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Theology & Dialogue in Today's Church: An Interview With Ladislas Orsy

Editor’s Note: Fr. Orsy was interviewed at Fordham University in July 2001.

Q. Each time the Initiative examines a particular issue, it seems that differing theologies are at stake. Would you comment on that?

A. Yes, there are different theologies in today’s church. And so it should be and has been ever since the beginnings of Christianity. The mysteries of God are too rich for one single or even for a few theologies. We try to explore the wealth of what God has given, and of course we come up with somewhat different understandings. The result is that we have different theologies.

Q. What is a “theology” anyway?

A. It is a stage in our search for the understanding of God’s mysteries. The best way of realizing the proper place of theology is to see it in the context of our encounter with God—a complex process. First, it is Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit works in the spirit of every human being. A person surrenders to this touch of the Spirit when he or she follows the light of the conscience; an ineffable encounter with the Creator. A human being is then in harmony with the work of the Spirit, and should be well disposed to receive the historical revelation of God.

Second, at the end of the times, God sent his son to speak to us in a human form and in human words. And this is what we call the Christian revelation. Those who have surrendered to the spirit instinctively recognize the validity of it and they say, “I believe.” This is what St. Paul is hinting at when he tells the Corinthians that they believed from Paul on the strength of the teaching of the Spirit.“ . . . no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the Spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (I Cor. 2:11-12).

Third, once we have received the word of God, we want to understand it, and our reflection begins. We bring into play whatever is in our mind and heart. We try to explain the word of God with the help of our own culture. This is theology, a blend of receiving God’s word and penetrating it more deeply with the help of human philosophy.

This is what happened in the early centuries in Greece; this is what happened later, in the middle ages, in western Europe. Many early fathers of the church were inspired by Plato’s philosophy; many medieval theologians were following Aristotle’s theories, and thus different types of theologies emerged. We should distinguish between the touch of the Spirit (first “stage”), the reception of the kerygma, the word of God (second “stage”), and our reflection on this kerygma that tries to scrutinize it as much as any human being can (third “stage”).

The mystery of God is revealed to us in very terse terms, we then expand it, and—lo and behold—we have several schools of theology and different “theologies.”

Q.When you speak about the word of God being received by people who are within a culture, how do you understand culture?

A. I am no expert in the philosophy of cultures, but I venture to say that every culture is somehow of divine origin. You may think this is an exaggeration. Maybe, but not quite. The fact is that God created human beings different; also, God created groups of human beings different. And God has given to human beings the capacity to take possession of the earth and shape it. When a particular group with their own gifts shapes the face of the earth, a particular culture emerges.

It is true, therefore, that cultures do have some divine origins, because they are the product of human diversity and human diversities come from God. Cultures, however, are also human creations. Each one, therefore, with no exception, reflects our own human limitations and sinfulness. No wonder that in every culture in history we find some light that comes from God and some darkness that is of human origin.

Clearly, the more light you find in a culture, the more receptive it can be for the word of God. But, if you find a great deal of darkness in a culture, then it is far less receptive to the word of God. Of course, there is no culture that is pure light or pure darkness. For this reason, I have never found it helpful to say the church is counter-cultural. The church can never be counter-cultural. The church is here to know, to love, and then to redeem the cultures, because the cultures do not exist in the air; they exist in human beings. As you redeem human beings, you redeem their culture as well.

Q. There are some who say that in Gaudium et spes the church was too optimistic about culture. Would you comment on that?

A. I would certainly agree that Gaudium et spes is an optimistic document, and maybe it has gone too far in optimism. But, let us not forget that in the centuries before, the church had indeed gone too far in pessimism towards the emerging modern culture. Gaudium et spes was conceived within this dialectical movement. The church was reacting to its own earlier attitude, as it were correcting it. No document coming from any council should be taken in isolation.

Further, we have a basic doctrine of Christian optimism. This world is good. We also have the doctrine of original sin: this is a “fallen” world. So the document must be received and understood in the context of the entire tradition. Gaudium et spes is a beautiful contribution for anyone who reads it with the eyes of faith and in a historical context.

