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Pope Francis during his homily at St. Peter's Basilica, November 3, 2023Video screenshot

VATICAN CIY (LifeSiteNews) –– Pope Francis has issued new priorities and statutes for the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Theology, stating that a newly focussed theology is needed, based on a popular “common sense” that is “often not corresponding to the Christian face of God.”

The Pope’s comments came in a November 1 motu proprio, by which he issued new directions and new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology (PATH).

Francis wrote that the PATH has “constantly embodied the need to place theology at the service of the Church and the world,” but that under his new directives, change would be ushered in.

“After almost five decades, the time has come to revise these norms, to make them more suitable to the mission that our time imposes on theology,” the Pope wrote. “A synodal, missionary and ‘outgoing’ Church can only be matched by an ‘outgoing’ theology.”

Operating under the auspices of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, PATH was founded in 1718, and was previously described as having “the mission of promoting dialogue between faith and reason and of deepening Christian doctrine following the indications of the Holy Father.” 

Pope Francis’ new statutes replace those most recently imparted to the PATH by Pope John Paul II in 1999.

Yet the papal document presents what appears to be an essentially anti-Catholic concept of theology, tasking theologians with engaging in dialogue with various cultures and religions rather than drawing on the timeless, and unchanging truths of the Catholic faith. 

Theology: whirlwind of change or consistent direction?

In the opening questions of his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas notes how the science of theology is the most noble of all, both by “by reason of its greater certitude,” and “by reason of the higher worth of its subject-matter.” 

St. Thomas’ words highlight the incongruity of orienting theology to purely being “fundamentally contextual,” as Pope Francis calls for it to be. Aquinas notes how the “object of the principles and of the whole science must be the same, since the whole science is contained virtually in its principles.” This object, writes Aquinas, is God and the divine object forms the basis of all such theological endeavors. 

Aquinas also writes how in the “science” of “sacred doctrine…all things are treated of under the aspect of God: either because they are God Himself or because they refer to God as their beginning and end.”

But Pope Francis’ motu proprio refocusses the task of theology. “Promoting theology in the future cannot be limited to abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes of the past,” said Pope Francis in the opening line of his Italian text entitled “Ad theologiam promovendam.” 

“Called to prophetically interpret the present and glimpse new itineraries for the future in the light of Revelation, theology will have to confront profound cultural transformations, aware that: ‘What we are living through is not simply an era of change, but a change of epoch’,” said Francis, citing a previous speech of his, in a self-referential style that has become characteristic of his writing. 

Such an epochal change, argued Francis, requires an essentially different character and identity for the sacred science of theology. Citing his first ecological document, “Laudato si’,” Francis called for a “paradigm shift” in the Church’ approach to theology. He wrote that theology must be chiefly focussed on the current context:

Theological reflection is therefore called to a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a ‘courageous cultural revolution’ (Encyclical Letter Laudato si‘, 114) that commits it, first and foremost, to be a fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women daily live, in different geographical, social and cultural environments, and having as its archetype the Incarnation of the eternal Logos, its entering into the culture, worldview and religious tradition of a people.

Francis further argued that theology would necessarily move away from a path of presenting and teaching truths, “into a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian denominations and different religions, openly confronting everyone, believers and non-believers alike.”

This argument, however, flies in the face of the unchanging teaching of the Church, regarding its God-given mission.

Pope Leo XIII writes in Satis Cognitum that the Church’s task is to teach the faith of Christ, not to look for knowledge from other traditions or religions. The pope wrote: “For what did Christ, the Lord, ask? What did He wish in regard to the Church founded, or about to be founded? This: to transmit to it the same mission and the same mandate which He had received from the Father, that they should be perpetuated.”

Draw from non-Christian images of God

Pope Francis’ new mode of theological study directed Catholic theologians to draw from, or promote, the “people’s common sense” in an “inductive method.”

Such a method would start from the “different contexts and concrete situations in which peoples are inserted, allowing itself to be seriously challenged by reality,” and all these contextual considerations would lead to theologians assessing “signs of the times.”

