Pope Francis issued a new apostolic letter last Wednesday calling for a “paradigm shift” in theology.
The document, dated Nov. 1, generated headlines in the secular media with its call for a new approach to theology. It also prompted considerable discussion among Catholics.
Here’s a brief guide to the text for busy readers.
What’s the document about?
Pope Francis wrote the letter to signal his approval of new statutes drawn up for the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Theology (known by its acronym PATH).
Until now, the pontifical academy — located on Rome’s Via della Conciliazione and overseen by the Dicastery for Culture and Education — has been following a course set by Pope John Paul II in 1999.
In the apostolic letter Inter munera academiarum, the Polish pope said that “the principal mission of theology today consists in promoting dialogue between Revelation and the doctrine of the faith, and in offering an ever deeper understanding of it.”
He issued the letter following the publication of his encyclical Fides et Ratio, which famously described faith and reason as being “like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
The 2023 statutes (not currently available online) are influenced by subsequent papal documents, such as 2013’s encyclical Lumen fidei and apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, and the 2018 apostolic constitution Veritatis gaudium.
What the motu proprio says
The almost 1,500-word text is currently only available in Italian (though there are unofficial translations). The letter, which is divided into 10 articles, takes its title from its opening words, or incipit.
Pope Francis begins with a firm declaration: “To promote theology in the future, we cannot limit ourselves to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes from the past.”
This recalls convictions that Francis expressed in the first major interview after his election, when he said that “the Church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently” and “God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths.”
The new motu proprio describes theology’s calling as “to prophetically interpret the present and to see new itineraries for the future, in the light of Revelation,” amid profound cultural transformations.
Francis briefly traces the history of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which was founded in 1718 by Pope Clement XI. He notes that its structure and purpose have changed over the centuries, as shown in the various iterations of its statutes.
The pope says that the time has come to review the academy’s guiding norms. A “synodal, missionary, and ‘outgoing’ Church,” needs a corresponding “outgoing” theology, he writes.
But this shift is not merely “tactical.” It’s not enough to adapt “now crystallized contents to new situations.” Rather, theology must be reconsidered both epistemologically and methodologically, along the lines indicated in the foreword to Veritatis gaudium.
In arguably the motu proprio’s most significant section. Francis says that theological reflection is “called to a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution.’”
What does this turning point consist of? Francis says that, above all, it must be marked by “a fundamentally contextual theology.”
This means that theology must be “capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live daily, in different geographical, social and cultural environments.”
“Starting from here, theology can only develop in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian confessions and different religions, openly engaging with everyone, believers and non-believers,” he writes.
If theology does not have this relational dimension, it risks “isolation and insignificance,” Francis says. Instead, theology must see itself as being embedded “in a web of relationships, first and foremost with other disciplines and other knowledge.”
The pope calls this “transdisciplinarity,” which he defines as a strong form of interdisciplinarity. It should not be mistaken for the weak form, which he calls “multidisciplinarity.”
Transdisciplinarity enables theology to “make use of new categories developed by other knowledge, to penetrate and communicate the truths of faith and transmit the teaching of Jesus in today’s languages, with originality and critical awareness,” the pope explains.
Francis says it’s important that theologians have “places, including institutional ones, in which to live and experience collegiality and theological fraternity.”
The pope writes that a focus on theology as a science must not obscure its “sapiential dimension,” as St. Thomas Aquinas noted.
Francis cites Bl. Antonio Rosmini, the founder of the Rosminians, who “considered theology a sublime expression of ‘intellectual charity,’ while calling for the critical reason of all knowledge to be oriented towards the Idea of Wisdom.”
“Now the Idea of Wisdom holds Truth and Charity together internally in a ‘solid circle,’ so that it is impossible to know the truth without practicing charity,” the pope says.
To ensure that theology has the necessary “pastoral ‘stamp,’” the pope urges theologians to use an “inductive method” (moving from the specific to the general). This means that they should begin with “concrete situations,” allowing themselves to be “seriously challenged by reality.” They should then seek to discern “the ‘signs of the times’ in the announcement of the salvific event of the God-agape, communicated in Jesus Christ.”
The pope urges the pontifical academy to engage in “transdisciplinary dialogue with other scientific, philosophical, humanistic and artistic knowledge, with believers and non-believers, with men and women of different Christian denominations and different religions.”
He suggests this can be achieved by “creating an academic community for sharing faith and study, which weaves a network of relationships with other training, educational, and cultural institutions.”
The pope concludes that thanks to its new statutes, the PATH “will be able to more easily pursue the objectives that the present time requires.”
