Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
A question that I am asked time and again when it comes to beginning the study of theology is, what do I need to do to start my study? What I always say to the prospective student is pretty simple: First, have faith in Christ and in his Church. And second, pray!
It may sound all too simplistic, but the truth of the matter is, I think, pretty simple: The Catholic theologian who does not have faith in Christ and faith in the Church that Christ founded and who is not a prayerful person cannot be a Catholic theologian. At best, they would be a scholar of religious studies or a historian of religion. Theology is, as Saint Anselm describes, “fides quarem intellectum,” “faith seeking understanding” (Proslogion II-IV).
Theology is the study of God and the things of God. It is not and cannot be the study of man exclusively. That’s anthropology. To be sure, there can be a real and true theological anthropology, which would be the study of what it means to be a human being in light of God. But theology’s starting point must be God and the things of God. From that point, then we can study every single thing else, from humanity, to creation, to every single other problem in the world.
The person who wishes to study theology must be a person of faith. It can’t be a mere academic matter. It has to be that desire to study someone whom we love, someone who has entered our life. Theology is all about studying a Person, a Divine Person with two natures, human and divine, a man like us in all things but sin — Jesus Christ the Lord. It is all about falling in love with him and with his Church.
You can trust the theology of someone who has the title “Saint” in front of his or her name. Good theology can arise only out of holiness of life. This is a truth that can be seen time and time again throughout history. Does this mean that we can’t learn from modern and contemporary theologians? Of course not. In every age, the Church has raised up men and women who are able to teach the world new insights into the eternal message of the Good News.
And that faith has to be practiced within the Church. We have to know the Church as our Mother, knowing that she is the spotless, sinless Bride of Christ. We know that we, who make up the Church, are sinners, but the Church is the Barque of Peter, traveling throughout salvation history, and this ship will never sink, for Christ is the pilot. Sure, the theologian can see the problems and anxieties, confusions and the need for clarifications that can exist in the Church and the world today, but he or she has a sense of security. Our Mother, the Church, has been through it all before. Think things are confusing after Amoris Laetitia? Think that so many opinions and voices are being heard and no one knows who to really listen to right now in the Church? Imagine what it was like at the time of the Council of Nicaea. God is in charge and He is good, never allowing his Bride, the Church, to really sink. Have some faith!
Now, onto some practical things. A basic understanding of philosophy is needed in order to really understand theology. This may sound like a terrifying prospect, especially if you have ever had to take a class in philosophy that seemed like “navel gazing,” being all far too abstract. But it is essential. Philosophy is the handmaid to theology. It provides theology with the concepts, the “skeleton,” if you will, upon which we can hang our understanding of Divine Revelation. Philosophy helps us understand God, the human person, the world and our relationships with them. Philosophy influences people and culture. For example, people may not be able to express a specific a philosophy of relativism, but, as is apparent in so many conversations with people today (just go to any blog!), many are relativistic in their attitudes and practice.
Although the Church does not have an “official philosophy,” the perennial philosophy that comes from the thought of the great Doctor of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas, offers us the clearest and most realistic philosophy from which we can learn to “do” theology. Countless popes, from Leo XIII to Francis, have recommended that Saint Thomas’ thought be the wisdom that should guide our philosophical journey. Pope Leo XIII noted Thomas’ theology was a definitive exposition of Catholic doctrine and directed clergy to take Thomas’ thought as the basis of their theological positions.
Once we have our bearings in faith and in philosophy, where should our study of theology take us? Theology, truly Catholic theology, begins first and foremost with the deposit of Divine Revelation, expressed first in Sacred Scripture and then in Sacred Tradition. Then the subject is studied through the Magisterium of the Church; then and only then should positive theology come into play. There should never be any one theologian who dominates theology, with the exceptions of the Doctor Communis, Saint Thomas Aquinas and his most quoted saintly influence, the Doctor of Grace, Saint Augustine. Theology is traditionally studied through Sacred Scripture, then Sacred Tradition, then the Magisterium, and, finally, positive theology. We can’t claim to be study theology exclusively through any one theologian, although there are certain theologians whose writings appeal to us more than others. For me, these theologians have shifted over the years: currently, it seems to be Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratzinger. Along with the richness of the documents of Vatican II, these authors have been my steady reading over the past three months.
Next week, we will look at the various branches of Catholic theology, as well as explore the danger of being too “overspecialized” in our study of theology There’s a lot of “ologies” out there and I hope to help you decipher them.