But in order to practice the new theological style, wrote Francis, theologians would have to prioritize “common” ideas found amongst people, even though such ideas reject the Catholic concept of God:

Therefore, it is necessary that the knowledge of people’s common sense, which is in fact a theological place in which so many images of God dwell, often not corresponding to the Christian face of God, only and always love, be privileged first of all.

The new statutes focus theologians to promoting “transdisciplinary dialogue with the philosophies, sciences, arts and all other knowledge.” Consequently, per Francis’ order, the Vatican body would put itself “at the service of academic institutions dedicated to theology and other cultural and knowledge processing centers interested in reaching the human person in his or her context of life and thought.”

Francis called on the PATH to “develop in constant attention to the scientific nature of theological reflection, 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.”

READ: Synod on Synodality report pushes female deacons and lay governance but avoids giving firm answers

Further defending his reworking of the PATH, Pope Francis wrote that the new statutes would assist theologians to “more easily to pursue the goals that the present time requires.” 

However, once again the papal argument places itself in juxtaposition with authentic Catholic teaching. In his work “Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,” Dr. Ludwig Ott presents the de fide teaching that the Church founded by Christ is unique and one.” This necessitates, taught Ott, that “all members of the Church inwardly believe the truths of the faith proposed by the teaching office of the Church, at least implicitly, and outwardly confess them.”

Indeed, the four characteristics of the true Church – as solemnly outlined by the CDF in 1864 – are only found in the Catholic Church. Dr. Ott summarizes the consistent teaching of apologetic manuals over the decades by noting how “of all the Christian confessions the Roman Catholic Church alone possess at least pre-eminently these four characteristics.”

For theologians to prioritize looking towards non-Christian images of God, therefore, would be to reject in practice the marks of the Church and the task of the sacred science of theology. 

Theology and the role of ‘dialogue’ in synodality

Pope Francis’ new theological focus is linked, perhaps unsurprisingly, to his chief project of synodality, which is currently taking center stage in the Church as part of the Synod on Synodality, which concludes in October 2024. Citing his 2017 Apostolic Constitution Veritatis gaudium, Francis wrote to the PATH that “the need for dialogue is intrinsic to the human being and to the whole of creation,” arguing that this must therefore extend to the range of theology also.

Such a “dialogue with other knowledge evidently presupposes dialogue within the ecclesial community and an awareness of the essential synodal and communal dimension of doing theology,” argued the Pope, linking his theological alterations to the project of “synodality” which is sweeping through the Church currently. 

READ: Pope tells theologians to consult ‘non-Catholics,’ avoid ‘going backward’ in Tradition

He cited his own work once again, drawing from a November 2022 address he gave to the theological body which advises the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: 

Ecclesial synodality therefore commits theologians to do theology in a synodal form, promoting among themselves the ability to listen, dialogue, discern and integrate the multiplicity and variety of instances and inputs. 

Yet while the “synodal” style involves lay voting and the practice of majority vote holding power, the Catholic teaching on exercise of ecclesial authority is profoundly different. Ott presents the numerous de fide pronunciations which outline how the Church’s hierarchy and exercise of authority are effected. 

Rather than the synod’s style of majority vote, the Church is established on the apostolic hierarchy of the primacy of the pope. The bishops also possess by “divine right…an ordinary power of government over their dioceses,” notes Ott, adding that the bishops’ “pastoral power” is received “immediately from the Pope.”

Expanding on the role of the the Church’s pastors, Pope Pius XII preemptively condemned pope Francis’ idea that theologians should look to non-Christian ideas of God. “It is the will of Jesus Christ that the whole body of the Church, no less than the individual members, should resemble Him,” wrote Pius XII in Mystici Corporis.

Nor did Pius XII allow for any theological development which would look to find inspiration outside of the Catholic Church. He stated: 

So full of grace and truth is He [Christ] that of His inexhaustible fullness we have all received…Christ enlightens His whole Church, as numberless passages from the Sacred Scriptures and the holy Fathers prove.

But welcoming the new statutes from Pope Francis, the PATH’s president Archbishop Antonio Staglianò issued a press release, summarizing the points from the new statutes and the Pope’s motu proprio. The Pope, said Staglianò, had provided the PATH “with a new mission: that of promoting, in every sphere of knowledge, confrontation and dialogue in order to reach and involve all of God’s people in theological research, so that the life of the people may become theological life.”