The Church’s teaching and her pastoral ministry are not opposed, Pope Francis said in a video message on Thursday, even though this false dichotomy is frequently made.
“Not infrequently an opposition between theology and pastoral ministry emerges, as if they were two opposite, separate realities that had nothing to do with each other,” he said Sept. 3 to the International Theological Congress. “False opposition is generated between theology and pastoral ministry, between Christian reflection and Christian life.”
“We not infrequently identify doctrine with conservatism and antiquity; and on the contrary, we tend to think of pastoral ministry in terms of adaptation, reduction, accommodation, as if they had nothing to do with each other,” he lamented.
The Pope added that the Second Vatican Council was an effort “to overcome this divorce between theology and pastoral ministry, between faith and life.”
His words were sent to the theological congress, being held at the Buenos Aires’ Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina this week, which is commemorating the centenary of its theology faculty. The focus of the gathering is the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican II.
Pope Francis noted the importance of the university’s theology faculty for the local Church, saying that its centenary “celebrates life, history, the faith of the People of God journeying on earth and in search of ‘understanding’ and ‘truth’ from their own positions.”
“There exists no isolated particular Church that can be said to be the owner and sole interpreter of the reality and the work of the Spirit,” he added. “No community has a monopoly over interpretation or inculturation just as, on the other hand, there is no universal Church that turns away from, ignores or neglects the local situation.”
Francis noted that because the particular means of living out the Christian life vary from person to person and place to place, “one of the main tasks of the theologian is to discern and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian today, in the ‘here and now’.”
The Pope identified two temptations that arise in trying to make that discernment.
One he identified as “condemning everything: … assuming ‘everything was better in the past’, seeking refuge in conservatism or fundamentalism.
He also warned against “consecrating everything, disavowing everything that does not have a ‘new flavour’, relativising all the wisdom accumulated in our rich ecclesial heritage.”
“The path to overcoming these temptations lies in reflection, discernment, and taking both the ecclesiastical tradition and current reality very seriously, placing them in dialogue with one another.”
Pope Francis referred to St. John XXIII’s opening speech for the Second Vatican Council, and said the Church’s task is to distinguish “the Church’s living message” from “the form of its transmission” and “the cultural elements in which it is codified at a given time.”
Theologians’ discernment cannot, he cautioned, “lead to a betrayal of the content of the message. The lack of this theological exercise is detrimental to the mission we are invited to perform.”
“Doctrine is not a closed, private system deprived of dynamics able to raise questions and doubts. On the contrary, Christian doctrine has a face, a body, flesh: He is called Jesus Christ and it is his life that is offered from generation to generation to all men and in all places.”
Taking the Incarnation seriously, theologians cannot ignore “The questions our people pose, their anguish, their quarrels, their dreams, their struggles, their concerns,” he reflected.
The Bishop of Rome stated, “Our formulations of faith were born of dialogue, encounter, comparison and contact with different cultures, communities, and nations in situations calling for greater reflection on matters not previously clarified.”
He then added that it is suspicious when Christians “no longer admit the need” to be criticized by others. “People and their specific conflicts, their peripheries, are not optional, but rather necessary for a better understanding of faith. Therefore it is important to ask whom we are thinking of when we engage in theology.”
“Let us not forget that the Holy Spirit in a praying people is the subject of theology. A theology that is not born of this would offer something beautiful, but not real.”
Francis then outlined three characteristics of a theologian’s identity, noting that a theologian is first of all “a son of his people.”
As a person who knows their people’s language, history and tradition, a theologian is someone who learns to appreciate what they have received as a sign of God’s presence, and recognizes that the people into which they were born have “a theological sense that he cannot ignore.”
Secondly, the Pope said, “the theologian is a believer. The theologian is someone who has experience of Jesus Christ and has discovered he cannot live without him.”
Finally, theologians are prophets, he said, explaining that one of the greatest modern challenges “is not merely the ease with which it is possible to dispense with God – socially it has taken a step further. The current crisis pivots on the inability of people to believe in anything beyond themselves.”
This situation, he reflected, “creates a rift in personal and social identities” and “gives rise to a process of alienation, owing to a lack of past, and therefore of future. The theologian is thus a prophet, as he keeps alive an awareness of the past and the invitation that comes from the future. He is a able to denounce any alienating form as he intuits, reflecting on the river of Tradition he has received from the Church, the hope to which we are called.”
Francis concluded by saying the only true way of practicing theology is “on one’s knees,” in prayer.
“It is not merely the pious act of prayer before, and then thinking of theology. It is a dynamic reality of thought and prayer. Practising theology on one’s knees means encouraging thought when praying, and prayer when thinking.”