Seven Theses on Catholic Theology

It is a fact that theologians and theology departments in Catholic institutions of higher education struggle to justify their existences before their colleagues and before the world. Many a genealogy has been written to trace the blame for our dire circumstances. What follows below is not another one.

Instead, I make an argument about what Catholicism intends in its faith, about what its institutions therefore intend with it, and about what theology is and means for a faith with institutions built on such intent. It is a kind Collect for the beginning of a divine task accomplished only together. It is meant to be compact. It is meant for meditation. For what it gives is not a set of practical tasks, but a set of reasons to act, reasons to act in ways that rise responsibly to their situations.

In practical terms, in terms of brass tacks, Catholic theology departments are shrinking, Catholic colleges and universities are closing, and Catholic theology requirements for attending students regularly face the chopping block. I know of no way to confront such realities without searching out the marrow of Catholicism, of sourcing it again, in a ressourcement that is also a révolution. A revolution, argues Charles Péguy, “is a call from a less perfect tradition to a more perfect tradition, a call from a less deep tradition to a deeper tradition, a reversal of tradition, a going beyond in depth.”[1]

For Bernard Lonergan, what Catholics today believe is not different, but the world within which such faith believes is different.[2] Lonergan saw this crisis as a divine calling, a calling to proclaim the faith fixed forever upon the Trinity in this, the nighttime sea that is all human history, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. The fixity is God’s; the movement in the night is the pilgrim Church’s; their communion with one another in us, who are the Church in its pilgrimage, brands each new hour with the newness that does not die, that overcomes death itself. “Our course is in the night,” Lonergan says, “our control is only rough and approximate; we have to believe and trust, to risk and dare.”[3]

Readers will discover that I sharply distinguish between theology’s contribution to Catholic institutions and those various contributions that other disciplines make to Catholicism, Catholic reflection, Catholic tradition. I do this partly for reasons of strategy, as theology’s tasks have been increasingly lent to and replaced by other disciplines and departments over many decades and in many different ways, across many institution types.

This lending derives some of its power from theology itself, which perpetually borrows from the things of the world to say things about God, and about God as present in the world. But I make my sharp distinction for methodical reasons, too. Theology’s borrowing is not to be understood as if theology were not its own discipline with its own horizon of questions, very real and very particular and very exacting, wondrously built on an impossible straddling, a double intention, a stereoscopic vision, of the world and of the God who is not the world, not of the world, not an object in the world, not an object at all.

I do not desire a Catholic theology that is only a dogmatic theology. If I seize on what makes theology uniquely an expression of and a commentary on what is unique in the Christian claim about God and human history, it is because this uniqueness is what animates all theological borrowing, whether of Plato or of historical science or of psychological science. Not every theologian is a figure of dogmatics. But every theologian is a figure in whom, as Maurice Blondel says, dogma is literally practiced.

The Christian spirit itself is the unity of dogma and history through literal practice.[4] And it is the theologian who reflects on the divine revelation that is literally practiced—in all its forms, in all its times and places, in all those in whom grace and thought unite in a shared life, most of all in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.[5]

The theses are meant to be understood together. They build in a logical succession, but in such a way that each new thesis contains the others. Thus, the first set of theses anticipate the appearance of theology; thus the last thesis cannot be understood without the first. The design intends a “yes, and” between each pause in the argument. No move is sudden or from the air. I say this in order to emphasize how the turn to history, to people of color, to the oppressed in the seventh thesis is self-coherent, with a Catholic self-coherency. In that sense it is not a turn at all, but the realization of an eternal, divine meaning for history in the present hour. But I also say this to emphasize how I speak theologically from beginning to end, articulating theological meanings.

I am aware of the secularizing impulse that would “read” this Catholic concern for justice with an eye only for what it understands, thus silently removing the head from an entire body of religious thought. I am equally as aware of the jealous tenacity (often enough my own) that would resist all mention of race, colonialism, “identities,” and so on as foreign ephemera. But Catholic reasons, says Blondel, must be simultaneously “of a supernatural order and of a natural order,” in what he calls a Catholic “double faith.”[6] Thus worldly struggle and divine grace meet, not as strangers, but as intimacy: in the interior coordinates of nature’s secret desire for its supernatural destiny.[7]

