Keeping Faith in Practice: Catholic Perspectives on Practical and Pastoral Theology

Posted on: 15th September 2010  |
Author: Edited by David Lonsdale, Gemma Simmonds and James Sweeney
Publication details: SCM Canterbury Press, 2010 288 pages
ISBN: 9780334043232

What is Pastoral or Practical Theology from a Catholic perspective? That is the question this book addresses. ‘Pastoral’ Theology has been the Catholic term used to cover the application of theological learning in ministry and practice. ‘Practical’ theology is the term favoured in Protestant traditions where the application of theology has focused also on society and culture. The terms used, however, are not so important in this work: they are used more or less interchangeably throughout.

Keeping Faith in Practice is a fascinating and enriching collection of essays which complement each other in cultural and critical approach. Emerging from two pioneering conferences at Heythrop College in 2007, the volume draws together a range of scholars, representing various academic and ecclesial contexts in Europe and the United States, to engage in a closer study of what the editors perceive is a sea change in Catholic theological method from which a Catholic pastoral theology is emerging.

This methodological shift, which the editors regard as the most significant fruit of Vatican II, is moving theology from the neo-scholastic deductive method to an inductive approach which works from experience and human history, a hermeneutical key which embeds the project of theology in the vital business of Christian living. This may seem at first blush to be a bold assertion. Was all Catholic theology before Gaudium et Spes totally disconnected with Christian witness, society, life? As we read on we realise that the book makes no such claim but is a call to renewal through exploring the depths of the Catholic tradition of pastoral theology rooted in the ressourcement of the Fathers of the Church. As such we see pastoral theology not simply as an add-on seeking to apply systematic theology in ministry. Rather, we discern a movement which, in doing theological reflection from the standpoint of reading what Gaudium et Spes called the ‘signs of the times’, sets a practical tone for theological writing and teaching.

What does this really mean? James Sweeney, one of the three editors, asserts that Vatican II was a ‘pastoral Council’. Gaudium et Spes in particular has refined our understanding of the relationship of faith to human experience through introducing a new approach to history which brings theology into dialogue with the here and now. In setting the terms thus the editors situate a distinctively Catholic pastoral theology at the heart of a contemporary debate on the understanding of Vatican II.

Michael Kirwan explains this further and modifies it. The proclamation of a Catholic pastoral theology emerges at the crossroads at which we take a postmodern or antimodern reading of the ‘signs of the times’, an openness to the world or a mistrust of the world. Fascinatingly, this key chapter analyses the then Joseph Ratzinger’s understanding of the influence and interpretation of Gaudium et Spes. Ratzinger’s view as presented here seems to represent something of the crossroads: he is against a sociological scrutiny of the world which does not recognise the profound emptiness of secularism without Christ, yet he is committed to an authentic dialogue between Church and world. One might add that this is a very profound and topical observation and surely why Pope Benedict more recently favours the ‘positive secularism’ of the US Church, which is more affirming of the co-existence of religion and secularity, than European models. This current volume thus makes an intelligent discernment in situating Catholic pastoral theology in the very midst of this debate and so makes a valuable contribution in setting out some of the key terms.

Each of the successive chapters provides a different lens through which we see how a pastoral theology is journeying through this uncertain hermeneutical terrain. Our understanding of ‘context’ is discussed. There is a chapter on the French experience of the contemporary development of dialogue between theology, philosophy and the social sciences. The scope and professionalism of practical empirical theological enquiry is explored. There is a chapter on the impact of pastoral approaches on our ecclesiologies. The notion of praxis in theology is explored in one seminal postconciliar thinker, Edward Schillebeeckx.

There then follows a series of chapters which ask the concrete question of what and whom pastoral theology serves. This section is a most valuable resource for identifying the precise points of engagement between an emerging practical theology, and the world at large and the world of ideas. This is considered on two levels. Firstly, there are chapters on the connection with the immediate level of Christian life: how theology is played out in liturgy and prayer, ethical and social action, ministry and mission. Secondly, we are invited to appreciate how theology is engaged in dialogue with human and social sciences: anthropology, sociology, psychology, ritual studies, textual critique, philosophical ethics, law, the arts, and through reference to the Heythrop ARCS (Action Research: Church and Society) project, qualitative and action research.

These are fascinating studies inviting theology to a timely dialogue with disciplines which engage with contemporary issues. For example, there is Peter Tyler’s research into the meaning of spirituality from the perspective of psychological studies on the place of eros in religion. Although it is only mentioned briefly, here there are clear connections with Pope Benedict’s theology of Christian love as well as Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Lilian Dube gives a thought provoking and harrowing reflection on how Catholic pastoral practice sits with discrimination against women in Africa. In reading these studies we realise just how the pastoral approach is moulding theology in general.

Certain chapters, however, contribute significantly to the ongoing debate on the nature of the pastoral/practical enterprise. Clare Watkins’s piece deserves close analysis in its proposal that the emerging pastoral project in theology is rooted in an ecclesiology of traditio which sees in the Church God’s continuing presence that by its very nature always speaks afresh. Here we see how the pastoral enterprise can impact on ecclesiology as ecclesiology forms it and, as Watkins says, grounds a vision of Church ‘for which polarities and correlations seem inappropriate ways of understanding’ (p. 173).

The volume ends with a short conclusion co-authored by all three editors. As befits the project it is open-ended rather than prescriptive. Having stayed the course of such a thorough and visionary set of essays on this elusive indefinable of Catholic pastoral theology, it is clear that there is something to work with here, whether what has emerged from the postconciliar empirical approach to theology is a discipline in its own right or a theological methodology. The editors recognise that there is much work to be done on hermeneutics and in particular the truth claim that pastoral theology might be making. So we are left with possibilities which can root the insights of a pastoral approach not just in an applied version of theology but in a new theological insight itself which is emerging naturally from the hermeneutical debates of this postconciliar period.

The reviewer, Dominic Robinson SJ, teaches theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and the Mount Street Jesuit Centre.

 Find this book on the SCM Canterbury Press web site



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