Nicholas Fitzherbert talks to Bishop Francis Thomas of Northampton about his theology of life
NJF: My Lord, you are now 56 and were born, educated and ordained at Stone in Staffordshire. Was it unusual to be ordained in your home parish?
BT: Not at that particular time, though obviously it depended upon the policy of bishops. Some thought it was good that people should be ordained in their home parishes because they came from the people and the people followed with interest their journey to the priesthood. It was a way of acknowledging that, and a way of encouraging others to pursue that path: but bishops have different ideas.
In fact, that was the first year of Archbishop Grimshaw's time in Birmingham and the policy began to change and thereafter I think people were usually ordained in the cathedral or in one of the major churches of Birmingham.
NJF: You seem to have been marked out for specialisation in theology quite early on, as between 1956 and 1959 you were studying dogmatic theology at the Gregorian University, Rome, which was followed by five more years of fundamental and dogmatic theology. How did this come about?
BT: I think I was probably marked out to return to the seminary at Oscott to teach there and to be part of a seminary community which, of course, is a wider responsibility. Was I marked out for theology?
I remember that when the Bishop asked me to go to Rome to do further study he didn't seem to be too sure what he wanted me to do, and we kind of decided between us that it ought to be theology; certainly I was glad at the time and I've been grateful every since.
So after one brief year as a curate in a parish I went to Rome to do three years of theology before being asked to go back to the seminary to teach fundamental theology for two years. In those days it had a • highly apologetic content and that's where the emphasis lay. Then I moved into the area of dogmatic theology for a three year cycle which I was nearly through a second time when I was asked to move onto other things. I remained in the seminary but the field of interest for me then became liturgy but, very soon, before the end of the 1960s, I became Rector and so my teaching role was somewhat reduced.
NJF: Can you please define theology for the layman and talk about its place in the Church?
BT: A good starting point is what St AnseIm said, that theology is "Faith seeking understanding"; that, in the very broadest sense is what it is. Interestingly enough, therefore, it is faith: it is presumed that the person who is pursuing the study is a person who is living and professing a Christian faith.
Perhaps today some people would want to make distinctions because it has become a highly academic and scientific subject and it is thought possible to pursue it, therefore, without doing it in a very committed way but certainly all the theology I've ever done has been done within the Church and therefore has been on the basis of faith, but seeking understanding.
Seeking to understand the realities of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, of the world, of eternal life. All the realities of our faith are the object of concern for someone who is studying theology; therefore it is all-embracing.
NJF: If theology fulfills a supportive role, can you mention the most important types of theology and tell me what their particular areas of importance are.
BT: All theology is about God and how God sent His Son into the world, and the Son sharing His Spirit with us, about the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is all about our human vocation that has come to us from God and how we are to see our lives and live our lives and how we are to understand our experience in the world.
But, within that, of course, there must be, as it were, different focusses and this is where we come to different areas of theology. One distinction might be, for example between biblical theology, which is more directly concerned with what the Scriptures are saying to us as a source of theological reflection.
Another part of theology
might be pastoral theology, which is looking at it more historically as it has been developed in the life of the Church and has been preached and lived in the life of the Church. Another area is more speculative, that is a systematic theology, which is an attempt to bring all these areas together and see them as a coherent whole; it is more searching, more exploratory, and is asking questions in order to see the relevance of the Word which God communicated to us; the relevance of that to our lives.
These are broad areas of the whole enterprise and each has got its own development; each becomes scientific in its own way and has its own materials. Then there are also other areas of our Christian life that theology looks at and that can give rise to different parts of theology too, and so we talk about dogmatic theology, which is looking at the teachings of the Church; what the Church is saying about the Trinity, what the Church is saying about life after death.
Then there are those questions about human behaviour and responsibility and that's where we come into the area of moral theology. Then we have ascetic theology, which is looking at our spiritual life, our life of prayer, our life of virtue and so on, and how these grow and develop.
Over the ages theology has developed different specialities and each area sometimes has developed too separate from other parts and if this does happen it is often diminished by its isolation and becomes introspective.
That is why, in more recent years, there's been an attempt to let the different parts of theology be seen with the whole to nurture other parts of it. NJF: Would I be right in saying that the whole area of theology is supportive rather than being self-sufficient in itself?
BT: It is certainly supportive in the sense that it does have an interest in many areas of thought and belief, of practise of life; therefore looking at these different things it is supportive of them. But of course it is basically one in its intention in the sense that it's reflective upon faith. If it ceased to be concerned with life, then it can become an ivory tower.
NJF: What does theology mean for the average person?
BT: I hope it enables him or her to lead a more mature Christian life; to have a clearer grasp of the faith which is God's gift to us; to have a clearer understanding of the place of Christ in our lives; to take responsibility for oneself in life's situations. I think one is becoming a more mature person in all those ways. That's what theology should be helping everyone to be.
