Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Theological Notes and the Interpretation of Doctrine

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Theological Notes and the Interpretation of Doctrine

Article excerpt

IN HIS LANDMARK ESSAY entitled "The Abiding Significance of Vatican II," Karl Rahner characterized the theology of the council as representing a transition from the rigid neo-Scholasticism of the 20th century to a more biblical and ecumenical theology appropriate to its time. Although Rahner noted the profound deficiencies of the neo-Scholastic method in its final and calcified form, he also issued this caution: "It should not however be inferred that this aspect [the neo-Scholastic influence on Vatican II] was merely obscure and negative. On the contrary, one could wish that students of theology even today were a little more aware of the conceptual exactitude of neo-Scholasticism and of its orientation to declarations of the magisterium." (1) In this article I begin by examining one aspect of this "conceptual exactitude," the neo-Scholastic qualificatio theologica or theological note. Next I consider the emergence of interpretive issues at Vatican II, particularly in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and the continuing need in theology for a means of evaluating the authority of doctrinal statements. As part of this analysis, I develop a hermeneutical principle for interpreting the documents of Vatican II.

While commenting on the overall inadequacy of the 20th-century neo-Scholastic method in which he was trained, Avery Dulles lists as one of its values: "[t]he recognition that not all conclusions were equally certain. Each thesis had to have a theological note attached to it, indicating the degree of its certitude or probability, as the case might be." (2) These theological notes were brief phrases qualifying the individual theological propositions that made up the various tracts in the manuals of neo-Scholastic theology. In addition to the summary judgment represented by the theological note itself: "reasons were given for the note in question: for example, the definitions of popes and councils, the clear teaching of Scripture, theological reasoning, the general consent of the fathers or of the theologians." (3)

Theological censures employed to characterize the degree of error in a given proposition were the negative corollaries of theological notes and appeared earlier in the history of theology. Yves Congar has pointed out that Thomas Aquinas applied "less canonical, more scientific qualifications"--such as stultum, ridiculum and ineptum--to arguments that he regarded as reflecting a defectum sapientiae. (4) Various censures were later occasionally used by popes and councils in condemning heresies, perhaps most notably against Martin Luther in the papal bull Exsurge Domine. (5) Lists of both positive notes and negative censures became increasingly elaborate in the post-Tridentine period, but "the rise of neo-scholasticism brought with it a meticulous distinction between the various notes and censures." (6)


A standard work detailing the use of the theological notes as applied in neo-Scholastic method just prior to Vatican II is the De valore notarum theologicarum et de criteriis ad eas dignoscendas authored by Sixtus [Sisto] Cartechini (1914-1994). A brief overview of the specific theological notes described in his small book will serve to highlight the extreme care with which the neo-Scholastic theologian sought to distinguish the precise degree of certitude associated with individual propositions. For each of the ten categories in his systematization, Cartechini, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University, named one or more theological notes and their corresponding censures, characterized the degree of assent required and the nature of the sin involved in denial, and supplied a specific theological proposition to serve as an example. (7)

The first category named is dogma fidei, and includes the alternative and equivalent notes de fide, de fide catholica, and de fide divina et catholica. …

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