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Listening to God’s Word the definitive principle of Catholic theology

Prof. Dr. Adelbert Denaux,
Tilburg School of Catholic Theology



On 8 March 2012, the latest document of the International Theological Commission (ITC) was released. It is entitled: “Theology Today, Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria.” The text was approved in forma specifica on 29 November 2011. It was then submitted to its president, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who authorized its publication.

The reason why the ITC wrote this document has to do with the enormous developments in the field of Catholic theology, which have taken place since the Second Vatican Council. These developments display interesting opportunities, but also tremendous challenges. On the one hand, theology has really become a plural and diverse undertaking. On the other hand, the question of the identity and unity of the enterprise of theology within the Church is under pressure (par. 1).

Therefore, the ITC felt the need to ask the questions: what makes theology really Catholic? What are its fundamental principles? Are there criteria by which one can know with certainty that that which is presented as Catholic theology can actually be considered as such?

Having said this, the ITC does not understand ’Catholic theology‘ primarily in the confessional sense. It relates theology to the notae ecclesiae, the fundamental characteristics of the Church, more specifically to the ‘catholicity’ and the ‘unity' of the Church. A theology that wants to be ’Catholic‘ should participate in the catholicity and the unity of the Church, which ultimately is founded in the Trinitarian unity of God Himself: “The fact that there is one Saviour shows that there is a necessary bond between catholicity and unity. As it explores the inexhaustible Mystery of God and the countless ways in which God’s grace works for salvation in diverse settings, theology rightly and necessarily takes a multitude of forms, and yet as investigations of the unique truth of the triune God and of the one plan of salvation centred on the one Lord Jesus Christ, this plurality must manifest distinctive family traits.” (par. 2)

Hence, the ITC document seeks to identify “distinctive family traits” of Catholic theology. “It considers basic perspectives and principles which characterise Catholic theology, and offers criteria by which diverse and manifold theologies may nevertheless be recognised as authentically Catholic.” (par. 3) The text consists of three chapters, which expand on the following themes: in the rich plurality of its expressions, protagonists, ideas and contexts, theology is Catholic and, therefore, fundamentally one, a.) when it arises from an attentive listening to the Word of God (cf. Chapter One); b.) when it situates itself consciously and faithfully within the communion of the Church (cf. Chapter Two); and c.) when it is orientated to the service of God in the world (cf. Chapter Three). In the following text, we concentrate on the contents of first Chapter.

The core statement of the first chapter is that “theology, in all its diverse traditions, disciplines and methods, is founded on the fundamental act of listening in faith to the revealed Word of God, Christ himself. Listening to God’s Word is the definitive principle of Catholic theology; it leads to understanding and speech and to the formation of Christian community” (par. 4). On 2 December 2011, Pope Benedict XVI received the members of the ITC in a private audience. In his address to the Commission, he echoed this statement when he said: “The starting point of all Christian theology is the acceptance of this Divine Revelation: personal acceptance of the Word made Flesh, listening to the Word of God in Scripture. From this starting point theology helps the believing understanding of faith and its transmission”. Indeed, “theology is scientific reflection on the divine revelation which the Church accepts by faith as universal saving truth. The sheer fullness and richness of that revelation is too great to be grasped by any one theology, and in fact gives rise to multiple theologies as it is received in diverse ways by human beings. In its diversity, nevertheless, theology is united in its service of the one truth of God” (par. 5). A truly Catholic theology should try to keep a delicate balance between unity and diversity (or plurality) and avoid uniformity and fragmentation. When theologians – or believers: pastors and lay people - understand unity as uniformity and plurality as fragmentation, then, there is something wrong with their theology.

The first chapter is subdivided into three sections: 1. The primacy of the Word of God; 2. Faith, the response to God’s Word; and 3. Theology, the understanding of faith. The general structure of the chapter is clear. Doing theology presupposes something fundamental: that there is an ongoing dialogue between God and humankind, between God, who reveals Himself and man, who responds to Him. There is no theology possible without God’s speaking and man’s response. Theology arises from and is a ‘reasonable’ reflection upon this dialogue between God and humanity.

