On November 1, just after the closing of the Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis issued a document entitled “Ad theologiam promovendam” (On Promoting Theology). I gather three main directions the pope wants theologians to do.
Against “desk theology” or armchair theologizing, we need (1) an outgoing theology that is open to the world ; (2) a contextual theology that fosters epistemological and methodological rethinking; (3) a theology that is done in dialogue with other sciences (transdisciplinary theology); one that listens to the Spirit (sapiential theology), and one that listens to the wisdom of peoples (inductive theology).
I will go back to the main ideas of Pope Francis while I answer the three questions I was asked to share.
1. WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE PHILIPPINE THEOLOGICAL SCENE?
In 2004, I wrote an article entitled “The Craft of Contextual Theologies: Towards a Methodological Conversation in the Philippine Context” (Hapag).
I classified Filipino contextual theologies into three directions: (1) mainstream theologies; (3) culture-based theologies; and (4) liberationist theologies. The limitations of this article are the following: first, it is a bit dated and does not take into account recent developments (it was written 20 years ago); second, it does not take into account the lingering presence of classical theologies that still continue to parrot the manualist theologies of old, mainly using scholastic categories. If this is the kind of theology in our seminaries, it is the same theology that arrives in the ears of ordinary faithful as it is reproduced in the priests’ Sunday homilies.
But I think my argument in that article remains: a good part of Filipino theologizing is “contextual”. Even that which I call “mainstream theologies” that is mainly based on the magisterial texts, though I established some conversational polemics with it, is contextual theologizing. Recent developments in ecological, ecumenical, interreligious, and feminist theologies, and plural theological groups like DAKATEO, and CBAP, plus the existence of various theological schools and seminaries all over the country — attest to what I am talking about.
2. WHERE DO I FIND MY ROLE IN THESE DEVELOPMENTS?
To be honest, I feel a bit awkward to do navel-gazing at my own theological work. I prefer to just proceed in teaching, speaking, or writing on topics that I am called to do. I can say that there is not one area of research that I specialize in. Those that I have written were responses to the varied groups and contexts — from the questions arising in Payatas, the challenges of the pandemic, the horror of extrajudicial killings, the task of forming BEC communities, the role of schools and seminary formation — written in journal articles, spoken in seminars, or written on my FB midnight notes, etc.
But looking back, if there is any thread at all in this work, it is in the field of theological method. Pope Francis gave a name to what I wanted to do all along to do an “epistemological and methodological rethinking of theology” so that it can listen to the voices of the poor, as the privileged locus of God’s theophany. I have always felt that the religious experience of the poor did not have a place in theological reflection. “Sensus fidelium” is nothing but a token word. In truth, the people were nothing but recipients of the church’s magisterial production done by the hierarchy and theological experts.
So, when I was given the chance to study theology, this was foremost in my mind: to search for a theological method that formally enshrines the voices of the poor in the theological production process. I navigated between two popular trends then, on the one hand, liberation theologies of the Third World (Clodovis Boff’s methodological work) and, the other hand, postmodern theologies of the First World (John Milbank is the methodological leader of the team).
True, both trends were in polemics with the Magisterium. But I also found that both systems are too theoretical and too enclosed and insulated from the voices of the poor. If there is any challenge in my articles, it is to bring theology “back to the rough grounds” of peoples’ praxis, to borrow a phrase I found in Wittgenstein.
3. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE FUTURE DIRECTIONS IN FILIPINO THEOLOGIZING?
The following are some directions, not comprehensive, but more urgent areas to start.
a. Theology of the Local Church
First, there is a need to develop a robust theology of the local church in the Philippines. Already in 1991, the FABC Theological Commission wrote a paper entitled “Theses on the Local Church” (FABC Paper 60). Taking its cue from the churches of the New Testament which are all pluriform and local, FABC considers the local church as a concrete expression of the universal church, not the other way around. “Each local Church is the Church in its full and integral reality, and the Church universal is a communion of local Churches, a church of churches, a communion of communions” (FABC Papers 60).
The year after, CDF under Ratzinger issued a letter to all bishops on “Some Aspects of the Church understood as Communion” (1992). It writes: “The universal Church cannot be conceived as the sum of the particular Churches, or as a federation of particular Churches”. It is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but, in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.” I am not sure if it was a direct response to FABC but the dates are suspicious.
That is why when Pope Francis introduced himself as the “bishop of Rome” by the time, he first appeared on that balcony, it was both a theological statement and pastoral agenda.
