For some time now the question of pluralism has become a burning one in
Italy. This is confirmed, among other things, by the volume Pluralismo-Appunti.
RAI Press Office, Rome 1976, owing to the serious prospect that in the
near future political power may pass into the hands of the Communists
who have always been the relentless adversaries of pluralism.
Democracy is an essentially pluralistic political system: a system
that authorizes and promotes the free expression and circulation of
ideas, plurality of parties and multiplicity of proposals and choices.
Democracy recognizes and encourages the constitution of a pluralistic
Marxism, on the other hand, has an essentially absolutist and
totalitarian character. It wants the conquest of power by one class
under the guidance of one party. It admits the public teaching of one
ideology. It has also clearly imperialistic aims, since it sets out to
give workers all over the world political unity. Marx's proclamation:
"Workers of the whole world, unite!" remains the permanent
goal of Communism.
Since the end of the second world war, however, Marxist orthodoxy has
been harshly attacked and many movements and many interpretations have
gradually developed within Marxism (From Gramsci to Lukacs, from Bloch
to Garaudy, etc.). The "national ways to Socialism" have also
become established. In this way a pluralism both ideological and
political has found expression also in Marxism.
But in Italy, today, the Communists claim and promise to do more.
They affirm that if they come into power they will respect the
fundamental canon of democracy: respect for the ideas, the programmes,
the free initiative of the other parties. But are they credible? Some
time ago, on a visit to Italy the secretary of the German Christian
Democrats warned: the Communists must not be judged by their words which
are those of the humble lamb, but by their actions which have always
been those of the rapacious wolf.
On the present occasion the pluralism that interests us is not the
political one but the theological one. Let us go on, therefore, to
examine this type of pluralism.
Theological pluralism concerns the multiplicity of the
interpretations and expressions of the Christian faith, of the history
of salvation, the figure and message of Christ, the duties of the
It is unnecessary to recall that a certain pluralism in the Church
has always existed, but in preceding ages it had never reached such
conspicuous proportions as in ours, as regards both quality and
quantity. Today the number of interpretations of the faith has become
enormous and they are, furthermore, very divergent interpretations,
sometimes even conflicting with one another and with regard to
tradition: there are existentialist interpretations, eschatological
interpretations, personalistic interpretations, political
interpretations, praxiological interpretations, and so on.
The main causes that have led to the multiplication of theologies
also within the Catholic church are the following four:
1) Contestation by the "new theologians" of Thomistic
theology, which has been the official theology of the Church for a good
century. As is known, Thomistic (and Neo-thomistic) theology avails
itself mainly of metaphysical categories to express the Christian
message. But the language of metaphysics is considered incomprehensible
and outdated by the "new theologians". For this reason they
think it is necessary to have recourse to a new language to preserve the
intelligibility of the Christian message also for the men of our time.
2) The atmosphere of freedom of research that was established even in
Catholic theological schools after the Second Vatican Council. Formerly
it seemed that freedom of research was a privilege of Protestant
theologians. Today this view, which was substantially a prejudice, has
been abundantly disproved. Vatican II declares that "the human
person has a right to religious freedom. Freedom of this kind means that
all men should be immune from coercion on the part of individuals,
social groups and every human power so that, within due limits, nobody
is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private
or in public, alone or in associations with others" (Declaration on
Religious Liberty, n. 2).
In this affirmation of religious liberty, also that of theological
research is obviously implicit. And this is indispensable, not only to
understand more deeply the meaning of the Christian message but also to
bring about that meeting between Christ's message and the specific
culture of the people to which it is proclaimed, as the Council itself
testified: "The Church has existed through the centuries in varying
circumstances and has utilized the resources of different cultures in
its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ, to examine
and understand it more deeply, and to express it more perfectly in the
liturgy and in various aspects of the life of the faithful... Culture,
since it flows from man's rational and social nature, has continual need
of rightful freedom of development and a legitimate possibility of
autonomy according to its own principles. Quite rightly it demands
respect and enjoys a certain inviolability, provided, of course, that
the rights of the individual and the community, both particular and
universal, are safeguarded within the limits of the common good" (Gaudium
et Spes, nn. 58-59). In this text the Council testifies explicitly
to the legitimacy of the assumption of different cultures (and therefore
of different philosophies, since philosophy is the soul and the highest
expression of culture) to give expression to the Word of God.