The first section then explains what the ITC calls “the primacy of the Word of God”.  It starts with a biblical meditation on the Prologue of Saint John’s Gospel (par. 6). The very first verse of John’s Gospel states that “in the beginning was the Word”.  God’s Word is prior. The Word is there from the very beginning, before time and creation. God is not a remote God, who sojourns in absolute silence. By essence, God is a communicator: He speaks, He reveals Himself in creation and through the Incarnation. Christianity is not a religion of the book, but the religion of the Word of God. But where can man hear this living Word of God? The answer is: in Scripture and Tradition. “The gospel of God is fundamentally testified by the sacred Scripture of both Old and New Testaments”, and “tradition is the faithful transmission of the Word of God, witnessed in the canon of Scripture by the prophets and the apostles and in the leiturgia (liturgy), martyria (testimony) and diakonia (service) of the Church” (par. 7). The process of transmitting God’s Word to men and women is made possible by the Holy Spirit, who “not only inspired the biblical authors to find the right words of witness but also assists the readers of the Bible in every age to understand the Word of God in the human words of the holy Scriptures”.  Hence, ‘the Word of God is given to us in sacred Scripture as an inspired testimony to revelation; together with the Church’s living Tradition, it constitutes the supreme rule of faith.’ (Verbum Domini, 18) (par. 8). This understanding allows, therefore, the Commission to formulate the first and most important criterion of Catholic theology: “A criterion of Catholic theology is recognition of the primacy of the Word of God.  God speaks ‘in many and various ways’ - in creation, through prophets and sages, through the holy Scriptures, and definitively through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh (cf. Heb 1:1-2)” (par. 9). 

The second section, “Faith, the Response to God’s Word”, starts with a biblical mediation on the Apostle Paul’s remark that faith comes from hearing the word of Christ (par. 10). This ‘obedience’ of faith is at the same time an act of trust (fides qua) as well as that which is believed or confessed (fides quae): “Both aspects work together inseparably, since trust is adhesion to a message with intelligible content, and confession cannot be reduced to mere lip service, it must come from the heart. Faith is at the same time a reality profoundly personal and ecclesial” (par. 13). Furthermore, the Commission points to the fact that from the very beginning of the Church, ‘heretical’ interpretations of the faith held in common were proposed by some people. This permanent shadow of heresy in the life of the Church distorts the Gospel and damages ecclesial communion (par. 14). Hence, “A [second] criterion of Catholic theology is that it takes the faith of the Church as its source, context and norm.  Theology holds the fides qua and the fides quae together. It expounds the teaching of the apostles, the good news about Jesus Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1Cor 15: 3, 4), as the rule and stimulus of the Church’s faith”.

In the third section, the Commission describes ‘theology’ as the understanding of faith. Indeed, faith opens the intelligence of the believer to new horizons. It brings him to the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6). This “intellectus fidei takes various forms in the life of the Church and in the community of believers in accordance with the different gifts of the faithful (lectio divina, meditation, preaching, theology as a science, etc.). It becomes theology in the strict sense when the believer undertakes to present the content of the Christian mystery in a rational and scientific way. Theology is therefore scientia Dei in as much as it is a rational participation in the knowledge that God has of himself and of all things” (par. 18). Theologians are not the only believers who “know”, they participate in the knowledge of all believers; nevertheless, their knowledge has a more systematic and ‘scientific’ character. Therefore, “a [third] criterion of Catholic theology is that, precisely as the science of faith, ‘faith seeking understanding [fides quaerens intellectum], it has a rational dimension. Theology strives to understand what the Church believes, why it believes, and what can be known sub specie Dei. As scientia Dei, theology aims to understand in a rational and systematic manner the saving truth of God” (par. 19).