Yesterday, Pope Francis released a Motu Proprio about how to do theology in the modern context. Titled Ad theologiam promovendam, it makes the case that theology must no longer be from a “desk” and must no longer be merely “abstractly re-proposing formulas and schemes of the past.” Theology must now be inductive and take into account the lived experience of believers and non-believers alike. Theology must not be “abstract” and deal in such lifeless constructions; instead, it needs to ground itself more explicitly “in the conditions in which men and women daily live…”

I do not think Pope Francis wrote this new document, although it was clearly issued with his approval, so it is now papal teaching. On the surface, its words are rather unproblematic and rightly express the need for theology to be creative and to engage the culture. Therefore, like all things Pope Francis puts forward as magisterial teaching, there is nothing on its face that should lead us to conclude there’s something heterodox going on here. In this regard, I agree with papal defenders who are always rushing into the breach to defend this pope’s orthodoxy against his most trenchant critics.

However, my problem with those kinds of defenses of this papacy is that they tend to focus on the surface level of what this Pope teaches all the while ignoring that his words are often redolent with connotations. And, in this case, connotations of much broader significance within the long arc of the history of modern Catholic theology.

For example, saying that “theological reflection is urged to develop with an inductive method, which starts from the different contexts and concrete situations in which peoples are inserted, allowing itself to be seriously challenged by reality” is not an idiosyncratic concoctions of this papacy. This sort of statement has an actual theological pedigree in the Church — a pedigree that is decidedly progressive in a liberal Rahnerian register. Therefore, we need to be aware, as we must be with all papal statements from all popes, that papal teachings are themselves contextual. And that the language of ecclesiastic-speak, so opaque and perhaps even dull for the average believer, is quite often a nod, no matter how subtle, toward one direction of that arc rather than another….
By Larry Chapp in Catholic World Report