3) A new "understanding" of theology which has gained
ground in the Catholic world, in proportion as the monopoly of Thomistic
theology began to decline. Previously theology was understood as a dogmatic
discipline: dogmatic not only with regard to the content (as the
study of the dogmas) but dogmatic in its very form: dogmatic and
infallible itself. The long duration of philosophia perennis and
its repeated official consecration by the Church had led to this
misunderstanding. But theology is not at all a dogmatic science in
itself: on the contrary it is, like all human sciences, open to
question. It is not surprising, therefore, if it, too, shows
multiplicity of hypotheses, diversity in the handling of data,
divergences between its scholars, developments, crises, etc.
4) The multiplicity of hermeneutical instruments that the theologian
has at his disposal today. The "new theologians", discarding
metaphysics which had constituted for over a thousand years the common
platform of theological reflection, turn to the human sciences
(psychology, psychoanalysis, history, anthropology, politics, sociology
etc.) to find concepts and rational schemata capable of making the
Christian message intelligible to the man of our time.
The explosion of theological pluralism has therefore very precise
motivations, but that does not alter the fact that the situation of
uncontrolled pluralism such as we are living now, raises some serious
questions for the theologian. In the first place: is pluralism in
theology admissible? In the second place, what are the foundations of
theological pluralism? And, finally, are there limits to pluralism and
what are they?
Legitimacy of theological pluralism
Theological pluralism is not a scandalous, improper, misleading
thing, but an intrinsic necessity of theology itself.
Pluralism, in fact, springs from the very nature of this discipline.
To understand this truth, it is enough to recall what theology is
and what it sets out to do.
According to the classic definition of St Anselm, theology "est
fides quaerens intellectum": it is, essentially, the faith
seeking to understand itself and seeking also to make itself understood
But how does this penetration and explanation of the faith take
place? What principle must the theologian make use of to attain this
In my opinion, the theologian's work is based on two supreme
principles: the architectonic principle and the hermeneutical principle.
I call architectonic principle that fundamental mystery of the
Revelation which is chosen by an author as the basis on and around which
he organizes all the other mysteries and events of the history of
salvation. I call hermeneutical principle that rational
perspective in the light of which an author tries to understand and
interpret every single aspect of the history of salvation.
As has been said, the architectonic principle is a fundamental
mystery and therefore must be taken from the Word of God, from the
Revelation, from the History of Salvation. That is absolutely
indispensable, because if it, too, were drawn from philosophy or any
other rational understanding of reality, then, even if many biblical
data were incorporated in the system, the whole thing could not
be anything but a philosophical view and no longer true theology. A
classic example of a similar construction is that left by Hegel: all the
main mysteries of Christianity are incorporated in his enormous system,
but they are deprived of their supernatural force and value because they
are subordinated to an essentially philosophical basis and method.
On the other hand, the hermeneutical principle must be of rational
origin, because theology sets out to clarify the faith to reason and to
cause reason to acquire a better understanding of the faith. But this,
obviously, cannot be done by adding some other mystery to those already
recognized. In fact faith plus faith can give as its result nothing but
faith. On the contrary it is by looking at the faith by means of some
rational light that a certain understanding of the faith is acquired.
According to many authors, mainly Protestant, the two principles,
architectonic and hermeneutical, are not materially but only formally
distinct. It is the same mystery, they say, that acts as the basis or
centre of the whole structuring of the word of God and also as the
principle of interpretation of the latter. But as has been said, this is
impossible, and it is incompatible with the very nature of theology,
which sets out to furnish a rational understanding of the faith. Against
Karl Barth, who categorically rejected any utilization of philosophy
(and of human reason in general) in interpretation of the Word of God,
Paul Tillich has shown irrefutably that the theologian can carry out his
work only by using philosophy as the hermeneutical principle, because
"theology presupposes in all its propositions the structure of
being, its categories, its laws, its concepts'' (P. Tillich, Systematic
Theology I, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1951, p.
Also Jürgen Moltmann, who remains substantially a Barthian on the
question of the relations between philosophy and revelation, has to
admit that it is not possible to carry out a structuring of Revelation
on an eschatological basis, as it is his intention to do, without making
use of philosophy. In fact "hope has a possibility of significant
existence only if reality itself is historically in movement and if the
historical reality has a free space for possible things. Christian hope
has a meaning only if the world is open to those things that this hope
hopes for; that is, if it is full of things that are possible (to God)
and is open to the resurrection of the dead. If the world were a causal
system rigorously enclosed in itself, hope could mistake it for the
fulfilment, or transcend itself and be reflected gnostically in an
ultraearthly reality. But in this case it would renounce itself"
(J. Moltmann, Teologia della speranza, Queriniana,
With regard to the hermeneutic principle, it should be observed that
the Christian, to study his own faith more deeply, can have recourse to
three different forms of knowledge (or understanding, to use the
language of Bernard Lonergan): ordinary, scientific, philosophical, but
in particular the first and the last.
