If you recall some months ago, in this column, I began discussing the nature of the theologian in the Catholic Church. I stated that there are three distinct styles of being a theologian — one that is primarily academic, one that is primarily spiritual, and one that is pastoral.

Using categories elaborated upon by Fr. Gerald O’Collins, SJ, in his text, Retrieving Fundamental Theology: The Three Styles of Contemporary Theology, we can describe these styles of being a theologian as first, “in the classroom,” second, “in the chapel,” and finally, “in the streets.” These styles are not in opposition to each other. In fact, in order to truly be a theologian in the Church, one must be a person of learning, a person of prayer, and a person of service to God’s people. 

In this short piece, I would like to describe two very different “theologians,” two very different people, living in two very different time periods, who exemplify one of the styles of being a theologian: the “theologian in the streets.”


St. Cyprian of Carthage

A type of theologian is the pastoral theologian, the “theologian in the streets.” This is someone who takes their study of theology and uses it to try to actively engage the People of God in an attempt to make the faith accessible. This is one who, having studied the mysteries of the faith tries to bring that faith to the world and exemplifies the old adage attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi — “preach the Gospel always; use words when necessary.” Recall that many of the Fathers of the Church were not academic theologians, teaching in a classroom, but pastors, preaching and responding to the needs and concerns of their people.

From the Tradition of our Church, an example of a theologian in the streets is Saint Cyprian of Carthage. Born in Carthage in North Africa, Caeciilius Cyprianus was highly educated in the liberal arts and most likely was preparing for a life as a politician. Cyprian, at the time of his baptism, reflected on the state of the world that he found himself and wrote:

I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, wavering hither and thither, tossed about on the foam of this boastful age, and uncertain of my wandering steps, knowing nothing of my real life, and remote from truth and light…but after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart(To Donatus)

Cyprian was ordained a priest and bishop soon after his baptism and he served as a bishop, caring pastorally for his flock, until he was martyred in AD 258. During the great persecutions of Christians under Emperor Decius, Cyprian, in exile, wrote pastoral letters instructing the people of God in Carthage. One of the most important axioms of this pastor-theologian was “he can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother” (On the Unity of the Church), signifying the absolute essential nature of communion with the Church Universal and with the local Church. Under the Emperor Valerian, Cyprian was condemned to death. Upon receiving his death sentence, he responded “Deo gratias!” (“Thank God!”) Cyprian is only one example in the early Church of a “theologian in the streets.” His theology comes not out of academia, but out of his response to he lived pastoral experience of his people.


Dorothy Day

Another “theologian in the streets,” one whose theology is based on the lived experience of God’s love and the desire to love God through service to his people in need is seen in the life of the Servant of God, Dorothy Day. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1897, she lived a radical life and in her college years, became very influenced by socialist and anarchistic ideals. Living a rather bohemian lifestyle, she had an abortion and then a child out of wedlock. Gradually, she began to explore Catholicism, and, through Mass attendance, spiritual reading and devotions, began to discover the beauty of Catholicism. She had her infant daughter, Tamar, baptized and became more and more involved in her faith.

This involvement with her faith and her desire for activism led her to meet Peter Maurin, a former Christian Brother, who also had likewise fallen away from the faith and became involved with communism and socialism, and then had returned to the Catholic faith. Maurin had a love for the poor and a desire for social justice similar to that of Day’s, but unlike her, had a deep knowledge of the official social teachings of the Church from popes like Leo XIII, a love for the Fathers of the Church, a deep knowledge of scholastic theology, and a devotion to the philosophy of Christian personalism. Dorothy Day’s uncompromising love of the poor and her desire to better the world through Catholic social teaching, combined with Maurin’s background in theology, helped to launch the Catholic Worker movement, a force for good for the poor in the world that exists to this day.

In her work, From Union Square to Rome (1938), she writes:

I had a conversation with John Spivak, the Communist writer, a few years ago, and he said to me, "How can you believe? How can you believe in the Immaculate Conception, in the Virgin birth, in the Resurrection?" I could only say that I believe in the Roman Catholic Church and all she teaches. I have accepted Her authority with my whole heart. At the same time, I want to point out to you that we are taught to pray for final perseverance. We are taught that faith is a gift, and sometimes I wonder why some have it and some do not. I feel my own unworthiness and can never be grateful enough to God for His gift of faith.

The epitaph on her tombstone reads the same as Saint Cyprian of Carthage — “Deo Gratias!”


A common thread

Cyprian and Dorothy Day were very different people, living at very different times and in very different places, but what do they have in common? Perhaps we might say a faith in Christ and his Church and a desire to know more about that faith! Do we have this desire in our hearts? Then we must do two things — study and pray! Holiness of life leads to good theology (and vice-versa) and this leads to the desire to serve God in our brothers and sisters. We have the example of the Servant of God Dorothy Day and the great bishop and martyr, the Father of the Church, Saint Cyprian of Carthage, both “theologians in the street.” For this we should say, “Deo Gratias!”