Q. How would you describe the church’s self-understanding before Vatican II and that which emerged at the council?

A. Obviously we are talking about “theologies,” not “defined” Catholic doctrine. Before Vatican Council II, the prevalent understanding of the church was similar to a Platonic society—all good things intended for the Christian community come from above. The hierarchy mediates it for the ordinary people. That is, intellectual enlightenment and practical prudence are given first and foremost to the pope. He then communicates these gifts to the bishops. The bishops hand them over to the presbyters and the presbyters dispense it to ordinary people. The overriding dynamic consists in a movement from above descending to the lowest levels.

In such a perception, of course, there is just one direction in the life of the church, from higher to lower levels. The structures of the church, its norms of operation, were worked out to facilitate this mediation and reception. This perception was expressed in various points of doctrine. For instance, Pius XII himself declared that although bishops received their power of orders through the sacrament, the power of jurisdiction, that is, anything that has to do with teaching, with shepherding God’s people, came from God through the mediation of the pope and in no other way. The common opinion was that priests received their power to be pastors from the bishop. Similarly, lay persons could not take part in the official apostolate of the church except through a mandate from the hierarchy. It was all very clear, simple, and logical. The dynamic was from above to below.

The council changed all that. Admittedly, the bishops did not make any dramatic statement, but they dismantled this vision step by step, as you dismantle a building by pulling out its supporting pillars one after another. They declared that bishops receive the fullness of episcopal power through their consecration, not from the pope. That’s an important point: the pope is not the mediator of their power, but the supervisor and manager of God’s gifts—gifts given directly to the bishops when they are ordained to be shepherds of the people of God.

Further, the council declined to confirm that lay persons need a mandate to take part in the official apostolate of the church. Why? Because they had received that commission in their baptism. The capacity of proclaiming the word of God doesn’t come from the pope or from the bishops, but is given directly to every person who is baptized and believes. The task of the hierarchy is to be “good managers” of the gifts of God. It’s significant that in the early church, among the descriptions of the office of the bishops we find the words “overseer” and “manager.” Such words express beautifully that the hierarchy’s office is “to take care” of the gifts conferred by God directly on the people.

Another relevant point: at Vatican Council I, when the bishops defined papal infallibility, they added that the pope had the infallibility “with which Christ wanted his church to be endowed.” That is, infallibility was given primarily to the whole church, and when the pope declares it, he uses a gift that is given to the whole people of God. Vatican Council II, in Lumen gentium, confirmed this doctrine:

The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn. 2:20 and 27) cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, “from the bishops to the last of the faithful” they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the People of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium), and obeying it, receives not the mere word of men, but truly the word of God (cf. l Th. 2:13), the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3). The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it more fully in daily life. (12)

These are very striking dogmatic statements with far-reaching practical implications. To date, we have done very little to give full scope to the two councils’ doctrine in the daily life of the church.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me add that the honoring of the divine gifts, including infallibility, in the universal church, in no way should harm the doctrine of divine assistance to the pope and the episcopal college as it was expressed at Vatican Council II. Both pope and college (never without its head the pope) have full and supreme power over the universal church (Lumen gentium, 22). The church operates on complex, delicate, and subtle balances; there is a divine conception behind it.

Q. Would you have any thoughts from our discussion about how we could begin to construct a theology of dialogue?

A. Perhaps we should begin by saying divine mysteries always transcend our understanding. Therefore, no one can have full knowledge, many can have partial knowledge. And, if that is so, an ongoing exchange is absolutely necessary. At this point, I would like to refer to Cardinal Newman’s theory of the “Christian idea,” or “idea of Christianity.” He says that as Christ handed over his “idea” to the apostles, he did it in many ways. Clearly, through verbal instructions, but equally so, through all that he did during his ministry. Now, not one of the apostles could have grasped or understood all that he had seen and heard. Consequently, the “idea” (revelation) was given by Christ not to any one single individual, but to a group of persons. Thus, we speak about the college of the apostles.

If Newman is correct, (and I am sure he is) dialogue was needed, then and there, among the apostles. The full richness of Christ’s gift was contained in the group, not in any single individual. It is obvious that as their exchanges started, divine light played its role. Human limitations also played their role. They had to raise all kinds of questions, they had to search for clarifications.

