Creating Space for Catholic Theology? A Critical-Empathetic Reading of Theology Today

By Boeve, Lieven | Theological Studies, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Creating Space for Catholic Theology? A Critical-Empathetic Reading of Theology Today


Boeve, Lieven, Theological Studies


IN SPRING 2012, the Vatican's International Theological Commission (ITC) published a much-overlooked document entitled Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria. (1) Its occasion was a question raised by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding guiding principles for specifying what Catholic theology is. A major reason why this question surfaced is that the CDF was confronted with a multitude of theological schools of thought, styles, and projects, all claiming to be Catholic. The ITC intended, however, not only to provide principles by which to specify Catholic theology, but also to sketch a broader theological framework. For this reason the document does not simply provide a checklist of necessary criteria, rather it opens up perspectives for a theology that situates itself in the church's living tradition. (2)

Did the ITC succeed in its purpose? Does the document free up (more) space for theologies that take many different forms today, while claiming to be Catholic? I address this question here, beginning with a recent case in which the Catholic character of a specific theological methodology, comparative theology, came under question. In the next section I consider the ITC text more closely and undertake a critical-empathic reading of it. I first describe the document's method and sketch its content, thereby giving the results of this way of reading it. I conclude by evaluating it and indicating issues that remain to be considered by the ITC and schools of Catholic theology.

WHAT IS CATHOLIC THEOLOGY TODAY? A RECENT CASE

At the 2012 annual convention of the American Academy of Religion, the Roman Catholic Studies Group organized a discussion session on the topic "Is Comparative Theology Catholic?" (3) Four panelists discussed this question. The first speaker was Francis Clooney, who may be considered the father of comparative theology. (4) For him the research he conducts by the comparative reading and discussion of sacred texts from Christianity and Hinduism is certainly Catholic theology. He gave four reasons for this conclusion: with regard to content, method, fruitfulness, as well as the profile of the researcher, comparative theology contributes to the project of Catholic theology. To add power and legitimacy to his argument, he referred to doctrinal texts of the Catholic tradition. First, with respect to content, comparative theology concerns the revelation of the divine, especially the means whereby God reveals Godself in other religions (here Clooney cited the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus). The comparative reading of founding Scriptures is a way to trace this divine revelation. Next, Clooney emphasized that for the study of another religion the researcher should possess a methodological expertise at least comparable to the expertise needed for studying (the sources of) one's own religion (he referenced Vatican II's Dei verbum). Third, comparative-theological research leads to fruitful insights that relate to elementary doctrines of Christian faith, stemming from the church's tradition. These fruits witness to the fact that such research is carried out with a Catholic-theological purpose in mind. Finally, the researcher's professional character is also emphasized as an element in the Catholic character of comparative theology. The researcher does his or her work out of a familiarity with the hermeneutical-theological mission and sensitivities of Catholic theology, giving attention to the whole nature of the human person. Clooney concluded, with reference to Fides et ratio and Nostra aetate, that doing comparative work in other religions is not something extrinsic to theology. All in all, he took a rather defensive position; understandably, his contribution to Catholic theology and personal integrity were at stake.

The second member of the panel, Klaus von Stosch, whose area of specialization is the relationship between Christian faith and Islam, (5) answered the question in a similar way (and mentioned with a wink that he had received a nihil obstat at the time of his appointment at the theological faculty in Paderborn). …

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