Expanding on some of the themes from his response to Prof Nicholas Lash, Prof Gavin D’Costa offers some reflections on the task of the Catholic Theologian. Please note that the following is an excerpt a longer piece, ‘On Being a Catholic Theologian’ Theology115:1 (2012), pp. 3-13. This version was abridged and edited by Tommy Lynch.

My claim is that all theology is ecclesial theology, that is, it originates from a churched context. Those who deny this usually reveal themselves to be ‘liberal Protestants’ (a typological category here), a person whose church is the university and whose magisterium the rules of discourse that are prevalent in the Humanities (in England). Such folk claim theology must have an objective methodology for it is an objective scientific discipline. They are of course right: theology is an objective scientific discipline. But the ‘liberal Protestant’s’ disciplinary practices are usually those of the academy. For a long spell that has been the historical critical method, but since the collapse of modernity and the on rush of postmodernity, multiple reading strategies are permitted ranging from feminism, psychoanalysis, literary theory, Marxism and so on. By seeing these as the sole norms and methods for doing theology, as was the case with the dominance of historical criticism, they conform to the product of the research university founded in Berlin in the eighteenth century. The postmodern turn has tended to mean that a hermeneutic of suspicion is the presumption in reading strategies. In reality, Catholics also can be ‘liberal Protestants’, and they can be such in Catholic Universities as well. This means they simply ape the model over-summarily outlined above. I hope you will not think I am making a sectarian point. I am just saying that some ecclesias are now identical to the modern research university, even if that university calls itself a church university as is the case in the USA.[1]

At this point, you might say, ‘You use rational arguments, close exegesis of texts, including biblical texts, you think these biblical texts are normative, so isn’t there a basic overlap that constitutes a ‘wider churched’ sense of academic theologians?’ Possibly, but my wager is that the answer is ‘no’ for a simple reason. While we do share many overlapping features the organising principles that relate the differing features are such that the similarities are held together differently. It is rather like three artists being given the same three colours, the same type of brush and canvas, and then told: get on with it. The organising principle would generate different results.

So what is Catholic theology? It is basically prayerful, intellectually rigorous, communally tested, and accountable reflection upon the three sources of authority that feed theology: scripture, tradition, and magisterium. Let me elaborate on the latter two to bring out the contours implied in my use of the terms.[2]


Yves Congar wrote what is now a classic in two volumes: ‘Traditions and Tradition: The Biblical, Historical, and Theological Evidence for Catholic Teaching on Tradition’. [3] The singular and plural of the title are instructive. For Congar ‘traditions’ include everything that could be termed ‘culture’: the culture that transmits what it is to be English or American or German, to be a member of Bristol University, to be a Catholic – and so on. In the latter, this includes liturgy, feast days, the bible, local customs, patristic writings, documents of the Magisterium, and all those traditions (in the plural) that culturally construct being a Catholic. And within the traditions there will be various discordant notes and internal contradictions and tensions and one generally tries to live with them. But every now and then the community find some of the internal discord unbearable and if things get to a head, then adjudication by the magisterium may be necessary – which is when the singular Tradition emerges. Some elements of tradition are customs and habits that are disposable, although not all customs and habits are. The question of discerning the difference between the dispensable and the indispensable is in part the question of the development of the tradition. In liturgical terms it underlies some of the disputed areas within the current liturgical storm amongst Catholics – and in dogmatic terms, we are speaking about the development of dogma.[4] Tradition, in the singular, for Congar, contains the elements that are deemed indispensable by the traditions, and the plural is a good thing unless it calls into question the unity of the whole.

How then does the theologian relate to these amorphous partially non-textual traditions? This is a complex area and I will focus only on one point that will help sharpen distinctions and clarify the role of the theologian. This is prayer, by which I mean the theologian is part of a community of prayer, involved and shaped by its liturgies and practices. I choose this feature as this is not a prerequisite to do theology in the university, but I would argue that it is a necessary condition for an ecclesial theologian. Please note that I’m not making the silly claim that a non-praying theologian can never come up with the brilliant insights or that their works are not of great benefit to posterity. I am arguing that part of theological method is prayer in the sense understood by Aquinas – and explicated by me at length elsewhere.[5] To summarise that argument: Prayer tutors the heart to love and to seek the truth in charity, for it requires humility and the Spirit for its utterances, and learns a trust in God’s providence. It builds up an instinctive quality that allows for theology to be more holistic, without in any sense sacrificing the necessary logical and intellectual rigour. It means that when the Catholic does theology she knows that it has a purpose for a body of people who are nourished by it, but most importantly, that when she does theology she must in that very act, give praise to God in her actual doing theology well.

I want to claim that if theology, as a science, has as its object, God; and the pre-modern tradition of the study of theology says that the best way to know that object is through prayer, penance, and charity; then it follows that to best study the object, prayer, penance and charity are required. So notwithstanding the tough intellectual training the theologian must undergo, prayer, I am arguing, is a vital precondition of doing the discipline well. To pray in community means both the binding within a community and a binding with that community with the true and living God.

How else does tradition affect the theologian? Given my lack of space, I’m going to get two for the price of one and turn to the magisterium that is part of the tradition but also determinative of it, and particularly determinative of the theologian’s task. How so?