What does it all mean?
Theologians consulted by The Pillar said that the document’s key phrase was “contextual theology.”
This term, also sometimes called “contextualizing theology,” is often traced back to Shoki Coe (1914-1988), a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan who argued that theology needed to address concerns arising in specific local contexts.
The concept was taken up enthusiastically in parts of the Catholic world. Liberation theology in Latin America is sometimes cited as an example of contextual theology.
The theologians also noted that the document was marked by the “theology of the people” (teología del pueblo), which emerged in Argentina after the Second Vatican Council. This stream of thought, associated with the theologians such as Lucio Gera, Rafael Tello, and Juan Carlos Scannone, sees the people as a “locus theologicus,” or locus of theological reflection.
The theology of the people has influenced not only Pope Francis but also the Vatican’s new doctrinal guardian Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who several theologians thought had drafted the motu proprio.
Massimo Faggioli, professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, told The Pillar Nov. 5 that Ad theologiam promovendam was the latest in “a series of statements and documents by Francis on the need for theology to change and be part of a more evangelizing and missionary Church.”
He said that it followed other important interventions such as a 2015 letter to the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, a 2017 address to students and academics, the 2017 apostolic constitution Veritatis gaudium, and a 2019 speech to Italian theologians.
“The ‘cultural revolution’ for theology that Francis talks about here [in the new motu proprio] fits his ecclesiology since Evangelii gaudium: a more contextual theology, talking to and receiving from the people of God, less abstract and more pastoral,” Faggioli said via email.
“This document concerns the statutes of the Pontifical Academy for Theology but has, or should have, implications for Catholic theologians in all academic institutions, especially when it talks about theology as ‘true critical knowledge as sapiential knowledge, not abstract and ideological, but spiritual, elaborated on our knees, shaped by adoration and prayer’ and that it cannot ‘forget its sapiential/wisdom dimension.’”
He added: “This document calls theologians to be more contextual but this implies also a more incarnational, embodied, and testimonial view of the profession — which is very difficult or impossible to incorporate in a job description for a new position or for the evaluation of the accomplishments of a Catholic theologian.”
Faggioli said that the motu proprio’s reception would depend on many factors.
“Catholic theology in the 21st century is ‘done’ in many different kinds of institutions — pontifical, Catholic with different orientations, Catholic centers and institutes in non-Catholic institutions, etc. — and there are many different ways to receive or ignore this vision of theology coming from Pope Francis,” he said.
“This is the question of the future of Catholic theology today: how to be academically rigorous, critical, scientific, and at the same time committedly ecclesial. These two dimensions are in tension that can be fruitful but in many institutions today do not coexist well together.”
Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, told The Pillar Nov. 2 that he thought the new motu proprio contained ambiguities and omissions.
“It is a typical Pope Francis document — a great deal of high-sounding words that are very ambiguous. It is mostly bells and whistles,” he said via email.
“[Pope Francis] states the following: Theology must take into account contemporary experiences, must be of service to the culture, must develop, must take into account the culture revolution, must be bottom-up, must be pastoral, must take into account the common sense of people, must be evangelistic.”
“Now in one sense, all of this could be taken in a positive sense and acknowledged as true. The problem is, as is often the case with Francis, there is no mention that theology must be founded upon the traditional interpretation of scripture, the living theological and magisterial tradition, the infallible teaching of the Councils, and be faithful to Catholic doctrine and moral teaching.”
“Only if all of these are taken into account can theology address contemporary culture, develop in a proper manner, be pastoral, be faithful to the sensus fidelium [sense of the faithful], and be evangelistic.”
Weinandy, who previously served as executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Doctrine and wrote a 2017 open letter expressing concern about Pope Francis’ theology, added: “There can be no authentic paradigm shift without being faithful to upholding and promoting what the Church has authentically taught through the centuries.”
“What has been previously taught and believed cannot now be said to be erroneous.”
What happens next?
The pontifical academy said in a Nov. 1 press release that the motu proprio gave it “new competency for a fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue.”
The pontifical academy said that the new statutes recognized a new category of collaborators in its work, known as “Interlocutori Referenti,” or scholars from different Christian traditions and other religions.
It said it would engage with universities and other “centers of production of culture and thought.” It will also hold meetings that seek to promote a “disclosure of wisdom” that enlightens not only the faithful but also those who do not believe in God.
PATH’s president Bishop Antonio Staglianò said: “Pope Francis entrusts our pontifical academy with a new mission: that of promoting, in every field of knowledge, discussion and dialogue in order to reach and involve all the people of God in theological research, so that the life of the people becomes theological life.”