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New papal document reads like a conclusion in search of an argument

The Daily Knight

Saint Peter statue outside the Basilica, Vatican, Rome. (Image: Fr. Barry Braum/Unsplash.com)

When the new Motu proprio, titled Ad theologiam promovendam, is read through the lens of current theological debates, it’s clear that it privileges the long sought after dream of progressive theologians.


Yesterday, Pope Francis released a “Motu Proprio” about how to do theology in the modern context. Titled Ad theologiam promovendam, it makes the case that theology must no longer be from a “desk” and must no longer be merely “abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes of the past.” Theology must now be inductive and take into account the lived experience of believers and non-believers alike. Theology must not be “abstract” and deal in such lifeless constructions; instead, it needs to ground itself more explicitly “in the conditions in which men and women daily live…”


I do not think Pope Francis wrote this new document, although it was clearly issued with his approval, so it is now papal teaching. On the surface, its words are rather unproblematic and rightly express the need for theology to be creative and to engage the culture. Therefore, like all things Pope Francis puts forward as magisterial teaching, there is nothing on its face that should lead us to conclude there’s something heterodox going on here. In this regard, I agree with papal defenders who are always rushing into the breach to defend this pope’s orthodoxy against his most trenchant critics.


However, my problem with those kinds of defenses of this papacy is that they tend to focus on the surface level of what this Pope teaches all the while ignoring that his words are often redolent with connotations. And, in this case, connotations of much broader significance within the long arc of the history of modern Catholic theology.

For example, saying that “theological reflection is urged to develop with an inductive method, which starts from the different contexts and concrete situations in which peoples are inserted, allowing itself to be seriously challenged by reality” is not an idiosyncratic concoctions of this papacy. This sort of statement has an actual theological pedigree in the Church—a pedigree that is decidedly progressive in a liberal Rahnerian register. Therefore, we need to be aware, as we must be with all papal statements from all popes, that papal teachings are themselves contextual. And that the language of ecclesiastic-speak, so opaque and perhaps even dull for the average believer, is quite often a nod, no matter how subtle, toward one direction of that arc rather than another.


This Motu proprio also fits into that category insofar as it has different layers of meaning. On the surface it looks fairly innocuous, even boilerplate in its simplicity. But if you read it through the lens of current theological debates it becomes clear that it is privileging the long sought after dream of progressive theologians. And that is to do theology within the framework of a kind of populist understanding of the sensus fidelium, with a grounding in a theology of grace that conflates the concrete experience of “average people” with the movement of the Holy Spirit. There is very little emphasis in such an approach on the “testing of the spirits” (cf 1 Jn 4:1) against the backdrop of doctrine and Tradition. In fact, doctrine and Tradition are deemed to be “abstractions” and superstructures of alienation that distort lived experience by forcing it through allegedly rigid, ideological filters.


Synodal timing and strawmen


Seen in this light, the timing of Ad theologiam promovendam is not random. The theological vision it champions is right in sync with the Synod’s call for a “listening Church” that will do theology, for the first time, in a manner that takes into account the vox populi. Of course, there is also a great deal of romanticizing and essentializing of this “voice of the people” in the theologies of experience to which both the Synod and the Motu proprio are appealing. As we saw in the Synod, some voices are more equal than others and thus are worth listening to more precisely because they fit in nicely with the grand narrative of “Church as oppressor of common Catholics,” which is the myth of origin of so many of these theologies of experience.


As at the Synod, therefore, so too here. There is a book-ending of strawman caricatures. There is a caricature of who “the people of God” are on the one end, and there is a caricature of the “Church before Pope Francis” (B.F. for short) that mischaracterizes B.F. theology and B.F. pastoral practice as just so many out-of-touch abstractions, locked in a moribund paradigm of deductive metaphysical goo, that never took the radicality of modern culture or the subjectivity of believers into account.


But this is a ridiculous and sophomoric caricature of the history of modern Catholic theology. Indeed, if a student in one of my undergraduate courses had turned in a paper that made these claims, I would have given it no grade at all. I would have deemed it ungradeable in its insouciant disregard for facts (along with a note to “see me” in red ink at the top).


The claim that theology can no longer be content with merely repeating the shopworn formulas of the past directly implies that this is, in fact, what most theologians have been up to for the past century. And the claim that theology must now be inductive and avoid lifeless abstractions that take no account of lived experience in modern culture implies that theologians have been doing just that predominantly up to this point. The claim is clearly being made that this stuffy old theology of the past 100 years needs to give way to something altogether different and more in tune with “real people”. The document calls it a “paradigm shift” in theology (a necessary part of what Francis calls a “courageous cultural revolution”), which is another one of those coded, jargonistic, words that directly implies that theology up to this point—the Pope Francis point—has been part of an outdated paradigm that must be given the heave-ho.


This is all a strawman. Theologians, for many decades, have already been doing many of the things this document says they should do. Which leads any reasonable person to wonder if the reason behind the strawman is that the Vatican just does not like the theological conclusions those theologians have reached. In point of fact, the theological guild has already been hard at work doing all of the things mentioned in the document! Were Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, as well as the theologians within the schools of thought they represented, merely “repeating the formulas of the past”? I think not. In fact, I know this is false. Demonstrable false and with extreme prejudice.


Why then this risible caricature? Because it serves the rhetorical needs of the moment, which require some kind of argument, no matter how transparently fatuous, in order to justify moving the Pontifical Academy of Theology in a constitutively different theological direction. This document reads like a conclusion in search of an argument. Even if the argument adopted is absurd it matters not, because the argument adopted has all of the usual pop psychological buzzwords about change, openness, dialogue, and grassroots this and that. It is a giant ecclesial dog whistle to the usual suspects.