By means of ordinary knowledge, which is neither systematic nor
rigorous, one arrives at that understanding of the faith which is
characteristic of every Christian. It is a question of a kind of
non-technical, elementary, "popular" theology of the man in
the street, which corresponds to the spontaneous, non-technical
philosophy, practical more than speculative, with which he is endowed.
As man is naturally a philosopher, so the Christian is naturally a
theologian. "The effort to understand the faith and what must be
believed, intellectus fidei, is the problem of man, of his
faculty of thinking and understanding. This effort in connection with
the faith, which is theology, is not carried out parallel to the faith,
but is an intensive way of realizing the act of faith itself, which
demands not only the fact of believing, but also understanding of faith.
It demands this, because faith comprises the whole man; it involves all
his faculties, and so necessarily his spirit, his power of questioning
and thinking", H. Fries, La Chiesa: questioni attuali,
Cittā Nuova, Rome 1970, p. 168.
If one has recourse, on the contrary, to specialized philosophical
knowledge, which is that orderly, rigorous, scientific, thorough
knowledge that aims at acquiring a complete and conclusive explanation
of things, one obtains that orderly, critical and thorough understanding
of the faith which is characteristic of theology at the scientific
Having given these clarifications about the fundamental principles on
which the theologian bases his work, we can draw important conclusions
as regards theological pluralism. This is possible with regard both to
the architectonic principle and to the hermeneutic one.
With regard to the architectonic principle, because there exist many
mysteries in the history of salvation which the theologian can choose as
central and fundamental points around which to arrange all the others:
grace, the covenant, the Trinity, the Incarnation, Christ's passion, the
Resurrection, the Church, the Eucharist, et cetera. And, in fact, if we
glance at the history of theology we find that in certain periods (those
in which there exists wide philosophical agreement, such as the
patristic period and the scholastic period) the differentiation between
the great theologians is due mainly to the choice of different
For example, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa,
Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius have at their disposal the same
hermeneutical principle, which is the philosophy of Plato. Yet each one
structures the Word of God in a personal way, owing to the particular
mystery that each one takes as the architectonic principle. [Origen
takes] Christ as Logos; Clement takes Christ as teacher; Gregory of
Nyssa, Christ as the Image of God; Augustine the mystery of sin and
grace; Pseudo-Dionysius, the Goodness of God. The same thing can easily
be found among the theologians of the scholastic age.
Also with regard to the hermeneutical principle there exists the
possibility of pluralism, and this whether we have recourse to
"ordinary" philosophy or to specialized philosophy to
interpret the word of God. Because not only are there many specialized
philosophies (Aristotelianism, Platonism, Idealism, Thomism,
Existentialism, etc.) but also many ordinary philosophies. Ordinary
philosophy, in fact, is nothing but that general view of reality which
characterizes the culture of a people. And logically there are as many
general views of reality as there are cultures. The plurality of
hermeneutical principles is due, therefore, both to the multiplicity of
cultures and to the multiplicity of specialized philosophies.
Contemporary theology offers us the spectacle of a lively pluralism
with regard both to the architectonic and to the hermeneutical
principle. Generally the present-day theological systems and movements
are distinguished from one another both because they take as central
point one given mystery of the history of salvation rather than another,
and, at the same time, also one philosophy rather than another (that
philosophy which is best suited to express to the man of our time the
mystery which has been chosen as architectonic principle). For example,
the theology of Teilhard de Chardin is clearly distinguished from all
others since he uses an architectonic principle of his own, Jesus
Christ, the Omega point of everything, and a hermeneutical principle of
his own, the scientific theory of, evolution. The theology of Karl
Rahner is characterized because it has as architectonic principle
sanctifying grace and as hermeneutical principle transcendental Thomism.
The theology of Bultmann is distinctive because it has as architectonic
principle the Word of God and as hermeneutical principle Heidegger's
existentialism. The theology of Paul Tillich is original because it has
as architectonic principle the omnipresence of God and as hermeneutical
principle ontological existentialism. The theology of Bonhoeffer is new
and disconcerting because it takes as architectonic principle God's love
for one's neighbour and as hermeneutical principle secularization.
Jürgen Moltmann's theology of hope is characteristic because it takes
as architectonic principle Christian eschatology and as hermeneutical
principle E. Bloch's philosophy of hope. The political theology of
Gustavo Gutierrez is new because it has as architectonic principle
liberation, and as hermeneutical principle the Marxist analysis of
society, et cetera.
