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PART 2
of "The Consequences of Bad Theology".


Principles of Catholic theology

Avery Dulles, in his article "Principles of Catholic Theology" (Pro Ecclesia, 7/1, 1999, 73-84), sets forth ten principles which he believes are indispensable for the unique service that Catholic theology can render to the Church and to the world. Dulles contends that there is an intrinsic connection between the "Catholic" mentality and the specific ecclesial affiliation. He presupposes that theology is fides quaerens intellectum, a disciplined reflection on faith. Taking its departure from the word of God, theology explores the content and the implications of divine revelation. This reflection is carried on, at least normally, from within the stance of faith (fides qua creditur), which in the case of a Catholic means personal adherence to a definite body of beliefs (fides quae creditur).

The tenets of faith are not isolated propositions that could be fed into a computer to derive logical conclusions. Rather, they are aspects of a synthetic vision consisting of elements that coalesce into an integrated whole that is perceived with the "eyes of faith." Even in its positive phase, in which it establishes its data through biblical and historical research, Catholic theology operates by the light of faith, reading the sources from the perspective of the believing community. A Catholic believer seeks humbly and devoutly to attain some measure of understanding, fruitful though inevitably limited, of the faith of the Catholic Church.

Dulles affirms that theology, if it is to be Christian and Catholic, will be in quest of a plenitude that is already given but always in need of being more adequately assimilated. It will recognize that God, who contains in himself the fullness of truth and goodness, has communicated all perfection to his Son, the eternal Word in whom the Father says all that he has to say. In his incarnate life, death, and resurrection Jesus perfected the work of redemptive revelation in a definitive and unsurpassable way. The Church has received that saving truth with the mission of handing it on in its fullness to all generations.

Catholicity, therefore, in a Christian context, means the fullness of the given, which must be preserved, transmitted, and progressively appropriated and applied by the Church and its members. Catholic theology, according to Dulles, does not generate its own object. It receives that object in faith. Cherishing what it has received, Catholic Christianity adheres to the fullness of the given, cleaves to God's "Yes" in Christ, and rejects all that stands in opposition to him. Catholicity therefore implies both fullness and purity. Any version of Christianity that is not Catholic is to that extent deficient. It lacks either the purity or the completeness that are connoted by the term "Catholic."

Beginning with this concept of catholicity, Dulles lays down ten principles that safeguard the catholicity of theology.

1. Esteem for the Natural. In contrast with the dualism of the Manichaeans, Catholicism rejects any opposition between the gifts of creation and redemption. It esteems the order of creation as a reflection of the divine. The beauty of creation draws our minds and hearts to the glory of the Creator, whose eternal power and deity can be perceived in the things that are made (cf. Rom. 1:20; Wis. 13:3-5). Holy Scripture tells us that all creation is good, and indeed very good (Gen. 1:31). Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15), stands at the center of the universe. "In him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. . . All things were created through him and for him" (Col. 1:16).

2. Humanism. The supreme masterpiece of the visible universe is the human person, fashioned in the image and likeness of God. This realization affords the basis for Christian humanism. Catholic Christianity affirms the dignity and rights of every human being. Catholic theology takes up this struggle with special attention to the unborn, the aged, the weak, and the marginalized.

3. Respect for Reason. On the ground that reason is a participation in the divine Logos, Catholic theologians will hold that faith is the friend of reason, not its enemy. The Catholic tradition rejects both a fideism that would spurn human reason and a rationalism that would contain religion within the limits of reason alone. No matter how much we know about the divine, there is always infinitely more to be known.

4. Universalism. Catholic theology recognizes that the triune God is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen. It is alert to find evidences of grace in all religions and cultures. The truth of the gospel in its full Catholic form is intended for all humanity. Catholic ecumenism will be alert to recognize and profit from all the authentically Christian elements in other churches and traditions.

5. Mediation.
Dulles believes that media-tion is the Catholic principle par excellence. If the Protestant principle is to repudiate any confusion between the divine reality and the visible symbols that point to it, the Catholic principle of mediation is the imperative to acknowledge the divine wherever it is at work. The paramount instance of the self-mediation of the divine is the incarnation, the central truth of Christianity. Catholics believe that the unique mediatorship of Christ does not exclude the cooperation of holy persons in communicating the fruits of God's redemptive action. The intercession of the saints is a participated mediation, deriving its entire efficacy from Christ the One Mediator, showing forth the greatness of his gift. Catholic theology emphasizes the mediation of the Church, which has received through Christ the fullness of revelation and the fullness of the means of grace. The mediation of the Church is further specified by Dulles' next three principles: the dogmatic, the sacramental, and the hierarchical. All three are so closely intertwined that they may be regarded as inseparable from one another and from the mediation of the Church itself.

