Theologians played a central role during the Second Vatican Council. Are they still sufficiently present in the life of the Church today?
Theologians indeed played a major role during the Council. This is less today. We are witnessing today a sort of weakening of theological institutions. We no longer have the master thinkers of the past. It would be difficult today to identify a theologian of the dimension of Congar, Lubac, Journet, Ratzinger or Balthasar…. Theologians today are more modest, they do their work in a perhaps more collegial way, with fewer prominent individuals. But theological institutions are going through a period of crisis. In France, the faculties of theology, within Catholic Institutes, have difficulty in recruiting and theology is largely absent from public debates. It is more the lay Christian philosophers who represent the Church in cultural debates, rather than professional theologians.
In Germany, theology is much more present in the universities, which is positive in itself, but too often these institutions are transformed into faculties of religious sciences. In this case, it is no longer a question of confessing theology which seeks to give an understanding of the faith, but of a simple reflection on the religious fact. Religious studies are quite legitimate and useful, but it is no longer theology. They should be offered in addition to theology, but not replace it.
So theology is experiencing a kind of retrogradation, compared to its past prestige?
There is a situation of disciplinary fragmentation of theology. There are very good biblical exegetes and theologians, but they have little connection with systematic theologians. There are many specialists in the history of theology or experts in certain specific sectors such as bioethics, but theology finds itself compartmentalized, whereas in the Thomist perspective it is intended to be wisdom, that is to to take a global look at reality, in the light of the Word of God.
What partly explains this segmentation of theology is the disappearance of a common language. Thomism was lucky – or unlucky – to be the official doctrine of the Church until Vatican II. We want him a bit! But scholastic theology had the merit of giving theologians a common language, a common philosophical basis. After Vatican II, a certain theological pluralism took hold.
In Fides and Ratio, Saint John Paul II, inspired by Cardinal Ratzinger, reminds us that theology needs philosophy, but that not all philosophies are suitable for serving theological reflection. But today, we see a great dispersion in the philosophies used in theology, which makes dialogue between theologians more difficult, because the same meaning is no longer given to the same words.
Do these divisions between theologians carry a risk of schism, or despite everything, do common references persist?
Among the classical theologians, there are currently two major currents, which have common points but also differences: the current resulting from Lubac and Balthasar, and Thomism. We find this divide in France through the review communioninspired by the ‘Balthasar – de Lubac’ trend, and the Thomistic Review, which promotes Thomism. These are the two great axes of classical theology. There are of course other currents, sometimes with ultra-liberal theologies which are, in my opinion, a little outside the nails.
The risk of schism is real, especially with the German Synod, which reveals deep fractures. Theological debate is legitimate, but frontal attacks on Humanae Vitae and against the teaching of John Paul II on fundamental morality and bioethical questions, the radical questioning of the traditional teaching of the Church, on the question of homosexuality or on the ministries, can lead to a certain many theologians and, more broadly, Christians, to no longer be able to recognize themselves in these developments which mark real breaks in tradition and give the impression that the Church could have been mistaken for centuries.
We see that the synodal debates are marked by the influence of the social sciences and a certain culture of protest. Can Thomism help to resituate the synodal journey in a “Christocentric” direction, free from any ideological conditioning?
It is not Thomism as such but all of Catholic theology which is called to discern the “signs of the times”, that is to say the phenomena of society which are for the Church an invitation to rediscover sometimes forgotten aspects or even to discover riches never before exploited in one’s own tradition. The Church is not called to “adapt”, but to identify, in its own tradition, the resources to respond to the questions that arise. For example, Catholicism was probably not at the forefront of feminist conquests in the 19th and 20th centuries, but this prompted it to reflect on its own resources in this area and a text like Mulieris Dignitatem, of Saint John Paul II was able to critically identify what was positive and negative in this movement, in the light of Sacred Scripture and the tradition of the Church.
This is the role of theologians. But in the case of the German Synod, as far as I can judge, it is very difficult to distinguish between what comes from a form of flattening before the spirit of the world from what comes from a real will to hear what the Holy Spirit can mean to believers, through the evolutions of society.
What is the specificity of Thomism compared to other theological currents?
The central theme of Thomism is the harmony between reason and faith. Vatican I literally takes up the texts of Saint Thomas on this theme, which therefore served to formulate the magisterium of the Church. Thomism is also a method, a way of doing theology with questions, objections… It is a matter of seeking truth wherever it is found.
But the spirit of Thomism is linked to precise doctrines, to particular philosophical and theological theses. The characteristic of Thomism is to be a theology structured by a theocentric metaphysics of the act of being, and by a realistic philosophy of knowledge. One of its essential themes is to consider God as the First Cause, which can be known by analogy. The doctrine of the analogy of being means that when we attribute goodness or wisdom to God, these are not exactly those of men, but have a certain relationship with them.
Another essential idea is that the action of God in the world does not compete with the action of created causes, but founds and carries it. For Saint Thomas, all righteous action of creatures finds its Source in God. Thus, the evolution of species was not led by God in a magical way, by miraculous interventions, but from within, he was able to direct this evolution.
What are the main challenges for Thomistic theologians today?
I think we have to distinguish between the challenges that arise for theology in a general sense, and those that concern the Thomist “family” specifically. As for theology, this theology proceeds above all by deepening or maturing the understanding of the facts of the faith, which gives it a distance from immediate actuality. But theologians are also at the interface between the Church and the cultures in which we live, and they are therefore challenged by the questions which agitate society, for example today the fundamental anthropological problems, the relationship between man and women, man’s responsibility vis-à-vis the cosmos… Theology takes a benevolent and critical look at today’s cultural movements.
There are also questions concerning more the internal workings of the Church. How, for example, is Catholicism able to integrate into its own theology what is right in feminism, with the question of women’s ministries. Or again, there is the very theological question of the relationship between order and jurisdiction: is authority in the Church linked to the sacrament of orders, or is it simply a matter of delegation? given by a higher authority? This gave rise to a discussion during the last Consistory, in connection with the prospect of giving lay people the possibility of exercising a function of authority over clerics.
Theology therefore has three driving forces: the internal deepening of the understanding of faith, linked to the action of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (for example the mystery of God’s mercy has been highlighted by spiritual authors like little Thérèse or Saint Faustina); the interface with cultural problems, which obliges the Church to seek in its own tradition what it can contribute to their solution; and finally there are matters internal to the organization of the Church. Everything is obviously linked.