Pope calls for 'contextual theology' that responds to modern questions

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Calling for a major push toward developing a "fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women live each day," Pope Francis has approved new statutes for the Pontifical Theological Academy.

The academy was founded in 1718 to train theologians; the last revision of its statutes, by St. John Paul II in 1999, asked members to pursue "the principal mission of theology today," which, he said, "consists in promoting dialogue between Revelation and the doctrine of the faith, and in offering an ever deeper understanding of it."

In an apostolic letter issued "motu proprio," on his own initiative, Nov. 1, Pope Francis said that in a "synodal, missionary and outgoing church," theologians must also dialogue with other sciences and with members of other religions and that helping Catholics have a deeper understanding of the faith will be possible only if theology grapples with their questions and concerns.

The Pontifical Academy of Theology, which works with the Dicastery for Culture and Education, is different from the International Theological Commission, a body of theologians appointed by the pope to carry out research on behalf of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Promoting theology in the future cannot be limited to abstractly re-proposing formulas and patterns of the past," the pope said in the apostolic letter. "Called to interpret the present prophetically and to discern new itineraries for the future in the light of Revelation, theology will have to confront the profound cultural transformations underway, aware that: 'What we are living through is not simply an epoch of change, but it is the change of an epoch.'"

The model for "contextual theology," he said, is the Incarnation, Jesus being born into and living in the world, walking with his contemporaries and engaging with the issues that impacted their lives and faith.

"Good theologians, like good pastors, also smell of the people and the street and, by their reflection, they pour oil and wine on the wounds of women and men," the pope wrote.

But "openness to the world, to the human person in the concreteness of his or her existential situation with its problems, its wounds, its challenges, its potential" is not a "tactic" for adapting "now crystalized content" to new situations, he said. Rather, the teaching of Scripture and tradition must be read anew in the light of new problems and new information gained through dialogue with other academic disciplines.

With that starting point, the pope said, "theology cannot but develop into a culture of dialogue and encounter with different traditions and different forms of knowledge, between different Christian denominations and different religions, discussing openly with everyone, believers and non-believers alike."

"Indeed," Pope Francis wrote, "the need for dialogue is intrinsic to human beings and to the whole of creation, and it is the peculiar task of theology to discover the Trinitarian imprint that makes the cosmos in which we live 'a web of relationships.'"