The Responsibility and Tasks of Theology

in the Church and the World Today

Address by Monsignor Joseph Doré

Archbishop of Strasbourg

The Catholic University of America

April 8, 2003

Monsignor Joseph Doré

Theology as such and in its entirety has reference to faith. In its very origin it depends on faith and its end is to serve faith. The responsibility of theology then is defined by reference to faith, and so the tasks of the theologian are carried out in relation to it. To say this of course is to say the essential but at the same time it is also to remain at the level of generalities. Much more precision is needed. To this effect I shall adopt the following plan:

In the first part (I), which will also serve as a developed introduction, I shall propose a principle, which I shall express in this way:

The responsibility of theology is carried out

in relation to faith in its entirety.

I am speaking then in the first place of a principle, and the key word in the statement of this principle is ?entirety?.

In the second part (II), which will necessarily be longer, I shall go on to discuss how this principle is applied, taking as my title:

From the different aspects of faith to the multiple tasks of theology.

Here I shall take successively each of the main characteristics of faith; I shall make the application to theology and show for each the particular task that flows from it for theology. Thus there will be four characteristics ? or aspects or dimensions ? of faith, to which will correspond respectively four tasks of theology.

In the third and final part (III), which has the character of a rather brief conclusion (comparable in importance to the introductory first part), I shall draw the consequences for what I shall call:

The formal characteristics of theology as discourse of faith.


1. All the aspects of faith

It is to faith that theology is bound; more precisely, to faith in its entirety, in accordance with all that it is. Theology then cannot be placed solely in relation to doctrine; it cannot be related solely to forms of discourse, however fundamental or normative, however firm or authorized they may be. Faith in fact is also celebrated in worship and is applied in the spiritual life and in moral action; through all of this it is in fact embodied in a whole set of relational networks and institutions ? and so it is with regard to all these aspects of faith that theology must hold itself responsible. It is for all of them that it must seek to be accountable.

At the same time the discourse of theology must not remain purely theoretical and timeless. If we confined ourselves to the discursive aspects of faith, we could be content with trying to explain, defend and illustrate teachings: those of Scripture, for example, and Tradition and the Magisterium. And it could then be left to areas of theology other than theology ?strictly speaking? to deal with what would be regarded as merely ?concrete applications? or ?practical conclusions?.

If on the contrary the responsibility of theology is to be defined with regard to all that faith is, it follows that theology should be accountable for the teachings of faith not only in themselves but also as they are lived and practised in fact by believers, and so as they are applied in history and society, in the world and in culture ? for the teachings of the faith, consequently, in their concrete historical form or aspect: in as much as they must be (and are) received and embodied among Christians, and also in as much as they are neglected, contested or rejected among those who are not Christian.

In other words, theology must indeed apply itself to being accountable for the doctrine of faith but it must do so without ignoring non-doctrinal aspects of faith. This has a certain number of consequences for theology, both as to the precise tasks it must fulfill (cf. II) and as to the formal characteristics of its discourse (cf. III). But it also implies that, in respect of all the aspects that open it up ad extra, faith is also exposed to investigation by authorities other than itself ? and theology will have to take account of this fact. This second point must be noted straight away.

2. Authorities other than those of faith

Already as doctrine, faith is called to enter into dialogue and debate with other authorities, which also have their own proper qualifications. In the first place of course there is philosophy, with which from its beginnings theology has been constantly in dialogue? But indeed the conditions in which theology can engage in such exchanges have altered considerably since the beginning of modern times.

On the one hand, dialogue partners have multiplied. Philosophy is no longer the only one ; there is also history, ever since it became a true science at the end of the nineteenth century, and from the twentieth century there are the various other human sciences.

On the other hand, these particular partners have become more and more autonomous: they have declared themselves resolutely profane and secular. This was already the case for philosophy from the seventeenth century, whereas until then theology tended to keep it in a merely ?ancillary? status. And it is even more the case today for the human sciences, since they can be said to have been born with the express will of emancipation and autonomy vis-à-vis faith and its ?authorities?.

Theology must not keep itself as a matter of principle at a distance from these disciplines and their procedures, secular though they may be. In the same way as it agreed to dialogue with philosophy because faith has to do with discourse, thought and understanding, and then with the science of history because Christianity has no place outside of history, so theology today must engage in conversation with sociology, psychology, linguistics, etc. ? because, no less certainly, faith is a reality of an institutional order, because it follows the contours of the human psyche, because it is set forth in texts, etc.

Of course this does not mean that faith will have to renounce itself ? we shall return to this. On the contrary, recourse to new methods of treating of faith can serve both to highlight the better some of its aspects and to eliminate some reservations or criticisms in its regard. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that these more or less new disciplines do not wait for authorization before attempting to produce analyses and ?critiques? of the Christian faith that may be very much to the point. It is preferable then not to leave the word completely to them, but better rather to seek to join them on their own field so as to become capable of engaging with them in proper dialogue.

