Pope Francis recently delivered an address that is unleashing a new freedom in the Church’s dialogue with Jews and Muslims. While on a visit to the southern Italian city of Naples, he was invited to give a major address to more than 1,000 people gathered for a theology summit sponsored by the Pontifical Catholic University, a Jesuit organization. Pope Francis urged reform of the way theology is taught in Catholic institutions of higher learning, calling for a more open and free pursuit in theological research. He said, “Theological freedom is necessary. Without the possibility of trying new paths, you don’t create anything new!”
Of great importance to those engaged in interfaith dialogue, Pope Francis said, “Theology students should be educated in dialogue with Judaism and Islam to understand the common roots and differences of our religious identities, and thus contribute more effectively to building a society that values diversity and fosters respect, brotherhood and peaceful coexistence.”
“With Muslims we are called to dialogue to build the future of our societies and our cities; we are called to consider them partners to build a peaceful coexistence, even when there are shocking episodes by fanatical groups, who are enemies of dialogue, like the tragedy of last Easter in Sri Lanka,” he said.
He called upon the countries of the “Mediterranean Sea” to present a theology that will serve as a bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia. He challenged the professors and students gathered to strive for a “theology of acceptance” that would bridge the complexities of transit, exchange and age old conflicts between cultures and religions. “The multicultural and multi-religious reality of the new Mediterranean is formed in the dialogue that comes from listening to the people and texts of the great monotheistic religions, and especially in listening to young people,” he said. He added, “In theological faculties and ecclesiastical universities, courses in Arabic and Hebrew language and culture are to be encouraged, as well as mutual understanding between Christian, Jewish and Muslim students.” He explained that “the dialogue which is the hallmark of a theology of acceptance” is “a method of study, as well as of teaching. When we read a text — be it the Bible, the Talmud or the Koran, we dialogue with it and with the world of which it is an expression.”
Much of this new trajectory of openness and freedom of thought in theology can be found in the Apostolic Constitution, “Veritatis Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Truth”) signed by Pope Francis and promulgated in January 2018. It is a document primarily useful to those ecclesiastical universities and faculties throughout the world that grant degrees recognized by the Vatican in theology, canon law, and philosophy, setting new norms. It also opened up the possibility and encouraged “distance learning” online degrees and resources for refugees and migrants.
Pope Francis encouraged theologians “to foster in ever new ways the encounter of cultures with the sources of revelation and of tradition.” He spoke of a “theological Pentecost” that speaks to all men and women of the world in categories that encompass their culture and language with “a Christian reflection that responds to their search for meaning and a full life.” He said for this to happen “it is necessary to start from the Gospel of mercy, it is also necessary to seriously take history into the heart of theology as an open space of encounter with the Lord.”
Of special note, he not only called for more young people to be listened to but also the unique contributions of women in theological studies. He said, “The contribution that women are giving and can give to theology is indispensable and their participation must therefore be supported.” He said that these Pontifical universities should be open to the laity of the church and not just seminarians.
For those in the church who may oppose this more open method of theology, Pope Francis quoted from his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”),“For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” He said theologians are called to go beyond “the ancient architectures of thought, the great theological syntheses of the past are mines of theological wisdom, they cannot be applied to current questions.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.