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April 2011 > Theology: Theological Notes
The Word On Fire Blog

Theology: Theological Notes



On today's post, Father Steve responds to the discussion regarding Father Barron's recent video, "Is Hell Crowded or Empty?" by providing an explanation of the useful, but often misunderstood practice called "theological notes." Learn more here.
 
 
Father Barron’s recent commentary on Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, has provoked some lively debate. For those of you who are out of the loop, Rob Bell, a protestant pastor of some measure of renown, has been accused of advocating a universalist position in regards to salvation. This means that all, without exception, will one day share in the beatific vision, or in more colloquial terms “will get to go to heaven.” The benefit of the beatific vision will be made possible for all by God despite the fact that many might die undeserving of such a reward. By implication, hell, if it exists, would not be eternal, but a reality akin to what Catholics understand to be purgatory. 
 
Some have excoriated Father Barron for advocating the position detailed by Hans Urs von Balthasar that while one cannot hold to the universalist position or reject the eternal duration of hell, one can hope that the Lord can accomplish the salvation of even the most wicked among us. How the Lord might accomplish this would be mysterious indeed. Note please, before writing your comments, that neither myself nor Father Barron nor von Balthasar are saying that God “must” or “will” act in such an audacious way as to save the worst of sinners, but that we can hope that God might do such a thing. Some will argue that such a hope just is not credible. However, it might be important to consider that the appeal that is being made for this hope is founded in the Paschal Mystery of Christ- the event, which above and beyond anything else described in the Scriptures or offered to us as Revelation, orders our understanding of how God offers the grace of his salvific mercy to the world. 
 
Reading through the many comments and emails regarding Father Barron’s video made me think about what has become a little known and mostly misunderstood practice of theological inquiry and writing known as “theological notes.” It is not always apparent to many, even those who devoutly apply themselves to the beliefs and practices of the Church, just what must be believed and what can be proposed for belief. Theological notes can help in this discernment. The practice of theological notes emerged during the Scholastic Period and was used as a means of discerning how a theological proposition might or might not conform to divine revelation or to those truths of the faith that had received formal definition by the Church’s Magisterium. These notes became, over time, much more detailed and included censures against theological positions that were deemed contrary or insufficient expressions of the Church’s Faith. Cardinal Avery Dulles indicated that one of the positive effects of the practice of theological notes was “the recognition that not all conclusions were equally certain.” This clarified for the theologian the legitimate parameters of their inquiry and indicated for the faithful the distinction between those truths essential for salvation and others that might represent mere opinion. On the negative side, theological notes could be used as a means of throwing a wrench into the mechanisms of legitimate theological discourse, wielded as a means of controlling conversation, rather than facilitating understanding.
 
Though the categories of theological notes have differed over time (Aquinas’ list was quite succinct: stultum, ridiculum, and in eptum- which I thought would be fine categories to use in grading the papers of those at the beginning of their theological studies: “I got a “ridiculum” on my exam, how about you?” Or better: “Since I graded on a curve the average moved most of you from “in eptum” to “stultum.”) A revised and updated list was provided in the 1950’s by Father Sixtus Cartechini, which I am told would be familiar to many members of the clergy who attended seminary prior to the Second Vatican Council. The recognition and proper application of theological notes was pretty standard stuff before Vatican II but fell out of favor in the post-conciliar period, a fact that was lamented by no less a prodigious theological mind than a Jesuit priest by the name of Karl Rahner.   Theological notes can be a helpful way of understanding the difference between something that must be believed and something that, while not in defiance of the essential content of the Faith, can be held as trustworthy, even if it isn’t certain.
 
I have probably kept you in suspense for long enough. So, what are some specifics? Here’s a summary of theological notes:
 
1.    De fide definite: Truths of Revelation, solemnly taught, often in the form of dogma.

2.    Sententia fidei proxima: Teachings proximate to faith, regarded as revelation. 

3.    Sententia communis: Common teachings of the Church- not solemnly defined.
 
4.    Sententia probabilis: Theological opinions of varying degrees of certainty.

5.    Sententia pia: Pious opinion.
 
6.    Opinio tolerata: Tolerated opinion.
   
One of the revered professors in my own seminary added to this list the category “offensive of pious ears.” When asked if he could be more specific about what that meant, he wryly responded, “You would likely know when you heard it.”   
  
