Comprehending the nature of the theology in number thirty-six

2013-07-13 L’Osservatore Romano

The new encyclical, issued by Pope Francis, Lumen fidei, is a splendid document that deserves to be pondered prayerfully. Its clarity and depth will repay multiple readings by all in the Church – indeed, by all who are seeking the meaning and truth of human existence.

However, one section will prove of particular interest to theologians. Number thirty-six of the encyclical sets forth briefly, but in a remarkably rich way, an understanding of the task of theology. From one perspective, of course, it is a traditional view (as the footnote reference to Bonaventure and Aquinas shows). But it places that traditional understanding into an intersubjective context that brings out, in a new and deeper way, its significance and implications.

The Pope writes: “God is a subject who makes himself known and perceived in an interpersonal relationship.” Thus the theologian cannot approach the theological task in a distant, neutral manner, as would a scientist or a mere observer. Theology flourishes through participatory knowledge in which reason, will, and affections are all engaged. The encyclical appeals to the biblical notion of the “heart” and insists that, as Blessed John Henry Newman expresses it: cor ad cor loquitur -- heart speaks to heart. Theology reflects upon the Word of God, fully revealed, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, as abiding Love. The heart of God speaks to our heart his Word of Love in interpersonal encounter.

This Word of Love is inexhaustible. Hence the task of theology is never ending until the consummation when God will be “all in all.” But since the Word of Love is addressed in first instance to the Bride of Christ who is the Church, the task of theology is never an individualistic task but always an ecclesial one.

The theologian labors in the Church. He or she is a member of Christ’s body seeking, in a modest way, to shed further light on the Mystery in whom the Church lives, and moves, and has its being. Thus it is crucial to acknowledge that theology is not a discipline removed from the liturgical and catechetical life of the Christian community. Theology certainly raises further questions, evoked by theologians’ different historical and social contexts, but always does so in the light of the Gospel and the apostolic tradition.

It is for this reason that the encyclical teaches that “theology cannot consider the magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him as something extrinsic;” but rather “as one of its internal, constitutive dimensions.” All in the Church stand under the Word of God and seek to reflect something of the Light of Christ who alone is Lumen gentium. The role of the magisterium, as the encyclical expresses it, is to ensure “our contact with the primordial source” and thus provide “the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity.”

We can glimpse a still further depth to this understanding of theology if we read number thirty-six in conjunction with what is said in number thirty-nine. There, in discussing the ecclesial nature of faith, the Holy Father writes: “We can respond in the singular — “I believe” — only because we are part of a greater fellowship, only because we also say “We believe”. This openness to the ecclesial “We” reflects the openness of God’s own love, which is not only a relationship between the Father and the Son, between an “I” and a “Thou”, but is also, in the Spirit, a “We”, a communion of persons.” (n. 39).

If theological knowledge somehow participates in God’s own eternal dialogue and communion, then the theologian, whether adult Christian or one exercising an ecclesial mission, must be a person of communion. He or she must be driven by a true passion for building up the body of Christ and must be sensitive to whatever harms the body. The “worldliness” against which Pope Francis has often warned can take many forms. It can take the more overt forms of lust for political influence or financial gain. But it can also take the more subtle forms of craving for fame or popular acclaim.

Thus the theologian must learn to cultivate a spirituality of communion as integral to the task of theology. Such a spirituality of communion is as demanding in its asceticism as a spirituality of the desert or the cloister. And at the heart of this spirituality stands prayerful discernment. We have much to learn in this regard from the great Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac. In his magnificent book, Méditation sur l’église, de Lubac composed a striking chapter entitled “Our temptations concerning the Church.”

These temptations imperil the communion of the Church and thus need to be carefully discerned by a spirituality that is not worldly but that seeks always to foster communion. Though the temptations de Lubac considers beset every member of the Church, they must be particularly guarded against by theologians. One temptation deserves special note, in our time of instant media communication and the “blogosphere.”

De Lubac calls it “the critical temptation.” He does not dispute the need in the Church to speak the truth to one another in love. But he cautions that criticism can too often “advance itself cunningly under the camouflage of the good.” There is the inveterate tendency to equate our own cause, worthy as it may be, with the cause of the Church. De Lubac writes of some: “in their desire to serve the Church, they press the Church into their own service.”

All of us, theologians and others, may draw back and exclaim: “who then can be saved?” But de Lubac offers a wise counsel. He writes of the need to engage, in good Ignatian fashion, in an ongoing “discernment of spirits.” And, with his noted wry humor, suggests that an always salutary criticism is “self-criticism.”

Such discernment of spirits does not lead to immobility nor deny the need for ongoing reform in the Church. It may indeed call for bold speech (parrhesia) but always in view of the common good of the body of Christ. And it may at times demand the patience that knows how to wait wisely for the proper time of the harvest.

And so theologians, in communion with all the members of the body of Christ, are called to pray the closing words of Lumen fidei, directed to Our Lady:

“Mother, help our faith!

Open our ears to hear God’s word and to recognize his voice and call.

Awaken in us a desire to follow in his footsteps, to go forth from our own land and to receive his promise.

Help us to be touched by his love, that we may touch him in faith.

Help us to entrust ourselves fully to him and to believe in his love, especially at times of trial, beneath the shadow of the cross, when our faith is called to mature.

Sow in our faith the joy of the Risen One.

Remind us that those who believe are never alone.

Teach us to see all things with the eyes of Jesus, that he may be light for our path. And may this light of faith always increase in us, until the dawn of that undying day which is Christ himself, your Son, our Lord!”

Robert P. Imbelli