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Restoring the Queen of Sciences to a Place of Honor

BY Father Stravinskas

January 5, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/5/97 at 2:00 PM

 

By PETER STRAVINSKAS

Father Peter Stravinskas addressed the Cardinal Newman Society's conference on “John Paul II and Catholic Higher Education,” Oct. 19, 1996, in Arlington, Va. (Excerpted)

From the Enlightenment forward, one of the problems theology has had to face is a warped understanding of its nature, so that it has been confused with opinion, superstition, sentiment or ideology. Theology, however, is a science like any other, for it is what Karl Rahner calls “methodical reflection.” That is, there is a body of knowledge and a procedure proper to it, by which an individual may apprehend it. Furthermore, while theology is “done” within the context of faith, it presupposes rationality, whereby we realize that while faith and reason are intimately connected, they are nonetheless distinct.

St. Thomas Aquinas gave classical expression to all this in his Summa. Allow me to summarize his analysis. The Angelic Doctor explains that not all sciences have to be based on “self-evident principles” gained solely from natural intelligence; rather, not a few depend on “higher sciences” as we see optics leaning on geometrical principles or harmony on arithmetical ones. “The teaching of God is such a science,” he declares. “It is based on premises known by the light of a higher science, namely God's own knowledge of himself shared with the blessed in heaven.” Because this is God's “own knowledge of himself,” it is superior to any other form of knowledge; that should not be taken as a negative judgment on other types of knowledge. In point of fact, Aquinas goes on to observe that these “subordinate” sources of data, with which “human reason is more at home,” are actually quite useful to lead human reason “towards what transcends reason.” Notice: He does not say “towards what contradicts reason” because nothing of faith can ever be in opposition to reason—but certain elements can certainly be beyond it.

This notion demands humility among those who practice both the science of theology and the other sciences alike; that is, the theologian must see the value in other disciplines, even as the practitioner of the other sciences must recognize their limitations. What St. Thomas is envisioning here is a kind of symbiotic union between faith and reason.…

THE PLACE OF THEOLOGY IN THE CHURCH

Having come to some appreciation of theology, we must now ask ourselves the place it occupies in the Church. If it is true that theology is that science which enables believers to give a rational, realistic explanation of their faith, in keeping with the injunction of the First Epistle of Peter (cf. 3, 15), then every Christian is called upon to be a theologian in some sense of the word. But theology, in the fullest and most professional sense, is essential to the whole Church's articulation of her faith, and this demands the full-time commitment of individuals who are carefully formed and informed. Cardinal Ratzinger underscored this in his 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” when he wrote: “Theology has importance for the Church in every age so that it can respond to the plan of God ‘Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tm 2, 4). In times of great spiritual and cultural change, theology is all the more important.”…

For theology to be successful, the object of the discipline must be clear: the pursuit of truth. And that calls for gifts of the intellect, to be sure, but also gifts of the spirit and especially the Holy Spirit. Which obviously means that a theologian must be a person of prayer. Furthermore, since theology is a science, the theologian must utilize the methodology proper to his discipline, which is best summarized in the famous dictum of St. Anselm—fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Cardinal Ratzinger, in a most felicitous phrase, urges the theologian to “allow his gaze to be purified by faith.”

As a professional scholar, the theologian has the right to what has been dubbed by the academic community as “freedom of research.” However, the Holy See's “Instruction” does not hesitate to caution the theologian of the need to be sure that in the process of research “no element has intruded that is foreign to the methodology corresponding to the object under study.” Essential elements of theological research are acceptance of divine Revelation and attentive listening to the voice of the Magisterium. “To eliminate them,” we read, “would mean to cease doing theology.”

The relationship between the theological community and the Church's Magisterium should be characterized by a collaborative spirit and reciprocity. The work of clarifying and systematizing the teaching of Revelation is gladly given by bishops to those whose training and disposition make them best suited for this task. This collaboration is seen most clearly when a bishop confers upon a theologian a canonical mandate to teach in the name of the Church. Upon accepting that mission, the theologian indicates his willingness to be of service to God's Word and Christ's Church by “making the profession of faith and taking the oath of fidelity.”…

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recalls for us that “this [academic] freedom does not indicate at all freedom with regard to the truth but signifies the free self-determination of the person in conformity with his moral obligation to accept the truth.” Beyond that, “one cannot then appeal to these rights of man in order to oppose the interventions of the Magisterium.” “Such behavior,” we are told, “fails to recognize the nature and mission of the Church which has received from the Lord the task to proclaim the truth of salvation to all men.”…

THE PLACE OF THEOLOGY WITHIN THE UNIVERSITY

At any rate, we are now brought face to face with the specific question placed before us today—how theology is indeed the soul of the university. This will require us to take a look at how theology and philosophy are related to each other and to examine the relationship between theology and the other disciplines.

