The Freedom of Theology

By Dulles, Avery Cardinal | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2008 | Go to article overview
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The Freedom of Theology


Dulles, Avery Cardinal, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Benedict XVI, before becoming supreme pastor of the Catholic Church, served for two decades as a theology professor and then, for more than two decades, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His career, together with his many theological writings and doctrinal pronouncements, illustrates ways of harmonizing and even combining the roles of theologian and prelate.

Nevertheless, questions continue to arise about the relationship of theologians and the ecclesiastical magisterium. How is the obligation of pastors to establish the doctrine of the Church to be reconciled with the freedom of theologians to follow what they understand to be the requirements of their own discipline?

The problem has been intensely discussed, especially since the Second Vatican Council and Paul VI's controversial 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Theologians all over the world have developed a kind of class consciousness and show a new eagerness to protect their legitimate autonomy. Some resent what they regard as the authoritarianism of Rome and the bishops. As an example of this tendency, one might cite the "Cologne Declaration," issued in January 1989 over the signatures of 163 German-speaking theologians. This was in large measure a protest against the undue extension of hierarchical control over theology, especially on the part of the pope, and an assertion of the autonomy of theology and the fights of personal conscience in the Church.

In the United States, many statements have been issued, both by bishops and by theologians, describing the doctrinal responsibilities of these two classes of teacher. Unless a harmony of views is achieved on this important question, the Church will be weakened, as it already has been to some extent, by internal division and polarization.

Most parties to the discussion appeal to Vatican II. The council said little about the role of theologians but a great deal about the teaching office of the hierarchy. "The order of bishops," according to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, "is the successor of the college of the apostles in teaching authority and pastoral rule." Elsewhere in the Constitution on the Church, it is asserted that the judgments of the pope and of individual bishops, even when not infallible, are to be accepted with religious submission of mind. The living teaching office, said the Constitution on Divine Revelation, speaks with authority in the name of Jesus Christ. The bishops, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, establish the official doctrine of the Church, and as pastoral rulers they see to it that the faith is rightly taught in the churches under their care.

Even when all this is recognized, an important task still remains for theologians. The Church needs them because its members are human beings--that is to say, animals who ask questions. When something is proposed as a matter of Christian faith, reflective believers ask, quite legitimately: What exactly is the revealed datum? Where and how is it attested? How can things be as faith says they are? What logically follows from the truths of faith? People who try to answer these and similar questions in a methodical way are called theologians.

The functional distinction between the hierarchical magisterium and the theologians has been gradually clarified over the course of the centuries. In the early Church, most of the great theologians were bishops: Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, the two Cyrils, Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine, Leo, and Gregory the Great. They engaged in what we may call episcopal theology. Theologians who were not bishops, such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Ephrem, and Prosper of Aquitaine, wrote without any apparent consciousness of belonging to a class distinct from the bishops.

In the Middle Ages, the distinction of functions became clearer, especially as university theology came into its own.

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