Thinking Theologically While Acting Pastorally

The following address was delivered by Dean James Ginther at the Faculty of Theology convocation, which was held in St. Basil’s Church on November 11, 2017.


Let me begin my offering my personal congratulations to all of you.  After spending years attending classes, writing papers, fretting over marks, and constantly wondering if you would ever get here, let me remind you that it is done.  You have accomplished a very important thing in your life.  For each of you, regardless of which degree you carry after your surname, today is a gateway to a future of greater possibilities because you have completed your program.

At the same time, you join the ranks of pastors, educators and scholars who share in a rich theological and intellectual tradition. Vice-Provost McCahan quite rightly noted that theological education in the university is integral to the history of the university itself.  By middle fo the twelfth century, nearly every cathedral church employed a master of theology whose responsibility was to teach and train local clergy in both theological thought and pastoral care.  As parish churches became more of the norm and as the innovation of auricular confession for all Christians began to take root in ecclesial practice, it became necessary that a priest not simply apprentice with a senior cleric for his education.  Rather, he should be formed in a theological tradition that would in turn inform his pastoral practice.  That dual end of theological education—to think theologically and to act pastorally—was retained as those cathedral schools began to transform into universities where the faculty of theology became the highest form of university education.

And here we are, nine centuries later, standing together as part of a legacy of service, education and scholarship.  That legacy is complex enough in its history that it easily elicits questions: what is Catholic higher education?  There as many books and articles on this topic as there are opinions and arguments.  It is a challenging topic and in some ways there will never be a complete resolution, let alone universal agreement.  Even the papal encyclical, Ex corde ecclesiae, has not yielded a clear resolution for it has generated a robust debate on how to put “flesh on the bones” that Pope St John Paul II formed in his papal pronouncement.

Today, I would like to take us back to the beginning, to the early centuries of the university, as a way to explore the nature of Catholic theological education.  I want my reflection this afternoon to act as a speculum historiae, an opportunity to gaze into the past in order to think about your experience as a student of the divine science.  There are in fact four characteristics of theological education in the medieval university that I want to highlight, and these characteristics have contemporary equivalents or applications that I want each of you to consider.

The first characteristic is that theological education in the medieval university was disruptive.  We sometimes assume that we look to our institutional and theological traditions we will encounter an irenic and orderly set of resources.  Some even attempt to contrast the frenetic changes in contemporary society with a stable teaching of the tradition.  It can be easy to forget that the eternal truths of our faith enter into the variable contours of history and often do not become clear and intelligible without conflict and disagreement.  Such is the tradition of catholic education in the Middle Ages.   The rise of the university was ultimately a critique of a six-hundred year tradition of monastic education.  The monastery offered rigorous education within a deeply spiritual context, but by the end of the eleventh century, the leaders of Christendom had begun to conclude that this institution did not offer enough to meet the needs of a changing society.  Some monasteries attempted to adjust by creating external schools where non-monastics could study alongside novitiates, but they were too sparse to address the growing need to educate new clergy and even laity who demanded formal education.

We know that this disrupted the tradition of theological education because monastic writers told us so.   They aimed their critique at a variety of issues, but they boiled down to two fundamental ones. First,  these new universities encouraged a cult of personality where the master’s authority was based on his own accomplishments rather than with which an institution had endowed him.  Peter Abelard was a prime example of this to monastic thinkers like Bernard of Clairvaux, but it was not limited to him.

Second, universities were foolishly accelerating the learning process, that is, they had abandoned the leisurely approach of meditation and rumination in the cloister for the cacophony of debate in the classroom.  They had turned education, so it seemed to a number of monastic thinkers, into an acquisition of facts without any attention to the wisdom needed for theological argument.  One severe critic, Stephen of Tournai, remarked that the new theological education resulted in students standing on street corners dissecting the Holy Trinity as if it were a geometrical puzzle.

But the fact is, the rise of the university was a response to a monumental shift in the social and cultural fabric of European society.  Migration patterns, urbanization, technological innovations in agriculture and war, new intellectual resources that could be used to think about creation—all these created new demands of what it meant to be Christian.  Monastic education did not adapt but the cathedral schools did.