NJF: Has theology changed in any way since the second Vatican Council?
BT: In my experience, and I think most peoples' experience, it has changed enormously. I had responsibilities for teaching up to and during the time of the second Vatican Council within a seminary, therefore relating it to the formation and training of priests. One had to enable those students to give to others the teaching of the Church, to enable them to preach and teach, representing the Church.
They were acting on behalf of the Church in their Ministry and therefore it was very much concerned with what is the Church's teaching and defending that, and in a way it could be very static. I can remember we had a kind of thesis approach very often to the different questions of theology; what is the church's position, let's state it, let's state it clearly, indicate what its sources are, let's defend it.
Now, it seems to me that theology has rediscovered something rather more dynamic since Vatican II and therefore it's much more exploratory and it's concerned with a Church which regards itself not simply as an institution with its message but very much a Church which is a pilgrim Church, living a life of faith and therefore theology is for living that life. There is a whole dynamism about it. It has goals, but also it is trying to see the event of Christ's life, death and resurrection not as an event locked in the past or locked in one's mind but an event that's very much part of life and its inner dynamism, and therefore theology is trying to convey that. NJF: Does Protestant theology have a place in the lives of Catholic theologians?
BT: Yes, because ecumenism is part of the Church's life and therefore we necessarily have an interest in other Christian churches, in their lives, traditions, in what they are saying about themselves, what they're doing about the Gospel, and what they're saying about life in this world. Therefore there is a mutual interest and necessarily, therefore, a theologian of one church will be interested in what theologians in other churches are saying too, and indeed they share a great deal of common enterprise.
And so there has been an increasing interest in Protestant theology. I suppose there was a time when one thought of them as, perhaps, defenders of another postion which was different from our own and between whom the differences sometimes were a source of conflict and therefore they could be seen, sometimes, as adversaries. Today that wouldn't be true.
We may not necessarily agree on everything but we are much more prepared to listen to one another and to share and explore the differences in order to discover our common faith at a deeper level.
NJF: Which cardinal, and which office of the Curia are responsible for theology? BT: Certainly the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger has a great interest in theologians and their work. Sometimes they think it is appropriate to give correction if they feel that they are no longer representing the mind of the Church.
This Congregation is also largely responsible for dialogue with the International Theological Commission which is a wider group of theologians who are meant to be representative of different parts of the world, perhaps different positions within theology.
NJF: Do you think that a greater knowledge and understanding. of theology by the faithful would result in it being more supportive to the faithful?
BT: I think that theologians have a pastoral role in the Church which is one in which they, in their ministry, should have concern to help people and they should always bear that in mind. However, I also think that it's not just a question of them being there to support and teach.
Many theologians today would say that their theology must begin with the people. They must try to enter into the peoples' experience, into their living of the faith; and certainly some of the more recent developments in this field, like liberation theology, would have that as its starting point. It would begin not simply with the truths of the faith and how to communicate them to people, but say "Let's join the people and see how they're struggling to live their faith in their circumstances and let that be the starting point of our theology". And in that case you might say the faithful in general are supportive of theologians; it must work both ways.
NJF: Could you tell me a little about liberation theology and whether it might have come about because theology got too distant from reality?
BT: I think that liberation theologians would say that theology did get too removed from the reality of peoples' lives and became too abstract and spoke to them from afar, so it is a kind of reaction to that. But it is also a reaction to what is happening in the world in which they live and therefore where there is optiression, where you find the poor, there the Church must be and there the theologian must be and must be with the struggle of those people for justice, for the restoration of their human dignity and rights.
Then theologians would be part of that situation, not removed from it. Indeed, having become immersed in it and identified with it, and found that an exciting starting point for theology, he might be inclined to be even more critical of traditional theology and I think liberaton theologians often do reproach European theologians for perhaps being too distant.
NJF: Is liberation theology approved of by the Vatican? BT: The answer to that must be yes. We have seen several instructions from The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in this area and the first of them did seem to be rather critical.
It was aware of the dangers for liberation theology because it became very involved in political questions and it was thought that it was drawing some of its inspiration from Marxism and therefore the Congregation saw dangers here and so its first instruction did come across to them as somewhat negative.
However, later instructions, and certainly some of the things the Holy Father said, for example, in a meeting with Brazilian Bishops, have been much more positive and there is a recognition that liberation theology is a genuine Christian theology and must have its place in the church.
NJF: Would you like to say a final word to the faithful on this subject?
BT: I hope that the faithful will do a little theologising for themselves. Theologians and the faithful in general must be close to one another with the former helping the latter to articulate what their experience is, because it is very important for the whole church.
I want to encourage people to indulge in a little theology or perhaps to call upon the theologians and say; "Now join us, listen to us, we've got something important to say and if you listen, then your theology won't go astray and will remain a service to the community"!