As I said earlier, the methodology of ascribing to a theological position a theological note is at its best a way of discerning how a given proposition or idea corresponds to the truths of the Faith. However, it can devolve into being used for purposes other than those that correspond to the better intentions of our nature. For some, theological notes might be used as a means of evading the responsibility to give assent to certain beliefs and practices simply because they are not considered to be at the highest level of the Church’s teaching. This was evident in a great deal of post-conciliar theological trends where it seemed that, for some, the discipline of theology was intended as a means of creating exemptions from the beliefs and practices of the Church. But it can also be used to dismiss as inconsequential the conversations and inquiry that are necessary for the discipline of theology to advance. Further, if the notes are used as a source for an accusation that what someone is thinking or proposing is tantamount to heresy (rather than an opinion or merely a mistake), something can be said to have gone wrong and a properly thinking Church that is seeking the rapport between faith and reason will be stymied. It is hard to think when one has the impression that someone is peering over one’s shoulder waiting for evidence of a mistake. 
 
Finally, Cardinal Newman cautioned about what he termed to be a “creeping infallibilism” by which he meant a tendency to demand that our assent to the Faith could only be accomplished if and only if what was proposed to us by the Church was given formal and infallible definition. There are some things for which the Church has insight but will not likely be elucidated in the manner of infallible teaching.    
  
…Which returns me to pastor Rob Bell and Father Barron’s commentary on his controversial book. Rob Bell has no teaching Magisterium external to himself that would have, as their responsibility, the application of a standard like theological notes to his thesis. His co-religionists might protest, appealing to differing theological standards and systems of conviction, but there is no Magisterium recognized as authoritative by all that can serve to adjudicate the claim that Rob Bell is teaching what is contrary to what must be believed in regards to how salvation is accomplished. Appeals to the normative nature of the Scriptures will quickly be exhausted, because the many possible interpretations of Scriptures in regards to how God works out his salvific will have become the cause of the confusion. It is too bad for Rob Bell that he didn’t have the distinctions of theological notes as a guide for his insights, because it might have rescued him from a lot of his current troubles.
 
Father Barron and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s propositions can be elucidated in relation to theological notes and ultimately, if need be, clarified by a formal declaration of the Church’s Magisterium.   A careful correlation of their commentary to theological notes indicates that what they have proposed is at the level of a theological opinion, and is therefore a proposition that can be discussed, argued about, and even at a level much lower than that of “de fide definite,” believed without threatening their communion with the Church or their eternal salvation. If one disagrees with their proposition, one might also consider the application of theological notes to the substance of one’s argument. Pious opinion is an argument, but it isn’t a particularly strong argument, and charges of heresy don’t really work unless there is a clear discrepancy between the proposition and a truth of Revelation that has been formally defined by the Magisterium. Here, one might find the argument of heresy hard to make since what is presented in terms of what we must believe about hell concerns its existence and its duration, and not, at least in terms of human souls, its contents.               
  
Father Barron has, in his talks and writings, cited two great challenges that the Church faces in terms of its mission to evangelize- the deplorable state of catechesis and what he terms the inability to have a theological or religious argument without such attempts degenerating into indifferentism or violence. I also think that the knee jerk reaction to Father Barron’s commentary by some is evidence of this state of affairs but is also an indicator that the wounds caused by the theological upheavals of the post-conciliar period remain with us. Not only do we have a situation in which people do not know how to structure a theological argument, they have lost their trust in theology’s ability to deepen our understanding of the truths of the Faith. Some have lost the ability to discern the distinction between the excesses of post-conciliar theological musings and the kind of inquiry that is proper to theology as a discipline and helpful to the Church.   A careful appraisal of theological notes might help the faithful to respond effectively to these challenges. 
 
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.


Posted: 4/7/2011 6:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 7 comments
Filed under: FatherBarron, FatherSteve, hell, RobBell, theologicalnotes, universalist


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Father Robert BarronFather Robert Barron is a sought-after speaker on the spiritual life-from prestigious universities to YouTube to national conferences and private retreats. The prominent theologian and podcasting priest is one of the world's great and most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global media ministry called Word On Fire has a simple but revolutionary mission - to evangelize the culture.

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