8 Key Takeaways from ‘Ad Theologiam Promovendam’

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis is directing theologians to find a middle ground where they stay true to the Church’s long-standing traditions while also finding new ways to connect with the world today.

Pope Francis speaks at the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 16, 2019.
Pope Francis speaks at the weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 16, 2019. (photo: Riccardo De Luca / Shutterstock)

The apostolic letter Ad Theologiam Promovendam (“To Promote Theology”), released by Pope Francis on Nov. 1 in the form of a motu proprio, presents an ambitious vision for the renewal of theological pursuit within the life of the Church, cognizant of the shifting cultural landscapes and the Church’s mission in the contemporary world. Below is a summary consisting of eight basic takeaways from the letter:

1. The Call for a Prophetic Theology

Pope Francis calls for a dynamic and engaging theology that resonates with the realities of contemporary life. He encourages theologians to look beyond historical formulas and to address the rapid cultural and societal changes of our times. This prophetic theology should be a living dialogue that offers guidance and hope for the future, interacts with current cultural trends, and provides meaningful responses to today’s pressing questions. By incorporating diverse perspectives, including those from the margins of society, and being open to insights from other traditions, it should inspire a more inclusive and actionable understanding of faith that directly influences how people live and interact with one another, reflecting the love and hope central to Christian teaching.

2. The Evolution of the Pontifical Academy of Theology

The Pontifical Academy of Theology has a long history that goes back to the early 1700s, when it was first established by Pope Clement XI. Throughout the centuries, this institution has seen many changes to stay relevant and effective. With each era, the academy has taken steps to reshape itself to better serve the needs of the Church and its followers. Now, in keeping up with this tradition of adaptation, the latest changes to its rules and objectives are designed to match the vision laid out by past leaders of the Church. This means updating how the academy operates and what it sets out to achieve so it can address the issues and questions we face in today’s world. This is all about making sure that the institution is not just a relic of the past but a vibrant part of the Church’s engagement with the present and the future.

3. Revising Norms for Contemporary Mission

The document highlights that it has been almost 20 years since the last big update to the Church’s guidelines, and much has changed since then. Pope Francis believes it’s time for a fresh look at these rules to ensure they truly represent a Church that listens to its people (synodal), is actively spreading its message (missionary), and is fully involved with the issues of today’s world. This isn’t just about internal changes; it’s about shifting the approach to theology itself. According to the Holy Father, theology should look outward, actively interacting with the world and its many changes, not just repeating the same old ideas. It’s about making the Church’s teachings alive and relevant, so they can inspire and guide people in the modern world with all its new challenges and opportunities.

4. A Paradigm Shift in Theological Reflection

In the document, a significant change in how theology is thought about and practiced is called for. This isn’t just a small adjustment; it’s described as a “courageous cultural revolution.” Theology shouldn’t be done from an ivory tower, detached from the real world; instead, it needs to be grounded in the everyday lives of people from all corners of the globe, and across all walks of life. This approach tries to follow Jesus’ example — the Word of God (Logos) who became a human being and lived among us (Incarnation). By understanding the Gospel in the context of real human experiences, theologians can better relate its teachings to the diverse circumstances people find themselves in today. This way of doing theology, argues the Holy Father, is more accessible and avoids being trapped in abstract concepts that might not make sense to everyone. This shift may be one of the most challenging of the takeaways, as it lacks, in its current form, the necessary specificity so as to avoid possible misinterpretation and subsequent confusion.

5. Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity

The document calls for theology to be more interconnected with other fields of study, advocating for a broader, more collaborative approach to knowledge. It suggests that theologians should not just be aware of what other disciplines are saying but should actively integrate these insights into their work. The goal is to weave together different strands of knowledge into a cohesive understanding that reflects the wisdom God has revealed to us. This is different from just knowing a bit about many subjects (multidisciplinarity), which can often end up with each area of knowledge staying in its own separate box. Instead, the idea is to break down these walls, allowing for a richer, more informed theological reflection that benefits from the full spectrum of human understanding, from the sciences to the humanities and beyond. This is meant to help theology speak more directly to the diverse and complex issues of the modern world, using a language and a logic that is enriched by multiple perspectives.

6. Dialogue Within Ecclesial Community

The document highlights the importance of conversation and collaboration within the Church’s community when it comes to theological work. It points out that doing theology isn’t a solo task; it’s about working together and listening to each other within the Church. This approach is rooted in the Church’s nature as a synodal community — a community that walks together, where every member has a role in the journey of faith. Theologians, therefore, are encouraged to interact closely with other members of the Church, including the laity, clergy and religious, sharing their insights and learning from one another. This communion and brotherhood among theologians and within the wider Church community are crucial for spreading the Gospel effectively. It’s about reaching out to everyone, no matter where they are, and speaking to their hearts in a way that is welcoming and understandable. The document envisions theologians as integral members of the Church’s evangelizing mission, contributing not only through their intellectual work but also through their example of fellowship and mutual support.

7. Scientific Rigor and Wisdom

The document points out that when we study theology, we need to do more than just gather knowledge and analyze facts. It reminds us that theology is also about wisdom, which means understanding deep truths about life and how to live it well. This idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who said that theology is not just about learning things by heart but about truly understanding and loving the truth. The document uses the term “intellectual charity,” which means that our search for truth should always be done with love. When theologians work, they’re expected to be very careful and precise — like scientists — but they should also remember that the goal is to help people live better lives, not just to know more. It’s about connecting our minds and our hearts so that what we learn can really make a difference in our lives and the lives of others.

8. The Pastoral Stamp of Theology

The document encourages theologians to look at real-life situations and the different conditions people live in when they’re thinking and teaching about God. This approach is about understanding what’s happening in the world today — what the document calls the “signs of the times.” The idea is to make sure that our faith isn’t just a set of rules or ideas, but something that really shapes the way we live and how we see the world. Theology should help people see a vision of life that is beautiful and dignified, showing how the love of Christ can make life better for everyone, no matter where they are or what their life is like. By starting with the actual experiences of people, theologians can make sure that the faith speaks to everyone in a way that is meaningful and relevant to their daily lives.

In his letter, Pope Francis is directing theologians to find a middle ground where they stay true to the Church’s long-standing traditions while also finding new ways to connect with the world today. He believes that, without this balance, theology might become out of touch or stray from the core truths that it’s meant to study and share. The concern is that if these new ideas don’t build on Scripture and Tradition, they could end up going against the official teachings of the Church. This could create a divide between faith and reason, which have always been connected in Catholic thinking.

To avoid this, any new developments in theology must be deeply connected to divine Revelation — what God has shown us about himself, especially through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. This Source is the foundation for all theology in the Catholic Tradition.

As St. Vincent of Lérins observed in the fourth century, and St. John Henry Newman later expanded in the 19th century, theology must admit to an authentic development. This is to say, Christian doctrine, because it reflects God himself, undergoes a process of organic growth and evolution over time rather than remaining static and unchanged. Newman identified seven criteria to distinguish authentic development of doctrine from corruption, emphasizing that genuine developments must be consistent with the essence of Christian teaching, be logically coherent, and exhibit enduring strength across different historical contexts. 

This process allows the Church to articulate the apostolic faith in ways that resonate with changing cultures and new challenges. In this respect, and taken with the Holy Father’s motu proprio, theology should grow and change in a way that respects this foundation and stands in continuity with it, so it can remain a bridge between the timeless truths of the faith and the everyday lives of people in the modern world. This way, theology doesn’t just reflect on the past but also speaks to the present and guides us into the future, always aligned with the core teachings and values of the Catholic Church.