But theological pluralism is not only possible; it is also necessary
and this for two fundamental reasons: the Incarnation of the Son of God
and the universal mission of salvation of the Church.
The Incarnation, as we know, operates an absolutely new
union, unforeseeable and incommensurable, between God and man. This
union takes place in Jesus Christ, who is at once a human and divine
individual. In one way he is theos, pneuma, logos; in another way
he is a man, a Judean, a worker. On assuming human nature, Christ took
all its essential elements, including culture. The latter, in fact, is
not something incidental which can be accepted or thrown away as one
likes. As contemporary anthropology has clearly shown, man is separated
and distinguished from other animals thanks to culture: he is
essentially a cultural being. While other animals are wholly and
completely produced by nature, and act during their whole life according
to the laws, the instincts, with which nature has endowed them, men are
mainly the result, the product, of their culture. See A. Gehlen, Der
Mensch, Seine Natur und seine Stellung in der Welt, Bonn
1940. But, as was seen above, culture is essentially multiple. And in
fact both existing and extinct, cultures are very numerous indeed.
Therefore the Son of God, on becoming man, naturally assumed a given
culture, that of the environment in which he was born, namely Jewish
culture. So he ate like the Jews, dressed like the Jews, spoke, thought
and wrote like the Jews. But it is obvious that if the incarnation had
taken place elsewhere, for example, in China, India, or Japan, the Son
of God would have assumed a different culture.
The Incarnation, therefore, constitutes the first foundation of the
legitimacy of theological pluralism.
The second foundation is given by the mission of the Church, which is
the prolongation of the Incarnation of the Son of God in history. The
Church was set up by Jesus Christ to proclaim his message and to
communicate his salvation to all men. Now the attainment of this aim is
made possible only if the Church expresses Christ's message through the
cultural forms characteristic of a given age, and of a specific social
group. "Owing to the universal and missionary character of
Christian faith, the events and words revealed by God must be, every
time, rethought, reformulated and relived again within each human
culture, if it is desired that they should give a real answer to the
problems rooted in the heart of every human being, and inspire the
prayer, the worship and the daily life of the people of God. In this
way, the Gospel of Christ leads every culture towards its fullness and
at the same time subjects it to a creating criticism" ("L'unitā
della fede e il pluralismo teologico", Document of the
International Theological Commission, in Civiltā Cattolica 1973,
vol. II, p. 368).
Throughout the centuries the Church has constantly carried out this
task of acculturation of the Christian message. The Second Vatican
Council says so explicitly in the text of Gaudium et Spes:
"The Church has existed through the centuries in varying
circumstances and has utilized the resources of different cultures in
its preaching to spread and explain the message of Christ, to examine
and understand it more deeply, and to express it more perfectly in the
liturgy and in various aspects of the life of the faithful" (n.
We can therefore conclude with certainty that theological pluralism
is legitimate and necessary, and the abuses of theologians can never
constitute a sufficient argument to eliminate it.
The vicissitudes of recent times, in particular the multiplication of
so many new theologies, some of which, assuming very questionable
hermeneutical principles, have thrown the deposit of the faith into
disorder, ignored tradition and rejected the ecclesiastic magisterium,
and have led to lively discussions on the limits of theological
The pluralism of interpretations and expressions of the Christian
message, as was seen earlier, cannot be suppressed; but neither can it
be disorderly: it cannot be exempt from any norm and from all control.
Theological pluralism has unquestionable and insuperable limits: some
are imposed on it by the very nature of the Christian message; others
depend on the position of the theologian in the church, which is not a
position of complete, absolute autonomy, but a position of subordination
of one organism to another organism, of one charism to another charism.
In the first place there exist limits dictated by the very nature of
the Christian message.
The task of the theologian, we have seen, is himself to understand
the Word of God, and to make others understand it. This comprehension is
made possible in the first place by the extreme readiness that the word
of God itself possesses for being received by human minds: it stoops to
their capacity, undergoing an incomparable kenosis (emptying), as
can be inferred from the adaptation and the kenosis it carried
out in the Old and New Testament, especially from the adaptation and kenosis
of the Son of God, in Incarnation.
