Francis: Doctrine Can't Be Separated from Pastoral Context

Riveting headline, I know. And yet, four weeks away from the start of the Synod on the Family (now expanded to three weeks instead of last year's two—more time for Synod truthers to spin elaborate conspiracy theories about the proceedings), the remarks Pope Francis delivered to the International Theological Congress on Thursday appear to set the table for the debate. I could summarize, but you're better off just reading what the pope said. (I can't find the text online, so I'm going drop in long excerpts from the Vatican Information Service bulletin.)

First, on the question of the local church's relationship with the universal (the issue behind the ridicuous attempt to smear Cardinal Walter Kasper as some kind of crypto-racist), the pope said:

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. 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.
 
And this leads us to assume that it is not the same to be a Christian…in India, in Canada, or in Rome. Therefore, 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." How does that original source manage to irrigate these lands today, and to make itself visible and liveable?… To meet this challenge, we must overcome two possible temptations: first, condemning everything: …assuming "everything was better in the past," seeking refuge in conservatism or fundamentalism, or conversely, consecrating everything, disavowing everything that does not have a "new flavor," 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.

Next, Francis discussed the relationship between doctrine and pastoral practice (another major question to be taken up by the Synod fathers):

We must turn again...to the arduous task of distinguishing the living message from the form of its transmission, from the cultural elements in which it is codified at a given time.
 
Do not allow the exercise of discernment to 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.

Francis then turned to the question of how theology ought to take account of those questions and doubts (another issue raised at the last Synod—should theology be deductive or inductive?):

The questions our people pose, their anguish, their quarrels, their dreams, their struggles, their concerns all have hermeneutical value we cannot ignore if we are to take seriously the principal of incarnation.… 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. For Christians, something becomes suspicious when we no longer admit the need for it to be criticised 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.

Finally, Francis explained his notion of how theology ought to be practiced. The theologian, he said, is the child of his people. "He cannot and does not wish to ignore them. He knows his people, their language, their roots, their histories, their tradition." That knowledge leads the theologian "to recognize that the Christian people among whom he was born have a theological sense that he cannot ignore." (The sense of the faithful is an abiding theme of Francis's ministry.) What's more, the theologian is a "believer," a "prophet"—because the theologian "keeps alive an awareness of the past and the invitation that comes from the future."

“There is only one way of practising theology: on one's knees," according to Francis. That is not merely an act of prayer that precedes the intellectual work of theology. The relationship between thinking and prayer "a dynamic reality." Doing theology "on one's knees," the pope concluded, "means encouraging thought when praying and prayer when thinking."

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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