, are only relevant insofar as they are aimed at, and coherent with, a reasoned plan to fulfil the Church's evangelising mission so clearly stated by Paul VI (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelisation in the Modern World, 1975).

If a Catholic educational institution accepts this mission for its theology programmes it will naturally function with a respect for magisterial authority and teaching, a love for the Church's tradition and a desire to transmit it without modification. It will also value fidelity to the revealed and transcendent nature of Scripture and its central role in the faith and life of believers. If an institution is not in accord with this understanding it will pursue a different path or strategy, which cannot properly be called Catholic. Can there not therefore be a genuinely fraternal place to discuss openness to the development of doctrine (taking into account contributions of modern sciences, philosophy and humanities) which is both faithful to the hierarchy of dogmatic truths andsympathetic to new methodology and content, without crossing over into an aggressively political or "conciliarist" view of progress?

Secondly, there is the discernment to be made between critical reason-based methods tending towards secular reasoning that marginalises faith and an approach based on "faith seeking understanding". [2] This implies a hermeneutic of continuity and renewal, and thus a foundation of doctrinal orthodoxy, but also a genuine engagement with the modern world and culture (Gaudium et Spes). Such an approach empowers believing theologians, rather than pressures generated by secular thought, to set the theological agenda, and naturally inclines to maintaining the coherence of the Faith, with its hierarchy of truths and its four pillars (as evident in the four parts of the Catechism), as well as according appropriate status to pluralist or relativistconcerns and emphases.


Thirdly, are there some existing models of good practice with regard to these first two issues that theological institutes might consider? For instance, the theological and catechetical programmes of the Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States are credited with many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In light of this, can it be agreed that a study of theology that takes place, as at Steubenville, alongside a firm spiritual practice (Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, traditional Marian and other devotions) and a clear moral stance (students living celibate lives supported by households and communities) is a necessary part of a strategy for Catholic theology?

Another, quite different, model might be the Faculte Notre Dame [3] of the Ecole Cathedrale in Paris, established by Cardinal Lustiger. His initiatives included sending two diocesan priests annually on doctoral studies mostly to the Jesuit Faculty of Theology in Brussels; reorganising the seminary in households linked to large city parishes where 10 to 12 seminarians live and undertake pastoral work while attending theological studies at the Faculte; and, perhaps above all, linking theological studies firmly to knowledge of the living Word of God in Scripture.

This latter practice followed the teaching of the Vatican II constitution Dei Verbum that the Word of God is the "soul of Sacred Theology" (DV, 24), and includes familiarising seminarians with the "four senses" method of scriptural interpretation proposed by Henri de Lubac and developed in Brussels.

A fourth question concerns guiding students on theology programmes to link their intellectual studies to more general human, spiritual and pastoral formation. [4] In particular, if students for religious life or priesthood are expected to follow programmes in institutions offering "theology", what ensures that they receive the strength of Catholic theology that equips them for the practicalities of ministry? How are they nourished by their studies to see the relationship between prayer and theology? How are they helped to follow the demanding vocation to celibacy? How can they be assisted in exploring the tension between being in the world (relating compassionately to modern society) but not of the world (defending a "counter-cultural"supernatural stance in an increasingly materialist culture)? [5]

Do these concerns not point to the need for a more holistic theology, one that takes account of precisely those elements requisite in any strategy for a new evangelisation? A related aspect of theological teaching and studies arises from the fact that theology in practice means in large part relating to young students, which suggests the need to consider the apostolic fruitfulness of new orders, communities and movements including World Youth Days. What can be learnt pedagogically and pastorally from the Church's experience of these developments that can amplify theology programmes?

If tempted to think that the new evangelisation can only be aspired to in the longer term, one might consider the achievements of one diocese, that of Frejus-Toulon in France. [6] Bishop Dominique Rey, a member of the Emmanuel Community, has sought out new orders and communities, many of them from other countries, and currently has some 60 groups in his diocese involved in ministries to the unchurched, including meeting holiday-makers on the beaches, a cafe dedicated to spiritual contact and discussion, publishing, broadcasting and other forms of outreach. It is also significant that the diocesan seminary has some 50 students for the diocese alone, many of them coming from these communities.

While this may be an exceptional case, it cannot be doubted that the creativity and spiritual energy of many such communities have brought new life to the Church. It is thus no coincidence that Pope Benedict plans to meet representative communities on the Vigil of Pentecost 2013, as part of the Year of Faith and commemorating the example of his predecessor on the same day, in 1999, when Pope John Paul spoke of these communities as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Since then the situation has greatly evolved, and the new orders and communities springing up throughout the Catholic world are now not only vital to the new evangelisation but an essential area of study for pastoral theology.

Catechetics is a further area of theological reflection that has developed in recent years following the publication of the Catechism and the General Catechetical Directory. New forms of catechesis place a strong emphasis on revelation, doctrinal truth and Church teaching. They seek to offer a holistic understanding of the Faith. They respect the learner's experience, but not to the point of compromising the truths of the Faith or allowing personal opinion to marginalise elements of it. They make use of a variety of resources, many of them inspired by the use of art and the "way of beauty" so emphasised by the last two popes and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

There are now many such catechetical programmes in use, such as the RCIA programme of the Association for Catechumenal Ministry, which is closely associated with Steubenville, and the English Anchor and Evangelium courses. But these all need the back-up of theological study if they are to be well adapted and developed in practice. [7]

Finally, I would wish to highlight the topic of ecumenism. In a society marked by a diversity of values even among the various Christian bodies, it is a demanding task for Catholic theologians to balance a positive ecumenical perspective with the commitment to identifying and nurturing a faithful Catholic identity. Moreover, achieving this may well challenge the churches of the Reformation, and particularly the Church of England, to seek a renewal of their own faith and practice in parallel with the Catholic Church's Year of Faith.

The establishing of the Ordinariate could be seen as evidence of such renewal, and Catholic theologians can feel encouraged in seeking to further clarify issues impeding Christian unity that were noted in the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, and that are now freshly underlined in the preparatory documents for the Year of Faith and the 2012 Synod of Bishops (cf. Instrumentum Laboris, 125).

[1] See, the website of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation which updates information on the Year of Faith
[2] Secular reason is understood here in the sense used by J.Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).
[4] While it is common for institutions forming students for the priesthood to cite the four elements of formation – human, intellectual, spiritual and pastoral – proposed by Pope John Paul in Pastores Dabo Vobis (Apostolic Exhortation, 1992), the methods of quality assurance practised in formal degree courses would need to be rigorously applied to all these aspects of seminary formation.
[5]The internet, while a major resource for evangelisation, poses a number of formation issues, most obviously concerning obsessional use of social media, ethics of anonymous postings and easy access to immoral material.
[7]The Sower, the house magazine of the Maryvale Institute, regularly reviews the aims, contents and methods of such programmes.

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