In the Philippine context, the challenge is to truly live “the local church”: (1) to really incarnate the BECs and BHCs; (2) to create effective (not merely token) spaces of participation of lay people in the parishes and dioceses; (3) to theologically form our lay people [beyond sporadic seminars] so that they can stand up to a clericalized clergy and hierarchy, and be empowered to lead their communities; (4) to form our clergy so that they become servant-leaders in their communities, in short, to practice synodality as a local church. Any theology that strengthens the local church is urgent and necessary.
b. Inculturation of the Faith
After 500 years of Christianity, can we really say that the Christian faith has been inculturated into Philippine soil? On the one hand, popular religiosity has creatively incorporated the Christian faith into the Filipino consciousness. In a way, it has owned it. On the other hand, we call it with derogatory meaning: “folk religiosity” (as against official Catholicism), “popular piety” or “popular devotions” (as against official liturgy).
Pope Francis wants to recover the value of the spirituality of the poor, the theology of the people, and theologies of everyday life (EG 125). There is substantial research on this in the anthropological and sociological fields.
But the Filipino church and theology are ambivalent on these practices: on the one hand, they are “tolerated and instrumentalized” for fund-raising purposes; on the other hand, they are “looked down” with condescension and suspicion as practices that need to be purified, elevated, renewed and evangelized, following the directions of Roman magisterial texts.
c. Recovering Prophetic Theologizing
In the context of blatant violence, violation of human rights, and cruel poverty exercised on the people not only in the Philippines but in the whole of Asia, there is a need to recover the prophetic dimension of the faith. The “prophets” need to stand up to the “kings” of our times, as it was in the Old Testament. As we have seen, the Philippine church was either divided or mostly quiet during the height of Duterte’s War on Drugs. Our people did not have any theological resources to make sense of what was going on — maybe because Filipino spirituality is not only pietistic but also dualistic. Working for human rights, and justice, caring for ecology, and empowering people — are constitutive parts of preaching the gospel. But seldom would you hear this on Sunday homilies. And if you hear some priests do, they are tagged as ‘namomolitika’ (politicizing).
This only means that the long tradition of the Social Teaching of the Church which outlines the positions on social issues consistent with the gospel has not tapped this resource in the Philippine Church. One question: how many units is CST in our seminaries and schools? How to bring this “well-kept” secret to our grassroots communities should be a service we should creatively strive to do, especially in these times when these same communities are under attack by the apologists of populist politics.
Beyond the Jewish-Christian discourse, we can also revisit the prophetic intuitions of Asian religions and the resistance of indigenous communities. These Asian religious resources engrained in the habitus of our peoples and indigenous religions can be tapped to inspire work for justice and transformation. But we also know that theologies of inter-religious dialogue is the weakest link of Filipino theologies at the moment.
d. Synodality on the Rough Grounds
If there is any Filipino theology of the future, it should be a theology done with the people, among the people, in their languages and idioms, in their places and time, in response to their suffering and aspirations. These theologies can be only done in what FABC calls the “dialogue of life”. This has long been instituted in the Asian churches since FABC’s inception (1970s). If we talk of synodality, this is the most basic of all —“synodality on the ground”.
Beyond the dialogue of doctrines or action contemplated in Redemptoris Missio, dialogue of life is the actual sharing of joys and pains, of hopes and fears among neighbors, in poor communities, among peoples belonging to different faiths as they struggle together for survival on the ground.
If there is any form of theological reflection in the Church of the future, it should be a product of this everyday synodality on the ground.
It is a theology not done on our desks or in air-conditioned libraries, a theology not coming from theological conferences nor in Scopus publications which is the obsession of the universities where we all belong.
No, it should be a theology of people’s voices who fight for survival each and every single day, and we theologians become mere facilitators, assistants, or “midwives”, if you like, helping out in bearing forth that theological articulation of God’s Word in the world.
I would like to end with what Fr. Catalino Arevalo said about this way of theologizing. What Pope Francis wants to do was already expressed by Arevalo a long time ago.
Third World theologizing, he says, is theologizing “on the spot, done in an ad hoc manner, in the heat of the day and the dust of the road, the wayside inns of the evening, with the inevitable partialities of half-formed questions and unfinished discussions: a theology in via, of a people also on its way.”
“A theology of bits and pieces gathered and scotch-taped together in hours of doing and suffering, in dialogue and confrontation. In reflection and prayer, in emptiness, in confusion and paralysis — in all the times and seasons of Qoheleth, it would seem! — in struggle, sometimes in anguish and despair, sometimes with the shedding of real blood and tears.”
Father Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M., is a theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. He is also Vincentian Chair for Social Justice at St. John’s University in New York. The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of LiCAS News or its publishers.