The whole question then obviously will be to see that the procedures and analyses thus adopted do not go beyond the area of their own competence. In other words, the whole question will be to know if, with their help, theology does or does not become more qualified to render account of faith as faith and in accordance with all the aspects of faith as such.


Let us pass now from the principle to its applications. We shall identify successively four aspects of faith and shall draw from each of them in turn the corresponding task for theology.

The first dimension of faith flows from what characterises it basically, that is, that it is first and foremost confession of the Mystery.

1. Faith as confession of the Mystery

(a) The dimension of knowledge of faith

If faith went unquestioned by human intelligence, if of itself it could maintain and transmit itself without the obligation of entering into debate with whatever considers it from the outside or criticizes it or distorts it, there would certainly be no need for theology: faith would be self-sufficient. Or if faith were in revolt against the intellect and its activity, if it were required to make a sacrificium intellectus, theology would not be needed either: strength of commitment and heartfelt emotion would readily dispense with it. Or yet again, if, called to self-understanding, faith could achieve this by means and procedures that would be strictly proper to itself, it could in all good conscience stake out its own field of intelligibility? And it could cast into the ?outer darkness? all of the other ?human, all too human? modes of treating of faith.

But it is faith itself that forbids us to look at things in this way. In fact it is essential to faith to be a logike latreia, a rationabile obsequium (Rom. 12 :1). The revelation that calls it into being and to which it is required to answer has in its very constitution an aspect of Word-addressed. This means that this revelation will be effectively received only if it is received in respect of the element of knowledge that it wishes to communicate. It means, as a corollary, that this reception will be authentic only if it motivates and mobilises the intellect of the recipient. Because it is knowledge, the confession of faith is an act that engages the understanding of the believer.

By the same token of course theological reflection appears as a demand of faith. It follows therefore that it has certain precise obligations.

(b) Theology and faith as faith

Since theology thus appears not as in opposition to but as essential to faith, it cannot aim at substituting its own discourse for that of faith. It must be even more careful not to aim at dispensing with faith in any way! Even though it treats of faith through procedures and methods that are unknown to faith, theology must only proceed in this way in order to bring to light the plausibility, the benefit, the richness of faith precisely as faith. It should only proceed in ways that make faith clearer to itself and more alive, as faith. The task of theology is not to prove that the truth of faith resides elsewhere than in the act, the attitude, the gesture, the confession of faith as conscious adherence to the revealed Mystery of God. On the contrary, theology must acknowledge its responsibility to bring to light the fact that and the reason why faith is not only a fully respectable and responsible human attitude but one that yields to no other in its own order.

Clearly then, not only is theology essentially distinguished from the ?human sciences? as these are applied to matters of faith, but it is also marked off from the ?religious sciences? whatever their specialisations. If theology works on expressions of faith, on forms or aspects of faith, as these religious sciences do, as theology it must never allow itself to forget that faith has produced these forms, that faith gives them their true consistency, and that theirs is a call to faith.

Accordingly, theology appears as nothing more or nothing less than one of the modes of expression of the confession of faith itself, as a form of accomplishment of the very process of faith. In the way it treats of faith then, the specificity of theology does not reside in the fact that it would succeed to faith as something essentially different from it, for example as a completely different type of knowledge. The specificity of theology can be stated as follows: it aims at carrying as far as possible the intellectual investigation and the conceptual articulation of the aspect of knowledge and of understanding that is co-essential to faith as such. To this element, verified from the very first instant of faith, all believers have access of themselves1.

2. Faith as life in the Spirit

Faith implies much more than a form of knowledge. Theology has also a responsibility in respect of all that goes beyond knowledge, in faith understood as adherence to the Mystery ? what we can designate here as ?life in the Spirit?. Other tasks for theology follow from this responsibility.

(a) The spiritual dimension of faith

The fact must be acknowledged that, at least in western theology, there has been an increasing tendency for some centuries to confine theology to intellectuality. It can even be said that modern theology has come more and more to consider reason and enlightenment as its principal if not its only companion. As a result there have often been two victims. On the one hand, theology itself tended to become purely a matter of reasoning, demonstration and deduction; and that deprived it of all access, other than rational, to its object, which it nevertheless considered as incommensurable with pure human reason. On the other hand, the properly spiritual dimension of faith, when it was not simply abandoned to itself, was left to a ?spiritual theology? called ?ascetic and mystical?. This latter did not always manage to maintain living contact with the confession of faith itself, and consequently it found itself in all sorts of psychological backwaters or affective hypertrophies.

