Three Theologians on the Pope’s ‘Paradigm’ Shift in Theology

What’s It Really About?
Larry Chapp

Pope Francis has released a new “Motu Proprio” about how to do theology in the modern context, Ad theologiam promovendam, which 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.”

Who could possibly object to this vision? Nobody really, which is strange since Motu proprios rarely get written, if ever, in order simply to reiterate what has already been said many times and to reinforce the status quo of well-established practices. Therefore, we are justified in asking what this new document from the pope is really all about and what, specifically, it is criticizing, and what it is promoting.

Indeed, it is instructive to note the pope himself states quite explicitly that with this new Motu proprio, aimed at the reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, that he desires to initiate a new “paradigm shift” in theology which takes account of the massive cultural revolution we are undergoing. So he is, at least in his own mind, proposing that there is something deficient in the status quo of theology and that things need to change.

The document does not give us many details about what all of this means, and so perhaps it does not mean much at all and we should just all move along since there is “nothing to see here.” But I think it is actually not very hard at all to discern what the pope is asking for when one reads the document in the light of the history of modern Catholic theology, the overall pastoral decisions of this papacy, and the recently completed Synod on Synodality.

The first thing to note is that as it stands the text sets up a ridiculous straw-man caricature of the current state of Catholic academic theology. Ever since the eclipse of neo-scholastic approaches to theology in the post-conciliar era, there have been almost no mainstream theologians, of any theological persuasion, who have done theology in a rationalistic and deductive manner. So thorough has this eclipse been that there are now strident traditionalist voices in the Church calling for its return and lamenting its demise in the first place. Nor have they been merely “repeating” the formulas of the past in rote fashion, devoid of creative development.

So when the pope criticizes the theological guild for being insufficiently oriented to Mystery, overly wedded to rationalist deduction, and too prone to merely repeating the past, one has to wonder what he is talking about.

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