Pope Francis’ recent apostolic letter on the nature and mission of theology, titled “Ad Theologiam Provendam,” resonated with me like music to my ears. As a member of a Jesuit Catholic school of theology that focuses on culturally contextual theology, it seems that our strategic approach to contextual theology predates the pope’s call for a “paradigm shift” and a “courageous cultural revolution” towards a fundamentally contextual theology. However, this is not a time for arrogance.
In his letter, Francis calls for a threefold “turning” in theology: geographical, social, and cultural. While this may not seem new, the public and Christian intellectual tradition has undergone critical turns throughout history, leading to fresh thinking and transformative endeavors. According to the pope, these turns require a new hermeneutical and methodological framework that embraces the complexities and vulnerabilities of our times.
Francis does not intend to demoralize theologians or undermine centuries of theological production. Instead, he reminds us not to lose sight of the essence of an “outgoing theology” in an “outgoing church.” He emphasizes the importance of theologians being connected to the joys, hopes, pains, and anguish of people in their times and contexts, rather than being detached speculators.
A culturally contextualized theology is characterized by its dialogical and relational nature at multiple levels. The practice of theology is not separate from the communities and contexts in which it takes place. It is grounded in lived reality. Francis shares this view and believes that our writing, scholarship, and teaching should strive to bring coherence to the chaos and crises of our world, such as migration, intolerance, inequality, poverty, violence, wars, and climate change.
The methodology of liberation theology exemplifies the task of theology as reflection and praxis, engaging with cultures and traditions that fail to uphold human dignity. Theological engagement goes beyond disciplinary boundaries and fosters collaboration and cooperation. Francis describes this approach as “transdisciplinarity,” where encounter, listening, dialogue, and discernment are essential qualities.
For me, these characteristics define a theology that draws wisdom from both its theological foundation and the cultures and traditions it serves. Doing theology in this manner requires authenticity, audacity, creativity, and charity.
Francis’ letter reminds me of the apostolic constitution “Veritatis Gaudium,” which describes theological education as a “providential cultural laboratory.” If schools and faculties of theology saw themselves as cultural laboratories, what would their teaching and student profiles look like? A laboratory is a space for experimentation and innovation. I imagine the outcome would be a theology that touches the hearts of everyone.
However, there is a risk of reducing Pope Francis’ vision to a mere focus on the everyday. Alongside contextual theology, there is a need to develop and maintain a solid global vision and perspective, avoiding parochialism. Theologians must be aware of global trends while innovating responses to local needs.
Francis challenges theologians and their institutions to discern the validity, relevance, and usefulness of their mission in the changing era we live in. In today’s rapidly globalizing and technologically advanced world, familiar sources and methodologies may not be enough. The Francis challenge presents opportunities for theological re-imagination, creativity, and innovation. Who will dare to pick up the gauntlet?