All of the great theological productions of the past, however, were linked to strong currents of spiritual vitality in the Church. Augustine would not be comprehensible without the fine flowering of the North African Church, nor the Cappadocians without early monasticism, nor even Saint Thomas without the Order of Preachers ? And what of Bérulle or Newman, what of Rahner and Balthasar?2

We have now come to an age in which, on the contrary, a considerable gap seems to have opened up between current theology on the one hand and, on the other, all that has to do with prayer, spiritual experience and, more generally, what is called ?popular piety?. Moreover, a situation is emerging that is surely new in the history of the Church: theology can be studied without receiving, concomitantly, a true spiritual formation. Even during the abstract neo-scholastic period, the students ? most of them later to become priests or religious ? were provided for in this regard in their seminaries or scholasticates. This is no longer the case. Formerly students in theology could find the means to come into living contact with Reality of the Mystery that theology claims to deal with in a whole environment of prayer and, more generally, in the various ?spiritual exercises?. Their successors of today on the contrary feel quite frustrated. Not being compensated elsewhere, the lack of connection they perceive between theological discourse and its potential to give access to the Reality that it deals with, brings them to condemn theology. Theology, they say, does not allow them to pursue, by supporting and enriching it, the spiritual path that in fact brought them to theology.

The conclusion is inescapable that, if it is the responsibility of theology to be accountable for faith, this implies that every theologian today must make or remake room for the properly spiritual dimension of faith. This is how Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger puts it, with a slightly polemical note that takes nothing from the positive import of his words:

Just as we cannot learn to swim without water, so we cannot learn theology without the spiritual praxis in which it lives. This is by no means intended as an attack on lay theologians, whose spiritual life often enough puts us priests to shame, but, rather, as a very basic question about how the study of theology can be meaningfully structured so that it does not succumb to academic neutralization in which theology becomes ultimately a contradiction of itself.3

(b) The sacramental reference of theology

Prayer and the spiritual quest, however, are not the only means available to faith to come into contact with the Reality on which it depends, and which is none other than the very Mystery of God.

God did not confine himself to speaking in order to communicate knowledge and to call to a way of life. He communicated himself once and for all in Jesus Christ; and through Christ?s ever-active mediation God continues to communicate himself through space and time, by his Spirit, in the sacraments of the Church. Since faith is the attitude through which this self-revelation of God is received, it also includes the practice of the sacraments, in and through which God effectively and efficaciously signifies here and now his self-communication to the believer.

It follows then that the responsibility of theology extends also to this aspect of faith. Theologians must not forget that the Mystery about which they reason is the very one that really presents itself to be encountered and received in the sacraments. Remember that, for example, neither a theology of the Trinity nor a theology of redemption is possible independently of an effective reference to the Christian celebration of baptism and the Eucharist. And note that here theology is not only referred to the texts of the ritual according to which the sacraments are celebrated, but also to the symbolic and mystical experience that the sacraments, as rites practiced in faith, make effective. Faith, for which theology is accountable and to which then it must defer, is inconceivable without the sacraments of the Church which celebrate it and make it a source of life. It must be said then that a sacramental dimension is essential to theology, to all theology.4

Theology, being by nature discourse, only deals directly with expressions of faith. But

? (i) theology worthy of the name must be accountable for faith as faith,

? (ii) faith worthy of the name non terminatur ad enuntiabile sed ad rem.5

Theology must therefore find the means ? beyond discourse necessarily, even if they must remain expressed through discourse ? to keep real contact with and to offer real access to the Reality that is implied in faith and that is none other than the revealed/communicated Mystery of God. These means could not be other than those of prayer and the spiritual quest, as well as those of sacrament and liturgical celebration ? in other words, those of life in the Spirit and in accordance with the Spirit.

3. Faith as engagement in the world

Faith, and so theology, can exist and be realized only in the world, simply because they can achieve realization only as human. There is no contradiction here with what has just been developed as the spiritual dimension of faith and of theology. Indeed in confessing the Incarnation of God himself in Jesus Christ, Christian faith can only be really coherent if it takes the means to incarnate itself!

(a) The practical dimension of faith

Faith calls for conversion; it wants to give life. It is not truth independently of the path that leads to it or without the life it aims to give. Life in the Spirit, certainly ? but more precisely, life-in-the-Spirit-in-the-world. If this is so, theology must present faith in such a way that it appears open not only to a ?spiritual? type of appropriation but also to a decision that changes one?s life, and thus is situated in the ethical domain, which involves the practical domain. Hence, once again, further tasks for theology.

On the one hand, inside the Church itself, it is for theology to bring to light many things important for faith considered as engagement in the world. Negatively, it must locate all of the lacunas, or even all the deviations that faith can exhibit in its concretely lived forms. Positively, it must bring to light all the possibilities it could have, whether by virtue of a better knowledge of the Christian tradition or by reason of a better articulation of the aspirations and potentialities of people today.

