In this article I would like to bring an important issue to your attention. This is addressed to any member of the faithful at any given moment in history: do you think you access the Gospel in a direct and genuine way? To think so would not be entirely true. There will always be a degree of interference which comes from the theology practised in your time. In fact, it is Theology that shapes the way we understand the Gospel. Moreover, Theology systems vary throughout the ages and cultures. This is a fact.
Therefore, it would be advisable to take care of your choice of theological system into whose hands you entrust your faith, because, between you and the Gospel there is a filter, that is, the way theology is practised in your specific time or in your specific geographical area.
Theology has a paramount function in the Church. But, first, just what is theology? It is the form and contents which present and explain our faith at a given moment in history. So, between our Faith and us, Theology is the intermediate which guides us, teaches us, shapes us, forms us, forms our way of understanding the Gospel, our faith, the way we live it. If we pay great attention to the function of Theology we will notice that our faith, the way we understand it, depend totally on Theology. Theology teaches us how to see, how to think, and how to conceive our Christian life, the Gospel.
Is Theology, however, the same throughout the centuries? No. Our Faith is the same, the Revelation is the same, but our understanding of it undergoes a development and is subject to various factors. Again, faith is the same throughout the centuries, but our understanding of faith changes. Shaping a (new) theology often occurs spontaneously, according to the needs, according to the capacities of the theologians. It depends on our culture, on our implicit or explicit philosophical background, our mentality, etc.
An example that springs to mind is that of the Gospel which was first written in Greek and the first “Nations” to receive it were Greek speaking and were of Greek culture. Greece had a rich philosophical tradition, and when Greece was evangelised, it received the Gospel according to its culture. This is how certain Christian mysteries found their early wording. Think, therefore, of the case of the words “person” and “nature” applied to God Triune and to the Incarnate Son of God: God is one nature in three persons. Jesus is two natures in one divine person.
The same influence from the cultural milieu will occur in the 11th and 12th centuries, when nature will be “discovered” in a much more powerful way, as seen in the Greek philosophers, as well as Jewish and Muslim ones (Read Fr. Chenu’s studies on Theology in the 11th and 12th Centuries). The Church then had to integrate these influences on the faith and give a correct reading of our faith according to this new “culture”.
The same happened with the German Enlightenment, and later with more recent philosophies and the development of human sciences (Study of the Text, Psychoanalysis). All these influences constitute the culture of a certain period in history and this culture needs to receive the Seed of the Gospel. This latter will fecundate the new culture. In this sense, Culture and Philosophy, Sciences, influence directly and indirectly Theology and shape a new way of practising it. Again, faith, the core of it, is the same. However, some aspects will appear more advantageously under a certain culture than others. The Gospel fills the needs of each period of history and is capable of shedding its light on each generation.
We need also to know that some forms of Theology can also disappear. Think of “Monastic Theology”, which was very much present in the 11th and 12th centuries but started to disappear slowly when faced with another new and more influential form – the Scholastic University or University Theology as some put it. (see Pope Benedict on Monastic and Scholastic Theology here)
Theology can also be compared to a language. Learning Theology then becomes learning to put words to the contents of our Faith. It helps us express our Faith, have an understanding of it, which normally lead to an implementation.
In this sense, Theology leads us, tells us how to think, how to read the Gospel. In a way, Theology is the real leader of the Church. The Pope, the Bishops are formed under a given way of theologising. Ordinarily, too, the Holy Spirit reaches us through the categories and forms which shape our faith: the theology we have in our time.
When and how do the changes occur? Sometimes, also, we have more than one form of theologising. They can overlap, and one can be stronger than the other, and then allows the other to take precedence. Note how Theology was taught before Vatican II and after it. Very different in both cases. Pope Leo XIII promoted a real renewal of Thomistic Theology, while the Popes after Paul VI adopted a different theology. It is never a question of which one is better than the other, each theology has its positive aspects and weak ones. Times change, culture changes, there are different needs, therefore, the way we practise Theology changes.
Moving from one form of creating a theology to another one is equivalent to thinking outside of the box. Is not an easy task to think differently when all – at a certain time in history – are used to see faith and the Gospel in a certain way and practise a certain theology.
Since before Vatican II Council, the wide gap between spiritual life and Theology was underlined. The Council took this acknowledgement on board and invited the Church, Theology, the study of Theology and the Seminaries to narrow this gap, helping and showing the way for the student in Theology to experience what he is studying (see Vat. II, OT 16). An incredible wish, and an even greater challenge. To date, this wish persists and Pope Benedict, every time he spoke to seminarians laid great stress on their spiritual life. But we still need much more. Theology itself, contents and methods need to be adapted to fulfil such a wish.