6. The Dogmatic Principle.
Christians must submit to the truth as something definite, formal, and independent of themselves. They are bound to receive, defend, and transmit the faith they have received. By the "dogmatic principle" is meant the obligatory character of revealed truth, its power to require our assent. Catholic theology must have the courage to assert a definite claim of truth. The mind is made for truth; God has revealed the truth, and Christians have no right to obfuscate or conceal it. The very idea of a deposit of faith (e.g. 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:13-14) seems scandalous in an age when freedom is interpreted as a matter of keeping one's options open. Catholic theologians enjoy a doctrinal heritage, conscious that the Holy Spirit has been with the church in every age. Grateful for what has been handed down in the Catholic tradition; Catholic theologians are liberated from the incessant need to reopen questions that have been authoritatively settled in the past.

7. The Sacramental Principle.
Sacramentality in the broadest sense views the whole of creation as a mirror in which the features of the Creator are reflected. The self-manifestation of the divine in historical persons and events has a quasi-sacramental transforming power. Christ himself may be called par excellence the "sacrament of God." The sacraments of the Church are the sacred actions in which Christ continues to make himself salvifically present through the Holy Spirit in a covenanted way. Theology is not Catholic unless it accepts the efficacy of the sacraments. They are not mere signs or celebrations of grace already received; they are also mediations of grace.

8. The Hierarchical Principle.
For Catholics the ministry consists of a hierarchical priesthood in which the office of the apostles is perpetuated. The bishops possess the fullness of this ministry and exercise it in communion with the whole episcopate, which looks to the bishop of Rome as the center of its unity. The ministry cannot be understood as if it were purely human or autonomous power. It is a priestly office exercised in obedience to Christ, the great high priest. In the Church's ministry of teaching and sanctification, Christ himself is at work, and the ordained ministers are his instruments.Like other Catholics, theologians accept a living authority that has the power from Christ to oversee their teaching. The bishops, with and under the pope, have the right and the responsibility to establish doctrine in the Church. Dulles affirms that theology is not fully Catholic unless it accepts its own subordinate status and recognizes its accountability to the Church and the hierarchical magisterium. By applying rigorous critical standards according to the norms of its own disciple, it seeks to understand the meaning and coherence of revelation as mediated through the Church.

9. The Principle of Consensus.
According to Catholic doctrine the Holy Spirit is present in the whole Church and sustains the faith of all its members. To the extent that they are docile to the Spirit and are truly formed by the mind of the Church, the faithful as a body possess a kind of instinct for discerning what is and is not in accord with the faith. The sense of the faithful, rightly understood, is not simply a matter of statistics. It cannot be ascertained by public opinion polls. Rather it depends on insights derived from a faith personally appropriated through affiliation with the believing community. There is no sensus fidelium that is not sentire cum ecclesia. To have doctrinal weight in the Church, Dulles affirms that the sense of the faithful must agree with that of the pastors, who are themselves, in a distinctive way, members of the faithful. The saints, who live the gospel to the full, are preeminent bearers of, and witnesses to, the sense of the faithful.

10. The Doxological Principle.
God is best known, according to the Catholic view, when he is praised and worshiped, because it is in prayer that our minds enter most consciously into communion with him. We know God less through concepts we form of him than through our love and our yearning for a vision not attainable under the conditions of the present life. Thanks to the stirrings of God's Spirit within us, our minds are carried aloft on the wings of love.

Union with God is assisted by participation in the traditional symbols and social actions of the liturgy, charged as they are with biblical and doctrinal overtones. To be a reliable index of faith, Dulles believes that our worship must be integrated into that of the Church. Within the Body of Christ and the Temple of his Spirit the maxim holds: "The law of prayer establishes the law of belief." Employing this norm, the Cappadocians rightly appealed to the rite of baptism to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against Arian distortions. Augustine, invoking the same principle, defended the doctrine of original sin on the basis of the practice of the Church in baptizing infants.

The principles of Catholic theology are generally contested by a rampant secularism that recognizes no higher sovereignty than the human will and rejects in the name of autonomy the very idea of a divine intervention in the world.

