In the tenth year of his pontificate, Pope Francis has concretely defined what he believes should be a cultural revolution within the Church, that is, a paradigm shift in the study of theology. Thus, not even a week after the end of the Synod, faced with a heavily amended final text that demonstrated the sensitivities in the field, Pope Francis reformed the Pontifical Academy of Theology.
The reform is significant in several respects. The first aspect is that the reform contains an implicit and explicit criticism of how theological research has developed over recent years. Faithful to the principle that “it is from the peripheries that the Church is best seen,” Pope Francis wants to overturn the idea that theological research starts first of all from the truths of faith. Those remain firm; they are not a point, but we must begin with concrete life, understand the situations in a pastoral way, and seek God’s response in those situations.
How this pastoral choice does not then lead to a “casuistic” definition of the situation – something that Pope Francis often shows he fears – remains to be seen. However, theological research must change, be concrete, and – why not? – be present in the current debate by also accepting categories that do not come from the Catholic Church but which come from other areas.
The second aspect is that Pope Francis, in the end, has his precise idea of the Church and is carrying it forward. The Church of Francis is pragmatic because “realities are superior to ideas,” but at the same time, it seems to lack organization and structure. Everything is discussed – and the Synod is proof of this – but at the same time, without organization, everything then becomes an arbitrary choice of the leader. This model works in religious congregations, but for the Holy See, it becomes problematic.
The truth is that, despite enjoying the prerogatives of absolute sovereigns, the Popes have always governed in a collegial manner. John Paul II had the reform of the Curia discussed several times in the consistory, which he dismissed in 1989 with the Pastor Bonus, for example, while Paul VI loved meeting the cardinals at the end of each trip. Then, each law provided for consultations with the competent ministries, with the involvement of consultants, who were often lay people and experts.
Pope Francis, in this case, started a sort of global consultation with the Synod, but in the end, he went his own way. Indeed, when faced with the summary report of the Synod, Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, general rapporteur of the Synod, clearly spoke of “resistance.” Hollerich himself then granted an interview to Repubblica in which he highlighted that if women are not given roles of responsibility, many lies will have been told, and he reiterated that the doctrine on homosexual practice can be changed.
The language seems to be that of someone who has to keep “electoral promises”; the pressure on the Synod is that of having to change things so as not to betray people’s expectations. Pope Francis has decided to let it happen because he already has his plan.
The third aspect of the reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology is, precisely, that of wanting to develop a vision, which necessarily creates a before and an after. There is talk of an “open, pastoral and outgoing” theology, there is complaint of a possible self-referentiality, and in fact it becomes evident that theological texts are called to be less scientific and more linked to current events, more pastoral. The risk is that of the end of theology as a scientific subject.
The consequent risk is that theology becomes practically irrelevant among the scientific disciplines and that it is relegated to one of the many philosophical or – even worse – sociological disciplines. It seems like a question for intellectuals, but in the end, it isn’t.
In fact, if theology is not considered a relevant subject of study, neither is religion and all it has to say. We return to the diplomatic idea of “we don’t do God” of the English Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alistair Campbell. Furthermore, we also open up to the idea of equating the Holy See to an NGO.
Everything the Church has to say, then, becomes relevant only if it has a concrete connection with reality. It becomes, ultimately, political. But the risk is that the Church becomes one voice among many, loved if it says what is expected from common sense, hated and marginalized when it speaks otherwise. The risk is that of a less free Church. There is already an apostolic exhortation, the Laudate Deum, which is linked to a contingent issue, makes a political speech and will be the basis of the speech that the Pope will give at the COP28 in Dubai on December 2nd. But is this the profound meaning of the Church? Indeed, the Church, the Pope, is called to speak with a political language, like one of the many world leaders.
The fourth aspect concerns language. The reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology also asks us to borrow categories that come from outside the narrow sphere of theology. But that was what happened with Liberation Theology in Latin America when Marxist sociology provided the theoretical basis for the Church to engage on a social level.
It was true that there was a need for a response here and now to a crisis, and in fact, the Holy See did not condemn all of liberation theology. It is also true that using categories that are not religious distorts the critical and theological thought of faith. Until now, the commitment has always been to innovate thinking, looking at contemporary production, but without distorting the mission and ideas. Currently, there is the risk of distorting the mission and ideas.
Pope Francis’ cultural revolution thus risks taking the Church back into a debate that arose after the Second Vatican Council and which seemed overcome. Paradoxically, in wanting to move forward at all costs, we risk going backward. This happens when thought is political and sociological and instead loses sight of the religious dimension. And it is true that the Pope, in the reform text, asks for developing “wisdom” thinking. Wisdom, however, that risks being simply pastoral or mystical. A balance will have to be found, and it is easy to imagine that a lot will depend on the people implementing this reform.
People will be crucial. The Synod showed that the cultural question was much debated. Although the final text had a two-thirds majority on all points, the fact that there were 1251 amendments before approval testifies that the direction taken by the assembly was not that of radical change, nor of total listening and inclusivity, but rather that of a Church that listens and is anchored in tradition. A Church, in short, which sought to go beyond the question of her impact on the world and to preserve her identity.
Pope Francis, however, had already decided to change the paradigm previously and has not gone back. From the Synod, he only drew what seemed to confirm his idea of the Church. The narrative that he has put forward is that now the Synod is genuinely the one thought of by Paul VI (who, however, wanted a Synod of bishops, not a Synod open to all) and that those who resist are instead “backwardists”. And those who support the narrative give interviews to say that there is no turning back from this new paradigm.
Indeed, the problems to be faced are different, and although we can trust the Church, the concern is legitimate. Some say that the Cardinals’ Dubia had a substantial impact on the debate, leading to a final text of the Synod that was weaker than previously thought. The truth is that the Dubia has landed on fertile ground. They spoke of the concerns of many. In the Church, however, we often don’t put ourselves in the spotlight. We work behind the scenes to create communion.
It will probably be like this even after the reform of the Pontifical Academy of Theology. A reform which, ultimately, is influenced by the concept of “incarnate spiritual theology” of Cardinal Victor Fernandez, the pop theology of Bishop Antonio Staglianò, president of the Academy, and a philosophical debate that knows a lot about Latin America in the 1970s, when we approached the idea of “transdisciplinarity” in search of a synthesis of thought that was also a typically local, popular, South American thought, and which wishes to become a “source theology.”
The Pope has indicated a path, and it is now to be seen how the Church can develop it. It is not certain that it will be in the sense that Pope Francis thinks, but this should not be taken as backwardness. It is, rather, the ancient need to innovate tradition and innovation, resulting from the fact that revelation, for the Church, has already come with Jesus Christ.