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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
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
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
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
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
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
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 SpiritOur Gospel Quest
(2001). His work previously appeared in the February 2003 issue of HPR.
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