Will the Church and its universities help promote the pope’s theological vision?
The first session of the Synod of Bishops’ assembly on the future of the Church has brought to the surface the gap that exists between Pope Francis’ idea of synodality and how some Catholic theologians understand it – even those theologians that have enthusiastically welcomed his pontificate as a much-awaited turn in the orientation of Church teaching for a more dialogical relationship with the world and the “existential peripheries“.
The Jesuit pope’s anti-elitism keeps him at a safe distance from academic theologians. But, at times, he has issued important statements about theology’s role in the Church. Some notable examples include his letter in 2015 to the Grand Chancellor of the Catholic University of Argentina; his publication in 2017 of Veritatis Gaudium, the apostolic constitution on ecclesiastical universities and faculties; and his address in 2019 to the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy.
Three days after the conclusion of the Synod assembly’s first session, Francis also issued Ad theologiam promovendam, a “motu proprio” to approve the new statutes of the Pontifical Academy of Theology. The document was issued in Italian (no translations available yet) and is technically concerned with an academy that functions like a Vatican-based theological “think tank”. But in reality, the text is aimed at the whole Church – theologians and all believers.
A “courageous cultural revolution”
Francis calls for a “courageous cultural revolution”: a more contextual theology that not only teaches the People of God, but also learns from them. It is a theology that is less abstract and more pastoral. The pope says theology must develop “in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different branches of knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly discussing with everyone, believers and non-believers”.
These encouragements are in line with the usual characterization of Francis as a progressive pope, one who is bringing about a more welcoming and dialogical Church. But there is also another aspect of Francis’ view of theology that is repeated in Ad theologiam promovendam, which constitutes a real and different kind of test for our theology today. The pope defines theology as “true critical knowledge as sapiential knowledge, not abstract and ideological, but spiritual, elaborated on our knees, shaped by adoration and prayer”, a knowledge that cannot “forget its sapiential/wisdom dimension”.
Francis also encourages theology to be dialogical and transdisciplinary, as well as communal. “Dialogue with other forms of knowledge evidently presupposes dialogue within the ecclesial community and awareness of the essential synodal and communion dimension of doing theology,” he writes. “The theologian cannot help but experience fraternity and communion firsthand, at the service of evangelization and to reach everyone’s heart […] It is therefore important that there exist places, including institutional ones, in which to live and experience collegiality and theological fraternity.”
Challenging “progressives” no less than “conservatives”
This document calls theologians to be more contextual, but it’s a contextuality different from the way in which post-Vatican II academic theology has interpreted it because it implies also a more incarnational, embodied, and testimonial view of a profession that is also a vocation.
“The theologian cannot help but experience fraternity and communion firsthand, at the service of evangelization and to reach everyone’s hearts,” Francis says. But this type of fraternity and communion is very difficult (and even impossible at times) to incorporate in academia, job descriptions for new positions, or evaluations of Catholic theologians’ accomplishments.
Those who believe this pontificate has vindicated their view of Catholicism, sometimes have a difficult time seeing that Francis is challenging “progressives” no less than “conservatives”. This is true also for theologians. And the challenge is twofold.
Confronting the technocratic, market-driven institutions
First, the problem of the role of theology today is not just about ideological orientation, “conservative vs. progressive”, but also institutional; that is, its mission in the modern technocratic world of knowledge. Many universities, even Catholic universities with graduate programs of theology, now must operate in a market system. There are significant differences between system where universities are publicly funded and other mixed system, and different kinds of presence of Catholic theology in public or private, secular or Catholic universities: but all of them operate in a market-driven system of knowledge.
The problem is how to start this “cultural revolution” of theology in such universities. In Francis’ view of theology, the heart and the spirit have a very important role. But our academic systems have become places where technocratic heartlessness and an ultra-pragmatist, transactional view of knowledge are actually rewarded – and our students see and know that. In this system, which has become highly procedural and bureaucratized, the heart of the matter (in our case, theo-logy as an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God) can easily become empty.
The ongoing shift from a Euro-centered Church to a global one
Second, Francis calls for this “cultural revolution” in the middle of a cataclysmic change in the Church, that is, the transition from a Euro-centered Catholicism to a global Catholicism. This transition is affecting Euro-Western theology in a particular way. There is a growing number of students of theology in schools in Europe and North America who come from Africa and Asia, and this is slowly changing the culture in those institutions. In many institutions of higher education in the Western world there are more international students of theology than non-local students. But they study a Catholic theology that is still largely European and Western.
European and North American schools of theology are trying to hire more professors from Africa and Asia. The question is how to value their original background, their formation which often took place in Europe or North America, and the multi-cultural Churches in which these schools are located and/or to where the students will go back to for their teaching and ministry.
But the turn of Catholicism toward the global south raises questions also in that global south itself. “In Africa there is no idea of the importance of theology. They say: ‘What’s the point of theology if our churches are already full?'” remarked an African theologian at a recent international conference. European Catholics could ask a similar question, in a very different situation: “Our churches are almost empty. Do we really need people studying theology, or do we need something else?”.
Even if theologians embrace the pope’s plan, will the universities?
All this is massively changing the culture of Catholic schools of theology in ways that are very profound but rarely articulated in public for reasons of sensitivity of the students and faculty. This de-Europeanizing and de-Westernizing of Catholic theology has become (or will soon become) a question of survival for important institutions of higher education. They cannot survive only with students of theology coming from Europe or the West. They need students from the global south.
Francis calls theologians to a “cultural revolution”, to “transdisciplinarity”, and to a more sapiential and synodal way of doing theology. Are theologians, individually and collectively, ready and willing to be part of this profound rethinking epistemologically and methodologically? Today’s Catholic theologians are part of a Church where the role of theology is not clear in the eyes of the institution and even Pope Francis himself. We saw this at the first session of the Synod assembly on synodality. What exactly is the role of theology in a synodal Church? This is a time of shifting expectations from theology – ecclesial, academic, and public expectations.
Moreover, professional theologians work in institutions that are more and more part of a system dominated by technocrats and managers. If the reorientation the pope has outlined is taken seriously, schools of theology will have to rethink their systems of recruitment, evaluation, and promotion. They will have to re-examine courses and curricula, as well as mission statements. Even if theologians embrace the reorientation outlined in Ad theologiam promovendam, how will Catholic universities — with their institutional sponsors and donors — allow this? To paraphrase Mao Zedong, this “cultural revolution” for theology will not be a dinner party.
Massimo Faggioli is currently lecturing at the Catholic University Louvain-la-Neuve in Belgium as the recipient of the “Francqui Chair”. You can follow him on X @MassimoFaggioli
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International.