What a Theologian-Pope Tells Theology (Part 1)

Interview With Archbishop Bruno Forte

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By Mirko Testa
ROME, JAN. 25, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI exhorts theologians to adopt an attitude of listening, replacing with the virtue of humility the temptations to consider themselves great.

This exhortation, according to Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, president of the Italian bishops’ Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith, Proclamation and Catechesis, is a safeguard against the «only authentically Christian heresy.»

ZENIT spoke with Archbishop Forte about a selection of Benedict XVI’s recent commentaries on theology. The archbishop notes how the roots of Joseph Ratzinger’s thinking are revealed in his exhortations as Pope.

Part 2 of this interview, on theology as a science, will be published Tuesday.
ZENIT: Last year, in the homily of the Mass celebrated in the presence of members of the International Theological Commission, the Pope explained that a true theologian is not one who attempts to measure the mystery of God with his own intelligence, but one who is conscious of his own limitations. On that occasion the Pope indicated humility as the way to arrive at truth, voicing a word of caution about expert theologians who behave like the ancient scribes. Do you think the Pope is referring to a marked tendency in our days?
Archbishop Forte: I believe this is an essential point that distinguishes Christian theology from any form of gnosis. The essential difference is that in theology everything stems from hearing, hence, from auditus Verbi, whereas in gnosis everything is the intellectual self-production of the individual. This is the real reason why the only authentically Christian heresy is gnosis: the pretension of a self-redemption of man who does not need the intervention of the Other, of [One] on High, that is, the intervention of God. A theology that is based, as is its nature, on Revelation, cannot but be first of all listening, hence humilitas: an attitude of profound willingness and docility before God’s action, who enters history in a surprising way and at the same time confirms it in its dignity, opening it to the novum adveniens of his promise.
It is a topic that Ratzinger, as theologian, has stressed repeatedly, and which comes from his knowledge of Augustine, who is the genius of the intellectus fidei lived in listening, in the use of intelligence at the service of Franciscan-listening that predominates in Joseph Ratzinger’s theological formation, which in his teaching as Pope reappears in his intense call to humilitas and to auditus. I would add that this topic is very important today in a society that has known the inebriation of reason and, hence, the gnostic temptation in the different faces of modern ideology, and that today, in the uneasiness of post-modernity, if it does not open itself to listening and to humilitas runs the risk of the great temptation of nihilism, that is, of meaninglessness.

In other words, who will be able to save us? To this question, one can only answer: the Other who comes to us, that is, the living God, and this implies the humility of acceptance. Gnosis in this post-modern society, is supplanted in its own fundamental conviction, which is the absoluteness of the individual and of his capacity for knowledge or production of the true.
ZENIT: In September of 2007, on visiting the Cistercian abbey of Heiligenkreuz, the Pope criticized a certain «theology that no longer breathes in the realm of faith,» putting the accent, instead, on «kneeling theology,» a beautiful expression coined by Hans Urs von Balthasar. In the same way, on presenting the figure of St. Bernard of Clairvaux during a general audience, Benedict XVI said that without faith and prayer, reason on its own cannot find God and theology becomes a vain intellectual exercise. Is this a scene present in the realm of today’s theology?
Archbishop Forte: The first decisive element is that, precisely because it is born from listening to the Word of God, theology needs not only a radical humilitas, but also a form of loving, hence prayerful acceptance of it. Von Balthasar insisted very much on this aspect, maintaining that sanctity is not something superfluous in relation to the theologian’s exercise, but is an essential condition. It is no accident that very great theologians, especially fathers of the Church, were also saints. Hence the need to kneel before the mystery and to listen, to live the auditus not only with humility but with the loving and persevering acceptance of worshipping faith which is inherent to the identity of Christian theology.

And also in this, in Joseph Ratzinger’s thought, there is not only continuity with Augustine’s and Bonaventure’s line, but, on the other hand, there is also another very important intuition taken up by Vatican II, namely, that there is a relation between Christian living, Christian thought and the liturgy.
The liturgy, in as much as culmen and fons, as Vatican II says, is that from which everything stems and to which everything in Christian existence tends, both in its living as well as in its reflective dimension. Because of this, a theology without a liturgical soul, that is, without the capacity to praise and invoke God, is a vain intellectual exercise. It is another form of that gnosis that runs the risk of contaminating man’s capacity to open himself to God. In the great Christian-Catholic theological vision, man has been made capax Dei: but this capacity is conditioned on one hand by humilitas and on the other, by the capacity of invoking the gift of God and of allowing oneself to be permeated by him in a doxological and liturgical attitude, that is, of glorification of God, which is no less than the willingness to let oneself be molded by his action in our life. When all this is put into words, theology is really born.
And here is another consideration to be made on the relation between theology and spirituality. We have lived through a crisis of this relationship in the period of modern theology, that is, of that theology influenced by the opposition between Vernunftswahrheit and Geschichtswahrheit, the truth of reason and the truth of fact.

In the Enlightenment’s conception only the truth of reason is truth, because it presents an absoluteness and universality that the truths of fact don’t have. Christianity, on the contrary, is based on a truth of fact, which is God’s historical revelation. Then it seemed to a certain theology of an enlightened-liberal hue that pure theological exercises could not be reconciled with a form of spirituality, of spiritual living, left rather to devotion.
This abyss between theology and spirituality has caused great harm in the era of modern theology: This has been seen especially in liberal theology and in some forms of Catholic modernism, but it continues to cause harm there where, for example, in the 60s and 70s some forms of Christian theology allowed themselves to be conditioned by modern ideology, including revolutionary [currents]. Today we feel, instead, that we must return to the original founding statute of theological endeavor, which is to take to thought the experience of the Mystery proclaimed and, therefore, heard and celebrated in the liturgy, lived and witnessed in faith and charity.
Therefore, theology is not only docta fides, that is, a fides quaerens intellectum, but also docta caritas, that is, to take the word to the living of love, the gift of the love of God which is given us in the liturgy and in the grace of the sacraments, but which must then be witnessed in living, in gestures of the silent eloquence of charity. Thus theology and spirituality rediscover the fundamental nexus that constitutes them reciprocally as Christian theology and spirituality. A theology without spirituality runs the risk of being empty, a spirituality without theology runs the risk of being blind, paraphrasing Kant’s well-known saying on intuitions and concepts.

[Translation of the Italian original by ZENIT]
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