In faith, hope, and love, the Catholica is the unity of countless ages and their faces, and it is summarized by none. For all is summed up by the Word of the Father, he who in the Spirit became flesh, died, and rose again. “Certainly Christianity is also a religion of the redemption of the world,” says Hans Urs von Balthasar. “But strangely enough, it does not proceed by fleeing from suffering upward, or downward, or ahead, but by affirming the world as it now is, from God.”[8]

  1. Catholicism is an absolute commitment to the Trinity, and, with the Trinity, to that which the Trinity has made. A single, absolute (since divine) commitment with two objects, Trinity and world, but oriented in one direction: God’s own direction, which is toward the world. So, whatever else Catholicism is, it is an unreserved affirmation of what is—of being.
  2. This unreserved affirmation means that any discipline, any human being, anything at all, can reveal to us, by analogy, the God who is. It is an analogy because all things reveal, at the same time, that which they are, and this is their own, their genuine contribution to being’s revelation of God. Thus, the entire operation of any Catholic institution in all its parts can be, could be, is hoped to become, a transparency, a window to the world that is, and to absolute mystery, without the loss of either. Who, then, “holds” the Catholic mission of an institution—such a word!—in their hands? Everyone, or else no one.
  3. But Catholics are committed unreservedly to the world “with” none other than the Triune God. Catholics look at the world with a divine intention, and that divine intention is to bring about a divine goodness for the sake of the world, a divine goodness that is God’s work, a goodness that is no less than God. This Catholics call “grace.” This grace is Trinitarian: there is a divine Word of the Father in the Spirit, eternally, a Word spoken and breathed into all of created being, imparting an absolutely divine meaning to all that is. This divine meaning we are to reverence and to love as such.
  4. The “with” of Catholicism, the intending with God’s own intention, is also an asking of questions about the God who intends, an asking about what God is doing in this world of ours, and an asking about what that doing means. This “with” in its asking is theology’s, and it is theology’s alone, since it asks about God by asking with God.
  5. So theology is that discipline that most explicitly articulates, articulates because it also is, the Catholic inquiring about and the Catholic expression of a commitment with God to the world. 
  6. Theology is not the Catholic mission by itself, no. A theology department and a theology requirement are not themselves a college or university. But theology is the Catholic contribution to how Catholics understand their commitment to God and to the world; theology is the symbol and the word of a further notion, a beyond, a divine meaning in things and beyond all things, without which Catholicism does not understand itself.
  7. There is no either/or: God or history, the Incarnation or people of color, the Trinity or the oppressed, all that is divine and all that is just. Catholics need not stop short. We need not refuse the divine meaning surging through history in the forgotten of history. We need not say that it is enough, somehow, to have a diverse humanities, to study diverse sciences, and not to ask what this “diversity” means to God. Our refusal to draw back from the height residing in the depths would be a radical transfiguration of Catholic theology, and also its coming back to itself.

[1] See Charles Péguy, “Avertissement,” Cahiers V, XI in Oeuvres Complètes I from Oeuvres en prose complètes I-III (Paris: Gallimard, 1987-1992), 1305-1306.

[2] Bernard Lonergan, “Dimensions of Meaning,” Collection, CWL 4, 244.

[3] Bernard Lonergan, “Existenz and Aggrionamento,” Collection, CWL 4, 224.

[4] Cf. Maurice Blondel, Philosophical Exigencies of Christian Religion, trans. Oliva Blanchette (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021).

[5] Maurice Blondel, “History and Dogma,” The Letter on Apologetics and History and Dogma, trans. Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 287: “The synthesis of dogma and facts is scientifically effected because there is a synthesis of thought and grace in the life of the believer, the unity of man and God, reproducing in the individual consciousness the history of Christianity itself.”

[6] Maurice Blondel, Une alliance contre nature: catholicisme et intégrisme: La Semaine sociale de Bordeaux 1910 (Bruxelles: Éditions Lessius, 2000), 11.

[7] Blondel, Une alliance contre nature, 11. Cf. Bernard Lonergan, “The Natural Desire to See God,” Collection, CWL 4, 81-91.

[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Claim to Catholicity,” Explorations in Theology, vol. IV: Spirit and Institution (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 103.

Featured Image: Paul Gauguin, Yellow Christ, 1889; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70. 


Anne M. Carpenter

Anne M. Carpenter is the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. Her current work has focused on theologies of tradition, recovering the thought of Maurice Blondel, and other topics.

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