Our contribution in the School of Mary to realise this wish is to be found in the Project of Integral Theology (please see here). But this project can only really take off if we have a true renewal of Spiritual Theology. This also is another wish. Spiritual Theology’s weakness and in a way absence from the structure of actual Theology, doesn’t allow the above- mentioned wish to be fulfilled. In the School of Mary, we offer ways to renew Spiritual Theology, method-wise and contents-wise. By following the Three Year Programme of formation in Spiritual Theology – almost the first cycle of a different Faculty – one can start to see the immense richness of the living spiritual tradition of the Church and how it needs to be developed in this field of Spiritual Theology. In the School of Mary, we believe that a true renewal in Spiritual Theology can lead to a change in the way we practise Theology. In particular, the way we practise Spiritual Theology itself is different.
Let us take an example of differences in the formation or development of Theology.
“Solid Foundations 000” (see link)doesn’t follow the actual way of making and practising Theology. Therefore, when a person receives and implements a Course like Solid Foundations 000 he or she is introduced to this new and different way of making and practising Theology. The person is in fact learning a new language. Compared to the usual theology, it is a new “language” in the Church. So, after that, whenever one wants to communicate with anybody who hasn’t learned it, he or she will find it difficult, even impossible: what one will say is all Greek to them.
It is just the reality of the Church. The Church’s actual “Leader” (ie Theology) uses a different language. The Church has another “leader” (another theology). So the main challenge today is the need to change leader/language/theology.
It can only happen if a person takes SF0 and puts it into practice. Then the new language is not only learned but experienced, lived, tasted.
SF0 carries in it a new reality of the action of the Holy Spirit, a new method of work, a new plan and a new horizon, many things to be implemented and lived. All this is “new”. A new world, the Theology of the real reality: the inner world, the inner reality of God, the real opus of change and transformation of the human being. We are not used to understanding and practising Theology this way. Theology till today is rather the Theology of the outer world and history. It is a binary theology (state of sin or state of grace) which goes to sleep when she hears that a person went to Confession. While the new theology starts to see what the grace of God wants to achieve within a personal relationship with Jesus.
Yes, today’s Theology mentions Jesus’ Call and the Grace of God. But it uses fixed general terms, words and horizon.
Per se there is nothing new and everything is new at the same time.
Today’s Theology follows the line of time and history. The new theology accepts today’s theology but starts to follow the line of transformation, implying: goals (object of the act of Hope), stages of growth (known, knowing how to ensure growth, knowing how to discern them), means for growth (Supernatural Lection Divina, Supernatural Prayer of the Heart, Accurate place of Our Lady in Spiritual Life,…).
Without at all rejecting the line of history, the two lines are totally different.
Having a leader who leads you on the line and journey of history and having a leader who leads you on the inner line of growth are two very different worlds: that of the Actual Parish and that of what the Desert should be.
Can or should the Parish change?
Let us take an example regarding the “language” issue. Let us examine the words “spiritual”, or “holiness”. Everybody talks about spiritual life, holiness. But what the new theology puts under these two words is very different. We can’t really communicate without learning the new language.
This brings us for instance to the fourth part of the Catechism. It is supposed to teach us Prayer. It presents prayer life in general, and then focuses on commenting upon the Our Father. This is very traditional in the process of Catechesis, the process of preparing an adult to receive Baptism: we need to hand on to him not only the Creed, the Sacraments and the Ten Commandments, but we need also to hand on to him the “Our Father”. These are the four cornerstones of Catechesis. Since the fourth part of the Catechesis is supposed to teach Prayer, the Prayer of the Lord, it is normal, too, for it to give some elementary knowledge on Spiritual Life. But it would be a great error here is to think that this fourth part covers the entire knowledge about Spiritual Life.
So, when we speak about spiritual life and about holiness for instance, we will be tempted to be content with the slim knowledge offered in the fourth part. The initial catechesis is not Mystagogy – which is a further stage – and is not mystical teaching, another further stage in spiritual growth?
So, the temptation is to reduce the understanding of “spiritual” and “holiness” to our very limited knowledge. Thinking that Catechesis is all the knowledge we need in order to be Christians until death, is the final great temptation.
The same applies to our understanding of the saints, if the notion of holiness is very unclear and reduced. Take for instance St. Therese of the Child Jesus. The most popular saint in the first half of last century, a great saint, the greatest in modern times said Pope Pious XI. How did we understand her? How do we understand her?
Holiness implies writing about saints, writing about their lives. But if our understanding of Holiness is reduced and limited, if we want to write about saints and describe their holiness, we will be very far from being accurate and fair to what holiness is in reality.
