Does the Successor of Peter need “theological structuring”?

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The statue of St. Peter

The statue of St. Peter

The Bishop of Rome “has everything it takes “to enounce” the faith of the Church”. The Roman Curia plays an “instrumental and vicarious” role in relation to the Pope’s ministry. As Pope, the Pope does not belong to any particular theological “School of thought”. Fr. Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole, OP, Professor of dogmatic theology at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), goes over some essential distinctions which the Catholic Church recognises and maintains regarding the relationship between theology, doctrine and magisterium

Gianni Valente

In a recent interview with La Croix, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, acting as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, mentioned that one of the duties of his office is the mission to “theologically structure” Pope Francis’ pontificate given that the current Successor of Peter is not a theologian by profession. In reference to the considerations expressed by the Prefect of the former Holy Office, Vatican Insider addressed a series of questions to Fr. Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole, OP regarding the tasks of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and what Church Tradition teaches about the relationship between theology, doctrine and magisterium. In his answers, the Dominican professor runs through, in a simple and clear manner, some “fundamental” facts which sometimes seem to be obscured by the endless speculations of numerous individuals throughout the blogosphere who play at being “agents of Orthodoxy”.


Fr. Benoît-Dominique de La Soujeole, OP is a Dominican of the Province of Toulouse, France (where he was born in 1955). Since 1992 he has been a member of the editorial board of authoritative journal La Revue thomiste de philosophie e de théologie. Since 1999 he has held the title of Professor of dogmatic theology (Church and sacraments) at the Faculty of Theology of the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), where he is also Prior of the Dominican monastery of St. Albertus Magnus.


Does providing a “theological structure” to the pontificate feature among the tasks of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith?

First of all we must clarify these words. The Congregation in which Cardinal Müller performs the role of Prefect, is the Congregation De doctrina fidei. According to article 48 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus of 26 June 1988, its duty is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world”. Doctrine (from the Latin docere, which means to teach) is the intelligence that the Church has of its faith, which the Episcopal College along with its head – the Bishop of Rome guarantees thanks to a specific assistance from the Holy Spirit. Theology is, in itself, the intelligence that a person (the theologian) or a group of people (a “school of thought”) has of the faith of the Church. Theology does not receive special assistance from the Holy Spirit, but presents opinions that are freely discussed by theologians. The only requirement in terms of the relationship between theology and doctrine is that theology must not contradict doctrine. So, in answer to your question, it seems to be that the term “theological” which the cardinal used in his expression “theological structure” is taken in a very broad sense and could refer to doctrine instead. What the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus says in general about the Roman Curia in points 7 and 8 of its introduction, could then help one to understand the cardinals cardinal’s expression: The nature of the Curia is ministerial and in some way instrumental (n° 7), assisting the Roman Pope in a vicarious manner in his personal duty as pastor of the entire Church and in his relationship with the bishops (n°8). As such, the Congregation De doctrina fidei assists the Pope in the responsibility he has as guarantor of the faith of the Church, providing him with the adequate “instruments” listed in article 51 of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus.


Cardinal Müller’s words make it seem like if a Pope is not a “theologian by profession” then his pontificate may require the tutelage of a class of theologians that work in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Do you consider this way of defining the relationship between the pontifical Magisterium and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be plausible?

Every Pope, due to the very fact that he is Pope, possesses the charisma of Peter, which means he has the task of strengthening his brothers in the faith (Luke 22:32) with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.  It is a role of judging (in the sense of telling the truth) which Peter and his successors have. With regard to this role, the Congregation De doctrina fidei provides assistance through preliminary work done prior to the Pope carrying out his role and through the work of implementation, after the Pope has carried out his role. The extent to which the Pope may turn to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, depends on the extent to which the Pope is in a position to do all of the preparatory work by himself.


Does it still make sense to make even an implicit dialectic distinction between “theologian” Popes and “pastor” Popes?

The distinction between “theology” (or doctrine too) and “pastoral care” is a distinction, it does not mean the two are separate. Pastoral care is doctrine put into practice. All parts of the doctrine have a pastoral purpose. All Popes are both doctors of the faith and pastors of the Church. A “dialectic” relationship, in the sense of a Hegelian-type dialectics of opposition makes no sense whatsoever.


Individual Pope figures aside, can the Successor of Peter’s ministry be considered theologically “lacking” and in need of a certain “theological structuring” by individuals other than the Pope?

Certainly not! The Pope has everything it takes to enounce the faith of the Church. The Congregation De doctrina fidei helps the Pope in the preparation and implementation phases but the “crux” consists in enouncing the faith of the Church and this is the Pope’s very own and personal ministry. By “structuring”, Cardinal Müller may have meant this, above all preparatory, work.


In the Apostolic structure of the Church, which the Catholic Church believes is according to the will of God himself, who is the custodian of the depositum fidei? Is it the Pope with the bishops or the Roman Curia with its Congregations and bodies, including the Doctrinal dicastery?