Since then, dialogues have never ceased among the disciples. So, I cannot conceive of the life of the church without persons interested in God’s mysteries helping each other to understand them.

Q. One of the great concerns in our day is relativism. How would you describe relativism Or what do you think it is?

A. Before answering that question, let us go back to the ancient Greek conception of truth. The word truth, aletheia, meant something like, “what is not hidden.” Or, to put it positively, “what reveals itself.” Truth was something to be discovered. It was a given, existing independent of the observer. A person searching for the truth could only find it, receive it, acknowledge it. The Greeks realized that when someone sees truth emerging, he or she can still deny it, can turn away from it, and run away from it. But such disregard could not change the nature of truth. If the sun is rising, it is rising, and nothing can be done about it. That was the Greek conception.

Modern philosophy brought a correction to this simple clarity. We know that when a human being meets that absolute truth, then, inevitably, he or she will perceive the truth in a personal way. Not that the person cannot grasp the substance of it, but he or she will color it, present it in a personal way. This personal perception is what in dialogue the partners can correct or complete as it is needed. So in the search for truth two elements play a role: the objective fact revealing itself and our frail capacity to grasp it in its fullness. In practice, the profession of “relativism” is often no more than a sign of intellectual laziness: “do not bother with a thorough investigation.” The opposite theory is, of course, a naive absolutism that fails to understand the personal environment in which all external data are perceived. It can make no concession, and can have no respect for any difference in the capacity of persons to understand what they see.

For such philosophers no dialogue about truth is possible because all understandings are equal. Further, for them any idea of development of doctrine is suspect because understandings do not change. Between these extremes it is refreshing to contemplate the wisdom and balance of the church throughout the centuries: the absolute and undivided truth of God comes to us through the different prisms of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul; Augustine and Aquinas; Vatican I and Vatican II. It is one truth, never exhausted, seen by a cloud of witnesses from so many different angles.

Q. How do you see the role of the church in that search for truth?

A. A big question—not to be exhausted here and now. But let me go to the heart of the matter. God is communion: three persons in one divinity. It was fitting that God should create a community (not just persons juxtaposed with each other) and entrust his gifts to a community. That is the church: made to the image of God.

To this church God has entrusted his Word, the evangelical message, and the sources of divine energy, the sacraments. This is what the church is for: to bring light and life to “those who are sitting in the shadow of death.” Everything else in the church is there to support this task—and if there is something that does not support it, it should not be there.

This keeping and proclaiming the good news from generation to generation can be done only by an institution, and it must be an institution animated by the Spirit. Individual persons cannot resist the eroding forces of history. And the proclamation must continue. The Incarnation makes sense only if the message is preserved intact, if the sources of grace remain open and operating, otherwise the fact that “the Word was made flesh” would have been no more than a passing event in a distant past—hardly recognizable in a distance of space and time.

Of course, the church must be careful (very careful) not to overburden the word of God with too much human speech; for the kerygma (God has become man, he has died, he is risen, he will come again) must be heard in its original clarity and simplicity to attract persons who have surrendered to the internal touch of the Spirit but do not know about Christ. Restraint is part of wise preaching—the model is right there, in the four Gospels and the letters of Paul.

Q. Do you have any concluding words?

A. Let us return to the issue of dialogue which I know is your main concern. Dialogue is, and must be, part and parcel of the life of a Christian community because no one person has the privilege to possess the divine mysteries in their fullness and to have the final words about them. The mysteries were given to the whole community, no one can see more than a limited portion of them; their richness and beauty emerge only through ongoing interchanges in the community. To seek the understanding of our faith is a community venture. But the church is a “hierarchical communion” as Vatican Council II stated. The pope and the episcopal college have full and supreme power to administer God’s gifts, gifts given to the entire people of God.

To end on a strong note: “dialoguing” in the church of Christ is nothing else than an integral part of the unfolding kingdom of God; the only way the community can grow and enrich itself in the possession and understanding of the divine mysteries.


Rev. Ladislas Orsy, S.J., was a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome and is presently visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center.