Theology: In Service With the Poor

Theological Shark Week
“Whom does the theologian serve?”

The most important and critical answer to this question should be obvious. Catholic theologians, as with all other Christians, are called to serve God with all our hearts, minds, and actions in life. While this may appear to be obvious, it is not always so clear given the many competing demands on the academic theologian today. It also does little to really guide the specific responsibility or vocation of the academic theologian who seeks to “pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church.” (Donum Veritatis, 6)

While Pope John Paul II in Redemptor hominis (19) identifies the role of the theologian to be at the service of both the Magisterium and “the apostolic commitments of the whole of the People of God,” theologians also have roles of service to their students, the theological academy, and the broader civil society in which they live. Most of us also have demands placed upon us from outside the academy, including families, pastoral work, and/or duties to religious congregations.

Amidst these complex and important demands, one important demand of service that is too often overlooked is the demand of service with the poor. In our privileged position as academics, the Christian call of service presents specific demands on the theologian.

In my understanding of theology, the poor must be at the center of the (Christian) theologian’s service to God.  Service with the poor is a not a vocation only for some in the church, while others go off and philosophize about God in the university. Service with the poor, as the Gospels and so much of the Christian tradition make clear, is a constitutive part of our service to God or in the words of the 1971 Synod of Bishops, “a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel.”

Now, let me be clear, I am not saying that all theologians need to become social ethicists or that we need to drop everything to live in Catholic worker houses. On the contrary, I believe that there are many diverse ways in which theologians can serve the poor (and thereby God and the whole People of God) through their academic research. Even philosophical theologians and Church historians join in this service by revealing critical questions and issues that can feed into the broader discussions on the problems we face today. If indeed academic theology is a vocation or has a specific charism, it must (as Donum Veritatis 5 reminds us) be at the service of the common good (1 Cor 12:7-11).

1. Service With the Poor

In seeking to understand my own vocation in service to God, the idea of being in “service with the poor” (as opposed to service to the poor) is constrictive for several reasons. First, the idea of service “with” helps to avoid falling into the trap of objectifying “the poor” or philosophizing abstractly about them. The terms poor goes beyond those economically impoverished and includes the multitude of suffering women, men, and children around us—and may even include us at times. Theology as service with the poor enables us to see our interdependence with them.

2. First and Second Order Theology

Second, the vocation to be in service with the poor helps us to avoid the prideful vision of theology as being limited only to academics. In my experience, some of the deepest theological insights have come from women and men without any formal theological training. Here, liberation theology’s distinction between first order and second order theology is instructive. Theology, the act of “faith seeking understanding,” cannot be abstracted from our experiences in history as Schillebeeckx and many others have strongly argued.

The first stage of any theology, according to Gustavo Gutiérrez, is that of pastoral praxis, or the faithful engagement in Christian life. This praxis includes prayer, contemplation and action. This stage, which is accessable to all believers (cf.  sensus fidelium) helps us to perceive the presence of God (and Grace) in our midst as well as the radical contrast between the Kingdom of God and the brokenness (sin) in the world. Those of us who are academic theologians or are in some kind of leadership position in the Christian community do not have a monopoly on this fundamental theological experience. Thankfully, the experience of God is not limited only to bishops (sensus episcoporum) and PhDs (sensus theologorum). This is not to deny the specific vocation of the Magisterium or the need for theologians be in communion with our bishops, but it only is to remind us that all the baptized have a vocation to spiritual discernment. (Cf. Lumen Gentium 12 and 35).

Nevertheless, the responsibility (or vocation) of the academic theologian and pastoral professional goes deeper than this first experience. This second stage of theology involves the unpacking of the experience in light of God’s word and the rich tradition of the Church. Again, this is not to say that everyone should become a liberation theologian. But it is to say that we have a responsibility to the ecclesial and social contexts in which we live. Edward Schillebeeckx describes this task well:

“One of the fundamental tasks of theology is to attempt to put into words new experiences, with their criticism of earlier experiences, to reflect them and to formulate them as a question to the religious tradition, the church, and to the social and cultural circumstance in which the church finds itself.”

3. Orthopraxis and Orthodoxy

Third, an understanding of theology as being a service of God with the poor, helps us to see the deep connection between orthopraxis and orthodoxy; “Any attempt to focus on only one,” as Gutiérrez writes, “means the loss of both.” The practice of Christian theology cannot ignore the plight and suffering of the poor in our midst in the present. The story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16), one of the most frequently cited parables in Catholic social teaching, shows us the seriousness of not “seeing” the plight of the poor in our midst. We must, as Pope John Paul II taught, learn from Lazarus, “the poor must always be in our memory and form our conscience.”

4. Avoiding the Idols of the Academy

A stance of service with the poor aids us in avoiding the temptations of what Holly Taylor Coolman called the “Idols of the Academy.” Solidarity with the poor is a powerful way to put what we do and how we do it into perspective and ask ourselves how what we do is in service to God and neighbor.

5. Openness to God

Finally, service with the poor helps us to maintain an openness to God in our lives. A stance of service with the poor prevents us from becoming locked up in isolated ivy-covered ivory towers. It helps us to develop the “bold humility” needed in the pursuit of academic theology.  It helps to remind us that we do not have all the answers and that all of us are in need of Grace in our diverse service to God. From this position of humility, we are less likely to uncritically accept the polarizations within our Church and our society. In short, a position of service with the poor will go a long way to strengthen the vocation of the theologian in service to God.