It would seem that already in the 12th century some people were questioning the suitability of theology as a distinct science, for St. Thomas handles that question in his Summa: “Whether, besides philosophy, any further doctrine is required?” To no one's amazement, he replies in the affirmative: “… in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation. It was therefore necessary that, besides philosophical science built up by reason, there should be a sacred science learned through revelation.” Eight centuries later, Karl Rahner devoted an entire entry in his Sacramentum Mundi to the relationship between philosophy and theology. He aptly points out that, given Vatican I's setting forth the difference between the two, Catholic theology does “not merely tolerate philosophy but actually calls for it.” Hence, we are not talking about a kind of peaceful co-existence but of the concrete need of one for the other. To those who think that theology can be omitted from philosophical inquiry, Rahner directs a most poignant reminder: “… philosophy, on principle, can exclude nothing from its critical questioning. It cannot omit the phenomenon of the Christian Faith without giving up its claim to be universal and hence ceasing to be itself.… All philosophy is in fact carried on unconsciously either in faith or unbelief.” Why? Because there is no such thing as “one who is neutral with regard to grace.”

If this is true, then it stands to reason that theology as much as philosophy belongs in a university curriculum—of any university (not just one which operates under religious auspices) which desires to be all-inclusive of the various sciences which lead men to the truth. Even Thomas Jefferson the Deist, who is championed as the great proponent of an absolutist view of the separation of Church and state, insisted that his University, founded in this same State of Virginia where we find ourselves today, would include a department of theology—if for no other reason than to provide the full spectrum of human thought.…

Not only do the secular disciplines need theology, theology needs them. Way back in the second century, Tertullian thought he was asking a rhetorical question when he demanded, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” By which, he meant that theology could surely go her own way with nary a connection to philosophy or any other secular field. The Church, however, never bought Tertullian's point of view on this; the proof of this assertion can be located in the historical fact that in the very midst of what has been dubbed “the age of faith,” the Church began the university system. There is a connectedness and interdependence between and among the various branches of knowledge, human and divine.

When theologians desire to go their own way in blissful isolation from the rest of truth-seekers, they exhibit the same kind of classical hubris that we find so reprehensible among rabid secularists. So, yes, theology can overstep its bounds, and history gives us ample, embarrassing examples of this. More prelates and theologians need to have the humility and wisdom of a Cardinal Baronius who, during the Galileo controversy, treated as a truism the line: “The Scriptures tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Pope John Paul II—the professor of philosophy as well as the chief teacher of Divine Revelation in God's Church—has situated himself firmly within the Baronius camp.…

Who should be “doing theology” in a Catholic university, and under what conditions? You will remember that at the beginning of this paper, I noted that the theologian needed to be holy—or at least seeking holiness. This must be underscored at this point in our considerations. One cannot profess to speak about the all-holy God without being in a relationship with Him. The Byzantine liturgy, at the invitation to Holy Communion, has the priest proclaim, “Hagia hagiois” (Holy things for the holy). Without any mental gymnastics, I think we can honestly apply that line to theologians and their work on behalf of the People of God.…

And granting that the theologian is a believer in the transcendent, that is not enough. After all, St. James tell us that “even the demons believe but tremble” (2, 19). No, the theologian must also be part of the Church or, as I am fond of phrasing it, that person must “love the Church,” relating not to an impersonal institution but to one whom St. Paul would have us regard as both the Bride of Christ (Eph 5, 22-33) and our Mother (Gal 4, 26). Furthermore, such an individual must give evidence of attempting to live the truth of Christ. Never should Christ's denunciation of certain of the religious leaders of His own day be able to be said of those who teach theology in our Catholic institutions of higher learning: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but they do not practice” (Mt 23, 2f).

Rightly, then, does the Code of Canon Law stipulate: “In Catholic universities it is the duty of the competent statutory authority to ensure that there be appointed teachers who are not only qualified in scientific and pedagogical expertise, but are also outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and uprightness of life” (c. 810).…

Because those who teach theology in Catholic universities are believers who love Christ and His Church; because they are committed to the truth as Christ's Holy Spirit preserves it in His Church; because they are intent on using their vocation to achieve their own salvation and to aid in that of others; for all these reasons, they will never react defensively or hostilely to the engagement of the Church's bishops in this whole scheme of things. As Pope John Paul noted in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, bishops “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic university” (n. 28). That is so because revelation is an integral aspect of “doing” Catholic theology, and the principal guardians and transmitters of Revelation are the bishops. Therefore, theologians that fail to accept that fact of life have failed to understand Catholic theology and do not use the methodology proper to their science. Which is to say that, on that score, they fail as Catholic theologians.

But more than a century before the present Holy Father, Cardinal Newman—that great advocate of academic freedom—was capable of stating in the strongest language: “Hence, a direct and active jurisdiction of the Church over [a Catholic university] and in it is necessary, lest it should become the rival of the Church with the community at large in those theological matters to which the Church is exclusively committed.”…

When I was a boy, we were told that theology was deemed “the queen of the sciences.” Today, both within secular academia and the ecclesiastical scene, theology often has a hard time claiming little more than serfdom. Largely, however, it is the fault of many of her own. We need to help her regain her former dignity. That will only happen when she is re-oriented toward the King. May that be the goal toward which we all work, and may we all live long enough to re-enter that Promised Land where theology will once more reign as Queen.

Father Stravinskas is editor of The Catholic Answer and provost of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Mt. Pocono, Pa.