Yet, for comprehension of the word of God to be realized, adaptation
cannot be one-sided: it cannot concern only the word of God. It is not
only he who speaks who must make every possible effort to make himself
understood. A parallel effort of adaptation, which in the specific case,
will no longer be of abasement but of elevation, is necessary also on
the part of him who listens, that is, man. As Emilio Brunner rightly
said, in order that there may be a listening to and an understanding of
the word of God, there must be a meeting point, a link between the
latter and the human mind (E. Brunner, Natur und Gnade, Berlin
Here, then, is the first rule of theological pluralism. When the theologian
sets to work, to interpret and express the word of God according to the
categories of a culture or of a philosophical view, be owes it to
himself in the first place to guarantee that the culture or the
philosophical view that he intends to assume should be suitable for
acting as hermeneutical principle of the Revelation. This happens only
when it is a question of a view or culture already positively open
towards Transcendency or not necessarily closed. For example, an open
view such as that of the Pygmies and many other populations of Asia,
Africa and America, which puts God at the summit of everything and makes
every event of nature and history depend on him, offers the theologian a
substantially good hermeneutical instrument, even if not yet perfectly
fit for use owing to its logico-metaphysical poverty.
In many other cases, on the contrary, it is a question of
philosophical views that are apparently closed or even actually closed,
but not by right, that is, not in virtue of their own first principles.
For this reason if they are considered according to their appearances or
even according to their original utilization, they do not offer any link
with the word of God. The philosophy of Aristotle seemed such to the
Fathers of the Church and to many Scholastics; and the philosophies of
Heidegger and Bloch seem such to most people today. But St Thomas
succeeded in showing that the principles of Aristotelian philosophy, as
such, do not involve any closing, any reduction of reality; and,
therefore, he was able to assume them to a great extent for his
interpretation of the Christian message. Today many scholars think that
the same can be done with the philosophies of Bloch and Heidegger,
freeing them from the meshes imposed on them by their authors.
But there is also another limit that pluralism must respect in
addition to that dictated by the very nature of the Christian message:
it is the limit due to the relations between the various organisms of
the Church; in particular, for the subject that concerns us, between
theology and the ecclesiastical Magisterium.
The Church is a "mystical body" the prosperity of which
depends on the harmony of the parts that constitute it, each of which
must carry out its own functions and realize its own charisms as
effectively as possible, but at the same time also taking into account
the requirements of the other organisms.
The Magisterium and theology are two of the major organisms of the
Church: they carry out two different tasks. The first is responsible for
safeguarding the faithful transmission of revealed Truth, the second for
studying, interpreting and expressing the same Truth in an intelligible
and up-to-date way. These are two correlated tasks, which complete each
other because there is not salvific truth if it is deprived of
intelligibility and, on the other hand, an interpretation that is not
respectful of the truth is of no use for salvation. It is necessary,
therefore, that Magisterium and theology should work together in
dialogue. "The dialogue constitutes an excellent mutual help: the
Magisterium can acquire a greater understanding of the truth of faith
and morality to be preached and defended; the theological comprehension
of faith and morals, strengthened by the Magisterium, acquires
certainty. The dialogue between Magisterium and theologians is limited
only by the duty of preserving and explaining the truth of faith.
Therefore, on the one hand, the vast field of the truth is opened up to
this dialogue. On the other hand this truth must always be investigated,
not as something uncertain or completely unknown but as really revealed
and entrusted to the faithful custody of the Church. Therefore the
dialogue has its frontiers where the frontiers of the truth of faith are
touched" ("Tesi circa il mutuo rapporto fra magistero
ecclesiastico e teologia" of the Pontifical International
Theological Commission: Tesi X-XI, Civiltā Cattolica 1976, vol.
III, p. 57).
Previously we showed the legitimacy of the multiplicity of
theological interpretations, but we also pointed out the inadmissibility
of an indiscriminate, uncontrolled plurality. "Even if the
situation of the Church increases pluralism, plurality finds its limit
in the fact that the faith creates the communion of men in the truth,
become accessible by means of Christ. This makes inadmissible any
conception of the faith that reduces it to a purely pragmatic
cooperation without communion in truth. This truth is not bound to a
theological system, but is expressed in the normative formulations of
the faith", "Lunitā della fede e il pluralismo teologico",
Document of the Pontifical International Theological Commission (Civiltā
Cattolica 1973, vol. II, p. 368).
It is up to the ecclesiastical Magisterium to take great care that
legitimate plurality is not transformed into a false and harmful
pluralism. "Before presentations of the doctrine that are seriously
ambiguous, or even incompatible with the faith of the Church, the latter
has the power to detect the error and the obligation to remove it, to
the extent of formal rejection of heresy as the extreme remedy to
safeguard the faith of the people of God", Ibid., p.
Therefore more than a limit to theological research, the Magisterium
represents certain guidance. It gives the theologian a valid guarantee
that his interpretation of the Word of God is in conformity with the one
revealed truth and that his work is taking place in the sphere of a
legitimate and fruitful pluralism.