The Magisterium

There are three particular forms of the magisterium in Catholic theology: the extraordinary universal magisterium, the ordinary universal magisterium, and the ordinary magisterium. The first refers to the special teaching office whereby the Pope alone or the Pope along with all the bishops together give a definitive judgment or explicitly pronounce a solemn definition wishing to address the universal church. When the pope does this alone, ex cathedra, he still exercises the same extraordinary universal magisterium. The second, the ordinary universal magisterium refers to complete or near complete agreement by all the bishops, even if geographically dispersed, that a particular doctrine is true, but without a solemn definition being made. The final category, the ordinary magisterium, refers to the day to day exercise of the teaching office of bishops and the pope, without solemn definition or total consensus.[6]

The relationship of the magisterium to infallibility is a complex one. When the magisterium teaches infallibly, those statements are ‘irreformable’. When this term was formally defined at Vatican I it was in reaction to the Gallicans who contended that papal definitions were always subject to the judgement of the Church. Vatican I insisted this was not so. But three qualities of an infallible statement are worth highlighting before moving on. First, that an irreformable definition does not exclude a reformulation at a different date if the cultural circumstances will block a correct understanding of the original formulation. Second, there is a lot of debate amongst Catholic theologians as to which statements prior to Vatican I are irreformable, because none were taught with this formal seal.[7] Third, in the relatio (formal statement explaining the teaching) of Vatican I, it is clear that infallibility has stringent conditions: expressing, defending, or explaining the word of God as contained in Scripture, apostolic Tradition, and held by the Church over centuries.

The Catholic theologian is bound in differing ways by all these magisterial teachings. I cannot explicate this in adequate detail here, but I hope you will understand why some of us round the table spend seemingly inordinate time asking questions like what does the magisterium teach on theology of religions? For my work, not until the question has been answered clearly, which requires a lot of exegesis and argument, can I get on with the job of exploring unanswered questions, defending the teachings that are clearly binding, doing basic research in areas which require it. In the process, I need to be accountable first to other Catholic theologians and also, secondly, more widely to the Christian community.

To conclude, let me look at just one point: what is the relationship of the Catholic theologian to her local bishop? The Bishops are the authoritative teachers in the Church and theologians serve their bishop and the world bishops. How do they serve the bishops? In three ways. First, if they occupy an official position in a Catholic theological faculty, whereby they have signed a mandatum, a legal document that expresses the relationship of the theologian to their bishop, the theologian undertakes to teach the faith of the Church in particular in keeping with the three forms of magisterium. Second, does that mean that the Catholic theologian is gagged and a lackey of the bishop? Not at all. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, (1990) outlines many ways in which the bishop collaborates and has a reciprocal relationship with the theologian to reflect afresh on the traditions of the church. What is questioned is personal or group public dissent, for then the non-educated faithful can become confused and even scandalised. There is a world of difference when the theologian debates a matter in a journal and at an academic conference, and here there are no boundaries set on debate, and when they speak to Time Magazine or popular journals to express dissent from magisterial teachings, especially of the extraordinary universal magisterium. I admit, I have sympathy with some of their causes, but I also have a confidence, based on history, of carrying out the rigorous theological task properly as the basic means of serving the church. The Church has notoriously persecuted some of its best theologians, but thankfully, it has also later recognised this and even then canonized them!

Third, and to draw to my conclusion, what of the Catholic theologian, like myself, who has no official teaching role? After Ex Corde Ecclesia was published (1990), I wrote to my Bishop asking if he would grant me a mandatum, so that I could conduct my teaching as a Catholic theologian. He said it only applied to those in a Catholic University. I said I was happy to leave the question if he thought this was the case. My bishop is a wise and holy man. So, I teach as a Catholic who is a theologian, without any mandate from my church. I cannot formally call myself a ‘Catholic theologian’ as it is an ecclesial tag and by definition needs to be granted by a bishop.  After everything I’ve argued above, I am not a ‘Catholic theologian’, but a Catholic who is a theologian. This is so even if I give advice to the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales and the Vatican Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. But I still feel obliged to act ‘as if’ I was a Catholic theologian and to work out that vocation in the complex environment of a secular university.[8]

[1] See James Tunstead Burtchaell, The Dying of the Light. The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, W. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998 – paints a bleak but accurate picture of Catholic Universities in the US. Things are changing.

[2] Please see the full article for the discussion of scripture.

[3] trans. Michael Naseby (vol.1) and Thomas Rainborough (vol.2), (London: Burns & Oates, 1966) [1960, 1963].

[4] See John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, (London: Longman,, 1890); and very helpful on this area, Aidan Nichols, From Newman to Congar. The Idea of Doctrinal Development from the Victorians to the Second Vatican Council, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990).

[5] See Theology in the Public Square. Church, Academy and Nation, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005): 112-143.

[6] One of the best studies on the magisterium is by Avery Dulles, Magisterium. Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, (Naples, Florida: Ave Maria Press, 2007).

[7] See Francis A. Sullivan, Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium, (New York: Paulist Press, 1996).

[8] I am very grateful to members of the postgraduate reading group in Bristol to whom this paper was first presented, along with my colleague, Dr Oliver Crisp’s, accompanying paper.