More confrontation and dialogue

New Motu Proprio: Pope calls for "courageous cultural revolution"

Vatikanstadt - There is to be a turning point in theology. This is what Pope Francis calls for in his new motu proprio "Ad theologiam promovendam". It is necessary to intensify the dialogue with the human sciences in order to be able to go new ways.

Published  on 02.11.2023 at 17:40  – by Mario Trifunovic

Pope Francis calls on theologians to undertake nothing less than a "courageous cultural revolution". They should take a closer look at the way people live today. The head of the Church is concerned with a paradigm shift in theological reflection: more contextuality, more debate and, above all, more dialogue with the human sciences. In order to promote the theology of the future, one should therefore "not limit oneself to formulas and schemes of the past" and offer them anew in abstract form, but rather "interpret the present prophetically and seek new ways for the future".

The Motu Proprio "Ad theologiam promovendam" published on Wednesday speaks, among other things, of a "fundamentally contextual theology" that must read and interpret the Gospel under the conditions of people's everyday lives. In it, the Pope calls for a more intensive dialogue with women and men of Christian denominations, religions and traditions, as well as with other scientific, philosophical, humanistic and artistic insights. Francis is not alone in this: the orientation text "On the Way of Conversion and Renewal" of the Synodal Way of the Church in Germany already described the findings of other sciences as "indispensable" for theology. The World Synod and the synthesis of the first session seem to have paved the way for such a papal letter. There, there was talk of "anthropological categories" which were no longer sufficient in view of new experiences and scientific findings. In a statement at the end of the World Synod, the President of the German Bishops' Conference, Georg Bätzing, found this to be very progressive: "If the Synod says that previous formulations in the Church's teaching on human beings are no longer sufficient here, and that it must move further on this point, also with support from science, then that is an enormous step forward."

New paths for the future

In the new motu proprio, the Pope therefore appeals to theologians to seek new paths for the future. This would happen above all "in a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge". Keyword: transdisciplinarity. Different perspectives and approaches are pursued in order to arrive at a better understanding. In this engagement with different bodies of knowledge and traditions, with believers and non-believers, the Pope sees a network of different relationships that can, above all, bring out new perspectives and points of view. This would give theology a new, but also difficult task of using the new categories arising from other knowledge to "penetrate and communicate the truths of the faith" and to "convey the teaching of Jesus in the languages of today with originality and critical awareness".

However, this dialogue with other forms of knowledge presupposes dialogue within the ecclesial community and an awareness of a communitarian and synodal dimension to theology. Pope Francis said in this regard in an address to the members of the International Commission of Theologians in November 2022: "Ecclesial synodality therefore obliges theologians to do theology in a synodal form, fostering among themselves the capacity to listen, to dialogue, to discern and to integrate the multiplicity and diversity of instances and contributions." Synodality is one of the central motifs of Pope Francis' pontificate and the core theme of the World Synod. Already in the first part of the deliberations, listening to diverse contributions and concerns should be more or less practised and practised. According to the Pope's will, this way should now also be transferred to the theological context.

German bishops: Church must no longer ignore science

As early as 2015, Pope Francis had warned professors and students in a letter to the Grand Chancellor of the Catholic University of Argentina, Cardinal Mario Aurelio Poli, against a purely theoretical theology that is only done at a desk. It was a matter of perceiving people's experiences and not just being content with a "desk theology", the Pope said at the time. It is much more important for theological reflection to be with people, to "perceive them and heal their wounds". This requires a new attitude of openness to the world, which focuses on the concrete existential situations, the problems and challenges of people. We must beware of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes or views humanity from a glass palace. The new Motu Proprio affirms this view from 2015 when it speaks of contextual theology.

Synodal Assembly
Bild: ©KNA/Julia Steinbrecht

The German Synodal Way already described the insights of other sciences as "indispensable" for theology.

With the new thinking, there should no longer be closure in self-referentiality, which leads to isolation and meaninglessness. According to the Pope in the Motu Proprio, a "synodal, missionary and open Church can only correspond to an open theology". Theology should not work for itself, but should enter into transdisciplinary dialogue with other sciences. This aspect is not new and was also demanded by German theologians long before the World Synod to consult current scientific and ethical findings - especially with regard to sexuality and partnership. Several commissions of the German Bishops' Conference therefore organised a scientific conference on the topic of human sexual orientation from a human-scientific and theological perspective as early as 2021. There it was made clear that the Church could no longer ignore the findings of science. The World Synod has now also come to this decision, although last year the then Prefect of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, had rejected references to scientific findings in the texts of the Synodal Way.

With "Ad theologiam promovendam", Pope Francis has, after almost five decades, updated the norms of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which was founded in 1718 under the patronage of Pope Clement XI. Originally responsible for the theological education of the clergy, the Academy has been adapted again and again over the years, for example to explore and deepen theological topics of particular relevance. Now it is time to shift the focus of the 200-year-old institute to a transdisciplinary dialogue with philosophy, the sciences and the arts. The new standards are to adapt the mandate that "our times place on theology", Francis said. This paradigm shift in theology means not only for the Academy, but above all for theologians, to promote debate and dialogue in all areas of knowledge, in order to ultimately reach out to the whole people of God and involve them in theological research, said the President of the Academy, Antonio Staglianò. The Synodal Assembly, in any case, has shown how necessary this step is.

by Mario Trifunovic