Even as universities became the centre stage for education, the faculties of theology did not abandon their disruptive nature.  For the rest of the Middle Ages, theologians constantly pushed the boundaries of orthodox thinking. They taught and engaged tradition not to simply explain it, but to challenge its principles and re-think how its teaching could be applied in a new context.  Let me provide two short examples,  In the early twelfth century, some theologians began to suggest that a new formula for Trinitarian thought should speak of the Father in terms of Power, the Son in terms of Wisdom and the Holy Spirit in terms of Goodness. The reaction was visceral as this appeared to deny the unity of Trinity because it applied a single attribute to only one person of the Trinity.  The concept of personal or notional attributes was formally condemned at a local council in France and deemed heretical.  But this idea would not go away, and as theologians in the next century began to develop a more sophisticated metaphysics, this model of Trinitarian language was adopted.  What had been condemned as innovative and dangerous soon became foundational for the theologies of teachers of the Church such as Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas, as well as John Duns Scotus.

An issue that hit closer to home in theological education was the nature of the soul.  Now this may sound like another ethereal and abstract theological topic, but it had clear implications on how a faculty of theology would form students for pastoral ministry. The soul in the tradition of early Christianity was tripartite but a fairly simple entity.  This account of the soul was the foundation of monastic practice and theologians and bishops had developed notions of pastoral care based on it.  The discovery of Aristotle and his Islamic commentators disrupted that tradition significantly.  That new account challenged the very basis of religious knowledge and called into question the principles of pastoral care that were in use.  The soul according to Aristotle was far more embedded in the human body and presented a far more complex understanding of human behaviour.  The theologians in the university were excited by this disruption. To them it provided a more robust way to think about virtue and vice; if offered a more coherent explanation of both the bodily and spiritual features of human salvation; and, it suggested a more realistic explanation of how we come to know God.  It took several decades for this new account to work its way into the tradition.

Medieval theological education as disruptive was possible because theologians did not abandon their faith or ignore their tradition but rather engaged it.  This is the reason that regardless of what degree program you were in, my colleagues and I wanted you to know the core teachings of our Faith in terms of Scripture, Trinity, Christology, Ecclesiology and pastoral care.  But we do not want you to be comfortable with that formation, but rather to see how your education can disrupt.  At the heart of education in the medieval university was the question.  It was a rhetorical device that empowered both student and professor to demand the tradition account for itself and it gave license to thinking creatively how we can reimagine our faith.

Disruption can create anxiety that often undermines learning opportunities.  One way that medieval theologians mitigated this was that they embraced theology as performative. Now this sounds like one of those concepts postmodernists use to sound learned while saying nothing.  A number of years ago a colleague of mine gave a conference paper on preaching before the papal court in Avignon.  He was asked if he thought the sermons he had studied were performative, to which he replied “What do you mean?  It’s not like they used hand-puppets when they preached.”

Let me avoid the highfalutin talk and simply state that performative theology means that one learns by doing. Another way to think about this idea in contemporary terms is that theology in the medieval university was student centred.  Yes, the master of the sacred page lectured, but even here we see the master modeling what he wants his students to do.  I am currently leading a project to edit a collection of lectures on the Pentateuch that we think were penned by Peter Lombard.  That’s a big thesis to prove, and even if we are wrong, these unpublished commentaries will provide another point of access to medieval theological education in the university.  We are currently making our way through the Genesis lectures and what has struck me is that the author is aware that he is teaching both about Genesis and how to be an exegete.  He regularly uses the imperative mood as he transitions from one biblical section to the next, and often in the second person singular.   “having said these things,” he regularly states, “move to the next text and consider…”

Moreover, lectures were always followed by questions from students.  One of my favourite texts by Aquinas is his exposition of the first 54 Psalms.  It so un-Thomas in its formulation: it is messy if not disordered at times.  But this is because we do not have polished text but rather a report of what happened in the classroom in the Dominican studio at Naples.  The messiness is due to the fact that Thomas was fielding questions and it is clear he is working through his reading of the Psalter in front of his students.

Theological education, as you have discovered, is not about acquisition of content, but rather the integration of faith and the mind.  It is why we value small class sizes because you needed the space to engage.  It is why we value the one to one interaction of the thesis experience so that the faculty can model how one does theological research.  Don’t abandon that model in your vocational and career choices.  Many of you are destined to educate in some form or another. Remember that we do not communicate theological truths through power point, but in how we perform as theologians and teachers.  Reflect on how your formation here in the faculty has prepared you to model the Catholic theological tradition.

