Major international project to reconstruct Catholic theologies for the 21st Century

Australian Catholic University has recruited some of the world’s leading Catholic theologians to spearhead a new international project aimed at reconstructing theologies of Catholicity.

Theologies of Catholicity is a five-year project which will draw on original and classic sources to provide new insights for contemporary life, following the model of mid-20th Century ressourcement theologians who did the groundwork for Vatican II.

It has already drawn the interest of such luminaries as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor Rowan Williams.

Professor Stephan van Erp, Professor of Fundamental Theology at KU Leuven, joins ACU as one of the chief investigators. Professor Van Erp is a leading expert on 20th and 21st-century Catholic systematic theology.

Professor Judith Wolfe, Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of St Andrews also joins ACU as a chief investigator. Professor Wolfe is an international expert in systematic and philosophical theology.

Dr Philip McCosker, former Director of the Von Hügel Institute for Critical Catholic Inquiry and Vice-Master of St Edmund’s College in Cambridge, and now fulltime with ACU, is the lead chief investigator. He is an expert in historical and systematic theology with a particular interest in ressourcement theologies.

The project will be situated in ACU’s Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry. Director Professor Peter Howard said the Church was ripe for a major international project which brought depth and plurality into the discipline through the lens of core beliefs, while striving for a sense of wholeness and oneness which is the original meaning of the word “catholic”.

“We have lost sight of the richness of Theology as a discipline because of a renewed, particularly American, focus on religious studies. Religious studies stand outside looking at religions and religious practice, while Theology stands inside and asks, ‘What does it mean to be a person of faith?’ Theology needs to reclaim its ground and do the constructive work to build a fresh core of scholarship for our age.”

Professor Howard said it was essential that the Church returned periodically to its core texts and re-examine them in the light of a changing world.

“Every age reads texts differently for its own purpose. It’s like turning on a set of lights and seeing a room. When you turn on one set of lights, you think you know what the room looks like, but if you turn on a different set of lights, the room looks different and you see things you didn’t realise were there before.”

He said going back to original texts ensured they remained part of the culture of Catholic faith in the future. “It’s not simply historical work for retrieval, it’s about what questions we can ask of the texts to illuminate faith and what do those doctrines mean for us and our way of life. How we think about our environment, sexuality, relations of power, the workplace: through this new optic of catholicity everything is open to theology. It shifts doctrine from something we absorb by osmosis and recite to something which shapes the ways we think about and structure every aspect of our lives and world.”

Professor Howard said the strides the Church made in the 20th Century were dependent on the work of ressourcement theologians such as Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Romano Guardini, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Erich Przywara, and, in the next generation, Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI). He noted that the Theologies of Catholicity project has already revealed that the ressourcement theologians were pushing understandings of catholicity in surprisingly radical directions: “for these thinkers catholicity is primarily a quality of God and only secondarily and derivatively a quality of creatures—this has far-reaching implications not just for theology and ecclesial life, but also for ecumenical and inter-religious relations as well as the relations between faiths and secular life.”

“Vatican II was such a breath of fresh air for the Church that it in itself became a key source for subsequent theology and there’s been a tendency to ignore the source texts and approaches that led to it. This project will restore that scholarship to the Church.”

Professor Howard said just as the ressourcement work of the mid-20th Century grew out of the post-war period of disillusionment, the new work of theology needs to respond to the different religious and secular conditions of the 21st Century including the environmental crisis, increasing polarisation and fragmentation in many areas of life, the influence of religious fundamentalisms, religious plurality, and the secularisation of major segments of society. Theologies of Catholicity will uncover fresh ways for the Church to contribute to the common good in our shared world.


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