The following interview with His Eminence Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter. Cardinal Dulles was that year's Commencement Speaker.
Q. What is the work of a Catholic theologian?
A. The Catholic theologian's work is something that is done within the Faith. One can not do theology outside of faith. One can do philosophy outside of faith; one can do lots of good things outside of faith. But, at least as we understand theology, it is done within faith. If it is Christian theology, it has to be done within Christian faith. If it is Catholic theology, it has to be done within Catholic faith, which means that one accepts the creeds and doctrines of the Church, with the doctrinal force that the Church gives to them. Certain things are core subjects for discussion, certain things are not; there are articles of the Creed, dogmas of the Church - these are matters that are settled and not to be contested within the Catholic faith.
So, I think the first requisite for being a Catholic theologian is that you have the Catholic faith. If you do not, you had better do something about it - that is, if you want to become a Catholic theologian. If you are outside the Catholic Church, you cannot do Catholic theology.
Having said that, I would describe the theologian as the one who tries to fit it all together, to see what the full picture is, to see the balance and harmony of all the elements in the Catholic faith, and to contemplate them. I think it makes up a very beautiful picture when you see the truths of the Catholic faith in harmony and their relation to the essential dogmas, like the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Redemption, and so forth. It spreads out into circles, as it were, and it's very beautiful. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, one finds a very beautiful presentation of the synthesis of Catholic doctrine.
The theologian works in an area where he is constantly in dialogue with other theologians in the present and in the past. Whenever a question arises, I want to know what the Scriptures say about this, what the Doctors of the Church say about this, what the Magisterium says, and I rely very heavily on St. Thomas Aquinas. If he's written about the topic, I'm not going to pass him by. I'm going to look at him very, very carefully, and generally agree with him.
So, in summary, one could say that a Catholic theologian is one who contemplates the harmony and the unity and intelligibility of the Faith that has been revealed to us. I think that's why I was bitten by the theological bug already as an undergraduate in college.
Q. What are the pitfalls for a theologian, and how does one avoid them?
A. Well, they are all over the place, like a minefield, I suppose. I think that when attempting to explain the Faith to contemporaries in our own culture the primary danger is twofold: first, one can attempt - and fail -- to explain a point in theology by too-rigidly adhering to technical terminology of an earlier age that is not understood by people of today; or, the opposite of this, one can become so contemporary that one distorts the faith or dilutes it in order to explain it.
One can always make something seem more intelligible if one empties out the mysteries. But the truth is that the great mysteries of the Faith are not things that can be easily explained. The mystery of the Incarnation, for example, and all the doctrines of the Faith are very mysterious. In trying to explain them, as the theologian tries to do, the danger is to oversimplify them, or make them sound too contemporary. I think that's perhaps the principal danger.
Q. Could you say a little more about the importance of precise terminology when doing theology?
A. I think that these days we are playing very fast and loose with terminology. Actually, technical terminology is as necessary in theology as it is in other sciences. You would expect the mathematician, or a physicist to use technical terminology to explain the principles of indeterminacy or the principles of relativity. One must, at a certain point, use words to be exact and precise. One has to use technical terms.
In the same way, the technical terms in theology have been hammered out with great care after centuries of discussion, and to do away with those and make it all simple is really a very dangerous operation. There is a danger of injuring the Faith itself.
I think people have to learn technical terms if they're going to make progress in understanding these deep mysteries. They don't have to be theologians; one can be a pious Catholic without being a theologian. But if one wants to be a theologian, one must understand how the Church uses terms like person, substance, nature, subsistence, and so forth and so on. One has to know philosophy. One must read Plato and Aristotle before reading St. Thomas.
Q. How are you, as a theologian related to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)?
A. I don't have, as a theologian, a formal relationship to the CDF. It's there, of course, and they occasionally put out declarations and warnings and things like that to tell us about prevalent errors that we must guard against, which are very salutary warnings. But, by and large, I'm not tempted to embrace them anyway - the errors that they point out.
So, I have a very harmonious relationship with the CDF. So far as I know, my writings have never been delated to them. (Delated - that's a technical term for reporting errors.) Often people read the work of a theologian and they will write to Rome and say, "This error is in this book. Will you please do something about it?" If the CDF receives serious and multiple complaints, then it will conduct an investigation. That is generally the way they proceed. They don't initiate much, but they react when people send in complaints.
I think the CDF is more passive than is widely understood. I've never seen them go after somebody, except after that person has been widely denounced, and then they have to investigate. It is their duty to say "Is this a departure from the Catholic faith?" If so, they have an obligation to say, "This may not be said within the Catholic Church; it is contrary to Catholic doctrine." They may have to say that, but they always investigate for a while before they say that. They invite people over to Rome, and they invite them to respond by letter, and so forth and so on. And sometimes people get cleared.
Occasionally, the CDF will consult me on works of other theologians, asking, "Well, you see these complaints - what do you think about them?". So, I might have to write them a letter and say that, as a matter of fact, I think this or that is off-base; or else I'll read the book and can't find anything wrong in it.
Q. You indicated earlier that you had a tendency towards theology even as a young man, before you entered the Catholic Church. Would you say that you were a convert like the subject of your latest book, Cardinal Newman --- that you came to the faith through your intelligence?
A. Yes, I would say so. That had everything to do with my coming into the Church. I really read my way into the Church. As I mentioned, even before I was a Catholic, I was fascinated with theology. I did my senior thesis on a lay theologian from the Renaissance, and I got very interested in theological questions. So I've been blessed to have spent my life in this work. I'm also a teacher, and I do a certain amount of writing and speaking and so forth and it's all part of my work as a theologian. As St. Thomas speaks of 'contemplata aliis tradere' and so you transmit to others what you have yourself contemplated. And that's what I'm trying to do in my writing and in my teaching.
“We’re aiming for the truth in all we learn here, and developing the skills to apply that truth. This formation will keep me strong for life.”
– Aileen McCarthy (’14)