It is the Pope himself. The Roman Curia has a merely instrumental and vicarious role: it does not exist or operate by its own right but within its own essential dependence on the Pontiff. When the See of Peter is vacant, all the work of the Congregations is suspended (except from day-to-day business).


Does the Pope have to have a “theological line of thought” of his own, an original, recognised and characteristic theological profile of his own?

The Pope, by virtue of being Pope, does not belong to any specific theological “School of thought”. He enounces the faith of the Church (doctrine) in keeping with the Tradition which he currently represents. He is not “theologian” but “doctor”. He may as an individual have his own preferences, his own background, his own personal intellectual formation, but these elements are not criteria for interpreting his magisterial teaching. The principal criterion of interpretation, as Benedict XVI recalled in his speech to the Curia in 2005, is that of substantial continuity with Tradition.


Do the Vatican Congregations or the Pope’s collaborators partake in some way in the charisma of infallibility which the Pope in certain cases possesses?

Infallibility is a strictly personal charisma that the Pope has; the Congregations do not share in it. The decisions taken by the Congregations “in forma communi” (not in specific form), are decisions taken by the Congregations in their function as vicarious instruments of the Pope; their authority is real but they do not carry the personal authority of the Pope at the same level as decisions approved by him in specific form.


Certain expressions and slogans of journalistic language claim that in the years in which Wojtyla was Pope, there was a sort of “diarchy” in existence, with Pope John Paul II almost sharing his ministry with Joseph Ratzinger, entrusting him with managing doctrine. Is this a legitimate interpretation of the reality of the time or is it misleading, from the point of view of the nature and structure of the Catholic Church?

From the point of view of the dogmatic nature of the Church, this interpretation is not a legitimate one. The papal office is strictly personal. This does not mean a Pope may not be particularly close to the Prefect of a Congregation and in specific cases to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as was the case with John Paul II and cardinal Ratzinger. But there is no doubt that dogmatically, the doctrinal responsibility lay with the Pope on the basis of his personal charisma.


Does the idea of a papacy that is “lacking” in “theological structure” terms echo the old medieval theories about the possibility of a “heretical Pope”?

I don’t think so. The theological structuring Cardinal Müller speaks of – as far as my understanding of the expression goes – is an active collaboration in the Pope’s personal ministry and certainly not an office of oversight that prevents the risk of papal deviation!


What can we learn, in terms of the relationship between theology and the magisterium, from the theological experience of St. Thomas Aquinas (bearing in mind, for example, the evolution of his thinking regarding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception)?

If one accepts the distinction between doctrine and theology, one must think that theology prepares the insights (the doctrine) that will come from the Church (from the Council and from the Pope). When a theological opinion is adopted in the magisterium, it ceases to be theological and become doctrinal.  St. Thomas Aquinas was given the title Doctor communis because he is the doctor whose views were adopted the most by the magisterium. This said, some of St. Thomas’ opinions were not adopted but were in fact contradicted (for example those on the Immaculate Conception). The theology-doctrine distinction also applies to St. Thomas.


People have reflected on the relationship between theology and the magisterium for years. Is theology an instrument of the magisterium and/or of the Holy See or does it have its own legitimate autonomy beyond the scope of the magisterium?

Theology is the intelligence of the faith. It is therefore based on the faith in its current state of intelligence (=doctrine) and seeks to “go further”. Theology is not therefore autonomous in the strict sense, as it is rooted in what the Church believes according to its current intelligence.  Within this dependence, it is “free” to develop the intelligence of the faith, and the conclusions it reaches are verified by the magisterium, whether it rejects these, adopts them or remains silent, until the question is not sufficiently clarified.


In the post-Conciliar years, there was often talk of certain theological circles wanting to exercise a “parallel magisterium”. Could this temptation arise again, perhaps in new guises, among “bishop-theologians” who have been given positions of responsibility within the Church?

The “parallel magisterium” of theologians is nonsensical. There is only one magisterium and its basis is sacramental (episcopal ordination, with the unique office that is due to the Bishop of Rome). Some theologians have in fact exercised a very strong and negative influence thanks to certain media.  This “parallel magisterium” is the denial of the distinction between doctrine and theology. If a bishop is also a theologian, when he adopts a position, it is his duty always to clearly distinguish between his role as doctor of the Church (=doctrine) and his competence as a theologian. When it seems that a doctrinal point requires further study in order to respond to the questions of our time, those who are the magisterium (bishops and the Pope) must examine the sensus fidei of the ecclesial community (not just the theologians but also spiritual men and women and the saints…) in order to try to discern what it is the Holy Spirit may be trying to say and express it in the most appropriate terms, as is written in point 12 of the conciliar Constitution Lumen Gentium. Today’s media culture tends to eliminate the distinction between doctrine and theology when a bishop expresses himself, and this is deplorable and can create confusion in the spirit of the faithful.

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About The Voice Of Bombay's Catholic Laity

Bombay Laity Ezekiel’s Chapter 3 Task as Watchman 17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 18 When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for[b] their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. 19 But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.
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