Catholic principles regarding the integrity of creation and the inherent dignity of the human person are vexing to utilitarians and hedonists, who feel entitled to deplete the resources of nature and redefine rights according to the demands of convenience or the prevailing fashions of the day. Respect for reason is difficult to maintain in an age when people's emotions are continually being stimulated by lurid advertising, dazzling spectacles, and startling revelations of sex and violence. Familiarity with multiple civilizations of the past and present can unsettle people in their allegiance to the ideas and values of any single religion or culture. The rapid developments of science and technology create the illusion that there is no such thing as abiding truth.

The Catholic concept of dogma stands in the midst of the fray. The universality of dogma is challenged by versions of multiculturalism and social fragmentation in which different social and ethnic groups aspire to full autonomy. The stability of dogma is thrown into question by historical relativism, which treats truth itself as a function of transitory cultural conditions. The authority of dogma is resented as a legalistic imposition on intellectual freedom.

Tradition must struggle to maintain itself. Whereas earlier theologians sought to be self-effacing and faithful to the patrimony handed down and cherished orthodoxy as a badge of honor, the contemporary climate induces theologians to seek independence, creativity, and openness to fresh currents of thought. Some boast of following what is called the "heretical imperative." They are urged by publicists to say something new and surprising, rather than hold to what can be viewed as "party line."

The sacramental principle is also called into question. Catholic theologians, under pressure from the modern "turn to the subject," are often reluctant to speak of sacraments conferring grace. Some shy away from the very term ex opere operato as a vestige of magical thinking. But the principle behind such thinking is one on which Catholics cannot yield. If they allow the efficacy of the sacraments to be thrown into doubt, as though the subjective attitude of faith were all that mattered, they will soon find that the whole system of mediation, including the doctrine of the incarnation, begins to crumble.

Can we still speak of God's self-mediation through history? Under the pervasive influence of a secularism that denies God's action in the world, theologians are tempted to cast doubt on God's mighty deeds on behalf of his people, including his coming in the flesh. The Christology of the ancient councils is embattled. Claiming to correct the Monophysitism of the past, some fall into a crypto-Nestorianism that treats Christ, at least for practical purposes, as a human person vaguely linked with the divine. The uniqueness of Christ as universal Savior is frequently dismissed as a kind of confessional arrogance.

False notions of freedom and egalitarianism, in lethal combination, undermine the authority of the apostolic office. Authority is perceived as the willful self-assertion of a dominant elite and as an unwarranted intrusion on the right of individuals to follow their own judgment. In universities the principle of academic freedom is sometime formulated in a way that would exempt theological research from the surveillance of the magisterium.

Equally hostile to hierarchical government is democratic egalitarianism. Office is considered to have no authority except that willingly conceded by the community. But Catholics, committed to the sacramental principle, recognize that episcopal ordination in the apostolic succession confers a distinctive grace. By honoring the biblical dictum "He who hears you hears me" (Luke 10:16), they are better positioned to hear the word of God.

The Christian principle that men and women have equal dignity is sometimes interpreted as though every opinion had a right of existence within the Church. Consequently, the faithful are bombarded by strange and novel theories that have no foundation in Catholic tradition. The theological world is turned into a jungle of competing opinions, all of which aggressively propagate themselves. Theology is practiced in an individualistic way, without sufficient regard for the requirements of prayer, worship, communion, and faithful discipleship on the part of the practitioners.

Vigilance is needed, therefore, in regulating the flow of theological ideas. If drugs must be approved by governmental agencies to protect the health of citizens, there is no reason why ecclesiastical authority should not indicate what theological ideas are compatible with Christian faith. This, one may surmise, is the very purpose for which Christ instituted an apostolic college with authority to teach. Dulles believes that to promote deviant doctrines as Catholic is to be guilty of false labeling. A theology that forsakes its principles in the face of new challenges is not worthy of the name.

Theologians who wish to grow into the plenitude of the Catholic heritage, and pass it on to others, cannot allow themselves to be carried to and fro by the shifting tides of popular opinion. Theology must indeed strive to progress in understanding the faith, but for the sake of authentic development it must abide in the truth that has been given. Fidelity to the past and communion with the whole Body of Christ are essential.



Read part one of "The Consequences of Bad Theology".



Reverend John Navone, S.J., is professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome.

He has written scores of articles for various publications, and is best known for his contributions to narrative theology. The author of twenty books, his most recent is
Lead, Radiant Spirit–Our Gospel Quest (2001). His work previously appeared in the February 2003 issue of HPR.



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