The highest performance in theological thought is prayer.  It was no different in the medieval university, where masters and students came together for Eucharist and to pray together.  Catholic theological education must be bound up in prayer. But, not surprisingly, even this act was not without criticism.  Once again we hear the monastic voice calling into question the integrity of theological education in the medieval university.  The problem was not that university theologians did not pray, but rather how many times they did each day.  When the university emerged there were two models of the divine office that one could adopt: the older office that had prayer for the eight canonical hours each day, that is, the model in use at every cloister in medieval Europe; or, the Little Office, which had fewer hours for prayer.  The latter had begun to be adopted by parish priests so that they could divide their time between the vital need to pray and the demands of the pastoral care of their parishioners. The masters and students also found the Little Office to work more effectively with the demands of teaching and learning, and they were soon followed by the newly established mendicant orders.  The criticism, however, never disappeared even though there was papal endorsement of using the Little Office for secular clergy.

Your time here in the faculty of theology was bound up in prayer.  Our regular liturgies were as much a part of your education as were the course readings or the papers you wrote. As you move forward from graduation, let me offer two pieces of advice.  Continue to pray.  Pray for your colleagues, pray for your students. Pray about the things you will teach in order to ruminate about their theological realities.  Pray for those who will not pray with you. Second, celebrate when other pray and don’t focus on the fact they may not pray often enough.  Our life as theologians is a life of prayer, but we must be mindful of Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  We pray because we need to, and we must model it so others can see the need to pray.

Finally, Catholic theological education in the medieval university was defined the Latin phrase: vita et scientia.  The apex of medieval education was the awarding of the title of magister.  It took at least fifteen years of study to become such a master in theology—so yes, time to completion was not an issue in the Middle Ages—and the final hurdle was a general examination before a master would incept.  That examination had to include a sponsor who could testify that the newly minted theologian was learned in theology and upright in his life.  It was not enough to be able to navigate an ocean of theological knowledge if the new master had no moral compass; and a life of piety could not be a substitute for the rigours of theological argument.

This was a tall order.  In his inaugural sermon at his own inception as a master of theology at Oxford University in 1229, Robert Grosseteste captured the intention.  Like most inaugural sermons of his day, this text laid out Grosseteste’s approach to theology which included praise of Scripture.  As he transitioned from how the natural sciences assisted the theologian in his work to reading the sacred page, he states that “Scripture is more excellent when it resides in a living heart than on dead parchment.”  Theological education is disruptive, performative, bound up in prayer, because it must be transformative.  If you leave the faculty today in the same disposition you were when you got here, then we have failed you.  Theologians, before they can challenge others, must first challenge themselves, and they must be willing to change not only what and how they think but how they live.

Over the last two weeks, I have had the privilege of conducting exit interviews with our graduates.  With the shackles of the degree program loosened, many of you felt free to tell us what you really thought about your experience here.  One of the common themes in those interviews was that your education did indeed disrupt the way that you thought and acted.  One student summarized that her experience at the faculty of theology “breathed life into my faith.”

I encourage you to consider that your theological education must have an impact on both your thoughts and your actions.  You may be the most stalwart defender of the Faith, but if you don’t treat people with dignity and respect you demonstrate you don’t understand the calling to be a theologian.  You may certainly be able to teach Christology, soteriology or moral theology but if you engage people in anger and bitterness then you cannot call yourself a theologian.  You may support the New Evanglization with a honest desire that all men and women come to know their Creator, but if you cannot dialogue with those of other faiths then you have fundamental misunderstanding of the theological enterprise.   Jesus certainly cleansed the temple in righteous anger and he spoke clearly about what fidelity to God meant, but he was also the one who welcome prostitutes and tax collectors as friends and showed mercy and compassion to those who had been marginalized and neglected.

Our Catholic theological education can never be pursued in isolation; there is no ivory tower for us to occupy.  I pray that in teaching you, in challenging you, we have been disruptive, but that we have shown what a theological performance is, and that we discovered you both in the classroom and the chapel.  So go forward and challenge the assumptions of our society and our institutions.  Bring your theological education to bear on the circumstances you find yourself in.  Model to your colleagues and students what it means to think theologically and act pastorally.  And let us pray for one another that we may reflect the invisible light of our heavenly Father in both our speech and our actions.