Some years ago, during a national meeting of Catholic theologians, a group gathered to discuss John Paul II's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The Vatican and the bishops were evidently serious about enforcing its requirement that Catholic professors of theology in Catholic institutions have permission, a man-datum, to teach from their local bishop. One after another, the theologians rose to voice their indignation at the very idea that the Catholic Church had the right to pass any sort of judgment on their fitness to teach theology. One member of the panel, a priest and an accomplished theologian, observed that requiring Catholic theology professors to profess the teachings of the Catholic Church didn't seem like all that much to ask. An angry murmuring buzz filled the room. Had there been rotten fruit at hand, the theologians would have pelted him with it.
It may be tempting to see this incident as one more piece of evidence that Catholic theology professors see their vocation as drumming up dissent rather than teaching their students how to think about the faith. That would be unfair. Those opposing the mandatum seemed to feel a genuinely distressing conflict between their vocation as Catholic theologians and what the Church was asking of them. Theology, they rightly assumed, is an intellectual enterprise, and theologians are intellectuals. Theology is by nature wissenschaft: an activity of rigorous critical reflection, a "science" in the broad sense of an activity for scholars trained in its distinctive requirements. Theologians must therefore be free to follow evidence and arguments wherever they lead, unencumbered by outside interference, especially the interference of those who--like most bishops--are not themselves intellectuals.
The disgruntled professors were quite right about theology as an intellectual undertaking, which by its very nature answers to evidence and argument. But what they offered was only a half-truth. Precisely as an intellectual, the theologian's calling and task are from the Church, and so his responsibility is to the Church. The God about whom theology seeks knowledge is the God known to the Church, the God who has entrusted the most sublime truths about himself to fishermen and tentmakers, and to their successors down to this day. Theology exists to serve the Church, so the theologian must answer not only to evidence and argument, but to those divinely empowered to teach the truths of the faith authoritatively-for Catholics, the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter.
The intellectual and the ecclesial belong together. There is no need for the Christian theologian--or the Christian scholar of any sort--to choose one over the other. Playing the intellectual and ecclesial aspects of the theologian's vocation against one another (from either side) isn't to do Catholic theology better but to cease doing it at all.
Faith seeks understanding. It starts to become theology when it searches out reasons for the truth of what it believes. By seeking reasons, faith looks for light, for a clearer and more luminous apprehension of the truths about God that God has given us in faith, and of the radiant bonds that unite these truths of faith. Taking a cue from Thomas Aquinas, we could say that faith itself is already "a kind of participation by us in divine truth," in God himself as first truth and measure of all truth, albeit a partial and imperfect participation under the conditions of this life. When faith is conceived in this way, theology becomes faith's deliberate effort to intensify its present participation in the first truth by the light reasons provide--to make of what it has been taught by God nothing less than what Aquinas calls "a certain imprint of God's own knowledge" in our own minds.
This demand for reasons is what makes theology a science and distinguishes theology from the divine gift of faith. Animated by the Holy Spirit, faith recognizes the voice of God in the teaching and proclamation of the Church, and believes what God says because God, who is the truth itself, says it. Yet faith also knows that no appeal to authority, even divine authority, yields understanding. Divine authority teaches us what is true about God, but not why it is true. Thomas Aquinas observes that...