Pope Francis himself should know better and most certainly does. In his graduate studies he was a student of the theology of Romano Guardini, which he clearly likes (as do I). Surely Guardini, who wrote extensively with an eye toward modern culture, is not guilty of merely repeating past formulas or of ignoring modern culture. And the Pope knows this. Neither were Bouyer, Balthasar, David L. Schindler, de Lubac, or even Garrigou LaGrange and Thomists such as Pieper, Gilson, Ulrich, and Maritain, for that matter.


Nor are a host of contemporary theologians, both young and old, guilty of such stale categories of thought. Creative and brilliant theologians and philosophers like Cyril O’Regan, David C. Schindler, John Betz, Matthew Levering, Emmanuel Falque, Jennifer Martin, Margaret Turek, Remi Brague, Keith Lemna, Jonathan Ciraulo, Jacob Wood, Bishop Erik Varden, and many others too numerous to list here, are in no way guilty of the theological deficits this document claims that theology up to this point has suffered from. I mention these thinkers simply because they are some of my favorites. But there are literally hundreds of equally gifted Catholic intellectuals out there doing precisely what the Pope is asking here—but in a manner I suspect the Pope does not favor because they do not serve his agenda.


An assault on the legacy of St. John Paul II


Again, this is a conclusion in search of an argument. And lurking behind it all is the clear desire to utterly dismantle the theological legacy of Pope John Paul II. People of a certain age simply cannot fully appreciate the depth of antipathy that the Catholic Left had for John Paul II. He was their great white whale and they did everything that they could to undermine his papacy. They loathed and hated him. Why? Because he had almost single-handedly put the brakes on their attempt to utterly Protestantize and secularize the Church. They hated Ratzinger/Benedict XVI for the same reasons. And so now we get the Motu proprio which reads like Tucho Fernandez’s revenge on what he probably views as the “anti-Vatican II” reign of terror of the previous two popes.

At this point my usual popesplaining critics will roll their eyes and say, “There goes hyperventilating Chapp again unfairly attacking the Pope.” But I would ask all of them to ponder a few simple questions.


Why was this Motu proprio needed at all? What motivated it? What problems in theological method does it really think are out there and in need of remedy? Exactly what kinds of theology is it really disinviting from the table and which kinds of theology is it inviting to the table? You don’t write Motu proprios without good reason. If this document is just a big “nothing burger” in total continuity with previous pontificates, why was it written at all? If there is “nothing new here so everyone can just keep moving along” then what is its point?


And if the popesplainers merely repeat the explanations given in the document, then they too will be guilty of an uncharitable and empirically false caricature of the theological achievements of the past 100 years and of the previous two pontificates in particular.


This is the Pope’s post-Synodal shot across the bow about what he wants to see happen before the next Synod in 2024. It is blunt and brutal in its own quiet, avuncular way. Kind of like the Pope himself. Tastes like honey. Laced with arsenic.


If you are still not convinced, it is instructive to look at two similar moves made by this pontificate in order to gauge where this is most likely headed. The Pope has already gutted the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome and replaced the theologians there who were all JPII/Benedict/Communio kind of professors with theologians who espouse proportionalism in moral and pastoral theology. He did the same at the Pontifical Academy for Life. He put Archbishop Paglia in charge of both—a man not known for his intellectual prowess, but instead most famous for having downplayed the normativity of Humanae Vitae and having to backtrack from public statements of support for legalized euthanasia in Italy. (Of course, he was quick to add that such legalization must come with all of the appropriate “safeguards” against misuse lest anyone think that the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life is in the wrong job.)


Given that these two Pontifical institutions had theologians more in tune with the theology of John Paul II and Benedict XVI—theologians replaced by those more prone to seeking accommodation with modern secularism—why should we presume that the change on the horizon for the Pontifical Academy of Theology will be any different? And if next year’s Synod ends up with a final document far more explicit in its call for the ordination of women to Holy Orders, the full moral legitimation of the sexual alphabet agenda, and a permanent “House of Commons” made up of lay people with co-governing powers with the “House of Lords” (made up of bishops whose authority will be effectively neutered by the pressure of populist public opinion), then rest assured that the new members of the Pontifical Academy of Theology will be called upon to give it theological cover.


Finally, I would like to point out that there are some “formulas” from the past that should be repeated without any or much qualification. The Creed comes to mind. And the Sacraments. And things like the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments from Scripture. I would also add to this list the writings of the Doctors of the Church and other benchmark thinkers of the Church’s tradition. Thinkers like Cardinal Newman, Chesterton, and even literary giants like Dante and Bernanos. Can we please “just repeat” these “tired old formulas” over and over and over until maybe, you know, they sink in?


If there are young theologians, or just young devout Catholics, whose theologizing and prayer takes them to the Summa, or to Augustine, or the Fathers, or mirabile dictu, to St. Pope John Paul II, are they guilty of an unpastoral Platonizing idealization of the faith at the expense of “real people”?


As a friend and highly regarded Communio theologian wrote to me this morning, “Has the Pope lost his mind?”

I doubt it. What we are seeing is something worse. We are seeing that this is his mind.


(Editor’s note: The English translation of Ad theologiam promovendam used here is unofficial.)






In Christ Crucified and the Most Victorious Heart of Jesus.



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