Promoting and expanding theological training


The synodal vision that is emerging region after region of the Catholic Church around the world highlights that many different voices must be heard if we are to fulfill our vocation to be the pilgrim People of God.

October 07, 2022

LCI Photo by Thomas O’Loughlin)

By Father Thomas O’Loughlin
The synodal vision that is emerging region after region of the Catholic Church around the world highlights that many different voices must be heard if we are to fulfill our vocation to be the pilgrim People of God.

A door of a synodal church
But if voices are to testify to the truth, speakers should seek to be as informed as possible. In matters of faith, an essential part of this personal equipment is to have theological knowledge. Seen in this light, we can see the study of theology as a gateway to a synodal Church. But there are three obstacles to such widespread literacy. First, among Roman Catholics, “theology” was historically confined to the ordained. Many Catholics simply never thought that taking a serious interest in theology was one of their business. The old attitude of “clergy speak, laity listen” is still alive as we approach the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Second, there has been a marked abandonment of theological education in many universities. The focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM subjects”) means theology is excluded as somehow unnecessary, a denominational issue, or a misuse of resources.

Third, many very committed Catholics – lay and clerical – have never considered how the formal study of theology can be a resource for the Church and the world. While individual academic subjects strive to say everything about something, theology strives to say something about everything. Therefore, what follows is the case for bringing more and more Catholics to undertake theological studies as an aspect of the synodal path which we have now embarked upon.


Words have a brilliance as well as a meaning. For many Christians today, the word “discipleship” – a concept that has a very wide range of meanings – has a very positive sheen. It captures a sense of personal commitment, of life as a movement of growth and learning, and seems to fit very well with a sense of belonging to a Church that imagines itself as the pilgrim people of God.

“Theology”, on the other hand, has little luster; indeed, it seems like a boring word related to a rather boring and obscure academic pursuit.

But let’s look at a series of situations—scenes we face every day as Catholic Christians—and see if looking at them with the resources of theological speculation can help us do three things.

First, theology can help reposition these problems so that they are seen as opportunities rather than obstacles.

Second, theology can help us to approach them differently as individual disciples and as a community of disciples, the Church, and thus find ways “through” the problems.

Third, theology can provide us with alternative ways of talking about what we hold precious as disciples and thus help us in the task of evangelism.

What is theology?
What exactly do we mean by theology? Most Christians view theology primarily as an academic subject. It is a body of information that exists “out there,” something that is difficult to understand and must be absorbed by religious experts. And so, it’s really the business of the clergy. It’s like the religious equivalent of physics. The physics are complex and seem extremely important. So, we’re glad there’s eggheads in a university somewhere working there, but we can get by just fine without it!

The same goes for theologians. No doubt they are helpful, but just as the egg is still boiling whether you understand physics or not, faith continues and God is still “above us all” whether or not you have read a book of theology! But in fact, theology is not really like physics. It’s much more like cooking: the more you know about cooking, the easier everyday cooking – and cooking is not only unique to humans but affects us every day – becomes.

This may sound a little arrogant, but think about how many times religious issues or questions with a religious dimension come up in everyday conversation. A person is run over on the road and someone says, “If your number is on, your number is on!” Do you accept that life is so determined? Even if that’s the case – and there have been many deterministic religions – don’t you always look both ways before crossing the road?

An athlete winning a race bows to the ground and thanks Allah; another blesses herself; a third does nothing because he thinks it’s superstition. Are there different gods or, if there is only one God, why so many arguments? Or is it all a sleight of hand?

As I write these lines, I remember the bomb thrown in a church in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday a few years ago, another bomb that went off in Kabul during a dispute between Sunnis and Shiites, and tensions in the United States that stem from some of the apocalyptic ideas of members of the “Christian” fundamentalist right who deny climate change and imagine that they can predict the future by stringing together a few biblical texts.

All three stories got me thinking. Maybe religion is bad for human beings. Should it perhaps be relegated to the dustbin of failed nonsense? This is a fundamental theological question.

Religion produces discord but could it also be the godfather of discourse between groups since societies always develop religions, even if today they are most often atheistic religions? It is also a theological question.

Discord or discourse
All religions argue about what their “original” or founding texts/stories meant/said/want.
Are there better ways to approach these questions that might generate more light than heat, and are there ways to pursue these questions that are creative rather than destructive?

Again, we have theological questions. If we come across these issues, then as a community we might seek to approach them in a careful and considerate way – and we have a noble goal: to replace discord with discourse. LCI

Father O’Loughlin is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham (UK).


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