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Promoting Theology: Pope Francis’s Latest Motu Proprio

December 29, 2023


On the Solemnity of All Saints, November 1, 2023, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter (in the form of a motu proprio) entitled Ad Theologiam Promovendam1 (meaning, “to promote theology”). The occasion for the document was the promulgation of new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology (sometimes called the Pontifical Theological Academy).

Pope Clement XI established the Pontifical Academy of Theology in 1718. As the Vatican website reports: “Created as the home of sacred sciences with a view to forming well prepared theologians, the Academy has the mission of promoting dialogue between faith and reason and of deepening Christian doctrine following the indications of the Holy Father (Cf. Inter Munera Academiarum, n. 5).” The recent motu proprio can be understood as a sort of cover letter outlining the pope’s general view of how the Academy should conduct its theological efforts.

Overall, Francis’s vision seems to be an evangelical one: He wants theology to address the needs of the day. He sees theology’s task as aiding the Church’s missionary efforts, which entails engaging the circumstances and ideas that missionaries will encounter in the world they are trying to convert. “Only an ‘outgoing’ theology can correspond to a synodal, missionary, and ‘outgoing’ Church.”2 A mission-oriented theology is needed for a missionary Church. “The Pope contrasted this approach with a theology that is limited to ‘abstractly re-proposing formulae and schemes from the past’ and repeated his long-standing criticism of ‘desk-bound theology,’”3 explains Jonathan Liedl.

To evangelize effectively, one must know one’s audience, so to speak. He therefore calls for a “fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live on a daily basis.”4 According to theologians consulted by The Pillar, “The document was marked by the ‘theology of the people’ (telogía del pueblo), which emerged in Argentina after the Second Vatican Council. This stream of thought . . . sees the people as a ‘locus theologicus,’ or locus of theological reflection.”5

A mission-oriented theology is needed for a missionary Church.

Given the diversity of modern society, speaking to the conditions of the world necessitates entering into dialogue with people who possess various religious and cultural perspectives. Concomitantly, he wants theology to enter into what he calls “transdisciplinary” activity. I take this to denote a manner of cooperation between different disciplines and sciences that does not reduce them to completely independent and complementary means of seeking truth; rather, it bespeaks a collaboration wherein the various disciplines inter-penetrate and mutually illuminate one another in the midst of a common effort. In his own words: “Transdisciplinarity should instead be thought of ‘as situating and stimulating all disciplines against the backdrop of the Light and Life offered by the Wisdom streaming from God’s Revelation.’”6 Deacon Dominic Cerrato explains it thusly: “It suggests that theologians should not just be aware of what other disciplines are saying but should actively integrate these insights into their work. The goal is to weave together different strands of knowledge into a cohesive understanding that reflects the wisdom God has revealed to us.”7

The rather short document has received its fair share of criticism. As The Pillar reports, “Fr. Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., a former member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, told The Pillar Nov. 2 that he thought the new motu proprio contained ambiguities and omissions.”8

Some people are alarmed, not by the explicit content itself, but by the unspoken connotations that could be seen lurking behind the words. This is the criticism levied by Dr. Larry Chapp. On the one hand, he writes, affirmatively: “On the surface, its words are rather unproblematic and rightly express the need for theology to be creative and to engage the culture. Therefore, like all things Pope Francis puts forward as magisterial teaching, there is nothing on its face that should lead us to conclude there’s something heterodox going on here.”9 On the other hand, he opines more negatively: “But if you read it through the lens of current theological debates it becomes clear that it is privileging the long sought after dream of progressive theologians. And that is to do theology within the framework of a kind of populist understanding of the sensus fidelium.”10 In this perspective, it is not so much a question of what the words are but what they imply within their own broader context. Whether Chapp’s and others’ interpretations of the hidden meaning are accurate, it is worth noting that the document has received such criticism.

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Given its rather limited context, the document might not have much of a direct impact on most theologians’ work, but it may affect various theologians differently. As Prof. Massimo Faggioli commented to The Pillar, “Catholic theology in the 21st century is ‘done’ in many different kinds of institutions—pontifical, Catholic with different orientations, Catholic centers and institutes in non-Catholic institutions, etc.—and there are many different ways to receive or ignore this vision of theology coming from Pope Francis.”11

To conclude, I would like to point out one aspect of the document that I particularly appreciated. In section 7, Pope Francis writes: “Finally, the necessary attention to the scientific status of theology ought not obscure its sapiential dimension, as already clearly stated by St. Thomas Aquinas (see Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 6). . . . Now the idea of Wisdom interiorly clenches Truth and Charity together in a ‘solid circle,’ so that it is impossible to know the truth without practicing charity.”12 While Francis cites Aquinas on this point, it speaks directly to my Bonaventurian heart. The emphasis on wisdom and the unity of charity and truth are key elements of sound theology that I do believe are needed in general but also specifically in today’s theological climate.

1 Francis, Ad Theologiam Promovendam, apostolic letter issued motu proprio (November 1, 2023), vatican website. At present, the Vatican has only issued this document in Italian, with no English or any other translation available. I have not yet found a good and trustworthy English translation.
2 Ibid. 3. Unless otherwise noted, translations are my own.
3 Jonathan Liedl/CNA, “Francis calls for ‘outgoing theology’ in world of today,” The Tablet (Nov. 2, 2023).
4 Ibid. 4.
5 The Pillar, “‘Ad theologiam promovendam’: A brief guide for busy readers,” The Pillar (Nov. 6, 2023).
6 Ibid. 5. Here, Pope Francis quotes from Francis, Veritatis Gaudium, apostolic constitution (Jan. 29, 2018), 4c. The translation of that quote presented here is a slightly modified version of the one found on the Vatican website here.
7 Deacon Dominic Cerrato, Ph.D., “8 Key Takeaways from ‘Ad Theologiam Promovendam,’” National Catholic Register (Nov. 15, 2023).
8 The Pillar, “‘Ad theologiam promovendam.’”
9 Larry Chapp, “New papal document reads like a conclusion in search of an argument,” Catholic World Report (Nov. 2, 2023).
10 Ibid.
11 The Pillar, “‘Ad theologiam promovendam.’”
12 Francis, Ad Theologiam Promovendam 7.