One of the core luminous messages of the Holy Spirit to the whole Church through Vatican II is to remind us that we are all called, because of our baptism, to holiness. But if we don’t have a clear understanding of it, if all that we get to become saints is what the Catechism teaches, we are seriously dismissing the best part of the Living Tradition of the Church. We continue to ignore it and delude ourselves with beautiful notions – like the Universal Call to Holiness.
One can legitimately ask: how come, then, Vatican II was able to remind us that the call for Holiness is for all, if the doctrine and theology is not adapted? One has simply to understand the route that such a statement took to appear and remain permanent. The declaration can be found in Chapter 5 in a Dogmatic Text which is meant to present the Church. The text is called “Lumen Gentium”. The reasoning which led to declare all faithful called to holiness comes from the premise: the Church is Holy (remember in the Creed we declare that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church). If the Church is Holy, then all the members (with no exception) are called to be holy as well. The declaration comes from an ecclesiological point of view, and not from a Spiritual Theology point of view. Consequently, our understanding of what is holiness and how to reach it is not the starting point, or the motive of the declaration. Since the two forms of Theology we can find in the previous century (Neo-Thomistic and Nouvelle Théologie, or History of Salvation Theology) are not really fully adapted to offer a living Spiritual Theology, we are still, until today, at a loss as to what Holiness is, how we can reach it, and how to build our pastoral work around the call for Holiness (as Pope John Paul II invited us to do, See Novo Millenio Ineunte, bottom text in this link).
Just to give an idea of the entire journey toward holiness, we can look at the above picture of a mountain, with 10 stages of growth. Today, the maximum we sometime teach is at most up to stage 5. We have no idea about the journey from 5 to 10. The proper growth from stage 3 (second conversion) till stage 5 (union of will, 5th Mansions as expressed by St. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle). The majority of the most committed parishioners are at stage 3. Lukewarm ones are between 2 and 3. People to evangelise are in 1. From 5 to 6 is the deepest purification. Afterwards comes union with Jesus and helping Jesus in the salvation of the souls, and Christian death (out of love). (See here the article on the Complete Journey)
Pope John Paul II said at the beginning of the third Millenium (see Novo Millennio Ineunte, 30-31):
“30. First of all, I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness. [this is the grace of entering in the third Millenium] […] stressing holiness remains more than ever an urgent pastoral task.
It is necessary therefore to rediscover the full practical significance of Chapter 5 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, dedicated to the “universal call to holiness”. The Council Fathers laid such stress on this point, not just to embellish ecclesiology with a kind of spiritual veneer, but to make the call to holiness an intrinsic and essential aspect of their teaching on the Church. The rediscovery of the Church as “mystery”, or as a people “gathered together by the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”, was bound to bring with it a rediscovery of the Church’s “holiness”, understood in the basic sense of belonging to him who is in essence the Holy One, the “thrice Holy” (cf. Is 6:3). To profess the Church as holy means to point to her as the Bride of Christ, for whom he gave himself precisely in order to make her holy (cf. Eph 5:25-26). This as it were objective gift of holiness is offered to all the baptized.
But the gift in turn becomes a task, which must shape the whole of Christian life: “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Th 4:3). It is a duty which concerns not only certain Christians: “All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity”.
31. At first glance, it might seem almost impractical to recall this elementary truth as the foundation of the pastoral planning in which we are involved at the start of the new millennium. Can holiness ever be “planned”? What might the word “holiness” mean in the context of a pastoral plan?
In fact, to place pastoral planning under the heading of holiness is a choice filled with consequences. It implies the conviction that, since Baptism is a true entry into the holiness of God through incorporation into Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit, it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity. To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).
As the Council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. I thank the Lord that in these years he has enabled me to beatify and canonize a large number of Christians, and among them many lay people who attained holiness in the most ordinary circumstances of life. The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction. It is also clear however that the paths to holiness are personal and call for a genuine “training in holiness”, adapted to people’s needs.” (John Paul II, “Novo Millennio Ineunte”, 30-31)
In light of the above, the responsibility given to Theology to guide us up to Vatican II, must now be handed over to Spiritual Theology. If not, it will be impossible to carry out this pastoral plan. Who can tell us what is Holiness? Which Theology can instruct us? Which Theology can teach us the goal and means to attain holiness? It is Spiritual Theology. We need to move from one theology to another. The Theology which helped us reach Vatican II is the Nouvelle Theologie, the Theology of the History of Salvation. This Theology today needs to give way to another type of Theology capable of achieving these high pastoral goals, expressed so clearly and so prophetically by Pope John Paul II on the eve of the Third Millenium.