On the other hand, concern with lending support to the decision and the practice of faith today requires that theology helps to ensure respect for the hierarchy of the truths of faith. Because of that, it is invited to present the faith in such ways as to put emphasis on its heart, its centre, its vital core. This implies no attack on the integrity of doctrine of course, but it is becoming more urgent than ever to go straight to the essential, which illuminates everything and with regard to which everything is to be determined.

It must be noted however that these different tasks of lending aid in the practical presentation and practical decision of faith are not subordinate tasks that would require only second-class methods, matters simply of pastoral care, and thus limited to ?techniques? merely or even ?tricks?. Once it is accepted that it is faith that is involved, and that its future depends also on a task of reflection and of thought, it is obvious on the contrary that theology simply cannot be kept or keep itself from involvement here.

(b) The ?committed? aspect of theology

A further step must be taken however. In its practical concern and practical dimension theology must not be preoccupied with the world and culture merely in order that faith may have more chance of being accepted there, and so in order to allow the Church to develop further. The mission of faith is also to change the world itself, to transform it, to contribute to its becoming more human and more fraternal, and to advance justice and peace there. Consequently, theology must develop its practical dimension from this ?extra-ecclesial? point of view also.

Let me insist on this, to be absolutely clear: faith and so theology give attention to the world, not only in order to reply to the attacks and the resistance of non-believers against faith and against the Church, and not only in order to compensate for the insufficiencies and infidelities of Christians in their witness to the faith. Faith and so theology must also, and even primarily, be interested in the world as world ? at least in the way God loves it (Jn 3:16). For it is truly the world of human beings ? of human life and its conditions ? that faith and theology must illuminate and transform, in order to lead them towards the salvation that God offers them.

Today it is obviously in the Third World, and more particularly in the Latin American theologies of liberation, that this aspect of theological responsibility has especially been highlighted, but there is also ? and we must not forget it ? the whole European ?political theology?. The great Christian tradition, it should be noted however, has always considered that a moral-practical dimension is part and parcel of theology ? so much so that it gives it, under the name of ?moral theology?, a particularly important place both qualitatively and quantitatively (see the plan of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas). Moreover, it has always been clearly understood that the doctrine of God?s omnipotence and the doctrine of the Lordship of Christ crucified not only have practical consequences as a sort of ?side effect?, but indeed of themselves involve certain implications both for social justice and for political order and organisation. This is also true of the teaching of Christ on the unique and double commandment of love, and of the final judgment of history as it is announced in Matthew 25, for example.

This is not the time to develop the point, but it is important to claim its place for a dimension of theological responsibility too often neglected. It is made all the more important by the fact that, although in principle theology keeps its distance from the conditioning effects of the world, this does not prevent it from being in reality more or less consciously subject to them. It has the duty then to shoulder its own responsibilities in a world in which, in any case, it lives. Only, it must do so for the right reason: the reason precisely of faith and of its own responsibility in the world, avoiding ill-considered positions as well as polemical distortion and undue interference.

Theology must take responsibility in history for what it says to the world about God and on behalf of God. It announces the Word of God in the form of a framework of alliance between God and humanity, in the form of a history and an event of salvation, of a law that is source of life and blessing, of a judgment that is carried out in the world with power, of a future for human history in God, of a promise and a call. All of these realities, inseparably already present and yet to come, divine and human, gifts of grace and tasks committed to the faithful, must take shape in history, to be revealed and accomplished there.6

4. Faith as insertion into the ecclesial body

Faith, for which theology is accountable, is obviously of an ecclesial nature. It is impossible then for the same character not to be verified in the case of theology. This will manifest itself mainly in two ways.

(a) The ecclesial dimension of faith

All of the aspects already enumerated of faith taken in its ?entirety? have as condition and effect an insertion, effective and more and more marked, of the believer into the community of believers that is the Church. The faith by reference to which theology defines its responsibility is the faith of the Church: the faith that the Church both declares and announces, celebrates and lives, attests and incarnates. Clearly then, theology must always aim to be, and must be in fact, related to the concrete reality of the Church, and inserted intimately into it.

It follows from this that the seriousness of its mission in the world leads ecclesial faith to take shapes and forms that can vary greatly according to places and circumstances. The ecclesial reference of theology cannot remain general, theoretical, abstract. To avoid the risk of being completely non-existent, this reference must take on a quite specific form in some precise context of the Church. Thus all theologians must apply themselves in identifying what their precise ecclesial ?base? may be. This base will not be assured merely by the canonical mission and by the hierarchical ?visa? that allows them to teach officially. It demands a true commitment and an