|The need for healthy theological discussion in the
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 4 November ,
in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father spoke of the theological
controversy between St Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter Abelard and of
what we can learn from it today. The following is a translation of the
Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In my last Catechesis I presented the main features of
12th-century monastic theology and scholastic theology which, in a
certain sense, we might call respectively "theology of the heart" and
"theology of reason". Among the exponents of both these theological
currents a broad and at times heated discussion developed, symbolically
represented by the controversy between St Bernard of Clairvaux and
In order to understand this confrontation between the
two great teachers it helps to remember that theology is the search for
a rational understanding, as far as this is possible, of the mysteries
of Christian Revelation, believed through faith:
fides quaerens intellectum
faith seeks understanding
to borrow a traditional, concise and effective definition. Now, whereas
St Bernard, a staunch representative of monastic theology, puts the
accent on the first part of the definition, namely on fides
faith, Abelard, who was a scholastic, insists on the second part, that
is, on the intellectus,
on understanding through reason. For
Bernard faith itself is endowed with a deep certitude based on the
testimony of Scripture and on the teaching of the Church Fathers. Faith,
moreover, is reinforced by the witness of the Saints and by the
inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer's soul. In
cases of doubt and ambiguity, faith is protected and illumined by the
exercise of the Magisterium of the Church.
So it was that Bernard had difficulty in reaching
agreement with Abelard and, more in general, with those who submitted
the truths of faith to the critical examination of the intellect; an
examination which in his opinion entailed a serious danger, that is,
intellectualism, the relativization of truth, the questioning of the
actual truths of faith. In this approach Bernard saw audacity taken to
the point of unscrupulousness, a product of the pride of human
intelligence that claims to "grasp" the mystery of God. In a letter he
writes with regret: "Human ingenuity takes possession of everything,
leaving nothing to faith. It confronts what is above and beyond it,
scrutinizes what is superior to it, bursts into the world of God, alters
rather than illumines the mysteries of faith; it does not open what is
closed and sealed but rather uproots it, and what it does not find
viable in itself it considers as nothing and refuses to believe in it" (Epistola
CLXXXVIII, 1: PL 182, 1, 353).
Theology for Bernard had a single purpose: to encourage
the intense and profound experience of God. Theology is therefore an aid
to loving the Lord ever more and ever better, as the title of his
Treatise on the Duty to love God says (Liber de diligendo Deo).
On this journey there are various stages that Bernard describes in
detail, which lead to the crowning experience when the believer's soul
becomes inebriated in ineffable love. Already on earth the human soul
can attain this mystical union with the divine Word, a union that the
Doctor Mellifluus describes as "spiritual nuptials". The divine Word
visits the soul, eliminates the last traces of resistance, illuminates,
inflames and transforms it.
In this mystical union the soul enjoys great serenity
and sweetness and sings a hymn of joy to its Bridegroom. As I mentioned
in the Catechesis on the life and doctrine of St Bernard, theology for
him could not but be nourished by contemplative prayer, in other words
by the affective union of the heart and the mind with God.
On the other hand Abelard, who among other things was
the very person who introduced the term "theology" in the sense in which
we understand it today, puts himself in a different perspective.
Born in Brittany, France, this famous teacher of the
12th century was endowed with a keen intelligence and his vocation was
to study. He first concerned himself with philosophy and then applied
the results he achieved in this discipline to theology which he taught
in Paris, the most cultured city of the time, and later in the
monasteries in which he lived. He was a brilliant orator: literally
crowds of students attended his lectures. He had a religious spirit but
a restless personality and his life was full of dramatic events: he
contested his teachers and he had a son by Héloïse,
a cultured and intelligent woman. He often argued with his theological
colleagues and also underwent ecclesiastical condemnations although he
died in full communion with the Church, submitting to her authority with
a spirit of faith.
Actually St Bernard contributed to condemning certain
teachings of Abelard at the Provincial Synod of Sens in 1140 and went so
far as to request Pope Innocent II's intervention. The Abbot of
Clairvaux contested, as we have seen, the excessively intellectualistic
method of Abelard who in his eyes reduced faith to mere opinion,
detached from the revealed truth. Bernard's fears were not unfounded and
were, moreover, shared by other great thinkers of his time. Indeed, an
excessive use of philosophy dangerously weakened Abelard's Trinitarian
teaching, hence also his idea of God. In the moral field his teaching
was not devoid of ambiguity: he insisted on considering the intention of
the subject as the sole source for defining the goodness or evil of
moral acts, thereby neglecting the objective significance and moral
value of the actions: a dangerous subjectivism.
as we know
is a very timely aspect for our epoch in which all too often culture
seems to be marked by a growing tendency to ethical relativism; the self
alone decides what is good for it, for oneself, at this moment. However,
the great merits of Abelard, who had many disciples and made a crucial
contribution to the development of scholastic theology
destined to be expressed in a more mature and fruitful manner in the
should not be forgotten. Nor should some of his insights be
underestimated, such as, for example, his affirmation that non-Christian
religious traditions already contain a preparation for the acceptance of
Christ, the divine Word.
What can we learn today
from the confrontation, frequently in very heated tones, between Bernard
and Abelard and, in general, between monastic theology and scholastic
First of all I believe that
it demonstrates the usefulness and need for healthy theological
discussion within the Church, especially when the questions under
discussion are not defined by the Magisterium, which nevertheless
remains an ineluctable reference point.
St Bernard, but also
Abelard himself, always recognized her authority unhesitatingly.
Furthermore, Abelard's condemnation on various occasions reminds us that
in the theological field there must be a balance between what we may
call the architectural principles given to us by Revelation, which
therefore always retain their priority importance, and the principles
for interpretation suggested by philosophy, that is, by reason, which
have an important but exclusively practical role. When this balance
between the architecture and the instruments for interpretation is
lacking, theological reflection risks being distorted by errors and it
is then the task of the Magisterium to exercise that necessary service
to the truth which belongs to it.
It must be emphasized in
addition that among the reasons that induced Bernard to "take sides"
against Abelard and to call for the intervention of the Magisterium, was
also his concern to safeguard simple and humble believers, who must be
defended when they risk becoming confused or misled by excessively
personal opinions or by anti-conformist theological argumentation that
might endanger their faith.
Lastly, I would like to
recall that the theological confrontation between Bernard and Abelard
ended with their complete reconciliation, thanks to the mediation of a
common friend, Peter the Venerable, the Abbot of Cluny of whom I have
spoken in one of my previous Catecheses.
Abelard showed humility in recognizing his errors, Bernard used great
benevolence. They both upheld the most important value in a theological
controversy: to preserve the Church's faith and to make the truth in
Today too may this be the
attitude with which we confront one another in the Church, having as our
goal the constant quest for truth.